Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fulfilling a Promise: Closed Minds, a Response

Making good on my promise to write a reply to the article "Linux Winds of Change", linked to in this posts title, here's the response:

I should just say at the outset that I was planning to write this in the context of comparing what Penguin Pete, who is referenced in the ITWire article above, wrote about Ubuntu (indeed, he's the person who appears to have sparked the entry). But that post appears to have disappeared - bad idea, Pete, as it leaves you open to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.


Stan Beer starts out his article by noting that there are "some very closed minds" in the article. Big deal. As I noted in my comment to him at the end of the article (in which the promise to write a response can be seen), every community has its closed minds, and to my mind, it's pretty disrespectful of Stan to start out with this, as I'm sure that in the minds of some of his readers, the equation Linux = closedmind is now indelible.

He also makes the assertion that Ubuntu is the cause of "a growing rift between some old guard stalwarts and the stewards of the increasingly popular Ubuntu distribution." Now, I can see how that might appear to be the case if you're a newbie to the Linux scene (as it appears to me that Stan is, judging from some of his comments as you'll see later. However, it is of course possible that this is not the case). But the reality, Stan, (and in using your first name I'm not in the slightest trying to get personal), is that there have always been "rifts" between distro users: between Slackware and Debian, or Debian and Gentoo, or Redhat and Mandriva, or Mandriva and SuSE, and every other possible combination in between (not to mention many others). It's part of the reason why there are so many Linux distros. And it stems from the fact that computing is a very personal thing: as the most complex man-made systems I can think of, it stands to reason that computers can be configured in an endless variety of ways, and that there is no guarantee that Person A's configuration will suit any of Persons B through Z. That's a point I'm kinda sorta gonna come back to, too.

Next, he makes the claim that
According to Penguin Pete and an apparently not inconsiderable band of Linux stalwarts, Linux is not and never will be an operating system designed to suit disillusioned Windows users. They reckon Linux was designed to be a replacement for Unix not Windows.
Well, that's true - it was. But it's been my assertion for nigh on ten years now that given an open mind, Windows users can easily get used to Linux (or at least "GUI-Linux" in whatever form. It may be the case that KDE and/or GNOME is more Windows-like than, say, fluxbox, or that having a desktop environment like those two helps users to acclimatize to Linux without having to "jump in at the deep" end, but as I'm writing right now I'm using UDE, the Unix Desktop Environment, which, it's true, is still more of a window manager (the thing that puts borders round windows) than a full blown desktop environment (with panels, clocks, status bars and goodness knows what else), but it's a faster and more comfortable environment for me than KDE. Many Unix users hold the opinion that Linux is better designed, because look at the evolution of the system - it now is beginning to be seen as a worthy rival to MacOS and especially to Vista, whereas ten years ago it was a system (allegedly) for nerds and geeks. And yet, as Stan and Penguin Pete obliquely point out, the geeks can continue to use Linux for Geeks, with Slackware instead of Ubuntu and UDE or fvwm or fluxbox instead of KDE/GNOME, and no-one can take that away from them. And if any of those DE's or window managers stops being developed, a new team of people who want to use it can take over from the original developers and continue its evolution: such events have occured countless times in the free software world, whereas with proprietary software, time and again you see that those systems that are tied to losing companies or institutions or architectures (Commodore with the Amiga, Multics by GEC/MIT, ITS for the PDP-10) vanish without a trace.

I should just mention that one charge I do remember Penguin Pete making is that Ubuntu has a very small amount of packages, and it's this that makes it "not Linux". I agree with Stan here that PP is in error, not because (as Stan puts it) it's still a Linux kernel (after all, OS X has a Mach/BSD kernel, but it takes the kind of chutzpah or doublethink only found in Cupertino to claim that standard OS X, with its proprietary Aqua interface, hidden standard Unix directories, and NeXT-like layout, is anything like Unix to its users) but because there are thousands of distros out there that only offer "a restricted set of packages". Slackware no longer ships GNOME, Arch includes none of the stuff usually shoved in /usr/doc, Gnewsense - or however it's spelt) doesn't include non-free packages, etc. Plus the fact that if you don't like GNOME, there's not only Ubuntu but Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and soon Fluxbuntu. And if you don't like *buntu at all, you can move to any other distro you do like. If Ubuntu suddenly becomes proprietary and starts including stuff that other distros can't (*cough*Novell*cough*), then I'll say it's not Linux - but given that Mark Shuttleworth apparently plans to make a totally-free (as in freedom) Ubuntu variant, I'd say Canonical are moving farther away from that goal, if anything, not closer.

Stan does, however, say that there is a "raging argument" between "elitists" and "evangelists" in the Linux community, and it's here that he goes off the mark. If my personal dislike of Ubuntu makes me "elitist", then so be it, but I doubt you can make a coherent argument that I'm not a Linux evangelist (just ask my local LUG...;-) ). So the "elitists" and the "evangelists" can be one and the same person - and often are. Added to that, it's just another example of the "wars" that have been going on between people who see Linux developing in different ways. But most of us, I think, know that we either hang together, or hang separately.

But my strongest problem with his article rests on these three paragraphs:

As an IT journalist, I'm used to calling things as I see them from a user perspective. If I write a negative article about a Microsoft product, pointing out for instance the steep learning curve and equally steep price of Office 2007, it provokes as much response as a ping pong ball bouncing off elephant hide. If I write an article pointing to a deficiency that I see in a Linux distro, such as not being able to get wireless input devices to work, it provokes outrage (except from a considerable number of users who experience the same problem).

The difference is that Linux zealots and evangelists come from a rarified clubby atmosphere of forums and user groups, where dirty washing doesn't get aired and laundered in public. Thus, they are often thin-skinned and tend to take things personally.

After a couple of my recent articles, one or two well meaning Linux evangelists informed me that as a journalist with many readers I had a responsibility not to air my technical problems related to Ubuntu publicly because I might scare prospective users away. Instead, I should submit polite requests to the Ubuntu forum in private to get my answers. One can imagine the response Microsoft would get if they tried to tell journalists not to write about their issues with Windows publicly!
I really don't know where you're getting this from, Stan, because as we all know, and you yourself admit, pretty much the only "Windows evangelists" are the ones who are paid to astroturf. (That doesn't mean, however, that they are the only closed minds - as Penguin Pete points out in another of his rants, try getting a person raised only Visual Basic, or more broadly the Windows programming environment, to see the merits of Unix programming; or rather don't, as beating your head against the Great Wall of China would be more pleasurable.) He's also perhaps guilty of not paying attention when he says that criticism of Linux "provokes outrage". It's not criticism of Linux that provokes outrage at all: It's an inability or unwillingness to make use of the resources available to you, such as posting on mailinglists to solve the problem. Or a readiness to blame Linux for problems beyond its control: Linux developers always have, and hopefully always will, go to extraordinary lengths to support dodgy hardware with reverse-engineered drivers where no open drivers or specs are available, and when a piece of hardware is not supported by Windows (usually because the manufacturer hasn't bothered to update a driver for an old product to make it work in a new version of Windows), the manufacturer is blamed. But despite the fact that Linux supports more hardware out of the box than either of the other big three OSes, and that it's much easier to deal with fully-supported hardware in Linux than in Windows, when a problem comes up with hardware in Linux, non-Linux people almost universally blame Linux. Please, please, please, if you have a device that doesn't work in Linux, make it known to the manufacturer so that they have a reason to port the driver to Linux.

I also have a problem with his assertion that Linux users are "thin-skinned", and as a result don't "air dirty washing". I guess he's never been to a LUG, or been involved in, or a spectator to, a mailinglist flamewar, or even read about one in the papers, because just in the last year or so I can think of at least two memes in the tech press about "The Death of" Gentoo or Debian, both of which were caused by very public, some might say very nasty, flamewars in which plenty of soiled knickers (if you'll forgive the expression) were put on public display. In fact his assertion is almost directly counter to everyone else's assertion. It's well-known that the computer geek crowd, of which the hardcore Stan seems so keen to vilify, is a supposed hotbed of "autism spectrum disorders" such as Asperger's and ADD, for sufferers of which the message is much more important than how it's expressed. As a self-diagnosed borderline aspie, and more of a wannabe than a geek, I can tell you that I have on more than one occasion been offended by the directness and seeming rudeness (which turns out to simply be a lack of patience for what many ASD-sufferers would see as "bowing and scraping") on the part of this or that geek in such-and-such a situation.

So the main message I have for Stan Beer is: Cool it; there always has been room in the Linux community for UNIX weenies and Windows refugees - and hopefully there always will be. Just remember that if I am now one of the former, I was at one time one of the latter.

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