How to convert users to Linux

There are two ways of converting users to Linux: My way or the hard way

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Credit: Gabriela Pinto/Flickr

I have converted many users, including my wife, to Linux in the past 10 years and and I am still going strong. If you do it right, Linux will do a better job for your users than Mac OS X or Windows … if you do it right.

Harvey Dent: Two sides of Linux advocacy

There are two ways of converting a user to Linux. The first to format a user’s computer without investing time in learning what the PC is used for, with the assumption that you know best, and then install your own favorite apps and tell the user to use them. When the user complains he can’t do such-and-such thing anymore, you respond: “why do you need to do that; do this instead.” The result? The user goes back to his or her former operating system, with not-so-fond memories of Linux.

The second way is to first invest time in carefully identifying the user’s needs and then decide whether Linux really is right for that user.

I have actually refrained from converting a few users to Linux after realizing their heavy reliance on some particular software or services that were not yet available for Linux. To them, a PC was just a means to do a particular job and in those cases the job at hand was more important than the OS.

Aggressively forcing those users to switch to Linux would only do more harm than good.

Why so serious? Let’s put a smile on that face

I have a simple conversion strategy. First get the users comfortable with the tools, applications or services they will be using under Linux. I have a very good use case where I deployed this strategy. When I lived in Garmisch Germany, my best buddy there (and he still is my best friend) was an Irishman named Dominic Kennedy who happened to be a Windows user.

The good news was that he was on the fence: he had heard about Linux and was willing to give it a try. However we had to get him comfortable with Linux so that he didn't have to relearn everything. My strategy is called ‘how to change all four tires of your car without getting your hands dirty’. You guessed it right, you replace one tire at a time.

In most cases, open source applications do a much better job than their proprietary counterparts in consumer as well as professional space. The first thing I did was to understand what Dominic was doing on his computer, and which applications he was using. I invested time in understanding his usage of each applications. Once I had that knowledge I started replacing those applications with open source ones on his current system. Keep in mind I don’t start with OS replacement, I start off with applications.

Why? You will see later.

I replaced Internet Explorer (yes there are people who still use Internet Explorer) with Chrome and Firefox, and explained to him the advantages of these apps. He used to write down passwords in a diary. I showed him how he could use Firefox Sync to save passwords in a secure manner. He doesn’t have to remember passwords anymore.

In the case of Google Chrome, extensions and web-apps helped him do more things than he could do on IE.

GIMP and Krita replaced the very old version of Photoshop installed on his system. He was not a professional graphics designer and it's crazy to invest over $600 per year in PS to do basic image editing.

The third tool in my arsenal was LibreOffice, which replaced the aging, and I suspected ‘pirated’ version of Microsoft Office installed on his system. I could see the sudden brightness in his eyes to find that he could use an office suite for free of cost, legally.

I also introduced him to Google Docs, which allowed him to work on documents, 'presentations', and 'excel' sheets. The collaborative feature of Docs was already exciting for him, in addition to 'never having to worry about saving the files again’.

He was already was a VLC user as it beats both WMP and QuickTime when it comes to playing various video formats. But he wasn't aware of other neat tricks VLC had up its sleeves such as media file conversion, the ability to play online videos, etc.

Clementine then became the default music player. It can pull lyrics, artist info and could do much more than the default Windows players.

That wasn't all. I also introduced him to Thunderbird, which allowed him to manage his personal and professional accounts from the same application. Thunderbird, like Firefox supports plugins so his calendar, contacts and chats were synced with his Thunderbird account. I went a step further and also installed Pidgin, which allowed him to stay in contact with friends and families via Chat.

Once in a while he would transcode videos from one format to another and had some 'shady' looking Transcoder for Windows, which also installed some toolbars on his IE. I gave him Handbrake, one of the best open source transcoders and he was happy to see the ‘clean’ interface of it with many more features than that shady one.

All of these apps pretty much replaced every single piece of software he was using on his Windows machine. I told him to use these apps for a month and keep me posted if he came across any problems. One special instruction that I gave him was that whenever he needed another app besides these to let me know so that I could suggest an alternative.

A month later when I visited him again, he had no problem with his new set-up. He even liked it.

The reason was simple: I didn’t take him out of his comfort zone. He knew that he was still using Windows.

But was he?

When people tell you that they use Windows, that's not entirely true. No one uses the OS itself. We use applications or services that run through applications. We don’t use the OS; applications use it to allocate resources to the hardware.

It was time to drive him towards the next step of changing the tires. I asked if he was still using Windows or was he using these applications that I installed. There was a moment of silence. It was a clever question. He knew that. He took a deep breath and smiled at me. He shook his head and said, ‘Well all I use is these applications and not Windows.”

The iron was hot, time to strike the hammer. “So as long as you get to use these applications it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Windows or any other OS on your system?”

Dominic gave it a thought, smiled and nodded his head.

I took a backup of his work and installed a Linux distro that was best suited for his needs. Then I installed all of those applications that he was already using. He did need a walkthrough with the new OS as it was different from Windows. But, mentally he had already been through this process when he was switched from Windows-specific, proprietary applications to their open source counterparts.

That experience had made him confident and positive about the change. He was aware that the GUI would be different but it would do more or less the same thing. And since he had had a very pleasant experience with open source applications, he approached the distro with the same positivity.

Within a week he was fluent in Linux and was happily using it! And that’s how we convert users to Linux.

So which distro did I install on his system?

That's the topic for the next article where we carefully pick the appropriate distro for specific use cases.

Share with us your strategy of converting users to Linux in the comments below.

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