Challenging the Priesthoods


Author: JT Smith

By Robin Miller

Every single field of endeavor tries to become a priesthood with a language
and a set of rituals that keeps the insiders healthy and well-fed — and forces
outsiders to pay dearly for their services. Computer programmers are no
exception. Deep down inside, even those who support Open Source fully seem to
see themselves as keepers of a Cathedral rather than as members of a Bazaar.Four years ago, when I first started advocating increased usability for Linux, I
was derided. I was insulted on many mailing lists — and I mean the kind of
insults that questioned my ancestry — for suggesting that some people might
prefer a “point and click” GUI interface to the venerable Unix-style command
line. My suggestion that emacs or even Xemacs might be too hard for working
writers to learn was met with hoots. It was as if no one unwilling to learn the
inner workings of their computers should be allowed to use one.

We won’t get into the question of how many programmers, Open Source or
otherwise, couldn’t possibly rebuild an automatic transmission but still drive

Now we’re starting to see a big usability push in Linux. Eazel, Helix, and
others are trying to make Linux as easy to use as Windows or Mac. But there’s
still a Priesthood aura about all of this, one that is no better than the one
that shrouds Microsoft’s work.

I use Sun’s StarOffice rather regularly to open and alter .doc and .xls files
created by coworkers who use Microsoft Office. I hate StarOffice. It is obscure,
has hundreds of features I’ll never need, and has poor documentation. What’s
worse, it does not have an obvious, single-click word count utility, which is
the one thing writers (who are often paid by the word) need more than anything

Perhaps StarOffice has a word count utility hidden somewhere and I haven’t been
able to find it. This is entirely possible. Should I find a member of the
priesthood who created StarOffice and ask? And if I do, should I approach The
Great One humbly, hat in hand?

This is, of course, the way you must approach Microsoft with product questions,
usually with a secret incantation (product password or registration number) and a
donation (help line costs and/or long distance charges) as part of the ritual
needed to approach one of the Software Priests.

But you’ve got to give Microsoft one thing: With a little messing around, you
can usually figure out enough of how one of their products operates to do some
work with it almost immediately. I have seen Linux software that was literally
incomprehensible to anyone not versed in Unix lore. It may have been great
software, but by the time I learned how to install and use it I would have been
better off going down to the computer store and buying a proprietary,
shrink-wrapped program.

In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Linus Torvalds
himself admitted that members of his own family preferred Windows and Mac to Linux.

Windows still has usability problems galore; not in turning it on and performing basic office tasks or playing games, but in reliability. At
some point, almost any non-technical Windows user will run into problems beyond his or her ability to solve, and will be forced to turn to a
(paid) Priest for help. The Mac OS will also crash, and there are Mac Priests galore, too. The only advantage the Linux Priesthood has
traditionally offered over these other, more established ones is its willingness to provide help in return for ego gratification instead of
money, a factor that seems to be changing as Linux advocates start to consider “support” business models that amount, essentially, to giving
the software away for free and charging through the nose for help in getting it running and keeping it going.

The ideal operating system would be one that started and ran with little knowledge of its inner workings, and required little or no special
training to maintain in normal, everyday use.

This isn’t Mac, it isn’t Windows, and it isn’t Linux.

I wonder what it will be — assuming we ever see it?


  • News