Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

Why’d It Take So Long???

First off I should let anyone who cares know that I’m a UNIX guy from way back. I started using System III and subsequently System V from AT&T in 1983. I used BSD on Vaxen in the 80s as well, where I found Rogue and spent way too much free time battling characters (literally ;-)) to get the Amulet of Yendor. Simpler days.

In the past I’ve had FreeBSD running on an old 200Mhz Pentium. I had an old box running BeOS, and quite quickly too. BeOS was great. Fast and elegant. But too different. And that led to its demise.

I don’t run Linux anymore. I’m tempted now and again, but I haven’t succumbed. Why? Mostly because Linux offers me nothing I want or need. I’d like it to, but it doesn’t. Maybe twenty years ago I’d have loved it, but now it’s an anachronism to me. I want the OS to get out of my way, I want to get real work done. I don’t want to compile kernels or drivers. I don’t want to look at code. I just want to focus on my work as a computer scientist,a s a researcher.

It’s really too bad. I remember how badly I wanted a good UNIX with a good GUI that ran on cheap hardware back in the 80s. Back then I used Sun boxes and lamented the sad GUIs, especially after the Mac came out and after my many visits to Xerox PARC to visit friends who worked there. What I saw only minutes from Sun’s offices made me wonder if anyone from Sun had ever wandered over to see what PARC was doing. The interfaces were beautiful, they had e-mail and word processors and networking and telephony and so much more all working together, and this in 1985. Later Apple, and later still Microsoft, would bring much of this to the desktop, but UNIX vendors stuck with their arcana. It was a glorious opportunity lost; well, mostly lost. Apple brought more users  into the UNIX fold than anyone could have guessed, mostly because many who buy a Mac don’t realize UNIX is underneath that beautiful interface. The Mac is also why I believe Linux on the Desktop will never happen. It just can’t be as elegant as what Apple provides.

Why? Well, mostly because open source focuses on text-based solutions (primarily) pandering (primarily) to geeks and nerds. It really doesn’t appeal to non-techies. And I doubt it ever will, especially with the attitude of some folks in the open source community. Telling non-technical individuals to “get the source, find the problem fix it, recompile and you’re good” is stupid. Besides, who do you go for help? Not from the arrogant asses that permeate much of the techie community.

But what’s really sad and which forms a huge basis of why Linux will never be what the Mac is on the desktop is that there are still things I saw in 1985 at PARC that don’t exist on a PC, on a Mac or on Linux. Maybe one day. If Linux aficionados are looking for cool things they could do worse than dig up some of those technologies and apply them to Linux. If nothing else it would make Linux stand out as a truly innovative alternative. But as of right now, if I’m going to be getting a UNIX box it’s going to be a Mac. And I also think that those old PARC ideas will be adopted by Apple — or Microsoft — far faster and far more elegantly than will any Linux distro.

I know I don’t count much, but I also know I’m not alone. Twenty years ago Linux with a BeOS like front end and a lot of thoughtful touches would have been grand, today it won’t past muster. Folks want a system that works with their corporate environment and that, more than ever, means working with Microsoft applications rather than Microsoft operating systems. If Apple has done one thing right it’s ensure Microsoft Office remains operational and up-to-date on their Macs. Without Office a lot of folks I know with Macs would have had to opt for Windows. The fact Apple and Microsoft get along sufficiently well for there to be a version of Office for Mac is good for all of us who prefer a Unix desktop to any other. But Linux will remain out of the loop as it doesn’t offer Microsoft a reason to port it’s software. Sure you can use VMware, but you still need a copy of both Windows and Office. Some geeks do that. I’m not one of them. I prefer to live in a singular environment — OS X — and not worry about fiddly things. I just want something that works and gets out of my way. OS X does that for me, and millions of others. I do find it ironic that it was Apple that brought a proper Unix to the desktop.

Which brings me to another complaint about Linux. I do wish that there were fewer flavours. All that divided loyalty and wasted cycles, for these past 20 years!, isn’t good for Linux — although it’s great for the Mac and Windows. I can appreciate that it’s cool to do your own distro, but ultimately people sitting at their desks just want to get work done. They’d prefer one, well thought out GUI as opposed to 2 or 3 or a dozen. They’d prefer a single distribution and patch facility as opposed to what exists. In the end, people prefer fewer choices, not more. And therein lies the greatest tragedy. Most in the Linux community feel more choice is better when the opposite is true. Sigh.

All that said, it doesn’t stop me from reminiscing on what was and what might have been. Or to wonder why it took so long for a proper, well organized Unix to appear on the desktop. Nor why it took Apple, a company that wasn’t even a Unix-based company until Steve Jobs’ return to bring it to us.


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September 2010
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