The Story of Linux
March 11, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Revolution OS [1h25m Google Video] is a 2001 documentary which traces the history of GNU, Linux, and the open source and free software movements. It features several interviews with prominent hackers and entrepreneurs (and hackers-cum-entrepreneurs), including Richard Stallman, Michael Tiemann, Linus Torvalds, Larry Augustin, Eric S. Raymond, Bruce Perens, Frank Hecker and Brian Behlendorf.

The film begins in medias res with an IPO, and then sets the historical stage by showing the beginnings of software development back in the day when software was shared on paper tape for the price of the paper itself. It then segues to Bill Gates's Open Letter to Hobbyists in which he asks Computer Hobbyists to not share, but to buy software. (This letter was written by Gates when Microsoft was still based in Arizona and spelled "Micro-Soft".) Richard Stallman then explains how and why he left the MIT Lab for Artificial Intelligence in order to devote his life to the development of free software, as well as how he started with the GNU project. Linus Torvalds is interviewed on his development of the Linux kernel as well as on the GNU/Linux naming controversy and Linux's further evolution, including its commercialization. Richard Stallman remarks on some of the ideological aspects of open source vis-á-vis Communism and capitalism and well as on several aspects of the development of GNU/Linux. Michael Tiemann (interviewed in a desert) tells how he met Stallman and got an early version of Stallman's GCC and founded Cygnus Solutions. Larry Augustin tells how he combined the resulting GNU software and a normal PC to create a UNIX-like Workstation which cost one third the price of a workstation by Sun Microsystems even though it was three times as powerful. His narrative includes his early dealings with venture capitalists, the eventual capitalization and commodification of Linux for his own company, VA Linux, and ends with its IPO. Frank Hecker of Netscape tells how Netscape executives released the source code for Netscape's browser, one of the signal events which made Open Source a force to be reckoned with by business executives, the mainstream media, and the public at large. (this text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)
posted by hippybear (68 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
You had me at hour and a half long documentary about Linux.
posted by wcfields at 9:06 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thank God Smell-o-vision never took off.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:12 AM on March 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


Ah, 2001. Linux was almost there for a casual user's alternative to Windows. Nine years later and it's still almost there.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:13 AM on March 11, 2010 [6 favorites]


See also: wiki page, official website, and IMDB entry.

Related: The Code (2001), which is also available on Google Video. I haven't seen it yet, but it seems to focus more on the history of Linux. Finnish origin, most of this documentary is in English, with a few interviews that aren't subtitled.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:13 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, 2001. Linux was almost there for a casual user's alternative to Windows. Nine years later and it's still almost there.

I'd like to see a graph of Linux adoption over time. Bonus points if there was a corporate and home user separation. I'd imagine that major infrastructure has been running on Linux for years, while the home market has seen a much slower increase. Offices have IT staff, where homes must rely on their resident geek.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:21 AM on March 11, 2010


Don't forget the consumer electronics market. Countless home routers and Tivos run Linux now, as does the very phone I'm typing this out on.
posted by leviathan3k at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2010


entropicamericana: "Thank God Smell-o-vision never took off."

Yeah otherwise threadshitting like yours would reek.
posted by idiopath at 9:28 AM on March 11, 2010 [8 favorites]


Linux recently passed 1% market share - I know, not broken down, but, it's something.
posted by redbeard at 9:30 AM on March 11, 2010


I'd imagine that major infrastructure has been running on Linux for years, while the home market has seen a much slower increase. Offices have IT staff, where homes must rely on their resident geek.

Though it's also important to separate corporate servers servers from corporate offices. All of our backend stuff, including the actual moneymaking stuff, runs on Linux or Solaris. Everybody in the office still uses Windows.

(Of course, as the only IT guy here, that means I also get to do Windows desktop support in between being a DBA, programmer, and sysadmin. Grarghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.)
posted by kmz at 9:32 AM on March 11, 2010


Though, redbeard, it does say "desktops/laptops".
posted by kenko at 9:41 AM on March 11, 2010


Ah, 2001. Linux was almost there for a casual user's alternative to Windows. Nine years later and it's still almost there.

Yes, but think of what we have because of Linux. Linux helped create the open source boom. I don't think Netscape ever releases the code that becomes (well, inspires) Firefox without Linux's success, such as it is. IE doesn't add important features like tabs without competition from Firefox. Eclipse probably never goes open source. Sun's JDK doesn't go open source. MySQL server. Postgres. Apache.

And those are just the big successes. There are plenty of small ones. I needed to "photoshop" something for work last week, but couldn't purchase photoshop. Hello, GIMP. BitTorrent clients. Codecs. IM clients. Office alternatives. The list goes on.

Linux may not have had the success in the personal computing world that we once imagined it would, but its effects have made the computer world a much better place.
posted by callmejay at 9:44 AM on March 11, 2010 [13 favorites]


Linux is already there for casual users. Furthermore, millions are using it. Look inside your mobile device, if nowhere else.
posted by DU at 9:46 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, why is "use by casual users" the metric? Casual users are by definition not exploiting all of the computer that they could be. What do power/technical users use? Everywhere nerd I've ever met used Linux at least at home and at work if they were able.
posted by DU at 9:48 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


20mumblemumble will be the year of Linux on the Desktop!

All the same, I do appreciate over a decade of dedicated volunteerism.
posted by Doug Stewart at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2010


As soon as Steam comes out for Linux!
posted by blue_beetle at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2010


There are some good points, here. And I run Linux on my desktop (except that I'm booted into Windows right now because I needed to do something that my distro does shittily.) But in 2001 I was thinking that Linux would have a big share of the desktop market because it was free and seemed close to being usable for everyone.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:10 AM on March 11, 2010


Linux recently passed 1% market share - I know, not broken down, but, it's something.


1% of the desktop, maybe But both Android and the Palm Pre's OS run linux, of course, runs the Linux kernel. Android has 15.2 of the moble market, according to Quantcast. And Admob gives Android and WebOS a combined combined 27%. That's a huge number of people who interact with UIs running on Linux every day, and those systems are widely praised for their ease of use and enjoyability.

WebOS is a proprietary front end, but Android is totally open source. On android you can even open a terminal window (free from the app store) and run Linux command if you want too. You're not root and lots of the useful commands are missing, but they can be installed if you root your phone or buy a developer version of the phone.

And of course there's the server market. Which Linux dominates. Cloud computing looks likely involve a lot of Linux running on virtual machine instances.
posted by delmoi at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, 2001. Linux was almost there for a casual user's alternative to Windows. Nine years later and it's still almost there.

You have to admit that with Ubuntu and the like it's a lot more Almost There than it was ten years ago.
posted by Artw at 10:13 AM on March 11, 2010


Also, why is "use by casual users" the metric?

Because that's short for "works without requiring a profound knowledge of the inner workings of your machine and/or having to spend an shocking amount of time dicking around in a console window."
posted by mhoye at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2010 [3 favorites]


but Android is totally open source.

False.

Because that's short for "works without requiring a profound knowledge of the inner workings of your machine and/or having to spend an shocking amount of time dicking around in a console window."

Maybe I should asked this instead: When we say that "use by casual users" is the metric, what are we measuring? (Ease of) usability is only one task an OS must perform. There's also power of usability, security, efficiency, cost, freedom (as in speech), etc.

I certainly wouldn't measure the power or safety of a car by how many "regular people" bought it. Why should I measure the power or safety of an operating system that way?
posted by DU at 10:23 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd say it's more bicycle Vs. unicycle than various types of car.
posted by Artw at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2010


The Linux desktop is already here:
We're all Linux desktop users now.

No matter what you're running on your desktop -- Windows 7, Snow Leopard, XP, whatever -- you use the Internet, right? And you use Google to search? You talk to your friends on Facebook, Twitter of some other social network, yes? Then congratulations — you're a Linux user.
posted by octothorpe at 10:26 AM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, in roughly the same way that using Twitter makes me a Ruby developer.
posted by Artw at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


Cloud computing looks likely involve a lot of Linux running on virtual machine instances.

And, of course, a bunch of Windows virtual machines running on Linux. So at least it'll under-pin things.
posted by bryn at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2010


delmoi: "Android has 15.2 of the mobile market, according to Quantcast."

Your citation is broke, but I don't believe that. I'd believe Android is 15 percent of the smartphone market, which is far smaller than the mobile market at large.

There's other places where Linux is present, like embedded hardware--routers, NAS devices, GPS, DVRs, but unless you're a Linux developer, growth of market won't affect you, and it won't translate a steeper learning curve on new devices.
posted by pwnguin at 10:33 AM on March 11, 2010


DU, you might well measure your overall satisfaction with the car by how much time you have to spend under the hood, and how often you turn the key and nothing happens, and how often you, say, install a roof rack only to find out that your emergency brake doesn't work anymore.

I gave up on Linux after almost a decade of using it, and five years of using it exclusively for ideological reasons, in late 2008. I got tired of things like video drivers never working right, power management always being a complete crapshoot, wireless drivers being perpetually flaky and getting Bluetooth to work being 100% voodoo. Are those problems solved? Could be, could be. I know they're rewriting the sound architecture for the fifth or sixth time, so it may work right someday.

If it doesn't need a video card or a sound card, Linux is the best game in town. But there are still some really sharp edges around the Linux user experience, and they can cut pretty deep
posted by mhoye at 10:35 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was thinking about this the other day, but couldn't remember the title. I actually saw this in the movie theatre (probably a part of sxsw). Cool.
posted by jefbla at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2010


but Android is totally open source.

False.


Really? Strange, then, that I can download the source here.
posted by god hates math at 10:47 AM on March 11, 2010


delmoi: "On android you can even open a terminal window (free from the app store) and run Linux command if you want too."

The "Linux commands" are listed in /usr/include/syscall.h. None of them are callable directly from a standard shell in a terminal. If you mean the gnu programs, yeah, I hear android has a bunch of those installed.
posted by idiopath at 11:10 AM on March 11, 2010


Stallman takes the stage. Adjusts microphone to not interfere with viking hair.

"Ok everyone. Repeat after me: Gnooo Linux... Gnooo Linux, it's Gnooo Linux..."

*chirp* *chirp* ... *chirp* *chirp*

"Can you hear me in the back? OK. Repeat after me: Gah-nyoo Linux .... Gah-nyooo Linux"

*chirp* *chirp* ... *chirp* *chirp*

"Ok, fuck it. I'm leaving."

Meh.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:17 AM on March 11, 2010


Re: Android being open source, the operating system itself is open source, but many of the applications which run on top of it are not. And I seem to recall that there were some birthing pains early on, where it was really difficult to get the source even for the OS.


I've always preferred FreeBSD to Linux.
posted by Slothrup at 11:18 AM on March 11, 2010


jsavimbi: "Meh."

Is this a response to the movie? Because they mostly stop talking to Stallman and stop mentioning GNU after about the first 20 minutes. The point of view of this documentary seems pretty solidly Open Source rather than Free Software
posted by idiopath at 11:23 AM on March 11, 2010


"Meh" was the community's response to Stallman's childish antics.

Oh, I've watched the documentary too.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:27 AM on March 11, 2010


You had me until "including Richard Stallman".
posted by foldedfish at 11:30 AM on March 11, 2010


Well, in roughly the same way that using Twitter makes me a Ruby developer.

It doesn't (and no one implied anything remotely similar regarding Linux), but it makes you a Ruby user, and a beneficiary of Ruby's usefulness. Fact is (even in this thread) people tend to say "Linux isn't quite there" when what they actually mean is that the Linux desktop isn't quite there.* Linux is not only there, it runs most web servers, and everything we do online has benefited from its existence in some way.

*Desktop Linux is entirely there for the 80% of users who do nothing but basic web surfing and word processing with their computers. Just ask my computer-illiterate coworker who raved about her netbook last year, having no idea that it was running Ubuntu. The only people who care at all about operating systems are the vast minority that are savvy enough to know the difference. Make any complaint about desktop Linux that a normal user would make, and a simple google search will show that others have similar complaints about Windows or Mac.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:41 AM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


foldedfish: "The hacker spirit is a spirit of playful cleverness." How do you not love this guy?
posted by shii at 11:43 AM on March 11, 2010


"giving the Han Solo award to the rebel fleet" comedy gold. The audacity of offering the "Linus Torvalds Award" to Richard Stallman is pretty glaring.
posted by idiopath at 11:48 AM on March 11, 2010


I am as quick to make that tired old slashdot joke about how surely this is the year of desktop linux, but after trying and failing to use linux on my main laptops for the last 5 years (and I'm even a software developer), I bought a netbook for SXSW and decided to put Ubuntu on it. Everything not only worked out of the box with no effort to configure, including sleep, hibernate, wifi, and hardware keys (volume, brightness), but when I plugged in my Sprint USB modem, a box popped up saying "New Broadband Connection Available".

I was extremely impressed. To paraphrase my friend Andy, every time I tried to put Linux on a laptop in the past I found myself trying to decode support forums in German within four hours.
posted by thedaniel at 12:00 PM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


The "Linux commands" are listed in /usr/include/syscall.h. None of them are callable directly from a standard shell in a terminal. If you mean the gnu programs, yeah, I hear android has a bunch of those installed.

I call this piece "portrait of a syscall called directly from a standard shell in a terminal". It's part of my Annoying Pedant series:

echo -e '#include <unistd.h>\n#include <syscall.h>\nint main(void) { syscall(SYS_exit,2); }' | gcc -xc - ; ./a.out; echo $?
posted by cmonkey at 12:26 PM on March 11, 2010 [10 favorites]


When people talk about Linux, they are rarely talking exclusively about the Linux kernel; they're talking about the entire experience of using their distribution of the kernel, which will vary widely depending on what distro you're using, how good its support is for your hardware (as the "vanilla" Linux kernel has very little in the way of e.g. video drivers), what programs you're running, and so on.

This ambiguity means that arguments over "Is Linux ready for the desktop?" are not very informative.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:32 PM on March 11, 2010


cmonkey: noticed I said "directly", that is fairly indirect, and likely uses at least 2 gnu programs to do its job (bash and gcc).

My point may have been pedantic but is relevant to the subject of this movie: the GNU project spent years working on providing everything but the kernel, and then the Linux project gets most of the glory and most of the mindshare for producing a kernel (which just happens to be usable only with the help of a huge heap of GNU tools - just try using anything but gcc to compile the kernel, for starters).

The success of free software is a result of collaboration between a number of semi-independent projects: GNU, Linux, x.org, gnome, apache, vim, (hell even nethack probably was enough to convince someone at some point to stick with their free system a bit longer and not pave it over with a Windows install) This is something quite remarkable that is in danger of being elided if we just call the whole thing "Linux".

If someone really wanted to they could package up the Linux kernel with the BSD tools instead of the GNU tools (and you would get quite a lean and efficient system! - GNU is great about providing features, often at the expense of performance), that would not be recognizable to a typical user as a "Linux" system, any more than BSD would be mistaken for OSX.
posted by idiopath at 12:56 PM on March 11, 2010


Great documentary and great interviews. A guy at work handed this DVD to me 2 years ago when he learned I was just getting into Ubuntu. Favorited.
posted by will wait 4 tanjents at 1:28 PM on March 11, 2010


Because that's short for "works without requiring a profound knowledge of the inner workings of your machine and/or having to spend an shocking amount of time dicking around in a console window."

So then Ubuntu 9.1, which doesn't require a profounnd knowledge of the inner workings of my machine or which I haven't spent any time dicking around in a console window means it's ready for the masses?
posted by juiceCake at 2:46 PM on March 11, 2010


cmonkey: noticed I said "directly", that is fairly indirect, and likely uses at least 2 gnu programs to do its job (bash and gcc).

It was a joke.

just try using anything but gcc to compile the kernel, for starters

That's possible.

Anyway, I see where you're coming from, but the GNU project got a lot of mileage out of the Linux kernel in turn - it's not like GNU/Hurd was, or is, going anywhere, and GNU software runs on a hell of a lot more machines now than it would have had Linux not come along. "Linux" is used as shorthand for "all of the software that makes my Ubuntu/Fedora/SUSE/Debian/Arch/Mandriva/Gentoo/etc system work so well". If you want to talk about what a typical Linux user would recognize as a "Linux system" you'd be better off taking up a campaign to call it "KDE/Linux" or "GNOME/Linux" because I can tell you that not a whole lot of people would notice if you swapped GNU Bourne shell for the OpenBSD pdksh.

I don't think that users using that short hand does any disservice to the millions of programmers, myself included, whose software makes up the entire platform.
posted by cmonkey at 2:49 PM on March 11, 2010


cmonkey: "That's possible."

Wow, compiling the kernel with icc, color me surprised!

cmonkey: "you'd be better off taking up a campaign to call it "KDE/Linux" or "GNOME/Linux""

Gnome is an official part of GNU. The GNU folks noticed the popularity of KDE and the fact that QT was not GPL, and the goal with Gnome was to make an alternative for KDE that was not dependent on a non-free library (since then QT has become availible under the LGPL).
posted by idiopath at 3:04 PM on March 11, 2010


I use Emacs, bash, and GNU command-line tools all day. I'm a member of the FSF. I understand how much I depend on GNU software.

And I still can't be arsed to say "GNU/Linux" instead of just "Linux." I also don't say I'm an Ubuntu/Debian/X/Gnu/Linux user, though I am.
posted by Zed at 4:04 PM on March 11, 2010


The movie is also available on Netflix "instant" so if you're a member you can watch it right now....
posted by phliar at 5:31 PM on March 11, 2010


It features several interviews with prominent hackers ... including Richard Stallman, Michael Tiemann, Linus Torvalds, Larry Augustin, Bruce Perens, Frank Hecker, Brian Behlendorf, and — inexplicably — Eric S. Raymond.
ftfy.
posted by scruss at 6:01 PM on March 11, 2010


Make any complaint about desktop Linux that a normal user would make, and a simple google search will show that others have similar complaints about Windows or Mac.

I have been waiting for desktop Linux to properly support dual monitors for several years. Being pretty much a died-in-wool geek, I'm not sure how many normal users actually want this -- but Windows has done it since Windows 2000, and Macs have done it even longer (or so I've been told), so I can't be the only one.

Not long ago, I tried Ubuntu 9.10 at the urging of an enthusiast friend. I got the default nv driver to work after messing around in the display panel, but it would screw up again after every logout or reboot (the Apply button seemed not to be saving my changes, and a separate "save settings" mechanism was decidedly not present). I couldn't get the restricted nvidia driver to work across both monitors at all, despite messing around with every one of the (ridiculously arcane) settings and having a reasonably good idea what each of them meant.

I'm sure I could have eventually gotten it sorted by manually editing the xorg.conf file; I've done it before. But life's too short, particularly when I can just boot back into Windows 7 and resume using my computer to actually get shit done.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 7:13 PM on March 11, 2010


It features several interviews with prominent hackers ... including Richard Stallman, Michael Tiemann, Linus Torvalds, Larry Augustin, Bruce Perens, Frank Hecker, Brian Behlendorf, and — inexplicably — Eric S. Raymond.

ftfy.


Actually, under the terms of the GNU license for that text, I think you're totally not allowed to do that.
posted by hippybear at 7:59 PM on March 11, 2010


I borrowed it from Netflix years ago. It's good.
posted by neuron at 8:16 PM on March 11, 2010


The Linux desktop is here, right here and right now. If you have a machine that's Linux-friendly, and a lot of them are these days, you just install Ubuntu, and things just work. The UI can still be a little coarse, and you've got nightmare programs like The GIMP, but on the whole it's pleasant and easy to use, and extraordinarily powerful if you start digging under the hood.

I realized that Linux had really arrived when I installed the early 2008 Ubuntu on my laptop, as an experiment. It worked well, although I had sound issues for some time, until I got the mixer working properly. Overall, I didn't like it quite as well as XP, but the critical part was.... I was never annoyed enough by it to reinstall XP.

That was the moment I realized that Linux was really ready. It was no longer annoying enough to go through the pain of switching to the alternative. Things were occasionally a little ugly or laid out poorly, but on the whole everything worked well enough that the pain of switching far outweighed the native inconveniences. I realize that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it was the first time that I could look at a Linux distro, and think of it as sufficiently comparable to keep based purely on its own merits. No politics, no vision of what it could someday be. The actual product on my laptop was no longer inferior enough to be worth the pain of a reinstallation to escape. I didn't stay with Ubuntu because of politics, I stayed because I was too lazy to change.

The sheer size of that step forward is hard to explain. It hit me as an epiphany. That, for me, was the year of the Linux desktop. And it'll keep getting better. I'm reminded of an old saying, that carving an elephant is taking a block of stone, and removing everything that doesn't look like an elephant. In each iteration of the Linux desktop, they gradually remove the old crap that doesn't look like a modern operating system, and replace it with stuff that does. If they finally get the video and sound drivers all the way done, which is probably a year or more away, it'll be very hard to tell from any other modern OS, except for the price tag.
posted by Malor at 8:35 PM on March 11, 2010 [1 favorite]


In my experience, dual monitors have been really easy for in Ubuntu for a while now, at least with nvidia. Installed the nvidia driver and the nvidia-settings packages; ran nvidia-xconfig to write an xorg.conf for you; ran nvidia-settings, a GUI that recognized both monitors and configured which one was on the left and such. No manual xorg.conf editing involved. (My last attempt to use Radeon drivers ended in tears, and plugging in an nvidia card, though.)
posted by Zed at 9:00 PM on March 11, 2010


hippybear: IANAL, but none of the text was declared an invariant section, was it?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:05 PM on March 11, 2010


I was about to ask why they interviewed Eric S. Raymond, but then I noticed it was from 2001. That's about the time when he was closest to actually being relevant. He faded into the background after that, luckily, only emerging to rave about liberals, Arab terrists, homosexuals, and whatever else, but not many people pay attention to him any more.

Which is good, since, as anyone who read his essay about how he accidentally became a living incarnation of the god Pan when he was in college* can tell, the man's a complete and utter lunatic, as well as a despicable human being.

* This essay actually exists
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:15 PM on March 11, 2010


Zed, I used only GUI components: first the display settings panel for the default driver, then the graphical package manager to install the nvidia driver (which must have installed nvidia-settings as a dependency), then the nvidia settings panel for the restricted driver.

The steps you suggest may well have worked, and had I known about them at the time, I would have tried them. But that's beside the point if we're talking about whether "desktop Linux is here" for the normal user.

Normal users don't want to deal with stuff like "run nvidia-xconfig." Most of them don't know how, and it's not the least bit discoverable. If the GUI isn't doing all of that behind the scenes, something is wrong. The normal user expects to get a fully working system without having to open a command prompt. To be sure, that's the experience a lot of people have had with Ubuntu, and I'm genuinely happy for them.

Admittedly, most people don't run more than one display, but I don't think it's that uncommon -- people's multi-monitor setups are featured on Lifehacker frequently, for example (and ironically, one would expect the percentage to be much higher among a geeky crowd like Linux users). Again, Linux's two main competitors have done this without making users jump through hoops for about ten years now.

Until the remaining rough edges are truly smoothed off for all users who aren't trying to do something really unusual, desktop Linux will not be "here," and its adoption rate will continue to fall short of its advocates' hopes. And as usual, blame will be assigned to Microsoft, to selfish hardware vendors who won't share drivers/specs, and so on and so forth, even though the problem I've described here is completely solvable by Ubuntu's developers (in the case of the open driver) or Nvidia's Linux developers (in the case of the restricted driver).
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 11:53 PM on March 11, 2010


> Linux's two main competitors have done this without making users jump through hoops for about ten years now

Uh ... no.

I'm running XP on a docked notebook into two monitors. If I have the audacity to undock the machine, it insists on requiring me to start up the machine on the internal screen (awkward, as I keep it behind my monitors) then select the external monitors as displays. And of course, once I have the external displays working, if I shut the laptop, it goes to sleep, ... of course.

A previous windows machine would similarly forget its docked external monitor setup if undocked. Those are hoops.

In order to work around some limitations, I have a five year old ThinkPad running Ubuntu on the same desk. I start up both machines at the same time, and I can read two e-mail accounts and a good chunk of my daily RSS feeds before the XP machine has finished loading the desktop.
posted by scruss at 5:50 AM on March 12, 2010


That's interesting, scruss. I've never had that kind of problem with Windows, but I've never used a dock for my laptops. It sounds really annoying.

I concede that my statement was overly broad. However, in the case of a desktop computer with multiple monitors, I do have experience with several configurations in Windows 2000 and up, and I've never had a problem that wasn't easily solved from the display settings panel. No command prompt or googling for undiscoverable solutions needed. I maintain that the Linux experience I described above would be unacceptable to the vast majority of "normal users."

I should be clear that I'm not at all anti-Linux. I think the computing ecosystem would be much better off if Microsoft had some real competition in the PC desktop space (a lot of users simply won't switch to Macs, for various reasons).

But every year or two I try out Linux to see if the Year of the Linux Desktop has arrived, and each time I conclude that Linux adoption rates won't be much different from the year before. They're always so close, but they never get that last 5% of the way to a really seamless, polished experience (I haven't mentioned a number of other minor fit-and-finish issues I noticed during my short Ubuntu trial). This year is no different. Time will tell, and if I'm wrong, I'll happily own up to it.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 7:28 AM on March 12, 2010


Many of the users I support feel very annoyed when they have to have more profound knowledge of the inner workings of their Windows systems than they want to have. After years of this, I still feel a sudden burst of surprise/confusion/sadness whenever it comes up.
posted by wobh at 7:58 AM on March 12, 2010


[user was fined for this post]: "No command prompt or googling for undiscoverable solutions needed."

actually one of the things I like about Linux is the ability to take care of just about everything from the command line or by editing a file: you can't copy and paste a configuration widget or a setup wizard from an email or a web page,.
posted by idiopath at 8:09 AM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've set up dual monitors in Windows XP. Incredibly, I wasn't born knowing how -- I had to look that up, too.

I won't swear that running nvidia-xconfig is necessary for people who've installed regular Ubuntu -- I don't use the ubuntu-desktop metapackage, or Gnome, or a GUI-centered environment, so I only know how easy it is to do starting from the command-line.
posted by Zed at 8:52 AM on March 12, 2010


Zed: sarcasm aside, if our Normal User is someone who's never touched a computer before then I completely agree -- neither method is inherently better or easier. But when we talk about Linux adoption, the people we're discussing are nearly all Windows users (and to a lesser extent, Mac users).

The average Windows user knows about the Control Panel. When Normal User decides to plug in a second monitor for the very first time and the screen doesn't spring to life of its own accord, Normal User knows that the solution will probably be found in the Control Panel. So they go poke around until they find the Display panel, and sure enough: under Settings, there's a little picture of two monitors next to each other, and one is grayed out. When they click the grayed-out screen, it's quite obvious how to enable it and position it relative to the other.

In other words, it's discoverable. Unless you were brand-new to Windows when you set up dual monitors in XP, you could have discovered it too. You chose to look it up instead, which is fine, but it doesn't mean that Normal User would have been unable to discover it on their own.

idiopath: I totally get that. My first distro (more than ten years ago) was Slackware, and I remember having to edit three separate config files to get my dial-up modem working, among other adventures. I did Gentoo and learned a lot from it. I appreciate the power and flexibility of a system that lets you do everything from setting up a web server to playing mp3s from a humble command line.

But. If we're talking about the Normal User experience and how it relates to Linux adoption rates, it has to be acknowledged that 99% of the people who come from a Windows world simply aren't going to do that stuff. A GUI is powerful/flexible enough for them. They're not willing to invest the level of effort to learn a CLI when that's not a requirement of the operating system they're already accustomed to.

Maybe I'm the only one here who's trying to have the Normal User conversation (which is fine, but I didn't start it). If so, I'm as happy to geek out over Linux as the next person. But saying "You weren't born knowing how to use Windows either" or talking about the capabilities of the CLI are very old arguments in the Linux world, and they've rarely convinced anyone who wasn't already pretty high on the geek scale to give Linux a chance.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 9:45 AM on March 12, 2010


Your normal user has a hell of a lot more ambition, initiative, and imagination than I've seen apply in the real world, where it'd be a minor miracle if one even looked at the control panel before calling tech support. For normal users, I hear things like we need to put the link higher on the web page so we don't have to hold a training to teach people to scroll down (really.)

I didn't start the normal user conversation either. I don't challenge your points that for general adoption, discoverability and not needing the command-line are good things. But, with no sarcasm, before I gave up on it, I spent a hell of a lot of time trying to look up how to do the things I wanted to do in Windows XP. I was generally more frustrated than I am trying to look up things in Linux, due to Windows' black-box nature. And some of the solutions ended with me at Windows' command-line.

I would challenge the premise that modern Ubuntu is so far behind XP (the last version of Windows I have any experience with) for general usability. Provided you have hardware with good Linux compatibility (an important qualifier) and are not a gamer or dependent upon some specific piece of software not available, then Ubuntu or another modern Linux distro aimed at the general user will probably suit you fine. My wife isn't the command-line enthusiast I am, and she's been happy with her Ubuntu installation. She uses OpenOffice instead of Word, and GNU Cash instead of Quickbooks; she was already a Firefox user. The only time there's a problem is when some perverse website has gone out of its way to screw non-IE users.
posted by Zed at 10:15 AM on March 12, 2010


Zed, fair enough. My Windows experience certainly hasn't been frustration-free. And admittedly I'm hung up on the hardware problems, which has kept me from exploring some of the potentially positive sides of desktop Linux. I agree with your conclusion that anyone whose computer usage falls within those (significant) qualifiers would probably be satisfied with the current desktop Linux experience.

I do think the hardware situation is getting better. Not so long ago, for example, if you wanted to use 802.11 with Linux you had to research each wireless card to the point of figuring out which revision of which chipset it had before you could tell if a driver existed for it. I understand that that situation is much improved now, which makes me hopeful.

But the overall process of getting to a consistent just-works experience is taking longer than I'd like, and I've fallen prey to too many "This time we got it right!" announcements to be highly optimistic. Nevertheless, I realize that my level of negativity may be excessive, and I'm sorry for using it to steer the conversation further away from the video (which, if nothing else, is a fascinating and worthwhile historical document).
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 10:54 AM on March 12, 2010


I ♥ Linux.


~> uptime
13:47:19 up 515 days, 1:54, 37 users, load average: 0.00, 0.07, 0.09

This is not a server, it is a quad-core development machine with dual 24" monitors, 8 fully loaded virtual desktops with 30+ terminals and ~100 gvim instances at any given time.

(I also ♥ having two really big UPSes daisy-chained)
posted by SpookyFish at 1:42 PM on March 12, 2010


but Android is totally open source.
False.
True. If you're going to be so flippant, you should also be correct.
Your citation is broke, but I don't believe that. I'd believe Android is 15 percent of the smartphone market, which is far smaller than the mobile market at large.
Mobile browser market, I should have said. here's the corrected link
I concede that my statement was overly broad. However, in the case of a desktop computer with multiple monitors, I do have experience with several configurations in Windows 2000 and up, and I've never had a problem that wasn't easily solved from the display settings panel. No command prompt or googling for undiscoverable solutions needed. I maintain that the Linux experience I described above would be unacceptable to the vast majority of "normal users."
What percentage of "Normal users" have multiple monitors?
For normal users, I hear things like we need to put the link higher on the web page so we don't have to hold a training to teach people to scroll down (really.)
Normal users might not scroll down because they don't care, so it's a good idea to put things "above the fold", but it's not because they're stupid. Usability testing showed people didn't know how to scroll in the early 90s, but they've since figured it out.
posted by delmoi at 11:08 PM on March 13, 2010


delmoi: "it's a good idea to put things "above the fold", but it's not because they're stupid"

What gets me is web sites that explicitly reference the fold. My screen is taller than 768 pixels on my main machine, and shorter on the other, and so in both cases "the fold" makes no sense - for the longest time I thought they were referring to some feature of their content manager software that was not working or did not display in my browser. And don't even get me started again about the sites that are all like "well you need your browser to be exactly 1024 pixels wide to optimally view our site, so lets add javascript that makes the browser go full screen".
posted by idiopath at 11:45 AM on March 14, 2010


The context I was talking about was web apps for workplace internal use where, theoretically, people's interest in doing their jobs would make them care enough to scroll down. (And I, personally, find it incredible that anyone is really that stupid, but there have been cases, in past workplaces, in which I've failed to convince colleagues of that.)

And what idiopath said, a zillion times over -- a pox upon website design that makes highly specific assumptions about your screen. And websites that require cookies to be allowed when you're just browsing and session maintenance is irrelevant, or gratuitously fail entirely when javascript is off, or... oh, am I being a crank again?
posted by Zed at 10:23 AM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


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