Why don’t normal people use Linux?

Despite what my friends and colleagues may think, I’ve always been agnostic in the Mac versus PC debate. In answer to the question “which is better”, my answer has always been “neither”.  All operating systems have pros and cons for different users and different use cases and polarised arguments over which is better really don’t help anyone.

My real curiosity has been around why Linux is nearly always absent from the debate. A few people in the Wholegrain team, including myself, have used variations of Linux over the years, but we’ve all been people who are at least a little bit towards the geeky end of the spectrum.

What I wanted to know was whether Linux would be a good option for “normal” people. I’m talking about your typical computer user, someone who might not have heard of Linux or have given much thought to what an operating system is. I figured that Linux could potentially be a good option in providing the best of both worlds between Mac and PC. Fast and secure like a Mac, but device agnostic like a PC and as an open source product, it’s more open and more affordable than both.

The main issue that I could see was that less mainstream software is available for Linux, but my own experience with Ubuntu had proved that I could access almost everything that I needed including Slack, Signal, Chrome and Firefox as well as some good document and image editing software.  The only real limitation seemed to be the lack of professional design software such as Adobe Creative Suite and Sketch, which an average computer user should not need.

Putting it to the test

I wanted someone else who would never normally have even considered Linux to try it out and give me feedback as to whether it meets their needs. So I signed up our Team Administrator, Mohib, as a guinea pig and gave him my Ubuntu laptop to see how he got on.

I told him to see how it goes and if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll switch the machine back to Windows. I checked in after a few weeks and Mohib told me that he’s finding it okay, but that he prefers Windows. When I inquired why, he said that there’s no specific problem with Ubuntu, but he’s more familiar and comfortable with Windows because it is what he has always used. That seemed like a fair point, but it also seemed like a point with only one obvious solution – to stick with it longer and see if familiarity would help him to fall in love with Ubuntu. When Mohib eventually finished with that machine, this is what he said:

“I have been using Linux for a year an half. Prior to that, I had always been a Windows user and used to think that Linux was some complex operating system solely designed for programmers or for organisations who run in-house heavy software. But when I started using it I found this open source system was simple and the interface was almost the same as any latest windows or at least like any smart phone. I used Chrome on Linux for browsing and have had no issues when it came to exploring the internet. Other than that, I hardly used the system for anything else. For any new users, they will need to initially familiarise themselves as some of the basic windows commands like the shut down are in top right corner instead of in left bottom corner. These are small things but one might struggle at the start. There was nothing in particular that I did not like. I would recommend it to to others. My personal laptop has Windows and I will carry on using that.”

So it confirmed my theory that once a user gets over the issue of familiarity, Linux can be as good as any other operating system for everyday, non-specialist use.

That was supposed to be the end of my experiment

Recently, Christina joined us as People & Office Manager. We only had one laptop spare on the day that she joined and we’d completely forgotten that it had Ubuntu on it until we fired it up. It was a slightly awkward moment in which Christina inadvertently became part of my little experiment.

Apprehensive at first, Christina soon got the hang of it and seemed to be able to do pretty much everything that she needed day to day on the Ubuntu laptop. Then a couple of weeks later she came into the office with her personal Apple laptop, proclaiming, “I just love my Mac.”  It seems that the issue of familiarity is hard to overcome.

And so it was that my experiment finally came to an end. It seems to me that there could be some real advantages to mainstream use of Linux, especially now that a lot of software is browser based, but there are a few big barriers.

Barriers to Linux adoption

Familiarity

People feel comfortable with the system that they normally use. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Mac or PC, it can be difficult to learn a new system that is different to the one you’ve always used unless there’s a clear advantage to motivate you through that learning curve.

Availability

It’s almost impossible to buy a laptop with Linux pre-installed, meaning that it’s simply not accessible to a mainstream audience. If a manufacturer, such as HP or Lenovo, backed a particular flavour of Linux and helped to raise awareness of it’s benefits, then I think that it could potentially gain traction like we’ve seen with Google’s Chromebooks, but without that happening it’s largely a non-existent option for most people.

Technical support

I’m not too worried about official tech support from the operating system producer, but I think general day to day support from the people around you is crucial for many people in adopting a new technology.

If you ever have an issue with a PC or a Mac, it isn’t difficult to find someone who can help you. But if you’re using Linux, it’s not so easy to just phone a friend. As an example, I spent hours with the IT Consultant at our previous office space trying to connect my Ubuntu laptop to the network printer and in the end we gave up. If ever I wanted to print something, I had to email it to a colleague and ask them to print it for me. Those are the sorts of things that most people simply won’t tolerate.

That said, if Linux did become mainstream amongst general computer users then this problem would actually solve itself in the long term.

Is it still a possibility?

Ideologically, I like the idea of Linux as an efficient, secure, open and free operating system that could potentially make computing more accessible to a wider audience. Wired magazine published an article in 2000 about the potential of Linux to empower the African continent with more affordable access to computer technology but I have heard little since. However, Pingdom reported in 2011 on Linux market share around the world and in all markets Linux was nothing more than a niche player, with Asia and Africa bottom of the list with just 0.34% and 0.45% market share respectively.

My small experiment has highlighted some key barriers to mainstream adoption but I do still think that it could have potential as a powerful alternative to entry level machines such as Chromebooks and to empower many who simply cannot afford or Windows or Apple machine. Perhaps it would need the backing of a major hardware manufacturer to push it into the mainstream, or perhaps it could happen some other way.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that my little experiment has come to an end and currently nobody in our team is using Linux. I guess that says something.