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Breaking down barriers to Linux desktop adoption

IT consultant and "Linux Desktop Hacks" co-author Jono Bacon describes how to combat irrational rejection of the Linux desktop adoption, which he thinks is just as good as Windows.

People reject Linux desktops for illogical reasons, says IT consultant and developer Jono Bacon. For example, they fault Linux OpenOffice desktops for not having all the features in Microsoft Windows Office, even though few actually use all of the Microsoft stuff. So, in essence, they're saying they want desktops cluttered with unnecessary features.

Bacon discusses the impact of such irrational views regarding Linux desktop adoption in this interview. He also opines on what developers should be doing to reverse-engineer people's fuzzy thinking and make it easier to adopt Linux and open source. Bacon co-authored Linux Desktop Hacks (O'Reilly Media) and is an applications development specialist at OpenAdvantage, an open source software consulting organization that provides free services in the West Midlands region of the U.K.

Do you think Linux can compete with Microsoft on the desktop?

Bacon: Sure. The one thing that people tend to get wrapped up in [is:] 'Everything should work.' If you take Windows and, for argument's sake, deduce that it performs five hundred functions, the typical business or home user may only use a hundred or fifty of those functions. The Linux desktop can probably achieve nearly all of those functions, but many people disregard its suitability irrespective of the fact that they may not need many of the features. Good IT is about applying a solution to a need.

I deal with companies every day that are moving over to Linux, and it does all the things that they want.

I think the sensible person would sit down and identify whether it does what they need it to do now and identify what they're going to need in the next couple of years. Most people have fairly typical requirements that the open source desktop can achieve. There's no doubt about that.

I think we can match what most people need but there are sometimes niche situations where it just isn't going to cut it. We need to identify what regular people need as well instead of just targeting huge organizations. We need to be competitive but reasoned too.

What do you think prevents people from switching?

Bacon: One of the biggest things is lethargy. I consider myself a semi-technical person. So moving between software platforms doesn't mean anything to me.

But if, for example, I have to switch between insurance or phone plans, I just don't want to do it because I don't want to learn about it. I don't want to learn about what's different. Therefore, I'm resistant to change even if it might save me some money each month. Unless I can see a big, perceived win that attracts me, I'm not going to change my current system for something else that doesn't really give me a straight-up benefit.

I also think some people, particularly in business, are skeptical of open source because it is community-based and it's free.

The toughest thing is change. Microsoft carved out a culture. To its credit, the company commoditized computers. There's no easy way around that without education and giving someone that significant win.

For some people, the PDF export feature of OpenOffice 2.0 is a major thing for people who send out invoices. It's a very tiny feature but they see it as a significant thing for them because it affects their business.

How did you first get involved with Linux and open source?

Bacon: I first got into it in 1998 when my brother showed me Linux. The thing that struck me was the potential. It excited me that there was a community of people working together to achieve common goals. This sparked the inspiration to explore how this community could work together to create software for everyone.

How did you get involved in the Linux and open source desktop?

Bacon: When I first got started working with open source, I was really interested in KDE [K desktop environment]. At the time [1998], KDE was the exciting desktop. It looked like it could provide something similar in usability to Windows, which was an immediate goal back then. I got interested in this and got involved with the community.

I wrote bits of code here and there. I started the KDE Usability Study, the KDE Enterprise project and became the U.K.'s KDE representative. I also participated in discussions, ran KDE stands at events and spoke about KDE at conferences.

So where was your focus?

Bacon: Advocacy, usability and the desktop are areas that I'm really interested in. I helped discuss and explore ways in which we could get more users to KDE and sat down and thought about the technical- and design-related challenges that the KDE project faced.

As time went on, KDE frustrated me a little bit because they [KDE] seemed to lose their focus on usability. Despite repeated discussion, I left the project and started using GNOME because, at the time, they [GNOME] appeared to have a finer appreciation of usability.

It's interesting. I discovered at SCALE [Southern California Linux Expo] in some discussions with other people that I was basically four years too early -- the kind of points I made about KDE back then are now being addressed.

What were your complaints?

Bacon: Various perspectives on usability, clutter, too much configurability and other things. Also, frameworks are a temporary solution. We want less people hacking on frameworks and more people hacking on applications that use frameworks. It's not a technical problem so much as a social one.

Where do you think open source and Linux desktop are going?

Bacon: The desktop has really got two broad areas where we could potentially move forward. One is the consumer desktop. You go into CompUSA and buy a computer with a copy of Linux on it. Everything works and the consumer user can do what they want in Linux.

Then, you've got the desktop running on a network in an organization or business. That's easier because when you have a sysadmin or team of sysadmins who are looking after a network, you've got a more limited scope because you need these [organizational] applications to run.

What trends are you seeing?

Bacon: The advocacy side is focusing on business at the moment. Once we've nailed that, we can move toward the consumer side. The difficulty with the consumer side is that consumers naturally feel comfortable in Windows because that's what they know. Lethargy is one of the toughest nuts to crack, and consumers won't move unless they can see a key benefit to the move, move with little or no hassle and don't incur any further costs.

On the consumer side, there is also a greater scope for potential snafus. You've got a million different use cases [and] a million different devices that someone can plug in and get working, whereas a business may only need X, Y and Z working and that's that.

From an advocacy perspective, it's good to focus on things you know you can achieve and work on doable goals. Understanding and feeling good about your advocacy is essentially about setting these goals and smashing them.

How does usability tie in with these desktop trends?

Bacon: In terms of the desktop moving forward, I think it falls down into the ability to run the things you need to run. The other side of it is providing the best possible desktop experience.

We need to identify what people want to achieve and give them the tools and software to let them achieve that with the least path of resistance. When people look at moving to the open source desktop, they have to get a better overall deal than their current deal. Otherwise, it's not an option.

It is critically important to have good integration in our desktop with applications to the best degree possible.

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