The view from 2003: Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users

The marketing blather promises easy upgrades, but that's not what one newbie found

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Knoppix boots up with errors and odd behavior at times, but it booted most of the time. The hardware-detection was excellent; it saw everything correctly at least once. The CD drive I boot from is the slower and older of the two, so I think the drive speed may have caused some errors. Connecting to the Internet worked. Knoppix showed the Windows partitions, unlocked them, read from them and wrote to them with no problems. On the second boot-up, there was no cursor. It was pretty, but it was also dead.

Configuring printers: Nothing happened on the first try. On the third boot-up, it spotted the printer correctly, but the Wizard did not hold the settings. I had to reselect everything later. It could print, but it had the same split-page error as Red Hat, even at 300 DPI.

CD-ROM issues: Knoppix correctly identified both drives, and XCDRoast let me configure them, but I couldn't make a copy because it didn't "see" the media in the reader drive. I was trying to have Knoppix make a copy of itself — perhaps it was too ambitious. I repeatedly saw an error message about a "segmentation fault" on boot-up, as well as something about being unable to create a "frame buffer."

The ideal migration distribution

After installing a number of distributions, I realized that none of them addressed the problem of migrating very well. If anyone wants to make it easier for Windows-users to migrate to Linux, the distribution should come with a utility that would ease the process. This pre-installation migration utility would run under Windows and query the system and the user for everything it needs (IRQ numbers, ISP phone numbers, passwords, etc.) at a time when the user can look at Windows programs to see what the settings are.

This utility would also ask about type of environment: solo computer or part of a small home/office network. It would save this information to a floppy or to the Windows partition for use during installation.The perfect utility would remind the user to make back-ups of critical data, delete useless files, give them some clean-up hints and even run the defrag utility to help make room for Linux. The installation would also make sure that permissions for printers, CD-burning and more were taken care of when users are created, instead of it having to be set multiple times for various things.

Suggestions and comments for improving the experience I'm not a programmer, but I frequently test software as part of my day job. Usually, my job entails reporting bugs and interface problems that I uncover as I write user- or system-manuals for corporate projects. The corporations for which I usually work would consider the overall quality of the various Linux distributions and software to be "beta-level" at best. In other words, it's ready for a pilot group to use and work the bugs out, but not ready for a corporate-wide rollout. The major flaw is a simple lack of attention to details that make software usable, such as creating a consistent GUI and providing help files written for non-expert users.

TEST before release

Having a willing group of users for beta testing is good, but only the programmer knows what is supposed to happen. Special mention for lack of testing: SuSE 7.1's bug in YAST. Clicking the [x] in the corner of a dialog doesn't just close the dialog box as it does on most dialog boxes. It closes out the entire YAST, which means all your software choices go bye-bye. Some GUI-testing before release would have found that glitch; having all clickable things tested for unwanted actions is a reasonable expectation.

GUI = Garish, Unreadable and Inconsistent

People look for patterns, and learning is faster when there is a consistent mode of action to learn. Using an icon is the same as defining a visual constant; users expect an icon to have the same effect throughout the system. Unfortunately, even something as basic as the position of the [x] to close a dialog box varies from corner to corner between programs and — even worse — sometimes within the same program. Some windows have a clickable icon to maximize the window, while others are "drag-to-maximize" only.

Other design hints

  • Take a look at the color combinations and sizing of your interfaces. Ask a friend who doesn't have their mom or spouse pick their clothes for them about your color choices.
  • Make sure the software can check screen resolution and draw something with text and buttons that is large enough to be readable at the current resolution.
  • Make sure your dialog boxes fit on the screen and don't get cut off at the bottom, making part of the controls invisible or unreachable. I shouldn't have to shove the top part of the window off screen to get to the text fields or buttons at the bottom.
  • Make sure the text instructions on a dialog box match the wording on the box's buttons.

Special mentions for poor GUI design

Kaiman, a popular media player for KDE, features faint blue-gray and gray text on a light-gray background. With my screen at maximum resolution, the symbols are about 1mm high and totally illegible. SuSE 7.1 had two icons on the same dialog window that looked identical but had distinctly different actions when clicked. How is a user expected to make an association between an icon and an action when the icons are variables?

  • Root versus Users: Don't show me things I can't use. If I don't have permission to mess with something, don't show me the menus and dialog boxes used to mess with it unless you also give me a way to log in as the user with correct permissions.
  • Feedback to user lacking: A "busy" indicator is needed for all software. It's often too hard to tell whether it's working or dead.
  • Menu systems: Eliminate duplicate occurrences of package listings.
  • Eliminate redundant branches (Games/Amusements/Toys; Text Editors/Word Processors/Office Applications), because it makes finding software harder than it should be.
  • Why are menu systems six (or more) layers deep in some installations? I often fill the screen with pop-outs before I get to what I'm looking for.
  • System defaults: How about one spot per user to set the defaults for all software (sound, fonts, etc.)?
  • Adding and deleting software: Why do I have to have the installation CD to delete software? Why can't I delete part of a "Game Pack" when only a few are worth playing? Why does the deleted stuff hang around on the menus? Is it waiting for a reboot? Why doesn't the installation routine tell me where it hid the program?
  • Before you say RTFM, make sure there is AFM to R: ...and make sure that the table of contents of a specific software's help file opens when I click the corresponding help button. Context-sensitive help is over a decade old — I have written a lot of it for Windows — but doesn't appear to have taken hold in Linux. Make sure the components needed to search TFMs for help are installed along with TFman pages and TFHTML help files. I tried to search for "permissions," only to be told that SuSE is missing a critical part of the help-file system: "The full text search engine makes use of the ht:/dig HTML search engine. You can get ht:/dig at the ht:/dig_homepage." Thanks, SuSE. That was a lot of help.
  • Applications should not point exclusively to a Web page for help or troubleshooting. What happens if I'm offline in the middle of a 12-hour flight to Tokyo and desperately need help?
  • Less cute commentary, more helpful text in help files, please. Any programmer who has "please hire me" as the sole contents of the help file for his program is proclaiming his unemployability; who needs a programmer that can't explain what the software does?
  • When I was looking at descriptions in what might have been the man pages, the brief description given for many of them was "who knows". Well, if the dev team and distributor don't know what the command does, how can a non-expert user be expected to? These were probably command descriptions — I'm a bit puzzled by what I blundered into.
  • Ensure useful help files: Expecting someone to put together the right sequence of instructions from the usual Linux help file is like having the directions to a location listed alphabetically by street name. In other words, the information might be all there, but even after you read it, you have no clue how to get to where you want to go.
  • Alphanumeric listings of variables and features are seldom useful, except as reminders to those who already know how to use the software. For a novice, they are worse than useless. Rather than help people convert to Linux, they ensure that Linux keeps its reputation as hard-to-use.
  • Help should be TASK-oriented, not FEATURE-oriented. Users know what they want to do. Talk them through the sequence of commands they have to use to get to where they are going. Include:
    • WHEN using the software or command is appropriate or necessary.
    • WHAT is the significance of any returned results from a command, or what is required before you start using the command. List parameters, serial numbers, results of other commands or anything else that is a prerequisite.
    • HOW to string commands together to get to the goal, and how to know when you are successful.

Maybe someday I'll get lucky

As a whole, Linux is much closer to being an acceptable operating system than it was at the start, but it's still not perfect. Printing is still not a sure thing, sound-card support is degenerating instead of improving, and I have yet to successfully burn a CD. At the moment, I have Mandrake 9 installed but don't use it.

Tsu Dho Nimh is a long-time technical writer whose hobbies include gardening, herbal medicine and poking geeks with sharp sticks. Nimh has worked with almost every OS and editing tool on the planet -- from mainframe to Mac, troff to FrameMakerSGML -- and is currently writing installation and user manuals for large diesel-powered compressors for firefighting vehicles and datasheets for the next generation of high-speed CMOS12 I/O cells (not at the same company, of course).

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This story, "The view from 2003: Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users " was originally published by LinuxWorld-(US).

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