Friday, August 05, 2005

More Thoughts on Linux

Even though it was pretty exciting to get a Linux distribution up and going on the laptop, and even though Open Office is a pretty cool application, having had some time to further consider the state of software in the world, I must ask why?

I understand that the very machine that delivers this blog to you day in and day out is running some flavor of Linux as its operating system, and that is totally great. I have also done my fair share of work on Unix workstations at school in the Physics, Math, and Computer science departments.

Yes, when it is up and running, it runs well.
Yes, the file system is very useful and powerful.
Yes, getting around on a command line and compiling stuff is enough to make any geek feel proud.

BUT — honestly, does every person in the world have the time/patience to download, compile, install, and tweak every aspect of their system? For example, getting the monitor to show at the right resolution, getting the laptop battery to show its charge status appropriately, making the wireless card work, or maybe something like getting the USB flash drive to be automatically discovered and mounted. The above reasons are the quintessential pillars explaining why Microsoft and to some lesser extent Apple rule the consumer PC operating system realm.

When it comes to parents, siblings, grandparents, and even myself to some great extent “it just works” and “plug and play” are the triumphant winners in contrast to “download this” “compile that”. Sure, the geek inside can say “Look, I got super-neato Linux running on my extra box this week.” To his friends, but how many hours did he spend doing it? Does it really run as stably as OS X or Windows XP? Can they do EVERYTHING that one would want to do on a computer with the fantastic programs that we have all grown to know and love? The answers will probably come back somewhat gray, but one thing for sure. I wouldn’t be too hesitant to walk my parents through a Mac OS upgrade or a Windows upgrade on the phone. But I would tremble in fear with the thought of walking my parents through a Linux install… especially in the dual boot world!

Perhaps one of the reasons that Windows is supposedly so “bloated” and that for years installing your own rogue hardware on a Mac voided the warranty is that each company took an interesting view of hardware/software development. Microsoft took the idea that they would write drivers for, and test as many different hardware configurations as one could come up with. The software is big, because they have to support them all. Apple decided that they just wouldn’t support non-apple stuff, so they didn’t have to worry about it – but they made sure the hardware they did support was good. Fedora Linux isn’t too terribly huge, and they claim that you can do anything that you can do in Windows, however, they never mention how much pain you might have to tolerate to get it that way, or that at the end of the day it might feel like a cheap knockoff of the original.

Yes, Linux and Unix have their places, and they do serve society in a great way. I am just not convinced that it is really the future of software. It isn’t friendly or easy enough. Some avid supporters may say “Yes, but we are getting there”, and maybe they are, but in my opinion not fast enough.

Will Linux serve as a great playground to learn about how operating systems work? Yes, it will do that, and do it well. Is it an OS that everyone should embrace? I am not ready to advocate that stance yet. Unix may serve 70% of the worlds web-pages, but that doesn’t make it the greatest desktop OS either. Maybe the argument is best framed inside the idea that the world has different operating systems for different tasks, each one built to handle a specific task well.

Certainly, if any OS is going to make it in this world, free or not, it has a tall order to fill in my mind. Windows and OS X may not be perfect, but they go a lot further than anything else I have seen.

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