Two Articles On Linux

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Recently, there’s been two articles on Linux which provide more than a little food for thought.

The first article speaks about Linux’s likely role on the desktop in the medium-term.

It concludes that while there are many emerging areas where Linux could pose a real threat to MS; the desktop is not likely to be one of them.

What is a real eye-opener are some comments made by someone whose job it is to promote Linux:

“There is no real market for a consumer-grade Linux desktop,” says Martin Fink, HP’s Linux boss. Rather than trying to upstage Microsoft, HP is simply responding to its corporate customers, whose technology bosses have been asking to try out Linux on the desktops of a few dozen employees before committing to any big deployment. “They are at the point where they want to kick the tyres,” adds Mr Fink.

“Linux’s main appeal, in other words, is likely to be to companies rather than home users. And even companies are unlikely to ditch their Windows PCs for the sort of employees that Microsoft calls “information workers”—the lawyers, consultants, accountants and so forth who use presentation applications, spreadsheets, fancy graphics and the like. Linux is perfect, on the other hand, for call centres, cash tellers, customer-support departments and other types of work that require employees to use only the same one or two computer functions (and whom their employers might actually want to discourage from goofing off with other applications while on the job). Instead of the “information worker”, says Mr Fink, he is targeting the “transaction worker”.

In short, simple, inflexible apps for single inflexible tasks.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and you don’t want to give the UPS guy a lot of room for creativity in package tracking, but the article doesn’t go into the reasons why Linux isn’t likely to be picked up by information workers, too.

The second article talks about that. The person in question ideologically likes open source, but she points out that if you expect Joe Sixpack or Suit to use your software, you’d better program with him in mind

As the abstract puts it:

“The lack of focus on user interface design causes users to prefer proprietary software’s more intuitive interface. Open Source software tends to lack the complete and accessible documentation that retains users. Developers focus on features in their software, rather than ensuring that they have a solid core. Open Source programmers also tend to program with themselves as an intended audience, rather than the general public. Lastly, there is a widely known stubbornness by Open Source programmers in refusing to learn from what lessons proprietary software has to offer. If Open Source software wishes to become widely used and embraced by the general public, all five of these issues will have to be overcome.”

It’s a good article, and you ought to read it, but there’s a couple additional observation I’d like to make.

When seeing the comments, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity between the low regard “service” functions like documentation and user interface have among open source programmers and the low regard service functions had in the former Soviet Union. In both environments, making things was what counted. Taking care of them afterwards didn’t.

In the old Soviet Union, there was a lack of competition which allowed for a “we make it, you take it or leave it” attitude. In the software world, of course, there is a choice: Windows, and that’s what the overwhelming majority of customers pick, even though it costs more.

Though the “what” is rather similiar, I think the “why” is rather different. I strongly suspect the typical Open Source programmer thinks pandering to a Joe Sixpack or Suit is at least beneath him, and at most abhorrent. Rather, he’s more likely to view his application as a sort of test to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In his mind, computing is not supposed to be a brainless activity. Rather, it’s supposed to be a sort of test to see whether or not you are worthy of using the program. Computing is supposed to be some form of elitist activity; it’s not supposed to be easy, and if you’re not up to the test, then you don’t deserve to use a computer.

To put it mildly, this is not what Joe Sixpack/Suit thinks or wants. I have never heard a member of either or these tribes ever say, “I hate Windows. It’s too easy to use.” I have almost always heard them say the exact opposite.

Joe Sixpack/Suit doesn’t like computers for computers’ sake. Not at all. He wants to do something with the absolute minimum amount of mental effort or knowledge. He doesn’t want an initiation rite; he’s not into technoteric ritual. He just wants to do something; he’s into the “what,” not the “how.” You’re the programmer, you’re supposed to do all the geeky thinking for him.

In the world of the consumer desktop, Joe Sixpack/Suit is the boss. Period. You give him what he wants, or he doesn’t use your product. Period. Your test is one he doesn’t have to pass or even take.

And you can babble until the next geological era about it, but it’s just whistling in the wind, because no matter how stupid and brain-dead you think he is, or even how stupid and brain-dead he really is, he’s the boss. He’s got the numbers and the money. He calls the shots, not you.

Period.

Ed

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