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Bells & Whistles

As the operating system increasingly becomes the main attraction, ex Linux User & Developer editor Simon Brew yearns for the thinking of the good old days…

What are the defining features and characteristics of Ubuntu? Or Mandriva? Or openSUSE? What are the killer features that are born to illuminate point-of-sale material and tedious slideshows the world over? What’s – heck, why not? – the ‘killer app’ that’s going to get the world excited about Linux?

The best answer to these questions? There aren’t any. There is no single feature to adorn the covers of magazines. There’s no whizzbang gadget to turn the computing world on its head. Instead, the major appeal of Linux, for me anyway, is that it’s content to be an operating system. It’s got no ideas of grandeur. It doesn’t want fame and fortune. Its name doesn’t belong on billboards right across the planet, and neither is it going to be sponsoring anything major, getting name-checked by ‘celebrities’ or promoted as if it’s the moment that the apple fell down on Sir Isaac Newton’s head.

Watching the carnival of publicity for both Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7, I can’t help but think that the world has forgotten just what an operating system is for. An operating system should not be a big feature of a computer. An operating system should instead be the platform that enables you to get on with using the computer in question, with the minimum of fuss and intrusion. Sure, it’s good to have useful tools and features in there, but surely the purpose of such features is as an add-on, so that the user can pick what they intuitively require. If it needs a press release and several big-money presentations to explain why someone needs a particular extra or gizmo, then there’s a compelling argument that they don’t need it in the first place.

Perhaps this is me getting a bit old and weary, but when I used to turn my ZX Spectrum on back in the early Eighties, I had no idea what an operating system was, nor that there was one even on the machine. Instead, I just typed in what I needed to get whatever I needed to happen, and without bothering me with even a monochrome logo, the Spectrum did as it was told. It did it quick, too. Granted, the computing world has evolved, and the power and potential of the operating system has moved along with it. That’s a good thing, certainly. But the key fundamental reason we need an operating system shouldn’t be forgotten. After all, isn’t the best operating system the one you hardly even notice is there?

Simon Brew
A former editor of Linux User & Developer, he spends his time moving between Windows, Mac OS and Linux. His desk also needs a thorough tidy-up.

This article first appeared in issue 80 of Linux User & Developer.