How You Can Explain Linux to Anyone (So They’ll Get It)
You know what Linux is.
You understand its strengths, and its weaknesses, and know how to use it. More than likely, you know which distribution is best for you. You know what a distribution is. And you know all this because you are passionate about tech. Why else would you be on a technology website, reading an article about Linux?
And I bet you wish your relatives used it too. It would save you so much time. Your weekend plans wouldn’t be derailed by removing 10 years worth of malware from your uncle’s ancient Compaq desktop. There would be no more pop-ups on your mom’s computer. No more ransomware infections that you’d be left to fight.
It would be tech support bliss.
Here’s the problem. Your relatives aren’t passionate about tech. It’s not something that excites them. Three years ago, they went to Best Buy and bought whatever the sales clerk told them to, and they see no reason to change.
So, how do you evangelize Linux to someone who doesn’t share your enthusiasm for tech? Here’s how you do it in a considerate, empathetic way that gets results.
Start With the Basics: This Is an Operating System
In the introduction to this piece, I used a particular word: empathy.
When you try to make recommendations about technology (not just about Linux), it’s important to remember that the person you’re speaking to does not share your experience, or your perspective.
Before you start babbling about the finer differences between Windows and Linux, and explaining the systemd controversy , it’s important to get some groundwork down. Perhaps the initial concept you’ll have to explain is what an operating system is.
I’ve spoken to people who genuinely don’t know what that is. When they look at a computer, they think “Windows”. To lots of people, these two concepts are intrinsically linked. They don’t know that there are alternatives.
Before you even introduce Linux, you may have to explain what an operating system is, and what it does. Above all, you’ll have to explain that these can be changed, and that there are legitimate reasons for doing so, without going into specifics.
In the past, I’ve actually had to explain that it’s perfectly legal to remove Windows. While this might sound hilarious to you, for an awful lot of people this is a reasonable concern. They’re not stupid, nor are they ignorant. They just don’t share your experience or perspective.
Linux: The Biggest OS You’ve Never Heard Of
What is Linux? No, I’m serious. I’m asking you a question.
Imagine I’m the average person. I use computers for casual web browsing and work, and I have no real interest in them beyond that. How would you explain Linux to me?
If you said the words “license”, “kernel”, “FLOSS”, “free software”, “command line”, or “toolchain”, congratulations: you failed.
Say them to an ordinary person and you’ll get one of two responses. Most likely their eyes will glaze over with boredom. Otherwise they will be completely baffled and won’t follow what you’re saying.
Here’s how I’d explain it:
Linux is a bit like Windows. It’s a big computer program that lets you run other, smaller computer programs like Google Chrome and Office. In fact, it looks a lot like Windows, too. What makes Linux so special is that compared to Windows, it’s safer and more reliable .
There are thousands of people and companies who work on Linux, trying to make it better. They do this for free, and they allow it to be downloaded by ordinary people like yourself, without charge. This is because they use it themselves, and they benefit from having an operating system that’s fast, rarely crashes, and is less at risk of being hacked or infected with a virus.
In those two short paragraphs, I’ve explained what Linux is, and even touched on how it’s built and licensed. I did this without using the words “source code” or “license”, or any other terminology that normal people don’t use.
Relate It to Them: Why Should They Care?
By now, the person you’re speaking to should know that Linux is an operating system, and it has some unique strengths. This is good. But again, why should they care? Why should they upgrade? After all, in the world of tech, you don’t have to upgrade the moment something better arrives. The latest iPhone is a perfect demonstration of that.
Here’s where you have to make this about them.
Has the person you’re speaking to fallen victim to an online scam, or malware? Have they recently had to pay out huge amounts of money to recover their files after being infected by ransomware? Are they currently frustrated with their computer’s sluggish performance? (“It wasn’t like this when I bought it…”)
If so, tell them that Linux is different.
It isn’t as vulnerable to these types of problems as Windows is. There aren’t as many viruses for Linux, and by design it’s much harder to infect. Tell them that Linux doesn’t get as bogged down and sluggish over time, as Windows does.
Those problems that vex them so much? They’ll be a thing of the past.
Assuage Their Fears: There’s No Catch
Most people get their operating system with their computer. Failing that, they will buy an install CD on Amazon and take their machine to the local computer store for them to install. For many, the idea of downloading a program off the internet and replacing their trusty Windows install is unthinkable.
There are other legitimate concerns that people might have when it comes to upgrading to Linux. They may be concerned that effectively they will have to re-learn how to use their computer. They may be afraid to lose the programs they have come to depend upon.
This is the point where you do a hands-on demo, and show that they’ve got nothing to worry about. Chromium works just like internet Explorer. LibreOffice works just like Microsoft Office. Their printer will still work. They will still be able to check their emails, and play Solitaire online. Show them that Linux Mint looks unmistakably like Windows XP, and the real-world difference isn’t as great as they might think.
Some people may be skeptical about the nature of free software itself. After all why would someone work for free, unless there’s a catch? After all, there’s no such thing as a free meal.
At this point, it might help to point out that lots of household names have contributed to Linux, including Intel, AMD, IBM, Nokia, Samsung, Google, Fujitsu, and Microsoft, according to a 2012 report from The Linux Foundation (PDF).
You should point out that Linux is so good, it’s used everywhere: from banking systems, to the computers used on Boeing’s P-8A military aircraft. From desktop computers, to smartphones and automobiles.
If it sucked, these very serious companies wouldn’t spend their time, money, and resources working on it. Neither would the financial services industry depend on it.
Once They’re Convinced, Follow Up
This is my last point. It’s a short one, I promise.
If you convince someone to start using Linux, you had best make sure that their experience is a good one. You can do this by simply being around and making the first few weeks with it as easy as possible. When you choose a distro for them, pick one that’s likely to be gentle and familiar .
Be patient, and answer questions. Above all, be understanding. Try and see their concerns and frustrations from the perspective of someone being introduced to something very foreign for the first time.
If you leave them to fend for themselves, it’ll be a disaster, and they’ll leave this experience thinking that Linux is confusing, difficult, and not worth learning. What a shame that would be.
Have you convinced any of your relatives to start using Linux? If so, how did you do it? What lessons did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.
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