The State of Operating Systems: Sad

I've used MacOS, Windows, Solaris, FreeBSD and Linux. For the last ten years, I've been in search of the perfect computer operating system. While I'm a software programmer and an amateur geek, I also use my computer to send email, browse the web, view movies and sounds and images. Ultimately, I believe a computer should be like a modern car: it runs reliabley and well for long periods of time as long as regular service is performed. Well, the difference being that your computer should require much less service than any car. Crackers are always learning new exploits, and so the programs on your system are subject to security fixes, and that's fine. A computer with an automated method of updating itself should be utterly, perfectly reliable.

Windows has never been reliable. It is by far the weakest operating system from the list above. It is chaotic and crash-prone. It requires a few hundred dollars every couple of years to keep updated with the latest less buggy software. And even then, you're likely to have to re-learn how to use your computer as they move menus and icons around and rework how you interact with your computer.

Apple has been hailed as the "friendly computer". I haven't used a Mac for about 8 years, but from what I've seen, until Mac OSX, Apple's OS was far less reliable than Microsoft's, and when it failed, you got nothing more than a frown faced computer (as though that's going to help you fix it). Apple got smart and trashed their own crap OS and replaced it with FreeBSD. They slapped a few icons in there and charged lots of money for it, and I hear folks are pretty happy with it. But that OS is pretty new, and I'm wary of FreeBSD with pretty icons as I find FreeBSD pretty difficult to use, and I'm not willing to pay $200 for icons.

Solaris... It's reputation for stability is well earned. It can run forever, much as a rock can roll downward indefinitely. But like that rock, Solaris is about as friendly and as useable. With Solaris, you had to pay through the nose for applications that made the OS useable. But this is not pertinant as Sun is about to give up on its Solaris in favor of Linux.

Linux: The Subject

I've been excited about Linux since about 1996. That was after Red Hat had come into the Linux picture and started packaging the Linux kernel with some GNU utilities and selling it as an alternative OS. And I bought Red Hat 5.2 and tried to install it. And I eventually gave up and went back to my Windows box. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Linux is not an operating system. It is a "kernel". A kernel is the brain of your computer. While your computer's memoryand CPU and video card and sound card and other bits of hardware are "vital organs", the kernel is the brain that controls all of that.

So picture yourself with a heart and a kidney and 2 lungs and some other organs (the hardware) and slap on a brain (kernel). You'd be a fully alive being. You wouldn't be able to do much, but you'd be alive.

But my guess is that you'd like some ears and maybe a couple eyes and some arms and fingers and a nose and legs and feet and toes. Mabye a mouth and a tongue while we're at it. And with those items, you could get up and walk and do things. Eat and smell and talk and interact.

Likewise, Linux needs tools. email reader, web browser, document editor, sound player, movie viewer, etc... Linux alone is not of much use to anyone but true geeks. Without these various tools, you'd have little more than a vegetative computer.

And this is where the problem with Linux starts. The Linux kernel is a rock-solid, feature rich, small-footprint piece of software. Linus Torvalds has done an exemplary job heading this project. The progress Linus and Linux have made in the last ten years should put Microsoft and Apple and Sun to shame.

But the current state of Linux Operating Systems should put the rest of the "Linux Community" to shame.

To this day, there is not a single, stable, reliable, useable Linux Operating System that can be purchased by Moms and Grandpas across the country. While our community fights and flounders, those we preach the benifits of Linux to still stare at us cross-eyed.

There's still not a distribution of Linux that I'd be comfortable recommending to those in my family who barely know how to turn on a computer. I have recently been exploring Xandros, and this may be the leader in the race to provide a useable Linux OS. But I haven't spent enough time using this OS to feel confident recommending it to my family.

The problem with Linux (OS) is the the source of all its power: openness. Anyone can modify Linux. Anyone can take it and make an OS out of it. Anyone can solve the problem of web browser, email reader, document editor, spreadsheet, movie viewer, image editor and all the rest of the tools that make up a solid operating system. And the problem is that Everyone does make up these tools.

KDE and GNOME are at the forefront of this battle. These two pieces of software are called "desktop environments". They determine how your desktop appears, how you interact with your desktop, and also provide a framework for other tools so that they can "integrate" with the given
environment and appear homogenous.  The problem comes in to play when you have these various entities fighting for control over your environment. In Windows, you can go to the "printers" control panel and set up printer preferences. With the various Linux OSs, you have contol
of printers distributed among one or more of many entities. And these various entities fight with each other for control. So why you may navigate the menus and set up your printer preferences, you may not end up with the results  you expected. I've found this particularly
true with sound, keyboard, video,  and printing. I configure my environment and something else over-rides it. That's bad.

As unreliable and generally unuseable as Windows is, I know where to go to configure printer settings. As ugly as Windows is, I know that when I click on a .mpg file, An appropriate player will open and play that file to me. As crash-prone as windows is, I know that when I click on
an audio file, the appropriate media player will open and play that file (assumming it doesn't crash). In Linux, instead, I look forward to debugging the display or the soundcard or the printer. I need to unload kernel modules to free up the sound or video card. I have to do any
number of actions that are far beyond the ability of the average computer user, and that's not right.

I love Linux. I love all the free and stable software out there. I use it daily. I also work around it and debug it and reconfigure to enable it. I yearn for the day when I can give my mom a Linux CD and say, "just stick it in your computer".