CyberTech Rambler

September 19, 2005

Is having different edition of the same thing a good idea?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 9:17 am

Raymond Chen’s blog on why is there many versions of Microsoft Windows (e.g., Microsoft Starter Edition, Microsoft Home Edition, Microsoft Tablet Edition. See also Ken Fisher’s description of Microsoft Vista versions) at his blog drew a lot of responses. Among them, David Berlind suggested that Microsoft take a leaf from Linux’s distribution model. In Linux, as Berlind point out, only the kernel is essential, you pick-and-mix software on top of the kernel.

I think the closest analogy in Linux for “version” is distribution. Here, we find RedHat, SuSE, Debian, Knoppix and Ubuntu as a few example of linux distributions. For the purpose of this blog lets just ignore the incompatibility between the different distributions and argue why having different distributions is valuable and how the way Microsoft does different versions do not satisfy these criterias.

We once have a PhD student who is good with Linux and build us a custom Debian server for our website from ground up. The server was truely lean and mean: No unnecessary software and I mean it. The glitch is, it is difficult to maintain the server. You cannot update the server using standard Debian tools but have to download the source code, resolve conflicts, compile and test it. Therefore it is not surprising that the server works well for us until we added more people iinto the webserver management team. No other people on the team, including myself, have the knowledge necessary nor the time to rebuild the server everytime we need to apply an update. This approach flops and the minute he left us, I reformatted the server using a standard Debian distribution. This demonstrates what is to me the most crucial decision for using a distribution: Ease of maintaining. A distribution have its own standard practices and if everyone adhere to it, it make maintenance, including upgrade, much easier.

Computers nowadays have different roles to play. A computer destined for the desktop have different hardware and software combination. Thus, having different software distributions tailors their software collection for different needs is a cheap and good way of extracting values from these computer. However, experts earn their keep by fine-tuning the computers to make it more effective according to the needs in hand. I am working happily with an unaltered Knoppix. However, for the aforementioned webserver, there is no need for a graphical user interface. It also make no sense trying to configure the keyboard properly (to enable hot-keys). Hence we chosen to build the webserver using the most basic package available, i.e. directly from a Debian boot disk. For our data analysis machines, we use a modified knoppix distribution because we need to provide a rich user environment with our own sets of software combination not found elsewhere. I could had built all three systems from the minimal Debian boot disk. However, for my personal computing need and the data analysis machines this means I have to spend a lot of time adding the necessary software. Hence, I decided to use the knoppix distribution as “seeds” to populate the computers. Hence, this demonstrate the next biggest advantage of distributions: supplying different seeds on which to build up the computer.

Most people do not use operating system distributions as-it-is, but rather customize the distribution to a certain degree. For instance, when you receive your Windows Machine from your vendor. It is not immediately usable. Rather, you have to install a few other softwares to make your machine useful to you. Now imagine a corporate/academic scenario where it is a good idea to keep 100+ computers in identifical configurations. This is the scenario we faced for our data analysis computers. Our IT management team therefore decided to create their own custom distribution, based on knoppix, to ensure the same software is deployed throughout the organization. This show the ability to create one’s own distribution is important as well.
Windows Server, I believe, has similar capabilities to replicate machines over-the-net. However, this is different from creating one’s distribution as we cannot burn the distribution into a CD and take it to another machine.

Chen also argued that only developers will want every software available for Windows to be installed on their computer. That is not true. As a developer, I only want software my users are going to install on their computers, plus some development software on top of it on my computer. Having every software available on my development computers makes my life difficult, since I can accidentally use a piece of software not available on my user’s computer.

However, as a technical geek, I do not like the idea of creating different editions to suit the business model of charging different price to different people, or to force customer to fork out more for the same software (see this comment on Chen’s blog). While this approach make business sense by carving up and/or creating artificial market, to me, this is like importing South Africa apartheid system based on how much the customer can pay. This is worse when it sucks valuable technical resources from advancing software to work on artificial barriers (crippling) existing software. One good example is Windows Home Edition where I think resources had been diverted to create the “three applications at anytime” barrier. Companies are better of differentiating their softwares by advancing the software and not creating articificial markets by carving up existing one. The latter only provide short term gain.

To summize, the value of distributions are:

  1. Creating a common practice for installation. This makes managing and maintaining computers easier.
  2. improve efficiencies by aggregating softwares for different purposes.
  3. forming the seeding points for customization

and I believe creating distributions should not be done for the sake of satisfying an artificial business need.

In his blog, Chen argued that there is no “one-size-fit-all” and therefore there is a point for different distributions. I agree that there is no “one-size-fit-all”, their strategy only go half way to address the issues of versions/distributions, namedly the first point above and arguably, some of the second point. Taking WinXP for example, the difference between WinXP Starter Edition and WinXP Home Edition is simply an commercial exercise to create a low end market. The distriction between WinXP Home edition and Professional edition is so vague that it simply confuse the end users and frustrate sysadmin by complicating the management of computers. While Microsoft claims that one of the advantages of using Windows on servers is their familiarity to the desktop. Reading the comments from Chen’s blog shows that this might not be true for Windows 2003 Server. Rather, we could be seeing the a split for destop/server edition in the making.

Can Microsoft or proprietory software companies creating something close to that of Linux? I think so and this include incorporating licensing revenue in the distrbution as well. It is necessary, however, to dump the current distribution model. Rather than creating different distributions themselves, Microsoft should put a price tag on every bit of Windows Software, throw them into a bin, allow third party to take parts out of the bin and build their own distributions, and charge for the privilege to do so. This does not, however, means that Microsoft should not provide a selection of distributions themselves. One other advantage of this approach to Microsoft it will tell them what sells and what does not.

Will Microsoft or other proprietory software companies adopt such a model? My prediction is no and the reasons are business-related rather than technological issues.

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