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Do we really care what software it’s running?

by Simon Brew

Is there any other consumer electronic device bar a computer, phone or handheld where we actually care what software is running inside?

I walked into my local electrical superstore last week, on the search for a washing machine. It’s a trivial job, granted, and one that very few people want to hear about. And with good reason, too. For most people go into a shop and simply pick the washing machine that takes their fancy, and that’s about the depth of the decision. They might compare a few select features on the card next to the product, and they might jump from shop to shop to save a few quid. But you rarely see people heading off to the local newsagent to pick up a copy of Washing Machine Review. Instead, at most, people generally don’t go beyond the user reviews found at the bottom of websites. It’s never the wisest move, granted, but we all know it happens.

Thing is, there were a couple of dozen different washing machines decorating the shop. They came in different colours, different sizes, had different capabilities and different price tags. Not one of the information tags, however, made any point of boasting about the user interface. Or the operating system that powered the washing machine. Or the platform that it ran on. Instead, it’s generally accepted that it’s a piece of hardware that does a job, and the software hides away in the background, never to be noticed.

Walking around the store, it struck me that similar assumptions apply to televisions, to DVD players, to stereos, to kitchen equipment, to pretty much 80% of the shop from what we could see. And yet most products in there had a user interface somewhere along the line. It’s just we weren’t getting our knickers in a twist about it.
I’ve discussed the idea of the implicit operating system before in these pages, and the more I see how most other areas of technology work, the more drawn I am towards it. Granted, there’s 5% of us who love to tinker, who will always be opening the proverbial bonnet, and who will play with the operating system as much as we can. But the rest? It just needs to work. It’s stating the obvious, I’m not oblivious to that, but there’s also a mentality issue that has to be broken here.

For while people tend to stick to certain brands when buying their white goods, there’s an acceptance that they’re willing to relearn how certain things work to get them going. Granted, it’s not a perfect parallel, as the range of jobs something like a fridge freezer can do is understandably limited, and thus there’s less to learn. Yet take a modern microwave oven, which at times can look so complicated you wonder if Matthew Broderick could start thermonuclear war using it. That, for me, is the electrical device with the worst interface as a rule that I’ve ever met, and yet nobody seems to give two figs about it.

My wish, then, is that that kind of thinking could apply across the mass market of computing. Namely that there’s a not-unreasonable expectation that a modern operating system will work, and that it might just take a little bit of time to get used to new surroundings. It’s not radical thinking, but currently, users are being seemingly offered a choice when they buy a new computer, even if Windows seems to be the only one that most stores will offer. The thing is? The operating system simply shouldn’t be sold as a feature. It should just work. Whether you choose to pay for one or not, when we’re in a time where the OS is a big selling point of any piece of technology, then you have to conclude that something has gone wrong.

I decided, after some pondering, that I wouldn’t bother the sales staff  with these thoughts, however…

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    • Golodh

      An interesting observation, and one with which I completely agree. An operating system isn’t a “feature”, but should be “invisible” and it should “just work” (without further tweaking).

      The problem is, this can be taken to mean different things, which will either be reviled or embraced by various groups.

      On the OSS-friendly side, it could be taken to imply that e.g. Linux is as good as MS Windows, provided it offers roughly the same functionality (i.e. supports all known consumer hardware out of the box, auto-detects stuff, provides a point-and-click interface). This is an easy position to agree with.

      On the other hand it could be taken to mean that Linux should be accorded no preference in and by itself (i.e. its Open Source nature should count for precisely nothing), but should compete merely on functionality (i.e. it should offer practically all the functionality people have come to expect of MS Windows), features (it must offer a GUI through which everything can be accessed and/or administrated), and ease of use (configuration that requires editing control files, tweaking and/or detailed system knowledge counts as a failure).

      It is this last position that has regularly earned me scorn and put me at the centre of flame-fests by Linux enthusiasts over the past few years.

      It is interesting to see how far Linux has come in the past 10 years: from a hobbyist plaything (and a tool for the dedicated sysadmin) to something that is almost-but-still-not-quite ready for the consumer market. I remember the howls of indignant protests from Linux enthusiasts when the elegant sufficiency of the command-line interface was called into question when compared to a decent GUI. I remember the outrage when it was first suggested that the KDE (and later the Gnome) interfaces were anything but giant bloatware packages compared to plain old X-windows.

      I also remember the breezy (and totally un-informed) assumptions on part of various amateur software writers about how easy and trivial it would be to put together a useful GUI. We are now 10 years and thousands of man-hours further and look at e.g. Ubuntu Linux, or SuSE Linux running KDE now! Both are quite good nowadays, but still not 100% as slick and seamless as the latest MS Windows incarnation. If we had had such software 10 years ago, they would probably have swept MS Windows NT away.

      From this little glimpse of history I would draw several conclusions:

      – consumer acceptance (yes that means acceptance by Joe Sixpack) determines marketshare, *not* under-the-hood technology or whether or not a piece of software is “Open Source Software”

      – despite what some Linux enthusiasts might feel, having an excellent and seamless GUI is a sine-qua non for consumer acceptance and hence market-share

      – amateur programmers sadly (and persistently) under-estimate the amount of effort needed to produce, document, and maintain GUI-based software; they should be ignored

      – it is necessary to outdo (or at lest equal) MS Windows in the area of ease of use for end-users, which to some extent implies offering the same organisation of GUI’s as MS Windows, only better.

      – in the area of GUI’s, “almost right” is “still not good enough” when measured against the incumbent (e.g. MS Windows or any other closed-source package)

      – an OS is about as good as the amount of application software that will run on it. Competing with MS Windows means offering equal (if not better) alternatives for most of the end-user software that runs on it (starting with Office software and Email). Such alternatives must be at least as polished as the alternatives under MS Windows

      – given the strides made in development of really polished OSS GUI’s (both in OS’es and end-user software) there is every reason to hope for Linux World Domination. Only not quite today.


    • Rafael

      I totally agree, some Linux programs are not there yet, but because Linux is safer and not get infected with virus or malware I started installing Mint in some of my family and friends computers, when their Windows machines turned unusable, first dual boot Mint and XP and now I’m installing Mint alone and I didn’t have any complaints, the average user can use Linux without any problem, they need a computer to check emails, use Skype, write a few letters go to Facebook, surf the web, look at the camera pictures, listen to music, go to youtube, watch a movie and that’s almost it. I think the only thing that someone ask me and I couldn’t do it in linux was Netflix and these are the few cases I still dual boot with XP. When I read people complaining that you can’t run Photoshop or Autocad I think these are not average users, I’m sure less than 10% of computer users use or at list know how to use these programs.

    • steve

      Linux already has a commanding lead over windows in router an TV OS’s and higher end embedded systems. Because of grater flexibility and cost savings of the OS (no MS tax). Lower end OS’s have a mix of various OS’s, mostly unix/linux based. I don’t think Windows plays in this area much for the data I have seen published on “Linux for Devices” web site.

      @Golodh I think the Linux interfaces with KDE and Gnome and others has already superseded windows with usability and look. I mostly work with a Linux desktop and I hate using my works windows published desktop when required. It just sucks, compared to the smoothness and speed and application mix of the Linux environment. You need to get out more and see what you are missing.

      The author is generally talking about lower end interfaces, and not the PC interface for use within a TV/Toasters. So no need for KDE or Gnome.

      Linux has better tuned environments then any windows equivalent. Android and other Linux variants make sense when your embedded environment has minimal resources.

    • phloidster

      actually i care quite a bit about ‘which software’ is running, both in my computer, and especially in other devices

      in fact, my preference would be to NOT have software running in most things, especially cars; one of the absolute worst things to have ever happened in automobiles is the attempt to substitue digital emulation with real analog behvior

      the reason is simple: it always fails. always. cars used to be fairly straightforward, but now they just mysteriously misbehave because of the idiotic attempt to implement a simulation

      and phones and other mobile devices: call me a luddite, but what i want from my phone is mostly to TALK; everything else is fluff, bloat and an attack vector

      yes, i care very much about what’s inside; anyone who doesn’t is in a fool’s paradise

    • rich

      We should care about what a device runs, for the very least for the legal aspect of it. If you are running a pc with an illegal copy of Windows on it, Microsoft will make its duty of letting you know, in no uncertain terms.