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Every single field of endeavor tries to become a priesthood with a language and a set of rituals that keeps the insiders healthy and well-fed -- and forces outsiders to pay dearly for their services. Computer programmers are no exception. Deep down inside, even those who support Open Source fully seem to see themselves as keepers of a Cathedral rather than as members of a Bazaar.
We won't get into the question of how many programmers, Open Source or otherwise, couldn't possibly rebuild an automatic transmission but still drive cars.
Now we're starting to see a big usability push in Linux. Eazel, Helix, and others are trying to make Linux as easy to use as Windows or Mac. But there's still a Priesthood aura about all of this, one that is no better than the one that shrouds Microsoft's work.
I use Sun's StarOffice rather regularly to open and alter .doc and .xls files created by coworkers who use Microsoft Office. I hate StarOffice. It is obscure, has hundreds of features I'll never need, and has poor documentation. What's worse, it does not have an obvious, single-click word count utility, which is the one thing writers (who are often paid by the word) need more than anything else.
Perhaps StarOffice has a word count utility hidden somewhere and I haven't been able to find it. This is entirely possible. Should I find a member of the priesthood who created StarOffice and ask? And if I do, should I approach The Great One humbly, hat in hand?
This is, of course, the way you must approach Microsoft with product questions, usually with a secret incantation (product password or registration number) and a donation (help line costs and/or long distance charges) as part of the ritual needed to approach one of the Software Priests.
But you've got to give Microsoft one thing: With a little messing around, you can usually figure out enough of how one of their products operates to do some work with it almost immediately. I have seen Linux software that was literally incomprehensible to anyone not versed in Unix lore. It may have been great software, but by the time I learned how to install and use it I would have been better off going down to the computer store and buying a proprietary, shrink-wrapped program.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Linus Torvalds himself admitted that members of his own family preferred Windows and Mac to Linux.
Windows still has usability problems galore; not in turning it on and performing basic office tasks or playing games, but in reliability. At some point, almost any non-technical Windows user will run into problems beyond his or her ability to solve, and will be forced to turn to a (paid) Priest for help. The Mac OS will also crash, and there are Mac Priests galore, too. The only advantage the Linux Priesthood has traditionally offered over these other, more established ones is its willingness to provide help in return for ego gratification instead of money, a factor that seems to be changing as Linux advocates start to consider "support" business models that amount, essentially, to giving the software away for free and charging through the nose for help in getting it running and keeping it going.
The ideal operating system would be one that started and ran with little knowledge of its inner workings, and required little or no special training to maintain in normal, everyday use.
This isn't Mac, it isn't Windows, and it isn't Linux.
I wonder what it will be -- assuming we ever see it?