Thursday, December 31, 2009

A standard Windows desktop is useless

As a consultant I've been working on a lot of different desktops. Well, different? Not quite. Almost everywhere I go I find MS-Outlook, MS-Office, MS-IExplorer and Adobe Acrobat reader. Some of these installations even lack MS-Project, MS-Visio and in some cases even MS-Access. If those really were the only tools at my disposal, I would call it working with "stone axes and bear skins". Fortunately, I always carry my laptop with me, which is equipped with the tools that really make a difference like Graphviz, Dia, Kjots, LyX, MySQL, Apache, PHP, Pegasus Mail, OpenProj and my own 4tH compiler. And no, I did not install Linux on this laptop for the simple reason it is not my laptop. I have a cute EeePC 701 running - yes, you guessed it - Xandros.

So what's your problem, you say. Well, first the desktop freezes every now and then, showing an incredible 0% CPU utilization. I hate that, especially if you have to get some work done. If I'm overloading the beast, OK, I understand that. But why is it sitting there doing nothing? Even a few generations ago I was surfing the Internet, burning a CD while compiling some program. 128 MB RAM, PIII. No sweat.

But the fun already begins when you turn on the thing. Ok, it may be getting stuff from the LAN, but why does it boot so terribly slow? I've waited up to t-w-e-n-t-y minutes until I saw the desktop appear! We're not home free yet, we still have to start Outlook. Even KMail on my poor 32 MB, PII didn't take that long. That's all nice when you come in, slightly late, and want to look up the name of that conference room.. A really nice feature of Outlook is that it can't export its messages to a decent format, it only supports .PST instead of mbox. Of course, there is a solution to that. You can abuse Thunderbirds import utility to do that for you - it's a very dirty hack - or readpst. Unfortunately, I can only use the latter one on.. Linux! I can't get it to compile on Windows - my working hours are restricted to useful work.

I have to admit, MS-Excel is a pretty decent program, the trouble is that I only use it to distribute database reports. So, that one is out of the equation. MS-Word is a useless pile of wasted bytes. I'm there to provide content, I'm not a layout artist and I don't want it to be. Every time you change something, the layout changes for some inexplicable reason - and you have to spend valuable time to correct it. I don't have that time. Of course, there are "styles", endless lists of styles that keep on accumulating. Another fun thing is when you embed pictures. They look fine, you save them and when you reload your document they are all over the place. The real fun part begins when your file exceeds a certain size: MS-Word becomes instable and bombs out. Less computer-savvy users have had a cardiac arrest because of that - nobody makes backups anymore. You can often solve the problem by importing it in.. OpenOffice! But I'm not done yet. Often I want to publish a document on the web and behold what horrible HTML MS-Word produces. Lots of it!

No, I prefer LyX. I type, LyX does the layout. Creating a PDF is painless. With eLyXer HTML creation is easy - and boy, does it look good. With LaTeX2RTF I can create those @#$% Word documents the whole world seems to be craving for. I written my entire 4tH manual with LyX, which is over 450 densely written letter-size pages - with graphics. No problem. Making references, bibliographies or a simple table of contents, it's just a few quick clicks away. I fire LyX up, adjust the document properties and I'm away. I type the title, my name, indicate this is the "title" and "author" and begin my first section. Highlight the section title, indicate this is a "section" and off we go. That's how you produce content. Needless to say that once you've put an image somewhere that it doesn't move anymore - and certainly isn't overlaid.

Now let's move to the pictures themselves. In most cases I don't even enter a graphics program. I write some simple Graphviz code - or let the database generate it - and Graphviz does the rest. Most formats are supported, including SVG, JPG, PDF and EPS. When Graphviz can't help me, I turn to Dia. Dia is a classical diagram program with one little difference: it supports many different formats. When was the last time you successfully converted an MS-Visio file you got over the email to anything useful? Yes, it's always the tedious job of sending an email back - with Outlook <snif> - with the request to send an SVG. Pleeeeaaazzee..

The most useful part of the standard desktop is MS-Access. If you do a lot of data crunching - like me - it is a useful workhorse. Buggy, yes. Useful, yes. Unless you start making applications with it. That is not something I recommend. Importing an MS-Excel sheet or CSV and produce a quick join, OK, but don't use it to make applications! Believe me, I learned this the hard way. Your MS-Access database will corrupt at some point in time, giving rise to data loss or bugs that are impossible to trace or fix. Use a simple WAMP installation with a good framework. That works like magic and you can always install your application on a web server if your client likes it - even if it runs IIS.

Finally, the lack of a decent programming environment. No it doesn't have to be big and complicated. My own 4tH compiler only needs 64K. Why do I need a compiler? Simply because some data conversions or extractions cannot be made with a standard desktop. Unless you do it by hand - something I'm not prepared to do. I recently had to convert a text file with full names to a CSV with first and last names. It took only five lines of 4tH and three minutes. Convinced?

The next fun thing is the lack of a decent editor on a standard desktop. MS-Notepad is unable to read Unix text files. End of story. MS-Wordpad does that for you, no problem. But it lacks a very useful and simple feature. No, I'm not talking about source highlighting. It's the lack of a line number display. So when your PHP bombs out with an error, try to find line 83. Good luck! 1, 2, 3, 4 ..

Finally, the horror of MS-IExplorer. OK, it's half usable as a browser, no problems there. The real fun starts when you're a web developer. Although you're writing perfectly acceptable W3C compliant code, it's not rendered as it should be. And according to the users, you're at fault. Now let's start wasting some serious time by trying to fix it. Yes, there's always a fix. Whether your PNG is not transparent or your SELECT list obscures some DHTML popup, believe me, there is always a fix. And like I said, it may take some time to fix it. You're very proud of yourself when it finally works. Until somebody opens up another browser. Or you get a browser update from Microsoft. You think Microsoft is doing much better now? Don't make me laugh. Even Dillo is doing better.

So, welcome to wonderful world of the standard desktop. How much time do you want to waste today?


Anonymous said...

I started using Linux about 2 years ago. Completely removed all Microsoft programs after one month of using Linux. I didn't had any financial motivation because I used pirated software. It was because Linux was much better for me. However I was not aware how much better.
Every now and then someone calls me to fix their Windows machine. Then the frustration starts... I forgot how irritating it was fixing most trivial problems in Windows, how it's hard to work in that system, how huge the programs are that do the most basic functions (nero for burning has 700Mb!!) etc.
Anyway, I completely understand your frustration.
But I don't think that people will start using Linux any time soon. Negative propaganda against Linux is just too huge.

Mark said...

Enjoyed reading your post.

Carl Draper said...

Oh dear, I think Xandros has to be the most awful bastardized Linux distro ever, closely followed by Suse, are you being punished by your boss?

Anonymous said...

@Beez, thanks for an informative posting.

@Carl D, you are a true solipsist, sir.

Best to you,

NotZed said...

LyX is absolutely amazing for writing documentation. It really deserves a much higher profile than it has.

Anonymous said...

Carl D, are you from Microsoft?

David Gerard said...

Xandros *is* horrible. Fortunately Ubuntu works out the box just fine on the Eee 701.

The main problem with the 701 is that it's too anaemic to play video, which is a lot of the common discourse of teh intarweb these days. But your standard Atom-based netbook is up to the task.

(My daughter is 2 and watches BBC CBeebies on a netbook with great delight - a laptop *her* size! She uses the words "laptop" and "telly" interchangeably. I'm not sure she'd know what to do with an ordinary television.)

The Beez' said...

@All Xandros haters
I don't tend to tinker with things if they work for me. I installed the development chain, LyX and a ew smaller applications on that tiny beast and then it was Ok. If it had come with OpenSuSE, Fedora or anything else Linux- or even BSD wise I had left it alone as well. Don't break a working machine. Like I hope I made perfectly clear in the article, I'm a practical kind of guy. And that is exactly the point: MS doesn't work.

Dennis Murczak said...

@David: My Eee 701 plays DVDs and TV flawlessly in 1680x1050 resolution (external LCD monitor). It is my primary workstation at the moment and runs a heavily trimmed down Debian Sid with KDE 4.3. Not the right setup for number crunching (I do that on my laptop via SSH) but good enough for everyday developer and internet tasks. A more beefy Atom would be nice to have, of course, or even better, something ARM based (IIRC I read something about a quadcore Cortex A9 somewhere that draws ~2 watts).

David Gerard said...

@Dennis - I mean Flash video on YouTube, which it just doesn't cope with at all. This is using Ubuntu 8.04, I do plan to take the Eee in question up to 9.10 before the owner buys a new netbook running XP ...

Anonymous said...

Bruce Byfield refuses to print this comment to the comment you made on his blog, so I reproduce it here:

K. Sutphen
Your comment is awaiting moderation.

Links to documented evidence, and links to the perpetrator’s own words admitting his guilt make the impersonal claim quite convincing to me.

You fail to address the issue of inconvenient facts, here, Bruce.

You also fail to ignore that when multiple unrelated people make the same complaints over several years, how can it then be personal? At that point, it is journalism.

Your objectivity is coughing blood, Bruce.

And some of the people you think you know are extremely devious sociopaths. They have fooled smarter people than you.

Anonymous said...

Here's my thoughts on the same subject, inspired by reading this.

Stephen said...


You said the following regarding Xandros:

"I don't tend to tinker with things if they work for me. I installed the development chain, LyX and a few smaller applications on that tiny beast and then it was Ok."

How is it okay for you to go do that but then turn around and rag on Windows when someone like you who would know better (if you were a Windows user) that there are MUCH better programs than Notepad or Word that you could load up to make Windows "OK"? Seems you should shift your perspective a bit as your comparison here isn't a true 1:1 ratio whatsoever.

Besides, I would truly love to see these desktops you seem to imply have all these freezing problems. Sure, I've experienced the odd freezing box throughout my years, but no more than any regular Linux user has surely experienced. You make it sound like you're on an old P2 trying to run Windows 7 or something. lol. I don't deny there are some slow desktops out there, but there are too many details you're either purposefully neglecting or that you don't care to check for which could very well give good reason for why the desktop is so slow. Who knows... maybe your beloved Linux wouldn't even run good on some of these machines! But, psh, what the heck am I talking about!? OF COURSE you already know Linux would run good on those very same boxes!


-Stephen @ msftkitchen

The Beez' said...

Like I said: Windows doesn't work for me. On my work (XP) laptop I had to install a whole bunch of programs to make it slightly workable. And even now the performance slowly, but surely degrades. Not to mention it keeps asking me to install WGA (NO!) and even asks to reboot after inserting a USB key (NO!).

No, I know of freezing an application, but not en entire desktop with no load for several seconds. And no, these are modern HP's from clients which I have neither the right or the time "to find out what's wrong". They are offered me that way as a workplace, just like any other employee. It's that I need the network connection, otherwise I would call then unusable and hook up my tiny EeePC 701, which already has proven to be capable to do a real workload when my main PC died.

No escaping Stephen, it was junk, it is junk and it will remain junk.