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To Know Software Is to Love It?

To Know Software Is to Love It?

"Of course a user can do a better job with software with which the user is familiar, but in the long run the best software will also cost less and be open to use, examination, modification and distribution," said blogger Robert Pogson. "Where I work we changed from XP to GNU/Linux not because the software was familiar to users but because it is much more reliable than XP and users can quickly adjust.

By Katherine Noyes
01/06/11 5:00 AM PT

Familiarity can breed contempt, or so the saying goes. But is it also what makes one piece of software superior to another?

That, indeed, has been the question on many Linux bloggers' minds in recent days.

"In many FOSS vs Closed Source project comparisons I have seen to date, 'user familiarity' is often referenced as a point of 'software superiority,'" began Jeff Hoogland recently in the Thoughts on Technology blog. "Not only is this a flawed form of logic, but it is really borderline FUD."

Familiarity is not something users are born with, Hoogland notes; rather, "it is something they learned over an (often extended) period of time."

Hoogland's question, then, was, "do you think a time will ever come when users will realize that just because you know how to use a piece of software doesn't automatically make it the best software for completing the task at hand?"

That's a key question, in Linux Girl's view, cutting as it does straight to the heart of one of FOSS's biggest challenges -- how to get past the inevitable learning curve.

'Linux Could Use a PR Department'

As is typically the case, Linux bloggers had plenty to say.

"Most people who don't know about computers AND don't care to learn will use windows because that came with their PCs and whatever software is available for that platform is what they'll use," wrote Kevin (Whizard72) in the comments on Hoogland's post, for example.

Similarly: "Linux, (and FOSS), could really use a PR dept," agreed Randy.

Then again, cost could also be factor, Innocent Bystander suggested.

"Some people just [have] the mentality, 'more expensive = better quality,'" Innocent Bystander wrote. "Even within the Windows world, I have a hard time to convince some of my colleagues to use Open Source software, even when I demonstrate that it is better than the commercial equivalent."

'Your Logic Is Flawed'

On the other hand, "I think your logic is flawed," wrote an anonymous commenter. "The best piece of software to complete a task *is* the one you know. (We're talking category equivalent here, word processor for word processor, spreadsheet for spreadsheet etc.)"

In essence, the value of software is "what you can do with it, how quickly and with how little fuss," the commenter added.

So, which will it be? Does software quality amount simply to users' familiarity with it? Or cost? Or how quickly and easily an individual can use it to get things done?

Linux Girl took to the streets of the Linux blogosphere to find out.

'Definitely a Problem'

"The lack of user familiarity is definitely a problem," opined Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. "When migrating from Windows to Linux, this factor is way too often overlooked."

Training "is the answer, of course," Travers added. "But one has to show that training will provide a more lasting benefit than upgrading Windows, etc.

"To a large extent this involves a question of employee turnover," he added.

The good news, however, "is that this problem can be solved," Travers suggested.

"Between training, listening to user stories and challenges, etc., rough spots can be identified and smoothed out either in the software or in the user's understanding of that software," he explained. "It's not always easy but it can be done, particularly in environments where employees tend to stick around."

'Usability Swamps Unfamiliarity'

"Of course a user can do a better job with software with which the user is familiar, but in the long run the best software will also cost less and be open to use, examination, modification and distribution," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl.

"Where I work we changed from XP to GNU/Linux not because the software was familiar to users but because it is much more reliable than XP and users can quickly adjust," Pogson explained. "Only one user amongst hundreds is not able to do the job with GNU/Linux."

Linux is superior "because once configured it just keeps running, does not need re-re-reboots, anti-malware or re-installation," Pogson concluded. "The usability of the software swamps user unfamiliarity because the backlog of dead PCs has dropped to nothing."

'We Need Better Excel Compatibility'

Fundamentally, users don't change without a reason, Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack asserted.

"A better price is a good reason, and so is better stability and security," Mack pointed out.

Unfortunately, the FOSS world still falls short in a few key places, Mack added:

* "We still need better Excel and PowerPoint compatibility";

* "It is still much too hard to configure Linux as an authentication server that can handle Windows, Linux and Mac"; and

* "We need some easy (Windows-compatible) alternative to SharePoint."

'Put Together Some Focus Groups'

For Slashdot blogger hairyfeet, the problem is in the front end.

"The bigger question is, "Why can't FOSSies design a fricking working GUI!" hairyfeet exclaimed. "Sure, having a familiar interface helps, but look at OSX -- it was NOTHING like what anybody else was using, but the thing was so intuitive my grandma could use it."

FOSS GUIs are bad, plain and simple, hairyfeet asserted. "Not just a little bad, they are huge piles o' stinky. Only in the FOSS world have I run into apps where you just can't get to all the features unless you go CLI, or have a GUI where the settings won't 'stick' between reboots."

In short, FOSS developers need to "put together some focus groups, let REAL users, not CS nerds use the thing, then listen to them!" he advised. "People LIKE easy, they LIKE simple. They will happily get away from something they know that takes 20 steps if you offer them something that does it in 3 and is easier to boot."

'They Just Don't Learn'

Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson, who goes by "Tom" on the site, saw it differently.

"It's a sad fact, but many people stop learning after they finish school -- and most of the rest stopped learning well before that," Hudson told Linux Girl. "When they were kids, anything new was exciting. As they get older, it first becomes a distraction, then a threat."

That, in turn, is "most definitely" a problem, Hudson opined.

"You might as well replace the 'Help' menu with 'RTFM,' because most users won't do either," she explained.

"Look at how many people don't even know that their browser has an address bar," Hudson pointed out. "They have a search engine as their home page, and you can tell them over and over, 'no, type the address into the address bar at the top of the browser,' and they just don't learn."

'It Must Have a Virus'

Similarly, "you don't need ChromeOS to secure a modern computer from most users," she continued. "Just have it boot to a command prompt with a message saying, 'Hit any key.' They'll never find the 'ANY' key."

And again: "Or take a screen shot of their desktop, rotate it 180 degrees, and set it as their wallpaper," Hudson suggested. "Hide the task bar, and turn their screen upside down.

"I've done this a few times, and it's always good to see a supposed 'technician' try to figure out why, when they move the mouse left, it goes right," she added. "'It must have a virus.'"


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