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.