Linux: the girlfriend test

The world has changed in the last 10 years. Humans finally have hover cars, unlimited energy and a cure for cancer. Well, not exactly, but Linux is almost ready for the mainstream desktop. Which is just as exciting. Sort of.

Before we crack open the Canonical-branded champagne, there are one or two things to sort out. Linux still has a reputation for being too finicky, technical and 'just for geeks'. This needs to be killed as quickly as possible. How? By putting the latest distributions through the ultimate in scientific usability studies: the girlfriend test.

See, the old problems of hardware incompatibility that once plagued Linux are fading, especially now that major vendors such as Asus and Dell are starting to cuddle up to Tux. The issues still prevalent are in the process of converting the huddled masses (or 'Windows users') and making the experience as friendly, straightforward and encouraging as possible. This needs to happen before Linux can reach that critical mass of users.

Erin, the subject of this test, is a girlfriend who aptly represents the average young PC user – a possible convert to the open source cause. In return for the writer's participation in a similar 'Boyfriend shopping experiment', Erin has agreed to attempt a number of tasks on a fresh installation of Fedora 9 in the hope that some its usability oversights might be exposed.

Erin's PC experience is mainly limited to using her computer for recreation and university work: emailing, using MS Office and Photoshop, browsing the web and playing music. These are common tasks that, under Windows, she accomplishes with no problems. The only information given to Erin was her username and password and that she would be using Fedora 9. Here are our findings.

Task 1: Bookmark a website in Firefox

As you'd expect, Erin encountered no problems with our first task. A launcher for Firefox was on the Gnome panel by default, which surprised her. She had no idea of the open source connection – she just knew about Firefox because it's the default browser at her university.

Crossovers like this definitely help smooth Linux's learning curve for the average PC user, and hopefully we'll see more of it as common open source applications become increasingly mature and widespread. Regardless, Erin was off to a good start.

Task 2: Write and print a letter in

Finding Writer was easy, being in the Applications menu under Office. For what Erin needed to do, Writer's interface worked in the same manner as the de facto industry standard Microsoft Word; she typed and formatted the letter with no issues. However, as you might imagine, problems arose when she tried to print.

The application was silent for 10 seconds before it opened a troubleshooting wizard. This is impressive – there's nothing more disheartening than to have the computer give you nothing but a generic error message. It wasn't that long ago that a user would have to go trawling through logs in weird parts of the filesystem just to find out what was going on. Sadly, the wizard didn't resolve the issue, as the drivers just weren't there.

This is the case with Vista as well, though at least Microsoft provides a link to the Lexmark website. Knowing how useless some manufacturers can be when it comes to Linux support, maybe the troubleshooter could instead recommend search engine terms, or related support forums.

It may seem second nature to a Linux geek to look online for help, but things like that don't occur to Erin and the many users like her. The advantage of the amazing community behind Linux and its distributions should be shouted from the rooftops, not left for hesitant Linux adopters to discover for themselves.