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What was that sound?

September 9, 1998
by Zac Belado

As you may know there has been quite a lot of Linux-doings going on here at the Hacienda. Lately though this has come to a crashing halt as webBaby (the machine that used to be running Linux) was converted over to running Windows NT last weekend.

This wasn't something I did on a whim but the realities of working with Linux and my own demands came to a dramatic conflict and I was, over my own desires, forced to turn webBaby into an NT server.

There were two main reasons for this.

A minor reason was that I needed a machine that could act as a Cold Fusion server while I tested some systems I am designing for the Director Online. While it is certainly possible to run the Cold Fusion server on my existing Win95 box I found that it caused far too many problems. Not the least of which was the speed degradation that the server caused.

A secondary problem is that I gave my Win 95 box a name that causes Win 95 some difficulties. It seems that adding a space to the name is perfectly acceptable at a system level but makes it rather difficult to access any web servers you have running on your PC. "localhost" works fine. "http://127.0.0.1" works fine but using the name of my machine causes Win95 to spit hairballs. All because of a simple space.

This brings us to another one of my problems; Microsoft's PWS (Personal Web Sharing). I have a copy of Apple's personal web server running on my Mac. I occasionally use it when I want to test shockwave movies and don't want to have to go through the hassle of FTPing a new file every few minutes as I make frequent fixes. Microsoft's PWS seems to be written entirely for the express purpose of antagonizing you so much that you install IIS to get away from PWS. Where Apple's effort is basically a small-scale web server with all the usual features you'd expect to find any other typical server Microsoft's PWS is simply a waste of time. Something as simple as adding new MIME types is apparently too much for the app. There is, apparently, no way to do it. I assume that there must be Registry settings to add new MIME types but that just begs the question of why something as simple as a set of MIME types needs to be stored in the Registry at all.

So any developer is forced, by default, to find a machine to run IIS on if they want to do anything other than simply serving HTML files. And IIS, of course, means NT.

This is an entirely secondary complaint as the main "nail in the coffin" for my Linux installation was my total inability to get it to do the simplest things.

Part of this is Linux's problem and part of this is my own. I am very much a creature of the GUI (sounds like a bad B-movie title) primarily because of my dyslexia. Text confuses me and a system that relies almost entirely on text files for its configuration is going to be just that much harder for me to use.

But then again Linux really shouldn't have all those damn text files in the first place.

How many ways can you spell .conf?

There is a lot of talk in the Linux community about moving Linux to people's desktops and after my own one month experiment with Linux I can, without fear of rebuke, say that this won't happen with the current crop of Linux installations. This isn't to say that Linux shouldn't be on a typical user's machine; just that it won't.

The first thing that anyone wants to do with their machine is customise it. This is one area where Linux prevails and fails at the same time. I have seen desktop configurations using AfterStep and other window managers under Linux that literally took my breath away. But the steps to replicate them were daunting. It almost seems as if every desktop option has its own configuration file.

AfterStep is somewhat simpler to use due to the control panel produced for it that allows you to do some limited customization through a GUI. Unfortunately this is the exception and it will have to become the rule before more people begin to adopt Linux as a desktop operating system.

Whatever you might think about Windows 95, it is much simpler for a person to configure something like an ethernet card on a Win95 PC than it is on a similar machine running under Linux. My current Win95 box has two TCP-IP streams running with different IP configurations and different bindings. I'm still not sure if the ethernet card on my Linux box ever worked. The same issues that surround the customisation of the desktop environment in Linux also apply to configuration of the entire system.

I am certain that some people will make an argument stating that the power of Linux comes at a price. I think that this is an elitist attitude and it will have to be overcome. I have been using various computer systems (mainframes and desktops) for close to 20 years now. I am far more comfortable with computers than the typical computer user is and I don't want to be bothered with the level of detail that a Linux system has.

The one trend in computer and OS design that I have found most satisfying has been the abstraction of the computer's underlying systems.

I want to use my computers to produce work and not spend my days reading manuals to find out how to keep the desktop colour the same dark blue. I want to plug in an ethernet card and have it work and not have to spend two days getting it to run. I left that type of difficulty behind when I stopped using DOS and I see little reason to go back to it. At least not if the power I get from that furball of .conf files is not in some happy proportion to the power I get back from the OS.

Linux misses that mark. But not by much.

Not that NT is really any better. But then that was never the point. Where Linux suffers from an over-abundance of text configuration files, NT suffers from haphazard development of its tools and, more importantly, its UI. No one said Linux was easy to use and configure so I hardly hold it against the OS when this turns out to be the case. NT though is supposed to be easy. One of the marketing points Microsoft uses against Linux is the supposed ease of use that makes NT a clear choice.

Rubbish.

NT is just difficult to use in different ways and the basic dishonesty in its marketing makes that even more unbearable. But it doesn't change the fact that I now have NT on the system that used to run Linux. And it doesn't change the fact that I was able to get NT running and co-existing with my Mac and Win 95 boxes.

How good is an OS if you can't get it to run?

What I am looking forward to though (and as I have pointed out before) is the eventual release of OS X Server and the hybridization of BSD Unix and the Mac OS. Everything I have seen and read has made me think that Apple has an exceptional product on their hands that will do more to bring Unix to a broader base of users than Linux will.

This is the goal that Linux should work towards. Not NT.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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