16 October 2009

Is a Type of "Uncanny Valley" Preventing Linux Adoption?

I've recently been working with a lot of "netbook" based distributions of Linux lately, like Intel's Moblin project or the Ubuntu Netbook Remix.  In fact, I'm probably going to start doing a lot of my Linux virtual machine testing using these distributions only.  Why?

Because I believe that these types of distributions are the only way that Linux is ever going to get a foothold in the consumer market.

The Facts

The "Year of Linux," as it's been thought of for years, isn't going to happen.  Let's be honest.  It's just not.  Not because Linux isn't a capable operating system -- Linux can do everything the common computer user needs to do (which today is mostly just running a web browser).

No, it's because for Linux to catch on, it has to fill a need -- "fill a hole" -- and right now there's no hole for it to fill.  People have been using Windows on their personal computers for years.  Yeah, it's got its problems, but it's got loads of support, and it does everything they need it to.

Sadly enough, one of the main techniques that promoters and evangelists of Linux use to increase its adoption is actually the biggest problem -- trying to make the Linux "experience" as similar to the Windows environment as possible.  Tools such as Wine, complete Linux distributions such as Linux Mint -- they all seek to "mask" the typical Linux environment by either allowing the user to run Windows applications or by providing the same positioning for elements that Windows provides (the main "Start" menu being in the lower left corner of the screen, a task bar at the bottom of the screen).

However, whenever Linux tries to "simulate" the experience of Windows by offering a simular UI or running Windows binaries, instead of actually mollifying the user, this actually has the opposite effect. 

You've all seen the reactions.

"It just doesn't feel right.

"The colors look odd."

"Can I use the same programs?  What -- why not?"

Why does trying to ease the transition to Linux actually repel them in strange, seemingly ridiculous ways?  Honestly, I think it's because of a little thing called the "Uncanny Valley."

The Uncanny Valley of Linux

Okay, first off -- yes, I know the "Uncanny Valley" is an idea typically used in the field of robotics and other human simulacra (fancy word!) and shouldn't apply here.

Think about it, though.  Just replace "robot" with "operating system" and "human-like" with "Windows-like," and it's basically the same effect.  The more closely Linux distros try to simulate Linux, even if they're being designed that way for benevolent reasons, the more distasteful they usually seem to someone outside the OSS community.

Mark Shuttleworth, founder and CEO of Ubuntu, understood this when he made his controversial decision not to include Wine with installations of Ubuntu sold by Dell:
"I do not want to position Ubuntu and Linux as a cheap alternative to Windows," Shuttleworth said in an interview with eWEEK following the May 1 announcement that Dell plans to preload Ubuntu on some consumer machines.

"While Linux is an alternative to Windows, it is not 'cheap Windows.' Linux has its own strengths, and users should want it because of those strengths and not because its a cheap copy of Windows," he said. [eWeek]
And I agree with him!  In order for Ubuntu to be successful, you have to get away from people's preconceived notions of what an operating system is supposed to do, even if it's just getting away from running the same applications.

The Solution?

The solution is that image over to the right.  That's Ubuntu Netbook Edition (9.10) -- does that look anything at all like Windows?  There is no "desktop" -- there are no "windows."  Everything you're doing takes up the full screen, one application at a time.

Combine that with a small netbook or tablet device, and you've got a winner.  The user, having bought a small (properly marketed) netbook or tablet isn't going to be thinking of Windows, since in their mind Windows is "something that runs on laptops or desktops or my work computer."


This is the "hole" that Linux can fill -- a useful operating system for a device bigger than a phone, but smaller than a desktop computer (or large laptop).  Microsoft doesn't have much to fill this need right now -- Windows XP (though still capable) is getting incredibly long in the tooth, and Windows Vista running on the typical Atom-based netbook is... a bad experience, to say the least.

Users today are already used to cell phones with their decidedly non-Windows UI;  they're already used to their DVR's with their non-Windows UI;  they're already used to their car's built-in navigation system.  Stretching this acceptance for non-Windows systems to netbooks and tablets really shouldn't be all that hard -- hell, even just calling them "netbooks" instead of "laptops" is a damn good start (and that's why I've never had a problem with the name "netbook" like some have).

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