The Computer as a Tool

If the designers of X-windows built cars, there would be no fewer than five steering wheels hidden about the cockpit, none of which followed the same principles -- but you'd be able to shift gears with your car stereo. Useful feature, that.

-- From the programming notebooks of a heretic, 1990.

As I said on a previous page, I'm a hacker wannabe. I am studying to be a Linux guru, or trying to, anyway :-) I consider Linux to be a good, stable, flexible operating system and I don't think MS-Windows is a particularly good platform to program on.

At the same time, as an end user, I have a grudging respect for Microsoft Corp. I like MS-Word. I like its toolbars. I like its spell checker. I like Windows 95/98/NT as an environment for launching nifty programs. I like how I can click on an Excel file and have the program start up automatically. I like the ease with which I can create a new and reasonably complex program with Visual C++. I like all the devices that exist Windows ready. I like the way I can navigate my hard disk with the Windows Explorer. And, above all, I dislike people who dismiss all this ease of use as a sign of inferiority, and then hold up Linux as their ideal system.

Do I like Linux? The answer depend on the particular task at hand. If I'm programming a difficult assignment with lots of files, and the makefile is already written for me, then I love it. It tells me everything I need to know. It lets me find memory overwrites with an ease that I'm hard-pressed to find anywhere else. And the GNU C++ compiler is really good. I like the fact that I can kill errant processes with a command at the prompt. I hate the fact that I have write a makefile for all but the simplest of programs, but I'm willing to overlook this for the benefits I receive. And I also know that this discussion means absolutely bubkus to the average end-user when s/he finds out that s/he has to start his/her favorite application by typing it at the command line.

Herein lies the greatest weakness of Linux, and the reason why a bare bones Linux/Xfree86 system will never be enough to bring down the so-called MS-Windows monopoly. It's not because of Microsoft's alleged anti-competitive practices. Everybody knows the answer: Linux is hell on the end user (me included). Never mind that there's hardly any end-user software available for it. Never mind that you'd be hard pressed to play the latest games on it. I'm talking about the design of the underlying system. It took me a week to figure out how to consistently launch a wallpaper at startup. At one point I would log in to the computer and it would rudely log me back out, for no apparent reason.

(It turns out that I had to launch the image display program (xv) from my .xinitrc file as a background process. I had been launching it as a foreground process, which one usually only does with window managers. Launching a program in the foreground is apparently a signal to the system that says something along the lines of "when this program exits, log me out". This is so that the system will log you out when you quit your window manager. Since I had rigged the xv call to quit as soon as the image was displayed, and since it was in the foreground, the computer was logging me out before it could even bring up an xterm. Silly me)

Am I griping about mere superficialities? Maybe, but these superficialities are enough to bring many inexperienced users to their knees. It's true that X-Windows and Linux are, in general, extremely configurable, so that in the hands of an experienced user is can be a very useful tool. But very few of these features are built into the system. Many window managers, for example, will let you configure popup menus that appear whenever you click on the screen, so that you can add items to launch your favorite programs. But first you have to learn that you can configure the menu (it's not usually immediately obvious), then you have to learn that the configuration options are usually stored in a file called .rc stored in your home directory. Then you have to learn how to read the rc file. And finally you can add your menu item. All that to launch a program from a popup menu. And with MS-Windows you can just drag an icon onto the desktop.

I think the problem many so-called hackers have with MS-Windows is that it isn't "hackable" (i.e. it's source code is not publicly available) and it's configurabilty options aren't as flexible as X-Windows. I personally don't have a big problem with this, and I suspect most users don't either. Some people have never gotten it into their heads that computers are just tools and that the easier a tool is to use, the more it will be used. I don't care how my toaster works. I just care that it does. Do I care that it can do a million little things that I will likely never take advantage of? At the same time I know that there are some people who are intensely interested in toasters and that a majority of these people become toaster engineers. More power to them. Just don't ask the end-user to become a toaster engineer. Why should computers be any different?

Is Linux more stable than MS-Windows? Sure. Is Linux faster than MS-Windows? Almost definitely. These are very valid reasons to admire Linux. You'd be surprised how well it operates on an old Intel 386. But all this proves is that Linux is faster and more stable than Windows. It doesn't prove that it's better. I could be wrong about this, but I think most end-users prefer an easy-to-use desktop environment which may not take full advantage of your hardware to an environment that's difficult to use but which squeezes every last ounce of speed out of your hardware. I think that most end-users prefer an environment that crashes now and then (though not nearly as much as some people claim) in exchange for draggable icons. At least, this seems to be the case. It's not like Microsoft is the only choice out there. You can buy a Mac. And you can buy Linux from RedHat or Debian. But most people still buy Microsoft's products.

Are they fooled into this? Is it a big ruse put on by Microsoft marketing experts? Is the power of Microsoft that great? I doubt it. It took Microsoft seven years to produce a version of Windows that was palatable to end-users. And how come nobody was fooled when Internet Explorer first came out? It took a couple of releases before IE could even come close to rivaling Netscape. Furthermore, in those markets where a nice GUI doesn't count for much, where raw, industrial strength power is gold (I'm talking mostly about web server technology) Microsoft usually gets its butt kicked. Do you think an "abuse of market power" could bring down Apache?

Having said all that, I personally believe that Linux has the potential to become more popular than Windows in about five years or so, if steps are taken to make it easier to use. For the longest time there was no economical desktop analog for X-Windows on a PC. With the advent of open source desktops like the GNOME and KDE, I think this about to change. Like most Linux products, they will be insanely customizable. But, from what I can tell, I don't think the configuration scripts will be the only means of customizing your interface. At the very least, I think somebody will write a GUI front end to the scripts. If they don't, they will have missed the point of the entire venture.

I've been rambling on for a while, so let me summarize. I like Linux. I really do. I like the flexibility it gives me. At the same time I understand why some other people might be annoyed with it. So I also understand why Microsoft does so well. I don't begrudge them their success. They don't scare me. There's always a choice. They're monopoly was earned through a nifty looking desktop. Nothing else.