posted by Adam S on Wed 21st May 2003 23:06 UTC
IconAccording to the Free Software Foundation, free software includes "the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits... Access to the source code is a precondition for this." While I agree that the principles of the FSF are noble, I also feel that there is an unspoken assumption - an assumption that pods of hobby developers across the world can coordinate on the same scale that directed companies with a budget can. Where free software has an important place in computing, so does closed-source commercial software.

Recently, Microsoft sent me an evaluation edition of their new Windows Server 2003. I had an NTFS partition on my computer with Windows XP installed, but it rarely saw any action. Knowing that I wouldn't miss it, I blew it away and took a test drive of Windows Server 2003. That was about a month ago, and I'm using it now to write this.

Now, this is not a review of Windows Server 2003 or even an attempt to discuss it. However, installing and using has clarified some feelings, in my mind, about the success and shortcomings of open source software. As a grateful user of download editions of Linux, desktop environments like KDE and Gnome, and applications like gaim,, and Mozilla Firebird, I rely heavily upon free software for my day to day work. I use Apache http Server and script with PHP and write some Perl. I am no stranger to the quality of individual open source products, and I owe a debt of gratitude to developers around the world.

That said, booting up into Windows for the first time in a long time was surprisingly joyful. The graphics and feel of the system were tight and coordinated, the look and feel was sleek. Despite the fact that it's supposed to be a server OS (which is a whole separate issue), it felt like a single, integrated system. Installing Office 2003 for the very first time was simple enough -- as expected, clicking the setup.exe file installed the necessary components and I knew exactly where to find them, having installed a previous version before. Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a "trial run," I had my server configured as a web server, a file server, a print server, and my primary desktop machine within an hour or so.

This is what got me thinking - "Choice is good." Some debate the marketability of choice -- it confuses new users, it makes learning much more complex, it makes each computer different enough so that you must, to some extent, relearn what you can and can't do on each box. But one downfall of the amount choice is that it makes Linux, in this particular case, feel disjointed. Some programs feel meshed and others feel semi-developed. Some programs are themeable, while others maintain a single look. A public with extreme expectations refuses to accept distributions that strip out too much choice, and therefore, we end up with some sort of OS pudding, with each bite tasting just a little different than the rest. To top it off, when a commercial company, like Red Hat, takes a shot at solving this problem, the community backlash can best be described as merciless.

But that's all candy. A system needn't be visually consistent to be functional and enjoyable to use. But, in my opinion, it should at least be attractive. There's debate as to whether or not what's best wins -- the case has been made a thousand times, "If quality were the sole determinant, Mac would win hands down." But regardless of the level of importance of looks, I think we can all agree that quality is important. I've used many Linux distros, and I've consistently found that each handles the same tasks different ways, sometimes with mixed results. Browsing Windows domains, for example, is often unique to the distribution. Each distro has a recommended way to do so best - Xandros mount NFS and domain shares automatically, Red Hat recommends uses the Nautilus command smb://, and then there are dozens of after-market add-on applicatons. I've tried many of them with varying success, some are better then others, some are unstable on certain distributions, some are generally functional but not very pretty.

A question to pose, before we go any further, is "How important is look at feel?" I won't get into preference details, but suffice it to say that I believe a machine should, these days, look and feel modern and sleek. Windows, since Windows 2000, accomplishes this, as does OS X. Linux distros have gotten closer with each successive release - Mandrake's Galaxy, Red Hat's Bluecurve, and SuSE's new theme are all getting closer. But most distributions in general still feel like a collective work. This is where I believe, free software fails where commercial software succeeds.

Table of contents
  1. "Free Software, Part I"
  2. "Free Software, Part II"
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