April 16, 2014

gnotebook: The Desktop War: A Separate Peace - page 2

Killing Emacs, Progeny Gives the Gift of GNOME 1.4

  • June 1, 2001
  • By Michael Hall

In a lot of ways, Emacs (and my own ignorance at the time) was the killer app when it came time to shuck Windows. In 1995 I bought a clone, the space issues involved with keeping it in a crowded Fort Bragg barracks be damned, and it represented the first chance I'd had to run Linux at all. Remembering pleasant days on an Ultrix machine years earlier and dismayed at how hard Windows 95 could be on an AMD 5x86 with 16MB of RAM, I decided to forego the pleasures of shrinkwrap and out-of-the-box hardware support and throw my lot in with Linux: it was a way to get a Unixy workstation and return to Emacs. Had I known about the Win32 Emacs ports, I might not have been so eager. As much as I loved the tools Unix (in the generic) provided, the one thing I remembered with genuine adoration and longing was Emacs, which I'd experienced over an ADM3a+ and VT100's years before. I knew little enough about Linux, in fact, that when I discovered during the initial install that X Window came with it I was pleased with the "extra feature." The early versions of the GIMP were absolute nirvana considering how much fun I'd had with Paintshop Pro under Windows.

I learned my way around fvwm, struggled through the hassles of mastering setserial and ppp in making a recalcitrant modem work, got sendmail configured to not send all my system logs to root at my ISP, figured out plug-and-play support enough to get my SB16 PNP working, and generally built up the sort of sweat equity you build. Life was pretty good, and I was well entrenched by the time the real explosion of interest in Free/open source software happened. Looking back on my days as an Ultrix user at a university years earlier, I decided I was about as well off as I had been then.

That mini-history wasn't meant to serve as some sort of breast-beating. By the time I got around to Linux, the bar to entry was low enough for the moderately motivated and curious. The local Books-a-Million had a few books on installation and configuration (I work for the author of one of them, actually) and while Linux wasn't as "nice" as it is now, it was manageable. Rather, it's meant to set the stage for where my own expectations are anchored when it comes to my Linux desktop. In many ways, the minimal configuration I had to deal with in 1995 remains "good enough" for what I do.

In fact, a sure recipe for frustration of late has been spending too much time trying to cram the desktop paradigm around tools I've been using for a while, or attempting to "remain current" on the latest applications for its own sake. It makes more sense to use established procmail recipes (and the mindblowingly effective spambouncer) with a variety of context-appropriate clients than it is to introduce IMAP as a way to let Evolution benefit from the sweat equity I built up learning procmail when there wasn't a mail client under Linux that had decent filtering built in. It makes more sense to remain productive, frankly, than it does to remain "current."

Accompanying the launch of the two major desktop projects several years ago was the notion that "the desktop" was the next logical target. To that end, we saw installation and configuration become magnitudes easier on the premise that a hurdle Linux needed to clear was how effectively available it was. The desktops were to extend that effective availability further.

It's clear that they've already achieved a lot of success. Linux installation and daily use is now, for the most part, truly simple. It gets easier on a daily basis, too. The landscape has changed to the point that where Red Hat was derided not three or four years ago as a "newbie" distro, you can now scan talkbacks and see readers identifying it as a "serious server distribution," while Mandrake typically receives the nod for a good beginner distro. In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that everybody who wants to try Linux probably has. They certainly have the means, the out-of-the-box tools made available courtesy of the usability consciousness raising the desktop campaign engaged in, and a Linux book market so saturated with assorted "dummy," "idiot," and "fast-n-easy" titles you're reduced to just making sure someone isn't trying to push a two-year-old release of the included distro before collapsing in the face of the incredible selection.

What we're left with is, in fact, the problem with applications availability and some attendant contributing elements: the widespread perception that the Linux desktop community doesn't want to pay, remains hostile to close-source software, and is tardy to embrace the sort of standards mainstream commercial software producers want before they'll venture into the Linux market. I know as well as the average Linux advocate that some of these points are being addressed, and I understand the imperfection of some of the arguments against Linux that point to these concerns. On the other hand, I've decided I'm overwhelmingly apathetic when it comes to whether my neighbor embraces Linux for his day-to-day work. In fact, in terms of Linux's advancement, my hopes largely center on the issues of open standards and a platform-agnostic Internet.

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