UNIX will never be usable

A few months ago, Eric Raymond, the open source guru best known for his seminal paper The Cathedral and the Bazaar, posted a rant about the difficulty he encountered with a common user printing scenario in Unix.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2004/06/unix-will-never-be-usable.html

I, too, am going through your old blog entries. I think this myth (UNIX will never be usable) is officially busted. Permit me to explain…

Quoting this blog entry: “The open source and unix guys have had almost thirty years to come up with a usable GUI” I won’t argue that they’ve (we’ve) come up with more than a few, although we have, because that’s not important. What counts is current and emerging practice, which is for web-enabled applications. I submit that these can be as beautiful and usable as any of the older, stand-alone graphic applications. True, there is still a number of classes of application which are not suitable for use via browser, but as standards improve and browsers are become more powerful, and that number is diminishing.

What we have, after 30 years, is a world in which most applications run on UNIX, and present on almost anything with a bitmap display. In the face of near universal acceptance, it would be rather stubborn for anyone to claim that UNIX is not usable.


i’m pretty sure jeff was referring to the GUI part as not usable, not how robust the underlying code is.

unix will never be usable.

You say that Apple have software that has high-usability.
You also say that Unix will never be usable.

That, my friend, is a contradiction.

Unix became BSD which became Apple Mac OS. Mac OS, the highly respected in terms of usability OS is a pure source code descendant of Unix. Not a clone… something that grew from the real thing.

Therefore…you lose!

I find X-windows based desktop environments like CDE, KDE, and GNOME are far easier to use than Aqua; but, I like things like: focus-follows-mouse, virtual desktops, and the ability to resize windows from any edge or corner. Maybe I’m just weird.

Hi Jeff,
No that time has passed, do you still believe the same?

I second Enrique’s pontification, if you still think the same thing.

Philluminati - as he’s talking about the UI, this is the key phrase:

Without usability you have nothing.

I’m curious to see if you know about/have heard about the recent issues with Pidgin’s UI changes.

The developers behind Pidgin - for better or worse - take usability and UI design VERY seriously. To the point where every single option undergoes rigorous inspection before being placed on the UI.

This is the kind of design care that you are looking for - and this, I believe, is the right direction when discussing open source.

One of the primary advantages of the OSS philosophy with regards to the interface is that the DOING part of the software is kept separate from the USING part of the software - your interface plugs into your backend/engine.

This is the philosophy that MS/Apple have come to embrace - despite MS’s numerous UI transgressions and their lauded “build the UI alongside the product” efforts in the past.

OSS often has the important bits complete - the backend - and very efficient and robust, but the interface is either neglected or designed for a niche (the developers).

I honestly believe this is simply something that will be addressed - never complete - but certainly better addressed in the near future.
If you look at X and the desktops that run with it, it has come along in leaps and bounds over the last ten years.

MS’ efforts not so much, but getting there at a similar rate. Vista had a list of improvements to the UI which were touted as being a major step forward - and then got broken by a host of their own apps.

I can’t speak for Apple, because my experience with it is far less complete than the other 2, but they’ve embraced the concept of separation of UI/engine beautifully in their OSX.

usability == ubuntu

It might be time to revisit your stance on this topic… never say never.

I’m just going to mention Ubuntu again, because I’m writing this from an Ubuntu PC and because it seems like the trendy thing to do!

They take usability seriously though, and I really love how elegant their Gnome desktop is.

Seems your challenge was accepted…things have changed quite a bit!

I’d love to see this topic revisited (a 5-year anniversary post, if you will).

How does the Mozilla project get around this issue? Firefox is a great browser, as usable as any other.

@Philluminati :
You say that Apple have software that has high-usability.
You also say that Unix will never be usable.
That, my friend, is a contradiction.
Unix became BSD which became Apple Mac OS. …
Therefore…you lose!

You appear to have completely missed the point, which is that the culture in the open source community places a higher value on simplicity of implementation and elegance than end-user usability. No-one was saying that there’s something fundamentally about Unix that makes it impossible to build a usable OS on top of it.

Also note that many of the bastions of traditional *nix systems, such as X Windows, were ripped out and replaced by Apple, directly because they are an impediment to usability. Can you imagine spending hourse tweaking xorg.conf with Xinerama to get dual monitors on a Mac? This would not have been acceptable to Apple. Dual monitors – and, indeed, n monitors – should Just Work, and, currently, they don’t on a modern Linux distro.

(Yes, xrandr is improving things now. Reasonable xrandr GUIs are starting to come out, which makes it much, much easier to configure dual monitors. Note that this doesn’t scale up: if you want three monitors, you’re back to manually tweaking xorg.conf / Xinerama (unless you’re lucky enough to have an nVidia graphics card, in which case you can use their binary drivers which have an easy multiple monitor configuration section. But not all of us are so lucky). Maybe, in a few more years, xrandr will be able to handle more than two screens, and X will be where Windows Mac OS were… 10 years ago. (Though I’m not saying Linux is a decade behind Windows Mac OS in the general case; far from it. X Windows is the extreme example: the worst part of Desktop Linux at the moment. Other parts of Linux are, of course, at or even far ahead of their counterparts in Windows and Mac; APT comes to mind).)