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Bells & Whistles

by Simon Brew

As the operating system increasingly becomes the main attraction, ex Linux User & Developer editor Simon Brew yearns for the thinking of the good old days…

simon_brew_greyWhat are the defining features and characteristics of Ubuntu? Or Mandriva? Or openSUSE? What are the killer features that are born to illuminate point-of-sale material and tedious slideshows the world over? What’s – heck, why not? – the ‘killer app’ that’s going to get the world excited about Linux?

The best answer to these questions? There aren’t any. There is no single feature to adorn the covers of magazines. There’s no whizzbang gadget to turn the computing world on its head. Instead, the major appeal of Linux, for me anyway, is that it’s content to be an operating system. It’s got no ideas of grandeur. It doesn’t want fame and fortune. Its name doesn’t belong on billboards right across the planet, and neither is it going to be sponsoring anything major, getting name-checked by ‘celebrities’ or promoted as if it’s the moment that the apple fell down on Sir Isaac Newton’s head.

Watching the carnival of publicity for both Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7, I can’t help but think that the world has forgotten just what an operating system is for. An operating system should not be a big feature of a computer. An operating system should instead be the platform that enables you to get on with using the computer in question, with the minimum of fuss and intrusion. Sure, it’s good to have useful tools and features in there, but surely the purpose of such features is as an add-on, so that the user can pick what they intuitively require. If it needs a press release and several big-money presentations to explain why someone needs a particular extra or gizmo, then there’s a compelling argument that they don’t need it in the first place.

Perhaps this is me getting a bit old and weary, but when I used to turn my ZX Spectrum on back in the early Eighties, I had no idea what an operating system was, nor that there was one even on the machine. Instead, I just typed in what I needed to get whatever I needed to happen, and without bothering me with even a monochrome logo, the Spectrum did as it was told. It did it quick, too. Granted, the computing world has evolved, and the power and potential of the operating system has moved along with it. That’s a good thing, certainly. But the key fundamental reason we need an operating system shouldn’t be forgotten. After all, isn’t the best operating system the one you hardly even notice is there?

Simon Brew
A former editor of Linux User & Developer, he spends his time moving between Windows, Mac OS and Linux. His desk also needs a thorough tidy-up.

This article first appeared in issue 80 of Linux User & Developer.

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    • cwrinn

      It is what you want it to be. I feel this is the “Bells and Whistles” in a Linux system. The major differences between the three Major OS platforms, Windows, Mac and Linux, is their flexibility. This reflects their developers’ priorities as well as is reflected in their typical user base.

      Mac is simply not flexible. Neither is Apple, if the recent iPhone App Rejections is any clue, but even that is BAU for Apple and has been for decades.

      Windows is more flexible… to a point. You can bend… within their rules, within the binds of how they want you to bend. You can skin and theme, if you do it their way. Anything more is such a rigid pain it becomes not worth it.

      Linux is extremely flexible. Don’t like the default UI? switch it out, there are hundreds. Don’t like the developmental direction of Ubuntu? Try Debian or Arch. Don’t like Firefox? Pick your browser, have at it. Don’t care? Use what the devs feel is best as default.

      Relating Linux to “the one you hardly even notice is there” is problematic, tho. Ubuntu and other “EasyLinux” distros try to allow the user to forget there’s a computer there, but that’s only part of the community. At the same time, MacOS and Windows reach for the same goal. That’s actually why a lot of people I know that use MacOS use it. Because they can forget the yucky computer underneath and just use it. Most people I know that use Windows either say “It has the games” or “It’s what was on the system when I bought it”.

    • ts

      I don’t remember LOAD “” being all that quick on my ZX Spectrum :)

      The only “killer app” I can think of for Linux would be a video editor that puts the Windows freebies to shame. Much as I have enjoyed trying Live USB Key distros and playing with Ubuntu, it’s only the lack of good free video editors on Windows that has led me to dipping my toe in the Linux water. I’m glad I have, but I don’t imagine for one minute there will be hoardes of people following me.

      Nobody cares about the OS. It’s not meant to do anything that people care about. It’s all about the apps! Nobody intalls OSes unless they absolutely have to (and they 99% get someone else to do it for them). It’s only techy experimenters who ever load a Linux distro for themselves, not The Masses.

    • Uncle Ed

      I teach a “Computers for Learning” class (spreadsheets, word processing, web search, simple web design, presentations, computer concepts, etc.) at a university. Early in the semester, I talk about operating systems and tell the students that if the operating system is doing its job well, you don’t have to think about it.

      A month later, I ask who remembers what I said about operating systems. Nobody ever does. So I remind them what I said and point out that it obviously works, because nobody has been thinking about operating systems.

      Several years ago, a friend and I set up a router and print server in Red Hat 5.2. Being used to Windows, I’d reboot it every few days. Then he told me I don’t have to do that. After a month or two, I told him I didn’t like it. He wondered why. I told him it was boring.

      I have a file and web server set up in ClarkConnect. It does its software updates automatically. The only “administrative” task I ever have to do is when the power goes off. When the power comes back on, I have to push the button to restart it. (Since it’s not critical, I don’t have it on a UPS.) Boring.

      Sometimes not having excitement in your life is nice.

    • Justin

      Two words: Compiz Fusion

      Seriously, it provides more eye candy than anything Apple/Microsoft can churn up. And much of the fancy stuff that was heavily advertised in Vista? Compiz already did it! Even with the new super-expensive Windows 7, you still don’t have wobbly windows or a 3D cube/sphere/cylinder like we’ve had on Compiz for many years now.

      Compiz does for the average computer user more than any lecture on security. The average user just doesn’t care about the fact they don’t need antivirus. They want shiny toys. When I’m introducing Linux to someone who has never heard of it, all I do is find a video on Youtube that shows off the features of Compiz, and they’re impressed. They ask if they can get it for Windows.

      What do I love about Linux? The fact that resource-intensive programs, like Compiz, are optional. Oh, and free.

    • Briana

      An apple falling on the head sounded painful enough when it was just a fruit. Imagine it being a whole computer…

    • dhysk

      Nice article, and I would like to say I feel the same. Unfortunately the idea of an operating system without bells and whistles as a default and one that just doesn’t work as a whole. It’s not that people ‘forgot’ what an operating system is, it’s that to most people an OS IS the computer itself. I love choosing my bells and whistles I use Linux because it works how I want it to, and I’ve spent the time to customize it how I like it. The thing is my wife and other people that use my computers just want it to work. Face it most people in this world don’t even know what they want in anything let alone in a device they know little about. Long story short. This is why companies spend a lot of time and money figuring out what people want or selling them what the company thinks they want. Their is a lot of money it it because of these facts.

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    • someone

      True, but the fundamental difference between a Linux distro like Mandriva or Ubuntu and OSX or Windows is that a Linux distro not only includes the OS, but also a large variety of actual full-blown applications (not just small tools like Windows and OSX include), which are what the user cares about in the first place.

      That’s where your article went off a tangent and blurred things to the point of not really saying anything at all.

    • Guy

      I hate to say that if their ever were a killer app on Linux, given the nature of open source, it would be ported to windows pretty quickly.

    • machiner

      From Article:

      “After all, isn’t the best operating system the one you hardly even notice is there?”

      Yep. That’s why I run Debian GNU/Linux.


    • The Doctor

      I don’t want all the bloated “bells and whistles.” I want a clean, lean operating system that I can use to do work.

      The kill app is VirtualBox. I run PCLinuxOS with Windows XP in VB; it’s the best of both worlds.