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Archive for October, 2006

On Windows and UNIX

I was a Windows user, but got so damn tired of the poorly-made OS, which seemed to work but required SO MUCH babying. Yes, you can do this and you can do that, just follow the steps and click through dozens of unnecessary and stupidly-designed buttons, plus a few registry changes! I am a computer major, and I am surprised to see how a so-called user-friendly OS can have so many poorly-designed UI elements and so many confusing and counter-intutitve UI designs. And what is much worse, it needs constant care. I do not know the case now, but in those days of Windows XP SP1, I had to reinstall like every 3 months, and every time after I spent a few hours installing the system and the necessary drivers, I needed to be very careful to patch it WITHOUT connecting to the internet, and then spent much more time to reinstall all the applications. This sometimes required some very specific ordering: you must install A and then install B, and never do the reverse. Oh, one more thing, do not install too many applications, because it’s gonna slow down the system. Bull shit! I have thousands of programs on my Linux, and it still as fast as only a mini system. I have added more and more applications to my Mac, and no, it is not slowed down at all. You know what, you are also suggested to shut down the Windows machine once in a while, otherwise, it’s gonna slow down, too. Again, bull shit! My linux barely needs restart, and I only restart my Mac after the system update (about 3 or 4 times in half a year).

After the (difficult) transition about 3 years ago (when the kernel just went to 2.6), I never had to baby my system: have debian installed, use a single command to update when you remember, and you do your WORK. No reinstallation is necessary no matter how “old” the system has been. When you really need a reinstallation or you want to clone the system to a new machine, you do not need to spend a whole day installing all the applications: simply backup the list of packages you have installed and give it to aptitude and you are all set. For Mac, it’s the same case: back up your Applications folder and your home folder. With application bundle, there is nothing called “install a program”.

So in terms of being usable, I would say Windows is functional, but requires the user (or a friend of the user, or a paid agent) to spend more time to make it functional. Yes, you can run fast, but only if you run this and that tweak, restart frequently, and do the reinstallation once in a while; and yes, you can copy your partition image to avoid the long reinstallation process, but you have to follow the right procedure and you have to lose all your update to the system, because the backup is super static and super inflexible. Yes, you have shadow copy, but I bet 99.99% of the users do not know how to make it work to back up their data on home desktop, and I would vote for a simple, customized tar command or a rsync command.

I have to say Linux is hard for most user, but only if you intend to use it as a UNIX, which is meant to be flexible (which means “simple” in the UNIX world, coz you do not need much hack to make it suit your need). However, if you are a dumb user, you definitely can use it as a Windows, and then it’s even easier than Windows! People have been saying that Linux is hard to learn, because you have to type commands! No, you don’t. I have a friend who recently borrowed by laptop running Ubuntu, and she never asked me a single question, nor did she ever touched the terminal. As a “dumb” computer user, who would only need to browse, email, and type some documents, why the hell do you need the terminal? Administrating? No, because Ubuntu can do quite well with zero babying. Believe me, Windows needs much more care, and that is why some “more advanced” Windows users get so many calls for help from their friends.

You might say Linux has less applications. Who cares? There might be millions of Windows applications out there (I doubt, though), but how many of them you really need? OS X has much much less applications, but all the OS X users I know are quite quite satisfied with only a few dozens of applications. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality and the coverage of your computing need.

And when it comes to coverage of computing need, you think Windows covers more? It might be the case, for SOME people. But what about the dumb users contributing 90% of the computer users, whose need is extremely simple? What about server environment, which requires a very high level of robustness, flexibility, scalability, and stability? What about web developers (like me), who desire a single command to setup the whole development environment that is almost the same as the production server environment? What about a computer scientists, who so much like Lisp, LaTeX, Metapost and so many other “geeky” stuff that is so damn hard to install on Windows? What about animation studios, who have been using Linux cluster to render the best-made animation movies ever made by the human beings? What about NASA scientists, who need a super-stable, super-customizable and super-bug-free system to send our spacecraft so far away that any human-interference is simply impossible? What about embedded system developers, who require a system that can be tailed to their need to fit into a 16MB flash card to power the hundreds of millions of smart devices found everywhere? What about the millions of people in Africa who only need basic software to get connected to the rest of the world and do not want to pay for a bloated, resource hungry and “over-qualified” Windows?

There is still much work to do for Linux. It is far from being perfect. But we are not behind any Windows system ever made in any sense. We are behind OS X in many usability senses, behind Solaris in some supercool features used in server environement, and behind AIX in handling system with huge number of processors. But I am very confident Linux will do very well, considering how fast it has been growing! Remember we are standing on the shoulders of a giant: UNIX.

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