Grokking the Goatberg

As a Linux and Open Source user and advocate, it's often easy to take defensive potshots at those who are critical of our favorite OS. It's a position that I have become intimately familiar with over the last decade or so, because before I was a Linux and Open Source advocate, I was an IBM OS/2 advocate.

As a Linux and Open Source user and advocate, it’s often easy to take defensive potshots at those who are critical of our favorite OS. It’s a position that I have become intimately familiar with over the last decade or so, because before I was a Linux and Open Source advocate, I was an IBM OS/2 advocate.

Yes, back in the early 90′s, I was one of those “Team OS/2″ guys. You know, one of those seriously rabid and hyper-energetic geeky types that did demos at Egghead Software, user groups, and anywhere and anyone we could get the system in front of as part of a volunteer grassroots marketing strategy. Why did we do it? Because we loved the system so much and wanted to get as many people using it as possible. And let’s face it, it needed all the help it could get at the time, because unlike the way Linux is being pushed today in commercials and the print media, OS/2 wasn’t getting much help in terms of marketing dollars from its parent company. This was circa 1995, long before the Internet and before the Web was this hugely popular and ubiquitous information resource. Back then, all we had were bulletin board systems, USENET, and services like CompuServe and Prodigy to get the news out. Broadband? Fuhgeddaboudit.

But we did have some things in common. One constant we did have to deal with was the mainstream media and what they thought about our favorite OS, and how the public interpretation of that media impacted the future of the platform. One of the most feared in the mainstream was Walter Mossberg, Personal Technology columnist of the Wall Street Journal or the “Goatberg” as a certain fake computer company CEO likes to refer to him, in reference to his trademark billy goat-style goatee.

Mossberg, who has been writing his column in the Wall Street Journal since 1991, is a force to be reckoned with. Much like Frank Bruni or Robert Parker can alter the futures of a prominent restaurant or a winery with a single review, Mossberg can determine the future of a technology product or a company with a summary judgment in one of his columns. Like it — as he did with the iPod and the iPhone — it becomes a huge success; or hate it — like he did with the Sharp Zaurus or OS/2 — and it’s likely to be relegated to the tech dumpsters of history.

So, naturally, I read with great interest his writeup of a preloaded Dell system running Ubuntu Feisty in the September 13, 2007 issue of the Wall Street Journal. What he says shouldn’t be much of a shock to anyone here:

My verdict: Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users. While Ubuntu looks a lot like Windows or Mac OS X, it is full of little complications and hassles that will quickly frustrate most people who just want to use their computers, not maintain or tweak them… Dell and Canonical tell me there are complex workarounds for some of the problems I encountered, and that built-in improvements are planned for others. But for now, I still advise mainstream, nontechnical users to avoid Linux.”

Now, I always thought that Mossberg was a bit of an alter kocker when it came to talking about technology. To me, his audience always seemed like old banker types who needed to know what digital cameras and radar detectors their wives should buy them for their birthdays, not the types that read serious computer publications. Still, one has to realize that even though this is a Personal Technology column, your basic CIO reading the Journal on the commuter train to work is inevitably going to put the words “Linux” and “Avoid” together, irrespective of how well Linux is doing as an enterprise OS in his organization. It’s going to hurt desktop adoption for sure.

So, should we be crying foul? Should we be accusing The Goatberg of FUDMeistery? Write a few thousand lines of foaming at the mouth invective on comp.os.linux.advocacy and hang Mossberg in effigy?

No, because the Goatberg speaks the truth. What he says about lots of complications and hassles and workarounds gets to the real heart of the problem with desktop Linux adoption. As early adopters and power users, we are willing to deal with these problems in order to benefit from Linux’s greater reliability and performance. But the reality is the majority of end users would have extreme difficulty in migrating to a current Linux desktop without lots of extra help from a skilled IT professional, and even then he still might not be able to completely adapt.

So is The Goatberg’s Ubuntu review the kiss of death for Linux? Far from it. In fact, I think it will be the one that might very well defy the historical pattern of Goatberg No Likey, Product Go Bye-Bye. At the end of the day, Linux’s future is independent from the fates of the companies that promote it — so, while distros like Red Hat and SUSE are certainly products and may very well be at the mercy of Wall Street, the Open Source projects themselves such as Ubuntu and Debian, and the multitude of smaller projects that comprise them ultimately are at the fate of the community that create them.

Still, I think its important to listen to people like Walt Mossberg because sometimes its necessary for us geeky types to get in the shoes of the end user. When Walt has problems getting his digital camera recognized, or syncing up with his iPod, or playing Web-based video clips, you can be assured that your average end user probably will too. Can the community fix these problems? Absolutely. But unlike the rabid Team OS/2 guys of old, let’s not take out our frustrations on the poor mainstream press when what we really should be doing is getting back to the drawing board and making things work.

Comments on "Grokking the Goatberg"


I love linux, but I can’t imagine the nightmare it would be to install it for my mother-in-law that calls every three months because she can’t remember how to attach an email.

I’ve been using it since the circa 94-95 yggdrasil distribution and it has come so far, but I still think it could go much further in the realms of usability and consistent user interface design.

The availability of third party apps is also a sore point. I’m writing this on a MacBook Pro with OSX because I’m a web developer and I just plain need Adobe Photoshop. I haven’t found GIMP particularly usable and it can’t always handle photoshop files, especially CS3 files and wine has never really worked for me. The best setup has other than OS X has been Linux and VMWare with a windows install.

Other than market share the binary incompatiblity between distributions has to be the biggest roadblock in getting commercial software on linux. I know you can always compile apps from source, if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you. Lets assume it does, lets assume you are my mother-in-law that can barely install any app on windows no matter how simple it is. This would mean that you are bound by the apps that your given distribution provides. Sounds like a monopoly to me.

Linux touts freedom, but only if you are a gear head. For linux to succeed on the desktop the user interface, software compatibilty and software packaging issues need to be solved.



“I love linux, but I can’t imagine the nightmare it would be to install it for my mother-in-law”

Out of the box, Ubuntu provides web browsing, email, word processing and a media player. What more could you mother-in-law need.

“I’m a web developer and I just plain need Adobe Photoshop”

As a web developer you should be well up with the gear-heads. Try installing Photoshop under CrossOver Office ..

Now that Dell and some others are offering pre-installed Linux, it should be usable for mother-in-laws everywhere …


Team OS/2! Ahhh those were the days :)

I carried a small pc with OS/2 around in my car, doing demo’s too…


You’re right, he’s right, there is just too much tweaking for the average user. But, in a controlled corporate desktop environment where the user has his own IT support, I think Ubuntu is feasible. Corporate desktop should be the next battlefield for Linux. Personal/Home desktop will fall after corporate because people will want to be able to run the same applications they do at work.

The big impediment I see to getting Linux or Ubuntu out to corporate users is Evolution. Outlook and Exchange are the kings of IT. I’m sorry to say it, but Evolution is 10 years behind outlook and the gap is growing. Get a good e-mail, contacts and calendar app that plays nice with exchange on the backend and I will finally be able to stand in front of my executive management and say, “I think you guys should run Ubuntu”.


Well I think Mossberg is right. Recently I started to use a MacBook Pro for my work. My work is deployed on Linux or FreeBSD servers (which I’m also running). I also have an Ubuntu desktop but I don’t use it as often, now that I have the MacBook. Linux and FreeBSD are very reliable and very stable, but developing on the MacBook is easier. Everything is available, even the well known “Linux/Unix” open source products.


Levi, have to differ Sir. I converted my Dad over to Kbuntu Linux 6 months ago after him fighting updates and security hassles with WinXP which even I agree is a very stable platform. Taught him how to use equivalent tools like OpenOffice, Kontact, Firefox. The hardest conversion was his genealogy programs.

In the space of a week he was pretty much familiar with the tools. I now can sys admin the box remotely. Several scripts are used to do a local tar of the critical files. Son version is kept local and copied to my home server. All father, grandfather backups I keep on the server. So far we have save $$ for not having to have some Geek do a XP security fix.

Life is good.


Mossberg is right in the sense that Linux has to learn to interoperate a bit better. Mail being the glaring example. Both Evolution and Chandler have their faults. My biggest complaint is they both try to be Exchange clones while not offering anything better. (Fact they both lack features Exchange users love.)

FOSS probably ought to consider doing Exchange one better while still being an IMAP compliant tool. A lot could be learned by looking at several CMS tools like PLOne before diving in though. But Exchange could be beat at it’s own game.


Mossberg did not slam Linux, so let’s not get our panties all twisted up. The fact that he said “for now” indicates that he is aware that the time when Ubuntu is ready for the mass market is fast approaching. I agree with the general notion that there are still several important issues that need to be dealt with, though.

Nevertheless the complaint that Grandma and Aunt Tilley can’t use it is obsolete. It is in the past. Perhaps they can’t be power users yet, they probably can’t be corporate desktop users yet, they can’t diagnose and fix some common problems, but email, web browsing, typical office suite usage, and many other mainstream activities are perfectly viable now. Installing Ubuntu is by no means out of their league either.

My teenage non-geek daughter swapped Vista for Ubuntu on her laptop months ago. After an annoying issue with headphones was resolved, she is quite happy. She also is used to switching among her Linux laptop, some Win2K and WinXP boxes at home, and a variety of Windows and Macs at school, each with preferred activities.

We should distance ourselves from the idea that OSs are like religions, and you belong to just one in contraposition to all others. Computer usage isn’t like that at all.


“Yes, back in the early 90′s, I was one of those “Team OS/2″ guys. You know, one of those seriously rabid and hyper-energetic geeky types that did demos at Egghead Software, user groups, and anywhere and anyone we could get the system in front of as part of a volunteer grassroots marketing strategy. Why did we do it? Because we loved the system so much and wanted to get as many people using it as possible.”
Ah yes … TeamOS/2 Germany, #155 :}

I still think that as far as Gooey goes the WPS was IT. Nothing else ever came close to its functionality.

“I love linux, but I can’t imagine the nightmare it would be to install it for my mother-in-law that calls every three months because she can’t remember how to attach an email.”

Honestly? How odd – since I replaced the Win2K
install on my mother-in-laws PC with Slackware 2 years ago the number of support calls has dropped to about a quarter of the initial rate, and my maintenance work is done remotely, and takes up a twentieth of the time ever since …



“But Exchange could be beat at it’s own game.”

John, what do you mean? Other tools could rape RFC’s standards more efficiently? :} Like changing the separator between e-Mail addresses and embracing non-permissible hostnames? Mangling headers of received e-Mail more effectively?


Folks, I have trouble trying to find a more diehard advocate than myself, but, I find that you are all correct!

In the FOSS, GNU/Linux, *BSD, world, each user is allowed and permitted to find and use the tool that works best for their purpose, on their machine, at the moment it is needed.

Most of us run multiple machines, in different OSes, to get work done fast and secure.

I find that all the children of K-12 grades in the schools I support, take to FedoraCore7, Mepis, and PCLinuxOS, immediately.

None of the “issues” noted by Mr. Mossberg exist for the average student, teacher, or administrator, or the parents who get free LiveCDroms.

Perhaps Mr. Mossberg’s mother is not able to function in a computer environment at all and learn new tricks, and Mr. Mossberg has no clue that there are free help forums, Linux Users Groups, and other free services in his community.

Someone stated that computers are the most complex household appliance man has ever owned.

Folks, if it is a new, different, most complicated machine, then you might have to invest some time in learning it!


I, too, was a user of the elegant OS/2, with the Presentation Manager in 1995 that was more than Win XP in 2000. But what success could IBM have marketing OS/2 with such slogans as: “OS/2; it’ll obliterate your software!”. I referred to MS as the ’800 lb. marketing gorilla’ and IBM as ‘technological excellence, but couldn’t market watertight doors to the submarine fleet if they were sole-source provider’ when it came to selling OS/2 to individual users.


Here’s a quick rundown of my comments…

On one hand, I loved OS/2, too. I bailed when IBM came out with those psychedelic “Warp” commercials absolutely blowing the marketing potential of that word. My brother was a Team OS/2 member and did all that stuff. I started running Linux in 1991 but just for learning and hacking. OS/2 was my desktop.

On the other hand, as for mothers and in-laws and such, check out Interview with a Grandmother on Linux Journal. There are some other articles at http://www.webtrek.com/joe/articles if you’re curious.

On the gripping hand, the people who have the most problems with Linux in todays world are the Windows Power Users. Techies have no problems with Linux as a desktop (I’ve been using it exclusively since 1993 or ’94). Grandma and Aunt Tilly users can get systems all preconfigured so that they’re basically plug in and go.


As a grandfather who came into *nix through Coherent, I agree with most of the comments here – especially those that say Evolution is hopeless.
Every time I try to use it it wipes out my todo list and clears my calendar files.
A decent and reliable Outlook-type mail/calendar/task program would be the killer app for personal and corporate users.


It really boils down to being able to differentiate between helpful constructive criticism and FUD. While the excerpt from Mossberg isn’t necessarily helpful (unless he later went into detail about why non-technical users should avoid Linux, it is far from FUD. First it should be pointed out that he said “non-technical” as opposed to say “anyone who doesn’t have a degree in Computer Science”. Yes there are plenty of helpful user forums out there, but if you aren’t a “technical user” when you post your first question, you will be by the time you get your problem solved. Point in case any fix that requires opening a terminal should by definition be considered technical. I’ve been happily running Suse as a desktop environment at home (alongside XP and OSX) for the last three years, but I’ve had my fair share of headaches and have had to compile from source and hand edit config files to get around them.

I recently installed Ubuntu on an old box just to se what all the hype was about, and I’ll have to say having installed 3 other flavors of Linux (I tried Debian and Fedora, before deciding on Suse back when I first decided to give Linux a try) and XP from scratch before, that Ubuntu was by far the easiest and least technical of them all. The tutorials to get Ubuntu to play common media files were on par with those for Suse and fairly straight forward, but still that definitely starts to approach technical. So I’d say it’s a stretch to claim that Ubuntu (or any linux distro) has “out of the box media playing capabilities. Yes I realize that’s for solid legal reasons and it does just fine with open source CODECs, but most of us don’t have and our entire music collection in .ogg so we have to jump through that hoop. My big beef with Ubuntu came when I attempted to add a Samba share. Using the “Share Folders” GUI was simple enough, but when I went to access the share from a Windows box I was prompted for a password. I tried my Ubuntu login which failed. I went back to Ubuntu and attempted to find a GUI to managed Samba users and found nothing. Ubuntu help just pointed me to the Samba manual (talk about technical). I went to Google and found several forum posts on the subject all of which involved hand editing smb.conf, which of course involved going to the command line, because there was no GUI to run gedit as root. My initial impression of Ubuntu as compared to Suse is easier to install harder to manage / configure.

The biggest hurdle I see to Linux for general home use is setting up a simple home network. The interface in Ubuntu is simple and great, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work (at least not reliably). Suse’s works but is definitely technical and requires going through multiple interfaces. Neither OS’s GUI seems to be able to add a network share to fstab so that it’s mounted on startup; a requirement if say you want Amarok to manage music files stored on another box. (And it took over a month of forum posting to figure out how to get Suse to do it without putting the host on a static IP).

Oh and I can’t stand Evolution either, I’d really love to see Mozilla write a nicer address book app and then bundle it with Thunderbird and Sunbird in one “organizer” package.

Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some help from an established blog. Is it difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Thanks

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