Users should be computer-friendly, instead of computers being user-friendly!

You Can Hack An OS But You Can't Hack People - part 7: Left Standing at the Altar

Date/Time Permalink: 05/15/08 12:51:08 pm
Category: General

Who's left standing at the altar? Windows users, that's who.

Windows has now become the only proprietary operating system without a free-software or open-source equivalent. Apple has Darwin. Solaris has Open Solaris. Unix has Linux and BSD. Even the extinct systems whose surviving fan base can count themselves in the triple-digits have a free alternative that they're working on. BeOS has Haiku, and Amiga has AROS. DOS has FreeDOS. CP/M has CP/M, after Lineo threw up its hands and released it. Ditto for Lucent and Plan Nine From Bell Labs.

And Windows has... nothing!

Yeah, sure, ReactOS. Look, I've been unfailingly optimistic, but even I'm ready to give up on ReactOS. It's never going to happen. They've been picking at it for 12 years, now, and the last time I tried it (less than a year ago) it couldn't stay going more than a few minutes without choking unless I left it completely alone. Linux is 17 years old, and at one-third that age had progressed farther than ReactOS has in its entire lifetime.

I'm tired of pointing people to it, I'm tired of hoping for it. The problem with this parrot is that this parrot is dead. If you hadn't nailed him to the perch he'd be pushing up the daisies.

I could write a whole book with the title "What killed ReactOS?" and just frustrate myself chasing half-answers that don't answer the whole question. It's the curse of Windows. Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown. There are no answers to be found.

Instead, we have emulators on Linux. I've blogged extensively on the joy of DOSBox, which has so far not failed me a single time no matter what DOS program I downloaded and ran on it. And I've been noticing that Wine is really shaping up on Linux - at least 80% of the time, I can get a Windows-native program to run on it without issue, with only occasional tweaking.

Anyway, all that we're seeing here with the Windows-to-Linux friction is the effect of the largest user base looking for alternatives and being very frustrated. Somehow, the same grit that got the users of other operating systems to build a free version just isn't to be found in the Windows republic.

I think it's probably the philosophies of the cultures of each system. On Unix, the philosophy is "Do it yourself!" and on Apple it's "Let us do it for you!" and on Windows it's "Do what we tell you to do!" Why is it that the GPL and some hobby hackers can make a Unix-like system and a DOS/Windows emulator to run on top of it while they have 2% market share, but we can't build a GPL'd Windows-clone when Windows has a 90% market share? Is this a big conspiracy to drive us all crazy, or what? Yes, I know, lawyers. Lawyers haven't stopped Wine.

*Ahem* - now, if the above paragraphs serve to build a fire under the tail of the ReactOS/Windows community to spur their liberated-Windows forward just to prove me wrong, so much the better. It would be the most delicious plate of crow I'd ever eaten. Hope springs - or trickles - eternal. Maybe the official retirement of Windows XP and the backlash against Windows Vista will finally cause the uprising needed to at last make all platforms equally liberated. Anyway -

How hard is it to make the transition from Windows culture to Linux culture? Here's a true story. An actual conversation I had with my kids' bus driver when we got on the subject of computers:

  • HIM: "What operating system do you use?"
  • ME: "Linux."
  • HIM: "No, I mean what version of Windows do you use?"
  • ME: "... Linux?"
  • HIM (now talking to me like I am a child): "No, you see, an operating system is Microsoft Windows 98 or XP or Vista. Which kind of Microsoft Windows do you have on your com-pu-ter?"
  • ME (now DESPERATE for an opening): "I have Microsoft Windows Linux."
  • HIM: "Linux? When did they come out with that?"
  • ME: "They didn't. I was kidding about the 'Microsoft Windows' part. Have you heard of Apple, MacIntosh, iPod?"
  • HIM: "Oh, so you're saying that you have an Apple?"
  • ME: "No. But now that we have established that there exist two computer companies, Linux is yet a third computer company."
  • HIM: "Oh."

He then quickly changed the subject. Pardon me for simplifying the explanation for him so much, but did you see how many tries it took just to get him to speak this foreign word? We happened to get on this subject for reasons I'm sure we're all familiar with - his computer is slowing down with malware, and he knew I am a 'computer guy', so he was asking me for advice. Should this same person come back to me some day wanting to try Linux, what distro should I point him to?

Certainly, I need a definite answer. Condensed, to the point. Without going into the GPL and kernel compiling and even KDE vs. Gnome. The thing that I look for is not the distro itself, but a distro that has the right culture. With Ubuntu, I know that minutes after his arrival in the Ubuntu community, he will meet dozens of friendly, understanding people who will patiently walk him through the steps, because they, themselves, were new arrivals very recently.

Ubuntu is our Ellis Island. We had a need for one, and presto, one has evolved.

One more example: Just in time, I found "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower", an essay on the difficulties of teaching English 101/102 to students who simply don't get it. I'm including it here for the story of "Mrs. L" (scroll for it about halfway down). The relevant blockquote:

"Ms. L., it was clear to me, had never been on the Internet. She quite possibly had never sat in front of a computer. The concept of a link was news to her. She didn’t know that if something was blue and underlined, you could click on it. She was preserved in the amber of 1990, struggling with the basic syntax of the World Wide Web. She peered intently at the screen and chewed a fingernail. She was flummoxed.

I had responsibilities to the rest of my students, so only when the class ended could I sit with her and work on some of the basics. It didn’t go well. She wasn’t absorbing anything. The wall had gone up, the wall known to every teacher at every level: the wall of defeat and hopelessness and humiliation, the wall that is an impenetrable barrier to learning. She wasn’t hearing a word I said."

And there we are again. There's that impenetrable wall. It is our obstacle as well. We could point fingers and argue all day, but the *only* way we will make any progress with the Mrs. L's of this world is to acknowledge their problem, and build some steps over that wall. Whether it be by "Linux-lite", ReactOS, or even a baby toy computer. The needs of Mrs. L are different from the needs of geeks, and it is senseless to try to jam all of us into the same category. The best we come to is a halfway solution: Too restricting for us; still too scary for them.

People who would call me 'elitist' for seeing things this way are just bigots projecting their own hatred onto me. But I'm out to call attention to the people problems. Unfortunately, that's going to involve telling some people the brutal truth, and they're going to take it personally when they shouldn't.

In closing:

Take this away with you: The story of the OS wars is just as much about people as it is about programming. Humans haven't had more than 30 years to deal with computers on an everyday basis. Computer systems continue to evolve at a dizzying pace. But humans will evolve only at a constant rate. Specifically, the attitudes and mindsets that humans have towards computers is something that we cannot affect. We have to patiently put the computers out there and let the people poke and prod at them until they get used to them.

If most of the Linux community gets its way, Linux will gain users. If Linux is to gain significant users, they have to come from Windows. So - what are we to do with them?

Human nature is a factor which we ignore at the risk of perpetual frustration. Getting back to Taoism, it is nature that we fight, and when we fight against nature, nature will always win. Human nature is like water. You can dam the river, but the water will find someplace else to go. You can't just change the water's mind and tell it to stay upstream. Put the water to work, and it will boil your egg or turn your wheel for power. Fight the water, and be drowned.

I have to assume that 90% of the tech pundits on the Internet enjoy wasting their time fighting water. They rant and rave and fume: desktop this versus desktop that. Interface A versus interface B. We have to have the year of Linux on the desktop. We have to convert Joe Sixpack. The problem of Linux adoption is driver this and license that. It's the Linux user's fault. Don't call me noob, you elitist! Don't call me elitist, you noob! For God's sake, it's been going around and around in circles for fifteen years!

Yes, I'd love to see the whole world liberate itself and use Linux, or at least any Free Software system. I believe that technology freedom is actually crucial to the future of humanity itself. Now, if we could get some kind of realistic grasp of the true problem, perhaps we'll be able to solve it.

But can we? Can we quit blazing trails and pave a highway for the new Linux user to follow? Can we stop with the mindless advocacy that pitchforks people into Linux without giving them any idea what step two is? Can we stop frantically spinning in circles accomplishing nothing and then blaming each other? Can we stop adopting new users only to set them up to fail?

Can we be as good at people-engineering as we are at software-engineering?

I'm well into middle age now, and I'm still reading the same tired dogma and rhetoric in computing debates that I used to assume people would be over with by the time I'd be old enough to smoke. So I'm resigned to the idea that I will never see progress in my lifetime, but I have hope for my children's lifetime. Either computers are going away, or the human race will have to come to peaceful terms with them.

What is so hard to understand about this?

Follow me on Twitter for an update every time this blog gets a post.
Stumble it Reddit this share on Facebook

suddenly the moon