A few weeks ago, sildenafil thumb my friend Ethan Zuckerman wrote a post on the difficulties of running a Linux desktop. Even the relative success of Ubuntu, this the popular version of the Debian distribution professionalized into consumer-grade ware by Mark Shuttleworth’s company Canonical hasn’t got me convinced that a Linux desktop is for everyone, prostate and Ethan outlined why very effectively.
Today, I flew to Kiev, Ukraine with a colleague of mine who is an unusual breed: a relative non-techie who is also a Linux desktop user (Suse) and a Linux enthusiast/defender. At least until, perhaps, this morning at 7:30 a.m., when we sat down next to each other at the airport in Budapest and simultaneously flipped open our matching IBM Thinkpads. Mine started up, caught the Ferihegy airport free wireless (Pannon, if you’re looking) and downloaded my last dregs of email; his did something that, to me, looked like those bad command line moments in hacker movies where the untutored audience is supposed to easily get it that Something Has Gone Wrong. So, my colleague was without his computer all day as we sat through three hours in Munich and two plane rides. After a consultation with the Linux guru back at our office, the problem was potentially isolated (a problem with the encryption container that holds all his data); as we’re visiting our colleagues here in Kiev tomorrow morning, we’ll set up my colleague’s computer with a static IP address tomorrow morning and Linux Guru from our office will tunnel in from Budapest and try to sort out the problem.
To my way of thinking, this is an interesting illustration of when, for non-techies, running a Linux desktop can work, and when it may not work so well. My colleague may be able to solve his problem because he:
1. Has a dedicated Linux guru in our office
2. Has a mobile phone on which he can call said guru when he’s out of the office
3. Has an office to go to in a foreign country where he can set up a particular help desk situation on the fly
4. Has been patient enough and dedicated enough to his Linux experiment not to toss his laptop out the window and restart with a Windows machine when things go wrong.
This situation led to a dinner discussion tonight with an open source savvy Ukranian colleague: when is it appropriate to encourage non-profit organizations to use Linux machines? From one perspective, open source seems like a logical solution to the tech woes of many low-resource organizations struggling to survive, sometimes in very hostile political environments: an open source desktop means you’re not using pirated software that could potentially give the authorities an excuse to close you down; if you’re Tajik or Georgian or another non-Microsoft language, it might mean that you can use software in your own language, instead of in English or Russian; if you have some command-line confidence, you may be able to customize it in ways that make the software more useful to you than a Windows desktop would be. However, given the type of situation outlined above, I think it’s difficult to suggest that for an individual organization without an easily accessible Linux-friendly tech support person, open source desktops would be the right choice (although I do think anyone can use the open source triple play of Open Office, Firefox, and Thunderbird with little trouble, if they are launched in the right direction).
What we concluded over a meal of Ukranian pickled vegetables, kvas, and stuffed cabbage was the utility of institutional structure in a Linux desktop deployment: universities, libraries, schools, and government offices all have the advantage of structure, usually some tech support, and better yet (at least in educational environments) a set of users who may also willingly become the techies needed to solve others problems. This is the kind of situation where I think it makes a lot of sense to deploy Linux desktops, and indeed, from Shuttleworth’s TuxLabs to SchoolNet Namibia to the Deerleap Project in Georgia to the Armenian national library’s experiments with open source, that model has started to bear real fruit; it’s also started to acclimate real users to a new system without the same level of risk that they’ll be alienated through frustration or poor support.
Update: we couldn’t get a static IP address in our Kiev office, so Colleague is out of luck until we get back to Budapest on Friday.