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Nathan Cochrane -- FEE, FI, FOE, FUD

Apr 05, 1999, 08:18 (146 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Nathan Cochrane)

Linux Today column 0.1
By NATHAN COCHRANE

IN the last few weeks I have seen an increasing amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) spread about the Linux operating system. It leads me to conclude that while slow to start, the giant Microsoft, who learned FUD-spreading at the feet of master IBM, has awoken.

There are the usual attempts to hide FUD behind the guise of balanced reporting. The easiest way to do this is by conceding the object of your attack has certain minor merits, then go on to say how these are drowned by all its short-comings. It is a very effective technique that any skilled middle-school debater is taught, and in which public relations consultants and newspaper columnists alike excel.

It runs something like: "Well, [Acme Product] is good for [minor points 1, 2, 3, ...], but not much good for [what I think is important], therefore you should discard [Acme Product] in favor of [Incumbent Product]''.

FUD is only
destructive when
it is in error,
yet perceived to
be true.
Firstly, FUD is only destructive when it is in error yet perceived to be true. It is not FUD if the criticism is true or people don't believe it. Linux does have problems. We know what they are. There aren't a lot of mainstream desktop applications, yet. There are issues to do with standardised desktop environments. New users are still having a hard time and support still has a way to go. There is also a problem getting pre-installed PCs into the channel, which is being tackled by corner-store PC resellers, established box shifters like Dell and HP and emerging heavyweights like VA Research.

Secondly, FUD can hold little persuasiveness in any truly open market. The same forces that generate great products, also scale to combat FUD.

The purpose of this column is to not be a blindly-accepting Linux cheer squad -- go elsewhere for that. It will instead attempt to be a burr under the saddle of the Linux community. It will seek out weak spots within Linux development, things that are missing or have been poorly implemented, and attempt to highlight them constructively. This is not FUD. For the reasons outlined above, we have nothing to fear from FUD. Our biggest enemy is groupthink and complacency. Groupthink occurs in any closely-knit group where people won't voice their real concerns because of fear of being ostracised from the group or ridiculed. It also often occurs in groups that are under attack from outside forces.

(An interesting aside to this is although Microsoft is a renowned FUD-spreader, it is also massively vulnerable to attack in a way open source communities can never be.)

The Linux community can never forget what made it great was egoless programming, group effort not groupthink, and objectivity.

But for now I want to attack one of my favorite items of FUD -- Linux's perceived difficulty of use and installation.

The first stems from a belief that all Unix religions rely heavily on the command line. They do, as does Windows with DOS. Try doing anything really useful in a Microsoft operating system and you will find yourself dropping into DOS frequently. Worse, the System Registry, which was supposed to kill the confusion over autoexec.bat and config.sys files, has instead made these earlier configuration trials seem trivial.

And what of command lines? Modern Unices including Linux no more rely on them than any other desktop operating system. And the world's most popular operating system -- Microsoft's command line only Disk-based OS (DOS) -- is still the most popular. If difficulty was a barrier to adoption, then how did Microsoft succeed?

Linux along with other Unices has the benefit of a truly client-server graphical user interface -- X. With that you get an astounding array of choices for how you look at your information graphically -- GNOME and KDE most notably. You can even make your machine look like Windows 95 if you feel so masochistic, or the Apple desktop if that is more your speed. Modern X-based systems are amazingly user-friendly and often superior in design to commercial variants because they put stuff in there that we as users have demanded and created. It is not feature-building by focus group, or marketing-driven bloat, but relevant technical advances to make our jobs easier because we put them there. Sure, there are some things I would like to see incorporated in future desktops, that's part of the reason for this ongoing column, but in all nothing that keeps me from doing what I need to do today.

The other great myth is Linux is hard to install. This probably comes from the fact that most PCs ship with an operating system, usually Microsoft's. In order to access another OS, you have to make room for it and this usually entails a dual-boot scenario. But contrary to the fear-mongers assertions, this is not an installation issue, it is a channel industry regulation issue. If you have to shove aside an unwanted operating system on your new PC to put the one of your choice in place, then that is an issue for competition watchdogs.

Speaking as someone who over the last ten years has installed various Microsoft OS pre-Betas on hundreds of machines, I can say with a degree of certainty that Linux is not hard to install. The current releases from the likes of Red Hat are no harder to install than a modern Microsoft operating system, given the same circumstances. How many people who say Linux is a problem in this regard have actually formatted their hard drive and tried to install Windows? Not many, I would wager. How many have Windows95, 98 and NT on the same hard drive? For that matter, how many can access Windows95 files from their NT installation like they can with Linux?

Technically, I would rank myself as a notch above dolt when it comes to Linux. I have installed it on about a dozen computers, but like many others, am still learning the ropes. Part of the problem is the need to throw away much of what I know about the way operating systems function. This is no different than when I made the transitions between any of my earlier platforms. It is easier than making the change from DOS to Windows, and about the same as the change from an 8-bit microcomputer to the 16-bit era of Amigas and PCs.

I would encourage any prospective user to investigate a shrink-wrapped Linux, get along to a user group and take the plunge. It's a little scary but very rewarding and if you are a hobbyist you will soon rediscover the thrill of computing. If you are a business person, you may also shave some fat off your bottom line and expand into e-commerce faster and more cheaply than you could have dreamed imaginable.

At the weekend I decided to set up my Lintel (Linux OS on an Intel platform) PC to handle dialup networking so I could access the Net. I confess, I had been a bit of a chicken until then. I remembered the hours spent with my ISP when Windows95 Beta came out trying to make the transition from Windows 3.11 running trusty Trumpet Winsock to the cantankerous new 32-bit Microsoft dialup networking function. I was not in a hurry to repeat that experience. But I decided it was time to bite the bullet so I set aside six hours of my weekend and gathered about 6,000 pages of technical information on my desks, prepared to dive in.

I was disappointed.

Within no more than three minutes I was surfing the Web. With no reference to any documentation and using just intuition, I called up the Linux Control Panel and made the link to the serial port that handles the modem. Next, I called up the Network Configurator, added a PPP profile, entered the ISP phone number, a login name, password and domain name server. Finally, I configured Netscape with the proxy setting. That was it. No wandering through verbose and confusing Win95 modem profiles, recursive and ambiguous Control Panel settings, and the like. It wasn't point and click Net access but it was close.

I still couldn't recommend either Windows or Linux for the absolute beginner hoping to get on the Net by themselves, but Linux is a lot closer than its commercial counterpart to that goal.

And it is my hope, now that I have asked for single click-Net access, that all those ISPs out there using Linux to run their enterprises will spare a thought for their customers' desktops.

What about it guys?


Nathan Cochrane Nathan Cochrane is a regular contributor to Linux Today and journalist for FairfaxIT's online and print publications. His weekly column, OpenLine (http://www.it.fairfax.com.au/columns/openline/index.html), looks at the open source and Free Unix communities, including Linux. He can be reached at ncochrane@theage.fairfax.com.au

More articles by Nathan Cochrane can be found at here.