The pull of the fruit

The pull of the fruit


I tried my hardest to help my wife love Unix. When we were still dating, I built a little Debian machine for her so we could chat on ICQ while I was at work (and gave it to her on Valentine’s Day; aren’t I romantic?). That lasted for a while, but I eventually switched it to FreeBSD for reasons I no longer remember. Her computers always worked pretty well, but she was never happy with her inability to install software on her own, or to run games and applications from the local non-geek stores.

After a few years, I eventually gave in and helped her pick out a shiny new LCD iMac. She opened the box, plugged it in, followed the instructions, and it worked. She was happy and I was happy. After a while, I gained a real appreciation for how well the system was designed. What’s more, after a while I began to wonder if RMS would forgive me for abandoning my free software workstation in favor of the forbidden fruit.

Unix desktops environments haven’t been standing still, though, and my KDE setup at work becomes ever better with each new minor release. It does everything I ask of it (and since it’s a development system, that’s quite a lot) without ever complaining. Konqueror is slick and fast, KMail is the best email client I’ve ever used outside of Emacs, and the system as a whole is nearly as integrated (and in some ways more so) than Mac OS X.

However, I was reminded of the main reason that I could never really give in to the temptation last week. I’d been using Gentoo on my office workstation, but my coworker brought in a freshly-burned Kubuntu CD. I popped it in, wiped everything but my home directory, and was back up and running before my lunch break was over. I know then what I had forgotten: the one thing I simply can’t give up is choice.

That same work computer has run Debian, FreeBSD, Gentoo, and Kubuntu over the last couple of years. Each of those systems had its own features and quirks, and it’s always been my decision about which I wanted to run at any given time. Nothing but a few minutes of downtime kept me from switching between the “flavor of the month”. No vendor gave me a hassle. All of my personal data was available without interruption or messy imports and exports. Furthermore, I’ve periodically used Gnome and XFCE4—wholly different desktop environments—knowing that I could switch back to KDE on a whim without a bit of data loss or other aggravation.

OS X is certainly a beautiful operating system, and I universally recommend it to people who don’t want to learn about their computer or don’t have an experienced Unix-using friend close at hand. For me, though, it’s more of an inspiration than an aspiration. I see it as a working prototype of what free software systems can be (and are moving toward) rather than something that could replace them. You still have my attention Apple, but the fruit over in this orchard is also pretty sweet.

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Comments

Mauro Bieg's picture
Submitted by Mauro Bieg on

It's kind of true. On Mac OS X you have no choice, on GNU/Linux you have the problem of choice. The ones that can handle the problem of choice are better off with GNU/Linux, the other ones that just want to use a computer are probably still better off with OS X. At the moment, it's difficult to build such an integrated computer as Apple does with free software.

What you said about always being able to switch (from KDE to Gnome, from Gentoo to Kubuntu, etc.) is not always true, is it?

All of my personal data was available without interruption or messy imports and exports.

You can do that only if you on both systems can use the same applications (such as OOo, Firefox, Thunderbird). Otherwise the export/import from data (altough actually available in an open documented format, since OOo, FF, TB are all free software) gets a bit messy anyway - simply because it isn't the same file format anymore and has to be converted.
That's why I think standardized, free (as in speech) file formats are that important. The Open Document format is a good example. When all (free) word processors save their data in that same file format, you can switch everyday from OOo to Koffice to whatever you want. Then there would be the same freedom of choice for such applications as already exist for the environments/systems you described in your blog post.

Kirk Strauser's picture

The ones that can handle the problem of choice are better off with GNU/Linux, the other ones that just want to use a computer are probably still better off with OS X.

Maybe; the key factor is whether they actually have to make those decisions. I mentioned in an early blog that I made a Kubuntu system for my in-laws. Although all the same choices are available to them as to me, the big ones were made for them. Should something more appropriate for their situation come along, I can advise them to switch to it (or, more likely, get their consent to switch them to it).

What you said about always being able to switch (from KDE to Gnome, from Gentoo to Kubuntu, etc.) is not always true, is it?

No, it's pretty much always true. I'd venture to guess that most people use the same applications regardless of which desktop environment they sit down to. And I definitely stand by the freedom to switch to other GNU/Linux distributions (or even other free Unixes) without problems, as I've done it myself many times.

That's why I think standardized, free (as in speech) file formats are that important. The Open Document format is a good example.

I absolutely agree with you here. I had to import a bunch of HTML into a KWord document last week. I discovered that OpenOffice.org's HTML importer worked much better than KWord's, at least on this particular document, so I first imported it there, saved it, and loaded the results back into KWord. While it was a minor hassle to have to switch between applications, at least I had the ability to do so in order to take advantage of the best features of each.

Terry Hancock's picture

I don't care how beautiful the system is, I've never had upgrades or dist changes go that smoothly. I think I hate learning the new system. I once decided I should run at least one FreeBSD system at home (at the time I was using a virtual server on a FreeBSD for Zope hosting, so I figured it'd be good to have a comparable at home -- I'd had some problems porting my new software packages from Debian to FreeBSD).

After a pretty short while, though I gave up and went back to Debian. I'm sure FreeBSD's "ports" system (or whatever they call it) is good -- maybe just as good as Debian's apt/dpkg system. But I quickly realized I just didn't want to waste the time on learning another system that basically did the same thing as the system I already knew so well.

I wound up just going ahead and solving the porting problems. I suppose the software was probably better for having been tested on both Debian GNU/Linux and FreeBSD.

I never have enough time for the stuff I want to do on the computer, so I really resent all that overhead time, and overhead on switching distributions just seems like a total waste.

Anyway, I admire your bravery and skill! ;-)

Kirk Strauser's picture

I never have enough time for the stuff I want to do on the computer, so I really resent all that overhead time, and overhead on switching distributions just seems like a total waste.

Conversely, I like messing around with system administration. I can't really screw around with our production servers, so when I want to experiment with something new and cool my workstation bears the brunt.

Anyway, I admire your bravery and skill! ;-)

There's a fine line between bravery and foolishness. :-) Any skill on my part was hard won, I assure you.

Amti Goyal's picture
Submitted by Amti Goyal on

Hats off to you man!!! Brilliant is the only word that come to mind :)

My only painless and effortless installating a *nix OS was with Ubuntu and I strongly feel that it is the way to go for newbies or non tech people (I am a biologist) like me.

Kirk Strauser's picture

Hats off to you man!!! Brilliant is the only word that come to mind :)

Thanks. Do I know how to woo a woman, or what? The amazing part is that it seems to have worked.

My only painless and effortless installating a *nix OS was with Ubuntu and I strongly feel that it is the way to go for newbies or non tech people (I am a biologist) like me.

I chose it for my in-laws for the same reasons. Installation wasn't a problem for them since I handled that part, but it's nicely packaged with nice menu defaults and preconfigured services (like the action popup you get when you insert a CD).

Author information

Kirk Strauser's picture

Biography

Kirk Strauser has a BSc in Computer Science from Missouri State University. He works as a network application developer for The Day Companies, and runs a small consulting firm that specializes in network monitoring and email filtering for a wide array of clients. He has released several programs under free software licenses, and is active on several free software support mailing lists and community websites.