It is the craze of the month among geeks who love complexity. Avoid it at all costs

Linux, the PC program from hell

David Hewson
The Times

April 20 1997

WAS I the only one who broke into a scream of terror when I looked at this month's copy of Personal Computer World? There, staring out from a free CD-Rom on the cover was the program from hell, and all you needed to do to let it take over your PC was double click a couple of times and kiss goodbye to your sanity.

The nasty piece of digital scurf in question is known as Linux and there are plenty of sad types who will tell you it is the future of personal computing. Do not fall for this bizarre line in geek thinking.

Even Personal Computer World, after making it so easy to enter the twilight zone without a return ticket, saw fit to enter a few caveats in the fine print. Linux, it said, came with a serious health warning. Don't even think about it, the magazine said, unless you are technically proficient and have backed up all your PC files beforehand.

Yes, but we know what the average PC user is like. He never reads the words, he just slings in the CD-Rom, clicks on the install icon, and hopes for the best. And if you are now looking at a blank screen with a few impenetrable commands where you once had a working PC, then all I can say is: "You have only yourself to blame."

Linux, for the uninitiated, is a version of that old computer donkey known as Unix. If you need to run big computer Unix tasks then it is, I am told, not a bad solution at all. Equally, if you believe there is no point in doing easily something you can achieve the long way round, it is doubtless the way to go.

Imagine a tougher version of MS-Dos where the commands are even harder to memorise and less forgiving of errors and you are starting to get there. And if you want to cheat a little, you can put on a pseudo-graphical front end and bingo you might just manage to turn a modern Windows NT-capable PC into a passable imitation of Windows 3.1 circa 1992.

However, to read some publications, you might think that Microsoft's Bill Gates is quivering in his boots at the idea that Linux will do what IBM and Apple never managed to achieve kick Windows off the everyday desktop. Really? Well, no. Linux is flavour of the month with the geek community for two reasons it's free, and it's not from Microsoft.

For a certain breed of bug-eyed computer user, that really is all you need. Trivial details such as usability, the lack of decent everyday software, and the plain fact that, when things go wrong, you are on your own are not setbacks to Linux addicts. These are the very reasons why they like the wretched thing because it sets them apart from the mainstream of tedious, ordinary users who just use PCs to get on with the job.

Personal computers seem to have attracted some strange and obsessive people along the way to becoming common or garden information tools. If Linux hadn't been invented by a Finnish student a few years back, something equally strange and esoteric would have appeared to take its place.

Computer geeks despise simple, common standards. Gates is the object of their hate simply because he won the operating-system war. If Apple or IBM had come out on top, the people now buzzing so excitedly around Linux would have treated them to the hate mail they reserve for Gates today.

Fads like Linux are diversionary characters in a digital freak show on the sidelines of modern information technology. Finding them on the cover disks of mainstream magazines says more about the novelty value of computer journalism than the real issues facing those trying to make tomorrow's PCs a sight better than the ones we use today.

The idea that great developments in personal computing will be invented in some dismal student bedroom in Helsinki might make nice bedtime reading for people who dream in hexa-decimal. But if all you want is a computer that you can aspire to understand, chuck that blasted CD-Rom in the bin right now.

Copyright 1997 Times Newspapers Limited