Originally Published: Monday, 17 July 2000 Author: Peter Gebauer
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Best of Both Worlds

Most people who use computers don't care how computers work or how to use them aside from the simple tasks for which they were put there. "I want spreadsheet to do my accounting. Why should I ever learn how to configure network adapters, change terminal settings, or use vi to change init scripts?" The answer to that question is, you don't! That's why we have sysadmins.

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Last month, my skills in using GNU Emacs have improved greatly. I've learned e-lisp fairly well, and I can make adjustments in rather advanced Emacs settings. But to get to that point, I had to read a great deal of documentation and spend a lot of time figuring out all the things that "go without saying."

It demanded some sweating, but I feel this is my kind of tool. It didn't appeal to many of my colleagues, though. This is most likely due to the fact that some people just don't care about details. They only want to keep it simple. Instead of Ctrl-X O to change frame, they want a button click on the mouse. Instead of Ctrl-X F to read a file into the buffer, choose file menu and click on open. Preferably, the menus have big, multi-colored icons that in some way represent the action.

My colleagues don't care about the fact that I can tinker with Emacs until Ctrl-X O means "open new frame, find three random files, dump some memory to them, save them in my home directory and then send them as email to all my relatives" for the simple reason that they don't need it. Fair enough -- they simply don't care.

Most people who use computers don't care how computers work or how to use them aside from the simple tasks for which they were put there. "I want spreadsheet to do my accounting. Why should I ever learn how to configure network adapters, change terminal settings, or use vi to change init scripts?" The answer to that question is, you don't! That's why we have sysadmins.

Yes, you still have to learn the basics: what is a mouse, what is a keyboard, the thing you are looking at right now isn't really the computer (unless you're using a Mac) and so on. But those are the skills equal to what a car owner must know about a car in order to drive it without actually being a mechanic.

While Unix gives you the ability to harness the full power of your computer, it might not always be needed. Windows is well adapted for people who don't care. It takes care of things itself. Not in the best way, perhaps, and sometimes not in a good way at all, but the user feels a relief that no active involvement is required.

There is a big problem with this "taking care of" business. It leaves the expert little choice but to go along with the sometimes stupid configuration that the OS "takes care of." Sure, you can change some of it, but try telling Windows NT / W2K not to boot the GUI, only the prompt, and still give you the control to start the GUI with a command on the prompt.

Unix, on the other hand, gives you perfect control, but will not take any of the work off your back. You need to get in there and dig around in hundreds of configuration files, learn hardware, OS details, settings and sometimes even learn how to program your own scripts. This suits me, a technician and software engineer, fine. But what about the lawyers, secretaries and all other, non-technical, working people who don't need all that computer knowledge? Remember, they put food on my (and probably your) table by paying me to take care of those computer related things they couldn't care less about.

In some respects, Linux is on the verge of "taking care" of things for the user in a manner similar to Windows. Thank you! At last, you won't have to worry about netmask, partitions and IRQs to surf around on the Web and send some mails. While "dummies" get their GUIs with big multi-colored icons, huge help hints and only the most important settings to tinkle with, experts have the power of a Unix machine at the touch of their fingertips.

A lot of people told me "you can't have both ease of use and keep the power". Totally wrong! Adding a tool like YaST, Linuxconf, Xconfigurator, XF86Setup, e-conf and gnomecc doesn't remove the original option to poke around in large configuration files and scripts with VI or emacs, does it?

Having different distributions is a blessing. I love Slackware while some may like Red Hat, Mandrake or SuSE. I have recently switched to Mandrake since it has many good tools for "taking care" of things I don't want to be bothered with. And you know what, I still have a Linux system so all the things I loved about Slackware is still there, but with many alternative configuration tools.

Even if I sometimes tend to look down on and pity lawyers and accountants for their total technical ignorance, I sure feel happy about the fact that I don't need legal or accounting knowledge to write my agreements or do my accounting. After all, isn't that what lawyers and accountants are here to do?

Peter Gebauer, peter@anothergalaxy.com





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