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.
DOES IT MAKE SENSE?
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.
SELL THE IDEA
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.
LOOKS THAT KILL
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.
TAKE A SAFE APPROACH
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.
BRUSH UP YOUR TROUBLESHOOTING SKILLS
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.
LESSONS LEARNT AND THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
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!