Does your computer belong in the office, living room, or basement?

You have just acquired a new computer, and as is the case with any major household acquisition, you are faced with the most difficult decision of the whole acquisition process: Where do you put it? Assuming you have not fallen victim to your partner's lobbying of the form, "Take it back! We can't afford it!", this essay presumes to tell you where you can put your computer.

There are many places where your new computer might or might not fit. Although the details are none of my business, I invite you to consider whether your computer fits most appropriately in the office, living room or basement. Having limited the scope of inquiry to these three areas, how convenient it is to find that there are three computing platforms that seem to me obviously appropriate to each:

Platform Location
Windows Office
Apple Living Room
Linux Basement

Is it really that simple? Is it really that obvious? Yes.

Windows belongs in the office, because like most office equipment and processes, it works most of the time if you stick to ordinary kinds of use, and don't push it to the limits of its advertised capabilities. Think about the evolution of the office copier for further insight: The only office copiers that behave themselves are the ones that have been around for a while, or those entrusted to experienced "Key Operators". Consider the telephone at the office: In the fullness of time, the instrument itself has become rock solid, as long as you stay away from fancy features like voice mail or call transfer. Thinking about the telephone helps clarify my point about business processes. Even with a 100% reliable phone, is your memory for calls received, and calls returned a 100% reliable business process? So too with Windows.

Contrast what you put up with in your office to what you will will not stand for in your living room:

At the office, if your email goes out, yea, you're upset, but you go for coffee, and you don't much worry about it. The IT guys eventually get it working again, and you recommence hitting the d key to move the spam out of the way of your work.

But at home, if your cable box goes out, you're on the phone ready to kill somebody.

Apple with Mac OS belongs in the living room. It has style and taste. It fits right in with your TV, cable box, and VCR. For the most part it just keeps on working, and when it wears out, you buy a new one that pretty much picks up where the old one left off. Perhaps it is most similar to your VCR, alas. Like your VCR it is complex and programmable. Unlike your VCR, the designers at Apple paid attention to ease of use, and built something that properly puts the functions where you need them, and hides the ones you don't need.

In fact, Windows seems to exemplify all the worst aspects of your VCR: Every time you turn around, there's something you thought was just fine, but seems to have been mis-programmed. You can't help thinking that it's somehow your fault, until you gain enough experience with enough competing products to realize, that it's not you, it's bad design!

Forgive a digression from me in the position of MIT-educated computer engineer. As a card carrying member of the Software Priesthood, I'm legitimately viewable as "part of the problem". Recognizing that this is a matter of religion, I'll try to inflict my dogma on you with a little bit of style:

I marvel at how the biggest market segment of computing purchasers and users fails to notice how Windows systems break down all the time, but that Macintosh systems do not. At the office today, I heard that it is now common for a Windows system placed newly on the net to get infected with a virus in under a minute. Why is it that only computer engineers seem aware that Linux boxes take more like an hour to get infected, and that Mac's, for the most part don't catch viruses.

I've always believed that Microsoft Windows took over market share in the early years because prospective customers tried both systems, and struggled with the first half hour it takes to learn the basics of point and click. Concluding that Mac OS and Windows were just as difficult to learn in that first half hour, they bought the one that cost half as much. Unfortunately, the value of Mac OS only comes clear after that first half hour. With Windows, you keep on learning new special cases and commands and complexity. The carefully designed Mac interface lets you re-use what you learned in that first half hour.

A friend suggested to me that, in fact, no comparison was made, that customers just bought the cheapest thing they could find, assuming along the way that computer systems all were pretty much the same. I can't believe people would be so foolish with their hard earned dollars that they would make a multi-hundred, perhaps multi-thousand dollar purchase without at least a test drive of the major leading brands. After all, McDonald's and the Ritz have different price/performance profiles, and so do BMW's and Yugos. Surely people would make as careful a choice of their computer as of their car or their restaurant.

Then again, some people are content to eat, drive, and spend hours toiling away with poorly designed software for no better reason than their friend, who they assume knows best, has bought into the same thing.

As an engineer, I find it anathema that people sacrifice so much for a lower initial purchase price.

Question: Would you buy a telephone that let anybody who called you program your telephone to make obscene phone calls to everyone in your private address book, on your nickel? When you run Microsoft Outlook, you did just that! Mail on Linux and Mac OS simply don't behave that way! How come only computer engineers understand this?

My message to the main stream from the ivory tower is this: The reason why you don't hear a lot of people complaining about viruses, or buggy updates updates disabling their Macintosh's isn't because there are so few Mac users out there. It's because the Mac software is better architected, and more carefully updated!

Steve Jobs never understood why people failed to see the value of his higher priced computers. Although I've shared my theory of "the first half hour", I don't really understand it either. Steve and Apple have made the right choice, focusing on multi-media -- sound and vision, and simple, robust approaches to empowering people to use the computer in their living room.

People know the difference between a Yugo and a BMW. There is no talk of an expectation that all the world's fine restaurants will close because everyone will standardize on McDonald's. Yet people keep buying Microsoft Windows. I just don't get it.

Perhaps it's due to a shift in how people evaluate technology these days. Let's compare pop-up toasters and cell phones as two classes of emerging technologies at different periods in history: Before there were pop-up toasters, there were toast racks. For those of you not familiar with toaster history, or who have not seen BBC documentaries on the use of public school fourth formers as toast racks: A toast rack was a device for holding bread in front of a heat source such as a fire to make toast. It was a pain. You had to pay attention or your bread came out burnt black. Pop-up toasters did not catch on until the mainstream consumer actually had the strong belief that the toast would consistently come up at its appointed color. When was the last time you Mr. or Ms. Cell-phone-owner placed a call you were satisfied with? Last week I had to call my mother back to say good bye in the aftermath of yet another cell service dropout.

That the computer market is dominated by a crappy product with a low purchase price tag and high maintenance costs bugs me. It bugs me a whole lot! Sharing with you my opinions, all right, my dogma, on this matter has given me a pleasant feeling of righteous indignation. Thank you for reading this far.

I now attempt descend from my Software Priesthood bully-pulpit to finish saying what I set out to say, and to tell you why Linux belongs in the basement.

Linux computing belongs in the basement with the things that are ugly, dusty, poorly maintained, or those things that one tinkers with as an obsession, er I mean hobby.

When Linux first came out, I embraced it because I thought it was the way to get UNIX computing at home.

During my college years, I'd come to really like UNIX. Non-engineers often fail to understand how a person could like a computer operating system except out of some historical or emotional habit. Emotional and historical aspects drive all human endeavors. But engineering is not about being human. Engineering is about whether something works, and whether it strikes the right balance between purity and pragmatism. As an engineer, I develop a like, nay an attachment to some tool or technology if I can see lots to do with it. There is an engineering aesthetic. I see beauty in being able to put something simple to many uses. With this aesthetic, for example, find myself preferring spartan word processing tools to the feature-filled ones.

Another example: During one epoch of the recurring "toolkit wars", a package called Motif achieved greater acceptance than my favored toolkit, called Andrew. Andrew offered a whole word processor with less code and complexity than the Motif basic widget library set. I bitterly complained that it was wrong to favor a toolkit with so much superfluous complexity, still being debugged to a system that actually had enough code for customers to use getting real work done. In the generation of toolkit wars that followed, people abandoned the UNIX toolkits saying they were "too complex" but embrace the far more complex Microsoft ones.

At any rate, I acquired a strong preference for the UNIX platform, I did so in preference to the more conceptually pure IBM, and DEC VMS platforms. I appreciate how, like Windows, UNIX was an architecture riddled with ugly compromises compared to its peers. Some of my continued preference for UNIX, I'm sure comes from long, comfortable familiarity -- a historical habit of mind in spite of myself. However, I assert that I like UNIX because it made a pragmatic balance between clean architecture, and getting the job done. I respect Microsoft for managing to cram so many extra lines of code and features into a less robust architecture, but I still prefer the balance struck by UNIX.

Ah. I seem to have re-ascended to the pulpit and still not said why I believe Linux belongs in the basement. It has to do with my having renounced my former status as a UNIX True Believer.

Linux began as a way to take favored UNIX on a platform home. I was going to get my desired balance of purity and pragmatism inexpensively as my personal computing platform. But as they said in the sequel to Jurassic Park, "It all starts with the ooh'ing and ahhh'ing but then..."


I have grown sick to death of tinkering!

Through several years of new versions on new and different PC platforms, I learned the lore of making things work again across upgrades.

And thereby the problem emerged: Linux always requires tinkering.

My Windows and Mac laptops come with working sound, screen-blank, suspend, and wireless network. With Linux, these functions were hard fought battles with new hardware, new code, and old political intrigues. With every update something previously working would break, and need tinkering. Sometimes fetching a piece here or there from some far corner of the net. Sometimes requiring my writing several emails to get the developers to believe my bug, and sometimes the fix I included, was real.

Mind you, I find it preferable to be able to fix things rather than just returning the thing and living without. For several years, I hoped that things would settle down, and that my efforts in the various bug battles would not have been wasted.

Unfortunately, the subset of the old UNIX community that has grown into the present Linux community is obsessed with many factions all coding what they believe will be the part that takes over the whole. In practice this means that in cycle after cycle, just before stuff gets debugged well enough to be truly stable and useful, another version with "new and improved" insides comes, with all new bugs. And the bug battles begin anew.

Then a funny thing happened. A Macintosh arrived that was UNIX inside. The battles over which part would dominate were sufficiently hidden that the platform shipped fully working. Well, no computer is ever fully working. But what I received worked better than anything I'd ever held in my hand. Yes, I reported bugs, but the developers actually stayed ahead of me. Instead of battles, there was forward progress.

For years now, I've been sick to death of tinkering, but considered it inevitable. Well it stops now. PC's I built from parts acquired at the Swap Fest are getting shut down and given away. Computers in my basement, and in my office are being replaced with this system I keep in my living room.

So really this paper isn't about where you can put your computer. It's one of those terrible, too-much-information stories from someone you don't know how to make shut up telling you of their great journey of personal discovery, and how you should go and do what they just did.

I've been disingenuous. As an engineer, I should be ashamed of myself, yet I feel somehow peaceful and satisfied. Perhaps the Macintosh has Buddha nature.

Last updated: $Date: 2003/10/04 15:33:00 $ GMT by $Author: wdc $.

©1999-2002 ALL rights reserved
by Bill Cattey
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