Talking Past Each Other

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 12:40 PM

It's always the same. I publish my views on rolling release; immediately, comments began to appear, as I had hoped. That means people are reading it and thinking about it. Most people who responded to it contacted me separately without using the comments function on our site. The majority understood it, and thanked me for targeting the issue. It seems the few who weren't happy preferred to use the comments section.

They didn't get it; some aren't really thinking about what I said. Aside from pedantic picking over words, and debating the mechanics of software development and distribution, there is this mental block in the mass of hobby users who just assume everyone in the world should want fresh and new ideas. Backwards compatibility is almost a sin. Hobbyists are utterly cut off from the world of everyday folks who simply use computers, even use them a great deal, but don't want noticeable changes in their user experience. They want to use it, not play with it all the time. For the hobby folks, there can be no using it without playing with it.

So ingrained are these differences, I am not surprised to see the comments from the hobbyists who just cannot understand the point I was making. Let's assume for a moment there was no Microsoft, and just to be fair, no Mac. The commercial operating systems just disappear, and all computers are limited to the Open Source operating systems like Linux and BSD. Let me assure you there would be far fewer computers in the world, and they would be a darn sight more expensive. However, let's start from where we are, and Microsoft and Apple just evaporate, along with every copy of their products. The world is forced to turn to Open Source.

Very quickly, after the first couple of months, you would have angry users seeking to choke some developers to death. They would be yelling, screaming and rioting. There would be two groups. One would tell anyone they could catch: “Stop changing it! Leave it alone, and just make it work!” After just a few weeks of updates, and the gentle nagging this or that is insecure or broken, and the only fix offered is a newer version which, in the eyes of the user, is significantly different and requires running through the setup process again — you would have major frustration from users. The other group would be throwing their computers away.

For the average user, constant change is not fun. For the hobby user, lack of change is no fun. If the Open Source community only reaches out to the hobby users, they will have nothing to offer the average user. It's not a matter of which user type is right or wrong, but whether we can accommodate both. The whole matter of rolling release is what lies behind it, not simply how each distro wants to package upstream project code. Rolling release is the logical expression of the entire field of endeavor, from end to end. By no means would I, if I could, go about forcing developers to operate differently. However, I don't want to read any more whining about the failure of adoption, and how all those slaves of Redmond just don't get it, when it's just possible the combined mass of developers and packagers as a whole do nothing those poor benighted souls consider important. Perhaps an awareness and attempts to address this might make other barriers to adoption less significant.

Let me offer some examples. I don't take myself too seriously, but I know what I like. The last time I really enjoyed using KDE was 3.1.5. It was stable, everything worked, and I experienced nothing which evoked a need for real improvement. The last time I really liked GNOME was 1.x with Enlightenment, even though I now use it every day as the lesser of evils. The one best release of RedHat in terms of how well it actually worked underneath was 7.3. For FreeBSD it was around 4.8, and SuSE around 8.2. The best word processor was WordPerfect 8, and OO.org still pales in comparison today. The best X server release in terms of snappy response on current hardware and stable operations was around XFree86 4.2. I admit a poor understanding of what lies under the changes since then, but I know what I experienced as a user. From what I read, I'm in good company on my choice of landmarks, so it's not entirely subjective.

In general, I have found much disappointment with Open Source as a whole since those experiences. Most of it is small stuff, but lots of small things together become big things. What I have now is generally tolerable, and far better than the commercial alternatives, but it could be better still. It could be simpler. As a philosophical statement, I would say we have gone past the point of diminishing returns in personal computers, both hardware and software. Many writers, fans of Open Source, far smarter and with bigger names said that before I did. Lots of good things are coming about, and I write about them separately. I question whether Open Source developers as a whole, and packagers as well, understand the value of wider adoption and the good things which would come with it. If they did, there would be more support for offering that wider audience just one good experience with Open Source in terms of what those common users hope to gain by leaving the monopoly behind.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

Also Filed Under: Home: Culture: Talking Past Each Other

Re: Talking Past Each Other

Methinks you are slipping a bit sir…

“It’s always the same. I publish my views on rolling release; immediately, comments began to appear” — How often do you comment on “rolling releases”?

“Aside from pedantic picking over words” — quite a few of them were “picking” over the fact that you had a mis-guided definition of the words “rolling release”. You, as an editor, should know that words ARE what is important when you write an article.

“Backwards compatibility is almost a sin.”??? You've obviously never tried one of the most popular hobbyist distros - Puppy Linux.

“Hobbyists are utterly cut off from the world of everyday folks who simply use computers, even use them a great deal, but don’t want noticeable changes in their user experience.” — this would seem to explain the problems Microsoft has after every new iteration of Windows as well, yes?

“I am not surprised to see the comments from the hobbyists who just cannot understand the point I was making.” — no-one can understand a man who uses his own definition of words rather than the agreed upon definitions.

Your whole 4th paragraph is exactly what Microsoft users go through every couple of years (when Microsoft is actually on target…)

“f the Open Source community only reaches out to the hobby users, they will have nothing to offer the average user.” — IF being the magic word here. Distros such as CentOS, Mepis, etc. are know for offering stable and unchanging versions. It seems that you are generalizing a bit here.

“What I have now is generally tolerable, and far better than the commercial alternatives” — then why the bloody he@# aren't you writing on the good points with minor requests to fix X?

THAT would be the sane way to promote that the bad parts get fixed. Badgering on the few bad points makes you look like a troll.

Posted by Dan - Jan 08, 2009 | 1:11 AM

Re: Talking Past Each Other

Speaking of trolling…

Generalities are the whole point of social sciences, as this particular piece is a review social of attitudes about technology. Specific distros are not the point, though I have tried Puppy, and prefer CentOS for my personal use. I very much enjoyed the fruits of the Fedora Legacy Project for running RH 7.3 on a few old machines I gave away from my charity operation.

You would have to be intellectually dishonest to keep ignoring I used “rolling release” as a symbol of the greater problem. However, it's possible you simply haven't seen where I have written praises over the years of things which work well.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jan 09, 2009 | 5:34 AM

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