Thursday, August 23, 2001

Angry reactions to Gnome/KDE essay There was an angry discussion about my recent essay on Gnome and KDE critisizing me for 1) assuming Unix users were superior to other people, 2) slagging Microsoft unfairly, 3) slagging printing stuff out on the computer, 4) slagging people who don't know how to write shell scripts, 5) ignoring the fact that Unix tools have been ported to Windows (and many other platforms). There were other complaints, but this is a good start.

This conversation was interesting because I critisized Gnome and KDE in the aticle, which are both Unix desktops and used a particular Macintosh platform as a frame of reference. And while I don't claim the Office suite is dead, I would argue that most people mainly use their computers for Internet related work (Web, email, IM etc.) and that the Office suite obviously comes from a printer-based world. So while the Office apps are neccessary for some tasks, they are niche uses compared to Internet stuff.

My argument was that the way Unix uses small programs passing plaintext between each other is a particuarly good way to handle information over a network. I was not celebrating the OS itself. The Good Easy on my Mac has the Unix philosophy built into it's GUI, but is not Unix. I can use it to automate away repetitive tasks without knowing shell scripts. For example, a simple feature like text expansion does not require scripting, cutting and pasting often replaces pipes, and quick-keys can speed up task-switching without anything resembling programming.

I was critisizing the desktop focus on Office-style productivity applications, of which MS Office makes up almost all the market, because it ignores basic Internet functions (like text editting) that Unix users know all about. Microsoft's poor support for basic plaintext management tools is not ammeliorated by the availability of Windows ports of Unix tools. The regular user should not be expected to download emacs just to get a text editor less awful than notepad (and I don't think emacs suits the text editting needs of the non-programming home or office user either). But I don't anticipate good support for plaintext from Microsoft anytime soon, it goes against their lock-in strategy.

So, I'm not advocating that everyone should switch to Unix. I don't think Unix users are better human beings. And I don't think software is going to alter human nature. But I am arguing that when it comes to Internet related work (which I think is the most important use for a computer), folks should learn from the Unix philosophy of simple programs passing plaintext between each other and develop an appropriate GUI (like the Good Easy) that combines power with flexibility. I've been there, it can be done, and without a command line in sight.
Link to this column

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