As many of you already know, I also blog as Larry the Free Software Guy and sometimes, when these blogs deal with CrunchBang, I usually merge the two. Yesterday, I wrote a blog item about something I found on the CrunchBang forums — TuxRadar’s Distro Picker — and a comment on the blog caused me to think about distros and which distros are better for new Linux users than others.
I know, it’s an age-old argument: Some say people need familiarity, so you want to give them the most “Windows-like” experience you can. Others will say, “Just throw ’em in the deep end of the pool to see if they’ll swim.”
I fall somewhere in between, though leaning toward the swimming pool side of the argument.
And here, a confession: When I first started using CrunchBang two years ago (it’ll be two years on July 20, for the record — at least that’s when I first posted to the forums), I thought it might not be a good idea for new users to use it. Over time and in discussions with others, and swayed by a convincing argument made by my fellow mod pvsage several months ago (maybe longer), I now think anyone with a normal cognitive capacity can throw off the shackles of Windows and can easily adapt to CrunchBang.
So when someone commented on the Larry the Free Software Guy blog to say that the Linux Distro Picker was “dumb,” and that new users should use “starter distros” (my term, not the commenters), I disagreed.
We really shouldn’t fall into the trap that non-Linux users are complete morons, or non-Linux users lose the ability to use a computer because they’re behind the screen of a non-Windows box or laptop. They’re not stupid; at worst, they’re just unfamiliar with what’s new to them, a condition that one can easily overcome by spending some time in front of the screen. Also, there’s a wide range of reasons people use their hardware, and they fall between two extremes: Hardware used solely as tools and hardware solely used as appliances (or hardware solely used as toys, but that really falls under “appliances”).
But let’s shoot for the middle and go for those who use their hardware for what we might call “average use” — surfing the web, e-mailing, maybe some photo fixing and transfer and things like this. For those folks, a wide variety of distros can easily be used, not just the “distros-with-training-wheels” like Ubuntu or Linux Mint (though I am not criticizing either for their ease of use; well, at least Linux Mint’s ease of use anyway). Just bear in mind that I don’t think you should start someone off with Gentoo or Arch (and, Gentoo and Arch folks, don’t flame me — you know that’s true).
Yet, this “wide variety” easily includes CrunchBang. Why? The learning curve to adapt from a desktop environment to a window manager like Openbox is minimal; in fact, the hardest thing about using a window manager like Openbox is going back to a desktop environment and wondering at first why your right-click actions aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. But aside from that — and backed by a well-stocked forum full of answers and staffed by helpful folks (and, hopefully returning sometime soon, an updated wiki) — new users would have no problems getting up to speed with CrunchBang.
In fact, not only is CrunchBang a good distro to use on a daily basis, it’s fairly educational without setting out to be (at least I don’t think it sets out to be educational). Let me explain: I started using CrunchBang after being a Linux user for five years, and over the last couple of years many folks have fallen asleep hearing me say this (as I know it sounds boring), but I’ve learned more in a year using CrunchBang than in the previous five using Fedora, Xubuntu and my first distro, Debian. The reason is that to get CrunchBang the way I want it, I have to do things I wouldn’t normally do in the other distros, and it has forced me to learn how things work under the hood.
I like to learn things and I find that appealing, though some may not. But then, I probably lean toward the using my hardware as a tool side, rather than the appliance side.
I tell this story often, and it speaks to this topic: A few years ago I had an 80-year-old grandmother ask me about Linux in my office (she asked me if I could fix her ThinkPad — I do FOSS program conversions for small businesses and not repairs, but I do know ThinkPads so I did it for her as a favor). She asked what version of Windows I thought was best, and I told her I used Linux, which she “heard of.” Talking further about it, she sounded interested in trying it, so I gave her two live CDs — Ubuntu and Fedora — and I showed her how to use them in the office. She tried the Ubuntu one in the office and took the Fedora CD home.
The next day, she brought her ThinkPad back and asked me if I could install Linux for her. I asked if she was sure and when she said yes, I backed up her hard drive and installed the one CD the handed to me. We had a long talk about programs she would have to use (OpenOffice, at the time, instead of Word, etc.) and I gave her specific instructions to call me if she had any questions. She only called once — to ask about whether she should update after getting a message (and I walked her through that).
That was a few years ago — I think around 2009 — and while I haven’t seen her for about six months now, whenever I would run into her around town she said that the laptop was fine and she found Linux to be just right for what she was doing (checking e-mail, writing letters, etc.).
By the way, the distro she chose and asked me to install for her? Fedora.
Despite the fact that Fedora’s “bleeding edge” usability is a myth — anyone can use it, really (though installing Flash can be a pain) — the fact remains that there are a wide range of distros that can be used by non-Linux users that one can easily adapt to. The fact that CrunchBang is a “clean canvas” makes it appealing to the user who wants to make his or her own mark on their hardware, and I would strongly urge those who think that CrunchBang is not for “newbies” to rethink their position.
This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.
Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software at Redwood Digital Research (RDR), a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment. RDR is based in Felton, California, USA.