Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Discontinuity

When I was young (about nine), all those years ago, and blissfully unaware of the computing landscape, while other people celebrated their Spectrums and Ataris, I had what was available at home: an IBM PC.

We're not talking an XT here; it was a 4.77MHz 8088 with two 5.25" floppy disk drives (I think). This was brought home by my father from work for Christmas a couple of years running. Ah, the joys of BASICA on floppy disks (mind, when you're learning from a TRS-80 book, it's slightly more tricky!).

Of course, I wasn't stuck on that PC for long; I went through my father's old machines in search of the perfect development platform. A Ferranti Advance with 20Mb hard disk (do you know how hard it is to type "megabyte" then "hard disk"?). A 12MHz 286 with amber-on-black CGA monitor in 1990. How do I remember it was 1990? Because it had Windows 3.0 on it...

To this day I still know the shortcut keys for Windows. While we did have a fantastically expensive optical Mouse Systems mouse, my dad used that for GEM and Windows on his new 16MHz 286 with (gasp!) colour VGA.

When I graduated to that machine, my friends were all using Amigas and Ataris. We stuck to our guns, and my dad's 486 was light-years ahead; that is, if I'd ever been allowed to play games on it... but it was hard, not having the games. (Does anyone remember a game on the Amiga 500 with bouncing red balls you would pop?)

Ten years later - eighteen years after that first PC - I'm still stuck to PCs. Yes, they irritate me, and so does Windows XP, and yes, I still lust after NeXTstep (in its OS X variation). I haven't gone to any of the "light sides", though. Why not? It's not as if I haven't spent enough time with UNIX to know its advantages; I ran SuSE on a 486 ten years ago, and I've tried a number of variants of Linux periodically. I drool over iMacs. I download Win32 GNU tools. Yet I've never actually fully immersed myself. Why not?

I realised the answer to that a while ago, though. I use this computer for work. It is a tool. It is not an end in itself. I don't play computer games; I have an Xbox for that. I don't hack OS kernels for fun (any more). I am a software engineer, not a code monkey, and not a "quick hack" person, for better or worse. And I go home at 5:30pm to my wife, not to my den.

Yes, everything I do on Windows I could do on Linux, without a doubt. And if I dislike the Linux USB drivers like I do Windows' (more on this later), I have the opportunity to fix them. And I'd get endless customisability.

Thing is, it doesn't matter. In terms of the combination of price, ease of use and overall quality, Windows wins for me. My priorities are different from some other people's. I can't justify handing over £900 for an iMac, nor can I give up the consistency and ease-of-use of a modern GUI for Linux's patchy efforts. If I don't get flamed too badly for that, I might elaborate on Linux's failings, and how it could really compete on the desktop, another time.

I could go on - and, indeed, I have - ultimately, though my sister's husband may call me "Bill Gates' whipping boy", I have made the right decision for me. Not because my friends or peers believe I should serve some higher cause.

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