Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Introducing Windows users to Linux

Like many current Linux users, I once used Windows exclusively. Luckily, I learnt that there are alternatives that are just as good, if not better. When I started using Linux, I was constantly surprised as I unfolded its many impressive features. I quickly became a Linux enthusiast, passionately presenting it to friends and family. Unfortunately, I learnt the hard way that there are many things that can get in the way of a smooth transition, resulting in frustration and eventual rejection by the potential new user. I would like to share some of my thoughts and experiences here, so that anybody reading can avoid them.

To begin with, I would like to share a simple thought that is somehow linked to most issues I have found:

When one is excited about Linux and wants to let others experience it, it's easy to miss details that may seem unimportant at first sight, but may end up being critical for the end user. Always put his/her interests and needs first.


The first and most important question. Will the end user really benefit from moving to Linux? Yes, it is virus free, better performing in general, boots quicker, etc. That's all very nice, but will the user appreciate that? Even more importantly, will s/he even care when comparing that to the learning curve required to get to grips with the new operating system?

For the average Linux enthusiast it is very difficult to understand that the many benefits of his/her favorite OS will go unnoticed, but believe me, some people couldn't care less. If on top of that there is risk that certain applications/features may be lost in the process, I would recommend leaving that person alone with his/her current setup.

As an example, I remember when I tried to get a friend of mine to use Linux. We eventually found that her iPod settings were not fully supported. She could manage her music library, but lost her playlists. I tried several things to workaround the problem, but she got increasingly frustrated and eventually asked me to install Windows back. That was a clear case of a user who was not interested in computers, using a minimal set of features. The benefits coming from Linux were clearly outweighted by the challenges related to its adoption, which eventually resulted in rejection.

While I didn't back then, I now realise I should have never tried to get such user to migrate to Linux in the first place.


Sometimes users that don't have computer skills may be intimidated by even the slightest change. The Linux complicated reputation, if they know about it, doesn't necessarily help either. As a result, those users are often unconfortable with the idea of migrating to a new OS, which will set them in the perfect position to reject the idea. The best way to aproach it with this type of users (actually, with any kind of users) is by selling the idea and having the user buy it, as opposed to imposing it just because "we know better".

In my experience, the best way to get users to like Linux is by letting them experience it. Leave their computer alone and bring yours along or have them visit your place. Have them sit in front of your machine and let them experience the many features you love. As far as I have seen, a guided tour is by far the most powerful way of getting users excited about Linux. Bring to their attention details that they may appreciate but not necessarily pay attention to. Here are some ideas:

- Fast bootup and shutdown times.
- Great overall performance
- Fast Internet browsing partially resulting from the lack of antivirus software
- Desktop effects and animations.
- Open source applications are similar to their Windows counterparts and easy to use

The idea is to get the users excited and wanting to give Linux a chance. A willing user is key, because that is the only thing that will keep a positive attitude when challenges appear, and believe me, they will. In fact, it is also critical to try to explain some of those challenges before hand. Here are some examples:

- Limited hardware support.
- Limited support for applications and games designed for Windows.
- Some very specific Windows applications may not have an open source counterpart.

Like I said before, it is important that the user gets excited about using Linux, but it is also important that s/he holds the right expectations.


They say an image is worth a thousand words, and sometimes looks are the best presentation card for Linux. The extreme customization available makes it easy for a Linux desktop to become a piece of eye candy. Unfortunately, most distros don't really focus on getting their default profiles to be eye catching, so a bit of help on this department is surely welcome.

With just a few tweaks you can make the default profile of a new installation look very appealing, which should get the user's attention straight away. In fact, if you have the time, I would encourage teaching a few simple visual tweaks, such as changing the wallpaper, setting up a new icon theme, etc.


One of the most sensible parts of migrating a user is the transfer of his/her data. Depending on the user profile, this may be a huge task or a piece of cake. Regardless of its complexity, make sure you get it right, or else the rest of the process will pretty much mean nothing.

In my opinion, the best way to go about it is by avoiding drastic changes. A step by step approach usually works out best in the long run. In other words, start with non intrusive approaches that will let the user keep his/her setup intact. Using Wubi to provide a safe dual installation or installing Linux on an inexpensive USB drive, there are many ways to let users taste it without compromising their current installation. In addition, users can pace their adaptation by using Linux when they please.

When facing the eventual full migration, in case it is required, be sure to understand everything the user needs. In fact, I would encourage to backup the full user profile, which would obviously include personal documents, everything under the desktop folder, etc. In addition, be sure to understand external devices such as media players, cameras, etc., as well as their settings on the computer.


A wise man once said: "Sh*t happens", and he was spot on, so you better be prepared to roll up your sleeve and do some troubleshooting. Users will quickly think Linux is not worth it if not even the "expert" that is introducing them to it can work around problems.

Just knowing a bit about the user's Windows instance should already provide good hints on the areas that could present problems. As always, booting from a liveCD is more than recommendable and should highlight areas of potential risk.

If possible, do a bit of reasearch before the migration takes place. For example, if the user owns a specific photo camera model, it is often simple to find if such model is supported in Linux, as well as maybe how to work around problems that may be specific to it.

It is usually the case that many troubleshooting tips are intensive on the terminal. It is also true that many of those tips can be carried out using GUI applications and wizards. This approach may be a bit boring for experts, but will surely be less intimidating for the person that is being introduced to Linux, so I would recommend using it.


Being passionate about Linux should not get in the way of accepting its shortcomings or potential errors in the migration process. Blaming any problems on the lack of experience of the end user is the most common excuse, but it should really be the last one.

Being humble, critical about Linux's weaknesses and your own is always better than being arrogant and self complacent. In fact, such approach will surely make the user more confortable and understanding, more willing to stick with Linux even if not everything goes absolutely perfect right off the bat.

On a different note, as the introducer, get the most out of the experience, because there will surely be things you can learn from. Make sure you understand what to repeat and what to avoid when facing similar situations.


Linux is all about its community. Therefore, it is always good news when new users join and start adding their two cents. Donations, translations, help in bug fixing, documenting, coding... You name it, it's all needed and welcome.

Bringing new users onboard and becoming a Linux "evangelist" is clearly an important thing, but it is even more important to do a good job at it. One happy user will maybe bring another one, but frustrated users make lots of negative noise, effectively defeating the purpose of trying to bring them in in the first place. By carefully managing the migration process, we will dramatically increase chances of bringing users in and keeping them in, which is the mission objective, after all.

Hope this helps and thanks for reading!


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  2. Chema, I have to say that I REALLY enjoyed this article. The only counter comment that I can make is that in my opinion one should never become a Linux evangelist, but it took me a lot of years being a Linux evangelist to learn that lesson. ;D

  3. Thanks!

    @FEWT: Glad that you enjoyed reading it!

    I think I know where you are going with that "one should never become a Linux evangelist", but for the benefit of everybody, can you elaborate and explain what kind of experiences led you to that conclusion?


  4. @Chema: Its just that I have (or had) convinced / converted a lot of people to try out Linux and in nearly every single case those users are now back on Windows for their desktops. There are a multitude of reasons why, bad drivers; unstable software; compatibility problems; upgrades trashing machines and on and on and on. Also, there is a huge amount of responsibility that comes with converting users, if you convert them they can't just pick up their machine and take it to the local PC repair shop. This means that you the person that converted them are on the hook to support them. You can't just tell them to go look in forums and file bug reports either, users don't want or care for any of that and it will just frustrate them, and ultimately it will frustrate you too because you sold them on the idea that it would work and when it doesn't it hurts your credibility.

    Over the years I have just learned that it is absolutely irresponsible to talk people into converting to Linux that otherwise wouldn't care. These folks just want to use their computers, so I say to just let them use their computers the way that works for them. :D

  5. The easiest way to move someone to GNU/Linux is to let Windows do its thing and stop being an inhouse Windows technician. It does not take long for any Windows machine to become an unusable pile of malware. Stop fixing it. Let your friends get a good look at big bills for trivial stuff at Big Box stores. Right now, XP users are faced with some very uncomfortable computing. It's obviously ugly, breaks quickly and Microsoft is doing everything it can to kill it. Worse for the user, Vista/Windows 7 is an even more radical interface change than a move to GNU/Linux. It is funny that you mention iTunes as a barrier because that is often broken on Vista and Windows 7. Microsoft's technical sabotage and upgrade treadmill is tiresome to everyone. Face it, the reason you moved to GNU/Linux yourself is because it requires less effort for what you get. If you just let Windows fail and quit fixing it, your friends will move to GNU/Linux with you. The time you save can be more productively spent learning how to make things work for you, like iTunes/iPod work with GNU/Linux. Just say, "I don't do Windows," and start enjoying life!

    You are right to be honest about shortcomings but you need to keep them in perspective. There are good replacements for iTunes like Amarok and Rhythmbox. These might not work with iPod and there's not much to be done about that. It sucks that Apple made such a hostile piece of hardware. You can replace Apple's firmware with Rockbox on some iPod models but it is probably better to just give up on Apple because the gadget is such a trivial thing. Perspective is quickly gained when your friend's Windows computer crashes and burns again and they have to take it to a store to get it fixed.

  6. @FEWT: Thanks for that, I agree with most of it. I think one needs to be careful before talking anybody into using Linux. I have learnt that it usually works pretty well with people that have a technical interest (even if they are not experts), because they can appreciate the freedom and flexibility inherent to Linux, while quickly picking up the few tricks required to do standard desktop tasks. Users that don't care about computers are better off within a very controlled environment, such as Windows or Mac.

    All in all, my experience is not that negative so far, but only because I learnt to appreciate the people who could enjoy Linux and get something out of it.

    @anonymous: I think that it is not smart to disguise Windows XP or Windows 7 as unstable products, mainly because it is simply false and hurts the Linux community credibility. We should respect other products out there and strive to improve until we get to where they are on every level.

    You say "the gadget is such a trivial thing", and that is exactly what I talk about in my article, the kind of stuff that comes from you, not the end user. For some people, their shiny iPod is all that matters, and for them, Windows or Mac is the right way to go.

    On the other hand, there is one thing that is 100% clear to me: There is a certain user profile that maybe does not fit in the Linux scheme yet, but just 5 years ago that profile was a lot broader. In other words, the Linux desktop evolution is undeniable, and as it gets better and better, there will be less and less reasons to stick to something else. That's the sweet part and the main reason why I keep speaking the word!

  7. First used Linux with PCLinuxOS2007 which just worked out of the box (back in those days wifi was still hit and miss) and after changing all our computers to Linux have managed in the past 2 years to also add more than a dozen family members: parents, inlaws, aunts, etc to the Linux family. The reasons were quite simple: my free tech support to family was taking too much of my time, most of it malware related.
    I did the convincing hands on when i bought a 2nd hand laptop and let people try it.
    Whenever they would call me for help, I would lend them the laptop and install all their thingw like own bookmarks (through Foxmarks)and Gmail/Yahoo notifications, IM contacts and Skype as well to make it feel like theirs.

    Most of them were all using FF3, openoffice, VLC on windows, so switching them to Linux wasnt a big shock to most. Skype was also available and whether you used ICQ, yahoo, MSN or othters, Kopete wasnt hard to figure (a big plus was it was the only Linux IM that had working video for Yahoo IM) and Amarok wasnt far off from Winamp.
    I think this familiarity with free software on the Windows side made the switch easier.
    Oh yeah, the ones who still used POP3 email were weened off Outlook and on to Thunderbird a long time ago and they to went on as usual.

    My dad asked me a few months after he switched why we hadnt done this sooner. (I kept trying Linux over the years and until about 2007-2008, the desktop just wasnt ready for mom and pop)

    I dont believe in skinning Linux to look like XP, I made this clear to people, this wasnt XP.
    But I do think that the use of the KDE environment made the transition easier.
    In my small sample, I didnt find any Windows user that preferred GNOME over KDE (I used XCFE on older hardware) and after a while I just even bother (especially to older family members for whom it might have been too much).
    Gnome looks to foreign (a copy of mac is what EVERY non-Linux user tells me when they see it for the first time) to Windows users. The top panel with the constant text (most people probably dont know that you could drag the panel where you wanted in XP), the fonts, the GTK look and feel (it took me a long time to understand what they meant by "it looks and feels funny", it just felt too different.
    Dont believe me?
    Put KDE and GNOME on a computer, then ask a Windows using friend to tell them which they prefer.
    KDE looks familiar to Windows users and even though I dont think skinning an imitation theme is a good idea, familiarity does help. Some people need it more than others.

    Right now I have 6 retired people using Mandriva or PCLinuxOS with KDE4.5.
    Their computer skills vary from 15 years experience on Windows to using a computer for the first time on Linux last year.
    And teaching someone to use Linux is no harder than XP (sorry, I jumped off the ship at Vista so thats my last reference point).

    Linux has been ready for mom and pops for some time now, anyone who claims otherwise can contact my 75yr and older parents and inlaws (maybe they can help!!).


  8. Hey, ask your parents to call a friend of mine and explain to him how to install Maya or 3D Studio (he needs that for work, and no, Blender does not do), or perhaps Starcraft 2 (among hundreds of other recent games that simply don't work on Linux).

    Again, let's not close our eyes to the pending issues out there. Linux has many strengths and can beat Windows or Mac on some categories, but not all of them. Denying that fact does not really help and can only result in frustration later down the line.

  9. Chema, love your blog, and even more so, your objective clear-sighted attitude toward Linux. Keep up the excellent writing.

  10. Just wanted to chime in... I am a brand-new Linux user. Tired of Windows being an anchor on my machines, I discovered Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. Initially, I tried it out using Wubi on a Compaq Presario laptop w/ Celeron processor and Windows Vista Basic. The machine was pretty much worthless with Windows on it. When Ubuntu booted up... SPEED! I found the GUI very easy to understand with only minor differences from Windows (and the location of the Close, Minimize, Maximize in the upper-left were NOT an issue).

    I mostly use my computers for email and web browsing. Rarely do I used proprietary software, so this is not MUCH of an issue for me. Google Docs and OpenOffice have come a long way, so if I need an office suite, I will be fine.

    I now run Ubuntu as the ONLY operating system on this machine and have absolutely no regrets so far. The ONLY issue I have had has been getting a good copy of the ISO burned and this appears to have been due to a crappy supply of CDRs. Switching to a better CDRw solved that issue.

    My next plans are to install Ubuntu as a dual-boot on my other laptop... another Compaq Presario but with an AMD dual core processor and Vista Premium... followed by a dual-boot install on an older Compaq desktop with an AMD dual core processor and Windows XP.

    I think for non-techies, Linux is currently an optimal choice for people who mostly read email and websurf. It seems from reading blogs that the real issue comes into play when you use proprietary software, are a hardcore gamer or just don't want to be bothered Googling to overcome an issue you are having with your OS.

    Great Blog!