Tough love: Linux needs more haters

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not those of Google, Inc. my current employer.]

I've been spending far too much time reading a blog recently. Normally I dislike reading blogs, or as my friend from the IT News site "the Register" Andrew Orlowski calls them; "Wikki W**kers". They are usually rather vacuous and the pressure to write something, anything, to attract attention means there is very little worth reading. Note to potentially irate readers who level the same accusation at me, this is a column, not a blog (that's my story and I'm sticking to it). Mainly because I don't write often enough to qualify as a blogger.

However, the LinuxHaters blog is rather different:

Yes, it's definitely a blog in that it's published far too often to be worth reading every day, but it has a wonderful sense of humor and an acerbic eye for detail. It's based on the idea from an old book, now available for free online, "the UNIX Haters Handbook":

As you might imagine, "the UNIX Haters Handbook" is a list of reasons to dislike UNIX.  Concomitantly, the LinuxHaters blog does the same for Linux.

Reading the LinuxHaters blog is a wonderful way to waste an afternoon. The premise behind it is that Linux is so awful that the blogger must rant about a particular problem they have had with the operating system, and describe it in great detail at least once per day. Every reply is labeled a "flame", and the people responding don't seem to know (or maybe they just don't care) that the whole blog itself is a way to goad fanatical Linux supporters into attacking the author. Usually they complain that the author just "doesn't get it" as to why Linux really does work well in this particular case. I must confess I enjoy reading the replies sometimes more than the blog posts themselves. Even my office-mate here at Google who really should know better couldn't help himself from responding in the comments to a particularly accurate and sharp post on the inadequacies of the Linux Standard Base project.

The reasons that these screeds of hate work so well is that the author really knows what they're talking about. He or she is extremely knowledgeable and able to go into the details of every problem, sometimes as far as analyzing the underlying code and pointing out the problems (thank goodness for Free Software). They're right of course. Some of their complaints are amazingly well written, detailed, and are undoubtedly correct in pointing out flaws in a Linux distribution.

However, I would venture to say that the reason the author spends so much time writing about their frustrations with these systems is that underneath all the invective, they really love both UNIX and Linux.

As Elie Wiesel said, "the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference". LinuxHater really doesn't hate Linux, despite the name. No one takes that much time to point out flaws in a product that they completely loathe and despise. The complaints are really cries of frustration with a system that just doesn't quite do what is desired (albeit well disguised). A friend pointed out to me that the best way to parse LinuxHaters blog is to treat it as a series of bug reports. A perl script could probably parse out the useful information from them and log them as technical bug reports to the projects LinuxHater is writing about. Deep down, I believe LinuxHater really loves Linux, and wants it to succeed.

This week, LinuxHater is spending all his or her efforts complaining about KDE, the "K-Desktop Environment", one of the two most popular desktop environments running on the Linux kernel. This is like shooting fish in a barrel for such an accomplished bug-reporter as LinuxHater. Of course it's brought out all the staunch KDE defenders, who try and refute all the points LinuxHater is making, but they're missing the point. LinuxHater is giving feedback on the usability of KDE. Technically, KDE, like most Linux software, is excellent. The usability is what needs work. I personally use the other popular Linux desktop environment, Gnome. I can't wait for LinuxHater to get his or her teeth stuck into criticizing Gnome; it will help make my desktop nicer and easier to use in the long run.

A specialty of LinuxHaters complaints is in the interfaces between different applications on Linux. One of the strengths of Free Software development is that it is parallelizable. Different teams can attack different problems simultaneously to move the complete system along much faster than a traditional integrated proprietary system. I can benefit from the advances made in Microsoft file format compatibility from the authors of OpenOffice whilst the coders and users of OpenOffice can benefit from the advances in Microsoft networking compatibility made by the Samba Team. Usually we're not even working in the same company, let alone waiting for the same management team to set our priorities. However, this can also be a great weakness when it comes time to glue all these disparate applications together into a coherent system. Unless proper care is taken the wonderful OpenOffice Microsoft file format compatibility means nothing if OpenOffice can't transparently use the Samba code to load those files from Windows servers. It's lack of attention to this kind of integration detail that sometimes lets Linux down.

What shows that Linux can be amazingly easy to use is the recent announcement by Garmin that their Nuvi GPS navigations units run Gnome on top of Linux. I recently bought one, without even knowing it was Linux based and found the user interface intuitive and elegant. This is Free Software at its best, rock solid reliability and ease-of-use to rival Apple. It can be done.

I'm hoping LinuxHater will soon turn his or her attention to usability and integration issues with the software I help to write, Samba. We need this kind of detailed analysis of our flaws in order to keep making the software better. The Samba Team also have a thick skin, so he or she can have as much fun making complaints as they like.

I can't help being reminded of the Mindcraft benchmark in 1999. Sponsored by Microsoft it was supposedly an independent test of the relative speed of Linux vs. Windows NT servers. Unsurprisingly for a Microsoft sponsored benchmark, Windows came out best. After initially being annoyed at the results, Linus Torvalds eventually realized that Linux's failure in the rather contrived benchmark conditions should be treated as a bug report, however unusual the submission mechanism, and he and the kernel hackers promptly fixed it. I consider the LinuxHater blog in the same positive way, plus it's a really fun read. What more could you ask of bug reports ?

In the long run, we all need to become LinuxHaters in order to give our favorite software the tough love it needs to become as popular as I think it deserves to be.


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