Saturday, July 23, 2011

Change Isn’t Always Bad for Linux

Every OS has its own accompanying culture. Even if we don’t buy into it, I think everyone can conjure a mental image of the so-called Mac fanboys, the so-called Linux geeks, and the rest of the world, ie, Windows users. And if you can’t construct a mental picture, this chart does a fair enough job of identifying the stereotypes.

Sometimes I forget how different the cultures are. Mac OS X Lion came out this week. There were some pretty significant changes made to the user interface, mostly with the stated goal of making Macs more iOSy.

I was expecting a massive backlash from the Mac community. But instead, as near as I can tell as someone who doesn’t spend a ton of time within the Mac community, people seem very open to the changes.

Ars Technica’s notoriously thorough Lion review ultimately came down liking Lion (for the most part).

Apple Insider’s review roundup reported most mainstream outlets like Lion, too.

Within the forums, Mac people seem to be enjoying Lion. And, even if enjoyment can’t be accurately quantified, it’s safe to say Mac users are buying the Lion update in droves.

As a Linux user, it’s kind of hard for me to wrap my head around. Because reading about the changes made in Lion, I thought users would be upset that they had lost some functionality (and, to be fair, some people are upset about that) and that some UI choices had been made without their input.

But Mac people just roll with it, trusting that Apple’s changes are improvements.

Compare that to the response to Unity, which was mostly negative. I would argue the negative response was driven by the fact that Canonical forced the change on users, rather than letting them opt-in to a dramatically new UI.

Part of me wishes the Linux community were more open to change, the way the Mac community is. And part of me is proud to be a part of a community that has so much choice, resisting change isn’t too hard to do.

Sure, it would have been great for Canonical had everyone rallied around Unity, flaws and all (and I say this as someone running Xubuntu 10.04. I’ve only seen Unity screenshots although I did run a netbook with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, which, at the time, had a vaguely Unity-esque interface). But that would have only empowered Canonical to make more changes. Maybe the changes would have been vast improvements for the desktop concept and maybe they wouldn’t have. But as a community, we seem unwilling to sacrifice current functionality for the possibility of future improvements. For the most part, we’re very much a bird-in-the-hand group of people.

This isn’t to pick on Canonical. GNOME also seems to be having a hard time with GNOME 3, another dramatic UI change.

Interestingly, KDE faced a pretty severe backlash for KDE 4. The KDE team kept their heads down, kept improving the UI, and now KDE is both loved and respected.

When I think about software, I tend to think in terms of usability and interfaces, but watching the Lion response, I’m starting to think a lot about the idea of trust, also.

Most Mac users trust Apple and that changes how the community receives change. Linux users tend to want to be the architects of their own changes, making wholesale changes across distributions difficult to implement, although, as KDE showed us, hardly impossible. But in general, it feels like a lot of us only trust ourselves to make UI choices.

In general, I think we as a community could stand to be a little more open-minded to change. If a distribution makes a change we don’t like, it’s usually not hard to either revert to an earlier version of the distribution or find a new one that behaves the way we want it to. With that kind of freedom, why not let some distributions and desktop environments experiment more freely without a constant barrage of criticism? Why not sit back a little bit and see how things go before we declare a change a failure?

Mac users who don’t like the Lion changes don’t have that same kind of latitude. There aren’t really any alternative Mac distributions they can turn to.

Linux users are better positioned to embrace change, since it’s usually not too hard to walk away from changes we don’t agree with. So why not be a little open to changes? Why not give more UI changes an extended look before we walk away in anger or disgust?

Maybe the change isn’t as bad as we thought it would be.