Human compatibility -- we could be on to something

My erudite and knowledgeable friend Rob has been installing Linux desktops recently, and said he had surprisingly good results - up to a certain point.

My erudite and knowledgeable friend Rob has been installing Linux desktops recently, and said he had surprisingly good results – up to a certain point.

The installations were for organisations that have greater need than others to keep the money at its core business rather investing in expensive IT gear and software licences, namely schools and charities.

It was a matter of obtaining yesteryear's corporate desktop for very little and make it useable again. Windows licences would have cost several times more than what the hardware is worth. On top of that, there would be the cost of applications, so Windows just wasn't a viable option.

Macintosh got crossed off at an even earlier stage, thanks to Apple's tight control over hardware which means that there are no commodity producers of cheap Cupertino-style computers.

Rob says you can get find some pretty good PC stuff relegated to the dumpster as “worn out”. What this means is that Windows has started misbehaving, which makes people think it's the hardware that's clapped out. According to Rob, the hardware is usually fine (if dirty) but Windows has accumulated lots of badly written software over the years, runs on a fragmented drive and thus is slow to boot and use. So new hardware is bought to keep users happy and productive bunnies.

Despite misgivings based on past experience with various desktop environments for different Linux distributions, Rob, a seasoned IT pro, took Sun's Java Desktop System (JDS) for a spin. You read more about it here. The first thing to note about JDS is that it's not actually a Java OS, but modified GNOME desktop running on top of a Linux distribution. It does come with Java 2, however.

You also get StarOffice 7 for office productivity, plus Evolution for email, calendaring, scheduling, and contact management. Mozilla is the internet web browser, and you get just about all the little applets like music players, text editors and image viewer that Windows comes with. Most importantly, it would run on the target x86 hardware, unlike current versions of Windows.

The evaluation was going well until Rob wanted to upgrade Mozilla to a newer version. That's when “the wheels fell off”, however. Just like any other Linux distribution, JDS suffers from the mixed blessing/curse of software that requires certain versions of the various standard libraries (like the GNU C ones) to work.

The standard libraries receive bug fixes and enhancements at a rapid rate, which is a good thing. Where it becomes a bad thing is when migrants from the Windows world run into a quagmire of arcane dependency issues. If they upgrade, for instance, the standard libraries or their desktop environment to newer versions, older software already installed might break.

I thought Rob's comments were very illuminating because he'd gone the extra mile of putting himself into the seat of a non-experienced user. It also made me realise that I had forgotten about the whole thing, as I just tend to bite the bullet and upgrade whatever's needed – sometimes even the entire distribution. It really shouldn't be necessary to do this.

Ironically, Rob found that the software that caused the least pain in this respect was the Codeweaver Crossover Windows API emulator. It doesn’t use the shared standard libraries for anything, and uses TCL to draw the GUI. This, says Rob, was the standard and bad practice for commercial Unixes some 15 years ago. But, it works, and lets ordinary users install software in a “human compatible manner”. Rob could be onto something there.

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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