Operating Systems and Usability for the New User

My 71 year old father expressed interest in a computer. He is a retired truck driver who has never sat in front of a computer.

Having an under-utilized Mac Mini, I could have given that to him with either Leopard or Vista installed. Or I could have taken an old computer laying around the office and put Linux Mint on it.

I sat him down in front of Vista and taught him about the common widgets, basic mouse usage, and other tasks. We went through creating files, transferring photos, deleting files, watching DVD’s…. When he showed undue interest in web ads, I thought I can’t really send a naive user home with a Windows computer, not when he lives 700 miles away and I would be called in to solve problems.

So I sat him down in front of Leopard. While I didn’t need to worry about drive by downloads, he was thrown into confusion by the numerous modal operations that the Mac utilizes.  He had questions like why does the garbage turn into a triangle when I click on some things but not on others, what does it mean and how do I know what it will do?  He found the dock much less user friendly than the task bar, why does clicking there start a program but clicking here just fans out more choices, how do I know what to choose?  I couldn’t convince him that the downloads icon was not a camera.  In general, he was much more confused sitting in front of Leopard.

So, setting the Mini aside, I pulled out a computer that would otherwise end up in a landfill and installed Linux Mint on it.  I found it much easier to get him used to the start menu and taskbar than I did the application folder and dock.  Of course he is a novice and has lots of confusion, but he has no problems importing photos from a camera, launching programs, and navigating his home folder.  Since he had no mouse/keyboard experience I set him up with the Gnome Games package to get used to using the mouse.

Does he still get confused sometimes?  Surely.  Will I have to hold his hand for a while?  Surely.  Is Linux the right choice for everyone?  Obviously not.

But for first time users, Linux offers the ease of use for first time users that Windows enjoys and it offers the safety and security that OS X enjoys.  For me it is a no brainer, I’m sending Dad home with a linux box.

One problem that surfaced on all three desktops is when to click and when to double click and how to know the difference?  Good question for which I had no easy answer…you just have to learn.  This is a usability issue that needs addressed by all three desktops.

Your mileage may vary.  But for me, placing a first time computer user in front of the big 3 desktops, Linux was the way to go.  Also Linux Mint comes with all the codecs, so unlike Vista and Leopard, it just works.

Welcome to the computer age, dad.

Not thinking it through….

Many are those who think that MS releasing many versions of Vista is bad.  Mostly FOSS zealots who claim to know so much about monopolies…these people wax meaningfully about the ins and outs of monopolies, but in reality they know nothing, they are simply taking their “feelings” about MS and pretending they are based in facts.  Their ignorance is glaring.

The many versions of Vista is MS being forced to differentiate its products.  This is due to health returning to the OS market.  MS still has a monopoly, but the choices show that it is no longer secure in that monopoly.

When you have a monopoly, you ship one product and people are forced to take it.  When you are a big fish in competition, you ship different models to compete for customers.  A one size fits all does not work in a competitive market.

So bring on the Vista versions, a much needed sign of life.  Linux is still slowly growing its mind share.  Suse is a kick-ass OS–now if the FOSS zealots don’t self-implode and destroy themselves, we will have competition.  Apple has much mind share.  If Jobs would stop with his smoke and mirror dog and pony show method of introducing products; sit down and offer a roadmap for OS X and its hardware, we could see some real gains.

Apple has a monopoly on Mac hardware, hence one product.  Linux is free and open with lots of competition hence many many versions.  I would suggest that the FOSS zealots read a little about the history and economics of monopolies so that they don’t come off as retarded…these folks are doing much more to slow linux adoption than the boys from Redmond are.

MS is doing all that it can to destroy its monopoly (WGA, DRM, price, etc…) it is only too bad that there is no one offering a viable alternative.

The only things maintaining MS’s monopoly is FOSS zealots and Steve Jobs.

I despise MS as much as most…but I will not be self deluded…

The perennial anti-fanboy

In the past 10 days I’ve been accused in forum posts of alternatively being: (1) A MS fanboy, (2) An Apple fanboy, and (3)An opensource fanboy.  But still, I see myself as the perennial anti-fanboy.  In my estimation all of the leading desktop OS’s–XP/Vista, OS X 10.X, and GNU/Linux–leave much to be desired.

With a 2.5 GHz processor and 1.5 GB of RAM, why should XPs interface be so slow–why does my hard drive grind?

How could I be a fan of the crippled hardware that OS X runs on?

How could I be a promoter of GNU/Linux when the sound sucks!  Frequent crashes and buggy behavior all linked to the sound in pretty much every Linux distro I have ever used.

They all pretty much suck.  Am I the only one that notices?  How does every geek get attracted to one or another and then go and convince themselves that somehow their chosen OS is a good one?   Of course they know that the other two suck, but they get deluded by their personal choices–they invent a reality to fit their views–classic case of distorted reality due to self-delusion.

While the three of them sometimes suck in similar ways, they also suck in different ways.  Choosing an OS is deciding which one sucks less for the way that you work and the tasks that you need to accomplish. I, for one, could never be a fanboy for any of these OS’s in thier present state.  But if you take a look at trends…Vista has many more ads hard coded into the OS than XP does…every release of iLife comes in a more and more crippled form…but GNU/Linux, at least has positive trends.  Of course much of this is due to the fact that it started this millenium far out in last place, it was much easier to make large gains.

So let me be clear, yes Linux is buggy, yes the apps crash a lot, yes the updates often hose your system, yes much hardware is unusable, yes the command line is a throwback to the eighties, yes many of its procedures are arcane, YES IT SUCKS!  It just happens to be better than the offerings from MS and Apple for my approach to computing and the tasks that I need to perform. Your milage may vary.

Is Microsoft Its Own Worse Enemy?

As regular readers know, I have a Linux home network. However, being a linux noob, I am scared to commit my data to linux. I recently replaced my OS X file server with an XP file server. To make the switch I had to re-format my mac external drives to windows NTFS. Basically I have two external drives (usb2/firewire combos), one has my data on it and one is for backups. I have about 150 GBs of critical data, so while my backup scheme is not foolproof–it is cost effective.

So I formatted and copied my data over, everything seemed to go fine…but when I mounted the partitions in Linux, I had problems. Permission problems.

Easy enough, from Windows, right click the share and choose properties/security, right? Nope! That only works in XP Pro, and I have home. A quick yahoo search showed that I needed to reboot in safe mode and the security tab would be available. And it was. And I solved the problem and happy computing returned.

So what’s the problem?

I’m sorry, but permissions are a pretty basic function, to make them virtually inaccessible is fairly inexcusable. Is Vista Home Premium going to be crippled in a similar fashion? Is the user going to be forced to buy Ultimate edition? I ask this because, of the 5 SKU’s that mainstream Vista is shipping, 2 are available only to businesses. For home users, there is home, home premium, and ultimate. Is the home user going to be forced to choose between paying hundreds of dollars for ultimate or using a crippled version that does not have the basic functionality that one expects from a computer?

The pundits like to speak of the possibility of MS becoming irrelevent…mostly due to web services. But I have a more basic view. It is my belief that MS is busy making itself irrelevent. From poorly implemented WGA to crippled software distribution, MS seems to be their own worse enemy. While Linux is close to being an alternative, it is not yet there. OS X, due to Apples’s business plan, will not grow to be a true competiter. The game is MS’s to lose, and they seem to be doing what they can to accomplish that. I have a firm belief that Vista will never achieve the market penetration that XP has. And the reason lies solidly at the feet of MS, for they are their own worse enemy.