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Linux != Windows

Disclaimer: In this post I freely us the word Linux to encompass the entire set of applications and such that typically make up a distribution…yes I realize Linux is just a kernel and itself cannot look like anything!

By: Brad Chamberlin

Linux != Windows

Most of us today still criticize Microsoft of “stealing” ideas from Apple or for not innovating, but are we any better? Microsoft has been notoriously blamed for stealing GUI concepts from Apple, yet today many Linux distributions and projects strive at creating near-windows interfaces, blatantly ripping-off the Windows95/2000/XP environment. It has been my long-standing opinion that this practice is totally wrong and actually counter-productive, if not totally hypocritical.

In a recent article I read at PCWorld Nat Friedman, the co-founder of Ximian and now vice president of research and development for the Ximian division of Novell, had a very poignant quote on the subject. Nat said:

Creating an environment that attempts to copy or mirror the Windows environment only stands to confuse and ultimately frustrate new users who will be expecting Linux to be even “more” windows like. As soon as even one of their expectations get dashed the users usual responses are “Linux sucks” and “Linux is not ready”. The truth is Linux and Windows are two completely different operating systems, and users should not be lead to believe otherwise.

Is that to say Linux does not need to be made easier to use? Of course not, improvement is a continuous process, systems can always be made better. Being easy to use does not mean looking like Windows. Users switching to any operating system should be fully aware that there will be, at the very least, a minimal learning curve. Obviously the learning curve can be made easier, and less tramatic, by creating clear and percise interfaces with specific purposes with predictable results. Camouflaging Linux to look like Windows, as stated before, actually has potential to increase the level of user frustration. Linux is, and should be, unique and innovative.

I would not expect a Windows user to give up Windows cold-turkey and switch to MacOS X and have said user automatically know everything and become an expert. Likewise you really never hear journalists complain that the MacOS is not “Windows” enough. Yet when most Windows-world journalists review Linux they do, expecting Linux to be like Windows in all aspects. Why is this? Is it because of their own naive expectations or because that is how many distributions are marketed? Probably a little of both.

Another disadvantage in making Linux too much like Windows is that it makes Linux come off as a cheap knock-off of Windows which many will see as not as functional and not as competent. As a result Linux is seen as playing catch-up with Windows. It may also work in Microsoft’s favor as well. Bill Gates was recently quoted as saying:

Making Linux look like and mimic Windows makes Linux seem cheesy, a second-rate wanna-be. Linux should be unique, different, exciting, and new.

Is the Linux/Open Source community (in general) that hypocritical? We are always quick to point fingers at Microsoft anytime we even think they have “borrowed” from Apple, BeOS, or Linux. Yet very few say anything when someone in the community does the same? Even if it does not violate any kind of IP rights (and that is certainly debatable) is it right?

It has been my experience that as long as you provide an interface that utilizes that common WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) methodology, create a simple, clean, straight-forward desktop environment most users will be able to quickly adapt. This is especially true in corporate and call-center type settings where functionality is restricted and only specific applications (many developed inhouse) are used. Diametrically, home users demand a wider span of applications and features. The level of desktop interaction is greatly increased. Currently, in my opinion, the epitome of Linux on the desktop is Ximians Desktop Environment based on the GNOME project. Although it is targeted toward corporate use it’s clean well organized interface is ideal for new Linux users as well.

My point is that Linux does not, and should not, have to look like Windows to be considered “easy” to use. Creating copies of existing Windows environments only deceives users and is counter-productive. Easy to use is creating a consistent, clear, and precise interface and following strict UI guidelines (such as the GNOME HIG). Linux should not be marketed as a cheap, knock-off, alternative to Windows with less features. In my opinion it should be marketed as flexible, stable, open, and “Different”!


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Linux != Windows

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