I got a new toy, and it makes me very happy. Or, at least, I anticipate in the near future that it will.

I got an iPod. Arlene gave it to me, as a gift. I’ll let you in on a secret, here: I think she likes me.

Being a linux weenie, I’m really looking forward to what I’m going to have to do next, “work really hard to understand and/or modify gtkpod”, the linux iPod software. Troublesome. It’s clearly alphaware at this point, and like most linuxy prototypeware, the infrastructure is rock solid and the user interface is a war crime. For example, if you have questions like “how do I get music from my computer onto my iPod” the answer isn’t immediately obvious or easily discoverable. There _is_ music on my ipod now, but I basically got it there by clicking on things at random, and can’t seem to reproduce it for the rest of my collection.

Some of the error messages tell you that you should do X before you “call this function”, but there’s no button or menu item labelled X anywhere. In what you might call the Finishing Move of Linux usability, clicking the Help menu gives you the “About” option, which then gives you the name and version number of the program you’re using, and nothing else. Typical.

This is the Linux Way, of course, but my faith is undimmed! I had to work with Microsoft Word for a while last week to try and do some pretty basic stuff like “change a font” and “edit a table”, and it was just insane how much that experience sucked; Word is totally baroque, the documents almost competely intractable. At least with Linux, I’m beating my head on something that will cave in before my skull.

But, having played with it for a little while, I’ve got to say that it’s just totally obvious why Apple commands something like 75% of the media player market right now.

Update: Here’s a tip for all you gtkpod users out there: don’t try to use it with X-forwarding. Being a KDE user, I don’t know if that’s an artefact of X, the Gnome toolkit or what, but just don’t do it, mmmkthxbi.


  1. Posted February 9, 2006 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    If you haven’t already, you need to start reading what’s available over at iLounge. Their reviews are well written and informative, and their forums are a treasure-trove of anecdotal and expert experience.

  2. Posted February 9, 2006 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    It might play better with Linux if you installed Linux on the iPod itself.

    Logic dictates.


  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted February 9, 2006 at 1:53 pm | Permalink


  4. Posted February 9, 2006 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like you need a Mac now :P Get the power of Linux and Open Source, and the ease of… well there is nothing eaiser out there to compare to.

  5. Mike Hoye
    Posted February 9, 2006 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got decent hardware here; I have the wantlust very badly for the new MacBook, but I’m going to wait a generation or two for that line to get shaken down.

    It’s not like I don’t have a thing or two to spend my money on between now and then, like a wedding.

  6. Posted February 9, 2006 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    If you’re changing fonts in Word, you’re using it wrong. Most people use it wrong, and their documents are unmaintainable crap. This isn’t Word’s fault; it’d be impossible to sell it as a structured text tool.

  7. Mike Hoye
    Posted February 9, 2006 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    That most people use it wrong might be an indication that it is in fact difficult to use.

    Call me crazy, but.

  8. Posted February 9, 2006 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Most people use HTML wrong, too. And most people would use LaTeX wrong, if most people’s heads didn’t explode at even trying to use it.

    People are intimidated by structured tools, and they want freeform character stream stuff, so that’s what Word gives them, while saving the good stuff for those who are interested in structure.

  9. Mike Hoye
    Posted February 12, 2006 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Not to create a straw man here, but your argument is that it is easy to use once you know how to use it properly, which you have completely change your way of thinking in order to do?

    That’s great, but I don’t see how that fails to apply to, say, everything in the universe. Including vi, emacs, Lotus Notes, evilwm, gtkpod and every half-assed A.D.D-ware application out there that doesn’t crash right out of the gate.

    I really don’t know what to say to somebody who seems to be telling me that using the very first buttons and pulldown menus that the application presents you with is doing the wrong thing.

  10. Posted February 13, 2006 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Not exactly. Basically what it comes down to is that Word was designed as a tool for creating structured documents. It really wants you to define headers and subheads and work with predefined styles. This is in contrast to WordPerfect, which is designed to work as a character stream with formatting codes interleaved within it.

    (Think of it roughly as the difference between using HTML properly (using semantic elements; using CSS for styling; thinking of a document as having structure, and text as being contained within structures) and using it the way we all used it in 1997 (using presentational elements, thinking of the text as being interspersed with formatting tags). It’s the mental model difference between putting a paragraph tag at the end of paragraphs to signify that you’re starting a new paragraph, and putting it around a block of text to signify that that block is a pargraph.)

    I think the Word approach is better for documents that get above a certain minimum threshhold of complexity. But the thing is — as the inventors of HTML found out in the ’90s — regular people don’t think in terms of document structures and abstractions, they think in terms of “I want this bit here to have bigger fonts and be bold”. Given this reality, there are two things Microsoft can do: 1) Refuse to indulge these people in the way they want to use their word processor, and insist that they do it right, dammit; 2) Make it easy for them to do what they want to do and put stupid font buttons and so forth all over even though this will mean that the people who use these features are basically fighting with the fundamental building blocks of Word.

    Microsoft being Microsoft, they did their best to make it easy for people. Not an unreasonable decision. But the result of it is that if you use Word naively, thinking of it as basically Notepad with formatting instructions, you’re eventually going to hit a wall. This certainly isn’t ideal, but I’m not smart enough to know how you get around that. (Maybe have Clippy pop up and say, “Hey, you’re making your text big. Is that supposed to be a header?” Only probably not.)

    Anyway, though, however opaque Word is at communicating its underlying model to you, that’s what it’s really doing, and if you want to use Word well, you need to be aware of this and take advantage of it. And the secret mojo of Word — analogous to WordPerfect’s “Reveal Codes” — is the “Styles and Formatting” sidebar (present in XP and later, I believe). Iet lets you easily create styles, apply styles to your text, see what styles are used in your text, and see what styles apply to the particular text you’re selecting at any point. If you open that sidebar and see a bunch of styles like “Arial, 24 pt, Bold”, you’ve got a document that could use some serious cleanup work.

  11. Mike Hoye
    Posted February 13, 2006 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    All of that’s true, and none of it has anything to do with the actual usability of Word.

    Your boss brings you a document and says “this is perfect, except I want this column of this table to be italicized, and these paragraphs down here to be bold.” So, you know, whatever, that’s a five second job. But then you select your column and hit control-B and nothing happens. No message saying “That text is locked to a style”, “would you like to change a style or add a new one”. Nothing, and no indication whatsoever of why your changes didn’t take.

    This isn’t unusual; it happens all the damn time, and it amounts to “if you don’t know about a feature that is not displayed or obvious by default, you will be unable to edit this document, and you will receive no feedback about why not, or what the problem is.”

    This is, incidentally, why lots of people hate computers or think computers hate them. Not “stuff like this”, mind you, but this specific artifact of the world’s most widely-used word processor.