mouthing off about linux.
© 1998, 2000 Jamie Zawinski <>

The following is part of an interview I did for back in June 1998. One of the questions they asked me was, ``what do you think about Linux?''

Today, I use Linux as my primary OS (on an x86 PC, and on a Thinkpad), and I also use Irix (on an SGI O2.) Linux has improved a great deal since I wrote this, specifically with respect to its ease of installation.

I still use an SGI O2 as my main desktop machine, because it has the best X server ever written: the integration between SGI's X server and SGI's 3D hardware is far better than anything you can accomplish on Linux for any amount of money. Since one of my favorite programming projects is XScreenSaver, having a decent X server is invaluable. I could not do as good a job debugging that program if I didn't have a machine that can let me try out different depths and X visuals without having to restart the server each time. And of course, having blazingly fast 3D support is really nice too. Mostly I use the O2 as an X terminal, however, running my apps on Linux and displaying remotely.

Anyway, the following is what I had to say about Linux back in 1998. Bits and pieces of this article have been quoted out of context in lots of places, so for the record, here it is in its entirety.

What are your views on Linux?

I think Linux is a great thing, because Linux is an alternative to Windows, and because, of all the operating systems that are at all relevant today, Unix is the best of a bad lot.

(Yes, that's right, though I've been living in Unix for more than a decade, I think Unix sucks. Read the ``Unix Hater's Handbook'' if you want to know why. But I'd rather run Unix than Windows or MacOS any day, because Unix sucks less. That doesn't mean it doesn't suck.)

I used Linux exclusively for most of 1995 and 1996, or thereabouts; back then, I found it to be a total nightmare. It took me three weeks to get X to drive my monitor at better than 640x400, even though Windows did 1280x1024x16 without flinching. I spent weeks fighting IRQ conflicts, trying to get PPP working, trying to find a three-button mouse that worked, and all manner of gross indecencies which do not bear mentioning in polite company.

I understand that here in this modern world, things are much better; but at the time, it was the most pathetic computing environment I had ever had the misfortune of being shanghaied into trying to sysadmin.

(And the fact that some of the problems I had were hardware problems did little to make me feel better; regardless, they were problems that were easier to solve under Windows, and problems that I would not have had at all had I been using a hardware/software combo from a ``real'' Unix vendor. I've heard all the apologies and excuses, I know the litany well.)

See, unlike most hackers, I get little joy out of figuring out how to install the latest toy. I don't get much sense of reward from having discovered how to get the Foo card to coexist with the Bar card. As far as I'm concerned, that crap is a solved problem, and not worth revisiting. That's like banging rocks together and being proud that you've re-derived fire from first principles. It's boring.

So finally I talked my boss into getting me an SGI Indy (which I've since replaced with an SGI O2) and life became joyous again. Because SGI actually knows something about building user interfaces, and about making it possible to administer a machine without being a member of the technological priesthood. For but one example, I was able to install and format a new disk on this machine through GUIs, without once having to run ``man'' and try to remember some random arcane command that I last used in 1986.

This is the part where I start getting hate mail from people, and cheerleading messages telling me to take a look at it again, because it's so much better now. I understand. I'll take your word for it. And when the time comes to replace the O2 I have today, maybe my next machine will run Linux. But as we all know, Linux is only free if your time has no value, and I find that my time is better spent doing things other than the endless moving-target-upgrade dance.

Of course, all of the software I write runs on Linux; that's the beauty of standards, and of cross-platform code. I don't have to run your OS, and you don't have to run mine, and we can use the same applications anyway!

I think Linux is a great thing, in the big picture. It's a great hacker's tool, and it has a lot of potential to become something more. I hope that some day it will have evolved to the point where my mom can take home a Linux box, turn it on, and get on with her life without having to become a Unix sysadmin first, and without having to give up on all the ease of use she's come to expect from allegedly less powerful operating systems.

Because, you see, what I want to do is to commoditize the OS. I want to have access to all the applications that I need to do the things that I need to do, regardless. Why should someone have to retrain themselves to use a new application that does the same basic thing as the old application, just because something as trivial as the operating system changed out from under them?

Operating systems matter deeply to programmers, but in the big picture, they're old news. It's all about the network, and the applications that let you get benefit from the network. Using a computer isn't an end in itself, it's merely a means to an end. The focus must always be on the task that the person wants to accomplish, to communicate, to learn, to create, to be entertained. Insofar as the computer itself makes itself known in this process, the computer is an impediment. Do What I Mean! Be humanistic, don't get bogged down in the details.

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