[Usability] Article: Attitudes to Open Source Software (Interfaces #55)

OCR'ed from this quarter's "Interfaces", the quarterly HCI journal of the
British Computer Society.

Attitudes to Open Source Software

In the last issue of Interfaces(54), I attempted to bluff my way in e cool'
world of Linux distros. In this issue, however, Alistair Kilgour (below)
calls my bluff and argues that, actually, 'uncool' is the new 'cool'.

Alistair also shows that he is far more dedicated to the transition to Open
Source Software than I am. While I had all good intentions to 'really give
Linux a go' and edit Interfaces in Open Office Writer on a Red Hat platform,
that all went out the window (no pun intended!) when I couldn't make
'columns' work. So I returned to the old faithfuls, Windows and Word.

I guess that supports Tony's observations (right) that users don't care what
software they use, as long as they can complete their tasks. I wanted to try
out Red Hat Linux and OO Writer, not because I don't like Windows and Word
(I do), but because I just wanted to give them a go. In the end I went with
the software that worked for me (though I will try again with my new Red Hat

I'd be interested to know what other readers think about how easily and
willingly ordinary users will take up Linux as their main operating system
in preference to Windows (or even Mac OS). So, come on, make Interfaces
interactive, and email me with your observations, studies, and opinions.

Laura Cowen
laurajcowen yahoo co uk

Response to A Bluffer's Guide to Linux

Hi Laura

I really enjoyed your article in Interfaces 54, but I believe the tide has
already turned, and the defenders of the ultra-cool are well and truly in
retreat - thanks both to the advent of systems like Lindows, which you
mentioned, and also to Mac OS X, which is Linux with a pretty face.
Deserters from the arctic wastelands of the Linux world are flocking to the
Aqua domain - OK they focus initially on the Darwin skeleton, but gradually
they get seduced by the Aqua exterior, which is on the way to becoming the
defining symbol of the new cool.

I find there is a nice irony in the fact that I am now running Linux (Darwin
variety) on my imac, and Linux (Debian variety) inside Lindows on my (very
cheap) PC. Although I am still having trouble getting my inkjet printer to
work under Lindows, I find that with CrossOver Office from CodeWeavers, the
Lindows system supports MS Office and other MS applications very
effectively, and looks set to become the real threat to the Mac, once people
realise they can do (almost) everything on a Lindows machine they can do on
a Mac, at about 25% of the cost. (As you might know, Wallmart are selling
Lindows PCs in the US for $199, and the e-scape Li Lindows PC I bought
recently from Evesham cost 249 including VAT.)

I am also running the Linux version of Open Office under Lindows on the PC,
the same version under Mac OS X thanks to the XonX additions recently
distributed by Apple, and the Windows version of OpenOffice, also on the
Mac, in a virtual Windows PC environment enabled by Connectix's wonderful
Virtual PC system (so wonderful, indeed, that Microsoft have had to buy over
the company).

However, for the time being I have no intention of abandoning my imac for
the really important stuff... and for some of the work I do as an OU tutor
there is unfortunately still no substitute for a 'real' (i.e. Windows) PC.

Alistair Kilgour
<email address snipped>


"Just work"
Tony Whitmore

The implementation of Open Source Software (OSS) faces many hurdles;
logistical, technical and olitical. But one of the most interesting is the
human hurdle. Dramatic increase in the use of OSS could be seen in an
unexpected market: People who have no idea what software they use.

That may seem a little bizarre. Using OSS is a statement against monopolies,
about freedom to control your own software, right? Maybe, but only people
who are aware of the arguments for and against OSS will make a decision
based upon them. For the vast majority of users, the functionality that
software provides is more important than how it is developed.

I work at a secondary school and have noticed this bias towards
functionality among the students. There are more computers in schools than
ever before, but familiarity has bred, if not contempt, certainly a lack of
curiosity. As long as the students can perform their tasks, the software
that they. use to do it is of little importance to them. For example, I
asked one girl what software she used on her home computer. Her reply? "I
don't know, I go on it for chat rooms."

I attended the Open Source Software in Education conference this April and,
whilst there, I discovered that people working in other schools had made
similar observations. Chris Dawkins of Felsted School told a revealing
anecdote. Two French exchange students visiting Felsted sat down at Linux
machines to check their e-mail. One commented, 'This screen looks a bit
odd.' The other replied, 'Oh, this must be the version of Windows they use
in England.' Both then got on with checking their mail and surfing the web.
Because the software 'just worked', the exchange students didn't take any
further interest in it.

Further confirmation came from the experience of Corpus Christi Catholic
College in Leeds. They have set up a batch of low-spec PCs as Linux terminal
clients, with excellent results. The window manager is IceWM, skinned to
look like Windows XP. The school's network manager maintains that most
pupils don't notice that they're not using Windows XP itself. They can log
on, surf the web, check e-mail and work on office documents without
encountering any problems. If the pupils do notice any difference in
operating system, they seem happy to accept that the new software does what
they need.

Some Linux distributions, like Lycoris Desktop/LX and Lindows, are designed
for the non-technical user, the user who just wants to sit down and surf the
web, play with photos or write a letter to the bank. Systems running OSS are
cheaper to purchase than MS Windows based machines, so the financial appeal
is clear. If the next generation of computer buyers interact with software
only on the most superficial level, they are more likely to accept OSS,
perhaps without even realising it. As long as the software 'just works'.

A more general review of the OSS in Education Conference is available at

Tony Whitmore
<email address snipped>

Copyright (c) 2003 The British HCI Group

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