0Why linux will never be mainstream

The title of this art­icle almost reads like click-bait, but that isn’t the inten­tion. I’d just rather it soun­ded like click-bait than the rant that it really is.


Let me start by say­ing that I cur­rently run 2 unix-based sys­tems, a linux-based VPS (that runs this site) and a BSD-based fire­wall box at home. I’ve writ­ten about both sev­er­al times already. In both cases I run these *nix based sys­tems as I believe in using the best tool for the job, but I was some­what reluct­ant to start with and I still reg­u­larly find they reduce me to curs­ing. I teach teen­agers for a real job, but I find the *nix based sys­tems I oper­ate cause me vastly more irrit­a­tion and frus­tra­tion. Let me elab­or­ate with a recent example…

I recently set up a pfsense box as a home router (as I wrote about on 21st Novem­ber). After 5 days of suc­cess­ful oper­a­tion that web inter­face advised me that there was an update avail­able from 2.4.1 to 2.4.2. There was an option to install the update from the web inter­face which I opted to use. The update took around 60 seconds to install and the sys­tem then announced it was reboot­ing and the web inter­face would refresh in 90 seconds. After 90 seconds the sys­tem was still not respons­ive, and des­pite my wait­ing about 20 minutes there was still no response from the box. With con­sid­er­able frus­tra­tion I unplugged the box and moved it into the room where I have a mon­it­or and key­board, con­nec­ted it up and powered up, expect­ing some issue with the IP address or with the alloc­a­tion of the LAN ports. I was being far too optim­ist­ic.

Instead I was greeted by the boot­load­er announ­cing that it was unable to find “loader.efi”. In fact there was a sequence of poten­tially use­ful inform­a­tion that I would nor­mally asso­ci­ate with a drive fail­ure or cor­rup­tion, includ­ing “ZFS found no pools”, “no boot­able par­ti­tions found”, “failed to read size of boot/loader.efi”, “failed to load loader.efi” and some­thing I can’t remem­ber pre­cisely about a pan­ic. I tried googling (via my phone) a series of these phrases but some came up with no res­ults at all, and oth­ers came up with what appeared to be the open source code that out­puts the errors, but noth­ing else.

This was the point at which I star­ted to curse the sys­tem — the prob­lem of “no help” is an infuri­at­ingly com­mon one with *nix sys­tems — for some reas­on the atti­tude of many people seems to be that if you can’t solve it your­self you’re too dumb to be allowed to use their “super­i­or” sys­tems. By this I don’t mean the offi­cial developers, I mean the glob­al com­munity of users. Just try googling for a boot par­ti­tion prob­lem on a win­dows sys­tem and you will find 10’s of mil­lions of art­icles, guides, posts, util­it­ies and more all offer­ing to help, and whilst it some­times takes some wad­ing through, there is nor­mally some­thing that works. With *nix you might as well not both­er even googling, you’ll either find no answer, or you’ll find a post where someone else has asked and been sneered at, or (best case!) you’ll find an answer so unde­cipher­able that you have to spend anoth­er 3 days read­ing to learn how to under­stand the answer. This state of affairs is would be laugh­able if it wasn’t for the fact that you *nix based sys­tem is usu­ally doing some­thing import­ant and you need to fix it PDQ, and con­sequently I think this situ­ation is pathet­ic and con­tempt­ible.

So far so bad, but it doesn’t get bet­ter. I even­tu­ally gave up on “fix­ing” the prob­lem and decided I’d just do a full rein­stall to get things back up and run­ning as quickly as pos­sible before my wife star­ted com­plain­ing about the total lack of Inter­net access. I dis­covered that it is pos­sible to restore the set­tings file from a pre­vi­ous install dur­ing install­a­tion that I chose this option dur­ing install­a­tion. I was offered a choice of which par­ti­tion I wanted to restore the file from. I didn’t know which par­ti­tion it was loc­ated on, and (no sur­prise) googling proved a waste of time. I figured I’d just pick a par­ti­tion and see what happened. The screen flashed very briefly and install­a­tion offered to con­tin­ue. Unsure if the flash had revealed suc­cess or fail­ure I decided to reboot the sys­tem and try again, only this time I used my phone to film the screen so that I could actu­ally read the mes­sage. Hav­ing to do this in itself demon­strates yet more pathet­ic stu­pid­ity — what good is a mes­sage if it is dis­played so briefly that no human can read it?

My phone trick­ery was suc­cess­ful and I was able to read the mes­sage. I had chosen the wrong par­ti­tion, but the installer had searched all of the par­ti­tions and found the set­tings file any­way. This begs the ques­tion — what is the point in ask­ing me to choose a par­ti­tion if you’re then going to search all of them any­way? Yet more stu­pid beha­viour, but at least the set­tings file was suc­cess­fully loc­ated. I then pro­ceeded with the install­a­tion which was suc­cess­ful and did restore the set­tings as hoped. The even­tu­al upshot of all this was that after about 3 hours of frus­tra­tion I was able to get back to a work­ing sys­tem, but no thanks to any help from any­one else, and for every step for­ward from the developers (option to recov­er set­tings) there were 2 steps back (can’t read the mes­sage, had to select a par­ti­tion which was then ignored).

The whole exper­i­ence took me back to the bad old days of Win­dows 95 — which often failed for unex­pec­ted reas­ons, requir­ing rein­stall­a­tion. How­ever, sev­er­al things actu­ally make this more excus­able for Win­dows 95 — firstly there wasn’t really much in the way of a world wide web back in the mid 1990’s, and secondly it was over 20 years ago and tech­no­logy is sup­posed to have moved on since then! Most import­antly — even without the web, help from oth­er people was easi­er to come by for Win­dows 95 back then that it is for *nix now, a situ­ation that it unfor­giv­able.

To avoid this art­icle being just a rant I have tried to include as many of the “google whack” phrases I encountered in the hope that it may help oth­er people. I will endeav­our to write up all of the prob­lems I encounter and man­age to solve with my *nix sys­tems in a way that is as access­ible as pos­sible. I wish (but don’t hold out much hope) that the ridicu­lous­ness of this sort of exper­i­ence will gradu­ally dawn on more of the *nix com­munity and that in the future there will be more pro­duct­ive and sup­port­ive shar­ing of ideas and advice, because without this, there is no way that *nix will ever achieve main­stream accept­ance.

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