By now, there has been a ton of stories all over the Internet about the woman who claimed that Linux made her drop out of college, and is suing Dell as a result. Let’s leave whether or not her lawsuit makes sense out of the equation for a moment. Let’s ignore the stuff that everyone else is railing about. Let’s pretend that people aren’t going to be trolling both sides of the open source debate. Let’s look at the underlying problem here, which is how when a vendor tries too hard to make something “easy to use” it actually becomes impossible to use for many people.
If you haven’t heard about it already, the basic gist of the story, is that this lady (Abbie Schubert) bought a Dell PC. Despite the information on the Dell Web site about “is Linux for you?”, she ordered it with Linux. She was told that it was compatable with everything she needed to do. She had a CD from her ISP to connect her to the Internet, which would not work on Linux. As a result, she never got her PC working on the Internet, which she needed for school. Additionally, her teacher for school told her that her work needed to be done in Word, which does not run on Linux. As a result, she says that she was unable to do what she needed to do for her classes, and had to drop out.
Now, tech savvy users will pick up on a few problems here right off the bat. First, we all know what that CD from the ISP does, and we all know that we don’t need it. It simply configures the network settings, because making a CD that does this with an autorun results in less tech support calls than a page of instructions showing someone how to plug the cable in and set the network connection properties. Unless the ISP was doing something unusual (like a static IP on a consumer line, or PPOE), the really funny thing is that her Linux machine (or any OS, for that matter) was already properly configured! All she had to do was plug the NIC in, and let DHCP do the rest. The next issue is the Word problem. We all know that you do not need to use Word to generate a Word document. And there is plenty of software on Linux which creates a Word document.
So what happened? I’ll tell you what went wrong… a combination of inflexible vendor policies colliding with technically ignorant users (not just the lady who bought the PC, either)!
I am sure that when she called up Dell, they told her, “not our problem, our site warns you about the shortcomings of Linux, and it is on us to get you generating Word documents or setting up network connections.” And dollars to donuts, when she called her ISP (Verizon, in this case), they refused to touch her OS, “it’s not supported”, and told her that if their CD wouldn’t run in her PC, then she should have read their Web site better. And on top of that were her ignorant professors, who assumed that the only way to create a Word document was with Word. That’s why they said she must have Word! They also were too unknowledgable to realize that many other document formats would have been fine, and some of them would even open in their copy of Word, such as RTF and PDF.
All that needed to happen here, was for one person to break their company’s policy, and help this lady out. It would have been best if it was someone at Dell, since they had the “whole story”(I am sure that she didn’t walk about the Word situation with Verizon). All they needed to do was say, “OK, hang on, let me go to the Verizon Web site to get the settings needed, and walk you through that.” Likewise, someone at Verizon could have done the same. When I worked tech support, I violated our policies all of the time, to make sure that customers got the support they needed. At the end of the day, my desk was piled high with “Employee of the Month” certificates, the company paying my employer to provide support consistently mentioned me by name as a standout, and users wrote glowing thank you notes to my boss. But I was also taking a monster career risk, knowing that all it took was for me to provide support for something that wasn’t in the policy to go wrong and the user to complain, and I would be in serious trouble.
Likewise, if Dell had simply told her, “hey, you can use OpenOffice to create Word documents!” that’s it, the problem would have been resolved. Instead, they kept saying, “you can’t install Word on Linux.”
Indeed, the ending to the story is exactly this. She ended up suing Dell. The college told her that they would be willing to take her work in any format that Word can open. Verizon is sending a tech out to help her get connected to the Internet. She’s happy, and the vendors look like heroes (except for Dell).
None of this should have happened. But vendors are stuck walking a fine line. Either they support this stuff which results in a lot more training for them (and how many knowledgable Linux folks are happy to work consumer level tech support for crying out loud?). Or they risk these kinds of situations. No matter how they approach it, they lose.