Judging Books by Their Covers – Follow Up to This Morning’s Post About Distrowatch Reviews

People are funny critters. You can dress up an inferior product in fancy wrappers and most people will insist it’s superior to something in a more plain wrapper.

That’s true if your Linux distro is being reviewed by Distrowatch. What counts more than performance and stability there is how it’s dressed up. If your default theme and iconset is eye-catching, you get a positive review. You get brownie points, too, if you set up all kinds of RAM-clogging shit to give users desktop “effects” by default.

That’s also true of your website. I noted earlier the review of Scientific Linux remarked about the, umm, spartan features of the project’s website. The reviewer wrote that the SL “website is a simple display of black and white in a Wiki style” and “is fairly quiet, almost sparse in its presentation.”

I’m not sure what the reviewer was expecting. It’s clear and concise. As it’s not targeted to a wide audience (meaning hobbyists), there’s no wacky appeals or enticements. There also aren’t any unreasonable roadmaps attaching the release cycle to some other project. The design of the site reflects the kind of user it seeks to attract — no BS, just the facts.

I wondered to myself, How does SL’s website compare to others? I’m quite familiar with a few projects and some of them haven’t changed their websites in years. Some are also “simple” and “black and white.” Even “sparse” seems to fit.

How has the austerity of the Slackware site hurt it? Patrick and Company churn out a fine distro and focus on stability. The site is clear and easy to use. Only recently (version 13) have they plagued the distro itself with a logo, and that was for LILO splash. It went away when I installed and configured GRUB. It remains the oldest continually developed Linux distro.

Some of us, though, don’t see things the same way others do. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I wrote extensively about this regarding DSL a few years ago; not only that, but I took a ton of crap for daring to find ways to trim resource demands while trying to spiff up the aesthetics (to no avail: for every positive comment, there seemed to be three negative ones because it wasn’t in the same class as other distros). No two people see things the same way. Where one review complains about simplistic icons or an absence of them, people like me see less system overhead consumed by default — something which is much more beautiful than colorful icons anyway. Likewise when it comes to wobbly windows and other gimmicks which do nothing to enhance getting work done on a computer.

Thing is, so much is focused on catching others’ eyes that too much substance gets lost in the shuffle. Like I wrote at the start of this, most people are drawn to how something is wrapped up — whether it’s default Gnome/KDE themes or even how projects set up their websites. Is that really the best way to judge books — by their covers?

I don’t think so. I still prefer to surf the web in elinks or w3m-mode (in emacs). All websites look similar when I do that. Scientific Linux…

…and Slackware…

…look an awful lot like Fedora…

…and Ubuntu…

…and even Distrowatch!

Links function the same way whether you’re in a graphical browser or a text browser. With a text browser, though, you can assess the content of the site a lot better. Substance always trumps style in elinks, lynx, w3m, et al.

Function and substance should always outweigh eye-candy, especially when the subject in question is an operating system. Developers should spend more time fixing their broken, buggy systems with bloated and improperly-patched and/or -compiled packages instead of trying to cover up the whole mess with fancy graphics and gimmicks like wobbly windows (the same is true for dressing up websites). Users, whose senses of aesthetics are often as dubious as developers’, can dress their desktops to suit their own tastes. Developers should know the difference and be able to overlook aesthetics to get to how systems perform and why they perform the way they do. To concentrate or be swayed by icons or themes or version numbers (barring some serious, legitimate issue in which things are going unpatched — a security issue rather than a version issue) is to miss the forest for the trees and to misguide readers about the virtues of what’s being reviewed.

Books shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Neither should Linux distros.

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