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Editor's Note: The Perils of Irresponsible Advocacy

Down the Home Stretch

October 27, 2000

Monday was a red letter day for KDE enthusiasts everywhere, as the project released KDE2. Dennis Powell's writeup of the changes provides a great overview of where the project has gone since leaving the solid version 1.2 behind.

Speaking as one who has primarily seen KDE in action from over the shoulder of his housemate, there's not much to add to Dennis' assessment of the newest version. It does indeed look nice, and the KDE team is to be commended for some outstanding work. KDE is an integral part of my household's strategy to keep everybody happy and productive, and I'm grateful for it.

It was a relief, as well, to see that, three days into the release, everyone's been fairly quiet and well-behaved about the whole thing. The GNOME folks just released a series of improvements to the 1.2 tree of their project; Balsa, one of the GNOME mailers, is edging toward version 1.0; The Outlook-like Evolution hit release 0.7 today. It's also almost time for GNOME Foundation elections.

Against this backdrop of peace, prosperity, and mutual tolerance, I'd like to offer an instructive story about the perils of irresponsible advocacy.

My friend Stan is a nice guy. We met while I was working as a database administrator. He's a self-taught "computer guy" who thinks "Windows is fine," though he bangs his head against the keyboard plenty of times a day supporting a high school with a few too many aging and abused Windows boxes for any support worker's sanity.

Stan expressed an interest in Linux not too long ago, noting that a nephew of his was "really into it." The nephew, irresponsibly, had offered to come over to his house and install Slackware for him. When Stan asked about his existing applications, the nephew promised him that WINE would handle it all for him just fine. He was also told that he could scrap his online banking software under Windows with impunity, he didn't have to worry about securing his connection because his nephew would maintain root privileges and had the necessary "skillz" (I met the kid once, he pronounced it that way) to protect his machine, and that "lots of programs like Outlook Express are already on Linux."

It was disconcerting to go down the list of promises about the new install, because even though I'd never really "advocated" Linux to Stan as anything other than what I knew and liked, I knew he was thinking "Why's he suddenly admitting to all these difficulties?"

When we got around to discussing the nephew's proposed solution for a desktop environment (which I won't name), I finally broke down.

"The fact is, it's not 'just like Windows," I said, "It has rough edges, it does weird things sometimes. It's at its unpredictable, low-performing worst when you try to make it act like a Windows machine. Everything you've read about the elegance of Linux goes out the window when you bolt some of these GUI's on top of the machine. It won't be able to run all your Windows stuff with a magical program, and I'm not 100 percent sure, until we look at your modem, that you're going to so much as look at a web page with the thing without spending a few extra dollars."

"So," Stan asked, "what good is it if all this stuff that makes it as good as Windows isn't that much better?"

That's a conversation we're still having.

Stan borrowed a few books, though, and copied some bookmarks. We spent a little time talking about which distribution would suit him, and the sanest way to set up his machine so he could fall back on the Windows software he still relies on. He's got a dual-booting machine now, from which he spends a decent percentage of the time learning his way around Linux. Because he's a true computer enthusiast, a lot of the joy is in just getting the machine to do what he wants.

Since editor's notes have a certain homily-like expectation hovering over them, I'll offer this moral to our brief story:

It's an exciting time to be a Linux user. KDE2 rocks. GNOME is great. There's some good software out there, making the sense of dislocation moving from Windows a lot less traumatic than it used to be. For some people, you can put them in front of a Linux desktop machine, point out where the browser and mail client are, and they're set. They'll find the games for themselves.

What we can't be doing, though, is raising unrealistic expectations or making promises we can't keep in our enthusiasm to advocate Linux. My friend Stan was nearly handed a machine that would have been worthless to him as anything other than a curiosity with a "broken" modem thanks to irresponsible advocacy.

We're getting closer to world domination every day. Let's keep it clean in the home stretch.

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