Here at SCW, we donate to open source software, created a political demonstration website against Canadian Usage Based Billing, and constantly try to balance the needs of security with our beliefs in freedom and the openness of information. So, we are going to take a break from talking about security, to talk about ubuntu, linux, wine and FOSS (Free and Open Source Software).
We use open source e-commerce platform to run this site, linux servers, and we use a combination of apple and linux desktop environments for our employees. Other than a single usability testing computer (for testing the site in Windows internet explorer) and graphics design software (mostly for Adobe Fireworks), we are almost a 100% open source organization.
With that said, we would like to weigh in on PCWorld.com's Tony Bradley's 30 days with Ubuntu.
As a linux user, it is hard not to question his objectivity when you read his posts, and one easily comes to the conclusion that he is either very disingenuous in the way that he poses questions (see "Where's my iTunes?"), or the writers at PC World are nowhere near as educated on tech topics as they would have us believe. Don't get me wrong, I think Tony deserves some of this criticism -- it's strange that someone who works in the PC News industry didn't know that Apple has been deliberately limiting access to its products in Linux for some time now, and it's equally odd that as a journalist he can't see the incoherence of criticizing LibreOffice for "not standing on its own" and having to mimic Word while also criticism Ubuntu for not having a "a script of some sort called 'Mimic Windows.'" However, other than Tony's horrendous advice on how should Linux try to become Windows-like in appearance, Ubuntu would do well to start looking at answering "the wrong questions" that Tony keeps raising.
The fact that PC World should be held to a higher standard of journalism, shouldn't mean that we shouldn't be listening intently to the issues that Tony is raising.
He is doing us a great service by revealing what many windows users are thinking.
It would probably be helpful for the FOSS community, to stop thinking of him as a journalist, (where our natural response is frustration because it feels that he is deliberately misleading his audience, giving FOSS a bad name, and sabotaging his "review" by choosing the most difficult way to do everything), his ignorance, feigned or real, is the perfect representative for how many windows users act when first approaching FOSS.
Tony seems to constantly try to do the most difficult things on linux while ignoring easy solutions. (Installing Ubuntu through WUBU is harder than the regular way. And Cisco AnyConnect is not supported as well as VPNs through the software center.) Many windows user initially want to try the most difficult way of doing things (installing Word in WINE, for example), because they are used to that program, rather than learning how to use something new (like LibreOffice Writer).
Perhaps what Ubuntu needs is a Wiki-based application that resides on the desktop (or some other obvious place like reddit user shazzner's idea to have help button that connects you to the IRC support channel or an askubuntu Unity lens on by default) that offers answers to the common questions of new users and shows videos teaching people how to use the linux-specific versions of the software programs that they already know.
Questions like "How do I install Microsoft Word?" could be covered with a brief explanation of how Writer is already installed, some video explaining how to use it it and where items are located in the menu, and explaining how to transfer documents back and forth between Writer and Word.
Or "Where's my iTunes?" And then explaining how to sync an iDevice on Ubuntu.
Or "Where is calibre or helvetica? and my other fonts?" explaining software licences and how to get more fonts.
The ubuntu community already does an excellent job of doing this type of support through the ubuntu forums or askubuntu.com, however, there are some barriers to entry that most linux users do not realize:
- 1. New users may not know that those sites exist.
- 2. It's not often that windows users use google to find software solutions in Windows; they go to the store for that.
- 3. Lastly, these online guides are often version specific for wine and ubuntu, so not only do users have to know where to look, they have to know which version they have and which version the guide was written about (which may have to be inferred by the date of the post).
The community is already providing ample support through videos, guides, and forums. Since ubuntu has been focusing on usability and measurement as a way to go mainstream, maybe it's time to look at these type of questions and their answers and build something a bit more integrated into the system. The problem isn't the lack of support; the problem, to the consumer, is the organization, accessibility, and potential of that support to become outdated. The problem, to canonical and the other software developers, is that this support system cannot assist in it's recent state goals of improving usability and increasing user feedback and bug tracking.
Maybe Canonical, Wine, askubuntu.com and the community need to come together to create a pre-installed software / website combo aimed at offering lowest-common denominator, version-specific, noob-friendly, wiki-based (not forum-based) guides that could not only help users answer these questions but also report back to the software developers exactly which questions are most frequently asked. This would help accomplish ubuntu's needs for both better reporting of software issues and a better chance at reaching the consumer market. A lens could work really well for this.
Even though PC World and Tony Bradley are opening themselves to questions about whether they are fixing the contest (some of which they deserve, but which we also have to temper, as criticism won't win any of us new friends), they still deserves our thanks, since they will make the product better -- not only through its publicity, but also through teaching us to think about usability as we "answer the wrong questions."
Edit: (essentially a TL;DR) As poubelle pointed out on reddit, Tony is being snarky (and creating a straw man) when he makes comments like "I understand that many Linux users have an anti-Microsoft chip on their shoulder, or some sort of issue with capitalism and paying for software, but I don't." It would be impossible not to mention these things when commenting on his review (and there is some value in demanding that the media not put words in our mouth or misrepresent what's happening as the patent-for-profit businesses and open-source communities bump heads), however, as a community, if we can see him as a user (and not a newsman) and actually listen to his problems, we can continue making Ubuntu better by addressing some of the barriers to getting good support. He should be held to a higher standard as a journalist (as he talks about companies, communities, and software), however, as a user his problems are normal and should be fixed. We have to walk the fine line between firmly calling him to journalistic integrity, while still kindly helping him with his issues (which are normal, common issues that almost all windows users have) and thinking long-term about how to fix the structural issues and barriers to entry on finding help in the open source community.