The Linux terminal – Outliving its relevancy?

A friend of mine recently published a post in which he opined that the Linux terminal not be shown to the uninitiated newbie. His post generated a lot of debate. I for one, agreed with his post and will now go further to say that the Linux terminal or command line interface has outlived its relevancy and needs to be relegated to the backseat.
I strongly believe – and so do most non-geek Linux users- that there was a time when the terminal was a very vital component of Linux: a time when Linux was mainly a hobbyist OS that was used by only geeks, most of whom disliked anything remotely akin to graphics. However, in today’s OS world, Linux is being placed and marketed as an alternative to market leader Windows. This then calls into question certain things that worked in the past but may be a hindrance today, and one of such things is the relevancy of the terminal.
The terminal is a great and easy way to get things done fast in Linux no doubt. But if Linux is competing against giants like MS Windows and Mac OS, both of whom have succeeded in relegating the terminal to the backseat, what then are the chances of Linux if it in some way depends largely on the terminal to get things done?
The people that find the terminal very challenging to use are the majority of computer users that Linux needs to make any headway in the market. I believe you know a lot of people like that. Their needs must seriously be considered if they are ever to think of making the switch over to Linux (that is if it can meet their needs).

I am not saying that the terminal be done away with completely. No, and I know you don’t think so either (it’s not even possible). But rather it should be made such that it is used by those who want to use it and not because it is a necessary part of the OS. In other words, it should be there for the terminal dieharders who want to keep doing things the terminal way, but at the same time very irrelevant to those who love icons and clicking ( myself included).

It is very funny and at the same time frustrating when -and I know you have experienced it before- we tout Ubuntu as being very easy to use,  yet when a newbie sometimes needs to get some things done, the first help instruction given is open the terminal. What?! But I thought they said Ubuntu is easy to use! Well yes just type ‘sudo’ bla bla bla. Come on.

The terminal has simply outlived its relevancy and has to be relegated as soon as possible. It is a big obstacle in the wider adoption of Linux among everyday computer users that just need their machines to do simple things. Why suffer these people with the language of the geeks?

Do you think the terminal is that relevant today or that it should be relegated to the back seat? I wonder what your views are.

18 Replies to “The Linux terminal – Outliving its relevancy?”

  1. Saying the terminal is obsolete is like arguing that word processors abolish direct typing of letters and replace it with intricate point-and-click menus (ups! forgot we're already halfways there).

    Typing an easy to remember command is almost always a lot easier than wading through tons of menus of hard to remember choices.

    OTH, going through a well thought out menu of a to-the-point select subset of choices is, of course, far easier than typing a complicated hard to remember command in the terminal.

  2. @Anonymous
    I am saying it should be made to a far greater extent irrelevant in getting things done to a lot of people than it is now. However, it should still be available for power users who are in love with.

  3. I'm not sure when the "the majority of computer users" turned into complete idiots but you seem to believe they are. Seriously? Typing things in a box is supposed to be challenging? To who?
    The command line is often the best way not just to get things done quickly but to understand what you are doing.
    If you want to treat your userbase as dribbling vegetables then thats your personal choice, throw together a distro, it seems to be a model that works well for Apple. It doesn't seem to sit well with either open source or free software ideals though.

  4. Well, consider the alternative to typing 'sudo apt-get install xxx'.

    It is something like: 'OK now go to the top menu, I said TOP, find on the right, where it says 'Settings', yeah, click that, then click on 'Advanced' then find 'Synaptic Package Manager'. Got it? Wait a second for it to start, then enter your password. You remember your password, right? OK, now, see at the top there is a 'search' button next to a text box? OK, type in the text box 'xxx', followed by the enter key. Now, a list will come up with xxx, xxx-devel, xxx-fyz, xxx-compat, and xxx-fromsource. Choose 'xxx' and click install. Now, that was easy, wasn't it? Welcome to Linux!'

    This is not about snobbery. This is about some things easier done via GUI, and other things being easier if done in a terminal.

    There are many advantages to using a terminal. First, common commands never change, mostly – compare this to the GUI, which is modified with every release at the whim of the GUI designer. So, it stands to chance that the guide written 5 years ago will still work. Second, the same consistency gives one a high ROI – you only have to understand basic things once and then you are set to go. Third, the CLI is easier on you and very often much faster than GUI utilities. Exception to this I find are CD burning tools and the CDE I am using.

    But the main reason I use Linux is discoverability. If you set your mind to it, you can find out how Linux works, and usually everything has logic to why and how it works.
    (Windows, on the other hand, is too shallow, in that behind the GUI you are faced with a solid wall that takes too much time to penetrate, and behind it you find a tangled mess). Discoverability is part of usability, so in my book, Linux is more usable than Windows.

  5. @Anonymous no2
    First, I don't think I implied anywhere that not liking the terminal makes one an idiot. To prove my point on lots of average users distaste for the terminal, get ten average Linux users and ask them to navigate from one user directory to the other using the terminal. Their reaction will prove the point I am making.
    @Scottiger
    You are right, doing things via the terminal is fast. But the fact still remains that lots of people are used to and comfortable with GUIs than they ever would at the terminal no matter the weaknesses of GUI

  6. Why should this be discussed as if it's a general Linux matter? Why try to force all into an agreement when it's more practical to deal with such decisions on a distribution level.

    Does for example a non-geek choose the same distribution as a geek? And why use such classifications anyway, which only leads to alienation of users? The so called non-geek, or let's say less advanced user, does depend on the advanced users (among these only a few do fit into the geek description).

    Many powerful GUI tools are a collection of text based UIs put together in a for many users easier layout. Does this talk about an obsolete terminal mean we should strive into making software that can't be used except through an GUI backend? I suspect that in the eagerness of becoming popular some basics of the argument haven't been thought trough.

    You also forget that some of us use the terminal for most daily tasks. It's faster, easier to tweak, have better key-bindings and so on. I encounter how even the not so advanced users find interest in the riches of such terminal based applications in Linux, maybe in combination with a tiling wm. What's the virtue in preaching for the less advanced: "you shouldn't use the terminal"?

    In my view the only productive step you can take in fulfilling your and some other's wish is to figure out some templates, maybe combined with some large library of screen-shots, in an attempt to make it easier to give support without writing an essay. I've plenty of experience from Windows' forums, and it's frankly a nightmare to support people through menus.

    Do this but please don't preach to us all what we should and shouldn't do. My system is a tool to get stuff done, so let me and others decide for ourselves what's efficient computing. If a distribution's goal is to be competitor to Windows or become everyone's home system, excellent, but there's still space for everyone without the need to force all to adopt a certain way.

  7. @Kim
    I appreciate your views. However, first of all, I am no eager to be popular, whatever that means to you. I voiced an opinion which reverberates loudly among virtually all Linux forums.

    I no where in the article said that the terminal be done away with, or that all power users revert to using GUI.

    What I am saying is that let those who are comfortable at the terminal stay with it, and let the grandmas and grandpas have GUI to play with.

    I still stand by my view that Linux today in some instances is too dependent on the terminal to its detriment.
    No where in the article did I try to tell people what they should do with their system. If anything at all, the piece was directed more at developers than end users.

    A quote from the article should help clarify my point

    "I am not saying that the terminal be done away with completely. No, and I know you don't think so either (it's not even possible). But rather it should be made such that it is used by those who want to use it and not because it is a necessary part of the OS. In other words, it should be there for the terminal dieharders who want to keep doing things the terminal way, but at the same time very irrelevant to those who love icons and clicking ( myself included)."

  8. I love the terminal from the point of as a power user, if someone have a problem can i just write down a short script and it's done.

    If we one day kills of the terminal will i be a huge mistake. Imagine youself in a helpdesk situation where you treat your users as sheeps anyway. Instead of pinting and clickign the whole day could you just write X amount of scripts to do the job for you.

    I work in a mixed enviroment where some uses Linux others Windows and even some OSX in the IT apartment. The problem is that all our usesrs are still on Windows, got around 5000… I could have saved myselv a ton of work every day if i had accses to a terminal on the users machines. They wouldn't minde beause theyr not very technical anyway.

    Thats one argument to why we should keep the terminal alive.

    I know my englich ain't perfect 🙂

  9. To prove my point on lots of average users distaste for the terminal, get ten average Linux users and ask them to navigate from one user directory to the other using the terminal. Their reaction will prove the point I am making.

    What you are missing is that your "average users" are using command line all the time. They open the word processor and are typing on the command line (yes, words and phrases that have a meaning). They open the internet browser and are using the command line to open websites. Etc…

    People used command line all the time not long ago on MS-DOS and they were ok with that. So, are people getting dumber or we are making them dumber, hidding things from them?

  10. @Zliggy
    I get your point. From a sysadmin endpoint, it's great. However, I am talking from the end point of newbies to the Linux world.
    @Anonymous
    Yes, but the command line is underneath a GUI so though they are typing into the word processors or browsers into cli, they still are using the GUI not the cli directly.
    Saying we should give people GUI in my view does not make anyone dumber. It just means getting more people on board.
    BTW, the days of MS Dos have been over for a long time now so people have now gotten used to what replaced DOS

  11. Sorry, i forgot one thing.

    Some say that we have to hide the terminal from the average users because it's not intuitive. So i ask: what's intuitive? "intuitive" is not universal. Some things can be intuitive for me but not for you. Intuitive comes from "intuition". Intuition is not something that we have it, is something that is learned from our past experiences.

    So, i guess we should stop deciding what is intuitive for people and let them decide.

    Yes, but the command line is underneath a GUI so though they are typing into the word processors or browsers into cli, they still are using the GUI not the cli directly.

    Really? Ok, so if i open "konsole" or "gnome terminal" (they are GUI apps) i'm not using command line?

    MS Dos have been over for a long time now so people have now gotten used to what replaced DOS

    Not that long ago. Ms-DOS 6.22 was released on 1994 and i'm quite sure that i and my family were using it on 1995+

  12. Of many people for whom I've installed a Linux distribution, the most accepting of the command line was an older gentleman (easily 75 or older) who was interested in getting his 5-button mouse to work, and took it upon himself to read HowTos and work on the XOrg.conf file and some other stuff.

    The least accepting was a couple of friends my age, who looked at me with utter horror when I said that some help may come in the form of command-line activities.

    I use the command line a lot, and while perhaps everyone does not, I don't think it should be hidden at all. I think it should be embraced to the point that any application that can do its activities as a CLI command, should show that command. For example, if I am converting a .wav file to a .mp3 file, I'd like the conversion app to show exactly what command is being run. I may never need this or do this myself, but increasing someone's knowledge about their computer is essential.

    Hiding options and making everything automatic is the way we keep people as idiots.

    We need enlightenment in the computer realm or we face extreme possibilities of computer crimes, break ins due to weak passwords, social engineering to access data, etc.

  13. A good GUI interface beats a terminal, but a terminal beats a bad GUI interface.

    Just saying "terminal bad, GUI good" tends to result in the sort of GUI where someone thinks the job is done if they put a button for every command-line switch. (AcidRip is an egregious example.)

    But then, this is an example of how there's no substitute for good design. And a reason good designers get paid a lot.

    In providing support on a forum, answering with a few lines that can be cut'n'pasted into a terminal is often quicker than giving directions through a GUI … often quite a bad GUI.

  14. sinaisix wrote: "I voiced an opinion which reverberates loudly among virtually all Linux forums."

    Once more you generalize. Maybe it's a shared opinion within the communities of for example Ubuntu and its relatives, hence plausibly among the majority of Linux users, but it's far from being the opinion shared by "virtually all Linux forums". Still it's wrong to approach this matter as something that concerns all Linux users. Address the right audience. Since you usually promote and defend Ubuntu for various reasons, make it clear that you talk in behalf of that community (or related one) and not in the name of Linux.

  15. @Anonymous

    your observation that ….
    'Intuition is not something that we have it, is something that is learned from our past experiences.'
    misses the boat almost completely.

    The free online dictionary defines intuition as …
    'The act or faculty of knowing or sensing without the use of rational processes; immediate cognition.'
    which is a more correct definition.

    Now, in the programming world, we don't think of it as referring to how much intuition a user has, it's a design requirement to make the programme so intuitive in its use, that every user should instinctively be able to use it with few problems.

    It is not easy to do but, as David Gerard says….
    'A good GUI interface beats a terminal, but a terminal beats a bad GUI interface'

    When sinaisix says that, in order to make many more converts from the Windows world, the absolute need to use the CLI should be removed from all distros he is 100% correct.

    He has never once said that the ability to use the CLI should be removed, no one would want that, I am a Windows programmer and I use the cli all the time. What sinaisix is saying is just don't make it compulsory.

    You guys always tout linux as being so good because everyone can choose exactly which distro they want to use. Choice, you say is one of linux' features. So why do you want to deny new users the choice of using the CLI or not?

    It begins to sound like 'geek' snobbery to me.

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