Interface problems hold back Linux, users say

Oddsmakers in this town probably aren’t betting against Linux, but the operating system’s users and vendors both believe that its old-style command-line interface makes it a long shot for moving beyond its current niche as an Internet infrastructure building block.

At his keynote address Tuesday at the Linux Business Expo Conference, one of the special programs held here at Comdex/Fall 2000, Miguel de Icaza, president of Helix Code Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said Linux is plagued with user interface problems that make it difficult for both end users and systems administrators. For example, just loading packaged applications is a complicated endeavor.

“We need to reach users who don’t care about the system, people who don’t care about the computer, people who don’t want to learn about the computer,” he said.

Although saying that some strides have been made in that direction, including from his own company, an e-commerce supplier, de Icaza bemoaned the fact that systems administrators still struggle to install applications on Linux and that antiquated versions of Gnome, a graphical-oriented user interface for the operating system, continue to ship with different distributions of Linux.

Raymond Chambers, a systems administrator at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, agreed. “The [user interface] in the different distributions is certainly an issue,” he said.

“But you have to balance between standards and innovation,” Chambers added.

Dean Chambers, professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside’s computer faculty, and Raymond Chamber’s father, said Linux is widely used inside the UC system.

“You can see the train coming,” he said.

Both men said they feel that Linux will be on corporate desktops in the coming year.

Adam Farkas, director of business development at e-commerce vendor ArsDigita Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., said, “The issue goes deeper than the [user interface]. It’s about usability. The [open-source] community needs to do more than do a Windows knockoff.”

De Icaza said some are looking at the fundamentals of computing to address usability. But, he warned, it’s better to focus on a realistic goal of perfecting the user interface “so non-users will be comfortable with it.”