Linux Versus the Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome

Recent articles I have read by people complaining about how things on Linux do not work like they do on Microsoft led me to coin the phrase Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome (MTBS). The problem is that people who have lived, worked, and played in a homogeneous Microsoft computing paradigm are lost and confused when they encounter a different paradigm. These people have only seen the flawed Microsoft ideology for how computing systems should work and so have a difficult time with more elegant systems based on Unix. They see the Linux system with its’ own paradigm and ideology and try to force it into the only paradigm they know, which is Microsoft’s. This will always cause the user problems.

These people may or may not have a problem with an Apple system running OS X since Microsoft’s desktop is at base basically a rip-off of Apple’s desktop. Apple’s desktop is arguably a rip-off of the X windowing system used on Unix and Linux. However, both Apple’s desktop and Microsoft’s desktop diverge significantly from X. Of course underneath the graphical interface Apple OS X now has much more in common with Unix and Linux than it does with Microsoft systems. In any case, because these other platform ideologies are different from Microsoft’s ideology the typical Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome user can have a rough time trying to adapt.

I have had discussions about this problem with others prior to today. My point in these discussions is that if one took an average child with average intelligence, gave the child a first computer exposure with Linux installed with a graphical interface and a bit of instruction to get started, the child would have no problem using Linux and learning how to do tasks with Linux. The point is that if one starts using Linux based computers from a tabula rasa condition then there are no bad habits to unlearn. The people that have only learned the Microsoft paradigm have bad habits to unlearn and much new information to learn. These people should attempt to approach Linux like a child that knows nothing about a computing paradigm and has never been exposed to another computing ideology.

In regard to computing systems we are all beginners, or “kindergarten children” if you will, at some point. Many computer users progress through a school of knowledge under the Microsoft paradigm to become “seniors” in the Microsoft ideology college. These users then discover they are not satisfied with their only exposure to computing systems under the Microsoft tutelage and attempt to branch out with Linux. It is at this point that the Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome becomes a problem for many. These users discover there is a totally different Unix school that has a largely different curricula from what they know. For whatever reason they decide to attempt to use the old knowledge from Microsoft training in this new school and are discouraged, shocked and/or angry that it does not work. What these users need to do is ignore almost all they know about computing from their Microsoft Trained Brain and start over.

The bottom line dear reader is, do not attempt to force preconceived notions and knowledge from a totally different computing paradigm onto Linux. Ignore your previous knowledge from your Microsoft Trained Brain and start over with Linux as if you are a child getting a first exposure to computing systems. I guarantee this will help you in the long term. Many of us wait to welcome you to our universe of heterogeneous computing.

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Gene A.

Gene is a "Unix Guy", network technologist, system trouble-shooter and IT generalist with over 20 years experience in the SOHO and SMB markets. He is familiar with and conversant in eComStation (a.k.a. OS/2), DOS (PC, MS and Free), Unix, Linux and those GUI based systems from Microsoft. Gene is also a follower of Jesus (forgiven, not perfect), and this does inform his world view.

47 thoughts on “Linux Versus the Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome”

  1. Microsoft users have brains ? (Cheap shot)
    There are differences in focus rules between systems, I am fooling around with Tk and python, and the difference shows. Most often, changing from mousing to typing will result in text controls re-scrolling.
    Also, most Microsoft users simply do not understand software as task based instead of product based. Instead of “I need to modify a text file”, “I need to use Word”. “I need a spreadsheet” not “I need to use Excel”.
    I am trying to teach a user about HTML, and instead of learning the tags and using a basic text editor, they mangle it with word, and can’t understand why the “HTML” emitted is so complex.
    Take away the complex tools, use the simple ones. Show human readable formats, instead of binary voodoo.

  2. Interestingly enough, my first “real” computer (not including my Commodore 64) was a Commodore Amiga, and I find myself using my Amiga Trained Brain when I’m using Linux, rather than the Microsoft one.

  3. I bought an Apple Mac Mini for my step-father. Despite it being easier to use and more stable/secure he continuously has problems. One of the major ones is that he tries to install Windows software because websites offer him those installers rather than OS X. Another is that websites say he doesn’t have some plug-in then just says ‘manual install’ with no further insight. If it wasn’t for me being able to support him via remote desktop (LogMeIn) he would have sent it back and got a Windows machine because every time he asks the local computer shop what is wrong they say ‘oh its because you have a Mac, they just don’t work as well as Windows. We don’t support Apple machines. You have to talk to Apple if you want it fixing’. Imagine your average Joe trying to install anything on a Linux distro, if they can’t understand something as simple as OS X. Windows might be a very weak, poorly designed platform – unfortunately the support network for the OS is pervasive.

  4. tomb (comment #3), you have a head start on many modern Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome users. You were exposed to heterogeneous computing early on. From what I can tell, those who come from other platforms, like the Amiga, have little problem with Unix concepts.

  5. Adey (comment #4), the problem is a network of Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome. These people that nay-say to Apple and Linux users are themselves suffering from this ailment. I would argue that the support network for Linux is quite pervasive as well. But again, it uses a different paradigm from that of Microsoft. So, people must adjust their thinking.

  6. GREAT article! I built a computer my best friend’s girlfriend and her family. I MADE clear that there are differences between Micro$oft and Linux and they would end up being much happier with a Linux based system. They have dial up, so I installed Gnome-PPP before I shipped it back to them….. three weeks later and tons of phone calls and trying to help them out over the phone (the dial up was working when I shipped it), they still can’t get it working. I am sorry to say that my friend is going to install XP on it. Linux is ready for prime time, but most people however, are not! Thanks for the article!

  7. As much as I agree, I also have to disagree. People may also think this way because somethings are just done better on MS / Apple product.

    Take for example: video card installation. Where is this easier, apple or mac. Bring up the properties, install a new driver. Or to install an ati driver in Linux. Download, drop to a command prompt, sh file, and hope it works afterwards. Just dropping to a command prompt is going to be an issue for a newbie.

    Personally, I am a big advocate of Linux, but some things need to be a bit more seemless. Driver installation really should not be a hastle the way that it is. Installation of drivers is far easier in OS X and MS.

    I spent 3 hours trying to get my ATI card working in RH10, but not without hacking away at it. It is these kind of things (though not all Linux fault) that are the single main prob with Linux. Most people are not enthusiasts, they are users.

  8. Alan (comment #7), sadly you are correct. Many people are not ready for Linux and this is because of MTBS. Thanks for trying with your friend of a friend’s family. Keep trying and keep helping.

  9. Frank (comment #8), if one is installing an ATI, nVidia or Intel based video card on a distribution that uses Dynamic Kernel Module Support (DKMS), then most of these cards will be auto-magically detected and drivers installed for them upon boot-up. Presuming one has CD/DVD media handy with the distribution packages or has an internet connection to the distribution repositories it could not be simpler than this.

  10. Gene (comment #10),

    I find it funny that you think that video card installations are easy in Linux. Frank had what I think is the more normal experience. I don’t think you can ask a normal user to have to drop to a command promt and start typing away. The world is visual now and command prompts are more and more a thing of the past for the mainstream.

    The main problem with linux is twofold, lack of mainstream application support and lask of easy ways to install. Of course there are some things that install easy but many that do not. When looking for an answer you get: “Right, just drop to a command prompt, type these 5 lines of code (gobbled y gook to ‘normal’ users) and you are all set.

    Mom and dad and uncle Joe dont want to do that. That’s why Alan’s best friend’s girlfriend and her family are going back to XP.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying M$ is great, just easy, and until linux is too it will always be an enthusiast’s OS.


  11. >Many people are not ready for Linux and this is because of MTBS

    I would say they are not ready because Linux doesn’t have easy installers and all the documentation is for Windows. Look at Google = the no. 1 brand in computing. All their applications are written for Windows and a selection ported to OS X and Linux. If Google sees OS X and Linux as not key to their roadmap but a second thought no wonder average users stick with Windows. I don’t think that MTBS exists. I think it is purely that getting stuff working and supported is x100 easier if you follow the main OS distro = Windows. Don’t get me wrong, OS X is by far the best OS on the market – sadly simple stuff like connecting to a ISP or installing non-Apple hardware just isn’t universally supported. It is not some MTBS that is the barrier – it is purely market share rather than the way Windows works in terms of UI.

    projects like Linux in Russian Schools will make a huge difference in that country – schools in EU are no likely to follow suit any time soon. Even Apple has been pushed out of schools in the UK for Windows because of cheap hardware and ubiquity of IT support for the platform.

  12. A simple example of why Linux fails for most users at the moment: Ubuntu doesn’t come with MP3 and divx support out the box. Plug in an iPod and nothing happens. 99% of users just can’t understand that is this is because of some open source position. Distros like gOS Gadgets work better for your average user but even than lacks applications, drivers and support. No of this is to do with the UI or any alternative computing paradigm.

  13. Eric (comment #11), I said nothing about “dropping to a command line and typing away”. What I pointed out is that DKMS will automatically install drivers for most of the video chip-sets from ATI, nVidia and Intel upon boot up after inserting the card. This depends on the distribution having DKMS and providing the necessary drivers in its’ repositories. In my experience, Mandriva and the *buntu clan does this fairly well. You have my sympathy for your problems with video card installation.

    As for “lack of mainstream application support” that is up to the main stream application developers to code for Linux. There are almost always equivalent, or even better, FOSS applications that can take the place of “mainstream applications”. Whether or not one agrees with this assessment is another matter. It is true whether or not one agrees. 🙂

    Your last sentiment “linux … will always be an enthusiast?s OS.” is partially correct. Linux is a kernel, not an operating system. GNU/Linux distributions (Which I believe you meant.) will also be mainstream in the future. They will also draw in enthusiasts just as they do today.

  14. Tomb – A fellow ex-amiga user !

    I have always found Linux in someway similar to the Amiga, the stability, the ease at which everything worked…

    The shell has similarities and (to some degree) the directory structure… The Amiga1200 (harddrive version) was really easy to customize and generally tinker with also.

    Justed install kde4.2 using a Nvidia 8500 – KDE’s kwin now flys on a nvidia card – I think its the closest i’ve seen to the amiga in terms of responsive desktops..

    I used Windows from after the death of commodore in 1995-2002 when I discovered Linux, I pretty much always hated using windows – it just didn’t work very well at all (any version…)

    – I’ve even mentioned the similarities before in a comment to Linus’s blog

  15. Adey (comment #12), “I don?t think that MTBS exists.”. That is your opinion and you are welcome to express it. However, I deal with MTBS often when I encounter Microsoft system users that have never been exposed to anything other than Microsoft systems. It definitely exists although you may wish to call it something else, or deny it altogether.

    Adey (comment #13), you are describing a MTBS symptom on a single distribution. There are other distributions that have “MP3 and divx support out the box”. Of course if the user on the distribution that does not have this is not suffering from MTBS and is approaching the problem from an aspect of tabula rasa then the user will use the Linux distribution paradigm to solve the problem.

  16. Hello,

    I tried to read this blog post, but honestly, I can’t. The blue dictionary links all over the text are seriously distracting and useless – how many times do you think a normal person will need an explanation of “paradigm” or “ideology”? Ever heard of glossary?

    You could be making a perfectly valid point, but half of the success is to actually deliver the information in an understandable form. Please, stop abusing the links like this.

    Thank you,


  17. great article… and yes, MTBS really exists… Amen brother…

    i’m a Linux/Unix/OS X/Windows user & developer. Each operating system has his weak & strong features… just start over (like gene says) if you’re gonna try other system, read a lot of it, use it 24/7, hack & be happy.

    p.s.: my linux box comes with mp3/divx/ out of the box, and no video driver problems…

  18. I find the video card comments interesting because I have never had a problem with one. I bought an Nvidia card and stuck it into my Ubuntu box and when it booted I was presented with the option to install a driver. I installed it and it worked. I installed Ubuntu on a laptop with a ATI card and it worked. I installed it on a laptop with an Intel card and it worked. I had some no name brand card in the box before the Nvidia card and it worked there too. I run CentOS on a box with an older Nvidia card and it works there too.

    People complain about various distro names being used in place of Linux but I think they should be. If you’ll notice people will attribute the problems of one distro to Linux as a whole mainly because people stress that each distro is Linux vs letting each distro stand or fall on their own merits. An effort should also be made to make sure that people understand that different distros have different goals and purposes. RHEL and Debian are not aimed at being a desktop. Though they can be the aim is not to provide an end user out of the box experience. They are build to provide solid server bases where you probably won’t be installing the latest Nvidia card. I even have a Linux server guru friend that was guilty of this. He tried to figure out the Linux desktop craze by installing an older version of Red Hat. Of course there was a lot to do to get it working. So for some reason this stuck in his head as the state of the “Linux” desktop. Nevermind that there were other distros with totally different approaches.

    Sorry if I’m off topic.

  19. Phil (comment #20), you are not off topic at all. You make valid points that go along with what I try to say in this article. Thanks for your comment.

  20. It seems to be an inferiority complex for people backing Linux that not only Microsoft, its users need to be trashed too.

  21. Satish (comment #23), if that is all you get out of this article then you completely miss the point. This has very little to do with Microsoft users and very much to do with the way Microsoft trains people to think about computing.

    [irony] It is still only about “trashing Microsoft”, see? [/irony] 😀

  22. “The main problem with linux is twofold, lack of mainstream application support and lask of easy ways to install. Of course there are some things that install easy but many that do not. When looking for an answer you get: ?Right, just drop to a command prompt, type these 5 lines of code (gobbled y gook to ?normal? users) and you are all set.”

    Depend about distributions. Major one from Fedora to Ubuntu don’t have issue.

    “Mom and dad and uncle Joe dont want to do that. That?s why Alan?s best friend?s girlfriend and her family are going back to XP.”

    Problem is those family never installed Microsoft Windows product from scratch. They have OS already preinstalled by OEM.

  23. Excellent post.

    Another symptom of MTBS is the inability to find fund in computers. this has reduced computer to a boring tool where you look at what you need, do the work, and shut it down without looking right or left. A side affect is that it kills curiosity.

  24. First of all, let me explain that I’m Portugues, therefore I apologize for any mistake regarding my English.

    I congratulate the author of this article, which I’m totally identified with.

    I’m a Windows user at work and used to be at home but about 1 year ago I switched to Ubuntu because I wanted to see for myself if it was as good as my best friend said. Before I done that I spent countless hours searching the web about the subject and learning from tutorials. My first reaction was “this works” with no problems. My wife was scared (the MTBS working) but I also own a laptop with XP so there was an alternative. After a few hours palying around I called her and asked to record CD audio (something that used to be a real drama) She took a look and a few minutes later the CD was being recorded without a single tip from me. Bottom line, a few months later the laptop was running Ubuntu as well. However this was not my best example.

    My my 6 year old daughter was used to see both OS and since I was using Ubuntu all the time, she get used too. She will go to school for the first time this September and she will be using a netbook specially made for kids which runs XP on it. I told her that she had to learn XP and she asked me why. I replied that’s the system the teachers will be used to and she reacted like if it was a real pain. I always tried to show her both OS (because I was aware of the school issue) but she liked Ubuntu because she considered easier.


  25. I think you make some good points, Gene, and yes, I did mean distros and not kernel itself.

    As an MSSQL DBA and .NET developer, I do recognize I have a bias, but I am also geek at heart and I WANT to see any distro in the mainstream.

    I do have a Ubuntu box at home and I work with CentOS at work as well.

    To your article, I think all that’s really going on here is familiarity. You judge anything new based on past experience. MTBS or not, people coming over from M$ will always have some expectation that things should work that way. It happens when they switch to OSX too.


  26. Manuel (comment #27), thank you for your comment. I must say your English is much better than my Portuguese. 🙂

    I mention children in the article because I personally know some children that have only been exposed to Unix with X, Linux with X and IBM OS/2. They found none of those intimidating or “too hard” because they learned how to use them from an early age. These lucky kids have parents that do not use Microsoft systems. 😉

  27. Eric (comment #28), thanks for your comments. I think some people are reading “MTBS” and thinking I am “disrespecting” Microsoft users. That is not the case.

    MTBS is more a set of symptoms from learning how computers work from a Microsoft perspective. Microsoft obfuscates so much of what is happening from the user and makes decisions for the user. The average Microsoft trained user is less able to deal with more robust and open platforms that require the user to make more decisions. I call this MTBS because what these users learned comes from learning how to use Microsoft based computer systems.

    This is not a reflection on the user, it is a damnation of Microsoft’s method of teaching people to use computers. Microsoft has dumbed down the end-user experience. This has harmed the users and made them less capable with computer systems. When these users try to switch to a different platform they can become overwhelmed when they realize the new platform is not dumbed down like Microsoft platforms.

    The realization by Microsoft trained users that they have to relearn how to do things then has one of two reactions, rejection or acceptance. This latter decision is totally up to the user. But the MTBS is most definitely from Microsoft’s paradigm and ideology.

  28. Windows are for ******, that’s all.

    That’s why the motto of Distrowatch is:

    “Put the fun back in computing. Use Linux, BSD.”

  29. shippou (comment #33), while I understand your sentiment I disagree with name calling. So, we’ll just use asterisks for that. Please see if you can come up with something more constructive to add. Thanks. 🙂

  30. I’ve seen this phenomenon too, although maybe more extensively, and I’ve refered to people affected to it as microsoft-drones.
    Some such people would not even go to the point of trying software that isn’t by microsoft or at least for microsoft windows.

  31. A friend of mine lives in India. When I mentioned to him that I use Linux, he said “Oh, Linux is famous here”. Schoolchildren get given CDs of software – half of it is Windows and half of it is Linux. Adult newbie computing classes are done entirely on Linux, and nobody seems to get into difficulty with it.

    BTW if you find it difficult to install graphics card drivers or get MP3 support, you really need to be using Ubuntu or Mandriva. Ubuntu gets both things for you. As for Nvidia and ATI’s difficult-to-use binary installers, you need to be hassling the vendor, not the distribution. There is no reason why Nvidia’s installer needs to be used without X running and there’s no reason why ATI’s installer requires the terminal either. Ubuntu’s Hardware Devices Manager and Envy can perform the task completely in-GUI.

  32. first of all im from georgia and sorry for my english :H

    well, me and my wife are using gnu/linux. i love linux, and my wife likes it, she had mtbs, but, shes used to gnome and debian now.
    so i saw a comment above that linux is ready from prime time, and most of people arent ready for it… well this is lie. i work as linux sysadmin and whole yesterday i spent upgrading debian to lenny, x broke because of dependencies etc. etc. plus, my wife spend whole yesterday on broken pclos without x because she messed up repositories while installing some chemistry programs. is gnu/linux ready for prime time? i think no. about drivers and that there are no problems, and that management is easy… well problems are that, all, i mean ALL the tutorials about linux are written by geeks and techies. go to debian wiki and read how to install nvidia drivers, it is like “su then password, then apt-get install nvidia-common-$[uname -r], etc” when you simply can install by main menu>desktop>synaptic package manager>search nvidia>mark for installation>apply button. YES command line way is much faster and simpler, but comeon, i dont think that my mother wants to type weird command with weird switches
    this kind of tutorials held me back from switvhing from xp, i was afraid and several months i was thinking install or not to install. is linux ready for prime time? i think no.
    upgrading linux is allways pain, default gnu/linux installations are misconfigured.. my friend whos interested in installing linux, but is affraid, bought msi wind with suse linux enterprise, and, that was my worst nightmare, totally misconfigured, i wanted to show him hardware config and resource usage by graphical way, and i get lost (i am experienced user i dont have mtbs) in the menus, there was desktop cube and compiz present, but theere were no drivers, there were no mp3 codecs, i know about laws, but still, it needed 75 seconds to shutdown, and do someone thinks that noob who just want to USE pc spent hours on tweaking the system? my friend installed xp on netbook. is linux ready for prime time? i think no
    linux is not ready for prime time, it is not ready for end USERS!

    oh and nowadays, it is cool to have high end quad core pc-s, and what the heck should do average joe with core 2 duo in linux, plaing freedoom and spinning desktop cube? silly.

    there are so many improvements to be done, but hey, if linux will become mainstream it will not be so great 😀

  33. Rakhun (comment #35), thank you for your comment. Yes, I have seen the term “Microsoft drones” before. I think it is a bit dehumanizing so I don’t use it. You are correct that the refusal to even try something other than “official” Microsoft software is a symptom of MTBS.

  34. Roman (comment #37), thank you for your input. It is nice to see a visit from around the Black Sea. Frankly, your English is considerably better than my Georgian or Russian. Especially since I cannot speak more than a couple of words in either language. 🙂

    I think your experiences with specific GNU/Linux distributions are indicative of problems in those distributions, not all of GNU/Linux as a whole. There are a few GNU/Linux distributions targeting new users that have little knowledge of computing. PCLinuxOS, which you mention your wife uses, is one of those that many people usually have no trouble with. However, if PCLinuxOS is not working for you then try Mandriva or Ubuntu.

  35. I have seen quite a lot of people with MTBS latelly. What I do when someone tells me that linux is hard to install or use is.
    I give the person a kubuntu CD and a windoze xp CD (my college got contract with M$ so I can just go to the computing lab and pull any XP CD from the huge shelf full of M$ crap) and after backing up their data I format their HD and ask them to try and install XP. The results are always that most get stuck in the text part of the installer. Those who manage to get past it, get stuck when it asks for the product key (hint: it?s in the back of the CD case the XP CD came in). And those “smart” enough to get past that, find themselves wondering where are their apps, their files, and why some of their hardware won?t work. I tell them that they need to buy each program and install it separatedly, then I tell them that they need to manually copy their files over and redo most of their customizations and then find the missing drivers. Then I format again and tell them to install kubuntu. The results no one has yet got stuck during installation. And after the installation is over they find that all the apps they need are there already and their hardware is already working. I tell them to insert the CD with their files and use the “files and settings import tool” and in a few minutes all their data and most of their customizations are back to what they were before starting. They then realize how easy is kubuntu and ask me to take the XP CD?s back (I take them back and put them back into the college?s computing lab?s “M$ junk” shelf). So far everyone I have done this switched to kubuntu and have not gone back to windoze.

  36. Its not a matter of “dumming down” its the science of MMI (man machine interface) design. People dont want to delve in the complexatities of the computer they want to get the job done. A user friendly and intuative interface is something that should be strived for not be critisied.

    Ofcourse its brain training, all knowledge is. I therefore dont really see your point, unless your trying to promote elitism ?

    What about the people who are familiar with many operating system, who knows how to write DCS scrips in VMS, how to program bobs and sprits in AmigaOS, can BASH away at Linux and who are equaly happy using Windows OS’s.

    Being simple and efficient is not something to be shunned or critical of its something that should be promoted.

    I dont understand the “keep it hard and weed out the non hard core users” attitude.

    MMI design and intuative UI is a goal for everyone.

    There are many people like myself who know computers (built my first one in 1978!!) who have used many OS’ over the years. But even after happily and successfully using Linux (and paid as a Linux admin) running my own very successful business, have chosen to use Windows not because its easier but becaue it just works, its stable, it IS secure (with almost no effort) and its works, has a massive support base and application base, I can go to my local supermarket and buy software, my digital camera and cell phone software works from the supplied CD. and I dont have to put up with being considered dumb because i have made my choice on usability and productivity over elitism and unnessary complexity.

    and i too find your bright blue dictionaly links most annoying..

  37. darryl (comment #42), I was busy when you posted this and did not have time to address it.

    You miss the point of the article. I do not “promote elitism”. I promote using open standard file formats and moving away from proprietary, closed non-standard file formats. I promote using transparent, open standards operating systems. I also promote learning and using the more robust, more configurable, more stable and thus more sensible GNU/Linux distributions.

    Basically, your assertion that Microsoft products “… just works, its stable, it IS secure (with almost no effort) and its works, …” is fallacious. If you desire to use products from Microsoft, fine with me and the rest of the GNU/Linux community. But do not assert this nonsense and expect to be taken seriously.

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