On the subject of Linux evangelism

The other day I made a post about bringing my Aunt Jean into the fold after her spending years and years being exclusively a Windows user. I gave my reasons as multipronged, namely that I have found over the years that supporting friends and relatives who insist on using Windows is a frustrating, tedious, redundant pain that I’d prefer to avoid, and that I’m actually doing Jean a favor by transitioning her to a platform that, while very different from what she’s used to, will ultimately be a better one for her to use.

I thought I’d touch on the subject again briefly today, because I think it bears some clarification. Before you go out knocking on doors and handing out Ubuntu disks and asking people if they’ve discovered the glorious world of Free/Open Source Software, read on and adjust your plans accordingly.

The most important thing: right tool for the right job

I should preface this by saying that I never would have thrust Ubuntu or any other of the quadrillions of other Linux distros out there onto my Aunt Jean if she hadn’t been receptive to the idea.

Jean is unusually open minded when it comes to technology, and was open to the idea of a different way of doing things as long as she could do what she needed to do with it.

That’s the key. If I did not think that Jean would be able to accomplish with Linux what she needs to accomplish on a day-to-day basis with her computer, I would never have suggested Ubuntu or any other Linux distro. What would I have done? I would have recommended she stay with Windows XP for now, but I would have strongly urged her to seek alternatives down the road, because the way I see it, as a technology professional, I cannot in good conscience recommend Windows as a permanent solution.

Why? The reasons are myriad, but for the average user, they tend to be the same universally: security, usability, stability, data integrity, and, worse yet, because of things like botnets, I feel that the more poorly patched and generally unsecured Windows boxes there are on the net — particularly by my recommendation — the more I feel that I am simply contributing to the problem. Yes, as SJVN says, “Security is a Process”, not a product.

But face it. If you give a non-technical user a product that’s that full of holes, can you really be surprised when that process isn’t followed? At least with Linux you have a much harder target to begin with, right?

So yes, I’d still have recommended she look into Linux down the road, and put some work into finding a way to make it work, but I would not have forced the issue if I knew it couldn’t be accomplished.

The most important thing to consider, therefore, is whether or not pushing Linux on someone is going to do the job for them. If it isn’t, you aren’t helping anyone, you’re just being a jerk. I know, it’s hard to be objective when you and I both know that there’s a Linux out there for everyone, and with even minimal effort, three or four or even more free and open source replacements can be found for nearly every proprietary Windows-only app out there, but remember: it’s not us you have to convince.

And if a user is not open to even the SUGGESTION of trying out some of those alternatives — no matter how valid and viable — you’re wasting your time and theirs by forcing them to try.

So they’re open to it, what’s the best way to try it?

If the person with whom you’re working is open to the idea — whether it’s because they don’t know enough to even care or if they’re honestly looking for a change from Windows, it doesn’t matter — how do you go about this?

Have them play around with a live CD for a week or two? Set up their machine to dual-boot? Give them a loaner PC to use with Linux already installed?

I say none of the above. Live CDs are great as a demo, but only if you’re showing it to them, and even then only if you are showing them the benefits of the interface, not the performance. But if you leave it there with the user, nine times out of ten, that’s the last use it’ll get. Check back with them in a week or two to see what they think and they’ll always say something like “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that. I think I still have it, but I haven’t tried playing with it yet. Do you need it back? I can drop it off…”

And dual-booting, well, that might be fine for those of us who occasionally boot into Windows to throw NTFS formatting on a portable hard drive for work, or to run that pesky game you just can’t quite get working in WINE, but for the average user dual-booting is confusing at first, and once they get used to the boot screen prompting them to make a choice, you’ll find that the user will ignore Linux just like the live CD.

Same with the loaner computer.

Why is this? Because no matter how open a Windows user is to change, no matter how willing they might be to “try” Linux, and no matter how receptive they were to your reasons for why it’s better, it still boils down to one key thing: change is hard.


If you have someone in front of you who is SICK of Windows (whatever their reasons), is interested in Linux, and is open to trying something new, you’re doing them a disservice by letting them dip their toe into the pool by one of the above methods I just rejected.

The only way to find out for real if Linux will work for them is to throw them into the water and see if they can swim. Yes, it’s the scary method, but let’s not mince words.

Do you really believe in the usability of Linux? Do you really feel that “anybody” can use Ubuntu? Or OpenSUSE? Or whatever your distro of choice for that user might be?

Then put your money where your mouth is. Give it a chance. It might surprise you.

And when you’re right, when that user comes up swimming, it’s just a revalidation of what you knew all along: that this was the right choice, not only for you, but for them. And that’s ultimately why we do this, isn’t it?

Worst case scenario, chances are if you were at a juncture with this user where you were suggesting a new OS, the machine probably needed Windows reinstalled anyway, right? So if they don’t swim, you go back out there, say “well, I’m sorry it didn’t suit your needs” (after giving it enough time, that is… just don’t push it too hard or you might lose a friend or really anger a relative) and put Windows back on it and walk away.

And who knows? Maybe THIS time when Windows goes belly-up on them again, they might remember some of their Linux experience and change their mind at some point.


The moral to the story, summed up, is “make sure it suits their needs” and “if you’re going to switch someone to Linux, go big or go home”. Don’t be a jerk about it, above all else. My Aunt Jean was about as perfect a candidate for which one could hope… she wasn’t tied to any particular Windows applications, she was tired of the Windows headaches (patching, spyware, re-patching, driver struggles, more spyware, viruses, oh hey, did I mention patching?), but not only that, she was tired of the whole Windows user paradigm, and was welcoming a change to the user experience.

It wasn’t a tough sell, and face it, it should never be. If it is, you aren’t honestly thinking of what the user needs… you’re just thinking about being right. Yes, you ARE right, but that’s immaterial.

Let’s not forget that the user — even the non-technical one — is still what this is about.


15 thoughts on “On the subject of Linux evangelism

  1. Good post and I agree with what you’re saying. I enjoy talking up Linux to my friends but I wouldn’t force it on anyone. I generally say something like “If you enjoy tinkering with your computer, you might want to give Linux a try”. And leave it at that. If they’re interested enough (or sick of Windows enough), they’ll come back to you.

    I believe that just talking about Linux – just raising awareness that there are alternatives out there – still helps the FOSS movement. A shocking number of people have never even heard of Linux.

    • A shocking number of people have never even heard of Linux.

      I don’t think Aunt Jean had. She was mostly going on her trust in my technology advice, I think.

  2. Think about this FOSS evangelists: Raising awareness of Linux is always good and needed, but ultimately it is the user’s needs and wishes that matter. Freedom also means freedom to make the wrong choice. The minute you stop caring about what the user wants to do, you’ve just turned into Microsoft.

  3. I think the first step in all of this should be a greater awareness creation among Windows users about the existence of something else other than what they are used to. This should be done both at the individual level and at the vendor level. Frankly speaking, Linux vendors are not doing a lot in terms of publicity and that makes it very difficult for you when you are just an individual trying to convince people.

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  7. Wow! Very well-put. I’ve often gotten my tail kicked for saying things like, “I do not insist that Linux is for everyone.” – My point being that, hey, *computers* aren’t for everyone. Not everybody understands this point, so thanks for explaining it more clearly.

    In a similar vein, I identified Ubuntu as the “Ellis Island” of Linux in my “You can hack an OS but you can’t hack people.” series:


    • Heh! Good read! I’m going to have to read the rest of your series now. Hope you’re happy. 🙂

      I agree though. I think a lot of the problems geeks have been having getting “normals” to adopt Linux over the years have been because, well, the normals just don’t THINK the same way we do.

      And that isn’t elitism either… it’s just simple fact. Geeks are geeks for a reason. Hell, we’re proud of most of those reasons.

      But the simple fact is, most “normal end users” just don’t care what OS they are running, or what an OS even IS.

      It isn’t even a matter of getting people to choose Linux. It’s a matter of channelling them to it (like water, to use your analogy).

      That’s how Microsoft got so many people to use Windows. People used it because that’s what was on their computers. Businesses used it because that’s what was widely available, and because nobody else was really pushing anything as a viable alternative.

      It has been said “crack the enterprise desktop and Linux will succeed”. I’m not sure about that. I think on a grass roots level, we’ve done a good job of spreading Linux on the personal desktop computer, enough that a couple of vendors have started helping out (Dell comes to mind).

      I think Linux needs to go from the ground up, because of what it is. It can’t go from the top down. Convincing businesses to use it goes against entrenched IT cultures and that’s a WAY bigger uphill battle.

      Push it on regular consumers via the normal channels Microsoft used to push Windows, however, and that’s a hell of a lot easier.

      We’ll see. I do see a promising future for Linux on the desktop though. Bit by bit, machine by machine, user by user, it’s coming. No, there won’t be a “year of the Linux desktop”. We won’t need one, in my opinion. We will simply one day turn around and say “Huh. Apparently what we’ve been doing has just slowly spread and now it’s the norm.”

      It’s the tortoise and the hare. I think that’s something else a lot of geeks don’t get. This isn’t a race to make everybody use it RIGHT FRICKING NOW. It’s still a race, but it’s not that kind of race. Face it, that’s not how open source works, and that’s not how Linux works. 🙂

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  11. I don’t know If I said it already but …Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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