Thursday, 15 January 2009

Ubuntu causes girl to drop out of college? Errr...

I expect by now most of you will have seen this article, about a young woman who bought a new Dell laptop, but for some reason got it with Ubuntu preinstalled, and was complaining that it had forced her to drop out of college.

My first thought was how? Dell's website doesn't exactly make show Ubuntu prominently, you really have to go searching round for it to find it. Also, it has a pretty big disclaimer saying that if you buy one of these computers, you won't be getting it with Windows. Dell certainly don't sneak it onto your computer.

Second, it's certainly not Ubuntu's or Dell's fault. If she'd bought a Mac, for example, the Verizon setup CD probably wouldn't work on that either - even now Macs aren't always well supported.

I don't really blame the girl, although she REALLY should have asked for help earlier, and not gone to the TV station! If she'd logged into the Ubuntu Forums plenty of people would have been willing to help. Hell, I would have been willing to help someone in that position myself, it's certainly not a terribly hard issue!

That girl represents the overwhelming majority of people who use computers for just surfing the net, emailing and writing a few documents. Ubuntu can perform very well in that role, however most Internet Service Providers are still very Windows-centric. I'm sure many Mac users experience these kinds of issues too. So getting broadband working using ISP-provided hardware and software in anything other than Windows can be an uphill struggle.

I guess the issue really here is more about ISP's than end users or operating systems. I truly despise the setup CD's used by most ISP's. Why install software you don't need to use? It's not hard to configure a broadband connection if someone just gives you the information you need.
Here's what I think ISP's need to do:
  1. Ditch those stupid USB DSL modems most ISP's use. On Windows you normally need to install a driver to use them, whereas Linux and Macs will generally either work straight away with them or won't work. A much better option is something that connects via Ethernet. As a general rule, it won't require any drivers to work on any OS you wish. More and more broadband packages include a wireless router, so just make this a decent Ethernet one rather than a USB one. If they don't need to install a driver, that's a whole step in the process gone, like that! Could cut down on tech support calls in one stroke.
  2. Ditch the automated configuration software and use a web interface. These are generally just as user-friendly, but don't require you to install anything. My D-Link wireless router has a web interface and I can configure it on my MacBook, or one of my Linux machines if I wish. If the ISP provides the router, make it one with a web interface, and have the setup instructions concentrate on that router, but provide information that's sufficient to cover any router. Also, what if people are going to be using the connection primarily with something other than a computer, such as a PlayStation 3? This way, no matter whether they use Windows, a Mac, Ubuntu, Slackware, Solaris, FreeBSD or a PS3, they can get online.
  3. Get rid of automated setup CD's for Internet connections. Every remotely user-friendly OS, Ubuntu included, has its own wizard for setting up an Internet connection. Give people the information they need to do it, and let them do it. I really think one of the reasons people have problems with computers is over-zealous hardware and software suppliers trying their best to hide every last little detail, even filling in a few numbers and ticking a few boxes.
I'm all for making things easy to use, but end users should not be spoon-fed. It makes more sense to me to give people the information they need and let them get on with it. Configuring a router via a web interface if you have all the information you need on a sheet of paper is no harder than filling in a form online, which anyone with half a brain can do. If you can join Facebook, you can configure your router if someone gives you the information you need.

Instead people get told to put in the CD, run it and attach the modem. They expect it to work straight away, and if it doesn't are lost, because every last detail has been hidden from them so they don't know where to turn next. If they have input those details themselves, they can go back and see if they have entered something wrongly.

I appreciate there are many people who don't want to learn the technical details. Fine, I don't want to force them to learn. But we should be trusting people to input a few details on their own, rather than pushing everything out of sight.

1 comment:

Trevor Ian Peacock said...

I totally agree with those recommendations. USB is a no-go. Same going back a few years. I always had a strong preference for RS232 Dialup modems. USB is just a pain.