Waiting for Linux

In the early 1990s my friend Mike bought a copy of Minix that promised to be a home version of UNIX.  At the time I was into GENIE, CompuServe, Prodigy and BBS systems.  I even ran my own 2-line bulletin board.  I liked the promise of UNIX and how it networked.  Luckily I worked at a university and also had access to USENET and FTP.  This was before the web.  I eventually found my way to a USENET group that talked about Linux, and it was free.  At the time I was hesitant to spend $69 for Minix, so Linux intrigued me.  However, the instructions for getting the code, making the install discs, and installing Linux were daunting.  I’ve forgotten all the details, but it involved a DOS program for making the floppies, and I had to make a bunch of floppies.  This might have been Slackware, but I don’t remember.  It was a long way from Ubuntu 12.04.

ubuntu

After much work with FTPed files,  I finally got Linux going on an old machine, but I was frustrated that it wouldn’t do any of the things I normally did with a computer at the time.  It was neat, but Linux wasn’t ready to be my computer OS.  After that I’d try Linux again and again, as it evolved, hoping it would become something I’d want to use as my full time computer system.  I remember I was so excited when I got Yggrasil and I could install Linux from a CD.  I could install it from the CD, but I couldn’t mount the CD afterwards.  This was before standard IDE drives and each CD device had its own drivers.  I can remember being so happy the first time I finally got Linux to mount a CD.

Then came Redhat and things got much easier.  Over the years Linux distributions got so easy to install that it was almost nothing to throw Linux on a computer, but I always took it off almost as fast.  After Windows 95 came out, and then Windows 98, using Microsoft got addictive and standard.  I got used to all the popular programs and games and it was just painful to try and switch to Linux.

And why did I want to switch?  The whole open source programming movement was so appealing.  The idea of free and DIY made so much sense.  I thought Linux would catch on and everyone would eventually make it their OS of choice.  But that never happened.  Linux has become a standard for servers and supercomputers, but for desktops it’s never been able to compete with Windows and Macs because they have so much commercial software that’s a breeze to install and use.  It’s a breeze now to install Linux, but adding other programs, especially those not prepackaged for a specific distribution, can still be a major headache.

I could switch to Ubuntu or Mint today and do most of what I like to do on a computer, but with programs that are clunky compared to the slick ones I use on my Windows 7 machine.  If I was truly tempted to switch operating systems it would be to Macintosh OS X, but even OS X is a pain to use after being addicted to Windows all these years.

I’ve been waiting for a long time for the Linux desktop to surpass Windows, and KDE and Gnome have come a long way, but desktop Linux just never catches up.  Most of the people reading my blog will not even know what I’m talking about because Linux is so esoteric.  Over the years I’ve talked a few people into trying Linux.  Linux is great for people who only use Firefox or Chrome to do everything they do on a computer.  But I still like Word, Photoshop, Audible Manager, iTunes, Rhapsody, Spotify, Webshots, and many other Windows based programs.  But even if I was totally cloud based in all my apps, I just prefer Chrome on Windows much more than Linux or the Macintosh.

I recently install Kubuntu on my home Linux box so I could play with Amarok on Linux, but I quickly grew disappointed with it.  I loved how Amarok will find lyrics to display as it plays songs, and the program is rather nice overall, but it feels years behind other programs on Windows 7 and Lion.  Spotify also does lyrics now, and they scroll as the songs plays, and the lyric being sung is highlighted.   Spotify is blazingly fast, Amarok is not.

I keep waiting for Linux, like waiting for Godot.  Linux is always on the horizon, close but far.  For awhile Windows XP was having so many problems that I thought I jump over to Linux, but then XP shot ahead and became reasonable stable.  Then Windows 7 came out, and I even prefer it over OS X.  I’m not sure about Windows 8, but I’ll probably get hooked on it too.  Ubuntu is trying hard to leap ahead, to catch up, but by the time it gets where it’s going, Windows and Mac OS X have shot ahead again.

I want Linux to be my desktop operating system because the Linux philosophy is just so much cooler than the commercial alternatives, but I’m hooked on their crack and I just can’t give it up.

It’s sad to admit, but I’m tired of waiting.  Actually, I’m tired of thinking about computer operating systems.  I started using computers in 1971, and I’ve been waiting over forty years for the future to arrive when computers would do everything, and I’d live with the perfect human/machine interface.  I’m tempted to say Windows 7 is it, and I plan to go no further.  I remember working with a guy who retired and bought a computer with latest WordStar and DOS who told me that system would have to last him the rest of his life.  I wonder if he lived long enough to eat those words?

Computers have been the most fascinating invention in my lifetime, and I have put a lot of my life into learning them, but I think I have reached a point where I don’t want to care about them anymore, not as a hobby or topic of interest.  I just want to use them.  I want computers to be invisible and all I see if my work.  I want the Wizard of Oz to stay unseen behind the curtain.  Linux still demands too much working under the hood, getting grease on my hands, and requiring a toolbox of tools to keep things running.  Windows 8 promises to be the operating system so mundane that it’s transparent.

I guess I’m ready for computers to just be magic rather than advanced technology.

The sad thing is technology changes too fast.  What I learned about the IBM 360 forty years ago is all forgotten now, and there’s a long line of other machines and operating systems that came after it that I’ve forgotten too.  I can’t remember how many programming languages and operating systems I’ve forgotten.  Computer technology has been dazzling, mesmerizing, diverting, but what was it all for?  I used to be able to use a slide rule as quick as some people could use a calculator, but that skill is gone too.  Technology knowledge isn’t like scientific knowledge, or history or mathematics.  It’s not cumulative.  Gadgets just keep changing.

I think computers have become good enough that computer literacy is no longer required.  They aren’t idiot proof yet, but they are getting there.  At one time I thought desktop Linux would be the winner, but I think the race is over and Linux never made it to the finish line for the personal desktop OS.  I also believe, sometime in the near future we’ll buy computers and we won’t even care what operating system is on them, or what version.   We probably won’t even think of them as computers.

JWH – 3/4/12

3 Responses

  1. It’s hard to tell. Amognst my friends (those who are computer geeks, and those who aren’t) more, and more are still getting into linux. That was especially easy to see few years ago, when Windows Vista was threw to the market. Most of them have’nt returned to Windows family until now, and I don’t think they do that when W8 will show up.

    But in some particular way I’m sure you are right, in older days, people that was using computers were interested in them, they wanted to know how they work, and how to control them, now they just wan’t from them to work (i’m nut sure that it’s bad, but it feels kind of sad when you realize that computers are changing from versatile machines to some kind of “one way” device, that is escaping from the control of user)

    Have you seen Cory Doctorow’s speech on Chaos Communication Congress ?

  2. A few years ago, before my Dad died, I gave my Dads neighbours (Mum, Dad, and 3 children) a computer based on an Opteron processor that I’d built for Solaris. I installed XP Pro for them. Whenever the computer went wrong (i.e. they screwed up the software) they would call me, which got a bit annoying some times, but since I visited my Dad frequently, I’d fix it whilst there. The problem seemed to be that without giving them the admin password, they could not do a lot. Installing many games needed it. Giving them the admin password meant they could mess it up.

    Eventually I decided I’d had enough fixing this XP box, so suggested to the mother than I installed Linux and kept the root password myself. Initially I think the kids disliked Linux, but once they got used to it, they were happy. I used to do the odd bit of admin for them, but eventually had to give them the root password when my Dad died, and I could no longer keep going there to install X, Y or Z. But overall, I think they found Linux OK. They could not run many of their games, so they disliked that, but at least the system would stay working.

    I must admit I personally don’t use Linux much. I use it for a couple of high end engineering programs on a server, and connect to it from my Sun Ultra 27 (basically a high end PC) which still runs OpenSolaris. One day I might install Solaris 11 on that, but it actually does all I want, so I don’t have a big incentive to update it.

    But I still use a Windows 7 laptop, and admit Windows 7 works pretty well. But I still don’t like the fact I can’t understand the operating system – too much is hidden.

    Still, with all the problems of Linux and Windows, my belief if the most annoying bit of software is FLEXlm. The person who invented that should have been shot at birth. I’ve spent too much time trying to fight FLEXlm to allow me to run some software I’m legally permitted to use. The problems with that seem to exist on Windows, Linux and Solaris, although I never tried it on OS X.

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