dweebishness of linux users

I ran across this smear piece with regards to Ubuntu users from the perspective of a seasoned Linux user, which I think resonates both with the problem of treating your users like idiots and differently with the kerfuffle over ubuntu one, though this post is a direct sequel to neither post.

The article in question makes critique (sort of) that a little bit of knowledge is a terrible thing, and that by making Linux/Unix open to a less technical swath of users, that the quality of the discourse around the linux world has taken a nose dive. It's a sort of "grumble grumble get off my lawn, kid," sort of argument, and while the elitist approach is off-putting (but total par for the course in hacker communities,) I think the post does resonate with a couple of very real phenomena:

1. Ubuntu has led the way for Linux to become a viable option for advanced beginner and intermediate computer users. Particularly since the beginning of 2008 (eg. the 8.04 release). Ubuntu just works, and a lot of people who know their way around a keyboard and a mouse are and can be comfortable using Linux for most of their computing tasks. This necessarily changes the makeup of the typical "Linux User" quite a bit, and I think welcoming these people into the fold can be a challenge, particularly for the more advanced users who have come to expect something very different from the "Linux Community."

2. This is mostly Microsoft's fault, but people who started using--likely Windows powered--computers in the nineties (which is a huge portion of people out there), being an 'intermediate' means a much different kind of understanding that "old school" Linux users have.

Using a Windows machine effectively, and knowing how to use one of these systems, revolves around knowing what controls are where in the control panel, around being able to "guess" where various settings are within applications, knowing how to keep track of windows that aren't visible, understanding the hierarchy of the file system, and knowing to reboot early and often. By contrast, using a Linux Machine effectively revolves around understanding the user/group/file permissions system, understanding the architecture of the system/desktop stack, knowing your way around a command line window, and the package manager, and knowing how to edit configuration files if needed.

In short, skills aren't as transferable between operating systems as they may have once been.

Ubuntu, for it's flaws (tenuous relationship with the Debian Project, peculiar release cycle), seems to know what it takes to make a system usable with very little upfront cost: How the installer needs to work, how to provide and organize the graphical configuration tools, and how to provide a base installation that is familiar and functional to a broad swath of potential users.

While this does change the dynamic of the community, it's also the only way that linux on the desktop is going to grow. The transition between windows power user and linux user is not a direct one. (While arguably the transition between OS X and Linux is reasonably straight forward.) The new people who come to the linux desktop are by-and-large going to be users who are quite different from the folks who have historically used Linux.

At the same time, one of the magical things about free software is that the very act of using free software educates users about how their software works and how their machines work. The cause of this is partially intentional, partly by virtue of the fact that much free software is designed to be used by the people who wrote the software, and partly because of free software's adoptive home of UNIX-liken systems. Regardless of the reason however, we can expect that even the most "n00bish" of users to eventually become more skilled and knowledgeable.


Having said that, in direct response to the article in question, even though I'm a huge devote of a "real" text editor, might it be the case that the era of the "do everything text editor" may be coming to an end? My thought is not that emacs and vi are no longer applicable, but the truth is that building specialized domain specific editing applications is easy enough that building such editing applications inside of vi/emacs doesn't make the same sort of sense that it made a twenty or thirty years ago? Sure a class of programmers will probably always use emacs, or something like it, but I think the change of emacs being supplanted by things-that-aren't editors, say, is something that isn't too difficult to imagine.

If the singularity doesn't come first, that is.

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