Easy to use or not.

Rather unexpectedly yesterday I found myself in an online debate on Linux versus Windows. This doesn’t usually happen to me for a couple of reasons:

  • I obey the law of avoiding 386 situations. Arguments which are futile are avoided. Linux versus Windows is futile. There are more fun ways to spend my time;
  • I am a mainframe programmer and past discussions on slashdot.org (wonder if that still even really exists) have taught me that a) mainframe programmers understand different tools are appropriate for different purposes and b) Linux enthusiasts tend to have the fervour of the average recent religious convert (more zealous than the founders themselves and c) too many elements of the argument are subjective anyway.

The argument/debate/online fistycuffs centred on which was easier to use, Linux or Windows. At this stage I have to declare the following interest: I use Windows machines both at work and at home when I’m not TE into a mainframe environment. It’s not that I have anything against open source – philosophically the idea fascinates me – but that various things for which I require a functional computer also require that I run Windows. I have never owned a Mac, although I’ve used them from time to time. So I can’t actually make a call on whether it’s easier to use Windows or Linux. However, pretty much everything I have read suggests that if you’re not a technically minded person, Linux is currently nowhere near out of the box enough.

You could argue that Windows isn’t either, but typically, I don’t have to do much or anything to the box when I buy it, I don’t have to set up anything other than a wireless connection and then it, over a bit of time, sets itself up to a greater or lesser extent. There’s no messing around with drivers, there’s no messing around trying to get different pieces of software to run, you don’t usually have to actually install the operating system, regardless of how easy it may be to someone to install Linux to an empty box.

The reason I got involved was that someone came up with the idea that computers were complicated machines and if they were complicated, then they shouldn’t be easy to use.

I can’t understand this rationale in anything other than the terms of a guild protecting its own interest and mysteries. Lots of things are complicated, but they are easy to use. My example was cars – you no longer have to manually turn the engine, and things rarely go wrong with them (at least in my experience). Compared to how things were in the 1900s when people were practically building their own cars, cars are easy out to function. Likewise refrigerators. There’s a fridge-freezer just five metres away and I don’t have to do anything. I have no idea how it converts warm external air to colder air to keep my cheese from going mouldy and tomorrow’s breakfast at an optimum temperature for summer.

Philosophically, I can’t understand the idea that because, underneath the hood of something is complicated, the end product has to be difficult to use.

I have no doubt that if someone provides you with a Linux box that is all nicely installed and has email and a browser running okay on it, and maybe Open Office, the likelihood is that you’ll be grand, in the way that it’s more or less grand when you go and collect a Windows machine from your nearest retailer. But given that this option is difficult to come by for two reasons a) the OEMs would have to choose a distro and this choice would probably be castigated by some within the community and b) Windows machines are ubiquitous and they typically work out of the box for most people then for most people, getting a Linux box running is just not as obvious or straightforward as getting their Windows box up and running.

A lot of technically minded people have no idea what it’s like not to be technically minded. They miss that people just want to be able to email their kids in America and their boyfriends in Sweden or whatever, they want to be able to read FaceBook and order books from Amazon. I can’t see how this needs to be complicated.

In the grand scheme of debates over Linux versus Windows versus the Volcano, the idea that computers should be difficult to use is one I just can’t buy.

I’m googleplussed

Google released another product the other day, invite only. Limited invite only. More limited, for example, than Google Wave appeared to be and that didn’t quite go according to plan. This is called Google+ and if you read the media, the general deal is that this is Google’s make or break on the social media front. Because Buzz didn’t quite go according to plan either. Or Wave.

So if you were minded to say so, there’s quite a lot riding on Google+ because this has to be their FaceBook killer. I’m not sure it’s that simple – the world is big enough for a few social media platforms; what it is not big enough is for just one. I should probably nail my colours to the mast – I am no great fan of FaceBook.

There are a variety of reasons for this involving privacy, photography rights, the amount of tuning you have to do to get permissions to your choice, deleting your account isn’t easy and I’m not sure whether FaceBook thinks they own any data about me or whether I do. As a result, my activity on FaceBook is sporadic at best and I’d prefer an alternative that I can configure more easily, and that isn’t, when it boils down to it, FaceBook.

I may not feel this way when I have 250 friends on Google+.

Anyway, so far, I have to say I like Google+. The user interface is a lot nicer and less cluttered. To a great extent, font sizes are friendlier to look at, and because there are currently no ads and no irritating Zynga games and related ads for Zynga games, it’s altogether a lot more – dare I say it – grown up place to be. I find it easier to talk to people on it. I haven’t used Picasa for years but would be tempted to start using it now to interact with Google+. And because it’s Google and they’ve been involved in image hosting/sharing for years, I rather hope their ToS would involve some consideration for who owns the copyright on your photograph.

In terms of organising people you know on Google+, their Circles idea is nice and sweet. And very easy to use. I’m scratching my head trying to work out just why it is FaceBook is such a hassle to administer and I think it comes down to the user interface again. Google’s suits me. FaceBook’s doesn’t. I never did figure out how to arrange things so that my aging relatives didn’t get all the murky details of any given parties but it’s self evident with Google+. The block button is remarkably easy to find too.

The other thing I like about Google+ – so far – is Sparks. I’m not sure I would have called it that but it reminds me a little of Zite and Flipboard on the iPad. It basically feeds you news that matches up with your interests. Which you can define (in my case, kitesurfing, programming, crochet and a few more I haven’t added yet) and yes, there are interesting things there. This could have a massive impact on news delivery in the future.

All in all, on current acquaintance, I like Google+ more than FaceBook (but I have to admit that would not be so hard). From a feature set point of view, I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be reasonably successful – the simple fact is FaceBook has some critical mass which it won’t lose overnight (I mean, MySpace is still there, despite it all). What worries me is that there is some idea out there that one of them has to win. I’m not sure it has to. I think that Google+ may attract a bunch of people for whom FaceBook is becoming a no-go area because it may be too social, too full of rubbish, not cool any more, or just completely unworkable. Because it has a reasonably decent user community already on Gmail, once they get rid of the limits on invites, it should have a decent readymade community.

I’m interested to see what their advertising plan for it is. One of the key reasons it’s so clean at the moment is that it doesn’t have any advertising. One of FB’s big cry outs earlier this year involved FaceBook email – Google already has this with Gmail and has for years so FaceBook is definitely in catch up mode there. Unlike the screaming for invites that Google+ seems to have engendered, I don’t see the same fascination with FaceBook email.

The issue with FaceBook is…for all that…there is a community of people just waiting for FaceBook to keel over and die. This means there are a lot of comments about how Google+ is Google’s last gap at social media, the only chance to face up to the behemoth which is FaceBook. I’m not sure it’s that simple because to be honest, one of the vibes I get about Google+ is that it may be more usable for collaboration purposes, in terms of setting up specific circles, for example. For the time being, I’m more interested in seeing how I can get Google+ to work better for me as I get more familiar with it, and, as more people get into the secret garden.