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.comment: If Not Now, When? - page 2

Desktop Confusion

  • May 23, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The operating system problem first evident with GeoWorks and later with OS/2 is that without applications there will be few users, and without users there will be few applications. The Linuxland response to this is to say that the community produces the applications, so where there is a need it will be filled. The Linuxland evidence is that this is simply not true. I'm writing this in StarOffice, which wouldn't be my first choice but for the fact that it is the only choice. Yes, I have Applix aboard, but Applix has some fatal flaws, such as keeping its clipboard private, and I have WordPerfect, about which my lone question is how any application so consistently bad has managed to cling to life for so long. KWord may oneday get there, as may AbiWord, but they ain't soup yet. Konqueror is really as good a community-developed application as we've seen, and it still has some wrinkles to iron out.

Yes, as Kevin pointed out, we have desktops, and good ones. Gnome, its politics aside, seems to be fine (I'll find out more in a couple of weeks, when Michael Hall and I exchange desktops for a solid week, no cheating allowed), and KDE in its current form is second only to OS/2's WorkPlace Shell in its quality, versatility, and stability. But where are the applications?

Consider the following imaginary conversation between a Linux user and a Windows user:

L: You really ought to give Linux a try. It's much better.

W: How?

L: Well, it's more stable, and more secure, and it's free.

W: My Windows doesn't crash, and there's nothing here anybody would steal. And Windows came on my computer, so either it was free or I already paid for it.

L: Yes, but you can get the source code for Linux, compile your own custom kernel, compile your own applications, and get updates for free.

W: What's a kernel and why would I want to compile it or anything else?

L: It's the heart of the operating system. And compiling your own stuff assures that it will work well on your system.

W: But everything I have already works just fine.

L: There's tremendous support from the community. You can just send an email if you have a problem, and it will answered quickly.

W: I don't have any problems -- oh, wait, when I got that DVD drive I had a hard time. I called the company, and they talked me through fixing it. How does Linux handle DVDs?

L: Uh . . .

W: Actually, I heard some things about Linux. I heard that you have to type in a password just to use a CD-ROM, or even a floppy disk. Is that right?

L: Uh . . .

W: And my digital camera here, which runs on the USB port. I got a CD full of stuff, and it worked just fine. Does Linux have support for my camera?

L: Well, you have to look at the list of supported hardware . . .

W: And I got all these neat programs to edit the pictures, to crop them and do all kinds of special effects. Will they run on Linux?

L: Um, well, they might run under WINE and there's this program, the Gimp . . .

W: And are their Linux equivalents for all the programs I use?

L: Sure! There's emacs for word processing, or LyX, and there's Netscape, which doesn't lock up your desktop under Linux any more frequently than it does under --

W: I use Internet Explorer. So why, again, should I switch to Linux?

L: It's technically superior.

See the problem here? Our hardware support is not exactly universal -- and I don't think the prospective user is much interested in his hardware not working because dem ol' debbil manufacturers didn't expose their specs for all the world to see in a highly competitive market -- and our applications fall short in a lot of places.

Interesting anecdote, entirely true: There has been a persistent and potentially very serious flaw with motherboards that use the VIA chipset when they're used to run Linux. Not long ago, a VIA representative contacted the Linux kernel mailing list with the idea of providing a driver that might cure the problem. The poor fellow was abused by mailing list participants, and the latest has been that VIA ought to recall its chipset. Tip from the clue locker, guys: The company is far more likely to say the hell with Linux, and its marginal costs would be minimal. It's making an effort, and being told to pound sand, and badmouthed as it makes its exit. Guess what, folks -- we ain't got the sway to be acting like this.

We have a fearsome attitude problem, if moving to the desktop is a goal. Look at the grief nVidia has had to endure because it releases its Linux drivers as binaries. But that's not the worst of it.

Look at how the Linux community reacts when anyone proposes to produce the applications we so sorely lack, but in a closed-source or for-pay form. Anybody here use the FrameMaker beta? Anybody here wonder why Adobe decided not to go forward with it? Anybody note the abuse that theKompany.com took when first it announced that some of its applications wouldn't be "free" in the phonied-up RMS sense? (I am in possession of an email exchange in which RMS undertook his coercion in trying to get a commercial software developer to GPL his code. And yes, in case you are wondering, he's still trashing KDE. I would quote the messages in their entirety here, but I'm saving them for a far broader piece, after which there will be some people with some answering to do. And I mention it now only because RMS has a group of followers, the functional equivalent of the shaven-headed, orange-robed, airport set, who replace with volume what they lack in independent thought, and so steer what commercial developers think about Linux.)

"I love Linux," my wife said a few minutes ago. "Except when I have to open attachments or do any work. But for playing around, it's great." Exactly. We need a broad range of serious applications. Not applications to scratch some programmer's itch as to how it ought to be done, but programs that bring Linux into the world of how things are done. Returning to theKompany.com, which is producing a nice group of programs for both developers and users, it took them, a commercial outfit that isn't richly funded by VC millions, to revive the perennially moribund Magellan, forking it into Aethera, which is progressing wonderfully. Remember the crap they took when they announced that their personal finance manager, Kapital, would be a pay-for-it, closed-source program? Remember how much of it was from people who had been whining about how they wished Quicken would be ported to Linux? Did they think Intuit was going to give it away?

I'm not for a moment saying that there's no value in the work being done by developers who push the limits, who head off in whatever strange directions that pursuit of their vision requires. What I am saying is that the community often seems to adopt a pseudo-elitist, emacs-is-all-you-need-and-everybody-else-keep-out attitude. I've said it before, over and over -- there's room here for everybody. If you object to closed-source apps, just don't buy them. But don't go around doing your best to queer the deal for everybody else.

The greatest obstacle to Linux on the desktop is the Linux community, or at least that vocal portion that makes life hell for anyone who wants to fix the problem with the VIA chipset, who wants to release video drivers for Linux, who God forbid wants to sell applications that run on Linux without casting the code they paid to develop to the wind.

Maybe it's time the desktop Linux advocates got loud, and backed it up with their billfolds. I've just registered Opera, not because I especially object to the ads, but because I think the company ought to be encouraged. They've made a great browser. It cost them money, which money was paid to developers who aren't still living off mommy and daddy's money, which was probably earned by them. Opera and its ilk deserve our support, when the product is good. If the cuckoos can play politics, so can we.


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