Why must everything be newbie-friendly?

I love Ubuntu as much as the next person, and I won’t ever say a bad thing about it. (Okay, well, not too many bad things about it.) I cut my teeth on Linux with Ubuntu, and provided it never reneges on its core promises, I doubt I’ll ever be anything other than pretty-pleased with it.

But occasionally I see one unusual side effect of the Ubuntu phenomenon — the sudden press to make everything “newbie-friendly.”

Now before you start to bristle, I was a newbie once and I’m more than willing to admit it. I made any number of exceedingly dumb mistakes two-and-a-half years ago — and I still do. Some of them were classic newbie blunders. Overall I got lucky and had friendly hardware at the start, but if it hadn’t been for that, I’d probably have written off Ubuntu outright.

And to be honest, I was a newbie twice — and my earliest reaction was exactly that: I wrote it off as stupid. As far as I was concerned, Linux was a joke. That was almost eight years ago, so really, I’ve been on the high and the low ends of the Linux newcomer experience.

But pushing every distro to be newbie-friendly and out-of-the-box cookie-cutter-perfect strikes me as a bad idea. There are some very newbie-friendly distros out there, and I think every darn one of them is manna straight from heaven. But in my opinion there’s no need to start warping the intermediate-level distros and the advanced Linux systems to allow ground-level users to start with them.

Everyone finds their own level with Linux. You get essentially the same stuff with each version, and it’s mostly just core tools and packaging utilities that separate one version from another. You can make anything as complicated as you like — you can rewire and recompile your entire Ubuntu installation a la Gentoo and obfuscate things as much as you want. You have that freedom.

On the other hand, there are some distros that are intended for “mature” audiences, and by that I mean more experienced, more advanced users. Pushing Arch or Crux or Gentoo or (god forbid) Exherbo to be “newbie-friendly” sounds counterintuitive — and furthermore a huge waste of time.

Why recast Linux From Scratch to attract Windows emigrants when OpenSuse and PCLinuxOS do such a good job? Why try to prepackage Arch as a newcomer distro when Debian and Fedora already have that cornered?

Like I said, everyone finds their own level with Linux. People asking for a newbie-friendly version of a distro are asking a foreign community to adopt a new culture — one that is more convenient to them. To me, that sounds out of place, and possibly out of line.

If you’re not ready for Arch as it is, then you should stick with what you know. One day your desire will outstrip your ability and you’ll learn a lot of new things. But until gumption exceeds know-how, it’s best to leave other people’s distros the way they are, and learn their customs when you’re ready.

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20 Responses to “Why must everything be newbie-friendly?”


  1. 1 mich 2008/06/05 at 9:38 PM

    You may not be entirely correct here :D

    Arch is absolutely newbie friendly, if the newbies are those who are willing to
    - do some simple reading
    - learn how NOT to demand from TU / developers
    - learn how to utilize what it available

    e.g.
    can’t find kmix (in kdemultimedia), use alsamixer
    can’t find battery monitor, use conky … and so on!

    personally, I find Arch (running on this laptop) easier to use then Debian (running on my desktop)
    :D

  2. 2 K.Mandla 2008/06/05 at 9:44 PM

    Hear hear, sir. In that sense, I stand corrected. :)

  3. 3 Semidigerati 2008/06/05 at 10:14 PM

    This subject often comes up in IRC channels across freenode. Honestly, I’m not too sure where I stand. If a person who has NO interest in learning the intricacies of Linux, but still want to use Ubuntu for its useful tools or just because they’re fed up with the way vista runs, who am I to say “No, I will not allow your transition to be as smooth as possible. Here is (Gentoo, Arch, Whatever) and the internet. Go figure it out yourself”? Instead, I can give them the website for Ubuntu or an official CD and confidently say “It’ll require some minor tweaking, but I think you’ll be pleased.” If you ask me, Ubuntu is “easy” so that its users don’t have to deal with the most difficult technical aspects of Linux first; all they have to do, really, is worry about setting up Samba or Cups.

    To sum it up, Ubuntu SHOULD be “newbie friendly” in order to spark interest in Linux. It’s only natural that if the person is truly interested in Linux, they’ll move on to more difficult distros. And, if they turn out to not like Ubuntu for whatever reason, at least they aren’t so completely turned off by their complicated first impressions that they’ll revert and become a Zealot for the other team.

  4. 4 Salimane Adjao Moustapha 2008/06/05 at 11:04 PM

    What’s the purpose of an OS ?
    Why do we write softwares or applications?
    Is reinstalling the whole kernel or desktop manager or running the terminal all day long,90% of the users are interesting in when switching on their pc or being productive in one area or other?
    Do they want to get the latest news online ,design this template or video conference with their partners ?
    Don’t get me wrong here , i’m a fan of Linux, Ubuntu as my preferred distro (again why do we need many distros in linux, we already have mac and windows, is it not enough?), i’m a converted windows user from work to my home desktop. What do u call “mature audiences”, u mean 10% or may be less of all users ? Ok i could agree with u have one distro where there is nothing, u’ll have to do everything from scratch and another which is user friendly for the remaining users so that they could concentrate on their skills working on tools already provided to produce something else (but could it be from the same company). May be you will tell me everybody is different and so we need different things. but then we can have only one and then u can customize it as u want from interface to the hood, and it doesn’t have to be “not-user-friendly”

  5. 5 lefty.crupps 2008/06/05 at 11:26 PM

    > can’t find kmix (in kdemultimedia), use alsamixer

    A newbie isn’t even aware that “the sound thing” may be called KMix, or that they can have a semi-graphical CLI-based ALSA mixer. If something is good for a newbie, it needs to be visually present, I believe.

    CLI is great but its not for the person who is just arriving in Linuxland from using a GUI during their whole computing existence, or even the last 15 years. To these people, forcing them to use the CLI is the opposite of friendly; they see it as archaic.

  6. 6 linuxcanuck 2008/06/05 at 11:47 PM

    If Linux is only for the elite, then it can ignore newbies and others and it has a limited future. If it, is for everybody then it needs to be newbie friendly as a starting point and have enough depth to it to grow. You mention Ubuntu as a newbie friendly distro, but that does not mean that it is only for newbies. I would not call Jono Bacon and many other Ubuntu advocates a newbie.

    I few distros are rising to the top. Ubuntu is but one, but all distros that are rising to the top have a few things in common. They make installation simple. They make maintenance easy. They have a clean interface. They allow end users to be productive.

    Ubuntu walks a line by not including restricted drivers by default and relying on Gnome or KDE’s out of the box tools. As such it cannot be called a truly newbie friendly distro, IMO. Freespire, Xandros, Mint, PCLOS and SimplyMEPIS are newbie distros. They have everything work out of the box. Ubuntu is one step down and will be until they come to terms with two issues, restricted drivers and tools. OpenSUSE is even one rung up on Ubuntu due to its toolset. Fedora is one step down from Ubuntu in user friendliness, but is gaining ground.

    Being a newbie distro is relative. There are degrees of user friendlimess and Ubuntu is not at the top nor at the bottom. It is at best a compromise which may explain it success more than anything. They have not sold out to the Devil by signing agreements with M$ some of the more newbie friendly distros, but still are big enough to carry some weight with users and companies.

  7. 7 Tony 2008/06/05 at 11:53 PM

    I have no problem with somebody running ‘any’ version of Linux. If somebody is a newbie and wants an easy Distro – go for it. On the other hand if somebody wants a Distro that is a little harder to configure – go for it!

    My point being that I am glad when somebody simply looks at a Linux Distro and considers it. I freely repair computers for family and friends if they provide any new parts that are required. On the older systems I find that Power Supplies, RAM, and Hard Drives are the main physical components that fail. Of course when I tell them the cost of the parts for repair and the cost of replacing Windows they usually buy another computer.

    Most of the time for whatever reason they do not have their Windows OS disc anymore. I offer to install a newer operating system(Ubuntu) that cost absolutely nothing – it is free, legal, will meet their needs, AND it’s easy! The only catch is that it will not be Windows. So far nobody has taken me up on that offer because they want a Microsoft system. By not installing Windows I can save a person $100-200, but most people have fallen for the MS advertising hype.

    I’ve given away probably 50+ new Ubuntu CD’s to people, but did they install them on their computer or even run a Live version…??

    If I can get just one or two people to start using Ubuntu each time I get the new release version, then I consider it a success. Hopefully they will get one or two others to do likewise and the cycle begins.

    On other websites I hear people argue about which Linux Distro is the best and they can get rather nasty at times. To me, all Linux Distro’s are winners…

  8. 8 ma65p2004 2008/06/06 at 1:10 AM

    If Linux want to be popular and widely used, it has to be introduced (and liked) by the general population, which has a lot of average users + newbies. In order to make everyone love linux, it must be simple and user friendly.

    Trust me, if it takes me 10 minutes to figure out how to type my documents, I will never come back again. I’m not a programmer, all I need is to get my work done. Yes, linux is cool but I would not have appreciated if I had no knowledge what-so-ever about it. Make it user-friendly first so everyone feels more comfortable with it, then whoever’s interested can always goes deeper. Simple.

    Oh, don’t make EVERYTHING user-friendly, I agree with that.

    Excuse my English.

  9. 9 Freduardo 2008/06/06 at 1:12 AM

    Nobody is saying that we should force newcomers into using the CLI if they don’t want to. That would indeed be idiotic. On the contrary, K.Mandla is praising Ubuntu ao. for being so newbie-friendly (cfr. the manna from heaven).

    But at the same time, in the other direction, it would be just as idiotic forcing users of eg. Arch or Gentoo to do everything the newbie-friendly way.

  10. 10 nugnuts 2008/06/06 at 1:36 AM

    Ubuntu is a great distribution, and is arguably the best distribution for those new to GNU/Linux.

    Arch is another great distribution, and is great for GNU/Linux users who know what they want from their system, and don’t want the distro getting in their way while getting it.

    It’d be nice for a single distribution to be all things to all people. It’s impossible for *all* distributions to be all things to all people. Also, what’s the point of that? Why have multiple distributions in the first place? Multiple distributions exist because there are multiples of people who want differing things out of their systems. Everyone wins.

    I think that’s what K.Mandla is saying.

  11. 11 A.J. Baudrez 2008/06/06 at 2:21 AM

    The big advantage of Linux is that there is a distro for newcomers, intermediate users and advanced users. Is that so?

    As a “computer user” you want your work to be done, as swift and smooth as possible, so a All-In-One distro like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, Mint, Mepis, … is ideal. What about Arch or Gentoo? Can’t you do your work with them? Sure you can, once they are installed and once installed their use differs very little from the All-In-Ones.

    The only difference between, let’s say PCLinuxOS and Gentoo, is in the installing and configuring of the distro. If I have a Gentoo user who is willing to come over and assist me in installing Gentoo + KDE on my box, I will have a good, stable working distro. OTOH if I boot PCLinuxOS and I ‘play’ a bit with the Live CD before installing it, I will also have a good, stable working distro.

    Being newbie-friendly is mainly the choice the devs must make and as the need for simple, out-of-the-box distros is growing, so will be the numbers of distros that conform to that demand.

    A “computer hobbyist” on the contrary is a different kind of computer user. He is not so much interested in the post-install use of the distro, but his interest lie in the installing, tweaking, knowing where what config is doing … A typical newbie-friendly is not something they look forward to. They now what distro to pick, be it Arch, Slackware, Gentoo or BSD.

    I am a computer user and for me, a distro that gives me the possibility to do my daily work is all I need. I went for PCLinuxOS and I am very happy. Does that mean that I couldn’t install Arch or Gentoo? No, probably not, but I don’t see the point in compiling the whole of KDE if I can have one already precompiled.

    Alain

  12. 12 Dr Small 2008/06/06 at 5:47 AM

    I think distros should stay the way they currently are. Most likely, in the beginning creation of the distro, the developers had a dream of what the distro would be like, hence they pressed on to that.

    Changing Arch midstream to be more newbie friendly, is liking sinking the ship. We already have a bunch of different distros out there that fulfill this object. Let them use that instead.

    There should be different types of distros, ones for absolute beginner newbies, others for intermediate and then for the experts to use. Every distro should not bow to the newbies and be newbie friendly. If you can’t figure it out, then it isn’t for you.

    Ubuntu should stay as an entrance for newbies to enter the world of Linux. It is mostly GUI oriented, and is very simple to use. Arch on the other hand, should remain for the experts.

    One day these newbies who finally become tired of how ‘simple’ the distro works, will seek something more advanced, and should find it. Not something that when they step across to it, seems the same as what they just left.

    If every distro is the same, then there is no room for advanced users.

  13. 13 Martin 2008/06/06 at 3:43 PM

    I think that newbie friendly actually means zeroconf. People don’t want to configure things all the time, but use. Look at Windows desktops, the most of the configuration people do is changing the wallpaper. Everything else is configured by their geeky friends, administrators or PC vendors (or Apple). Oh, and when they do install things, the only thing they know is to click “Next” to “Finish”.

  14. 14 Sam 2008/06/07 at 3:32 AM

    I don’t like people trying to go into distributions started by and for people who know what they’re doing and turning them into newb distros. I don’t mind Ubuntu. It’s a great way to set up a simple, easy-to-support system for the average user.

    …but */I/* want Arch. I want ONLY what I manually request, no extra daemons and such. I want to hand-edit and tweak configurations. But so many people don’t, they think no one wants to. That’s the problem.

    They need to stay on their turf and let us tinkerers play with our systems.

  15. 15 redhand8888 2008/06/07 at 6:05 AM

    An experienced user can customise his system to fit his needs, a newbie can’t. So in order for a distro to be usable by everyone it must cater to the newbie.

  16. 16 Dr Small 2008/06/07 at 10:08 AM

    redhand8888: There are plenty of “newbie friendly” distros out there. Let them use them. When they infiltrate the more advanced distros to make them “newbie friendly”, they are advancing on my turf.

    Sam: I totally agree.

  17. 17 Penguin Pete 2008/06/07 at 10:53 PM

    Gah, somebody else *finally* said it! Congratulations on your enlightenment, and, speaking from experience on my own site, prepare to become a pariah for the rest of your life.

    One might also point out that there are *many* things in life which are not “newbie-friendly”. Calculus, open heart surgery, physics, cooking pufferfish, raising children, piloting a Stealth bomber, being President, and genetic engineering, to name a few.

    Yet only in the world of computing do people demand absolute, total flattening of all skill levels. Meanwhile, I’m over here with these advanced tools which *I* *need* to do my work, and the user-friendly police are snatching them all out of my hands screaming, “You can’t use that! It’s not newbie-friendly!” Oh, well, bye bye command line, compiler, programming language, network tools, scripted interfaces, web servers, customizable plug-ins, and everything that made Linux worth using in the first place…

    We’ll all be shivering naked in caves eating raw meat when it’s all done, but at least nobody will be elitist any more!

  18. 18 oz 2008/06/08 at 1:49 AM

    Arch is newbie friendly. It’s just that most newbies aren’t so friendly toward Arch.

  19. 19 devnet 2008/06/14 at 12:31 PM

    [quote]Arch is absolutely newbie friendly, if the newbies are those who are willing to
    - do some simple reading
    - learn how NOT to demand from TU / developers
    - learn how to utilize what it available
    [/quote]

    You sir, are wrong.

    ALL users will demand things you never want them to. ALL users will learn how NOT to utilize what is available. Users will NEVER read the manual or wiki. That’s the way of the world. The sooner we accept it in Linux, the better. Once we accept it, we can move on to solving problems that we should solve instead of giving reasons why users should “be this tall to ride”.

    Arch, Gentoo, LFS…NONE of those are for new users at all…and they never will be. The only distro suitable for new users (not new tech users mind you…non techie new users who don’t know what a codec is and who only use Windows to websurf) is one that requires them to drop to the shell the least or not at all.

    There are enough distros out there that those of us who think this is stupid can use Arch, Gentoo, and LFS and those that think this is correct can use the $Distro_that_doesn’t_require_the_cli and everyone will be happy. There are enough distros for all of us.

  20. 20 Eivuwan 2008/07/21 at 9:26 AM

    I disagree with your general statement devnet. Perhaps there aren’t a lot of newbies who would want to read documentation to learn how to use their operating systems, but there are still some who will. For example, I jumped directly from XP to arch linux and I have everything running exactly the way I want within a few days. I saw others on linux forums who have done the same thing.


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