“if you make it easier to run <insert wish here> in Linux, people will switch in larger numbers”. Ow Boy, how often did I hear that? If I got a penny for every time I heard that, I could make Bill Gates brush my shoes and prepare my breakfast every morning.
It’s not a bad idea. It stems from good intentions. But let’s face it: it is supremely overrated. I would go even further: it is a losing strategy if we want to further Linux Desktop adoption.
Time to reconnect with reality. Many of us are Linux users for a long time. Most of us are technical as well. We are not in the best position to judge what kind of mental load is required for someone to even consider switching to a new OS.
What mental load am I talking about? Well, that load is made up of every little step that someone needs to know until they safely make it to a functional Linux Desktop environment.
Let’s take the case of a gamer switching from Windows to Linux. I say gamer, but the journey would be almost identical even if you remove gaming from the equation. Such a journey would require most of the following steps. Grab your coffee, you’ll need a few sips till the end.
- Be aware that Linux exists.
- Be aware that Linux can kind do most things that Windows does.
- Be aware that Steam actually works on Linux.
- Be aware that it’s possible to change the OS of one’s computer.
- Be sufficiently upset with Windows or MacOS to justify a change of OS in the first place.
- Know that Linux is just a brand name for multiple distributions out there using the same kernel.
- Know what distribution to select among multiple options out there.
- Get the right ISO image (32 bits vs 64 bits) to download.
- Know how to make a bootable medium out of an ISO image, in their respective OS.
- Know how to alter the BIOS settings to change the boot order.
- Know how to backup one’s data prior to switching, somewhere safe.
- When installing, know how to navigate properly thru the installer of one’s distribution of choice. This is getting easier every year, but there are still areas where we lack clear explanations for new users.
- Work with potential hardware incompatibilities. For desktop users, rarely an issue these days, but not every laptop out there works great with every Linux distribution. That’s a major constraint if a potential switcher finds out they have to purchase a new computer to run Linux properly.
- Once in the desktop environment, know how to install the software that one needs on a daily basis. They will initially have no clue how it works differently from Windows, and what is the right software to choose from. That’s where “app stores” and how they are designed to guide users can play a huge role.
- Know that in most distros you need to install additional/recent drivers and Vulkan libraries for proper GPU support, and find out how to do that. PopOS apparently helps a lot with such aspects, but that’s not the case of the vast majority of distributions right now. Ubuntu will require such additional manual steps, PPA setup, etc…
- Know how to deal with GPU switching in case they have a laptop with integrated+discrete GPU combo. For Nvidia it’s almost always been a pain, for AMD it’s apparently easier but there is still no GUI tool at the time of writing.
- Know how to update one’s system and drivers from time to time. GUI alerts help, but tend to be ignored by some users – some level of automation would be preferable at least for some new users. At least, giving users such a choice during the install process would be a good approach to consider.
- Install Steam. Easy nowadays in most distributions.
- Be aware that Steam Play/Proton exists on Linux and that one needs to activate it in Steam settings to be able to play Windows games without official Linux clients.
- Know that not all Windows games will work well with Proton and know where to find information about what works or not (protondb, etc…) and how to fix potential issues.
- Be patient and understanding in case some hot games right now cannot be played or things outside of Steam are not supported (Epic games store, etc…).
- Stay up to date with new compatibility information on a regular basis, in this ever-changing landscape.
- Know how to update one’s distribution every 1/2 years. You don’t want people to experience huge pains when doing that (losing data, breaking their user settings) and distributions like Ubuntu do not have a great track record, unfortunately. This is one key factor why rolling distros are getting a lot more love these days.
- Enjoy the games one can play for now (i.e. a growing subset of playable games on Windows). This is the end goal.
One very valid point: if some gamers already know from the get go they won’t be able to play Fortnite and exclusive games from different stores like the now famous Epic Bundlecord, they probably won’t even consider switching at all. To be fair it’s going to take a huge amount of efforts to get to a place where 99.9% of Windows games can pretty much work as is. Even if we get really close, new titles may not always work right at launch. For people who care about games more than food and sex in their existence, Linux will never be “good enough” in the foreseeable future. Does this mean game over? Bah! No.
Truth is, you can’t expect to capture everyone at the same time, if at all. When the Iphone came out it wasn’t your grandmother who got it first. It was your hipster neighbor with too much money and not enough brains. You have to set realistic expectations as to who you can “convert” in the first place. It’s going to be progressive. Not everyone is a hard core gamer with one Switch in the bag, a PS4 Pro under their TV and a VR headset connected to their GTX2080 box. That’s a rather rare animal, that you only encounter on Reddit.
Back to the list! Is anyone laughing yet? “Ridiculous!”. “LOL“. To be fair, everything is ridiculous and so damn obvious once you have been ingested the right information and got used to a given process. Just like a manual on how to ride a bicycle looks ludicrous when you mastered the gist of it. Ever seen people struggle with left and right click mouse buttons the first time they used a computer? Ever seen people who can’t grasp the concept of windows you can minimize while keeping them open? Nothing is obvious the first time you are faced with something you have never done.
In fact, most of these steps will represent significant hurdles for folks interested in switching. Not all of them are equal. Which one is the largest obstacle is a matter of discussion. But no matter how you look at it, when a process takes more than 10~15 steps, you will end up LOSING a lot of people on the way. Most users will run out of patience or willingness to learn. They will look at your tutorial to get there and go… “Meh. I mean thanks Dude, but I’ll probably try something else first. That seems like a lot of work.”
After all, they are used to having to do almost no work at all. On a new Windows computer their workflow looks like this:
- Install GPU drivers (go on AMD or Nvidia website, get .exe and run it)
- A reboot is probably in order.
- Install Steam and whatever other stores they like.
- Enjoy all games available for Windows. No restrictions.
it’s pretty clear that recommending someone who lives and breathes on Windows to switch is not going to work too well, even if they are really, really pissed up with Windows. And there are tons of reasons to be pissed up at Windows. Telemetry, radical changes of UI (Metro!), malware, lack of customization… but you know what?
People pissed up with Windows will not think about switching first. Instead, another path to the forbidden forest opens for them:
- Start by bitching about Windows online.
- Look for quick fixes in the Windows settings, as if it made any real difference.
- Install various useless software that’s supposed to fine-tune their install. Placebo effect for the most part.
- Ultimately give up and reinstall Windows.
- Worst case, change their PC hoping for the best on a new config.
I have seen first hand every single one of these behaviors. It’s quite fascinating.
This is what you are against before someone even considers a change of OS. Moving to a new OS is by far the most drastic, radical decision they could take. It’s not even on the table for a very long time. It’s the equivalent of burning your house to the ground and pissing on it before building a new one.
So what is the winning strategy to convert more people to Linux? Well, as much as possible, we should completely get away from a convoluted switching story, because it looks terrible for everyone else that is NOT US. Let’s keep it out there for the 0.1~1% willing to go that path (we all did after all…) but when it comes to a wider audience this is as effective as throwing a rock on a good old T-34 tank. They won’t even hear it.
We need to “sell” a complete product, not a path to crucifixion with the ultimate promise of salvation.
I strongly believe a proper path towards expansion will need consistent progress from both producers and users in equal parts from now on. Note that none of this is really new, but it looks like the-right-path™ out of the 1% jail time we all got:
- Provide more options of Pre-Installed Hardware. At all price ranges. In all major markets, not just the US. Yes, System76. Yes, Librem. We need more of them (at least the good ones), and as much as possible they should depart from generic looking devices. At all price ranges (emphasis).
- Spread the awareness of such options. Write reviews. Blog. Youtube. Provide feedback to companies that make them, so that design, hardware integration, power management keeps getting better. It will take years, but steady improvements will compound over time. There’s no reason not to start now. Did you write to them yet?
- UI Kaizen: In parallel, those who actively work on distros can keep on improving the user experience, reducing steps involved in everyday tasks, and looking at how other operating systems deal with complexity. Sometimes just observing how users work with your OS is good enough to find out typical flaws. Anyone involved in Linux gaming knows that there are still way too many manual steps. Let’s tackle them one by one.
I would also add a couple of ideas that may be worth exploring on top of that, or at least toy with:
- Make kids use Linux in school: there is absolutely no good rationale to favor a private product in a school setting (at least in public schools, private schools can do what they want) and Linux should be the obvious solution to teach computing in a neutral, non partisan way. Achieving this in more and more places will progressively bring new users to Linux year by year, probably faster than “recommending Windows users to switch” ever will. This is bottom-up approach, you can start working on this with your local schools, governments, institutions, computer clubs, etc… There is absolutely no barrier to start acting now to make a difference. Will it work? Who knows. Let’s try and share our stories.
- “Switching as a Service”: Even with the relatively small amount of people who are considering switching right now, there’s certainly a good percentage of them who have no interest whatsoever in wasting a good week of their time to find out every piece of information they need to migrate from one OS to another on their existing hardware. There’s certainly some kind of market for it. In the Windows world tons of companies make money “installing software for users“, “providing remote support” just to save people’s time. Every now and then I see someone mention “I made my grandmother/parents switch to Linux and they never complained about it“. That’s a very good point. They did all the hard work for their relatives, by provided a functional system that they can rely on. In other words, they provided a “computer with Linux pre-installed” using existing hardware. This has been proven to work to build long lasting users. Now, beyond relatives this has potential as well. Convenience is a major selling factor, in about every field.
Instead of pushing more faceless tutorials all over the interwebs on how to go thru the 15~20 more steps involved in getting a functional desktop that can be used for gaming (among other things), our time would be immensely better spent working on options that cut down the number of steps for new users to almost zero.
This is not something that we can change overnight. But we need to realize that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal. It’s time to focus on other approaches when whatever we have been doing for X years hardly showed any meaningful impact on the Desktop Linux market share.
I am optimistic. It can only go up.
And it’s in our power to make it go faster.
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