Disappointment… Plus Linux vs. The World

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.

6 thoughts on “Disappointment… Plus Linux vs. The World

  • August 22, 2001 at 4:15 am
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    Dave,
    I am in Finland working at the moment. Even in this birthplace of Linux, there is a lot of support and interest but people seem wary of using it in a corporate environment. As far as I am concerned, it seems to be that big corporations want somebody to take the blame if things go wrong and that is the reason why Linux still isn’t found as a major player. Also, so many have read about the steep learning curve that Linux entails which scares people off. I think that this attitude needs to change before we start seeing Linux actively adopted by bigger companies.

    Dave T.

  • August 22, 2001 at 9:32 am
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    I’ve setup enough offices with GNU/Linux to know one thing:

    It’s an accountant’s worst nightmare.

    There are no good double-entry accounting systems yet developed. GNUcash is getting there, but they still have to add payroll and more before people will start to use it.

    Once I get my custom distribution up and running on my Athlon box, I’m going to clone that over to the box here at the lumberyard. I’ve already bought a copy of VMware Pro. so I can run Windows 2000 + Peachtree Complete Accounting. That’s the only reason we still need Windows.

    And that might be the only reason that a lot of people still need Windows. I was talking to my good friend Bobby a few days ago, and he said he thought no one would switch to Linux because people don’t want to switch from MS-DOS (command-line) to Windows (GUI) and back to a command-line interface. I tried to explain to him that this isn’t true, but he just wouldn’t believe me.

    I guess I’ll just have to show him how easy it is to install, setup, and run Mandrake Linux 8.0.

  • August 22, 2001 at 10:26 am
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    I don’t know if I could run a business on GnuCash. But I’m not an accountant.

    Well, I gather that GNUCash is more of their answer to Quicken than a real accounting package (see Dustin’s comments above). Another Linux alternative to Quicken is Kapital from The Kompany. Can you tell they do KDE stuff from all the ‘Ks’ ? 😉

  • August 22, 2001 at 11:10 am
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    A couple of points. Most of writing good software is getting requirements and a good, flexible design down. The coding is significantly easier with proper planning. Note that I said *good* design. I think this is more of the problem with MacOS than compiler speed, which really is a small player in the development process. And believe me, a bad coder can make any compiler look inadequate. The only type of development environment that’s so slow to affect your productivity might be the Java IDEs. Forte eats 50-60MB of memory and makes drunken pigs look speedy.

    There are several reasons for the slow migration to a Linux desktop. As Dave mentioned, the app support isn’t there – yet. (I’ve looked at GNUCash; it’s getting there, but Quicken is far more mature.) And Joe User is not going to switch to Linux and lose his functionality just to "fight the good fight". Yes, when you have to register with MS whenever you make a move, but most typical users I know will just stay pat and happy.

    While Linux appears stable once it’s up and running, the setup is nowhere close to what Granny needs. It’s still a bit too geek for the mainstream. You have marginal documentation. The public support community has its mix of helpful and arrogant folks. I think there are some user-side issues that need to change in the Linux culture before it’s ready for the mainstream.

    I think the office suite situation mirrors the OS situation. MS’s offerings may be bloated, but people are used to them, and they do the job. WP used to be the vehicle of choice, but they faded. Only time will tell if that suite can make a comeback. MS’s antics with XP, product activation, etc. may be a catalyst.

  • August 22, 2001 at 4:06 pm
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    I’ve been following the development of several GPL’d office suites, and I think that they’re all going to make great productivity tools…eventually.

    StarOffice 5.2 is decently stable, but I hate the integration. They took one too many lessons from Microsoft. Any time I have to stare at "Program Files" under a GNU/Linux distribution makes me sick.

    Open Office (the successor to StarOffice) has a much nicer interface, but it’s not quite stable enough for production use yet. Every week brings the CVS sources just that much closer to "stable".

    KOffice – stable, clean, no features. ‘Nuff said.

    Others need not apply yet.

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