Not that long ago, a significant portion of desktop GNU/Linux enthusiasts were actively advocating GNU/Linux among Windows users. I even remember doing it myself at one point, though now I really don't care what you use on your computer as long as I don't have to use it too. I thought that sentiment was isolated to me, but lately I've seen an abrupt decline in GNU/Linux evangelism on online forums. Below are some possible reasons for this change in community thinking and behavior.
We've got the software and hardware support we wanted
A few years ago, many people became vocal GNU/Linux evangelists because they wanted hardware manufacturers to provide Linux drivers for their products, and software companies to provide a Linux version of their flagship programs. Popular belief was that a higher number of GNU/Linux users would spur these companies into action, giving us the products we wanted to buy. But that was an era when Linux hardware support was spotty and difficult, and many free software programs were unable to compete with their commercial Windows and OS X counterparts.
Today we live in a world where GNU/Linux supports the majority of desktop computer hardware, and has a wider range of more capable desktop software. Some of it is even better than the proprietary alternatives. OpenOffice.org is in many ways equal or superior to Microsoft Office; The GIMP can compete with all but the mot expensive graphics software; Firefox and Opera (though Opera is not free-as-in-rights) are easily the most versatile and capable Web browsers on the market; and proprietary games are increasingly being made cross-platform.
Is there any reason to further evangelize GNU/Linux if hardware and software companies no longer need to be reminded that this is an operating system that matters? Despite the enormous amount of progress that has been made in recent years, there are still a few problematic areas. RAID, sound card, and wireless network card support is not as good as it could be, and high-end design programs like those made by Adobe and Macromedia still don't have functional free-as-in-rights equivalents. To most desktop users, these are not issues worth worrying about -- not like years ago when 3D video card support was just a dream, and sound support through ALSA had to be installed and configured by hand. This progress was mostly achieved through better programming, not by convincing more people to use GNU/Linux on desktop computers. There is evidence to suggest that lobbying hardware manufacturers for proper hardware documentation is an effective method of improving driver support, however.
In order to get someone to switch operating systems, you have to convince them that the problems they are having with their current OS will not be present in the new one. But when you tell someone that there are no GNU/Linux viruses, trojan horses, or spyware, and that it never crashes, you're setting up an image of software utopia for a Windows refugee. These unrealistic expectations can create a backlash of anti-Linux sentiment among those newly disillusioned with GNU/Linux.
After more than a decade with Windows, I know what to expect from it -- I expect that it will often break, crash, or otherwise not work. This is not a myth; show me someone who says that they have never had a major Windows malfunction and I'll show you someone who has never upgraded their hardware or software. I expect Windows to malfunction, so when it does, it's no surprise -- just more of the same crap from the same crappy operating system.
GNU/Linux, on the other hand, I expect to work unless I use experimental software; if something goes wrong, more often than not, it was due to my own mistakes. In general, I think many people who are moving away from Windows are going to GNU/Linux with the expectation that it is a software utopia where computer problems don't exist. That environment will never happen on any architecture or platform, but GNU/Linux often comes close as long as you know your way around it. I see people on forums and mailing lists talk about how "Linux is not ready for the desktop" because they're embarrassed that they couldn't figure out something horrifyingly simple, like how to adjust the sound volume or add Macromedia Flash support to their Web browser -- things that could be solved by reading the available documentation or searching Google. These same challenges exist on Windows too, but you expect Windows to malfunction, so it's acceptable. "Oh that kooky Windows! It's always messing up somehow!"
GNU/Linux, it seems, is never allowed that kind of leeway -- one thing doesn't work as expected and it's straight back to Windows, where undesired operation is the status quo. Trying to help people who are easily frustrated because their vision of software utopia has been rudely shattered is like being the catcher in the rye -- you have to get to them quickly, there are always more of them than there are people skilled enough and available to help in a timely manner, and many of them are going to slip by. Users who expect too much of GNU/Linux often turn into trolls.
There are two kinds of GNU/Linux trolls: the distro fanboys and the passive-aggressive assistance seekers. The former are those annoying people whose response to every GNU/Linux question or help request is, "That distro sucks. Just use PCLinuxOS," or "Get Ubuntu instead." In a sense, much GNU/Linux evangelism has switched from the general to the specific -- people now push their favorite distro (or the only one they've ever used) instead of letting others decide for themselves. But disrespecting someone's distro choice is not going to endear them to your favorite distribution, nor will it solve the problems they're experiencing. Having said that, when someone chooses an inappropriate distro for their needs, it's best to calmly explain to them that other distributions may serve them better. If you're a frequent forum participant, you should have a handful of desktop GNU/Linux distro recommendations at the ready, each with a brief listing of its positive and negative points; let the user make the decisions about what goes on his computer.
The latter breed of troll uses mild threats in order to attract the attention of dormant evangelists. When someone new to GNU/Linux is not happy with it in some way, they find a forum and threaten to stop using that particular GNU/Linux distribution -- or GNU/Linux in general -- if no one will help them solve their (usually minor and frequently discussed) problem. This often spurs responses from the above-mentioned distro trolls who insist that the only problem is the fact that the original poster is not using the right distro, which reinforces the "software utopia" fallacy.
Many former evangelists are now abandoning GNU/Linux advocacy because they don't like being pushed into helping, so their response to threats of GNU/Linux abandonment is, "Go back to Windows, then!" This response has become reflexive lately, to the point where non-trolls asking honest questions are attacked with it. In essence, both of these kinds of troll feed each other with their responses, and the only victims are those who are honestly looking for help in a non-aggressive manner.
The tech divide.
There is an enormous knowledge gap between low-end computer users, who only understand computers through a series of habits or routines that they have memorized; and high-end users, who understand on some level how a computer works and what it can do. High-end users have little trouble moving to GNU/Linux, but low-end users are totally unable to make the switch on their own, no matter how simple some installation utilities are or how preconfigured they may be. As insensitive as it may sound, some people are just not cut out to use computers.
Linspire and Xandros are the only two distributions that are focused on low-end users, and should be the only two distros that you recommend to them. I don't care how much you love Ubuntu or Fedora Core; you know how to set them up and add the proprietary extras, but low-end users do not. Ultimately it is your responsibility to provide support for the recommendations you make. Are you willing to field months of questions about how to set up email, or walk someone through a DeCSS installation?
Secondly, it's hard to explain the benefits of free-as-in-rights software to someone who thinks that all software is already free-as-in-everything because they only have "pirated" programs on their computer. Relatives and friends have given them Microsoft Windows and Office and anything else they need. As far as a low-end user knows, you're already free to share these programs with others, and they cost nothing.
Changes in leadership focus.
The first and most vocal free software proponents -- the Free Software Foundation and its founder Richard Stallman -- used to concentrate on free software advocacy, especially in the area of operating systems. It's rare that you see anything by the FSF or Stallman on GNU/Linux anymore -- these days it's all about the next version of the GNU General Public License, or speaking out about digital rights management (DRM), or getting free software into government offices. We, the desktop users, have been left behind.
Perhaps the FSF feels that the above issues are more important, or maybe it's just that they are newer and more pervasive than proprietary computer operating systems, or maybe they figure that GNU/Linux is good enough now that it doesn't need anyone to advocate it. Whatever the case, the FSF's goals and practices have definitely changed, even if its stated mission remains the same.
There is no doubt that GNU/Linux evangelism has changed, but whether it's for better or for worse is up for debate. Perhaps GNU/Linux has gained so much momentum in the software world that it has moved beyond the need for advocacy. It certainly isn't because fewer people are interested in it.