Since my Dad was asking...

>> Monday, June 21, 2010

The other day my Dad was asking about laptops and netbooks, etc., and of course I had to mention being a Linux disciple. And he happened to ask about the user interface, which gives me a little bit of an excuse to disciplize or whatever it is we're supposed to do when we preach the faith.

I should say, though, Linux isn't for everyone. Although Ubuntu is extremely user-friendly and in a lot of situations really will "just work," there are scenarios in which it can be a royal pain in the ass. I never have been able to get a Canon printer working under Linux, for instance (though my HP printer has worked so beautifully it's made me wonder why I kept trying to get my old Canon to work). There are certain applications that aren't quite "there"--GIMP may be a fantabulous graphics editing program, for example, but I'm willing to concede it's no Photoshop.

But then again, I was reading some of the asinine Cult Of Mac responses to this Salon article from Dan Gillmor about his decision to go penguin, including one in which a Macolyte snarks "have fun compiling software" (something I've never had to do) and fielding questions from my Dad, and I realize there's a lot of mythology, misinformation and FUD still floating around out there. You really don't need to compile software unless you really, really want to (and it's nice having the option, I suppose); similarly, you don't ever need to look at a command line unless you want to (and the truth is that the command line is actually superior to a GUI in a lot of respects, it just requires learning another language, and that's a pain in the ass). And there are open source apps that are peer to their proprietary counterparts: I'm sorry, but the word processor component of is superior to every version of Microsoft Word released in living memory in pretty much every single respect I've been able to run across; this is simply a true fact, something that is the way the sky is blue on a sunny day and the same way fish prefer living in water.

But whatever. The real point of this post was to proffer some screenshots from my desktop so possibly-interested parties such as my Dad could get a look at what a Linux desktop looks like--which is what a Windows or Mac desktop looks like, basically. The pictured installation is a Ubuntu Linux 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) installation running on a Dell Studio 17. I have a wallpaper-switching application that rotates background images; to avoid any kind of licensing and legal issues, the background used here is a photo I took in 2008 and processed with the GIMP.

Alright, let's see what we have (all of these images may be clicked on for a large view at full 1920 x 1200 resolution)....

This is what the desktop looks like with nothing open:

The GUI used here is called GNOME, and is a shell with some similarities to earlier versions of the Mac shell--you may notice there are taskbars on the top and bottom of the screen, f'r'instance.

This is a screenshot with three windows open--a file folder, an writer window containing a recent short story, and a Writer's Café window (notice the tooltip of the day, aptly enough, is a certain famous two-word line from Douglas Adams--pure coincidence, believe it or not):

Ironically, this and other application views I'm sharing are sort of "unrealistic" in the sense that this isn't how I actually work on things--GNOME (like KDE and other Linux graphical interfaces) makes it easy to set up multiple virtual desktops; I like to have my word processor and Writer's Café maximized on separate desktops on the laptop (workflow is different on my netbook, which I may share some screens from later this week). Virtual desktops aren't unique to Linux: you can set them up on Windows (with third-party software and it's a pain in the ass) and I think they can be set up on Mac, though I don't know if Apple requires third-party tweaks to do it as well.

This is more like a typical screen when I'm writing:

Here are some more apps running:

What you see in the last picture are: a Terminal window (the command line), Rhythmbox playing Ennio Morricone's The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and a Totem movie player window playing an MP4 of NASA's video for "O Pato" with its hysterical sample of something that sounds like Donald Duck visiting a hooker (paused--while I could easily play the music video and the music player at the same time, obviously two tunes at once would sound like crap).

This is a Firefox window with the tab for Echo Bazaar (a browser-based game) in the foreground:

As you can see, using Linux is a lot like using any other contemporary OS. No scary command lines, strings of code, grotty interfaces or whatever. But if it's like using other OSes, with some quirks, why use it as opposed to Windows or Mac?

  • It's stable. Even when it crashes, it's stable.

  • It's free in several senses of the word--free as in beer and free as in you can do whatever you're willing to learn how to do.

  • As a related point, that freedom includes a lot of customization that Apple and Microsoft can't allow their users because they have trade dress to protect.

  • It's clean: the security of Linux (and, yes, Apple's OSX) isn't just due to the whole, "Oh, nobody writes viruses for Linux or Mac because everybody uses Windows" nonsense; while that may play a part, the fact is that the way applications interact with the kernel in a *NIX-based OS essentially precludes a virus or trojan from embedding itself without an administrator specifically authorizing it to do so.

  • This may tie into all of the above or it may merit its own bullet: I feel empowered using Linux, like my computer is mine and not just something I'm borrowing from Redmond or Cupertino

There's probably something else, but that's enough for now.

I hope this post is helpful as a data point for somebody. Linux isn't for everyone, I'll say it again. But it also isn't really leaving anyone out--well, except for gamers, who are stuck with Microsoft or consoles. But for almost anything else you want to do: you can do it on Linux, and you can often (not always, but probably most of the time) do it as painlessly as you'd do it on a Mac or Windows machine.

Later in the week I may throw up some screenshots from the netbook--I have Ubuntu UNE Linux installed on it, and it's a slightly different beast--in a good way, a very good way.


Phiala Monday, June 21, 2010 at 7:38:00 AM EDT  

Nicely done.

Any more, Linux running Gnome looks just like any other computer, and switching to Linux is no harder than switching from Mac to Windows.

I even think that for someone with no computer experience, starting with Linux would be easier than starting with Windows, except I can't find anyone to try it. Possibly even easier than starting with Mac, as they're hampered by design/usability decisions that made a lot of sense 10 years ago but now just feel annoying.

I have Writer's Cafe too, and would really like to like it more.

Eric Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:33:00 AM EDT  


I can see where Writer's Café wouldn't be for everyone, though personally it's become an essential app. It's possible that if they ported Scrivener to Linux, I'd like it more, though (a) what are the odds and (b) I do tend to maintain customer loyalty once I've become invested in a product. Also (c), I have to say the Writer's Café folks are possibly the nicest people I've ever dealt with customer-service-wise: I think I've sent them three e-mails with various minor issues in the past two years or so (only one of them involving the program crashing, which turned out to be a weird graphics glitch that was fixed with a theme change), and in every case they responded within 48 hours and quickly came up with a fix. I mean, really nice people over there. Can't say enough good things about them.

My fear in trying a Linux experiment like the one you suggest, Phiala, is really the same fear I have whenever someone asks me to recommend a restaurant--that they won't like the food or this will be the one time the service was bad or the regular cook was out sick, and boom, disaster strikes. I think you're right that almost any user could step into Linux without even realizing he was using Linux, but if I talk someone into it, that'll be the one time they have a special hardware situation or an installation problem or it'll turn out there's one Very Special Application they can't run or find a native analogue for, etc., and then it's all my damn fault.

One thing I don't think I can harp on too much is how many interface annoyances in the Mac and Windows world come down to intellectual property issues: neither Apple nor Microsoft invented mouse-driven windowed interfaces--Xerox did--and to make their interfaces something that they can legally protect they're required to preserve or invent "features" that serve no more purpose than to distinguish their windowed GUI from any other while discouraging users from changing those interfaces from the distinctive, identifiable, easily recognizable interfaces. Of course, you're free of that issue if you're using a non-proprietary interface, whether it's GNOME, KDE, XFCE or whatever.

Anyway, yeah, the idea that Linux is hard to use is FUD.

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