Friday, April 28, 2006

In defence of beauty

Yesterday I had an epiphany during a Billy Hollis's Avalon presentation at my.Net user's group.

During the presentation he said something like the following (not a direct quote):

Pretty interfaces are important as the interface is the only thing the user sees

This may sound obvious, but until that time I had always relegated prettiness as a useless attribute of an interface.

For me a user interface had to be functional and usable. This is: it should allow the user to perform all the required tasks in a non intrusive, intuitive way. Having a nice color gradient or round buttons or pretty picture was only a “nice to have”

The extrapolation of Bill’s statement is that the only way a user has to evaluate the quality of an application is through the interface.

Here I have a close analogy. The average car owner will prefer, a functional car that looks awesome to a beaten up car with a perfectly tuned, supped up engine and perfectly balanced tires.

A car aficionado may prefer the beaten up car because he sees the beauty in the engine. The car does not run with the chassis.

In Linux we have the same attitude; we find the beauty in the engine. Many developers still finds prettiness as a distraction.

It’s great to see that some people are paying attention.
From now on, I will be sure to include prettiness in a close category to usefulness, not just as an afterthought “if time permits”.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

What's a distribution?

The first question most people have when they start working with Linux is "what's a distribution?"

Here is my simple explanation of what a Linux distribution is:

A distribution is a collection of applications and configuration utilities built around the GNU/Linux Operating system.

But, what does this really mean? Why not a single distribution with all the same applications and configurations?

Different people need their computer to perform different tasks: Some write programs some others write documents and prepare presentations some others use them as a web server or to unfold the human genome.

A home computer needs different programs than a web server. Home users are used to GUIs while a web server may not even have one.

What's more even among home users some are experts and some are novice. Some have new and fast computers while some others have older and slower computers.

So, if you want to configure your computer exactly as you want or need, you could search for all the applications you need and install them. In practice only a few masochists (and experienced) people dare to start from zero. Some people have already prepared a collection of applications for different "user profiles". They distribute this collections, some free, some commercially. These are the "Distributions".

That does not mean that you can only use the applications provided. Think of a distribution as your starting point. The better you choose your distribution according to your needs, the closer you will be to have a computer configured specifically for you.

As an example of distributions, RedHat (the company) has the following ones:
- Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS : This is a distribution geared to enterprise servers with all the tools to administer a network and its applications
- Red Hat Enterprise Desktop : This one is geared to Desktop users in an office environment.
- Fedora Core : This is a general purpose distribution assembled with 100% free software.

There are 'purpose specific' distributions, for example your TV top-set may be using Linux. Many cell phones use Linux as their underlying OS. There are distributions to configure computer clusters (Groups of computers working as if they were a single one)

Here you can find a list of distributions. Search based on your needs or curiosity and read the descriptions:

http://www.linux.org/dist/index.html