It was looking like I’d get to call a l337 h4x0r to the carpet and lay some smackdown at work, but unfortunately I had a prior commitment. Too many things to do, not enough Daves to go around. It’s the story of my life.
And I see Infoworld’s Bob Lewis is recommending companies do more than give Linux a long, hard look–he’s saying they should consider it on the desktop.
He’s got a point. Let’s face it. None of the contenders get it right. So-called “classic” Mac OS isn’t a modern OS–it has no protected memory architecture, pre-emptive multitasking, and limited threading support. It’s got all the disadvantages of Windows 3.1 save being built atop the crumbling foundation of MS-DOS. I could run Windows 3.1 for an afternoon without a crash. I can run Windows 95 for a week or two. I can usually coax about 3-4 days out of Mac OS. Mac users sometimes seem to define “crash” differently, so I’ll define what I mean here. By a crash, I mean an application dying with an error Type 1, Type 2, or Type 10. Or the system freezing and not letting you do anything. Or a program quitting unexpectedly.
But I digress. Mac OS X has usability problems, it’s slow, and it has compatibility problems. It has promise, but it’s been thrust into duty that it’s not necessarily ready for. Like System 7 of the early ’90s, it’s a radical change from the past, and it’s going to take time to get it ready for general use. Since compilers and debuggers are much faster now, I don’t think it’ll take as long necessarily, but I don’t expect Mac OS X’s day to arrive this year. Developers also have to jump on the bandwagon, which hasn’t happened.
Windows XP… It’s slow, it’s way too cutesy, and only time will tell if it will actually succeed at displacing both 9x and NT/2000. With Product Activation being an upgrader’s nightmare, Microsoft may shoot themselves in the foot with it. Even if XP is twice as good as people say it’s going to be, a lot of people are going to stay away from it. Users don’t like Microsoft policing what they do with their computers, and that’s the perception that Product Activation gives. So what if it’s quick and easy? We don’t like picking up the phone and explaining ourselves.
Linux… It hasn’t lived up to its hype. But when I’ve got business users who insist on using Microsoft Works because they find Office too complicated, I have a hard time buying the argument that Linux can’t make it in the business environment without Office. Besides, you can run Office on Linux with Win4Lin or VMWare. But alternatives exist. WordPerfect Office gets the job done on both platforms–and I know law offices are starting to consider the move. All a lawyer or a lawyer’s secretary needs to be happy, typically, is a familiar word processor, a Web browser, and a mail client. The accountant needs a spreadsheet, and maybe another financial package. Linux has at least as many Web browsers as Windows does, and plenty of capable mail clients; WP Office includes Quattro Pro, which is good enough that I’ve got a group of users who absolutely refuse to migrate away from it. I don’t know if I could run a business on GnuCash. But I’m not an accountant. The increased stability and decreased cost makes Linux make a lot of sense in a law firm though. And in the businesses I count as clients, anywhere from 75-90% of the users could get their job done in Linux just as productively. Yes, the initial setup would be more work than Windows’ initial setup, but the same system cloning tricks will work, mitigating that. So even if it takes 12 hours to build a Linux image as opposed to 6 hours to build a Windows image, the decreased cost and decreased maintenance will pay for it.
I think Linux is going to get there. As far as Linux looking and acting like Windows, I’ve moved enough users between platforms that I don’t buy the common argument that that’s necessary. Most users save their documents wherever the program defaults to. Linux defaults to your home directory, which can be local or on a server somewhere. The user doesn’t know or care. Most users I support call someone for help when it comes time to save something on a floppy (or do anything remotely complicated, for that matter), then they write down the steps required and robotically repeat them. When they change platforms, they complain about having to learn something new, then they open up their notebook, write down new steps, and rip out the old page they’ve been blindly following for months or years and they follow that new process.
It amuses me that most of the problems I have with Linux are with recent distributions that try to layer Microsoft-like Plug and Play onto it. Linux, unlike Windows, is pretty tolerant of major changes. I can install TurboLinux 6.0 on a 386SX, then take out the hard drive and put it in a Pentium IV and it’ll boot. I’ll have to reconfigure XFree86 to take full advantage of the new architecture, but that’s no more difficult than changing a video driver in Windows–and that’s been true since about 1997, with the advent of Xconfigurator. Linux needs to look out for changes of sound cards and video cards, and, sometimes, network cards. The Linux kernel can handle changes to just about anything else without a hiccup. Once Red Hat and Mandrake realize that, they’ll be able to develop a Plug and Play that puts Windows to shame.
The biggest thing that Linux lacks is applications, and they’re coming. I’m not worried about Linux’s future.