Friday, July 30, 2004

The path treaded once

I was shopping when a sales girl stopped me to talk about the positive points of a Macintosh. I politely told her that I used to use an Blueberry iMac running MacOS 8.something but since changing jobs have not used one regularly since. She ignored that and continued with her pitch. While I was nodding to be polite, I couldn't help noticing the parallel of my Mac experience with my Linux experience on the desktop.
I was new to the Mac when one was plunked on my desk. A VIP in the company I was working for wisely and stubbornly refused to move to a Windows PC from his aging Mac. So it finally came to the point where he got an upgrade on his machine and I was entrusted to support him directly. Coming from the Windows desktop background, I had tried applying what I learned with Windows while using the Mac. I learned that two of the most pointless things to do on a Mac back then was
1. Check of updates - to OS, new version of programs etc
2. Find cool new tools to do what you want to do.
.. which was what a lot of Windows users were doing then (and still do).

First, Mac updates weren't that often released. What ever bug there was in the OS, they didn't bother me often and those that do were probably caused by free or shareware programs that were not checked thoughroughly.
Second, there was no need for those additional tools. The tools that they came with or other popular downloadable tools not only did what they advertised but did them well. There was no point in getting another. People tried of course and some times they succeeded.
Suddenly I found myself with more free time and began to be more productive with the Mac. Since I used it for supporting at the most 10 Macs and I was still sharing files with my other collegues, I had to still use Windows for most stuff. But the Mac became my primary web browsing device for the sheer stability of it. Since that, I began to appreciate the Macs for what they were, well designed machines.

The Point
The point I am trying to make is that in terms of Linux on the desktop, it'll follow pretty closely to the footsteps of the Macs. It'll suffer from lack of hardware support or have limited support from the vendors, especially those smaller ones taking 'development funds' from MS. These are the companies that make cheap peripherals and hardware. Those products help define what the total PC costs and how much bang for the buck it'll bring. What new Mac users find out very quickly is that not all hardware are Mac compatible and those that are, are more expensive. That in turn limits the market and slows consumer adoption. Exactly what MS wants.

When it comes to updates, I think Linux users are guilty of having to update as often as their Windows counterparts. That is if they want to update everything in a distribution. Since the Desktop Linux is usually a distribution-based install, the distribution usually has a way of keeping up to date with the latest files. And they are pretty smart in updating what only is installed. Updating files is a way of life under Linux because of it's dynamic nature. Updates are either because of progress in the development or responding to security threats. Those security threats are usually not exploited yet but efforts were made to make sure no one does.
And updates usually don't break unrelated software.
With the Mac, updates were not that often and checking for them weekly, became an excercise in futility.

Another thing about Linux is that it has many interdependant components. Often a utility builds on another program or a foundation of components that already does something similar. Take ftp for example. You can use interactively, old-school style or use wget. Or use a tool that does ftp amongst other things like curl. But then again, you may need more help and opt for Download for X or GFTP. This interdependency is good because it'll help improve the tools and reduces recurring work. Which may lead to just a few products that become important to the community. Me-the-Windows-user used to say that this reduces choice. But in the end, why choose something else since the one used already has all that is needed. It was the same for with the Mac. I wanted to try new stuff but ultimately the tools for the Mac, while few, did their jobs very well.

Despite all that, Mac use is not what it was and may be shrinking, porportionately. I had to admit Steve Jobs saved Apple by focusing on what made a good product sell. But odd are stacked against him if he decides to add features to the Mac to reach even more users, make it more popular. What is different is that while Mac users has to wait for Apple to do something, with Linux, anybody and everybody can make a difference and do something about it. Whether it is for more frequent or less frequent updates or for more tools or tools with more features, Linux users can make an impact. That is what the community is about.
Linux users should look at what issues the Mac faced in it's effort to gain wide acceptance and see where they are today. And prepare. The Linux Desktop should be there soon.

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