Oh noes! The command line!

Just reading Mark Shuttleworth’s response to Matt Zimmerman’s summation of the community’s expectations of the Ubuntu Dapper Drake 6.06 LTS release. One thing stuck out about Zimmerman’s comments, that’s the complaint that users still have to use the command line for some tasks.

I know, the Holy Grail for a lot of users is to be able to pointy click their way through life, and that’s just a bar that Linux will be measured by no matter what, but I find it odd that so many users seem to have such a deep fear of text. Or is it the command line that they fear?

I mean, a lot of tasks — like installing Nvidia drivers — are simply a matter of cut and paste. The user only needs to open a terminal, highlight some text from a tutorial or forum page, and hit Enter. Is that really so terribly difficult?

No, it’s not — and I don’t think that’s what users are complaining about. Some users may be deeply offended at having to open a terminal and type apt-get install something something but I think the real problem is that users hate having to google for solutions to things that they want to be able to do easily or that they think should be easy to do.

I’ve said this many times: What Linux and open source need right now is better documentation, in central repositories where users can find it easily, and documentation that’s written well and easy to follow. The Ubuntu forums, for example, contain a wealth of information if you can find the right post and you can weed out the incorrect or outdated suggestions and if you can actually follow the advice — since most online documentation and posts assume a great deal of foreknowledge that just isn’t there for a lot of folks.

I’ve found some really good how-to info in the forums, and I’ve also found a lot of contradictory advice and suggestions that simply don’t work — or document the third and fourth step in a five-step process. As an example, it took me quite a while to go through the forums and figure out how to get the AirPort card working in a 12″ G4 iBook.
In other words, if you’re already experienced with Linux the docs that are “out there” are sufficient, but most of the folks trying to figure things out are not already experienced, and they have a bad experience when turning to online help.

I’ve suggested several times that it’d be a really Good Thing if a company or organization would fund documentation development in the same manner as projects like Google’s Summer of Code and the code bounties that several companies have funded. We have much of the code that we need, but we still need some better docs — particularly if users are going to get over the fear of the command line, because I think it’s a good thing if users are exposed to the command line now and again and have a chance to learn something in the process.

Editor, writer, communications expert, former community manager, open source enthusiast, music nut, and cat guy. Not necessarily in that order.

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