Linux Usability

In December, I was finally introduced to the wonderful world of desktop Linux.

As someone who does technical support for some 20 users, manages 3 servers (1 Freebsd, 2 Windows 2000), and does a bit of web/database programming, I am used to troubleshooting computer problems. This is a good thing because your average Linux desktop has plenty of problems to troubleshoot.

What is not a good thing is that they are more usability problems than technical problems.

Here’s what I mean. My current laundry list of things to fix goes as follows:
1. Make my thumb drive work with Linux (this looks easy, I just haven’t had time)
2. Make my wacom tablet work with Linux (multi-step process, but at least I’ve bookmarked the necesary pages)
3. Make my sound card work (must learn more about ALSA, will probably have to recompile kernel or something. I dread this)
4. Mess around with the unholy trinity of apache/mysql/php a bit more (all of these work, but I’m still configuring certain details…)

Where is the usability problem in this list? Scattered throughout.

Mounting
All I it looks like I have to do is load a kernel module and mount the thumb drive for it to work. I will have to mount the thumb drive every time. Just like I do every time I put a cdrom in.

This irks me. The whole point of USB (at least to my mind) is that it’s a transparent technology. You plug it in and it works. Specifically typing “mount” very seldom offers me options that automatically mounting it wouldn’t. Ninety-nine percent of the time I only want to do one thing–access the drive.

Heck, the Amiga back in 1985 automatically detected a floppy placed into it’s drive. OS X, the BSD based Apple operating system does the same today. Why hasn’t someone done the same for Linux?

Kernel Modules
If people really want Linux to be a contender for the desktop market, they will have to either

1. come up with a very usable gui for kernel configuration,
2. enable the most commonly used modules by default, or
3. figure out some way for Linux to automatically add new modules when needed.

Possibly all three–though I’ve got to admit that option 3 makes me nervous. In any case, kernel configuration is not something that your average user needs or wants to know–but if they want to use all too many devices (some sound cards for example) they have no choice.

Documentation
Man pages suck. Other documentation is not much better. In the process of installing some things related to mysql and php, I was given the option of adding certain lines to the configuration files for apache/mysql/php. I was never told why I should or shouldn’t add those lines. In some cases, I already knew I needed them and happily allowed the installer to add them for me. I’m still tracking down the reason for or against adding certain lines.

The Funny Thing
Despite the annoying problems I’ve just outlined, GNOME/KDE do seem to have moved past the “usable only by geeks” stage. My wife (a social worker) can happily use the Linux box for almost everything she uses a computer for.

At least until she wants to put a cdrom in and listen to music.

One thought on “Linux Usability”

  1. For what it’s worth, most of these are about hardware, and easy hardware autoconfiguration is Debian’s single weakest point.

    Other distros might have been kinder to you about some of these things. I don’t know.

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