12 May 2010

An act of betrayal

I started the new year with an act of betrayal.

I passionately believe in the principle of open source software. I ardently support the UN's support for it as the future of world development. Yet, in January of this year, when I decided that I need a web book with more RAM and a faster processor than the Asus eeePC which had served me well for nearly two years, I ... abandoned Debian Linux along with the Asus and installed Windows XP on its replacement.


Two answers, in essence. One is the availability of particular software tools; the other is simplicity. I'll deal with them the other way round, taking simplicity first.

Matt Revel (who, unlike me, enthusiastically keeps the faith intact) wrote a fascinating post, a couple of days back along, about conversion of an old spec Neoware thin client machine into an Ubuntu Linux server. Read it; it's wonderful. I used to do a lot of that sort of thing, back when computers were large boxes with plenty of space inside and visibly modular components. I still do it with the one remaining tower system I possess (my desktop network server and archive sentinel) but when I look inside the cramped innards of a laptop or smaller I quail; I back away, feeling old and hamfisted.

Reading Matt's post, I learned a number of things, and have taken away a number of ideas. One of them is the idea that I might, perhaps, be able to replace the 810Mbyte hard disk in an elderly but still beautiful Toshiba Libretto 50 (75MHz, 16Mb RAM, running Windows Me) with a flash card. But none of them include returning to Linux for a machine upon which I regularly rely for my core activities.

The truth is, I am not only too old and too short of time now for that sort of hardware wizardry ... I also cannot face the sort of time which Linux requires at the software end. Just as I used to fiddle around inside computers, so I fiddled around getting the best out of command line software shells ... but not any more. The sad fact is that when I install or remove a new program (something I typically do twice a day on average), Windows just installs or removes it, wham, in one go while Linux requires (in return for its many superior qualities) that I assemble several packages (often from different sources) and coördinate them. I do it on two machines (one 32 bit, one 64 bit), so that I have access to the greater efficiency and quality of Linux when it really matters, for particular purposes ... but the rest of the time I use Windows

This is not true of all open source software. Having made the decision to slob out in the flabby upholstered comfort of Windows, I can and do use (and promote the use of) OpenOffice (this post is being written in its word processor), Firefox (I use five different browsers, but Firefox is first choice 95% of the time), Thunderbird (since I discovered the terrible vulnerability of my archives in Outlook) – and each of them arrives as a one click Windows installer. All of those applications I just mentioned, by the way, are superb. I have (legal, paid for) copies of the Microsoft equivalents, simply because in my lines of work I have to operate within coöperative environments based on them as standards, and I must check that every document works exactly as expected within those environments ... but for my own working tools, chosen from preference, I go to the open equivalents: not just out of ideology but because they seem to me better.

So much for simplicity. Now for availability of particular software tools. It is an unfortunate fact that some software is not available under every operating system. Usually one can find equivalents that are just as good, or sufficiently good for one's purposes ... but not always. The deal breaking killer apps will vary from person to person, and from context to context, but for me on a machine which is predominantly used for serious volumes of writing on the hoof, there was just one. Ironically, it was an open source utility from SourceForge which emulates a Unix facility: AllChars, which gives Windows a quick and easy way to instantly type the characters which don't appear on a standard keyboard.

AllChars won't be essential to everyone. I have a frequent need to type the Euro symbol, the a+e ligature in words line encyclopædia, accented vowels, and so on. Some people happily use memorised numeric Unicode combinations to do this. The key sequence 2248[Alt-X], for example, yields (in most but not all modern Windows applications) the mathematical character ≈ which is also very useful to me ... but it takes five keystrokes and memorisation of that numeric code every time I enter that character. So long as I can remember the number, that's quicker than hunting though special character tables ... but still painful if I have to use the character often, or if I need to remember more than a couple of the codes. Life is, to be blunt, too short.

There are word processors which incorporate quick and easy ways to do this. Honourable mentions go to NotaBene (built from the ground up as the world's best tool for academic work involving multilingual text) and WordPerfect (in my opinion the best general purpose word processor available). In OpenOffice's word processor and spreadsheet there is an extension which adds the same utility. In each case, the sequence to access a particular character involves a master key (F6 in NotaBene, Ctrl-W in WordPerfect, a user selected key in the OO extension) plus a mnemonic pair of characters such as ~= for that ≈ symbol , for example, or ae for the ligature in encyclopædia. This same principle is used in AllChars – but it works across any program ( though the trade off is a narrower range of available characters).

Linux does allow addressing of these mnemonic pairs, and there are international keyboard layouts which allow modifier keys to accent vowels in particular. I noted a while back the availability of these options on the Linux variant Asus eeePC ... but also the fact that I couldn't find any way of making them instantly available on reboot without repeating the keyboard selection steps.

To be honest, life is too short for either four digit codes or repeated keyboard selections when I am offered a lazy alternative which works. Especially when (as now, as I write this) I have opened my carry along vade mecum machine in a transport terminus for ten minutes writing before packing it away again and boarding the next leg of my journey. AllChars is that alternative, and it is only available under Windows. And that one fact was what finally decided my return from Linux to Windows when I upgraded my netbook.

Having made the decision, however, I joyously returned to other software for which I had with equanimity accepted substitutes whilst using the Linux eeePC. WordPerfect, for example. I love OpenOffice Writer, and would always use it in preference to Microsoft Word; in fact I use it in preference to anything else for many, many things; but when I settle into heavy duty and complex writing over a long period, WordPerfect saves me enough time to make a significant difference. WordPerfect is not available under Linux, and I did without it without complaint; but now that I'm back on a Windows platform, I have welcomed the return of WordPerfect with open arms.

Four and a half months in, I still feel guilty about my act of betrayal, abandoning an open source operating system for a commercial one from Microsoft. This is the first time I have felt able to publicly talk about it. But, in honesty, I don't see myself going back until my reasons for it become redundant. May Matt forgive me.


Matthew Revell said...

The most important thing about software, surely, is that it lets you complete your task with minimal compromise.

If Windows is the environment that lets you get on with what you want to do, then you should use Windows.

I'm certain, though, that there must be a way to address the AllChars issue. I'm at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Brussels and I've just had a chat with Ubuntu's X.org (i.e. the system that looks after display and keyboard) guy. Depending on how you implemented the AllChars-like functionality (I'll go re-read your other post in a mo) this may be a known bug that we in the Ubuntu community just haven't got round to fixing yet. That doesn't help you but it may assuage you sense of guilt :)

I'm going to ask some of the guys in our translations community what they do. One of my colleagues works mostly in Cyrllic on a US keyboard. Now, all he's down is select a Serbian keyboard map and learnt where those keys are on his US physical keyboard. However, I bet he's come across other methods.

Geoff said...

I've tried Mozilla, Firefox, Open Office, Ubuntu and they have all let me down !
Windows Xp, Word 97 work for me.
Why are so many people anti Microsoft and Bill Gates? What is wrong with making money and giving most of it away.

I - due to my particular physical circumstances - play a 3/4 size Fender Stratocaster copy which cost £150 and what a beautiful sound. A "good" guitar is in the region of £7000. It works for me, it's what I do with it that counts.
So, use what works best for you and happily scribbletap away.

Dr. C said...

In the beginning, there was the IBM 1650. Life was simple. Then there was the Mac (1984). Life got even simpler. There was MacWrite and MacDraw. Came with the system. Then there was DOS. Life became complicated. Windows, a poor implementation of the Mac OS, took years to become even tolerable. Yes, MS Word is the standard. But, just think what life would have been like if the Mac had prevailed.

Felix said...


In my opinion, both Apple and Microsoft produced decidedly flaky versions of the Xerox PARC WIMP interface idea. The Mac certainly was very much less flaky than Windows at first, though I'd say that Windows caught up somewhere around the millennium and it's now a matter of competing advantages/disadvantages.

I prefer to think how things might have been if the Acorn Archimedes had taken the world by storm back in the mid 80s...

Felix said...

Matt> The most important thing about
Matt> software, surely, is that it
Matt> lets you complete your task with
Matt> minimal compromise.
Matt> If Windows is ... lets you get on
Matt> with what you want to do, then you
Matt> should use Windows.

In the end, I agree ... and have gone with that.

But there remains the moral disquiet ... oh, I don't know, suppose we change it to "If party A serves your interest, you should vote for it, even though you believe that party B is right"?

Matthew Revell said...

A quick comment, will reply full soon: in some sort of way, the Archimedes *did* take over the world. There's at least one ARM processor in your mobile phone, probably one in your digital TV set-top box and soon one in your servers, laptops and so on (running Ubuntu...)

Okay, so the ARM chip isn't the full deal of the Archimedes, and certainly not the GUI environment, but it's one heck of a legacy.