Some years ago Linux creator Linus Torvalds famously compared changing operating systems to “performing brain surgery on yourself”. I’ve quoted him often because so many people seem to have unrealistic expectations when they pick up a Linux DVD or CD-ROM. I’ve recently received a couple of e-mails in response to my articles here on O’Reillynet that illustrate Linus’ point beautifully and demonstrate part of the problem Linux has faced in gaining greater acceptance on the desktop. OK, one of the e-mails was addressed to Cathy, whoever that is, but since it came to my inbox I’ll assume it was meant for me. Here are some excerpts:
Linux isn’t Windows. There are no .dll or .inf files. Those are exclusively Microsoft concepts. Working with Linux (or FreeBSD or MacOS) is an exercise in dropping your ingrained Windows concepts and learning a different way of doing things. That’s precisely what Linus Torvalds meant by “performing brain surgery on yourself”, For some people that initial learning curve is just plain difficult. Nobody said this would be easy for everyone.
To answer the question: most drivers are kernel modules. Your hardware is detected at boot and appropriate modules are loaded into the kernel. You don’t need external drivers at all most of the time. A notable exception are printer drivers which are packaged separately and are not part of the kernel. All the major distributions have GUI printer configuration tools that let you choose your printer from a list and takes care of everything else pretty much automatically.
In the fairly unusual case where your hardware isn’t recognized properly there can be several reasons the problem occurs. For example, some unusual hardware modules may not have been included by a given Linux distributor by default. In other cases no Open Source module exists. There may be a proprietary driver but you’d have to check the hardware manufacturer’s website or CD-ROM just like Windows. The most common cause I’ve seen with new users is loading up a borrowed copy of an older release of a Linux distribution on newer hardware. A new kernel has all the latest drivers and an old one simply doesn’t. This is why I always advocate a newcomer runs a current distribution, not one that’s a year or two old.
You’ve actually raised three different points here. Let’s take them in reverse order.
You shouldn’t install or upgrade any operating system without doing a backup first, period. Even upgrading Windows is fraught with danger simply because there are so many possible hardware combinations that nobody, not even Microsoft, can test them all. If you’re not doing regular backups to protect that precious Windows data already you’re playing with fire for no good reason. Hard drives fail, data becomes corrupted, and that can happen in any operating system.
I just bought a 10 pack of blank DVDs at the supermarket for $4.99. DVD burners, if your system doesn’t have one, are in the two digit price range. There’s plenty of inexpensive Windows software out there to image your entire system and preserve your family’s Windows environment.
Having said all that, most major Linux distributions are designed to install side by side with Windows and do a very good job of it most of the time. You should have no problem with a current copy of Mandriva, openSUSE, Fedora Core, or Ubuntu. Make a backup anyway just to play it safe.
Your middle point, “nobody else uses Linux”, is just plain silly. Every report I’ve seen over the last couple of years puts Linux’ share of the desktop at somewhere between four and six percent. That, my friend, is tens of millions of people. That’s hardly nobody. Maybe none of your friends or family use Linux. I’ll accept that, which brings me to your first point.
Linux, and the Free and Open Source Software movements in general, rely on a community support model. Yes, that means that to get help you plug yourself into that community and that means asking a stranger for help. Those strangers often expect you to ask and are downright welcoming. It’s amazing how, for the most part, the F/OSS community has remained so welcoming despite growing so large. Once again, you need to think of things in a new and different way than you would as a Windows user and that includes how you ask for help. If you aren’t comfortable doing that Linux just plain isn’t for you.
Don’t knock community support until you’ve tried it. I used to hang out on the LinuxChix Techtalk list and I can tell you for certain that within that list there are no stupid questions and everyone is answered with patience and courtesy. Oh, and despite being LinuxChix they really don’t care what your gender is on TechTalk. They just want to help. I’ve also answered a question or two on the Vectorbie (Vector Linux newbie) Questions forum and found it without exception to be equally friendly and helpful. Not fast enough? LinuxChix has IRC channels as well. There are just two examples of a wide range of available help. If you don’t avail yourself of that help don’t blame Linux. Blame yourself.
Actually, it’s perfectly simple to save your data. Once again, did you ask the community for help? If you want to figure out everything for yourself then I can’t help you, can I? If you had only used Linux or MacOS and were trying to learn Windows you’d be running into similar issues. I’ve seen it. It’s not Linux that’s the problem. It’s your own stubbornness and independence during what is admittedly a fairly steep learning curve for some people.
Once again Linus Torvalds’ words about “performing brain surgery on yourself” are very apt to your situation. My experience is that people who first try Linux absolutely hate it. If they stick with it for six months they can’t figure out how they ever made do with Windows. Once you’re past the learning curve the advantages of Linux become pretty darned obvious.
Some months back my mother came to visit me in Wisconsin. She is a grandmother in her late sixties, a retired professor of French, and though she is extremely intelligent and well educated she has never exactly been tech savvy. It took her quite a while to learn how to program a VCR. She is also a Windows user with only a small amount of exposure to Linux. She got up earlier than I did one morning, turned on my computer, logged in to Xubuntu Dapper, and proceeded to check her e-mail, read news on the web, and look through a PowerPoint presentation a cousin in Israel had sent using OpenOffice, all with no problems and without asking a single question. Linux passed the grandma test. I have to believe that anyone who makes an effort and doesn’t come in with preconceived notions can run a Linux desktop.
What little shell? Like it or not I’ve had to support Windows throughout my professional career. As long as Windows is dominant on the desktop I will at least have to help my customers deal with interoperability between Linux or UNIX and Windows. That means I have to stay up on Windows technology and retain a fairly high level of expertise with it. I’ve used every version of Windows since 1.04 back in 1985. Sorry but you are the one making a false assumption about what I use and don’t use.
I certainly have never called Windows users “idiots” or implied anything of the sort. What I do say is that you don’t know what you are missing and, in your case, you haven’t done what is necessary to give anything else a chance. Most things which are truly worthwhile don’t came easily.