The Point Not Taken

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:00 AM

No matter how often it has been said, it seems that many GNU/Linux and Macintosh users refuse to see the obvious. The response to a recent article of mine demonstrated this statement as well as any other example I can think of. What is so obvious? That while speciality software and functionality is nice, it isn't going to make or break adoption of an operating system.

It all started at the beginning of this month, when I published the article Mac OS X: An Apple a Day keeps the Penguins Away?, which clearly noted that in every area, GNU/Linux was nearly as good, as good, or even better than Mac OS X for the average user. I was not surprised that my mail box was flooded with dissenting opinions, particularly from Mac users, however something did surprise me - the supposed reasons I was being given for Mac OS X being better than GNU/Linux did not even make sense in the context of my article.

I expected to be told about how easy it was to use Mac OS X, or how much better the software was. Instead, the majority of “reasons” I was given were focused on specialty applications such as Photoshop and Final Cut. One person asked me something to the effect of “tell me where I can get Quark Xpress for Linux.”

That's a fair enough question - if I were covering desktop publishing, but I was not. This shows a major lack of understanding on a very crucial topic - the typical user. I'm sure to the person who asked me that, he felt this was a serious lacking in Linux that made Mac OS X greatly superior. That's a big problem for those in decision making roles, as it is very hard to make sense of what system is ready for the average user when many people don't even understand who the average user is.

Another case worth highlighting is that of eyecandy. I'm on a number of discussion lists in the community, and recently one of them had a big discussion on whether GNOME (one of GNU/Linux's desktops) was going to surpass KDE's visual appeal because the former was going to support scalable vector graphics (SVG) for widgets (things like scrollbars and buttons). It was basically suggested that this “advantage” might cost KDE users. Now, without commenting on which desktop is really nicer looking, I might note that only power users and graphic artists probably even know what SVG is anyway (it's a format similar to Windows Metafiles in that you can resize the graphics without loss of quality, in case you were wondering). Perhaps you could make some really great looking themes with this format, but the point is, you can make some really great styles without it too.

Moreover, even if it would make a big difference, the average user has shown he really does not care about “eyecandy” anyway. If John Q. Public did care that much about visual appeal or Quark Xpress, Apple computers would be being bought up en masse, as Microsoft Windows isn't exactly what one considers “beautiful,” nor is it known as the desktop publisher's paradise. Since Microsoft's position has never really been threatened much by either of these features, I think we can safely assume Mr. Public doesn't loose too much sleep over his lack of publishing abilities.

Okay, so I've said the user does not necessarily want Quark Xpress, and I've also stated that he doesn't want amazing eyecandy. What is it that he does want? It's simple really - usability and the ability to do simple tasks (e-mail, web browsing, letter writing, and so forth). This is all stuff that the GNU/Linux desktop is ready and waiting to offer, in fact, for simple tasks, Linux has a big advantage over the Macintosh. You can take your existing PC, and within an hour, have a system fully loaded with everything you need - not what Bob in marketing decided you should have (like Windows) or what seems “flat out cool” (like Mac OS), but rather what you need to make your computer a productive environment.

Perhaps GNU/Linux isn't the prettiest thing you've ever seen. Okay, I'll agree with that. However, it is much nicer looking than Windows (for example KDE 3.1 offers an original look, transparent menus, drop shadows, etc.), and it is usable. In fact, if you are coming from a Windows background, Linux is arranged in a much more natural manner than the Mac interface is. Even though it looks a bit different than Windows, it works pretty much the same, thus providing a sizably lower learning curve than Mac OS.

Another touchy point was office suites. While many people wrote in to sing to me the merits of Office v.X for Mac OS X, they ignored the fact that it really doesn't matter how good it is. Using GNU/Linux and CrossOver Office (which is included in Xandros Desktop, and soon, SuSE's new Office Desktop), you can run Office 2000, the same version you already know and everyone else is using, again eliminating costly retraining needs. If, you don't need Office, you can also take advantage of the extremely robust suite, which just happens to be included in every major distribution. To stave off the inevitable e-mails, yes, I know is available for Mac OS X, but it isn't a stable release yet - and it sticks out like a sore thumb in that environment. Why switch to Mac OS X to use an unstable office suite that doesn't work like the rest of the environment, when you can get a stable version for Linux that works just like other Linux applications.

In the end, the point is not whether or not Mac OS X can serve a particular “speciality” community best (such as publishing), but rather if it can serve the average user best. So far, no one has been able to argue that this is the case, and for good reason - the average user is unlikely to need any features that Mac OS X has that GNU/Linux does not.

And if that's the case, why choose a proprietary - and expensive - system over one that is Free as in both freedom and price?

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@uninetsolutions. com.