New World

Out of the Windows
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


little experimentation is good for the soul. Even if you don't stick with the new thing (whatever it is), trying something novel helps to show you the real strengths and weaknesses of what you're used to. This is particularly true when it comes to computers. Windows rules the world -- and, as I've discussed in an earlier article, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes you just have to try something different. Fortunately, you can try life as a non-Windows user without giving up Windows entirely, even if you're not up to dropping down the cash for a Macintosh.

Hating Microsoft is not a prerequisite for trying something new on your PC. But Windows is a edifice of incredible complexity and fragility, with layer upon layer of "backwards compatibility" routines built into the operating system to let programs written a decade ago run on the newest hardware. This complexity slows Windows down and introduces potential points-of-failure that show up as system freezes, General Protection Faults, and (in Windows NT) the infamous Blue Screen of Death.

Two alternative operating systems have emerged as interesting options for mainstream computer users. The first is Linux -- with which most of you are undoubtedly quite familiar -- and the second is the BeOS, an upstart system from a company founded by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee. Both Linux and BeOS are designed to push PC hardware to its limits, and both achieve surprising successes. These OSes take advantage of the underlying power of your PC, power that may currently be hidden under years of Windows bloat.

Both operating systems allow Wintel users to put something new on their machines without having to remove Windows, using tools for moving items around on your hard drive to open up space (called "partitioning") and letting users choose at boot which operating system they wish to run. Both allow you to see and use the files on the Windows section of your disk, but both work better using their own "native" files. Both have command-line and graphical tools. In terms of underlying philosophy, however, Linux and Be are worlds apart.

It is, of course, an error to refer to Linux as a single, monolithic system. There are multiple versions of Linux, called "distributions" (or "distros"), each with different combinations of applications, interfaces, and installers. Some, like Red Hat and Caldera OpenLinux, are designed to be accessible to everyday computer users; others, like SuSE and Debian, are built for the core Linux audience of Serious Computer Geeks.

The underlying philosophy of Linux is freedom -- Linux is designed to be free, both in the sense of zero cost (if you have the patience, you can download any of the distros directly from their home sites) and in the more important sense of being completely open. Any user with the programming skills and interest can take a look at and alter the source code for Linux. Nearly all of the applications available for Linux follow this same philosophy, so it is possible to set up a very powerful Linux-based machine for a very small amount of money.

The downside of Linux is that, despite the best efforts of groups like Gnome and KDE, Linux remains a clumsy "client" machine. Linux makes a wonderful server operating system (for web pages, file services, or acting as a protective firewall), but remains surprisingly opaque when used as a simple workstation for word processing, web browsing, or playing games.

Be is the opposite in almost every regard. The BeOS is proprietary and closed; users are not given access to the source code for the OS, most applications (and the OS itself) are sold, not given away. Whereas Linux functions best with the command-line, the BeOS is based on a graphical interface, with a command-line as a secondary (albeit useful) tool.

The BeOS is also a terrific system for everyday users. Extremely responsive, it is designed to work as fast as possible even on older hardware. Be refers to its operating system as a "MediaOS", as it is optimized for playing and recording video and audio without losing data. It is a remarkable sight to see an old Pentium playing simultaneous MPEG and Quicktime movies without dropping frames. The BeOS uses a clever database-like core that allows users to perform searches and control the OS in ways that can't easily be done on other OSes. I will be exploring the BeOS in more detail in future articles.

Playing with a new operating system is one thing; using it as your primary system is another. The key question -- beyond speed, beyond stability -- is can it do what you need it to do? Dealing with applications -- buying new ones, finding new ones, finding ones that can replace the functions that you need -- remains the core dilemma of any switch, whether from Windows to Linux, Windows to BeOS, or even Mac to Windows.

But trying a new OS is not just a technical exercise, and is worth doing even if you end up going back to Windows. It's a reminder to oneself that a computer is a wonderfully flexible tool, not just a platform for running a single OS and Office combination. That Pentium box is more than a Word 97 machine. It can do anything from serving up millions of webpages per day to running multiple simultaneous 3D animations without dropping a frame... but only if you try something new.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - May 26, 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.



* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online
* Mish Middelman: Dr Byte


* Comments to Jamais Cascio
* Jamais Cascio homepage


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