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ubuntu bug 1 takes down another household

Note: I first posted a version of the following on the Ubuntu Forums

Ubuntu Bug No. 1 takes down another household.

It is with no great joy that I report the beginning of the end of my family’s experiment with non-Microsoft operating systems. The next computer that attaches to the family network will run Windows exclusively.

Some background is in order. I am the oldest and most technically-inclined of three sons, and thus de facto Family SysAdmin. I am, personally, committed to GNU/Linux and will continue to run it on my own computers.

This household has actually been running desktop Linux in some form or another since 2004--initially as a stop-gap “recovery” solution to a broken WinME box, and latterly as a primary OS. All “initial setup”--installation, codecs, flashplayer, etc--was done by me.

The “kitchen computer”--the family’s real point of reference as far as desktop Linux is concerned--has been remarkably reliable. Extremely long uptimes (weeks at a time (!)), nothing breaking, everything in order. The main problem is that it’s slow, but that’s a hardware issue more than anything else--there’s really only so much you can do with a VIA C3 processor.


Dad, age ~60. Unusually precocious; responsible for getting our first computer back in ‘87 (a PC-XT clone running MS-DOS ~3.3). While very keen, not a “technical” user, and has only ever worked with Microsoft operating systems.

Mom ~50. Utter technophobe. Uses a kitchen computer running Ubuntu Breezy (a gift from me). Firefox, Evolution (only for e-mail), Abiword.

MiddleBro, age 16. Gamer and music enthusiast (recording). Potential but zero desire to learn any technical details or indeed follow manuals.

BabyBro, age 10. Minimal computer user; gaming needs met by consoles, but occasional schoolwork.


It was recently decided that the house should continue to be a Microsoft household for the following reasons:

  1. INDEPENDENCE. They won’t always have me around to sort out problems. “We can’t call any Linux tech support, no tech support exists. The ISP doesn’t support it, and nobody we know but you runs it. If it all goes wrong, at least there are two people [Dad and MidBro] who kind of know Windows.”
  2. FAMILIARITY. They won’t consider an Apple machine, “as if something goes wrong,” says Dad, “I would be using an Apple machine for the first time in my life.”
  3. EXTERNAL REQUIREMENTS. BabyBro’s school is very big on having the children use computers. Unfortunately, the content of the instruction is actually of the “go to START>PROGRAMS>” sort--button-by-button, screen by screen handhold howtos for (naturally) Microsoft products. None of his classmates run anything but Microsoft software at home. Naturally, the school is an all-Microsoft environment. From an educational point of view, it has been decided that Microsoft will be better than any other alternatives.
  4. USER-UNFRIENDLINESS. This comes largely from MiddleBro, who might be considered an “intermediate” Windows user. Documentation is either non-existent or incredibly technical--he has no patience to RTFM. He is constantly frustrated by his inability to solve problems in Ubuntu, and my corersponding speed in doing the same from the command line. “You shouldn’t have to go hacking around to install a Flash player!” he protests.


Of course, I’m disappointed. The clincher argument, though, was the “schoolwork” one. The homework is Microsoft-only, and extremely prescriptive. I am not around most of the time to help with homework/teach workarounds/other ways of doing things. So BabyBro’s work suffers. The people who *are* around when he does his homework are either technophobic (Mom, who uses Ubuntu) or Windows-only (the rest of the house).

It has occurred to me that there has been a qualitative change in the way that “computers” as a subject are approached in schools--a change which acts (not subtly) to increase and reinforce Microsoft’s mindshare at the expense of both the flexibility of the general user population and Microsoft’s competitors.

Before computers were ubiquitous, basic computer instruction, when such instruction might have been available, would have been theoretical and hypothetical in nature. That is to say, the things taught and learned were very basic in nature: What is a computer? What does it do? What is input, and how is it put into the computer? What is output, and where do you get it? What is memory? What’s a disk drive? What’s the difference between an Operating System and an Application?

All of those questions were covered in a very general, theoretical sense. Kids in the ’80s and early ‘90s might not have actually had any computers at home, but they were expected to know, in general, what they did and how they worked. This, along with very basic keyboarding skills, was the bulk of my own early computer eduction.

Nowadays, however, with computers everywhere, it is no longer considered important to know what things are, or how the various parts of the computer work with respect to each other--the important skills in demand from the marketplace are the performance of very specific tasks on very specific software.

This has had the effect of making assessment very easy (a student’s progress is easily measured by his facility with the software package in question). It also, in my opinion, stultifies the potential user-base. Train someone narrowly enough, and he will eventually have problems applying skills he has already acquired to situations he has not yet encountered.

Given the recent experience in this household, and my new insight into how the younger generation is being brought up (digitally speaking), the task before the Free Software community is not merely technical, but political and economic. Technically-excellent solutions will be meaningless if they cannot be adopted by very large, stodgy, pro-Establishment institutitons: big business, government, the school system.

The problem is not essentially a technical one (although various technical problems may contribute to it), but rather a *human* problem: Ubuntu Bug #1. I could set up a system that is technically much more excellent than Windows, but the only user who would benefit from such a system would be Mom, since she has no OS preferences or training. The other users would actually suffer, because their training has been (or is currently) extremely prescriptive and OS-exclusive and/or they have no willingness to attempt something new.


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 20th, 2006 06:13 am (UTC)
what does your brother do about gaming?
Jun. 20th, 2006 09:46 am (UTC)
considering babyBrother already has consoles in the house ...

(which i BET is an xBox)
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 11:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xenofobiq - Jun. 20th, 2006 11:49 am (UTC) - Expand
Gaming Consoles - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 02:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Gaming Consoles - crazygerad - Jun. 20th, 2006 03:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Re: Gaming Consoles - crazygerad - Jun. 23rd, 2006 12:10 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - admiral_pro - Jun. 20th, 2006 04:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2006 10:29 am (UTC)
this is one of the most insightful and (forgive me) "interesting articulations" of a very real problem that I've seen also. (for lack of a better way to describe it.)

It'll take a very large effort on the part of non microsoft entities (preferably working together) to break up the general population and the corporate/educational machine's dependence and emphasis on microsoft.

I'm sad that your family isn't sticking with linux. But it illustrates the fact that the system just isn't there yet for the general-population "end user," and YES that is the fault of developers. It's not the end-user's fault for being "stupid" or "difficult to teach". It also illustrates the educational and corporate culture emerging around the dominant markets and most successful tools, which is much more difficult to solve than improving a linux distro so that a user won't have to learn the command line.

*sigh* I'm just doing what I can to try and get more people into non-microsoft products to help break up the monopoly... with european pressure, maybe there will be more serious anti-trust stuff, once people realize that the computer is a type of literacy that should be as ubiquitious and inexpensive as the pencil or the ability to read and write in general.
Jun. 21st, 2006 08:19 am (UTC)
Well, with so much of the Linux world developed for free by volunteers, you can't expect the same dedication to making the interface slick. That there are so many good user-interfaces is amazing.

Someone, other than *Apple*, needs to develop Linux slickness, without vastly blowing up the price. But then again, that is the problem...
Jun. 20th, 2006 11:13 am (UTC)

I have a similar setup, though the it is now a mixed Mac OS X and Ubuntu environment, and it is likely to stay that way.

As to your first reason "there is no support"... Support is how Cananical makes money with Ubuntu. It is a huge link from the front page of http://www.ubuntu.com/
Jun. 20th, 2006 11:21 am (UTC)
"Paid support" won't do. The fact that it would represent an additional expense immediately disqualifies it from consideration in this house. Why should one have to pay for support, so goes the argument, if the alternative is using the system that everybody else uses, and thus "supports" free? For us, support == userbase.
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 11:37 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 02:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 04:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 11:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 21st, 2006 12:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - secretsoflife - Jun. 20th, 2006 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 20th, 2006 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 10:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 21st, 2006 12:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ouij - Jun. 21st, 2006 12:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blueheron - Jun. 21st, 2006 01:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mattsmodernlife - Jun. 20th, 2006 08:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crazygerad - Jun. 20th, 2006 03:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2006 11:21 am (UTC)
I've found external requirements to be the biggest problem.

Eventually, dare I say most non-technical savvy windows users need to enlist the help of someone else to repair their computer. Windows may blue screen less, but I'm often approached at work by users with home systems that pop up random windows, don't connect to the internet, have a device that won't install, have software gone missing, have tried to reinstall and made something worse, etc etc, begging me for help. It's depressing, but then I have to remind myself that computers are not simple devices, and every attempt to make them so has failed. Why are we trying to make Linux something that even Windows is not?

But perhaps there's nothing wrong with this. After all, if for example your washing machine breaks, if your car breaks, if your home brickwork needs repairing or plumbing bursts, most people need enlist the help of someone who knows what they're doing and are perfectly happy with that. Why are we trying to make computers braindead-simple to use when they're probably the most complicated consumer device ever? Where did this expectation that everybody can "master" a computer and never need to ask, much less pay anyone for help come from?

External demands are the bigger problem, in my world. Such as academic establishments demanding coursework in MS-only formats, and hence demanding more profit to MS when today we have perfectly good alternatives, or still a few braindead websites (particularly B2B) designed to work only with IE.

Perhaps we need to check where we're going, and consider the computer less as this magic box that can and should do anything without failing, and more as a device designed for specific tasks, some better than others. Or, perhaps I'm just dreaming.
Jun. 20th, 2006 01:53 pm (UTC)
Doesn't sound anti-linux
This sounds pro-mac. It's the only thing I've run across that actually meets your technical requirements, including gaming (with the new intel-macs).

I'm an avid ubuntu user, but I bought a mac for my wife for similar reasons.
Jun. 20th, 2006 01:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Doesn't sound anti-linux
They won't consider a Macintosh, either:
They won’t consider an Apple machine, “as if something goes wrong,” says Dad, “I would be using an Apple machine for the first time in my life.”
Again, I repeat, the problem is not a question of technical requirements, but rather one of user antipathy. Human problems are not easily solved by technical means.
Re: Doesn't sound anti-linux - crackmonkey - Jun. 20th, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Doesn't sound anti-linux - ouij - Jun. 20th, 2006 10:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Doesn't sound anti-linux - crackmonkey - Jun. 20th, 2006 11:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Doesn't sound anti-linux - ouij - Jun. 21st, 2006 12:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 20th, 2006 04:04 pm (UTC)
In terms of Security Ubuntu I prefer Linux in this case Ubuntu because for Windows XP I have to keep running four programs just for it to not get infected with spyware, viruses and adware. Yes, linux has its share of viruses but compared to Windows they are non-existent.

The biggest problem I have with Ubuntu are two things: gaming on the most part (I can play Metal Blob Solid and the free ScummVM games) and support for hardware (still can't make the stupid printer be shared). But theses problems aren't new to linux in general.

What I suggest is giving them a type of idiot or dummy book for them to read. The one who would benefit most would be your middle brother (there is also a multimedia book for Ubuntu he will most certainly benefit from) and if he refuses to read it or any material I feel sorry for him because on this new economy/world you have to be constantly learning or you will go obsolete.

I do agree Ubuntu is difficult but it has become much easier with synaptic, and it is walking slowly but surely toward that goal. Personally, if I had money I would be willing to pay for a non-free Ubuntu version that installed all the multimedia stuff and made midis work without any type of problem and included a series of options to be ready out of the box. But like the PC vs Mac adds, Windows takes a long time to initially set up too especially with all those damn restarts.
Jun. 21st, 2006 08:28 am (UTC)
Maybe off topic, but have you seen Easy Ubuntu?


It installs a lot of non-truly-free-but-$$$-free-apps for multimedia and such. Perhaps this is not relevant to you, but I thought of it after reading your comment.
Jun. 23rd, 2006 12:46 am (UTC)
Well in my case, I dont mind spending three days setting it up. After all apart from programming that kind of thing is my job. But for lazier types I would consider your link, thanks for sharing it.
Jun. 20th, 2006 05:11 pm (UTC)
Even I, who has used linux heavily since 1994, still have windows systems in my house to meet specific needs. I have more linux systems, sure. My wife has a windows laptop to play her mainstream games and because she doesn't want me messing with it. I have a windows system primarily as a backup whenever I break something on my other desktop, and because Galactic Civilizations 2 and Final Fantasy 11 only work with windows. It has a realtime (bt878) TV card for playing PS2 games. I could move this card to the Linux box, but I already have too much other stuff there and wanted to save space for more PVR cards in the future. (Looking for a PVR500.)

The Linux box has the majority of my other work on it however. I do all my video processing, dvd burning, and programming there. It also has my PVR based TV cards (PVR150's) that are useless for gameplay.

Bug #1 won't likely be fixed for a very long time.
Jun. 21st, 2006 08:15 am (UTC)
Wow. The "command line"="hacking"! LOLOLOL

The fact that computer education seems to be click here, push that, is a statement about how stupid society has gotten.

Jun. 21st, 2006 06:30 pm (UTC)
Local LUG!

Linux is all about community. You should be able to find a number of enthusiastic, if not friendly, folks at your local Linux User Group. Point #1 should be a non-issue, though I know what your family feels. Still, by now, your dad and MidBro should be getting familiar with Ubuntu, right?

Point #3 just disgusts me. I'd be surprised is Windows is really the best from an educational point of view, indeed, I doubt a proper educational analysis was made by the educators involved. Still, it's probably the cheapest and easiest for them to standardize on, strictly because of the monopoly held by Microsoft on the desktop.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )


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