[NEWS] 'Linux is too much like Windows'

davidn at rebel.net.au davidn at rebel.net.au
Tue Dec 31 23:09:11 CST 2002


I have long observed, and I note that one of my colleagues plagiarised
me on this, that Windows keeps getting harder the more you use it.
Unlike unix, most people find that their first experience with Windows
is painless.  They quickly learn how to point and click and the fact
that it has a highly consistent user interface makes it easy for them to
transfer knowledge of one application to another.  Unix shares little of
these benefits, for example twm is utterly unlike gnome; how better could
you design confusion for the new user?  However once you move past the
superficial aspects of Windows and unix you discover that it's actually
easier to do things in unix than in Windows.

Windows is very much of the black box mentality, whereby each application
does what it does and nothing more and you can't see how it does it
because you don't need to know.  By contrast, unix's tool set mentality
is entirely different.  Obviously each primitive unix application is
a black box whereby you don't know how it works, but when it comes to
actually getting a task done unix permits--even encourages--you to click
together these primitive applications to create your own bespoke solution
that solves your own needs.  It is the pipeline, and to a lesser extent
the scripting languages, that makes unix easier to use than Windows.

I recently brought a unixphobiac Windowsphile into the fold.  I'd long
been telling him that unix was the light for server applications while
admitting that I thought Windows was the best sensible choice for the
desktop for most users, and he normally responded by saying that he agreed
in principle but that in practice you could get no unix machine through
a corporate server-room door, even if you had a seven foot barge pole.
Last week I loaded RH8.0 on his stinky old Think Pad 600E and it went on
with only one problem, namely that the audio didn't work out of the box.
He searched the web and found the solution within a few minutes, and
so now he has a working Linux machine.  After we had loaded the correct
modules to make audio work, he said, "I suppose we don't need to reboot,"
which I almost found funny because it was obvious that cognitively he
knew we wouldn't, but emotionally he couldn't quite believe it.

Along the way to solving his audio problem I browsed his system, and he
was just blown away with how easy it is to do things.  I think he was
more impressed with /proc than anything else! :-)  He loves the look
of Gnome and KDE, and is now convinced that we have to collaberate on a
project using unix for the server and supporting Windows, Mac and unix
for the client.  I find it interesting that what tipped him to convert
to the one true light was a mixture of unix's innate superiority, namely
ease of use, coupled with a Windows-like glitz, namely eye candy.

Is Linux too much like Windows?  I think in at least one area it is, and
much to its detriment.  I am annoyed beyond belief at the increasingly
poor standard of documentation that I see in Linux.  Perhaps it's the
fault of the distributors and not of the project authors, although
I cannot really believe that, but the fact is that for decades unix
had a clear advantage over every other operating system in that it's
documentation was stored in a single type of repository and it was
easy to search that repository to answer "how do I" type of questions.
I'm talking of man pages.  Unfortunately we now have to contend with
info pages, HTML pages, and I shudder to think what else.  I don't
dispute that these all provide a nicer user experience is some way or
other, but they cost us loss of utility.  It's no longer obvious how
to find documentation, and in many cases documentation is no longer
being provided.  If the answer is some particular KDE application, just
what question do you have to ask?  Certainly you can't ask "man -k".
Neither can you ask "man kview" (or whatever.)  Likewise "kview -?",
while giving output, actually tells very little.  The result is that
KDE applications become difficult to integrate into a command pipeline
because you can't discover that they solve a section of the problem and
even if you could, you can't discover how to invoke them in a pipeline.
This growing tendency, which by the way is not directed at KDE in
specific, approaches the Windows-like black box mentality.

Microsoft go to much effort to make Windows easy for non-technical users.
I think that explains much of their black-box mentality.  When they
say, "you don't need to know how this works," what they really mean is,
"we don't want you to play with this because you'll break it."  Well of
course they are right, and the more you coddle your users the less they'll
truly understand what it is they have and so the less they'll realise
its true value.  There's a very good reason why RTFM is so often trotted
out as the answer to most newbie questions, and although this answer
is often accompanied by a flame, the reason is not because we're bored
answering the same questions, or that we're annoyed that our time should
be abused by people who do nothing to find the answer for themselves.
The very good reason why RTFM is so often trotted out as the answer is
that when you do RTFM you learn more about the system.  If we just told
the answer to every newbie-style question then the newbies would remain
newbies forever, and eventually they'd probably conclude that unix is no
easier to use than Windows and comes without their favourite applications
(e.g. Microsoft Office for Windows.)

I think Linux is in danger of becoming too much like Windows in trying
to dumb down and glitz up the user experience.  We're trying to convince
people to switch to unix and we're not primarily arguing our technical
superiority, rather we're arguing that we're just as pretty, and just as
feature rich, as Windows.  The user says Quicken and we say GnuCash; or
they say Office and we say Open Office.  Yes, it is important to point
out that we have the same breadth of solutions (in fact we probably
win on that score), but are we pushing good solutions or pretty ones?
Is Open Office's claim to fame that it is a great word processor?
Compare it with, say, LaTeX, and I wonder if it doesn't come out poorly.
It sure is a big program.  It takes for-e-ver to launch!  The all-singing,
all-dancing applications of Windows are migrating to unix, and that
might be a good thing but I'm not wholly convinced.

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