September 18, 2002

Open Letter to a Power User / Developer

I just read this Letter to a Non-believer, and have to respond. As I see it:

1) Someone commented in a mailing list that Linux has "poor usability."
2) You point out that *you* can successfully use Linux to read email, write professionally (about Linux and technology it appears), compose music, watch movies, plan Linux events, create your own Linux distribution, publish Linux CDs, and browse the web, etc.
3) You claim that "millions" of other people who "work like you do - productively and happily" also use Linux.
4) Since you can do all these things, you then assert that Linux *must* be usable. You say "you have the gall to tell me and millions of others that it can't be done"?

Well, I DO have the gall to tell you your logic is horribly flawed.
1) Usability is relative - something that is usable for one type of user doing one type of task is very often not be usable for all user doing any kind of task. Linux is obviously at least somewhat usable for some folks, but that doesn't meant that it's usable for most people.
2) Usability is not black and white - it's not "usable and unusable" it's shades of gray. At some point individuals determine that things aren't "usable" enough for them - this is the point where people either buy into or pass on something.
3) Usability is only one small factor in the adoption of products.
4) You are obviously a power user of technology and Linux. When you say you maintain your own distribution you reveal that you are a power user among power users. Few "average Joes" use Linux for average tasks, and my guess is that few actually could. (Notice I said few, not none.) I know many Linux users, but noone that maintains their own distro.
5) Let's talk realistic stats - where are the millions of folks in regular offices or homes doing average mundane things on Linux? How many non-programmers run Linux? Sure, millions of servers run Linux, but that's not what we're talking about. I'm sure there are millions of Linux distributions sold every year - that doesn't mean millions are actively running or anywhere within reach of a "typical" consumer.
6) Okay, even if Linux with KDE or whatever were super easy to learn and use. Where would a soccer mom buy a preschooler edutainment for Linux? Could she install it and read the docs (don't get me started on man pages)? How about a tax package for my small business? Can I get it at Best Buy? Power users have different needs and understand how to locate Open Source needles in the haystack of the Internet - average folks want quick, easy and mainstream. It's not just the OS that has to be usable and suitable- OS's are just the start. It's the whole offering from the platform and all the related software vendors. Why do you think Apple still has any market share? It's because they have enough of the right stuff (usability, software, marketing, documentation, service, etc.) that people want when making a decision on what to adopt.

Just because YOU use it, doesn't mean it's USABLE for many people. Show me research - maybe an independent usability test. Lots of universities use Linux -- ask them to research Linux's usability. As far as adoption statistics are concerned, back up your cited numbers, show me real numbers from reputable analysts, All I could find are gross estimates from biased partisans.

Linux rocks as a server platform, and it's a great development platform for many developers (depending on what they develop in and for). Linux on the average consumer's desktop? Not in the foreseeable future - it's built by geeks for geeks. And geeks love it, so it's successful in its own way.

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