Recently a blog post entitled "Why Desktop Linux is its own worst enemy has come across my feed-radar a few times. It's yet another in the long line of "Linux ain't ready yet" jeremiads and it doesn't really say anything new yet it got on my nerves. Why?
Like many such pieces, this one starts by making a statement as if it were fact while presenting no actual evidence. The "fact" used here goes along the lines of "Microsoft has shot itself in the foot with Vista and the only ones benefiting are Apple". Even if there were statistical evidence, the premise is mistaken. As I have said before the "success" of GNU/Linux cannot be measured in the same way as a proprietary OS. Apples and air people, you're comparing apples and air. I mean how can you tell how many Ubuntu installs came of a single CD?
Speaking about unsupported, the post then reels out that hardy perennial "not working out of the box". Apparently "even getting MP3s to play can be while using Linux can be problematic". Which distribution was that then? If playing MP3s out of the box is your thing try one of the distros that comes with that feature out of the box: Linux Mint, PCLinuxOS etc. Okay perhaps I've made that too difficult for people there, I mean perhaps they want "Linux" to be just "Linux": all distros being the same. You know like Windows with its seven different versions of Vista (with their range of hardware requirements) from a single supplier. To be fair the author does try to sound like she's not blaming GNU/Linux:
"Perhaps it's not the fault of Linux as much as it is the pervasiveness of Windows. Microsoft, after all, works with various hardware manufacturers to ensure their hardware works with Windows. And you still have driver problems crop up on occasion so what else can you expect with Linux."
Hmm, Microsoft works with hardware manufacturers? These would be the same manufacturers who said they weren't ready and yet Vista was still released. The Vista release was such a sore-point for Microsoft that a month ago another blog on the same site claimed that Microsoft is asking manufacturers to start testing the next Windows release now. But what follows that bit had me in absolute fits of laughter:
The average consumer just wants to be able to pop a CD into his optical drive, wait 10-15mins and have a working operating system.
The average consumer wants what? And in how many minutes? Has this blogger ever tried to install Windows? Sorry but this is just a ridiculous claim. Show me this average consumer who wants to install their OS? Show me any modern OS that installs in 15 minutes (best I've achieved is 18 and I'll assume live CDs are not allowed here). Most of the average users I know would rather buy a new PC than upgrade Windows. No, users wanting to install an OS in 15 minutes is a pure straw-man argument.
Another old chestnut
So what's next? Ah the old "why there are so many GNU/Linux distributions?" question is given a new coat of paint:
"What is it with the collective egos of Linux coders that if one distribution doesn't suit them that they have to go and make a new one"
Talk about missing the point. One reason there are "so many" distributions is because there can be and the ones that keep going are the ones that people find useful. Not every GNU/Linux user likes the idea of installing a whole desktop system just to set up a firewall, or a router or to re-cycle some of that hardware that Windows won't even get out-of-the-box for. Some want to play MP3s out-of-the-box, some want a small install footprint, a faster boot time or a longer support lifespan. Windows comes in different sizes to fit Microsoft's sales message. GNU/Linux comes in different flavours to fit the end-users' needs, wants, desires and just for-the-heck-of-it sense of curiosity. The author does offer a solution to the "problem":
Instead of rallying behind a single distro and making it the OS to beat, Linux grokkers tweak and promote their own Linux 'flavours'.
So let's dip into some analogies. Why are there so many amateur sports clubs, spare-time inventors and (best of all) tech weblogs? Why don't any of the sports enthusiasts just get behind another local club and make it the club to beat? And what's with the collective ego's of tech bloggers that if one poorly supported anti-GNU/Linux rant doesn't suit them they have to go and make a new one?
Here's a wake up call to those who keep asking the "why so many distributions?" question: as long as GNU/Linux is available under the GPL, there will be those who will tinker, tweak and create for no reason other than to enhance their own experience and maybe help a few others along the way. We tweak because we're allowed to and because, sometimes, it's fun.
The final straw
Their next point is not the one I laughed at the most, but after the others it was the straw that broke the camel's back (and I say that as a part-time Perl monger). Apparently the real litmus test is the documentation. Windows is -- quite cleverly-- not mentioned here but instead the praises of Apple are sung loud and clear. GNU/Linux documentation is apparently too archaic. Ubuntu is given some credit for doing a "pretty decent job" but apparently that's not enough. And as for the rest.. "Well?". Well what?
I've never purchased an Apple computer so I couldn't tell anything about the documentation. What I would say is that at the prices they charge for their machines I'd expect it to be perfect. But what documentation are we talking about here? The GNU/Linux system is made up of thousands of applications, some of which are well documented and others not so well. So are we talking about GNU/Linux documentation here or free software documentation? No I'm not nit-picking because you see there are thousands of excellent Howtos out there on a whole range of subjects and not all of them will have the word "Linux" attached but they all apply equally to applications that are run on GNU/Linux. Okay so maybe it could be better collated but so could a lot of things, including my CD collection. Another thing to remember is that there is a whole secondary market of books that has grown up to fill this very niche. Several of the publishers involved sponsor articles in this magazine and you'll find reviews of many tomes here as well. Yes they cost money but I'll wager it's less than the cost of that Mac that came with the shiny brochures.
The dummy race
Their closing argument is this..
In essence, until Linux becomes dummy-proof, it's not going to win over consumers. Make it easy, make it accessible - until Linux programmers get that, it's more likely that Apple will perhaps double its user base in the years to come at the expense of both Windows and Linux. It's not about the best OS winning - it's about the OS with the best user experience and Linux still isn't there yet.
What's not about the best OS winning? And winning what? The market? That's changing as we both write, and a few years from now probably won't resemble the current one. When I read that statement though I was reminded of the quote by Richard Cook:
"Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot- proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning."
"Dummy-proof" is a moving target. It's one of those circle-of-life things (as Disney like to say). If you make something simple to use, there will soon come along another set of users too lazy, stubborn, or apathetic (but rarely too "stupid") to learn how to use it properly. The answer is not (always) to make it easier to use --by which most people seem to mean "hide half the functions"-- but to make learning it more interesting. The quality of a user experience should not be judged by the cuteness of the help avatar or the number of steps in a wizard (or even by calling it a wizard). It should also be about how much it enhances your life/work, widens your perspective and awakens the child-like hunger to learn in you. It should make you want to show off what you can do to your friends. Well it is if you ask me but I'm not sure any software, free or proprietary, has achieved that yet. Still it's a good target.
As I said there have been a long line of posts like this, so why did this one get my goat? I think it was because it addresses software users as consumers. You see, for me, free software (including GNU/Linux) reverses the trend that separates software supplier and consumer. I am one of those who baulks when train drivers address passengers as "customers". I dislike it when TV viewers or radio listeners are treated like cash machines. Making someone a consumer reduces their contribution to fiscal terms and people are more than that. Free software makes users participants again they are not mere consumers. Sure they may start out that way, especially if they migrate from Windows, but in my experience they usually learn pretty fast that this game has different rules. Rules which let them play instead of just spectate. So you can't really say that because GNU/Linux is not addressing the needs of consumers it's failing, because largely it's not trying to. There is no free software marketing team, no advertising budget, no "mission statement". Free software and GNU/Linux are simply there. Pick them up, use them if you want. If you don't well that's fine, it's your freedom but as I said before -- the game has changed so comparing apples and air is a bit of a waste really.