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Mark Leighton Fisher (4252)

Mark Leighton Fisher
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http://mark-fisher.home.mindspring.com/

I am a Systems Engineer at Regenstrief Institute [regenstrief.org]. I also own Fisher's Creek Consulting [comcast.net].
Tuesday December 23, 2003
08:30 PM

Unix as a Wizard Full Employment Act

[ #16484 ]

(This was written as a comment for Jerry Pournelle's daybook, but you may find it of interest.)

Unix wasn't designed as a Wizard Full Employment Act, although it can certainly be used that way. IMHO, any multiuser system can be used as a Wizard Full Employment Act - your law of, "One user, at least one CPU" can be applied equally welll to Unix family systems like Linux and the BSD variants. Unvarnished Unix is tuned to professional programmers, who are used to keeping lots and lots (and lots!) of fiddley little details in their heads all the time. Systems for the rest of us should not follow that model.

Multiuser systems are generally problematic, as a mistake by one user can affect all other users, but the security measures reguired to protect the users from each other makes the system harder to use even in the best circumstances. (VAX/VMS, in my experience, seemed to be designed to be particularly frustrating to those who needed to know a little of what was going on behind the scenes.) I have particularly enjoyed running Linux on a PC, as I get the power of Unix without all the multiuser concerns.

Mac OS X, and other Unix-family PC OSes, are harder to configure because the best default security configuration is different for home offices like yours vs. a single home PC vs. an office computer vs. a server on the Internet. (This sounds like an opportunity for a developer who wants to make a name for themselves.)

As an aside, one possible solution to Unix system complexity would be to put a visual front end on all commands, with on-screen help autogenerated from the documentation. However, this would require massive rewriting of the Unix documentation to be user-centric rather than programmer-centric.

I've been hoping that Mac OS X would turn out to be, "Unix for the rest of us", giving me the opportunity to have the power of a Unix system at home with the ease of use of a PC. From what little I understand, OS X Macs meet those criteria once you have the bloody things set up.

Unix's combination of a multiuser heritage with a command interface best suited to those who work with it for hours a day, everyday, makes unvarnished Unix a bad choice for those who need to use the computer only as a tool in the pursuit of other objectives. Mac OS X and Linux both free us from the constraints of multiuser systems - multiple usernames are mainly a convenience on PCs that help prevent mistakes like deleting system files by accident. I'll be interested to see if Mac OS X really makes Unix usable to most people while still allowing gurus to exercise the power of Unix.

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