The State Of The Linux Help File Nation - InformationWeek

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9/12/2007
04:01 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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The State Of The Linux Help File Nation

A few years ago, my biggest complaint about Linux applied to many things in the computer world: The documentation was uniformly lousy and scattershot. Since then, at least one distribution -- Ubuntu -- has set a fairly high standard of documentation. There's still a few things I'd like to see done better, though.

A few years ago, my biggest complaint about Linux applied to many things in the computer world: The documentation was uniformly lousy and scattershot. Since then, at least one distribution -- Ubuntu -- has set a fairly high standard of documentation. There's still a few things I'd like to see done better, though.Ubuntu's help docs have a whole slew of good walkthroughs for thorny problems, including some really tough and unintuitive issues like getting an unsupported network card to work in Ubuntu by using the ndiswrapper utility. However, I have two major complaints about Ubuntu's online help.

The editorial standards of what's in the user-contributed (wiki) documentation aren't high, but that sort of thing seems endemic to wikis everywhere. The other thing that's missing -- and this is a complaint I'd extend to Ubuntu's on-board help as well -- is that many things really need screenshots to properly illustrate what's being talked about. The discussion of the desktop panels, for instance -- one of the things that's relatively distinct to the desktop in Linux distributions that use GNOME -- has barely anything at all to illustrate what's being talked about.

When it comes to individual applications, the picture's pretty appealing: Most of the community-supported programs for Ubuntu have good, consistent help. OpenOffice.org has some of the best help of the bunch (and it better!), as does Firefox. -- even if these last two applications use entirely different interfaces for how they access their help repositories, neither of which seem to have anything to do with Ubuntu's own built-in help system. This is something I see a lot of on Windows, too, so it's not exclusively a Linux thing.

I can think of a few other things I'd like to see in this department -- one of them, ironically enough, being something that's turned up in Windows as of late. There, if you open the event log, any individual event ID can be cross-referenced against Microsoft's knowledge base, and the functionality for this has been expanded even further in Vista. Granted, Microsoft doesn't have entries for everything, but the few times I had a show-stopper of a problem, I was able to look up its log entry and get a working solution for it in under five minutes. It definitely beats Googling for cryptic error reports -- which stinks no matter what platform you're on.

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