The good, the bad, and the downright nasty

Sometimes you feel good about waking up in the morning, and the rest of the day brings you a few extra satisfactory moments.

For example, I got extatic when a n00b friend of mine phoned and told me “I installed Linux on my laptop!”

That felt good.

But then he asked me about something, and I asked him: “what Linux have you installed?” And all I got for my trouble was, “the latest”.

Suddenly I felt a bit... less good.

The trouble with free software

The good

Frankly, as long as you are a bit computer-literate, FOSS is little to no trouble: more often than not, systems like Windows have you tinkering with settings hidden in an obscure dialogue box, or in an undocumented and barely self-completing command-line interface, or—probably the freakiest thing there is—in a hexadecimal-encoded value in a binary file called the Registry. Compared to that, having settings stored in text files—usually at least a bit documented—is a breeze.

The nicest thing about this, is that you don’t even have to tinker with those values at all most of the time: recent distros provide good enough default settings, and several profiles that will update those same text files with only a click of the mouse.

So you get to have your cake, and eat it too.

The bad

It is however a bit hard sometimes to transition from one system to the other, especially when you leave the Establishment for something more nebulous.

Back to my friend’s example: after a little while and some questioning, I managed to have him tell me that his “latest Linux” was in fact Ubuntu Linux 6.06—after all, it could have been OpenSuSE 10.1, or Mandriva 2006, or Fedora Core 5—and I managed to explain to him that there is not ONE ’Linux’, there are a bunch of systems built around Linux (the kernel). I didn’t go deeper into details, if only because I was enjoying some nice R&R in front of a computer I didn’t have to work with, but at least he got it.

The problem with flexibility, is that if you don’t learn about it, it looks uncertain. After all, some people don’t care about what type of engine there is in their car, and most would be left dumb about what kind of exhaust system there is in their car. If someone asked you: is your car’s engine a single- or dual-carburator one, would you know the answer?

If you’re the kind of guy (or gal) to purge oil yourself, you may know; if you’ve revised your segments yourself, you know too.

But if you don’t, then NOW you know how if feels for a n00b who’s never installed Windows by himself what it feels like when asked: “are you using LILO or GRUB as a bootloader?” or even “have you used ext3 or ReiserFS for your root partition?”

Well, my friend managed to tell me—he used grub, then reinstalled WinXP—for dual-boot—and squashed it.

And since I DON’T use Ubuntu (I’m a Mandriva user), I didn’t know that there wasn’t a readily-available repair system on the Ubuntu CD (it is a bit hidden on a Mandriva CD, but you merely have to press a few keys to get help screens leading you to it).

Meaning all I could do was advise my friend (who lives a few hours drive away from my place) was to reinstall Ubuntu—and his nicely tuned Xgl desktop. Too bad.

The downright nasty

My boss is trying to save a few bucks: he wants to get rid of his old MS Office 97 installs, and use OpenOffice instead. If the change seems nice at first, reformatting his documents isn’t so: as a true “I fill with blanks to line up texts” guy, his documents require extensive reworking before they can be saved in an OpenDocument format file—and be easily exploited. Well, you only have to do it once, and it yields more flexible documents that don’t change layout on every save/load.

However, have you ever mass mailing using OOo 2.0.2 for Windows, to be sent to 1500 addresses? I did.

Without optimizing the thing, it took more than an hour for OOo to generate the documents.

With a big RAM allocation, I managed to reduce that time to a bit more than 20 minutes. Why so long anyway? Because OOo generates each and every document mailed in full, and tries to display it onscreen.

I theorize that it’s to be sure there won’t be sudden changes in layout along the way. However, it would be redundant with the navigator on the previous step of the wizard...

Now, MS Office if a hulking monstrousity that changes every version, requiring not only licence fees, but also retraining—often an extensive one—to be useable.

However, when I ask it to do a big mailing, it doesn’t take ages: it just does it.

Okay, sometimes it just crashes. But at least, it does so fast.

Conclusion: not all good, but at least it can change

FOSS is nice; it can fulfill most of your expectations, allows tinkering past whatever proprietary software can be forced into, and is stable.

It would be downright terrific however, if there could be a bit more... I don’t know, a bit more speed in some time-consuming operations...

Of course, let’s not forget that one amongst all of the nice things with FOSS, is that if you mention it, describe it or even try to fix it, the next version will probably include said change.


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