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.

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