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From the Desktop: Fishing for Trout, Catching a Marlin
The Eternal Debate
December 18, 2000
A little break from the window manager review this week, as I muddle through some interesting times with Linux.
I was in the middle of eating my Monte Cristo sandwich when my friend across the table declares that Linux is the most useless operating system he has ever seen.
My first thought was that the strawberry jelly really enhances the flavor of the cheese and ham in the sandwich. And then my brain caught up with the conversation. All around the table, other mutterings and conversations screeched to a halt as everyone looked at me.
This was a gathering of friends, just getting together to catch up on our respective lives. Most of us were in good spirits, save for the friend who just caused the silence, who was in a baiting mood. I knew that my devious friend was writing a book for Microsoft Press about server administration and that he was looking at Linux a bit to compare it to the Microsoft products. I had actually been helping him a bit with the project, if only to make sure he got his facts relatively straight.
I knew I was being baited, most likely as a goof, since I tend to believe in letting others practice what they will, as long as it does no harm to themselves and others. Diversity is diversity, after all, whether it be ethnic, lifestyle choice, or technical affiliation. All my friends know this, so we never seriously snipe at each other's gigs.
This day, however, found me setting down my sandwich and replying to my friend, "What'd you screw up this time?" He usually gets mad at things when he's made a mistake, and we all knew it.
"Well, nothing, " he said, "I just don't understand why anyone would use it."
At this point, I had to ask myself, do other Linux advocates get this a lot? Already this seemed like a repeat of conversations I had had in the past.
I took the conciliatory path, since I really wanted to get back to my sandwich.
"Well, I admit, there are some bumps in the road on the client side, but on the server side it does okay," I answered.
"It is not. It's hard to maintain and there's no security on it."
By now, this was getting ridiculous. We had gone after each other's OS's before, but it was usually in good fun. My friend had some kind of mad on, and was determined to share his woes with the table at large.
"Look, that's just silly," I admonished, "Linux is one of the most secure platforms around out of the box. You're using Red Hat, and that's pretty good, and you're not even looking at Bastille, which all my Penguinista friends say is pretty tight..."
Then my friend jerked the hook a bit.
"It's not even an operating system, it's just old technology cobbled together," he smugly said.
Now, it should be said quite clearly that this is a statement I hear time and time again. Some of you might remember a run-in I had at a PTA meeting with a Mac user, of all people, who said nearly the same thing. My friend certainly knew this, because I had regaled him with the story myself. I was being baited, no question, but sometimes the fisherman need to know when the fish is just too damn big.
Besides, there is something about the logic of this statement that just bugs the hell out of me.
I mean, if you threw out all of the innovative work Linus Torvalds and the rest of the Kernel Gang has done over the last nine years, and just traced the origins of Linux back through Minux and its other ancestors, sure, you could say that Linux is based on thirty, forty, or however-many-years ago technology. I would not dispute that.
Because, I said to my friend, "it's ALL based on old technology you moron!" (Feel free to use this statement whenever you get some FUD from your local Microsoft evangelist.)
All technology, computer or otherwise, is based on something that came before it. It doesn't just come out of thin air. Did Windows magically appear in the mind of some Microsoft engineer from the ether? Not hardly! They based the interface on work done by prior developers and slapped the whole thing on top of the DOS operating system that itself was a copy of CP/M. Microsoft didn't even make DOS themselves: it was built by a third-party development house and bought by Microsoft when the House of Bill made a deal with IBM.
Oh yeah, that's innovative.
The whole scientific method, the current fad of looking at the universe, is based on this philosophy. Take the work of others and refine it to better fit the way we perceive the universe to work. Technology is the same way: it took 100,000 years for human beings to figure out how to build the microwave oven.
None of this is said to detract from the contributions and innovations performed by individuals. They are all important and necessary to the process. But to discredit something because it relies heavily on the work of the past is outrageous.
For example, in the Caribbean, old DC-3 airplanes are still used extensively to deliver cargo and mail between the islands. That alone is an example of older technology outperforming newer, as newer cargo planes cost far more to operate. But on each plane is an even more glaring example of old versus new. Along the interior of the fuselage is a pipe that runs from the cockpit all the way to the back of the plane, where a small wind-driven fan blows air to the cockpit end. Along the way, small openings let air in from the various compartments in the plane, and the whole thing blows air onto the pilot's face. Why?
It's the smoke detector, actually. No electronics that could degrade in the humid tropical air, no batteries to run out--just something simple and direct. If you smell smoke, then there's a fire in the plane.
Older technology is not always a bad thing--something that many of us need to have drilled into our heads once in a while.
Is Linux based on forty-year old technology? Yes! It's also based on this week's announcement of a new test kernel! Or the abacus someone invented in China thousands of years ago!
Which is what I told my friend.
And how I got to finish my sandwich in peace.