netcurmudgeon (netcurmudgeon) wrote,
netcurmudgeon
netcurmudgeon

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Opening up Open Source

I've been thinking my way along a thought trail that started with Nicholas Petreley's back-page rant in February's Linux Journal (the first LJ in my life). In it he lambastes the Open Source community for recently falling into a slavish imitation of Windows: Linux got to where it is today by being both better and different from Windows, not by trying to be a cut-rate knock-off.

The next part of the path was a letter from a Mr. Gordon Findlay in the April LJ lauding Petreley's column: "We need to stop treating Microsoft's products as the de facto 'gold standard'. Of course, this means giving up the unrealistic attempt to make Linux a drop-in replacement for Windows XP, and instead letting Linux stand on its own merits—merits in terms of functionality, initial cost, TCO (as if anyone had any real idea), community, potential for learning and liberty." Findlay goes on to point out a paper by Dominic Humphries Linux is not Windows: a manifesto for Linux to be what it always has been, and for Windows users who simply want to get away from Windows to go somewhere else.

Humphries lays out a lengthy argument about why "Linux != Windows", and why it shouldn't be. I agree with many of his points, but not is underlying theses. Humphries espouses Linux for people who want to learn how their computers work and really get their hands dirty. He values ease of use, but defines it very differently from the way Microsoft does. He equates ease of use with efficiency and measures it by counting keystrokes. I think that Humphries over-values brevity in directing an application to do something vs. consistency across applications. He gives as his example of the near pinnacle of efficiency, these keystrokes to move five lines of text to the bottom of a document in vi: d5d / Shift-g / p. Contrasting it with the necessary keystrokes in Microsoft Word: Shift + DnArrow + DnArrow + DnArrow + DnArrow + DnArrow / Ctrl-x / Ctrl-End / Ctrl-v. Six keystrokes vs. twelve: case closed.

What I think he misses – and what shines some light into where we differ – is that efficiency (as measured by keystrokes) isn't the only metric for ease of use. Consistency must also be taken into account. Microsoft has made a lot of hay (and green) by flogging consistency – to the point where it really stands out when they aren't (like the authentication dialog in Outlook 2000 vs. every other Windows authentication dialog – Outlook swaps the order of Domain and Password, forever tripping me up). Humphries' six keystroke example is great – in vi. But it doesn't apply anywhere else in the realm of Linux. The Word example is applicable across every Windows text editor (including third party editors like TextPad and OpenOffice). Those keystrokes are applicable, with slight variations, for moving files around in Windows Explorer. It's not as efficient, but it is much more consistent. If we measure ease of use by efficiency x consistency, "the Windows way" comes out way ahead. The majority of computer users would probably prefer my equation over Mr. Humphries'.

And that's when the light came on about what I wanted from Linux, and why Ubuntu Linux knocks my socks off on my laptop and is driving me nuts on my server.

When I put together a server I want a stripped-down lean, mean machine that does exactly what I want it do and which I can control and understand completely. With my preferred Linux distribution – Slackware – I can trace (and understand) every command the system executes on startup. It's a little harder with Debian or SuSe, but I can still do it (the difference is a simple vs. complex systems for handling startup files). I can't do that with Windows. That's a key reason why I prefer Linux generally, and almost exclusively for outside-the-firewall servers. I can't be confident that I have secured something that I don't fully understand. When it comes to servers, I'm willing to trade ease of use (defined a la Microsoft) for clarity and control – which (along with desiring free Open Source software) puts me squarely in the Linux camp with Petreley and Humphries.

Then there's Ubuntu. I like Ubuntu Linux on my laptop. It handles all of those things that Windows handles for me – like figuring out what sound, network, and video drivers to load. It's GUI from the word go, and comes pre-loaded with all of these neat applications. It has an auto-updater that takes care of keeping the OS and applications up to date. It's even more hands-off than Windows Update. It runs an automounter that automatically recognizes when I plug in a thumb drive or external USB hard disk. As with Windows, Ubuntu hides all of the inner workings from me. I don't have much control over how the system works, but the tradeoff is that I can concentrate on using the laptop to get work done instead of working on running the laptop. This puts me in the Windows camp: when I sit down with my laptop, or at a desktop PC, I want to play with an image, or listen to music, or post to LiveJournal. I don't want to run a computer.

When I sit down in front of a server I'm concerned with running the server. That's why Petreley's and Humphries' interpretation of the Linux way works for me on the server. And that's why Ubuntu's Windows-like nature is driving me nuts on the household file server. Some day Real Soon Now, I'll pull all the data off that machine, blow it away, and rebuild it as a Slackware box.

Nick Petreley and Dominic Humphries would probably say that what Ubuntu is doing is exactly wrong – that it's catering to the type of users who don't give anything back to the Open Source community. Humphries would rather have these people run OS/X if they want something that works like Windows, but isn't Windows. And they're missing the point. OS/X isn't free, and it only runs on one proprietary, closed hardware platform. Ubuntu Linux is free, and it will run on any Intel or AMD system. Not all users want to get their hands into the guts of their PCs, and not all users can afford a commercial operating system and the commercial application software that goes with it. I think that the set of users who don't want to be computer experts is three or four orders of magnitude bigger than the set of users who want to be hackers. I also think that the intersection of that set and the set that needs a free OS that can run on cheap behind-the-leading-edge hardware is bloody huge.

The point is that there is a place in Linux for mimicking Windows, just as there is a place in Linux for being different and for being bleeding edge. These Linux fundamentalists need to understand that if you oversimplify your analysis, your analysis loses its applicability to the real world, because the real world ain't simple. Even if I want to nuke it off my server with a flame-thrower, Ubuntu is a Good Thing with a valid reason for existing. The "be like a hacker or get lost" guys need to lighten up and remember that Open Source makes for a big table with room enough for all of us.
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