A gingerbread computer can be complicated.

When you, Joe or Mary user, buy a computer at Best Buy or Computer Village or order a computer from Dell or Gateway, you get a computer with a system already installed. Do you think they had any trouble installing that system on that computer? Do you think that if Dell sells Mary a computer with Windows installed and they sell Joe a computer with Linux installed, that Dell had a differentially hard time installing one of those systems compared to the other?

Think about it.

Linux and Windows each have huge capacities in the area of hardware control. People will fight to the end of time about this, but the truth is that both systems have the capacity to run on and use almost all hardware. Windows does not run on Power PC’s and Linux does, and certain novel hardware (like label printers or all in one’s) might have a Windows driver before getting a Linux driver. Also, Linux will actually run on a wider range of hardware than, say, XP or, especially, Vista.

Most hardware manufacturers design drivers for Windows, and only a few design drivers for Linux. But the Linux drivers get designed anyway, tyically just a few months later.

So, given this, one might assume that the engineers at Dell or Gateway or Computertown can throw a Windows system or a Linux system, with impunity, on any old pile of hardware they happen to put together. Right?


Installing a system that will work reliably on a configuration of hardware that you’ve thrown together may be problematic, regardless of if you are using Windows or Linux.

In both cases, there is a pretty complicated relationship between hardware and software. Recently it was discovered that some new Seagate hard drives would not work with Linux because of a strange interaction between the system and the hardware. This got fixed, but it is an example of unexpected results when any redesign (in hardware or software) occurs. I have not installed a windows system in a long time, but in the past I have installed many, and there have been times when I’ve had to swap out hardware to get Windows to install or to work properly. It is quite possible to end up with a system that works, but it turns out that the second parallel port is not really there, or the graphics card is switched to a low power mode, or some other thing is not quite working. And the recurring proverbial unexplainable blue screen of death that happens once a week or two may happen because of something odd going on in the interaction between hardware and software.

A computer is engineered. The hardware is engineered, the software is engineered, and in between the combination of the two is also engineered.

What this means is the following: Almost every desktop computer out there in use by the average person right now that is not a Mac is either running Windows where the engineering was done by Dell or Gateway or somebody … not the end user, or it is a system running Linux where the end user her/his self has had to do the engineering.

Keep that in mind next time you are installing or upgrading a Linux system and you run into some trouble.

Currently, the French distro Mandriva is working with Precedent Technologies to put together a low cost Linux desktop that they will call TechSurfer.

TechSurfer is a web-centric computing platform that is designed for customers who mostly surf the web; download music; and utilize VOIP services, such as Skype. The TechSurfer platform is also suitable for very light desktop productivity applications. TechSurfer is powered by the Intel Atom processor. The Atom Processor was designed especially for web-centric computers. TechSurfer starts at $399.99 with the Mandriva linux OS. Customers can add an additional $100 for Windows XP or Vista.

Dell offers full blown computers with Linux installed, presumably, with the engineering I’m talking about done. And over time we can expect to see a full range of different levels of offerings in between. I think when out of the box Linux computers start to become the default Linux for the average end user, and the engineering issues become backgrounded for Linux like they are now for Windows, that we may start to see more momentum in the direction of Linux to the exclusion of Windows. And, for a special breed of user, we’ll see Linux being chosen over Mac.

More about that later.


  1. #1 Orac
    July 29, 2008

    Installing a system that will work reliably on a configuration of hardware that you’ve thrown together may be problematic, regardless of if you are using Windows or Linux.

    That’s why I use a Mac. Apple controls the hardware and the software, and, with rare exceptions or glitches, everything just works together seamlessly.

  2. #2 Winawer
    July 29, 2008

    That’s why I use a Mac. Apple controls the hardware and the software, and, with rare exceptions or glitches, everything just works together seamlessly.

    Cue flamewar in 5 .. 4 .. 3 .. …..

  3. #3 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 29, 2008

    That’s great if Mac is in your budget, Orac. Most of the world knows that the advantage that Windows has had over Mac has been that because of licensing clones, the hardware is less expensive for DOS/Windows. When I needed a different computer I could find parts and put them together and load Windows for a total outlay of a couple hunnies (and a lot of headaches) but that is nothing that could be done with Mac software.

    Since Mac is proprietary in both hardware and software, they have been out of reach for a large part of the great unwashed home pc users, but yes it is superior and easier to use. But, if quality were always the sole concern in product selection there would be more Mercedes’s on the road than Fords, Beta would have been the vcr standard, and DAT would have replaced cassettes years ago.

    I have noticed on home-engineered machines that I have only had problems with Ubuntu matching drivers once, and that was for the on-board audio for an H-P desktop. I still haven’t found the right driver.

  4. #4 Jeb, FCD
    July 29, 2008

    My contribution to the flame war:

    The whole Windows-computers-are-cheaper canard stings my like a fissure in my ass because it isn’t true and probably hasn’t been for a long time.

    Macs are a better value, actually.

  5. #5 llewelly
    July 29, 2008

    But, if quality were always the sole concern in product selection there would be more Mercedes’s on the road than Fords, Beta would have been the vcr standard, and DAT would have replaced cassettes years ago …

    Mike Haubrich, that is a very old reflex you’ve got there. Kids these days have never heard of a DAT, or a cassette. ‘Beta’, of course, is a Greek letter.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2008

    Orac is correct in that macs have traditionally co-engineered the hardware and software, and the idea that they were co-engineered was key and central to their philosophy and the primary reason, according to Apple, that Mac’s were better than all other systems.

    That was true up to the day that Macs were re-enigneered to run on Intel processors (not engineered to work with the Mac system), and/or to the day that Apple threw out the old system and went with the Uinux underpinning (the BSD version), a kernel not engineered by Apple.

    To create Mac System X. I certainly hope Orac has not refused to get rid of his old Mac SE running System 9!

    Having said that, I do think that an Intel machine running System X is a fabulous machine. Overpriced, and with an interface and a paradigm that simply does not work for me … but it is nice.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    July 29, 2008

    Greg, you forgot pretty.

    Jeb, there are PCs that are cheaper than Macs, but it’s because Apple doesn’t continue to offer their lower-end models after they come out with something newer.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    July 29, 2008

    not as pretty as penguins

  9. #9 Stephanie Z
    July 29, 2008

    Well, maybe if they were real penguins.

  10. #10 Left_Wing_Fox
    July 29, 2008

    That was true up to the day that Macs were re-enigneered to run on Intel processors (not engineered to work with the Mac system), and/or to the day that Apple threw out the old system and went with the Unix underpinning (the BSD version), a kernel not engineered by Apple.

    Not exactly. Remember, the old Motorola 680X0 processors were used by Amiga systems as well. However, Apple could control exactly which cpus they used, and the exact chipset used by the motherboard.

    The modern Windows PC can choose from AMD Sempron, Athelon and Phenom chips, or Intel Celeron, Core 2 and Xeon models. Not to mention the slew of northbridge and southbridge options for motherboard chipsets from Intel, AMD/ATI, NVIDEA, VIA and SIS. By limiting the number of chipsets and processor architectures they use, Apple can focus development time on those components, and work more closely with a single partner regarding potential problems, than Microsoft’s general guidelines for the wide range of potential components. I think it’s that narrow focus that has allowed Apple and edge in stability compared to Windows.

    I think that helped Apple greatly in their transitions from the 1990’s. Apple completely axed legacy peripherals with the iMac, so when NeXT started becoming MacOS X, they only had to write for PowerPC G3 and newer systems, and could completely ignore legacy peripherals. The combination of a closed system and willingness to abandon legacy support probably helped make the transition to Intel such a relatively seamless and painless affair.

  11. #11 Richard Chapman
    July 29, 2008


    Better? What are your constraints in defining “better”? Is a Mac better for you? Sure, what ever makes you feel good all over. Is a Mac better for your local Graphic Design studio? Most likely. Is any product from Apple a product most of us should be using, want to be using or be happy using?

    I believe Apple makes great products, yes I said great. They surpass all others in integrating their hardware with their software. Ok, so they’re the only ones who do both. But the they fail completely in integrating the Rights of their users into their products. Which brings us to to the question: Apple’s products may be right for you, but are they good for you? Not just for today, but for the long term. Individualy it doesn’t matter but for the computer that sits on every person’s desk, it’s the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. Corporations work best when there is a healthy dose of competition. So far the forces of digital freedoms have been holding their own against the leadership of a crumbling monopoly. Steve Jobs is different though, he’s much smarter than Steve Ballmer.

    I’ll say it again, Apple products are great. But they aren’t sold to be owned, just used. You don’t own anything you can’t take apart or modify or, say, opt for the carrier of your choice.

    Larry Lessig has a great quote about the DMCA and the RIAA “if you don’t want draconian laws, don’t inspire them”. Steve Jobs has the intelligence, will power and ambition to control every personal computer on the planet. I will not empower him by buying his products. If you wish to, fine, but arguing about the superiority of boutique products on a work-a-day web site is a waste of time.

  12. #12 Charlie
    July 30, 2008

    I dunno. I am typing this on a Dell Latitude D420 running Ubuntu linux version 6.06 LTS. When I got this machine, it had a whole bunch of goofy dell stuff on it that made it run slow, and Microsoft programs that created files nobody could read unless they also had the latest Microsoft programs.

    So I put an Ubuntu CD in it that I downloaded from the web, and it’s been fine ever since. It was easier than fixing windows. I didn’t have to do anything but answer the prompts.

  13. #13 GrayGaffer
    July 30, 2008

    You call this a flame war?! Well, ok then.

    I have to develop on and for all three platforms, so I am surrounded by monitors with – presently – Debian/Gnome, XP, and Tiger desktops. Plus I run both Debian and XP as virtualized bubbles on my MacBook Pro, which is also my primary machine. And, apart from the sheer technophilic pleasure of looking at and using the Mac, there really is, now, little to differentiate them in the realm of reliability and accessories. I can freely move and open files between them, pretty much all the accessories I need to use are either USB 2.0 or Firewire so internal buss problems are a thing of the past. They all also stay up about as long between reboots, which are usually performed for reasons other than crashes. I even have one XP testbed (very restricted usage) that has not been rebooted for several months now. And a Mac Mini for about the same time.

    On the hardware: Apple will not ship shoddy products. So when you compare them against Dell etc, be sure to compare them against equivalent quality. You gets what you pay for in both worlds, and Apple quality on that basis comes in lower priced than Dell etc, ‘just works’, and looks and feels far superior. Even the Mini at $600 is superior to the PCs at the same price level, plus it can run all the OS’s at the same time under Parallels (which is usually an almost free bundle).

    So yes, I rate Macs #1, but from twenty years of experience having to work on all platforms concurrently and appreciation of the engineering standards, not from ideology or peer pressure.

    But I will not use Vista. I have had to upgrade two machines to XP now, just to be able to use my tools on them. M$ have peaked.

    So, you pays your money, you makes your choice, you go with what feels right. They all work now.

  14. #14 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 30, 2008

    Gray Gaffer. With you on Vista. No interest. Do not want.

  15. #15 csrster
    July 30, 2008

    I continue to be amazed at just how good the newer Linux distributions are at detecting and configuring hardware.
    Yes, sometimes things require searching on a forum for a hack
    and then doing a little tweaking, but the same is true of
    Windows. The question is whether users continue to find the idea
    of, say, adding a line to a linux config file more intimidating than operating a windows configuration wizard.

  16. #16 clinteas
    July 30, 2008

    Bought a laptop at Dell,Vista pre-installed,no fancy hardware,standard wireless card and all.

    Tried to put pics from the 3 yo digital camera on,no way Jose,no driver for Vista,and none coming….Installed Linux on the drive next to Vista,plugged my camera in,it just looked at it briefly and then said righty-o,mounted it.SO now everytime I want to put pictures on the laptop,have to boot into Linux,and move pics over from there.

    Could just use only Linux,you might say,however !
    No way in Hell Ubuntu can use the wireless card,no ndiswrapper or anything will make it work….

    So yeah,hardware problems work both ways I guess.

  17. #17 Hank
    July 30, 2008

    These days, I view my macbook as a very large albeit luggable dongle for OS X more than anything else.

    As more and more applications turn Leopard-only I have two choices – splash out with 100+ bucks until the next practically-mandatory upgrade or go back to Linux.

    Since I’m a student, with a student budget, and mostly use either cross-platform or mainly UNIX tools, you can probably guess which way I’m headed.

  18. #18 clinteas
    July 30, 2008

    On that dongle note Hank :

    I have installed Xubuntu on a 16GB USB stick and thats pretty much my PC away from home,works flawlessly wherever I boot it up,work or conferences or my folks place,and just uses whatver hardware the host has to offer ! Way to go IMO.

  19. #19 Jeff Darcy
    July 30, 2008

    Csrster, don’t conflate intimidation with annoyance. You want an intimidating task on a computer? Try writing or debugging a parallel filesystem. I routinely do more *intimidating* things on a computer than the vast majority even of programmers will do in their entire careers, but I still find it *annoying* when I have to hack config files by hand to make basic things work. Nothing’s likely to annoy an experienced computer user who’s working on a new system more than some noob putting on airs because he can type three commands in bash.

    Resistance to using the command line for some tasks isn’t always about fear. Sometimes it’s about knowing that system configurations often involve myriad dependencies between parts, and that editing files or executing commands piecemeal is more *error prone* than doing them in a way that guarantees consistency of changes. Try changing your nsswitch.conf to use LDAP sometime, without corresponding changes in several other files, and you’ll quickly find out what I mean. As a bonus, you won’t be able to log in and post comments to websites for a while either.

  20. #20 Virgil Samms
    July 30, 2008
  21. #21 JSinger
    July 30, 2008

    Mike Haubrich, that is a very old reflex you’ve got there. Kids these days have never heard of a DAT, or a cassette. ‘Beta’, of course, is a Greek letter.

    And the “Beta was clearly superior to VHS” thing is a myth, anyway.

  22. #22 Kilgore Trout
    July 30, 2008

    Let’s not even overstate the advantages Windows has in terms of drivers. Few months ago I picked up a cheap Belkin wireless USB dongle — very common one, right off the shelf at Target, didn’t bother to research it before because I assumed this was a mature technology by now with the ease-of-use kinks worked out. Installed the XP drivers off the included CD and immediately regretted it. First, the Belkin control panel for configuring your connection is hands-down the worst piece of professionally made software I have ever encountered. The UI would’ve been considered ugly and unusable for Windows 3.1, and to top that off, it barely works. I generally have to unplug/reinsert the card or “repair connection” four or five times before it will successfully see the router on every boot. And, despite the documentation’s claims to the contrary, I can’t turn off the Belkin controls and use the Windows built-in WZC; that simply refuses to connect.

    Few weeks later I gave Ubuntu a try. With Hardy (8.04, the current version), the card is recognized right off the bat from the LiveCD, connects fine, no drivers needed no questions asked. Supports WPA2, which the Windows software does not. Blew me away how much better the experience with the open-source drivers included in the Linux kernel was.

  23. I think we can drop the off-topic Mac v. Windows debate which has already been solved ( Mac > Windows ).

    I don’t think the fundamental disadvantage for Linux is related to how computers are set up. I think it’s related to how Linux is set up. The only reason for a distribution to include a driver for a particular product is that someone with Linux has that product and wrote a driver for it. That’s a slightly extreme statement, but mostly true.

    The real thing to take away is that you need to know what operating system you plan on using before buying hardware. If you want to run Windows, you pretty much have your choice of hardware, with a few exceptions. If you’re building your own hardware, make sure its compatible with all your software. If you want to run Solaris, get a Solaris box. The same goes for Mac OS. If you want to run Linux but don’t want to install it, go with Dell or get an OLPC. And if you want to install your own Linux, check the software compatibility list first and save yourself the heartache of trying to find drivers.

    My department buys laptops that are specifically checked against the HCL for RedHat Linux. Our desktop users aren’t so lucky, but they get along.

    Okay, back to the Mac v. Windows thing. The last place I worked my boss came up to me and said “I want to get a new computer and I want to do video editing, what should I get?” I told him to get an iMac, so he went out and got a custom built DelWayBM. After the high-end graphics card, the FireWire ports, the USB 2.0, and the sound card, he had a slower and more expensive computer than an iMac. And he still had to go find video editing software.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    Ben, I agree with everything you say with modifications:

    People do have the impression that Linux is short on drivers, but really, there are remarkably few pieces of peripheral hardware or cards etc for which there is not a Linux driver. If you go back historically Linux beats Windows on hardware drivers. If you compare modern Linux to Vista, Linux >>>> Windows.

    Also, let us remember the historical fact that Linux made actual use of the actual hardware on most major graphics cards long before Windows ever did. So, while Windows was able to send what it wanted on the screen through the higher end graphics cards (and thus it “worked”) only specialized gaming software used the actual advanced technology that you paid for when you bought the card. And Linux. I suppose Vista does but that hardly matters if you can’t run the system.

    And finally, given the list of desktop and workstation base hardware … processors … that is out there, a Linux/Unix variant runs on every single one (there may be some exception but it is obscure and irrelevant), Windows runs on some of them, Macs run on very very few (and, as you were telling me the other day, some of that limitation is because the system is self-broken).

    I am very disappointed that Linux does not yet have a usable video editing suite of applications. But yes, there is no contest on the Windows < Mac issue.

  25. #25 Lionel
    July 30, 2008

    Good analysis. I think that what you say in the post is mostly true.

    Having been a Linux user for almost ten years now (only switched to Linux on my production box in the last three years, I find myself wishing things would “just work”. I may be getting old but when I had compile a new kernel with the correct driver for my wifi card that worked perfectly in the prior release of the software, well that bugged me a little.

    This is just to say that I think that was a thoughtful analysis.

  26. #26 Ben Zvan
    July 30, 2008


    While possibly accurate, the statement “self-broken” may be a little strong. The primary problem in running OS X on arbitrary hardware is that Apple is using the newer EFI rather than the horribly out-dated BIOS. Remember that nearly every OS/PC has to boot in 386 emulation mode for the BIOS; Apple just doesn’t swing that way. Beyond that, Apple may have added some rights-management to make it “difficult” to run OS X on non-Apple hardware, but that’s another matter.

    I agree that Linux has more drivers available, including specialized and scientific drivers. I think the real problem is how many of them are available through RPMs or up2date or yum repositories. The general public doesn’t want to read the model number off their graphics card in order to find a how-to for editing xorg.conf. They want to plug-and-play. Ubuntu, has taken a great, if legally dubious leap forward by providing a large repository of drivers and software. Once the legal issues are solved, I think Linux has a much better chance.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    Good point. The distro is the software/system side engineering I’m speaking of in the post.

  28. #28 sinned34
    July 30, 2008

    Yawn, more of the same Linux vs Windows vs Mac talk. Each one is good depending on certain things (warning: great oversimplification coming).

    Need easy accessibility to 95% of available software, or love computer gaming? Go with Windows.

    Are you a programmer that likes to play with your O/S? Linux will give you something to tinker with.

    Do you work in graphic design and/or are very pretentious? Mac is for you.

    If you meet all those requirements, why not run all three?

  29. #29 Stephanie Z
    July 30, 2008

    Sinned, what should you run if you’re the sort to condescend to a bunch of enthusiasts by telling them things they already know and have moved beyond?

  30. #30 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    And, furthermore, what about the Wii operating system? Pretty good for web browsing and excellent for games.

    But seriously, a Wii totally obviates the need for a high-price PC running windows.

    Ideal combination: Wii + Linux and have a friend or relative with a Mac you can use when you need to make the vacation slide show into a Tim Burns production.

  31. #31 Stephanie Z
    July 30, 2008

    Not a Wii (or PS3, depending on your gaming preferences) plus a Mac that will boot into Linux? Then it’s all at hand.

    And pretty.

  32. #32 Ben Zvan
    July 30, 2008

    sinn34: I use Windows a couple times every week in order to access to 2% of software I use that only supports Windows. I’m also very pretentious.

  33. #33 Hank
    July 30, 2008

    Greg: Throw in a fistful of Arduino boards for home automation and weirdness and you ought to be pretty much covered.

    <Insufferable know-it-all>
    I assume you mean Ken Burns.
    </Insufferable know-it-all>

  34. #34 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    A mac IS Linux, so it does not have to boot into it. I don’t understand Darwin (the OS, not the biologist/geologist) but it seems to me that you could have a nice Gnome desktop on your Mac pretty easily. Plus wii or PS3. The reason I prefer the Wii is because somebody gave me one!!! (w00t). I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a PS3.

    So, Ben, what IS the windows software you need to access. I’m sure we can fix that.

  35. #35 Stephanie Z
    July 30, 2008

    If you haven’t seen one, you weren’t looking. I’d say we have a PS3 because we got a PS2 as a gift, but the more proximate reasons have much more to do with Insomniac Games and the people we swap games with.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    Who the hell is Tim Burns, that’s what I want to know. Get the hell out of my memory banks. (I know I typed Ken Burns.)

  37. #37 Jim Kornell
    July 30, 2008

    Mac is based on BSD, not Linux, on top of the Mach microkernal. Pretty different design philosophies.

  38. #38 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    July 30, 2008

    Pretty different design philosophies.

    But relatively little difference at the application software level these days, which is what I think is what Greg was talking about.

  39. #39 Naked Bunny with a Whip
    July 30, 2008

    Gah, me no proofread! Bad bunny-bun.

  40. #40 Greg Laden
    July 30, 2008

    Actually, there is almost no difference in design philosophy and absolutely no real difference in function between the BSD and the Linux versions of Unix.

  41. #41 sinned34
    July 31, 2008

    Stephanie said – Sinned, what should you run if you’re the sort to condescend to a bunch of enthusiasts by telling them things they already know and have moved beyond?

    Moved beyond? The post by Greg started out with an interesting thought, but this thread has degenerated into the standard arguments and posturing between Linux, Mac, and Windows that it feels like I’ve seen a billion times here and elsewhere. That said, I do apologize for making a comment that really doesn’t add to the conversation, and for how snarky it sounded. It won’t happen again (after this post, that is).

    Greg said – And, furthermore, what about the Wii operating system? Pretty good for web browsing and excellent for games.
    But seriously, a Wii totally obviates the need for a high-price PC running windows.

    Yeah, but that’s why I said “computer gaming” instead of “console gaming”. Consoles are great for some games, and really poor for others. I did warn of the oversimplified nature of my comment, but I won’t apologize again for wasting everyone’s time with my worthless addition to the flamewar.

    Oh, BTW, I really like a lot of the topics you host on your blog, Greg! Keep up the good work!

    Ben said – I use Windows a couple times every week in order to access to 2% of software I use that only supports Windows. I’m also very pretentious.

    Excellent, Ben! Obviously Windows does you no good as your primary O/S, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’m also pleased to hear I’m not the only pretentious person running about on the wilds of the internet.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Ah, now we are on to something. I’m serious about this issue of gaming. It occurred to me the other day in reference to my daughter’s need for a computer that functions for her school work, etc. I have an old beat up computer that runs Windows. I could not run the new Spore on it, even though I got a beta code back when cool people were given beta codes. (or so we were told!).

    Julia likes the Harry Potter games, but they have degraded in fun level on the PC … but run great on the wii (based on the last instantiation of this game, that is).

    But what about something like Sim City? Can we throw sim city on the Wii and throw out the windows computer?

    Oh, but wait, there’s Netflix Watch Now …. requires Windows and IE. AIEEEEE!!!!!! You can’t win. (More on THAT later today).

    I’m still waiting for Ben’s list. My list so far:

    A mousy video editor that is free.
    Sim city.
    Netflix watch-it now thingie

    I do use itunes on the windows PC. I was not locked into it until I got an iTouch, now I may be locked into it for upgrades etc. But that will probably change over time.

  43. #43 DiBosco
    July 31, 2008

    >> Could just use only Linux,you might say,however !
    No way in Hell Ubuntu can use the wireless card,no ndiswrapper or anything will make it work….

    So yeah,hardware problems work both ways I guess. << Don't forget that Ubuntu does not equal Linux and is actually not the best or most user friendly noobie distribution. Go and get Mandriva 2008.1, it works much better than Ubuntu with wireless. I would concur with a poster above who says that Linux is much easier to install and just get working than Windows and works well with a massive range of software these days. Cameras, webcams, graphics cards etc usually just work from installation these days.

  44. #44 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    Sinned, the interesting thing about this conversation is that it is evolving because the systems are. Gaming gets deemphasized as the consoles gain in computing power and networking and provide a space for smaller games (Super Rub-A-Dub!). Cost is no longer straight monetary cost. It’s a time/money continuum because the time component no longer necessarily equals frustration. Apple no longer completely owns the works-out-of-the-box argument. Content generation keeps getting more important. DRM has become a visible issue. Software keeps getting both broader and more specialized.

    And it’s Linux becoming a real player, along with the changing nature of the internet, that’s changing a lot of this. It’s cool to watch, and I hate to see anything push us back toward the simpler arguments that don’t hold up so much anymore.

  45. #45 Ben Zvan
    July 31, 2008

    My reasons to run Windows:
    STAT (a code migration tool that I support)
    JDEdwards (going away in the next 6 months)
    Internet Explorer (for one specific web application I support)
    Microsoft Visio

    The only way I’m going to stop running those is to switch jobs. That option is not entirely out of the question, but “I don’t like Windows” would be a silly reason.

    Honestly, the most common reason for me to boot my Windows VM is that it’s easier to isolate my VPN through a VM than to make Oracle Calendar deal with a new IP address mid-session. I also like to have my hands on Windows so that I know how it works. People tend to ask me questions and I like to have the answers handy.

    On Linux v. Unix:
    As someone I know once said: “Mac OS isn’t Linux, it’s Unix; a real operating system.” The basic functionality of Darwin and the Mach kernel is the same, but the architecture is different. That being said, there are many projects to bring open-source Linux apps to the Mac. Anything that runs in X11 can be compiled to run on the Mac if you’re patient, so I guess there’s no reason not to run Gnome or KDE. I might have to try that for kicks.

    On Gaming:
    Console gaming is becoming more and more like PC gaming as time goes on. I’ve even seen people with consoles next to their computers and connected to the same monitor and sound system. Games are being released that require same-day patches to be downloaded, expansion packs are often available, and flash-like minigames are common on the PlayStation Store. With hard drives and support for mice and keyboards on most systems, there’s barely any difference now.

    I argued with a friend a long time ago about console gaming and how I wanted to support the Mac game market. He pointed out that playing console games was still not supporting the Windows market. At the time, I didn’t have a console. Now I do, and I barely play any games on my Mac if for no other reason than the screen is much bigger on my TV.

  46. #46 Jim
    July 31, 2008

    If Apple is the Greatest for Graphics, why is it that most all of the new Movies , Grinch, Lord of the Rings, just a couple, are made by Linux, using Cinepaint and Gimp, Cinepaint is a improved version of Gimp.

  47. #47 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Ben, very interesting.

    I’m personally trying to get a better attitude about Windows because I have to look at it every day. Or, maybe I’ll just bite the bullet and smuggle a Linux box into my office…

    so I guess there’s no reason not to run Gnome or KDE. I might have to try that for kicks.

    For me this is simply because I don’t like the Mac system X look and feel (and paradigm) at all.

    Jim: The answer to your question is scale. The big time software used for everything from Hollywood animation to making the strike box in Major League Baseball is pretty much all run on Unix-like systems. But that software is much expensive. Like, you can get a car for less money. And the computers these apps are running on are often multi-processor with piles of memory beyond even a higher end desktop, in the workstation range (but that difference is of course going away).

    Now it is time for the Mac Symps to comment that an iMac with iLife can be used to make a hollywood movie bla bla bla, but it can’t.

  48. #48 Ben Zvan
    July 31, 2008

    Now it is time for the Mac Symps to comment that an iMac with iLife can be used to make a hollywood movie bla bla bla, but it can’t.

    No, not an iMac with iLife, but a Mac Pro or XServe with Final Cut is perfectly capable. At one point Pixar was using exclusively Macs for busness, office, design and rendering. The advantage there was that they could use everyone’s workstation to add power to their render farm for overnight renders. And at least one Intel commercial was produced on Macs.

    I suspect you’re right that real reason that companies are using Linux boxen is a question of scale and cost. If you want specialized hardware that’s really good at doing one thing, there’s no need to buy a Mac. To bring console gaming back into the equation, I’d be surprised not to see studios clustering Linux-running PS3s for render farms in the near future.

  49. #49 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    Of course it can’t. Bait much? (Wait, I know that answer.) However, Pixar did use Macs for a movie or two, if I recall correctly.

  50. #50 Robert Pogson
    July 31, 2008

    This all pretty irrelevant. A big OEM has weight in the market. The OEM can demand that suppliers supply hardware compatible with existing GNU/Linux kernels or having a FLOSS driver. Dell did, so GNU/Linux will install on all their recent stuff. Now that GNU/Linux has lifted off, more will do that.

    ASUS intends to produce every motherboard with a GNU/Linux OS installed.

    HP, DELL, Lenovo, Acer are all building stuff that works well with GNU/Linux. For eight years now I have been installing GNU/Linux on random hardware and only a few times did I lack a driver. I usually encounter Dell/Compaq/HP machines in schools. The vast majority of compatibility issues come with hardware that is new in the last year or two. If the hardware is popular, someone will figure out how to get it to work with GNU/Linux. If manufacturers want to ride the wave of GNU/Linux that is happening now in emerging markets, they will supply drivers or lose a share of that growth.

    Doubters should note that even the most erroneous webstats (highly biased to North America/Europe) show 70% per annum growth for GNU/Linux. MacOS is on nowhere near 8% of PCs globally as shown by Apple’s own SEC filings. Any compatibility issues of GNU/Linux are rapidly becoming irrelevant in the face of market forces and Vista falling flat. GNU/Linux will be on 10% of the world’s PCs soon, too large a share to be ignored by anyone.

  51. #51 Ben Zvan
    July 31, 2008

    The vast majority of compatibility issues come with hardware that is new in the last year or two.

    But hardware that’s a year or two old is obsolete.

    If manufacturers want to ride the wave of GNU/Linux that is happening now in emerging markets, they will supply drivers or lose a share of that growth.

    I agree, even though Microsoft is doing their best to kill those markets by offering super-cheap versions of Windows to third-world countries.

    MacOS is on nowhere near 8% of PCs globally as shown by Apple’s own SEC filings.

    But Apple built every one of those PCs making them the world’s 3rd largest computer manufacturer. They’re also the largest distributor of digital music and the largest maker of smartphones.

  52. #52 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Robert’s one-to-two year estimate for linux driver is a bit of a time warp. The fact is that Linux generally supports current hardware. See my numerous other posts on this issue for links.

    The way I see it, now that Mac is on board with *nix, it is time to gang up on Microsoft.

  53. #53 Ben Zvan
    July 31, 2008

    Sounds like a plan.

  54. #54 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    Isn’t that what we’ve already been doing?

    [sigh] I suppose this means I should become an OpenOffice guru too. Oh, well. Since software guru largely means “has an idea where to start looking and isn’t afraid to poke around,” plus a willingness to cheat, it can’t be that much extra work. Beside, MicroSoft has already done their best in the last few releases to make my Office guru-hood obsolete.

  55. #55 Wayne Bloss
    July 31, 2008

    Regarding the stupid flame war: fuck Macs. You get no hardware variety, no choice in hardware supplier and no choice in how you work. It’s always the “Apple way”, which frankly sucks.

    The fact is that they make nothing more than shiny fashion statements and no corporation in their right mind would put a Mac on every desk.

    RE: this article…The main reason that Linux is at a disadvantage is because there is no single corporation as large as Microsoft that is driving the sales of Linux. Who is going to threaten Dell so they sell more Linux?

    I love Linux, but it’s too fragmented to take over Windows on the desktop. Ubuntu’s not going to do it, but maybe some other organization will come along. We can hope.

  56. #56 llewelly
    July 31, 2008

    The way I see it, now that Mac is on board with *nix, it is time to gang up on Microsoft.

    Outside of Mac – which hides it’s *nix core under a cloak of shame – *nix requires free software to function. Even mac requires free software for its core, and its compilers.
    The iPhone shits on free software .
    If you use Linux, or any *nix but Mac, Steve Jobs is not your friend – nor even your ally of convenience. Expecting Mac to ally with you against Microsoft is like expecting McCain to ally with you against Exxon.

  57. #57 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Open office is like MS Office 95 plus features invented since then but the whole thing is reorganized in a sensible way. For example, changing the format of the page is not under “file” (where it used to be because it bled out of the printer functions) but rather under “format”

    Get it? Format the page is under the Format menu with all the other format stuff? Who would have thought!!!!

    So in a way becoming an Open Office guru is a little boring.

    By the way, Gnumeric is an incredible piece of software. It is a spreadsheet. Beats the pants off OpenOffice.org’s spreadsheet for most purposes, especially graph. There is a learning curve on the graph functions, but it is way way worth it.

  58. #58 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    There’s always a learning curve on graphing, at least for anyone willing to learn it. Honestly, being an office software “guru” is little more than knowing how menus are arranged, realizing that help functions exist, and working with people who don’t want to do either of the first two.

    I’ll definitely have to look into Gnumeric. Excel for Mac is just annoying, and it’s different enough from Excel for Windows (at work) that switching to something else won’t have me tripping over my own keyboard shortcut reflexes any more than I already do. One of the things I hate most about Office for Mac is the way they disable half the shortcuts from the Windows version. A few go because OS X uses them, but most are just hacked out for no discernible reason.

  59. #59 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Gnumeric is cross platform at least to some extent. It would presumably run under the X system on a Mac. Openoffice.org does to, bur for some reason people don’t like the way it runs. Openoffic.org, I quickly add, is being re-compiled to run native on System X.

    Anyway, the graphic system in Gnumeric has a rudimentary automatic graphic generation wizard that you start out with, then use a property model to add/change everything you want. There really are not any details that you can’t adjust or alter with the property model. Very object oriented and tunable. The final graphic can be saved as a bitmap or svg file. (probably other formats as well)

  60. #60 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    Based on what I see out there, I think I can run it without too much difficulty. By which I mean that I only have to learn a new language (Open Source Deep Geek) and slog through some of the least navigable sites on the internet to get it installed. For an example, the following was linked to as a helpful site:


    Ugh. Every time I go looking for something open source.

    Just a general note to the open source community: If you want end users to use your baby, perhaps you should make it possible for them to find it. I could go on with a few other suggestions, but really, finding it is fundamental. You have to have one or two enthusiasts who like web design and plain English, right?

    So Gnumeric gets set aside until I have a larger chunk of time. Pity. It looks like everything I need plus a bit.

  61. #61 Greg Laden
    July 31, 2008

    Stephanie: I spend a LOT of time on OpenSource sites. Darwin is an order of magnitude worse than other sites. I’ve got a Power PC sitting here right now that would be running Darwin if I had a clue how to do it.

    That does not mean that OpenSource sites in general don’t have this little problem of communication. They do. One of the most common problems is simply not saying anything about what the software is. Then, on top of that, they don’t tell you how it works.

    The home pages of most opensource software is the last place you want to look to do anything.

  62. #62 Stephanie Z
    July 31, 2008

    And I don’t know that the home page is necessarily where you should go, but it’s what you find when you search. This means that the homepages should at least prominently link to places where background can be found.

    The funny thing is that, in order for people to work together to get the software made, there has to be a fair amount of communication about how it all works and what it’s supposed to do. How hard would it be to take just the higher-level bits and put them all on one page? Even in geek speak (which I do speak to an extent), this would be so much more helpful than what I find now.

    I suppose it’s time for a users’ manifesto or something of the sort, because this is what I see as the fundamental disadvantage of relying on this development community.

  63. #63 Greg Laden
    August 1, 2008

    Stephanie, the answer is simple: Pick a piece of software you like and join the team. It is all OpenSource … the entire process … and that includes the presentation and documentation.

    If you can’t grok them, join them.

    I’ve been thinking about doing that myself at some point.

    A blog, by the way, is a good place to put that sort of documentation.

  64. #64 Stephanie Z
    August 1, 2008

    Well, yeah. A user’s manifesto is much more effective coming from the inside, and with examples.

  65. #65 Bernhard
    August 1, 2008

    @Greg – “If you can’t grok them, join them” ???

    Who would want to join a bunch of conceited wankers who downgrade serious crashbugs to “wishlist” on their bugtrackers?

    Fact of Linux-Life 1:
    Software that works already has good documentation, a responsive package maintainer and a supportive developer community.

    Fact of Linux-Life 2:
    Dysfunctional Software has crappy documentation, an unresponsive package maintainer and a conceited developer community with ubergeek attitudes.

    If you need some insight into the mindset of such people, subscribe to the RSS feed from “Planet Debian”. It’s outa this galaxy man.

    9 out of 10 times clicking on the “Help” icon in a dysfunctional Gnome app will land the user in a yelp window with some meaningless placeholders. App No.10 will simply crash the help system. The GUI bolt-ons to the GNU sysutils are the worst offenders in that department.

    So, you are left with man pages.

    Some of the classic man pages are so 1970s it makes you want to scream. A synopsis in extended Backus-Knaur notation, which to a noob looks like an explosion in a punctuation factory, followed by a line that says “Ask your admin…” . The only post 1970s addition? A reference to the GNU documentation license.

    The Debian help in html format that comes with Lenny concerns itself in large parts with “upgrading to Woody” and refers to CLI utils that were removed from the base install in Etch. Crackingly up-to-date, wouldn’t you say?

    Put homebrew documentation on blogs? There already are a ton of those and any more would only introduce more fragmentation, and would require the noob to spend even more time on Google pulling everything together.

    Take hardware compatabillity. When I need to decide on a purchase I don’t want having to wade through a gadzillion blog posts of type “How I got obsolete junk working in OutdatedVersionOfFavDistro”. I want an up-to-date shortlist of the as yet unsupported stuff I should avoid, and I want it in a prominent location on the site of the distro.

    How could Joe or Jane User contribute to such a piece of info? They couldn’t! Unless, of course, they felt adventurous enough to go make a blind purchase, crash their boxes and then write about it.

    IMO it boils down to two things most developers still haven’t got:
    1. No code is so expressive that it does not need comments.
    2. No GUI is so intuitive that it does not need a manual – and it’s not the users job to write one.

  66. #66 Stephanie Z
    August 1, 2008

    Berhard, the blog is just the software. There are group blogs, and there are well-indexed blogs (believe it or not). I think the idea is for the project to have a blog where the documentation enthusiasts (yes, they exist) can add, tag and index material. Users can comment to add clarification and can subscribe to new material.

    It’s not a bad idea, and it’s really much closer to what already happens for closed-source software. The most popular manuals aren’t written by the company making the software but by people who use the software in practical situations and know what other users want to know.

  67. #67 Greg Laden
    August 1, 2008

    Bernhard: Much of what you say is true, about the nature of documentation. However, this needs to be compared with documentation in general, and the ‘null model’ … corporate help systems, documentations, and knowledge bases … is not anything close to pristine. Also, your comments about bugs and wish lists is very misleading. The way the OpenSource community treats bugs is correct. The way commercial software vendors (usually) treat bugs is obscene.

    It should not be assumed that proprietary software is doing it right.

    The Ubuntu site(s) is/are a pretty good example of forward progress in the area of documentation.

    I think that people like Stephanie who both know the technology and can write, and know how to make things understood need to jump in and fix this.

  68. #68 Stephanie Z
    August 1, 2008

    On comparing the corporate model to the open source model, we should also remember that the help pages, etc. we see are the product of years and iterations. That open source user documentation is a relative baby does not necessarily mean that it’s dysfunctional.

  69. #69 Bernhard
    August 1, 2008

    First, I would like to point out that the “wankers” paragraph did not refer to FOSS developers or projects in general. Just the bad conceited ones. And believe me Stephanie, there are dudes who wouldn’t let you near their docu wiki if they had one.

    Re: the “wishlist” – The example I have in mind is a certain display manager. When you shutdown from the GUI it crashes with a backtrace into just about any shared object between here and Alpha Centauri. This crash doesn’t happen when you send it a TERM from the console. The bug is known, but the developers rather squander their time on eye-candy like an “earthquake” animation when you enter bad credentials.

    And where, dear Greg, did I write that I believed commercial vendors got it right?

    Even the supposedly oh so intuitive MacOS generated a market for books and AdSense Crofters blogs a la “Blah Blah Soft – the missing manuals”.

    And the “unofficial” documentation for anything by Adobe most often beats the crap out of their own stuff.

    But those are commercial ventures. If they screw up some fat cats lose some dosh, and I couldn’t care less. If FOSS screws up we all lose something much more valuable than money.

    So, what needs better documentation? Lets start a poll and then attack the beast with a concerted effort.

    I vote for better introductory stuff for noobs. Perhaps we can get a few coders on board and even cobble together something like vim-tutor. Half hour of hands on training. Doesn’t have to be glitzy like what Mac ships since System 7.5. – but would be nice. Click here, click there, print a test page etc.

    Hell, even a simple but well done glossary would be an improvement. When I came to Linux from MacOS 9 I didn’t have enough jargon to my name to make use of the information on user forums.

    But wait, I forgot the fragmentation trap. For which distro and which desktop would one write such stuff?

  70. #70 Greg Laden
    August 1, 2008

    Bernhard: Right. It is also interesting to contemplate the business end of the aftermarket documentation market. By the way, some of that commercial software aftermarket bookage that fills the “computer” section of the bookstore is written on company time by technical writers at some of those commercial vendors. I’m not naming names, but don’t be surprised if our favorite Adobe app book by Major Publishers Inc is written by an Adobe technical staff.

    I would have thought the aftermarket literature market for OpenSource would be bigger than it is.

  71. #71 Bernhard
    August 2, 2008

    @greg – “I would have thought the aftermarket literature market for OpenSource would be bigger than it is.”

    Two obstacles:
    1. GPDL worries in publishing houses
    2. Fragmentation

    Most “official” FOSS documentation is not in the public domain, it is under GPDL which is very virulent. Old fashioned publishers don’t like that.

    Publishing strategists like a clear cut stationary “target market”. Targetting Linux with all its different distros is very much like defending yourself against a cloud of fast moving shrapnel – the one that gets through *will* ruin your day.

    Right now Ubuntu seems to be everybodies darling, but can you guarantee a publisher that this will hold true by the time your glossy tomb comes of the presses?

    Even if you concentrate on common denominators between the Debian based distros your stuff may be (possibly dangerously) outdated by the time it hits the street. A lot of what could have been written about hardware handling in Debian six months ago is now obsolete.

    I run Debian Lenny and it improves *noticeably* from day to day.

    As far as individual apps are concerned I maintain the stance I took before. The working ones have good documentation already. Shining example GIMP. Nobody needs to buy a book to get the hang of it.

    I say, dead tree publishing and FOSS don’t mix. So back to the blog / wiki idea. Hands up those who want to accept the responsabillity for keeping such a venture current!

  72. #72 Greg Laden
    August 2, 2008

    Bernhard, yes, these may be factors, but I’m not so sure. There are more than a dozen Ubuntu after market books representing all the major after market publishers.

    Also, it is not the case that on line documentation (or documentation in help files) replaces these books The saleability of these books is not based on that. It is based on a persistant demand for a written version of the documentation. There are a number of reasons that individuals want to have these books. The on line documentation for Python is outstanding, but there are many many Python books that seem to sell.

    The changing code problem is clearly an issue. But, I’m thinking of something more systematic. This is why I pointed out that “after market” is not independent of the product. The X publisher guide to Y commercial software is likely to be written by an employee of Y.

    So, why not in OpenSource too? Why not organize Stephanie (see above) and The Gimp people to produce the Gimp after market book that helps fund the project and gives people what they want, and possibly also results in a new feedback loop to improve the software project?

  73. #73 Ozan
    September 19, 2009

    Thanks for the post..