June 20, 2002

Is UNIX the Answer for Office Workers?: It Can Be

Arnold Kling doesn't like UNIX-for-desktops, and criticizes Eric Raymond for thinking that UNIX is the answer to anything--including "version fatigue", the sense of exhaustion that comes from having to learn new things about user interfaces and system customization with each new upgrade of each new program. Unsatisfied with the fact that each new Microsoft system and application version is just incompatible enough with your previous version to make it both annoying and inefficient to have to learn the differences and also more annoying and more inefficient to remain one version behind everyone else? use UNIX, says Raymond. And Arnold Kling is not happy with this proposal:

Let's go to the videotape: Here's Arnold:


Corante: The Bottom Line - The economics of information technology.

Command Line Bigots--An article called "Version Fatigue" by Instapundit drew this response from Eric Raymond:

I have been using the same text editor since 1982. I have been using the same command-line shell since 1985, and the same operating system since 1993. But that last date is actually misleading, because I still get use out of programs I wrote for the previous dialect of my OS as far back as 1982, without ever having had to alter a line. The last time I had to learn a new feature set for any of the tools I regularly used was when I decided to change window systems in 1997, and that was not a vendor-forced upgrade. Yes, that's right; it means I've been getting mileage out of essentially the same user interface for five straight years. Half a decade....I don't have a version-fatigue problem, and never have. I get to use cutting-edge software tools that probably exceed in capability anything you are directly familiar with. And I have every confidence, based on my last twenty years of experience, that my software will both continue to both offer me the innovative leading edge and remain feature-stable for the next twenty years if I so choose.

How do I achieve this best of both worlds? One word: Unix.

I wish that Raymond or Doc Searls or any of their command-line bigot friends could spend just one day as an attorney, a secretary, or any other office worker whose job is something other than composing rants or editing computer code. Try producing that inventory chart or sales brochure using emacs and shell scripts.

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, we might be able to get by with Apersonal computers that have a relatively lean operating system. Raymond posted his piece using Blogger, an Internet-based app, so all he needs is a web browser. But could the personal computer revolution from 1980-1995 have been powered by ordinary Unix? One word: Baloney.

Of course, there are two more answers. The first is to recognize that the reason for "version fatigue"--the reason for these subtle incompatibilities and changes that make upgrading annoying and not upgrading when everyone else upgrades even more annoying--is that Microsoft's principal competitor is its own installed base. Thus when Microsoft brings out a new version of any program, its principal competitive task is to devalue the previous versions of its programs--to make them work awkwardly and inefficiently with other people using more modern systems. If Microsoft's principal competition was some other software company--as it was back in the days when IBM was trying to deploy OS/2--then it would pay much more attention to backward compatibility and ease-of-transition, as it did in the shift from DOS to Windows.

The second answer is to look for a system that promises the benefits of both UNIX and of modern GUI-based business applications programs. There is such a system: Apple's Macintosh.

And here's Eric Raymond:


Beating software version fatigue:

In his latest Tech Central Station column, Glenn Reynolds complains of `version fatigue', his accumulating angst over the fact that since the emid-1980s he's had to migrate through three word processors and several different versions of Windows.

I can't fix the sad fact that every new VCR and remote control you get has a different control layout. But if we're talking software, baby, I have got your solution.

I have been using the same text editor since 1982. I have been using the same command-line shell since 1985, and the same operating system since 1993. But that last date is actually misleading, because I still get use out of programs I wrote for the previous dialect of my OS as far back as 1982, without ever having had to alter a line.

The last time I had to learn a new feature set for any of the tools I regularly used was when I decided to change window systems in 1997, and that was not a vendor-forced upgrade. Yes, that's right; it means I've been getting mileage out of essentially the same user interface for five straight years. Half a decade.

Does this mean I'm using software tools that were feature-frozen when dinosaurs walked the earth? No, actually, it doesn't. The text editor, which is what I spend my screen time interacting with, has grown tremendously in capability over the twenty years I've been using it. The shell I use has a lot of convenience features it didn't in 1985, but I've only had to learn them as I chose.

I don't have a version-fatigue problem, and never have. I get to use cutting-edge software tools that probably exceed in capability anything you are directly familiar with. And I have every confidence, based on my last twenty years of experience, that my software will both continue to both offer me the innovative leading edge and remain feature-stable for the next twenty years if I so choose.

How do I achieve this best of both worlds? One word: Unix.

I'm a Unix guy. You may have heard that I have something to do with this Linux thing, and Linux is indeed what I use today. But Linux is only the most recent phase of a continuous engineering tradition that goes back to 1969. In that world, we don't have the kind of disruptive feature churn that forces people to upgrade to incompatible operating systems every 2.5 years. Our software lifetimes are measured in decades. And our applications, like the Emacs text editor I use, frequently outlast the version of Unix they were born under.

There are a couple of intertwined reasons for this. One is that we tend to get the technology decisions right the first time -- Unix is, as Niklaus Wirth once said of Algol, "a vast improvement over most of its successors". Unix people confronted with Windows for the first time tend to react with slack-jawed shock that any product so successful could be such a complete design disaster.

Perhaps more importantly, Unix/Linux people are not stuck with a business model that requires planned obsolescence in order to generate revenue. Also, our engineering tradition puts a high value on open standards. So our software tends to be forward-compatible.

As an example: about a year ago I changed file-system formats from ext2 to ext3. In the Windows world, I'd have had to back up all my files, reinstall the OS, restore my files, and then spend a week hand-fixing bits of my system configuration that weren't captured in the backups. Instead, I ran one conversion utility. Once.

Most of the consumer-level problems with computer software -- crashes, bad design, version fatigue due to the perpetual upgrade treadmill -- are not inherent in the technology. They are, rather, consequences of user-hostile business models. Microsoft, and companies like them, have no incentive to solve the problems of crashes, poor security, and version fatigue. They like the perpetual upgrade treadmill. It's how they make money.

Want to beat software version fatigue? It's easy, Glenn. Take control; dump the closed-source monopolists; get off the treadmill. OpenOffice will let you keep your MS-Word documents and your Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Join the Linux revolution, and never see a Blue Screen of Death again.

UPDATE: A reader complains that Linux is difficult to install. Answer: Get thee to the Linux user group near you, who will be more than happy to help you get liberated. Or get thee to Wal-Mart, which is now selling cheap machines with Lindows, a Linux variant tuned to look like Windows, for $299.

And here's Glenn Reynolds:

I'm tired of learning how to do new things. Well, not really. But I've noticed that my tolerance for reading the manual and familiarizing myself with all the aspects of a new product or piece of software is much, much lower than it used to be.

I thought it might be age, but my youngest brother, who is 21, says he has the same problem. And it occurs to me: though he's a good deal younger than I am, we've been using computers, VCRs, and related technological items for about the same length of time -- since somewhere in the mid-1980s. And despite the difference in our ages, we've followed about the same progression from initial enthusiasm about learning all the ins and outs of new stuff to a jaded reluctance to even open a manual if we can help it, and an absolute unwillingness to learn how to use features we don't need right now.

Perhaps, as Indiana Jones observed in a different context, it's not the years, but the mileage. At least, that's my working theory at the moment. And I've coined a new term (at least, Google tells me it's new) to describe the problem: "version fatigue."

The first word processor I used was the late and largely unlamented Perfect Writer, which ran on a Kaypro CP/M machine. I pored over the manual, excited about all the stuff it did. (I still remember how to do things on Perfect Writer that I don't know how to do on Word or WordPerfect, though I'm pretty sure that's not because Perfect Writer was more capable). Even when I persuaded my law firm to switch from DisplayWrite III (ugh) to WordPerfect 4.2 (pretty damn good, except for some printing bugs), I spent a lot of time learning how to use WordPerfect.

Now it takes a lot to get me to actually study in advance. In some small part, this is a tribute to how easy it is to use most software (Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro or Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro are so intuitive they really don't need manuals -- though Steinberg's Cubase has a gigantic manual and it's still unfriendly to use). But that's not the only place where this shows. I bought a new camcorder, for example, and could barely trouble myself to read the manual. There are lots of features in it that I may use someday -- at which point I'll learn them. But the odds are that I'll buy a new one before I use most of them, and the new one will be different anyway.

And that's where "version fatigue" sets in. Almost every piece of software is different from its predecessor version. Consumer electronics are never the same, and actually seem to be getting harder to use over time. (My 1986 RCA VCR has the best user interface I've encountered on a VCR. Naturally, nobody uses it anymore).

That's a pain in individual cases, but the big picture is even worse: by now, everyone but the very youngest has learned that time spent acquiring knowledge in this area is likely to be wasted. Think about all those tricks you learned for DOS 3.31, or Windows 95 -- they're mostly useless now. Version fatigue comes from the accumulated realization that most knowledge gained with regard to any particular version of a product will be useless with regard to future generations of that same product. (And, of course, it's even worse when products change - those VisiCalc tricks you were once so proud of are entirely worthless now, except to demonstrate your old-timer credentials).

It's thus entirely rational not to want to learn this stuff until you absolutely need to use it. But that makes life more frustrating, since it puts you in "learning mode" when you're trying to do something new and possibly stressful, and it makes life tougher on the people who design and sell software and gadgets since they get a lot of complaints from customers that really stem from customers' -- entirely rational -- unwillingness to spend much time reading the manual.

Of course, the latter can only be viewed as justice, since they're the ones who create the problem in the first place. But now that products are smart, a little more attention to consistency in user interfaces is called for -- or the ability to choose an old interface. A few products support that now to some degree, but more should. And I imagine a label on the box reading: "All the stuff you learned how to do on the old version works the same way here" would do a lot to help sales.

Somebody should give this a serious try. It's time to do something about version fatigue.
Posted by DeLong at June 20, 2002 07:07 AM

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