Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ignore if you don't like Rants

Over on pthree.org there's a rant about users who threaten "Linux sucks, I'm going back to Windows". Now, I'm not going to add to the myriad reasons why we should or shouldn't care; point out that to me, Linux is easier than Windows, or that you don't have to use the commandline; or try to explain to these people that Linux is a different operating system, with an obligatory <collective gasp of horror from the audience>.

No, I'm not. What I am going to say is this: According to last month's Computer Shopper (which, confusingly as they all seem to do these days, is actually dated either this month or next - I don't recall), the next version of Windows is going to do two unthinkable things:

  1. Drop backwards compatibility. Yes, that's right, all your old DOS games and spreadsheets (which already won't run on Windows 64-bit), Windows 95 tax programs, Windows 2000 office programs - won't run. Well, they will - but in a virtual machine, like "Classic Mac" programs on PowerPC OS X. Yet again, Microsoft have decided to do something right, ten years later than everyone else. (Assuming the next version of Windows is out in 2009-2010, which is a reasonable assumption given that (a) they have announced they are going to start releasing a new version every two years and (b) they're always late.) Of course, as with that implementation of "proper security" that is pleased to call itself User Access Control, there's no guarantee that, having actually given into the principle, they will make the effort to understand it.
  2. Change the interface.
Yes, that's right, the people who have spent billions getting their minions to convince the millions that there is a "One Microsoft Way"* are going to change the way the masses do computing.

Or are they? See, the masses don't like change. They put up with viruses, spyware, adware, crashes**, and other bugs (such as DRM. Yes, William Henry, it's a bug.) that would make a Linux user's life, plagued as it is with driver issues, seem joyful by comparison. (Hmm, that actually sounds familiar--Ed.) They are, of course, safe in the knowledge that Uncle Bill will look after them, and they won't have to worry about things like, um, whether that new game they just installed is sending encrypted information to the NSA on which movies they've watched this week.

So what will they do if Uncle Bill, in his Infinite Wisdom, tries to change the interface? Robs them, as Computer Shopper says, of their Start button, taskbar, menus, and all the other interface goodies that have sustained their monopoly^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hmulti-billion-dollar successful business for 12 years? If all that suddenly...goes away?

There are two possible scenarios. The most depressing (and, you have to admit, likely) scenario is that people will just accept that Uncle Bill Knows Best (or maybe Uncle Steve - though I predict that two weeks in the company and care of old Stevo without the watchful eye of Uncle Gates around to keep him in check will have the MS stockholders screaming for Bill to come back faster than you can say "Michael Dell regains position as CEO of the former No. 1 PC vendor and starts preloading Linux") and take the time to get used to the interface.

But there is another scenario. Both MacOS and Linux (under the guise of KDE or GNOME) are both similar enough to the old menus-and-start-bar interface to make people feel welcome if they are forced to choose between them and a new, start-button-and-menu-free interface. And Dell preloading Linux (with, they say, as many free software drivers as possible) could just start a trend for people to actually, y'know, develop drivers for Linux (it'll be all over the morning papers)... Despite the fact that the pundits keep pushing people to embrace Apple - and the consumer may well do so - I've noticed that the pundits also keep pushing Vista...but the masses are having none of it. (When a Windows, nay Microsoft, supporter comes up to you and says, "I've noticed that a lot of people are saying they don't like Vista", forgetting of course that you told them this very thing a month ago, you know there's something going on that magazines like Computer Shopper, apparently, can't afford to report on.)

And as for the world switching to Macs, I'm going to incur the wrath of the Apple user community by pointing out three things I (and apparently the market) don't like about Macs:
  1. Unless you can make do with the iLife suite, once you get your Shiny New Mac home you are still going to have to (a) shell out for Microsoft Office (in which case you might as well have bought a PC in the first place) or iWorks (which isn't as full-featured as MS Office); or (b) download NeoOffice, which last I heard was behind OpenOffice in the feature stakes. If you want to run Windows games you will have to...use Boot Camp and/or Parallels (and buy a copy of Windows... in which case you might as well have bought a PC in the first place, because with those you get it "free").
  2. Yes, you can run Photoshop, but good look finding a pirated copy of it for OS X. And if you are going to pay for it, you might as well have gotten a PC, because then you can run all those other Windows applications too. Without buying a Mac.
  3. Macs are still overpriced. No, they are. On this side of the pond, at least, they haven't come down one bit since Macs started using stock PC parts for everything but the kitchen sink (read: the boot code). Now, you may say that you would spend the same to buy a Dell...but then if so, why not just buy a Dell...with which you get Windows (or soon, Linux) and for which there are a whole heck of a lot more "iLife" style applications than.... just iLife.*** Not only that, but you don't have to spend the same to buy a Dell.
  4. (Following on from the last point.) Macs are only from one supplier. What do you do if Apple don't honour the warranty, give you bum service or go belly up? Hmm. Buy a PC? Yes, a Dell might cost as much...if you get the same spec. But you can get a laptop from Dell for £399. In the US, you can get a Mac laptop from $1099 (about £550), but in the UK, prices start from £749 (as of 13:00 on 8 April). Or you can go to Dell, or Fujitsu, or Lenovo, or any one of a million PC suppliers, and get a PC. (Oh, and the Apple ads claim you never have to upgrade your Mac. That's great. Until your version of Mac OS doesn't support your model anymore and so, on top of paying for another copy of the OS at the full retail price, you get to purchase a whole new Mac!).
  5. Macs don't include proper keyboards. Now, I'll admit that one's definition of a "proper keyboard" may vary; an old-time UNIX hacker isn't about to find one to his liking on any PC; but then an OTUH knows how to use xkeycaps to swap the Caps Lock and Control keys, put Esc in the right place and do the same for the console. On UK Macs, the " key is way over there on the @ key (or was it the # key), which, for US readers, is beside L, with " over 2 as God, or at least Winston Churchill, intended. Now, the reason I rat on Apple for this is not because I hate Apple, or Americans, but because not only does every PC manufacturer I've ever seen do this right, but Commodore also did this right, and they made toys.
  6. The New Mac Pros look like cheese graters. Yes, I know, that may sound silly coming from someone who uses a PC with a case that looks like something the cat threw up, but the point is that case was cheap. If I'm going to buy something expensive because of its looks, then it has to look good. And the new Macs don't. The Cube looked great, despite its bad rep. So did the PowerMac G4. But the new Mac Pros (and the last generation of G5's)? Open sandwich, anyone?
Yes, OK, that's six things - I can count to ten, at least.

Perhaps though, the best thing about it for Linux is that it is all coming together at a time when people are already starting to switch to Linux for its own sake. The computer press keep coming out with articles saying Linux is no longer only for geeks, and those sections of the press which until now have done their best to ignore it are having to sit up and take notice. The future's bright, but not necessarily orange. Or apple.

*Yes, I know. i: It's ironic. ii. I feel your pain.
**Yes, Windows still crashes. Sometimes right in the middle of reinstalling all your drivers, because you have had to reinstall Windows because it won't boot. Aargh.
***This may be starting to sound like I'm pushing Windows. Actually, I'm not. I just hear far more rubbish about how "Linux is hard to use" from Mac users than from Windows users, as if I didn't get enough already. So a Mac user is probably an order of magnitude less likely to run Linux anyway, than a Windows user.

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