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Editor's Note: Couldn't Call It Unexpected

Is Any PC Intuitively Easy to Use?

  • September 25, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

"And we keep making the same mistake over and over again. Everyone (with the exception of myself and a few clinically insane individuals) believes that Linux has extraordinary potential. Yes, it's supposed to be stable, a mark in its favor, and it is a really cool and radical model of how to develop a new product. But how much of the buying public has the slightest clue as to how to use Linux?"
--Richard L. Brandt, Upside

It has come to this. Having failed to successfully attack Linux on the basis of too many distributions and of not having enough applications, the FUDmeisters are now coming after Linux for not being easy enough to use. The "usability" experts--the kind that charge $40,000 a day in fees--have proclaimed that the Linux interface is just too different to actually use.

What a crock.

What the "usability" experts like Brandt and Jakob Nielsen don't like to tell you is that usability is subjective and relative. What seems simple and intuitive to one person can be obscure and difficult to another.

You see, we all bring our personal experiences to computing. What a 39-year-old Minnesotan with an English degree knows is quite different from what a 20-year-old waiter in Mexico brings to the table--and both are totally different from what a eight-year-old reared on Gameboy brings. We all chuckle when older people complain that their VCRs are too difficult to program, and I'm sure my son and his friends are chuckling when I proclaim their Pokemon Yellow games running on GameBoys are too difficult to master quickly. My mother has never used a computer and wouldn't know where to begin if she tried, and conversely I wouldn't know what to do if she set me in front of her 20-year-old Singer sewing machine and told me to make a pair of slacks. Similarly, I remember being daunted by all the controls on the International Harvester Farmall H Series tractor I drove when I was 15 hauling hay from the field to the farm. To my father, born and raised on a farm, driving that simple little H was a breeze.

Now, before you start complaining that a computer is more difficult to use than a tractor, quiet down: in most ways it's really not. There's no documentation with a tractor, and apart from some basic features that are easy to grasp (like the steering wheel), there's no way you could drive an older tractor through sheer intuition: I doubt that most of you would know where the throttle was (bonus points if you mail me with the correct location, and here's a hint--it's not by your feet), let alone how to start it.

My point isn't to highlight mass ignorance of tractor-control layouts, but to point out that usability is highly relative, and why Brandt's statement is just too bizarre. No, a GNOME or KDE desktop doesn't look like a Macintosh desktop, but anyone who has used a Mac could easily use a typical GNOME or KDE installation. The same goes for a Windows or CDE user. And you know what? Netscape on Linux works a lot like Netscape on Windows or even Internet Explorer on Windows. Corel WordPerfect for Linux works a lot like Microsoft Word. And so on.

But listen to the usability experts, and they'll tell you that Linux is too difficult to use and could do with a dose of simplicity. (This is essentially what Eazel is trying to tell the Linux world, by the way.) But interface design is not advertising, and while the best advertising has the clearest message simply told, there's really no "best" interface for a computer or the "best" design for a Web page. According to the usability experts, the best Web page has a striking design and just enough data to draw out a user. Of course, Yahoo--with its data-rich text-based interface--pretty much blows the usability experts out of the water. (Come to think of it, a usability expert would have a heart attack after seeing the Linux Today home page as well.)

So when I hear the usability experts slamming KDE or GNOME, I write off their statements to sheer ignorance. Don't let the FUDmeisters fool you: Linux is no more difficult to use than any other operating system, and fear of the new--which, in reality, is what folks like Brandt are really expressing--is no reason to avoid embracing Linux.

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