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Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users

The marketing blather promises easy upgrades, but that's not what one newbie found

I inserted the CD with Windows active and discovered that it requires an installation of MSIE 4.0 or higher for the autorun installation to work. Although MSIE was installed on the system, Lycoris didn't find it and closed out with a fatal error. MSIE is not mentioned in the system requirements. Trying to run install.bat doesn't work either; it's still looking for MSIE. I snooped around the CD-ROM, clicked /winsetup/rlsetup.exe and it started an installation! Lycoris correctly spotted the video card and monitor, but it didn't identify the modem.

There is absolutely no clue in the online help files on how to install extra software; the "install new software" choice just wants to go to the Lycoris Web site. I blundered into how to do it, and there is no feedback to the user that anything is happening during the software-installation process. Somehow, it worked and NetHack is running. All progress on system testing came to a halt until a kitten killed my wizard on level 8 of the game I was playing.

Another odd spot for Lycoris popped up when I tried to burn a CD. It required me to do this as root. While there might be a technical reason for this, it's a bad idea. In a family setup, "root" will either have to do all the CD-burning or the root password will end up on a piece of paper taped to the monitor.

The display automatically picked up the Windows fonts from the system, but the default display fonts are UGLY! I couldn't find how to change them in the help files.

I also couldn't dial my ISP because the modem said it was "busy" every time I tried. I could find absolutely no help for "modem" except the procedure I already had followed to install it. Help files lacking: "How to Use Redmond Linux" just gave me the KDE help files, and they aren't searchable.

A quick glance at the Lycoris site's support boards shows that I'm not the only one having modem problems. Delving deeper into the system than I want to, I find that it doesn't seem to have created any configuration files for the modem. No modem shows up in any of the hardware lists; Lycoris has decided that I am not going to use a modem.

But it printed! It really printed! Lycoris printed perfectly with "OKIPAGE 6e, foomatic lj4 using CUPs." I haven't a clue why Lycoris could do it while other distributions couldn't with the same settings, but it's an example of the frustrating and erratic performance of Linux distributions.

Mandrake 8.0 (from Cheap Bytes)

This had the same A/B position error for the hard drives that Linux for Windows did. How does a usability error this basic make it to release without getting fixed?

SUBHEAD2: System 1

Mandrake crashed on the first installation with a graphics failure, showing only a "Black Screen of Death." Later that day, after several installations, while attempting to find graphics settings that could give me a GUI, I realized Mandrake — or perhaps SuSE — had corrupted my Windows system. I had to reinstall Win95 and all of its upgrades from my backups.

SUBHEAD2: System 2

Mandrake kept filling the screen with blinking technicolor characters instead of a GUI. I finally got it working as a generic SVGA.

Play music? No such luck. I couldn't use the CD drives as root or user. Even as root, I couldn't open the configuration file to see what the problem was, because Mandrake said I didn't have the proper permissions. I thought root could do anything, but apparently not.

Mandrake couldn't automatically detect the printer on installation; it claimed to install it when manually directed to, but it didn't print.

SUBHEAD2: System 3

With the new graphics card, Mandrake installed more easily. To my surprise, the CD player worked as expected. I haven't a clue why a different graphics card would affect the CD player's access rights, but it did.

I was still unable to print, although a number of entries could be seen when I looked into the printer-related menus. Among the entries in the listing: nozzle-alignment for a Z22. I'm sure I'll have an occasion to align the nozzle on a Z22 any day now and will be grateful that I have that particular utility readily available. Right now, I'd be more grateful if I could print with my OKIPAGE 6e.

SUBHEAD2: System 4

I installed Mandrake 8.0 on this system, but only to rescue Win95 from SuSE 8.0. It still would not print, so I didn't try anything else.

SuSE 7.1 Professional

SuSE 7.1 Professional = SoSO

The SuSE manual gave instructions for making a boot disk from the CLI, but the command listed in the manual contained a typo. Needless to say, it didn't work. This simply isn't acceptable for any software.

SUBHEAD2: System 1

I never saw a GUI on this system, just a "Black Screen of Death." SuSE (or Mandrake) wiped out my Windows system.

SUBHEAD2: System 2

I couldn't find the video-driver specific to the ATI card I had, so I installed it as generic SVGA. SuSE didn't detect the modem, but it could configure it correctly when I forced the issue. During installation, it didn't detect the printer, but it highlighted the right printer as soon as I selected "manual configuration." It gave an error, "no parport," but if I clicked TEST, it found the port. Despite this ability to detect ports and printers when ordered to, it did not print.

It wouldn't let me play CDs! Why I could use the CD drive for installation but couldn't get the drawer open later for music is a mystery to me. Even root couldn't get it to open; no one on the system had the required privileges? Reboot didn't help. The drive is permanently cursed. Mandrake had a similar problem with this system, and the problem vanished with a change of video cards. I remain baffled by the implied connection between useless CD-drives and video cards.

Another weirdness: the toolbar clock toggled from civilian- to military-style and back again, without my doing anything. Does this mean it's cursed too? The preference panel showed AM/PM as the selection.

The system locked up when I told it to get WinFonts and locked up again when I tried to add an icon to the desktop. Of course, it didn't technically "crash," because the Linux kernel was still running in there somewhere. It just refused to respond to mouse clicks or keyboard commands until I hit the reset button.I restarted one more time and left it running for several hours, sporadically playing a board game. It went into and out of sleep mode a few times, and I ended up with multiple instances of x86 running, taking up most of the memory and making the system extremely slow. Then it locked up again.

It locked up yet again when I tried to open KDESYSGUARD and gave me the "Red Screen of Death" on reboot. Every time I rebooted after that, it showed a blank red screen. KDESYSGUARD seems to have permanently destroyed something critical. That's when I gave up on it.

SUBHEAD2: Where did SuSE put the WINE?

I installed WINE with System 2, but it was nowhere to be found in the menus after the installation. It might have been somewhere in the menu system, but I didn't get lucky. Finally I found it with Konquerer's file search, but it wouldn't work because it couldn't find its own winesetup file. I'm biting my fingernails to keep from typing something obnoxious here.

SUBHEAD2: System 3

My hopes rose when SuSE appeared to be working. It correctly identified the SIS chipset and monitor. I could not get it to start multiple instances of x86 by letting it go in and out of sleep mode, nor could I get it to give me the Red Screen of Death with KDESYSGUARD. Let's blame it on the video driver.

Printer: SuSE didn't see the printer or the dual-pp card it was connected to (the printer had to be moved temporarily for something I was doing in Windows). I moved the printer back to LPT0, SuSE spotted the printer on the next boot-up and claimed to install it. SuSE claims to print, and the printer lights blink, but it's still just pretending to print.

KDE CD player (kscd): This is representative of the problems that some programmers and distributors inflict on the world. My expectation when using these is that I will locate and open CD player software, insert a CD into the drive, click the play button on the interface and have music come out of my speakers.

Well, it acted as if it was playing a CD. The drive light was on, the faint noise of a rotating CD came from the drive, but no music came out of the speakers. The sound card tested OK during the installation, and CDs played under Win95, so the hardware setup and drivers were OK. Nothing in the CD player's help file was useful because there is no help file; clicking on the obvious button with the question mark did nothing. Whoever designed the interface thought that "?" is an intuitive icon for "shuffle". Clicking on HELP from the configure window merely brought up the KDE main file. As usual, SEARCH installed as deadware, referring me to some software I needed to download and install before I could search for help on CD drives.

A hint from tOSG led me to the cause of the problem: a well-hidden something called the "mixer," which was installed with the volume-slider and defaulted to zero by SuSE. The mixer overrides the CD-player volume level and the speaker controls. This important nugget of information was not mentioned in the help files for the CD-player software nor anywhere in the installation procedure.

SUBHEAD2: System 4 or 4.1

This distribution could not correctly identify the drives during installation. It told me it saw more drives than I knew I had in there, so I cancelled the installation. Why a does a motherboard change affect drive detection when the drives are the same? The BIOS correctly identified them.

Mandrake 8.1 & Mandrake 8.2 Betas

Mandrake 8.1 (Download version)

I didn't even try the CD drives with this version. Mandrake 8.1 did not work very well with my vintage collection of budget-friendly hardware.

SUBHEAD2: System 2

The hard-drive A/B sequence was fixed, and it was possible to cancel before partitioning without hitting the reset button. Some dialog boxes still cut off part of the input area, so it appeared as if the rest of the lousy GUI design had not been fixed. It never created a boot disk during installation... even though the step was on the screen and I clicked the Yes button.

Mandrake correctly spotted the printer and graphics card, but, as usual, nothing printed on test. There was no way to print out the help files, and the bottom of the configuration window was unreachable; there are no scroll bars, the text is too long for the window and the programmer should be flogged. Ironically, all I could read was the spiel about the wonders of configuring Linux.

There is excruciating detail in the Xconfig help files (I was having trouble with the screen size after installation), but there is no explanation of how to adjust screen size. Instead, a list of parameters is made available for those who already know what they are for.

After installation, I tried to add additional software by installing GIMP. The dialog box told me I needed more files, but there was no OK box to click. Was I supposed to write these files down and find them manually? Did it install them? I have no idea.

I tried to configure the printer with the Mandrake Control Center. The system froze, and although the mouse could move the cursor, clicking got me nothing.

Critical HardDrake problem: Every time I tried to open HardDrake, the screen locked up with a quivering fringe of pixels along the top. There was no keyboard response, so I couldn't switch to root or get to a command prompt. I had to use the reset button. Reboot took a long time because the file structure had to be fixed. The usual geek remedy of connecting from another computer on the network and killing the session was not available to me; this is the only computer I have.

SUBHEAD2: System 3

This distribution correctly spotted the printer and the graphics card, but it still didn't print. HardDrake still locked up the system when I tried to access it, and the escapes listed in the manual didn't work. Killing the GUI left me with a blank, black screen instead of the text login I expected.

SUBHEAD2: System 4

HardDrake did not lock up the system, but that was the only difference. It still doesn't print.

Mandrake 8.2 Beta 1 and 2: Two steps back

SUBHEAD2:System 4

Another gift from tOSG, freshly downloaded and already burned on CDs for my convenience. Unfortunately, neither of the betas worked. It couldn't print test pages during installation, and mystifyingly, this distribution was unable to get a GUI working. I selected the same monitor, graphics card, and settings that worked for Mandrake 8.1. Yes, the monitor was old, but it worked with 8.0 and 8.1. What happened and who broke it?

This brings out another frustrating aspect of Linux distributions: whom should I report the bug to? If you think the "it's the hardware, no, it's the software" tap-dance in the Windows world is annoying, wait until you see the "don't blame us we're only the distributor, you gotta talk to the dev team, no you gotta talk to the hardware maker, no it's the driver writers" boogie.

Mandrake 8.2, Red Hat 7.3 Professional & SuSE 8.0 Professional

Mandrake 8.2 Official: Barely better

SUBHEAD2: System 4.1

This managed to produce a GUI, but only after three tries with various permutations of generic SVGA monitors and refresh rates.

Critical GUI-installation issue: If I tested the graphics setup, the screen looked OK (I saw penguins on colored stripes) then vanished into quivering colored confetti when I clicked "OK". As continuing with the installation was not possible, I pushed the reset button. The test routine is apparently the source of the problem; if I didn't run the test, the monitor worked. This flawed program misleads potential users who take the time to run the tests into thinking the installation isn't going to work.

It still did not print. Even when I cheated and installed the driver provided by tOSG in the location he specified, it couldn't print. Pages and pages of raw PostScript code came out of the printer, so that was perhaps progress.

I abandoned this trial before testing the CD drives. My willingness to experiment is fading. This is looking more like the Donner party's trek than a migration.

Red Hat 7.3 Professional

SUBHEAD2: System 4.1

I realize this is (now) a very old version of Red Hat. I tried it anyway. I never successfully installed Red Hat 7.3 on a pure Windows machine. However, it replaces other Linux distributions easily... and almost prints!

The first time I installed this, I forgot to get rid of the existing Mandrake installation, so Red Hat installed right over the top of it. It correctly spotted my new 3-button mouse as "generic 3-button." It had a nice map of the time zones for me to select from. Both the CD player and the modem worked. It couldn't install a boot loader on the hard drive for some reason. Maybe it couldn't figure out how to get rid of Mandrake's LILO? I had to make a boot floppy.

Half a loaf may be better, but... although Red Hat correctly installed the printer and ASCII texts printed, the non-ASCII test page was split between two sheets of paper.

Red Hat 7.3 doesn't play nicely with Windows! Unfortunately, with a pure Windows 95 machine just like the other distributions started with, Red Hat didn't ask if I wanted to create a dual-boot system. It didn't recognize existing partitions; it just showed me the two physical drives. Maybe there was some instruction I didn't notice, but I fared no better when using the wizard/druid/whatever-it-is. I could make a swap file out of the free space on hda, but I couldn't get Red Hat to create a directory structure for itself in the reserved, formatted partition on hdb.

This was enough to lose my recommendation for a dual-boot system for a non-geek. It might have done OK, but I couldn't tell what it planned to do to Win95 and my data.

SuSE 8.0 Professional: It prints perfectly, but...

SUBHEAD2: System 4.1

The installation went well, but the drive-partitioning would be easier if it were graphical like Mandrake's. The hdxn notation was hard to comprehend, but at least it saw the drives correctly.

Monitor: It spotted the card and accepted the settings.

Printer: THE PRINTER WORKED! It actually printed graphics and ASCII text during the installation test! Is this going to be the one that "just works"? Is my search at an end?

Sound Card: SuSE got smarter. It showed a dialog for configuring the mixer during installation.

Modem: As a user, I tried to get on the Internet. SuSE said I didn't have something critical installed and to ask my sysop to do it. Well, I am my sysop, and I thought I had configured the modem during installation. I answered all the questions they asked. If there are additional steps involved in giving one's users access to features, please make them available when one creates the user account.

The ^%@#!s killed Windows! After installation, I couldn't boot into Win95 from SuSE's boot screen. The system gave an "Invalid system disk" error message every time I tried. The usual rescue method of typing fdisk/mbr in MS-DOS mode didn't restore bootability either. I had to install Mandrake 8.0 over the top of SuSE to get my system running again. Why it works, I haven't a clue, but Mandrake8 makes a good Windows rescue disk even if it doesn't print.

Later, I found out that tweaking LILO via YAST might have made it work. However, SuSE 7.1 was installed as a dual-boot system without any tweaking. They made it worse rather than better in the newer release, and a no-hassle, dual-boot installation is one of my requirements.

Mandrake 9.0 & Red Hat 8.0

Mandrake 9.0: It prints! It dials!! Noise comes out of the speakers!!!

Finally! After many months and multiple distributions, I found a distribution that was able to create a system in which the GUI, printer, CD player and modem simultaneously worked. It was time to see if I could burn CDs, which is something I didn't bother to try with earlier distributions.

SUBHEAD2: System 4.1

Minor printer issues: It correctly identified the printer early in the installation, but later indicated it planned to install drivers for a different model. I intervened and changed it back to the correct printer. This is NOT acceptable behavior from an installation program. They should remember what was accepted in earlier steps.

... but it printed! It really, truly printed!

Modem issues: One of the modem-setup programs lied to me. It said I wasn't connected, but I tried Mozilla anyway and had no problems. Anyone relying on these error messages is going to have problems.

An error message ("pppd daemon died unexpectedly") appeared every time I tried to use one of the other connection programs. I was eventually able to connect to the Web and use a browser with one of the programs, but I was so stunned by the ability for Mandrake 9 to print that I forgot to write down which program it was.

CD-ROM issues: The CD player works with music, although Mandrake couldn't recognize the sound card and I had to run sndconfig as root. The installation process told me what I would have to do, which is acceptable. However, I am annoyed at the backsliding because earlier distributions recognized the card and there was no need for manual intervention. This is not progress.

Mandrake correctly identified both CD-ROM drives during installation and showed them correctly on the desktop and in the Mandrake Control Center. However, I couldn't make a disk-to-disk copy of a CD-ROM because XCDROAST showed the CD-RW drive as both the reader and the writer. As a result, it couldn't find the other CD drive. GCombust only showed one drive and coughed up an error message saying that it didn't like the settings. However, the help file was no help in determining the settings it needed, so it was useless. Gtoaster was dead on arrival. It opened and did nothing else. It wouldn't even close, and I had to kill the process to get rid of it.

If the BIOS can identify the drives, the boot sequence correctly identifies them and they show up correctly in the control center, what's the problem? Why can't these burners burn?

Data issues: I was so stunned by being able to print that I forgot to make sure Mandrake could access the Windows drives before I tried Red Hat 8.0. On a repeat installation, it automatically mounted the Windows partitions.

Red Hat 8.0: It prints! It dials!! Noise comes out of the speakers!!! But where's my data?

Another system where the GUI, printer, CD player and modem worked simultaneously! That's two in a row! Unfortunately, it flunks the "all my data must be usable" condition.

SUBHEAD2: System 4.1

This version saw the right partitions and, with some prodding from me, installed itself into the right spot. After installation, it gave me a dual-boot system with a working version of Win95. The partitioning was not as convenient as Mandrake's, but it was clear enough.

It went through the motions of creating a user during installation, but it did not actually do so. I had to create a user later.

Red Hat performs no modem- or printer-setup during installation, so I had to do it later. This was inconvenient, but not a showstopper. The GUI-configuration manager proved to be adequate.

Graphics: Red Hat could not automatically identify the video card, but it had no problems after I told it what the card was.

Printer: The printer printed but still split the page. I discovered that it only did this at 600 DPI, and at 300 DPI the page was correct. I'm not sure my printer can produce 600 DPI, so this might have been the printer's fault. Every time I booted up, it saw the printer and wanted to configure it again. This is annoying.

Modem: The modem installed, and I experienced no problems dialing up and accessing the Internet.

CD player: Red Hat's hardware-detection couldn't see my sound card, and it offered no suggestions on what to do about this situation in the error message it showed. The earlier version had no problems detecting the card, so this is a second distribution that lost features in the process of "improving." Help was as unhelpful as usual. Running sndconfig (as suggested by Mandrake) was successful, and music CDs will play. On the next boot-up, Red Hat saw the card just fine and wanted to configure it.

Hard drives: Oopsie! I couldn't see any non-Linux drives as root or user, and that's where my data is. mount showed me my choices: two CD drives, a floppy and neither of the Windows partitions. The hardware manager correctly showed the drives, but I couldn't mount them from that interface.

Searching the help files from the desktop had the expected results: "mount" not found. Looking at the man pages (yup, I actually looked for a man page) was less than helpful. Look at the index for man pages for "devices." See all the non-descriptions? Am I supposed to open every one of them hoping to find the right one? Is a drive even considered a "device"?

On a repeat installation, I tried to mount the Windows drives at the same time as setting the Linux partitions. Red Hat refused to do so, claiming that the drives needed a "Linux mount point". I tried /home, /user and one other / kind of drive that was visible, and it rejected them all. Would it be so terribly difficult to give me an option that says "This is for Windows" and a choice to "make it available" or not?

CD burning: Either I have to be root (xcdroast, gtoaster) or it errored-out because a file was missing (KONCCD). Even as root, none of the CD-burning programs correctly detected the drives.

Mystery error: Something crashed on exit; it gave a "oops, crashed," a process number and wanted me to visit a Web site, but the error window closed out within seconds. I still have no clue what it was, and I'll never see it again because these CDs are headed for the trash.

Flawed testing and sloppy GUI: The Red Hat Alert, some sort of update feature, had "Click on 'Next' below" on the first dialog box. However, there was no button labeled "Next." Did they perhaps mean "Forward"?

The "you have to be root to do this" dialog box had two buttons: OK and Cancel. When I clicked Cancel, it gave me an error about the password being incorrect. I cancelled; there was no need to check password and give an error message. Just close the window like a good operating system.

Knoppix 3.1 & Wrap-up

Knoppix 3.1: Oh, what the heck, I had the CD

Knoppix boots up with errors and odd behavior at times, but it booted most of the time. The hardware-detection was excellent; it saw everything correctly at least once. The CD drive I boot from is the slower and older of the two, so I think the drive speed may have caused some errors.

Connecting to the Internet worked. Knoppix showed the Windows partitions, unlocked them, read from them and wrote to them with no problems.

On the second boot-up, there was no cursor. It was pretty, but it was also dead.

Configuring printers: Nothing happened on the first try. On the third boot-up, it spotted the printer correctly, but the Wizard did not hold the settings. I had to reselect everything later. It could print, but it had the same split-page error as Red Hat, even at 300 DPI.

CD-ROM issues: Knoppix correctly identified both drives, and XCDRoast let me configure them, but I couldn't make a copy because it didn't "see" the media in the reader drive. I was trying to have Knoppix make a copy of itself — perhaps it was too ambitious.

I repeatedly saw an error message about a "segmentation fault" on boot-up, as well as something about being unable to create a "frame buffer."

The ideal migration distribution

After installing a number of distributions, I realized that none of them addressed the problem of migrating very well. If anyone wants to make it easier for Windows-users to migrate to Linux, the distribution should come with a utility that would ease the process.

This pre-installation migration utility would run under Windows and query the system and the user for everything it needs (IRQ numbers, ISP phone numbers, passwords, etc.) at a time when the user can look at Windows programs to see what the settings are. This utility would also ask about type of environment: solo computer or part of a small home/office network. It would save this information to a floppy or to the Windows partition for use during installation.The perfect utility would remind the user to make back-ups of critical data, delete useless files, give them some clean-up hints and even run the defrag utility to help make room for Linux.

The installation would also make sure that permissions for printers, CD-burning and more were taken care of when users are created, instead of it having to be set multiple times for various things.

Suggestions and comments for improving the experience

I'm not a programmer, but I frequently test software as part of my day job. Usually, my job entails reporting bugs and interface problems that I uncover as I write user- or system-manuals for corporate projects. The corporations for which I usually work would consider the overall quality of the various Linux distributions and software to be "beta-level" at best. In other words, it's ready for a pilot group to use and work the bugs out, but not ready for a corporate-wide rollout. The major flaw is a simple lack of attention to details that make software usable, such as creating a consistent GUI and providing help files written for non-expert users.

SUBHEAD2: TEST before release

Having a willing group of users for beta testing is good, but only the programmer knows what is supposed to happen.

Special mention for lack of testing: SuSE 7.1's bug in YAST. Clicking the [x] in the corner of a dialog doesn't just close the dialog box as it does on most dialog boxes. It closes out the entire YAST, which means all your software choices go bye-bye. Some GUI-testing before release would have found that glitch; having all clickable things tested for unwanted actions is a reasonable expectation.

SUBHEAD2: GUI = Garish, Unreadable and Inconsistent

People look for patterns, and learning is faster when there is a consistent mode of action to learn.

Using an icon is the same as defining a visual constant; users expect an icon to have the same effect throughout the system. Unfortunately, even something as basic as the position of the [x] to close a dialog box varies from corner to corner between programs and — even worse — sometimes within the same program. Some windows have a clickable icon to maximize the window, while others are "drag-to-maximize" only.

SUBHEAD2: Other design hints

  • Take a look at the color combinations and sizing of your interfaces. Ask a friend who doesn't have their mom or spouse pick their clothes for them about your color choices.
  • Make sure the software can check screen resolution and draw something with text and buttons that is large enough to be readable at the current resolution.
  • Make sure your dialog boxes fit on the screen and don't get cut off at the bottom, making part of the controls invisible or unreachable. I shouldn't have to shove the top part of the window off screen to get to the text fields or buttons at the bottom.
  • Make sure the text instructions on a dialog box match the wording on the box's buttons.

SUBHEAD2: Special mentions for poor GUI design:

Kaiman, a popular media player for KDE, features faint blue-gray and gray text on a light-gray background. With my screen at maximum resolution, the symbols are about 1mm high and totally illegible.

SuSE 7.1 had two icons on the same dialog window that looked identical but had distinctly different actions when clicked. How is a user expected to make an association between an icon and an action when the icons are variables?

SUBHEAD2: Interface comments

  • Root versus Users: Don't show me things I can't use. If I don't have permission to mess with something, don't show me the menus and dialog boxes used to mess with it unless you also give me a way to log in as the user with correct permissions.

  • Feedback to user lacking: A "busy" indicator is needed for all software. It's often too hard to tell whether it's working or dead.

  • Menu systems: Eliminate duplicate occurrences of package listings.

  • Eliminate redundant branches (Games/Amusements/Toys; Text Editors/Word Processors/Office Applications), because it makes finding software harder than it should be.

  • Why are menu systems six (or more) layers deep in some installations? I often fill the screen with pop-outs before I get to what I'm looking for.

  • System defaults: How about one spot per user to set the defaults for all software (sound, fonts, etc.)?

  • Adding and deleting software: Why do I have to have the installation CD to delete software? Why can't I delete part of a "Game Pack" when only a few are worth playing? Why does the deleted stuff hang around on the menus? Is it waiting for a reboot? Why doesn't the installation routine tell me where it hid the program?

  • Before you say RTFM, make sure there is AFM to R: ...and make sure that the table of contents of a specific software's help file opens when I click the corresponding help button. Context-sensitive help is over a decade old — I have written a lot of it for Windows — but doesn't appear to have taken hold in Linux.

    Make sure the components needed to search TFMs for help are installed along with TFman pages and TFHTML help files. I tried to search for "permissions," only to be told that SuSE is missing a critical part of the help-file system: "The full text search engine makes use of the ht:/dig HTML search engine. You can get ht:/dig at the ht:/dig_homepage." Thanks, SuSE. That was a lot of help.

  • Applications should not point exclusively to a Web page for help or troubleshooting. What happens if I'm offline in the middle of a 12-hour flight to Tokyo and desperately need help?

  • Less cute commentary, more helpful text in help files, please. Any programmer who has "please hire me" as the sole contents of the help file for his program is proclaiming his unemployability; who needs a programmer that can't explain what the software does?

  • When I was looking at descriptions in what might have been the man pages, the brief description given for many of them was "who knows". Well, if the dev team and distributor don't know what the command does, how can a non-expert user be expected to? These were probably command descriptions — I'm a bit puzzled by what I blundered into.

  • Ensure useful help files: Expecting someone to put together the right sequence of instructions from the usual Linux help file is like having the directions to a location listed alphabetically by street name. In other words, the information might be all there, but even after you read it, you have no clue how to get to where you want to go.

  • Alphanumeric listings of variables and features are seldom useful, except as reminders to those who already know how to use the software. For a novice, they are worse than useless. Rather than help people convert to Linux, they ensure that Linux keeps its reputation as hard-to-use.

  • Help should be TASK-oriented, not FEATURE-oriented. Users know what they want to do. Talk them through the sequence of commands they have to use to get to where they are going.


    • WHEN using the software or command is appropriate or necessary.
    • WHAT is the significance of any returned results from a command, or what is required before you start using the command. List parameters, serial numbers, results of other commands or anything else that is a prerequisite.
    • HOW to string commands together to get to the goal, and how to know when you are successful.

Maybe someday I'll get lucky

As a whole, Linux is much closer to being an acceptable operating system than it was at the start, but it's still not perfect. Printing is still not a sure thing, sound-card support is degenerating instead of improving, and I have yet to successfully burn a CD. At the moment, I have Mandrake 9 installed but don't use it.

More Stories By Tsu Dho Nim

© Tsu Dho Nimh. Tsu Dho Nimh is a long-time technical writer whose hobbies include gardening, herbal medicine and poking geeks with sharp sticks. Nimh has worked with almost every OS and editing tool on the planet -- from mainframe to Mac, troff to FrameMakerSGML -- and is currently writing installation and user manuals for large diesel-powered compressors for firefighting vehicles and datasheets for the next generation of high-speed CMOS12 I/O cells (not at the same company, of course).

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