Wednesday 23 July 2008

Differences that Make Differences Are Differences

(as opposed to the Scottish proverb, "a difference that makes no difference, is no difference")

This is a very long post. I'll likely come back and revisit it later, breaking it up into two or three smaller ones. But for now, please dip your oar in my stream of consciousness.

I was hanging around on the Freenode IRC network earlier this evening, in some of my usual channels, and witnessed a Windows zealot and an ABMer going at it. Now, ordinarily, this is as interesting as watching paint dry and as full of useful, current information as a 1954 edition of Правда. But there was one bit that caught my eye (nicknames modified for obfuscation):

FriendOfBill: Admit it; Microsoft can outmarket anybody.
MrABM: Sure. But marketing is not great software.
FriendOfBill: So?
MrABM: So... on Windows you pay for a system and apps that aren't worth the price, on Linux you have free apps that are either priceless or worth almost what you pay (but you can fix them if you want to), and on the Mac, you have a lot of inexpensive shareware that's generally at least pretty good, and commercial apps that are much better. THAT's why Microsoft is junk... they ship crap that can't be fixed by anyone else.
FriendOfBill: So you're saying that the Linux crap is good because it can be fixed, and the Mac being locked in is OK because it's great, but Windows is junk because it's neither great nor fixable?
MrABM: Exactly. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Now...that got me to thinking. Both of these guys were absolutely right, in my opinion. Microsoft is, without question, one of the greatest marketing phenomena in the history of software, if not of the world. But it is unoriginal crap. (Quick: Name one successful Microsoft product that wasn't bought or otherwise acquired from outside. Internet Explorer? Nope. PowerPoint? Try again.) Any software system that convinces otherwise ordinary people that they are "stupid" and "unable to get this 'computer' thing figured out" is not a net improvement in the world, in my view. I've been using and developing for Windows as long as there's been a 'Windows'; I think I've earned the opinion.

Linux? Sure, which one? As Grace Hopper famously might have said, "The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from." (Relevant to The Other Side: "The most dangerous phrase in the language is, 'We've always done it this way.'") As can be easily demonstrated at the search page, there are literally hundreds of active "major" distributions; the nature of Free Software is such that nobody can ever know with certainty how many "minor" variants there are (the rabbits in Australia apparently served as inspiration here). Since every distribution has, by definition, some difference with others, it is sometimes difficult to guarantee that programs built on one Linux system will work properly on another. The traditional solution is to compile from source locally with the help of ingenious tools like autoconf. Though this (usually) can be made to work, it disproportionately rewards deep system knowledge to solve problems. The "real" fix has been the coalescence of large ecosystems around a limited number of "base" systems (Debian/Ubuntu, Red Hat, Slackware) with businesses offering testing and certification services. Sure, it passes the "grandma test"....once it's set up and working.

The Macintosh is, and has been for many years, the easiest system for novice users to learn to use quickly. Part of that is due to Apple's legendary Human Interface Guidelines; paired with the tools and frameworks freely available, it is far easier for developers to comply with the Guidelines than to invent their own interface. The current generation of systems, Mac OS X, is based on industry-standard, highly-reliable core components (BSD Unix, the Mach microkernel, etc.) which underpin an extremely consistent yet powerful interface. A vast improvement over famously troubled earlier versions of the system, this has been proven in the field to be proof against most "grandmas".

A slight fugue here; I am active in the Singapore Linux Meetup Group. At our July meeting, there was an animated discussion concerning the upcoming annual Software Freedom Day events. The question before the group was how to organize a local event that would advance the event's purpose: promoting the use of free and open source software for both applications and systems. What I understood the consensus to be basically worked out as "let's show people all the cool stuff they can do, and especially let's show them how they can use free software, especially applications, to do all the stuff they do right now with Windows." The standard example is someone browsing the Web with Firefox instead of Internet Explorer; once he's happy with replacement apps running under Windows, it's easier to move to a non-Windows system (e.g., Linux) with the same apps and interface. That strategy has worked well, particularly in the last couple of years (look at Firefox itself and especially Ubuntu Linux as examples). The one fly in the ointment is that other parts of the system don't always feel the same. (Try watching a novice user set up a Winprinter or wireless networking on a laptop.) The system is free ("as in speech" and "as in beer") but it is most definitely not free in terms of the time needed to get things working sometimes... and that cannot always be predicted reliably.

The Mac, by comparison, is free in neither sense, even though the system software is based on open-source software, and many open-source applications (Firefox, the Apache Web server) run just fine. Apache, for instance, is already installed on every current Mac when you first start it up. But many of the truly "Mac-like" apps — games, the IRC program I use, a nifty note organizer, and so on) are either shareware or full commercial applications (like Adobe Photoshop CS3 or Microsoft Word:mac). You pay money for them, and you (usually) don't get the source code or the same rights that you do under licenses like the GNU GPL.

But you get something else, by and large: a piece of software that is far more likely to "just work" in an expectable, explorable fashion. Useful, interesting features, not always just more bloat to put a few more bullet items on the marketing slides. And that gives you a different kind of freedom, one summed up by an IT-support joke at a company I used to work for, more than ten years ago.

Q: What's the difference between a Windows usee and a Mac user?
A: The Windows usee talks about everything he had to do to get his work done. The Mac user...shows you all the great work she got done.
That freedom may be neither economic or ideological. But, especially for those who feel that the "Open Source v. Free Software" dispute sounds like a less entertaining Miller Lite "Tastes Great/Less Filling" schtick, for those who realize that the hour they spend fixing a problem will never be lived again, this offers a different kind of freedom: the freedom to use the computer as an appliance for interesting, intellectually stimulating activity.

And having the freedom to choose between the other, seemingly competing freedoms... is the greatest of these.

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