May 22, 2003

Bits and pieces: Short Linux and computing notes

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

Why isn't the most important laptop spec ever mentioned in reviews? Why do we keep making Linux look harder than it really is? Why do we pretend some free/open source programs are better than they really are? Why is there air?

Hot laptops

I recently shopped for a new laptop computer. I wanted a big, bright screen, a comfortable keyboard, Linux compatibility, decent performance specs, and a good price.

I found information about all of the above here and there on the Internet with a little searching, but I was unable to find one of the most important laptop specs I need to make a purchase decision: How hot does it get?

Think about it: If you're using your laptop on your lap, you don't want your legs to burn. Shouldn't laptop reviews include a temperature measurement taken on a unit's bottom after it's been running for an hour?

As it happens, the Toshiba Satellite 1410 I chose has a 1.8 GHz uP, but doesn't get as hot as many laptops with processors less than half as fast. I'm glad this is so, but I wish there was a way I could have known before purchase, instead of waiting until I got it to decide if it was too hot to handle.

Linux the E-Z way

Yes, the command line is the best, and in the beginning it was all there was, and it is more versatile and blah-blah-blah, but personal computing didn't take off until users were freed from the drudgery of memorizing text commands and gained the ability to perform most workaday functions and even admin tasks the pointy/clicky way.

Like it or not, that's the faq, Jack.

And yet, we see endless Linux documentation devoted to command line methods of performing simple tasks even though there are now perfectly good, proven GUI tools to do them.

Yes, it's nice to learn the inner workings of your software, just as it's good to know how your thyroid gland regulates many of your body's functions, and it's nice to understand the torque convertor in your car's automatic transmission. But most people get along without knowing much about their thyroids or torque convertors, and they can get along without knowing why this or that happens when they click a CD icon to use their CD drive under Linux.

I have used nothing but point/click admin tools in Linux for the last year, just to see what would happen. And what has happened is... nothing exciting. Modern admin utilities from SuSE, Mandrake, Red Hat, Lycoris, Xandros, Libranet, Lindows, and many others have made the command line interface unnecessary for most desktop Linux users. Sure, it's good for them to understand enough of how the CLI works to be able to use it when necessary, just as it's good to be able to change a tire on your car if you must.

But you don't need to be able to change a tire for daily driving, and you no longer need to become command-line proficient to use Linux. And in both cases, you can always hire someone to help you out if you're too busy with other things to learn how to do your own repairs.

I mean, I still see all those instructions on how to untar and install a package from source, but I never see something that says, "Open your download directory in Konqueror, the KDE file browser. Click on the downloaded package you want to untar and install. Type in your root password upon request. After that, follow the instructions that come with the package, usually located in the README text."

This is not rocket science. It's not even propellor science. We need to spread the word that Linux has gotten this easy, because most people don't seem to know it yet -- and if more of them did, more of them would convert to Linux and stop spreading those silly bandwidth-eating worms and viruses.

Not all free software is All That

I'm going to tell you a secret the Free Software Faithful don't always like to hear: The Gimp is a fine piece of work, but it is not competitive with Photoshop, especially when preparing graphics for print. Worse, Paint Shop Pro, which costs less than $100, is a lot easier to use than the Gimp for most simple graphics editing tasks, and it'll do GIFs and use all kinds of cool fonts without going through workarounds and special installation routines, right out of the box.

There are dozens of other free software packages that aren't as good or as easy to use as commercial equivalents. There is nothing wrong with this. Most of them are good enough to do their jobs for at last some users. We simply need to admit that this is so; that at this moment Linux and free software packages associated with it are not all perfect.

Take Web design, for instance. There is not a single free software package that comes close to Dreamweaver or any one of a dozen other commercial Windows or Mac programs when you need to crank out sites at make-a-living speed. Yes, we all know hand-written code is best, but even those of us who have a good grasp of HTML and CSS need tools to speed up the process, and the more WYSIWYG those tools are, the faster we can work. The physical world analogy here is power tools. I can plane a board's edge more accurately with a hand plane than with a power plane (and with one heck of a lot less noise), but if I ever end up doing carpentry for money I'll need to use a power plane to improve my productivity.

When it comes to certain tasks, especially graphics-oriented ones, Linux and free software have a long way to go. Right now, realistically, the right thing to tell professionals who use programs for which no professional-level Linux and/or free software equivalents exist is, "You should use Linux as your main operating system because it's immune to viruses and many other Windows problems, but for now you'll need to run your existing programs through Win4Lin or Wine if you want to keep working at full speed."

There is nothing wrong with admitting that Linux and free software can't do everything for everyone. Overselling is never good, because it always get exposed in the end. We have enough good points to push without making any up.

Why is there air?

To blow up volleyballs, of course. This has nothing to do with Linux (or computers). It's the title of a 1965 Bill Cosby comedy album.

It's easy to get wrapped up in Linux and free/open source advocacy, and all the SCO nonsense and other Internet and computing matters, and forget that they're only a small part of life.

So take some time off to laugh already, with or without Bill Cosby.

You'll be glad you did!


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