Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Linux assessment and standardization

I've had Ubuntu on my laptop for the past couple years. It's dual-partitioned with Windows XP, but oddly enough Ubuntu recognizes my wireless driver correctly while Windows does not. Score for Linux, eh?

However, all is not well with Linux. Before I used Linux, I was optimistic about its prospects. Now I'm baffled at the complexity. The general user interface (GUI) is not as good as Windows. For example, the Control Panel functionality is Windows is much less detailed and more scattered. I haven't been able to get deeply into the system and I don't use the command-line regularly. Even with Ubuntu with its general user focus, that means I'm essentially crippled. I could not even reinstall Flash, which I installed about a year ago, without digging deep into an online blog post and posting a few obscure commands. Recently, my Flash has seemingly broken for many websites; Hulu says that since "express install" is not enabled for my system, I can't view videos. Apparently upgrading from Ubuntu 8.04 sometimes fixes the problem. However, there are lot of people warning that upgrading with a weak integrated graphics card leads to huge issues. So I'm not upgrading. With that all said, I do plan to buy a System76 laptop soon, dual-partition it with Windows XP, and likely run Linux most of the time, just because I agree with the philosophy of a programmer nation.

The best overview that I've seen on the problems with Linux standardization come from Bryant Lunduke's "Linux (Still) Sucks" April 2010 video. This is one of those flash videos I can still watch. While I'm not qualified to give a critique on the specific issues, he points out that there's no standardization and (although he doesn't use the word) significant Balkinization. 300 distros, hundreds of shoddy programs which do the same thing, dozens of frameworks on various things - the list goes on. I'm guessing that this happens for various reasons, but mainly: first, when one founds (or forks) a project, one gets all the credit; second, the initial work is generally the easiest, especially when similar code is already out there. There's also just the general tendency for many people (particularly myself) to be ADHD and do a lot of projects without doing any of them well.

I do not agree with Bryant that getting more commercial software available on Linux is important. Linux is the long-run (20-30 years from now) future as more and more people become programmers and the basic software functions that people need become programmed by these people as open-source. With the exception of games, it's going to make most programmers unemployed and put most software companies out of business. Right now, I can do most of what I want on a Ubuntu laptop in my free-time without paying for anything. Now, that's not technically true - I do want a better spreadsheet than OpenOffice and I may want to play a game (but not likely). At some point I might want a computer-aided design (CAD) program. But that's really what's left that Linux doesn't have, and these specialized users are not a high percent of the market. Gamers are not a huge percent of computer users either and they will come when all the normal people who can trust the OS to browse the web and play music start not buying Windows to save a few hundred bucks on their initial investment. After that they'll start looking for games and play the Linux ones available (assuming WINE isn't good enough to run the Windows games anyway).

This issue of standardization is also timely since in the last few days I've been reading about the convergence of accounting standards (goodbye US GAAP, hello IFRS and international standardization in the next few years). I've also been working on my desktop - and have perhaps messed it up - and have found that my old Compaq is really not going to work with the new motherboard that I got for it (because I bought a new AMD Phenom II CPU) because the "system panel connector" calls for a 20-8 pin and the Compaq has a proprietary 10-1 pin. And now I've scavenged a new case, but I can't put the cd-drive in the new case because the screws aren't long enough. Standards are also a big topic in various other legal and regulatory initiatives (think the Uniform Law Commission for the United States and the various initiatives by the European Union).

Standards encourage choice. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not is that Linux people don't seem to be a big fan of reducing choice and focusing on making a few really good products. See "Would Linux be more popular with LESS choice" on Mint's forum. Mint is the major competitor to Ubuntu, which actually I'm inclined to seriously look at considering how much Ubuntu has seemingly fucked up in the past year or two.

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