Linux: the girlfriend test

Our writer subjects Linux to the most exacting useability test yet devised: his girlfriend

It's baffling and a little dismaying that something as simple as installing Flash was not easily achievable for someone of Erin's computer ability.

Task 9: Make a phone call using Skype

Erin, international social butterfly that she is, has friends in various parts of the world. She calls them cheaply using Skype and a headset, just like hundreds of millions of other people do. Her headset is a Sennheiser and plugs into the headphone and microphone jacks on the on-board soundcard.

Now, Erin knows from Windows that if you want to install an application, you go to the program's website and download the setup file. Right now there are probably some readers gasping in horror at the thought that someone wouldn't go exploring through the System and Administration menus and find 'Add/ Remove Software', but Erin's assumption is going to be one made over and over again by new users.

Luckily, Skype is cool enough to cater for numerous Linux distributions. Unluckily, their support for Fedora only seems to go up to version 7. Erin clicked on this anyway, and the default Firefox action is to install the RPM. It all happened automatically, and Skype was installed in her applications menu. Don't get too excited: Skype failed to make calls because of an 'audio playback problem'. Erin was truly stumped. She made sure the volume mixer in the top right was up full, but other than that didn't know what she could do.

We know that it's not a fault of the Fedora developers if proprietary software won't work easily with their system, but if it's something that such a staggering number of potential users want, they should really make an effort to see that it works. The attempts made by Skype to release versions for Linux shows considerable effort on its part, and it seems likely that the company would be willing to collaborate with the Fedora community to make sure that Skype runs nicely on the latest versions out of the box.

Our findings

One of the reasons so many are drawn to Linux is the fact that those involved are genuinely trying to create a better computer experience. Obviously, this means there are going to be many major points of diversion from the Windows way of thinking. It's hard to criticise Linux, Gnome and Fedora over issues that arise due to new users being familiar with another operating system, but in practical terms it needs to be done.

The Linux community needs to establish what it is that users expect and need from an operating system, and where Linux deviates from this. Many problems stem from assuming too much technical knowledge from the user. This is especially widespread in Linux due to the very technically-minded people who are involved all the way from design to evaluation.

It's madness to act as if Windows doesn't exist and isn't the standard for most users. It is, and distributions need to be prepared for that fact that most new users will be ready for things to work in a particular (and often different to Linux) way. This does not mean we should make Linux into a Windows clone, but that we should educate new users on how and sometimes even why things have changed. Users are most resistant to change when they don't believe it's necessary.

While it's funny to tell a troubled Linux newbie to type man man in the terminal and work from there, it's not the approach that's going to see Linux gain critical mass. First-time users need to be guided with pop-up boxes and wizards. Why aren't tips displayed at bootup, or during installation? A little bit of information goes a surprisingly long way.

A welcome screen explaining history, terms and basic concepts would've helped Erin to understand what Linux is, what it can do and how you use it. If the hardcore Linux geeks don't want this interruption, it's very easy to implement a 'beginner mode' enabled only for first-time users. If we're going to make any pretension that Linux is to be ready for the desktop, then the design of applications, distributions and Linux itself needs to be focused on the end-user.

Hopefully one day someone like Erin will be able to work and play on a Linux PC without any fuss.

First published in Linux Format, issue 111