What Makes Linux and Unix Adherents so loyal?

This short essay examines some possible reasons why Unix (of all flavors, but especially including Linux) inspires a loyal devotion shared by no other operating system (except the original Macintosh, may it rest in peace). This is mostly speculation, because the reasons given by those loyal devotees are patently false. Frankly, I think they themselves don't really know.

Here are most of the reasons I have heard and/or seen, not in any particular order:

1.  Stability.
2.  Security.
3.  The command line is faster.
4.  Open source.
And one I have not explicitly seen, but which might actually be the real reason:
5.  User control.
Let's look at these in turn:


You often see and hear claims like this: "My server has been running for months without crashing." I believe them. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there are also Windows systems that have been running for months without crashing. Maybe 2% of the total Windows systems don't crash all the time -- at least not the Windows-based servers. What percent of the total linux systems do not survive for months without crashing? From my experience, I'd say 98%. The difference between the crash-often Windows systems and the crash-often Linux systems is that the Windows system are still usable, so people muddle along, crashing often and cursing Bill Gates and the entire northwest corner of the USA; the unstable Linux systems are inoperable, and people simply give up trying to use them, or else they bring in an expert (who proceeds to crash them a few dozen more times before finally achieving stability). Yes, I have actually seen this happen. In two years of trying, using several different vendor products on a variety of platforms, I succeeded only once in getting a version of Linux to survive the first reboot -- and it was autistic, unable to access either the local ethernet nor a secondary drive for file exchange; I called in the local Linux expert (a full professor of Computer Science, whose preferred operating system is Linux), and he managed to crash it back into inoperability. Then he did the same for the local server.

2% of the Linux installs work and work well; the other 98% are inoperable.
2% of the Windows installs work and work well; the other 98% still work, but crash often.
98% of the Macintosh installs work and work well. Make that past tense; the newer Mac systems crash often.

There is another aspect to stability, that of the programs that run in that system. A few years (less than a decade) ago MacWeek quoted some industry guru "Everybody knows unix programs crash all the time." I think that may be somewhat diminished, but still true. There is a very easily understood basis for that: a unix program that crashes doesn't (usually) take out the whole system, so software vendors are not held up to the same degree of accountability as Windows and Mac software (where you lose everything, not just the data that crashed it). When the system is easier to crash, the software vendors must try harder not to crash it. They succeed.

So much for stability.


Unix fans often brag about the security of their systems. Wweeellll, kind of. A few years back InfoWorld published a table of the number of known security flaws in the various available systems. I don't have the article in front of me to look at, but as I recall, the commercial unix systems fared worst, with several hundred documented flaws each. Several more unix versions (I think including Linux) and most Windows versions were in the 100-200 range. One or two unix versions were under 100, but over 40. The MacOS (not OSX, which was not yet released, and is really just another unix, with all its flaws) had seven known and documented security flaws, an order of magnitude lower than the nearest competitor. If security were a real and compelling reason for preferring an operating system, the MacOS would not now be dead.

Faster Command Line

It's fun to stand behind one of these command-line bigots and just watch how fast it is. They type very fast. They type (a large number of) backspace and cursor control keys even faster. And they mutter a lot at their own typing mistakes. The things they do could be done much faster with a few clicks and drags in a system that supports a humane interface, as anybody with a stopwatch could tell you. But the typists are convinced they can type faster than they could mouse. There is a reason for that perception, related to the perception that driving a max 20 mph on city streets through traffic lights and stop signs and around many turns seems faster than staying on the rush-hour L.A. freeway averaging 30 mph: when you make hundreds of tiny decisions (which corner to turn at, which light to stop for or try to beat, which commands and filenames to type, how much typing errors to back over), you have no cognitive capacity to monitor the passage of time. Sitting in the car rolling along at a pokey 30 with no decisions to make, or dragging an already-spelled file icon onto an already-spelled program icon, leaves you a lot of time to think about other things, such as how much faster you can go when the traffic is not clogged, or how long it takes you to move that mouse across the screen. But the stopwatch tells the truth: it's not faster.

People who grew up on command lines will probably not be (or else already are) convinced that direct manipulation is faster, but the next generation looking over their shoulder and seeing how long it takes will not be blinded by that prejudice. If the command line were really faster, Linux would not ship with Gnome and KDE (both dog-slow, compared to Windows and the old MacOS).

Open Source

This is a real advantage, but it has a downside.

And last, but not least, open source gives the...

User Control

The Macintosh was (that's past tense) popular for one reason only: it was so easy to use that the users no longer had to be dependent on the local computer experts.


We can test this hypothesis out: Let's design an operating system with all the user control that the Macintosh and Smalltalk and Lisp -- and yes, the unix command line -- give you, but without the command line. If we throw a party, will they come? That depends on what the real reasons are. If the system is OpenSource and small enough that a single person can completely understand it (and fix it), it will be stable in the sense that Linux is stable. If its user interface is designed properly, it will be faster than any command line. Let's do it!

Let me know.

Tom Pittman (TPittman aatt IttyBittyComputers.com)

First Draft: 2003 June 23