Getting users to try Linux is only half the battle. The other half is showing them what they can achieve when using it. Linux Made Easy by Rickford Grant uses a task based approach to show how you can use Linux to perform your daily tasks; email, browsing, letter writing, even scanning and printing are covered in detail. I spoke to Rickford Grant about the book, why he chose Xandros and how the look and feel of the computing environment are more important to acceptance than the name on the box.
The book highlights how easy it is to do your everyday tasks – email, writing letters, scanning documents – using Linux. How key do you think this is to the wider adoption of Linux? I can’t help but think that it is extremely important. Until now, the image of Linux has been of a system for people on the geekier side of the compu-user spectrum, and I’d say the majority of books out there on the subject bear this out with their focus on networks, commands, and so on.One of the reasons I wrote my first book, ‘Linux for Non-Geeks,’ and now ‘Linux Made Easy,’ was that most of the Linux books out there are so focused on that more geekish facet of Linux that it was hard to imagine a mere mortal having any reason to use Linux, let alone being able to do so. They certainly had that effect on me when I first got started.As it stands now, the people who use Linux for its usefulness in specific applications, or who are in fact geeks, are, for the most part, already in the Linux fray. That being the case, if you are talking abut expanding the user base, then you are talking about business folks and your typical average Windows or Mac home users. If you want to attract those people, especially the latter group, then it is going to have to be clear to them that Linux is just as point-and-click sweet as whichever system it is they are considering abandoning in its favor.This is where I see books, such as mine, focusing on those ‘everyday tasks’ you mention, as being of great benefit in expanding the Linux user base, or at least that segment of it.Why Xandros? Are any of the other distributions you would recommend? I picked Xandros because it seemed so very simple to deal with from installation of the system itself to installing additional applications. If someone wanted to keep their Windows system and create a dual boot setup, that was easy too. It also seems to handle odd hardware configurations pretty well.Of course, there are some other good distros out there, but each of them has a limitation or two that I see as potentially problematic for a true newbie who, while interested in getting out of the Windows world, is not particularly interested enough in Linux per se to start geeking around in order to use it. Fedora Core and Mandrake/Mandriva, for example, are fine distros in their own right, but they have a few points that the target audience for my book might not care to bother with.I hear good things about Ubuntu too, but I haven’t tried it myself yet, and I am sure that the non-graphical installer I hear it has will scare some folks away. After all, one of the big shocks to Windows users the first time they actually install Windows themselves (since most people get it pre-installed when the buy their computers) is that the installation process isn’t a completely graphical experience, nor is it an exceptionally easy one. I’d actually go so far as to say that most of the good Linux installers are far easier to deal with than that for Windows, and I have to say that the Xandros installer is about as easy as they come.Do you think the wide range of distributions is a limitation of wider adoption, because it confuses new users, or they make the wrong decision and get scared off? It’s hard to say, as it can actually work both ways. I know when I started out with Linux, I tried a few distros without any success. That acted to turn me off the idea of trying any further – for a while, anyway.Part of the problem might just have been in the timing, in that Linux was not really all that non-geek friendly in the old days. After some time, when I finally did get my first distro up and running off one of those live CDs (Knoppix was the one, to be exact), I was then delighted that there were so many other varieties out there for me to move on to. I could just keep plugging away until I found one or two that I thought did the trick for me – sort of looking for the perfect pair of shoes for a person with big feet (size 13, if you’re interested).The fact that there are so many distros out there allows users to escape the one-size-fits-all world that exists for other operating systems. Users can pick a distro that fits their needs best according to whatever criteria they may have. Of course, not everyone is interested in going through that diddle-and-dump process, which could be viewed as a negative. Fortunately, however, these days there are a lot of distros available that are pretty easy to deal with and can thus be recommended to those with less of an experimental bent.Where do you think CD solutions, such as Knoppix fit into the role of encouraging more Linux users? Well, as I just mentioned, Knoppix certainly did the trick for me. Unfortunately, not all of these CD solutions are created equal, and I had quite a few that refused to cooperate. They also run a bit slower than the real thing, and that can act to turn some folks off no matter how many times you tell them that it’s slow because it’s being run from CD. First impressions and all, you know.Still, I think that the pros win out over the cons in terms of turning people on to Linux, as these live-CD distros allow people to get a feel for how normal and absolutely graphical Linux is without their having to fear ruining their Windows system – a sort of safe-and-sane way to give it all a try.There’s been a lot of discussion about the usability of Linux on the desktop in comparison to Windows. Do you feel that the major hurdles to making Linux easier to use have been overcome? I really do think so. I don’t see how Linux is any more difficult than Windows in terms of typical home or office tasks. In fact, in many ways, especially in terms of settings and such, I think it is definitely easier. Same with the actual installation process with most distros. Oh, but I’ve already mentioned that.Are there any gaps in the Linux sphere for desktop users? For example, does Linux work as an effective replacement for mobile as well as desktop users?There are a few gaps, but for the most part, they don’t have a major effect on most users. One of these gaps, of course, would be a lack of easy support for certain MS specific formats, such as streaming media designed for Windows Media Player. Users cannot, for example, go to MSNBC, click one of the video links there, and watch it. At least, they can’t do it without some tinkering.There is also the problem of peripherals. Linux has to play a game of catch up when it comes to drivers for new devices, and thus it takes a while before support for such devices makes it to Linux. While this isn’t a problem for most people, it can be for those folks who like to go to the computer store, buy whatever odd device they happen to see on the shelf, and then use it. Users have to be a bit more concerned with hardware support than they do with Windows. Mac users might be a bit more familiar with the problem.There is also the desire by the entities behind many distros to keep things as Open Source as possible, and to avoid any possible licensing violations, which is all quite reasonable. Unfortunately, the reason for all this is lost on end users. All they can see is that things such as MP3 support and encrypted DVD playback support are lacking in many distros, which can act as a turn off for some.One of the key points about the book for me was that you spend all but one of the chapters working in KDE
and GUI apps, rather than dropping to the ‘complex’ command line. Was this a key target of the book – showing just how use friendly Linux could be at all levels? Yes. Those moving into Linux from Windows or Mac OS… or complete compu-newbies, for that matter, are sure to see commands as offputting and archaic. In fact, I was considering excluding that chapter altogether, but then I figured it had its uses in regard to JAVA apps and installing support for encrypted DVDs. Commands also give some folks the feeling that they are really ‘using’ a computer. Other than that, however, there isn’t really much call to resort to the command line, at least not in Xandros – or at least for the targeted audience of the book.I have nothing against using commands personally, but they can really act to scare newbies away. And, after all, if you don’t really need them, why bother. That said, I thought it best to keep my discussion of the command line limited and to keep it last.I get the feeling that you were scratching a particular itch with this book. Did you have a specific person in mind when writing it? Yes, my long-time friend Steve in Los Angeles. He read my first book, was definitely interested, but ultimately not all that interested in going through the motions required to set up his own Linux system. I realized that while Linux for Non-Geeks was really a book for people interested in getting into Linux easily, there were still others who didn’t care all that much about Linux per se, and instead just wanted a really easy way out of the costlier Windows world. Xandros struck me as an ideal candidate for such people, and thus that is the audience towards whom I targeted Linux Made Easy.I also tried to address some of his specific concerns, as well as others voiced in Amazon.com reader reviews and other such venues for my first book. The result is more coverage of how to do things with the various applications available in Xandros (and most other distros, for that matter).It also seemed that a lot of people, once they have all these great pieces of software on their machine, have no idea of what they might use them for. I thus included some projects that readers can work through, which, in addition to showing them how to use the various apps, also serve to give people some idea of what they might consider doing with them. OpenOffice Draw is a good example. Lot’s of people can’t see any particular need for it, but I try to show them how to use it as a simple page layout application. I also try to provide greater coverage on how to deal with the more common varieties of peripheral devices.Linux Made Easy strikes me as the sort of book that IT pros should keep on a shelf for distribution at will to users asking ‘do you think I should switch to Linux?’ Is that an example of where you’d like to see the book being used? Well, as the author of the book, I’d like to see it on every shelf from Scunthorpe to Singapore, but, yes, that would be a good example of where it would be very useful. A pro could just hand it to an interested party to let them see that Linux needn’t be some mysterious freakish system out of the reach of the common man. I think it would work well as a text for workshops and the like too. And of course, I would hope that it would be something that would appeal to someone browsing the shelves at the bookstore.Are you an exclusive Linux user? Yes – well, almost. I do have one machine set up as a Windows/Linux dual-booter. I use the Windows side of that for basically two things: 1. to check things I need to refer to when writing these Linux how-to books, and 2. to play my favorite game – the Austrian card game, Schnapsen, which has yet to be ported over to Linux. I’m still crossing my fingers on that one.Anything else emanating from your keyboard that we should know about? I have all sorts of projects started, but I’m not sure which I will follow through with straight off. I suppose it depends on what publishers are willing to print. I am currently working on a newbie-friendly command book and thinking of an update to Linux for Non-Geeks, to name a couple of things. It’s hard to say what those will actually end up as though, in that things sometimes morph into totally different end products. I am also always working on a Japan experience book, but that is another ball of wax altogether.Do you have a favourite author?Wolfgang Hildesheimer has been a long-time fave, but then I suppose you’re talking about computer book authors, aren’t you? In terms of computer books, I don’t have a particular author that I would call a fave, but there are a lot of books that I think are rather good. As far as Linux books go, I think ‘Linux in a Nutshell’ and ‘How Linux Works’ are well worth having, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them for newbies.Author BioRickford Grant, author of Linux for Non-Geeks, has been a computer operating system maniac for more than 20 years, from his early days with an Atari XL600 to his current Linux machines. Grant spent the past seven years as an Associate Professor at Toyama University of International Studies in Japan before relocating to Wilmington, North Carolina