20 September, 2007

SuSE vs Windows

I remember at Microsoft there were at least a few people who were very concerned about SuSE as competition. I am starting to believe that the reason they feared it is that SuSE is as complicated and wrong-minded about operating system design as Windows is. I bitch and moan about MacOS being hosed by default, and its documentation being poor at best, but the more I dig into this unholy alliance of Novell and SuSE the more I smell Windows.

There really doesn't seem to be "one state" of the OS in SuSE, much as in Windows and in MacOS. On the Mac, we have this hideous netinfo business mucking things up so that we cannot simply copy /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow (or master.passwd, or whatever) for example. We have also strange filesystems that magically determine where they are to be mounted, which may or may not have case sensitivity, and nobody else can read. How different is that from Novell or Windows?

One of the great benefits (and indeed great curses) of Unix is that everything is a file. This means all you really need to move files around is the shell, which is to say things that live in {,s}bin. Your friends, rsync, tar, cpio, and their less intelligent but just as potent friends, cp, mv, rm, and so on, should really be all you need. When we start referring to "directories" as magical clouds in the sky full of stuff we can't touch, can't back up, and sometimes can't even read (leaving us crippled!), rather than just a fancy kind of file, Unix fails to be what it really is: industrial strength, user-hostile, and totally understandable.

user-hostile is important, if you think about it. When we start to make operating systems friendly, people get this false sense of confidence, and all of a sudden, you've got a user who comes into your office with blood on their hands, saying, "my god! the files! they're all gone! how do I get them back??"

Unix is great because it can do stuff, not because everyone in the world can use it.

(And with respect to Apple's lying about UFS/FFS and their manpages being broken, I'm surprised nobody mentioned fsck_hfs or hfs.util. I discovered these are equally as useless, but at least they, you know, try to be more or less the right tool for the job)

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