Don’t be a Closed Source Moron

Morons are so annoying. Even the ones that are just passing by, the ones you don’t really have to talk to.

These days I often have lunch in a public dining area where most of the patrons are scientists or geeks, or students learning to become scientists or geeks. The other day two geeky scientist guys were walking by my table talking to each other too loudly for me to ignore. So one guy, he says: “You know we can solve this problem. I have a lot of faith in our Open Source solutions.” (hmm, cool, I thought). The other guy responded:


“Yea, well, I guess it all depends on how much effort you want to put into it.”

Now, maybe I’m being paranoid, but I’m pretty sure that guy II was referring to the fact that Open Source solutions are harder, require more effort, than the usual commercial solutions. That would make him a moron.

Think of it this way: Get two identical blank computers. By blank, I mean no system or software of any kind. Carry out the following tasks on each computer:

1) Write a letter to your grandma about how great computers are.
2) Include a spreadsheet with a model to estimate the amount of grass seed she will need to buy for next spring’s reseeding.
3) Include a vector based drawing of anything you like.
4) Include a couple of photographs of your cat, cropped and scaled appropriately.
5) Send it by email, check your email, and open any and all attachments you may have recieved because they might be important documents or pretty pictures.
6) (after a few weeks) Upgrade all of the software on your system, including the system itself.

Obviously in order to even get to step one, you need to install a system and some software. On one computer, install Ubuntu’s standard Desktop distribution, on the other computer, install Windows XP and Microsoft Office, a commercial vector drawing program, a commercial “Photoshop” like program (Photoshop itself, if you like), and any other software you will need to carry out these tasks.

How many buttons do you need to press to get up to step one? How many times will you have to reboot the computer? How many times will you have to restart the process because it didn’t work? Will you have to make any phone calls to ask permission to continue to make this work? How many nag screens will you see?

How much money will you spend?

The difference between the two computers just getting to step one is enormous. You can install the Ubuntu distro by putting in a CD and providing very little additional guidance … a bit of information about your time zone, that sort of thing. Then you can go away and come back a while later and you’ll have an office suite and most of the items you will need already installed.

The Windows system will not be so easily implemented.

When you get to Item 6, for the Ubuntu system, you click one button then choose “upgrade” and enter a password, and you are done. Done. All of your software is upgraded, including your system, and the upgrades will work. When you try to carry out step 6 with the Windows system, many bad things are likely to happen, and it will be a lot of work. And it might cost you some money.

Eventually, over time (months, possibly weeks) you will come to the point, with the Windows system, where you decide on your own or someone on the telephone tells you that it is time to “wipe the hard drive.”

I have installed dozens and dozens of Windows systems, and they all eventually got to the point where it was best to wipe the drive and reinstall from scratch everything. I’ve installed far fewer Linux systems, but have only done this once, and that is because I did some really bad, stupid things that I shouldn’t have done but could not resist (I was pushing it) and starting from scratch seemed the easiest thing to do. I probably didn’t have to.

The fallacy that open source solutions are more effort is simply untrue.

Comments

  1. #1 Barry
    November 29, 2007

    Greg

    Agreed as far as your examples go: but without knowing the specifics of what guy II was talking about, I wouldn’t like to make sweeping generalisations. There are still closed-source programs that have (as yet) no open-source equals, and extending the FOSS equivalents to match their functionality would invariably involve work.

    Of course, if they were talking about OS upgrades and guy II was talking about Windows Vista he’s about as wrong as he could be.

  2. #2 Alex
    November 29, 2007

    True, for basic computers. Get yourself a dual monitor setup with an unusual sound card and see how much easier Ubuntu is.
    I took me (Linux, but not computer, newbie) 5 or 6 hours to get both monitors working. Sadly when it comes to weird hardware setups windows is easier, though I still prefer the cheaper option.

  3. #3 Alan Kellogg
    November 30, 2007

    Load the Leopard CD and follow the instructions as they appear. Had to re-install once, and that was back in 8.5 days.

    BTW, I’ve heard of a group who modify the OSX code so it’ll run on PCs. Very unauthorized.

  4. #4 Flaky
    November 30, 2007

    Ubuntu rocks! But comparing it, or anything, to M$ crapware is not fair, since many (most?) Microsoft products are glorious examples of inferior design. I have little doubt that a well-funded team of skilled software developers will be able to produce good software that any community base development would have difficulties matching both in terms of quality and development time. Of course, open source vs. closed source is somewhat orthogonal to this, even if highly correlated.

    Regarding MacOS, I’ve heard hardly anything but good of Leopard. If Apple would make it available for PCs, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2007

    Barry,

    I agree with both you and Linus Torvalds, who made many open source people think when he recently said “Surey, why not buy software. If it’s good software and the price is right” or words to that effect.

    I really have no idea what the guy in the Cafeteria was talking about, but I sensed it was one of those open ended statements about reality. But that has nothing to do with anything, really. (If I see him again, I’ll ask him!)

    Alex: That depends. It has always been true that hardware is difficult for any system, including Windows. I mean look at the Mac, which is the system that is easiest and all you need to do is click on something and make it work. Try installing THAT on your computer! It won’t work at all! Mac’s don’t run on ANY hardware but their own, and that is a commercial project. The fact that Windows runs on so many pieces of hardware is amazing.

    But then look at the true philosophical reality. Your story is interesting and important but because you are one person and all the people with dual monitors who installed them flawlessly on Ubuntu (such as myself … no problems with my current installation, it just happened by itself) are NOT complaining. (no offense to you … are silent on the matter, statistically not too useful.

    On one hand “Windows” will run more easily on a somewhat (But not too large, and ever decreasing) larger range of hardware than Linux. Linux runs on a MUCH wider range of hardware than a Mac (including Mac hardware!).

    But Windows Vista, the newest Microsoft system, runs on a much SMALLER range of hardware then Linux.

    I’ve stopped complaining about Macs because Mac users are total nutcases who cannot connect to reality. Nothing, according to them, ever, ever goes wrong wiht a mac. As a person who has seen many many things go wrong with Macs, I simply know that this can’t be true.

    In other words, Mac users are almost as annoying about Macs as I am about Linux.

    The truth is that the current Mac system is very stable and very nice (and very based on *nix, as is Linux). My problem is that I don’t like aqua, and I can’t read Mac rendering. I really want to experiment with Darwin but I have not found a way to crack into that community yet.

  6. #6 SMC
    November 30, 2007

    Mac hardware – at least their laptops – seems to be awfully brittle. What does it say about hardware reliability when it turns out that the “extended warranty” (“Applecare”) ends up actually being justified?

    Other than that, though, my (admittedly second-hand) experience of Macs suggests that they actually are good machines.

    Like most human behavior, the kind of attitudes your “open source is hard” guy seems to have been displaying can be explained by two facts:
    1. People are lazy
    2. Thinking is work.

    It actually did take a fair amount of effort – though not as much as one might think – to learn how to operate on Linux rather than Microsoft Windows 95 OSR2.1 (the last version of Windows I personally used on my own machines). The effort has turned out to be well worth it, though. Abandoning the attitude that doing something with the computer requires using “Proprietary Product Pro v12.8″ has given me a huge boost in what I can do without paying someone else for permission to use my own computer.

    It’s also become hugely easier to migrate since I did it, back in the days when Slackware was arguably the most well-known distribution.

    Of course, as a hardcore penguinista for twelve years now, I suppose I have a certain amount of well-deserved bias…

  7. #7 jeffk
    November 30, 2007

    As much as I want to like the open-source solution – oh how I do, I love it in principle – I tend to find that it has a way of making me suffer. Every time. XP has simply never let me down. I always found the structure of linux to be confounding.

  8. #8 Webs
    November 30, 2007

    This is one of those issue where there isn’t a one shoe fits all answer.

    MACs are good for Grandma and Grandpa users. The kind that have yet to be indoctrinated into one system. Reason being, they can probably afford it, they won’t have to do anything to make it work, and they will find it very easy and intuitive. Something PCs have been lacking for awhile now.

    PCs with Windows are good for geeks that do not want to learn *nix environments. Think old curmudgeon here, that expects a PC to just work when you attempt install to using the OS. This guy will be in for a rude awakening when he tries to do things in Linux and they are *GULP*… different. Which is too bad. Because if they think the world is going to be Windows forever, they got another thing coming.

    I think of these users as a dying breed and we won’t have to put up with their whining for too long because they will either pass away or will be forced to learn something new when their job market shrinks.

    PCs with *nix are good for geeks or technologically savvy people that are willing to try new things, experiment, and don’t care if things are a little different. I will admit that this is becoming less and less true, as *nix OSs find ways to make their system feel more Windows like. Which in some ways is a good thing. The whole “Windows Explorer” system is very easy to use and navigate in and *nix OSs could learn a lot from it. And there are other examples as well.

    Greg, you are correct that your example is simpler to do in Linux than Windows. But I can give you examples where the opposite is true. Namely playing a DVD movie. Even if the systems are installed from scratch, this is easier to do in Windows, and legal. Maybe not cheaper, but still easier and legal.

    jeffk: this is because you are just not used to it. You probably grew up with Windows. Which is fine, but like anything new you will need to give it some time and read articles, buy a book, play around with it, etc… It’s an entirely different system from Windows, you can’t just pick it up and expect things to play just like Windows.

    That aside there are some real issues that Linux needs to fix before it becomes more prevalent…
    1) hardware support: most of this is due to the laziness of hardware manufacturers not willing to develop drivers for Linux, but this is an issue nonetheless.

    2) software support: even if you have to pay money for it, there is greater software support for Windows. Linux needs to develop solutions for this that don’t involve virtualization, emulators, or WINE. I can list off about 10 pieces of software that faculty use where I work that will not run on Linux. Granted they likely won’t run in Vista, but this is still an important issue to be solved.

    3) proliferation of *nix OSs: one problem with open source projects and communities is that anyone and their sister can develop a program. This is a good thing, but also a problem because there are over 300 listed and currently downloaded Linux OSs. People new to Linux have no idea which one to use, as do some more experienced Linux users. Linus Torvalds and some of the other *nix “higher ups” need to develop a system where open source projects are tracked, and new projects are scrutinized if they perform the same service as a pre-existing project. Good open source programmers need to work together toward a common goal and stop the stupid arguments and pointless bickering that divide existing projects and create new projects filling a need that is already being filled.