Fighting the "legacy" reputations of GNU/Linux, seventeen years later

Fighting the "legacy" reputations of GNU/Linux, seventeen years later

Regular readers of this column will know that I'm a fan of education and positive experience as an advocacy tool in place of shouting from rooftops. Winning the mindset of an average computer user -- particularly home users -- is never going to be a quick process but a recent experience showed me we still have some old and familiar hills to climb. How do we combat legacy reputations of GNU/Linux that are no longer valid?

Average users

A friend of mine has been using GNU/Linux -- Debian to be precise -- for about three years. Prior to that he had used Windows for several years. It was his choice to switch, but I helped him do it. He's taken to Debian with great gusto; in fact, he's often mentioned how much easier he finds his computer to use when he's using it. He has a "just in case" dual-boot set up with Windows XP but he rarely uses it because he finds it "slow" and "less intuitive". He'll ask me for advice on software choice because he's keen not to have to go back to Windows at all. He's by no means an expert but he's also no longer a beginner. He's quite happy to engage with the shell if required but prefers not to. I support him when called upon but rarely have to. He is analogous to a car driver who is confident in changing a lamp bulb. Sounds like an ideal conversion story doesn't it? And it probably is - yet even with him there are parts of the "reputation" of GNU/Linux that keep resurfacing.

He's had an ongoing issue with his printer: a classic case of a single flashing light which could mean a million things. He's browsed help sites and read PDF manuals and followed help guides with no success. Assuming the printer was dead his son-in-law donated a slightly newer one. It worked for a while but then developed a slightly similar fault. He went through the same process again with similar results. At this point he figured the common point must be his computer so he removed and reinstalled both printers in Debian (wizards make life so much easier for some people you know). Still no joy. Neither printer was playing nicely any longer. At this stage he called me.

Just for your information: the problem with the first printer was age: it had just plain worn out. The second printer had been sitting idle for about a year and the ink well had developed a dry blob which would refused to shift. Both printers incorrectly reported that there was an error with the ink cartridge. After spending several hours on them I came to the conclusion that he would have to buy a new printer. This was fine with him and I was about to leave when he said something which considering his GNU/Linux enthusiasm surprised me. He said "I thought it was me going mad, I tried everything -- I even tried them both from Windows 'cos it would probably work from there".

Legacy reputations

So there it was, a reasonably seasoned GNU/Linux user who had experienced great success with it, fell back to the old, old reputation that it's harder to get peripherals working with GNU/Linux than Windows. If you read back through my description above you'll note he had successfully installed both printers and then un-installed and reinstalled them later. Those procedures had "just worked" -- but the printers hadn't -- yet he still thought that perhaps using them from Windows would fix it. As it happened just installing the second one in Windows had been a pain -- he had no driver CD you see.

What bothers me is that someone who has had so much success with GNU/Linux can still believe that Windows would automatically succeed where GNU/Linux hadn't

I don't blame him for his assumption. I've had plenty of cases where printer manufacturers were doing special -- undocumented -- things with the Windows drivers. It's also fairly unfortunate to have two printers experience very similar problems one after the other so his assumption that it might be the PC was a pretty good guess. But what bothers me is that someone who has had so much success with GNU/Linux can still believe that Windows would automatically succeed where GNU/Linux hadn't.

I suppose I'll get some comments saying that peripherals don't "just work" in GNU/Linux but that's not my experience -- nor that of my friend. The truth is I've not had an issue installing a printer under GNU/Linux for years and I know of nobody who has. I know of a lot -- a lot -- of people who have installed and use GNU/Linux successfully. They take part in the community and by-and-large they are enjoying their computer experience again. Yet despite this the -- now largely false -- reputations that GNU/Linux is harder to use, more long-winded, only for experts and feature-poor still endure. In the battle to get people to accept free software in general and GNU/Linux in particular, this -- 17 years after Linus Torvalds' usenet post -- is what we are still fighting.

Fixing it

So how do we combat these legacy reputations? Here's what I did: reassuring him that assuming the PC was at fault was a pretty good guess I then asked him why he thought it might have worked in Windows. When he said "well sometimes things just work in that don't they", I reminded him of the trouble he'd had installing the second printer in Windows, and of the time his old-ish digital camera refused to work in Windows because the driver thought XP-SP2 was not the same as "XP or higher". When I asked him if he'd had any difficulty using the camera or printers in Debian before now he got my point -- I hope. His experience told him something different to any reputation he had heard.

Sometimes the only way to combat an old reputation (especially ones that weren't entirely true to start with) is with some -- positive -- experience of the reality. If these legacy reputations of GNU/Linux are going to die, if we are going to change people's minds, then we need to do it by helping people to install it themselves -- not always do it for them. We need to do it by walking them through solutions, not just pointing them to a how-to page and we need to listen to their views and correct them where required -- gently.



Terry Hancock's picture

So long as hardware manufacturers test their equipment with Windows (and not with GNU/Linux) before shipping, there's going to be a grain of truth in this "myth".

Most equipment won't ever see the store shelves if it doesn't work with Windows, whereas Linux-compatibility is rarely seen as even a selling point worth mentioning on the box, much less a requirement.

Printer support is one of the nastier areas. The old lpr/lprng configurations are both finicky and arcane, and the new CUPS approach is confusingly implemented to say the least. For example, I have exactly one printer on my LAN, but CUPS thinks I have about four: all different reflections of the same printer.

It "works", so I haven't tried to "fix" it, but things do get weird whenever a print job fails, and I can't figure out which queue it's in. I usually just try rebooting things: the printer, the print server, my own computer. I know it's lame, but it does work, and it's less trouble than figuring out what the real problem was.

I find myself missing my old lprng configuration: it was a major pain to set up, but once it worked, it worked. OTOH, there's no question that CUPS is the way ahead -- there's much better support for newer printers with it, and it is easier to set up.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

As I've mentioned in this column before there's also a case where those manufacturers who do test their kit with GNU/Linux don't say so (HP Printers anyone?).

Whilst it is true that some hardware is more difficult to setup in GNU/Linux than in Windows -- it's also very true that Windows has plenty of hardware issues of it's own. Printers are one of the cases where I've had less issues with GNU/Linux - mostly by choosing GNU/Linux supporting manufacturers (HPLIP is excellent).

Some time back I supported a friend who's son bought him a Vista laptop. We had a nightmare trying to get an external USB audio capture/output device working (he's a music teacher so this is much more than an iPod). The drivers on the CD were for XP and didn't work. Vista drivers were available on their website but required significant tweaking (uninstall old drivers, remove other hardware before installing this etc.) of Vista itself before they would work. Four hours it took me to get that working. Between the hardware manufacturer and Microsoft it was a complete mess. By chance I had my Debian laptop with me and attached the device to it. Debian detected it, loaded the driver and within minutes I was using it on Audacity.

Terry Hancock's picture

Yeah, I had a great experience with a "midisport" (it's a USB MIDI interface). Before I bought it, I did some searches online to see if there were drivers for Linux available and/or whether it would work.

I did find them, but I attached the device to the computer first. And voila... it was totally plug-and-play. I was using it in Rosegarden in about five minutes (most of which was trying to figure out Rosegarden's interface -- I'm not a musician and I hadn't used it before. This was for my son, who is a musician).

Apparently I didn't need anything beyond what was already installed. I haven't tried to look into the magic that made that happen, so I don't really know how difficult it was, but I do know it was a great relief.

There's a lot of stuff that "just works".

dfosmire's picture
Submitted by dfosmire on

Manufacturers shy away from admitting support for GNU/Linux.
I have a Brother MFC665CW printer. There was no hint of linux support until you get to the support/downloads part of their website. There is a mention of linux which if looked into shows that they do indeed support it. They have GPL drivers for printing and scanning, haven't tried faxing. APT and RPM, both with install instructions.
Not that it is perfect, can't get its IP address over wireless with DHCP and it hangs up every 2/3 weeks as if it were running wi......
You would think the support would be mentioned in the product documentation, bit no. There should also be plently of room on the CD for the drivers - don't need the autostart to find them.
And who made the decision that windows was ready for the workplace desktop? A case of the clueless leading sheep?

alandmoore's picture
Submitted by alandmoore on

I recently had a printer come through the office -- I'm pretty sure it was HP, but it could've been another brand -- and right next to the Windows logo and the half-chawed Apple sat a happy little penguin we all know. That's a good sign. Some folks are waking up and advertising Linux compatibility.

That's why it's good we're seeing things like Dell and Asus making Linux-preinstalled machines. It means the Linux users out there are no longer people building things from scratch or voiding their warranties -- Linux users are regular people buying off-the-shelf products, and therefore indicating support for them is a selling point. It will eventually come to that.

I think that will help the broader issue as well. From a consumer point of view, you can *expect* that a manufacturer will support Windows in its prevailing versions. If they don't they won't sell products. We can't *expect* them to support Linux. We can demand that they do, but we're not going to put them out of business just yet.

It'll come, in time.

Siddly's picture
Submitted by Siddly on

Quite a few years ago a colleague said that he would walk into the office and see someone totally engrossed and looking the model of productivity, then as he neared the person, he'd hear comments such as "I thought I had saved that", "I'll reboot", "I've lost an hour's work", etc. Yet such guys/gals would extol the virtues of Windows and tell how they have no problems with Windows, then in a moment, a transformation takes place where they would relate a number of problems they have had working with the same Windows.
Sometimes the perception of Linux is such that all problems are attributed to it - it's the way minds work. My own daughter who had been using Linux for a few years, came across a problem where she didn't know how to delete some files and requested Windows be reinstalled on her machine - easily fixed with a simple example. The latest encounter she had with a new laptop and Vista, the same printer she had plugged in to the Linux PC and just worked required much wading through CD's to find the driver. The laptop came with OpenOffice installed and she had a .doc form that needed filling in, but Vista said there was nothing available to open it with, so OOo on Linux came to the rescue.
You will always see that people are quite prepared to put up with all kinds of ills in Windows, but run for the cover of Windows at the first sign of the slightest perceived problem on Linux, though I have a relation over 80 years old who got introduced to a PC 2 years ago not even knowing what the keyboard keys were or did, but uses Linux for all sorts of stuff - photo processing, word processing, burning CD's and DVD's, spreadsheets (had a Windows course for seniors after he got the the PC and I immediately installed Linux on it), IM, surfing the net, email and lots more, many things he discovered by himself. Not only that, his youngest daughter uses the Linux PC with her own account set up, for her college work having discarded use of her XP laptop which slowed right down perhaps with malware, spyware, viruses and the like.
It's taken a while for it to get through, but I now don't get calls asking what to do with the CD's that come with new hardware he buys. In the years since he's been using Linux, I've only had on problem to fix - he kept having problems with audio on skype and I had to play with settings to get it to work, eventually the on-board audio simply died, we ordered a new PCI card, I installed it and he set up the mixer. One happy Linux novice user out there and if he can do it at his age, most people should be capable also - Nice thing is he never refers back to Windows - when I renamed the icon to "Mail" on the desktop hoping to make it easy for him, he has never once referred to it as anything but "thunderbird" - my underestimation showing there.
Linux used for all computing tasks

Author information

Ryan Cartwright's picture


Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and