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Linux's Difficulty with Names 946

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the more-important-than-you-think dept.
JohnTyler writes "This article at XYZ Computing takes a look at Linux's strange naming practices. When compared to their Window's equivalents, the names of many Linux programs are difficult to recognize and even tougher to remember. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is actually an important usability issue. Just think, if you had to do a bit of graphic design which would be easier to pick out of the menu, GIMP or Photoshop? Or if you wanted to play a song, Media Player or xine?" The article is a bit thin, but it raises an excellent point.
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Linux's Difficulty with Names

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  • File Extensions (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:30PM (#14346191)
    You know, I'd always thought of this in a similar way: file extensions.
    If you look on the Mac, when it used extensions, they seemed to always make more sense than Windows extenions.
    Here are some examples:
    A movie file - Mac: .mov (by default), Windows .avi.
    Sound file (older Macs) - .snd vs. .wav
    Picture file - .pict vs. .bmp

  • Only slightly true (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ChaserPnk (183094) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:32PM (#14346213)
    This problem reminds me of the prescription medicine naming issue. There are only so many ways to say that a certain drug is for the heart. This is a huge problem and a cause of pharmacy medical mixups all over the world.

    The same problem exists with software. Sure it would be nice if a photo editing app has the name Photo in it, but sooner or later you're going to run out of names. And this problem isn't limited to Linux--how exactly does "Excel" imply spreadsheet?

    I will agree that Linux names are a bit on the wilder side and less professional sounding. But the problem isn't really as bad as it made it sound. What type of program the GIMP is can be indicated by its icon or where the user found it in the menu hierarchy.

    Seriously, we need to devote more time to build software that does what it's meant to do well. I'm sure people will use a killer app if it was called "U Nasty" if it did what the users wanted.
  • by SynapseLapse (644398) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:36PM (#14346263)
    You click the Start button to START the Shutdown process.
    I suppose if you know nothing about computers, it seems odd.

    But it makes sense if you think about it.
  • I call bullshit! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by QuantaStarFire (902219) * <ed.kehoe@NOsPAM.gmail.com> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:36PM (#14346269)
    Whatever the reason, desktop Linux's usability is hindered by its naming practices. This is not a huge factor in its growth or lack thereof, but it is something to consider. If nothing else, its naming is indicative of a community which does not always embrace new users and an operating system which is all to often seen as being reserved for the tech elite. If a person or group develops software they should, by all means, be able to name it whatever they want, but why not help everyone out a bit and name it something which is easy to recognized and remember?

    Desktop Linux's usability is only hindered by it's naming practices for those who can't wait the extra second to hold their mouse over a program and read it's description. Besides that, most Linux programs when installed get filed under the relevant group in the Launcher, so there's really no excuse for further idiocy by going "K...Multimedia...xine? What the hell is that?"

    If downloading programs, then the situation changes. They can read the program description almost immediately following the game and know what it does. If it's a clever acronym like GIMP, they'll figure it out before then. If it's a word-of-mouth thing, a Google search for the program name will reveal all the information they need.

    I don't think the Linux community discourages new users. I think they discourage idiots who lack basic reading comprehension and/or surrender their credit card and SSN to their long-lost uncle in Nigeria, but not a geniune new user who can read the program description. I think that kind of discouragement is a good thing.

  • by Phreakiture (547094) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:38PM (#14346281) Homepage

    It's the result of patent/trademark problems.

    K-illustrator got renamed.

    X11Amp got renamed.

    There are others....

    BTW, WinAmp is not exactly an obvious thing, either.

  • Re:File Extensions (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bored (40072) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:42PM (#14346319)
    Yah good point, only since windows was originally running on DOS many of the good file name extensions were taken. For example '.MOV' was the RLE encoded movie format used by autocad, 3ds and others for the autoflix. '.SND' was the Tandy deskmate sound file. .pict was to long (8.3 format) and a number of the pxx formats were used by paint programs. '.PIC' has the following hits http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=DOS+.pic+ +format [google.com]. PCX was particularly popular.

    Back then though all the mac people used to point to the file name extension in DOS/Windows as a bad practice and a reason why the mac was better (the filetype was hidden in the resource fork and tied to an application).
  • by Animats (122034) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:45PM (#14346348) Homepage
    Look at the icons for Firefox and Thunderbird. Guess what those programs do. The Thunderbird icon looks more like Edna Mode from The Incredibles than a bird. Downsizing the logo does not an icon make.

    Only a few people do icon design well. Susan Kare [kare.com], who did both the original Mac icons and the original Windows icons, is the best known. Take a good look at her work. For some modern icon designs, see Kare's icon family for Autodesk. [kare.com]

  • by Black Parrot (19622) * on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:47PM (#14346372)
    > names are based on the assumption that nobody can touch-type. ls, rm, df, du, etc . . . did any of the engineers at Bell Labs type 10-fingered?

    FWIW, back in the heyday of the VMS CLI, the policy (for DEC) and recommendation (for vendors) was to make every command a verb. The result is that most of the commands were reasonably self-descriptive, and you could usually find what you wanted in help without too much trouble.

    The CLI also let you abbreviate to the first four characters (or to the minimal length needed for unambiguity, whichever was longer). The effect was similar to tab completion, except you didn't actually have to complete it.

    And of course, they supported aliases, so if you hated to type you could set up your own 1-character name for your most frequently used commands.
  • by mmell (832646) <mike.mell@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:50PM (#14346393)
    Yes, I learned on a tty using an acoustic modem to communicate with an HP mainframe running BASIC. (cue audience laughter)

    Did I need <humor> tags?

    BTW, aliasing is just a great way to get yourself (or somebody else) in trouble -- it's a useful tool for the experienced, but it can cause no end of grief in the hands of a neophyte. I remember from firsthand experience (no urban myth) the time a fellow employee with root access decided to see if the 'del' command had any help. Just our luck, a 'helpful' sysadmin had alias'ed "del=rm". Do you know what happened when my associate typed "del /? "

    And don't tell me "nothing" (which is essentially what should've happened). Hint: the server was down in less than 300ms.

  • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @02:56PM (#14346444) Homepage
    Coming up with a good name is really damn hard, just ask the Firefox people. Common, easy to understand words such as "Word" or "Illustrator" are already taken, and you're asking for a lawsuit if you try to use them.

    You can try being clever, like the Lindows and KIllustrator people did, and you can still get sued. You can try to come up with nonsense names or geeky in-jokes, but then normal people are going to be like "WTF?" and your software will never penetrate the market.

    You can concatenate corporate-sounding prefixes, roots, and suffixes, and sound like a buzzword hype drone, er I mean Buzzhypdro(TM) Generator, which will get converted into an acronym, which will be trademarked by some obscure company in a completely different industry who will try to sue you even though they're in a completely different industry.

    And then when your acronym becomes accepted it'll get co-opted by commercial software projects that will treat yours like it's an extensible, embraceable standard, and then they'll sue you to relinquish your own name so they can use it in their marketing literature.

    Someone should start a "Voldemort" project for coming up with pseudo-random placeholder names for "projects that must not be named".
  • by hellfire (86129) <deviladv.gmail@com> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:00PM (#14346486) Homepage
    You've completely missed the point.

    If you're a 4th century roman citizen, you are going to have a tough time with a tank. A modern American might have a tough time too, but they are more likely to have been exposed to cars and computers and whatnot and have a greater chance to pick it up quicker than the roman citizen. Both of them will still have to be trained.

    That's your point, but that's NOT the point of the article!

    Take that same roman citizen, and train them in the use of a BMW. Now ask them which one they will remember more easily after they are forced to walk around without either for 2 months. Chances are they'll remember more about driving a BMW.

    The point is not so much useability as it is reusability. I consider myself a pretty intelligent computer user, but I have to constantly go back to manuals and look things up to remember commands and programs. GIMP doesn't immediately invoke any devices in my memory to recall that application on demand at a later date. Photoshop instantly makes me think of images. 5 seconds later I find out it's for photo editing. I can stick that in my long term memory and remember it for later much more easily. This is how the average user thinks.

    Linux geeks are going to be spending 99% of their time memorizing programs and commands that they use every day and they have to realize not everyone is going to see the world the same way they do. Shortening the word copy to cp helps the advanced linux user save typing but for less advanced users it's easier to remember the word COPY because it makes sense to a wider range of people.
  • I didn't do it. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mmell (832646) <mike.mell@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:13PM (#14346595)
    In fact, I objected strenuously. I was shouted down (because if I had prevailed, they would've had to hire personnel with UNIX experience to run the RS-6000). As it stood (or so management reasoned), with alias'es in place, all we needed was people with MS-DOS experience.

    I was one of three people to survive that learning experience. The bodies of the dead were cast back to the pit of despair, wherein live the unemployed.

  • by chargen (90268) <pete@@@petey...org> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:13PM (#14346597) Homepage
    Squid or Python or FCKeditor or Sylpheed. What's in a name? Hopefully some semblance of professionalism. Sorry, but trying to convince my boss that Sylpheed is a valid alternative to product ABC isn't helped by the project's product name.

    I understand that some people just don't care, or that the project fouder/maintainers pick a name that makes sense to them, or just sounds cool, but in some organizations "political correctness" and fear of offending other users (not that I believe these *should* factor into any decisions, but I've seen it from personal experience) can have an effect on decisions!

    -chargen
  • by Ruff_ilb (769396) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:15PM (#14346617) Homepage
    With GIMP alone, we can see how confusing things get:

    GIMP = GNU Image Manipulation Program

    This contains an acronym by itself, that is GNU.

    GNU = GNU's Not Unix

    So not only is GIMP an acronym, it CONTAINS an acronym, and a recursive acronym at that.

    Confused yet?
  • by Jerry (6400) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:22PM (#14346686)
    Right out of HS in 1959, I attended the Barns School of Business to learn "computer programming", which was really just using jumper cords to connect holes in a patch board to a neutral bus board on the IBM 402 Tabulator. We used the 540 Gang Punch to enter data onto punch cards for sorting in the 402 Tabulator. The purpose of "programming" was to sort punch cards so the tabulator could tabulate them and sent the results to a printer. But, I looked too young and couldn't convince employers to hire me.

    So, after bumbing around on a few jobs for a few years, I went to college. Nine years after my first "programming" training, in 1968, I took Fortran-64 programming in grad school. We used the KSR-133 tele typewriter which supposedly poked along at 10CPS, but if you tried touch typing at 10CPS you couldn't push the keys hard enough to make it punch a hole in the yellow spool of tape into which your program was punched. After spending a couple hours typing in my solution to the quadradic equation I'd put my reel of yellow tape in a brown envelope and the prof would mail it to the CDC6600 computer center in a town 120 miles away. A week later I'd get a printout showing the errors in my typing and the process would start all over. If the printout contained a printing of my program followed by the answer then I had completed the task. IIRC, we completed only 3 or 4 problems that semester. The next semester the physics dept had a contract with the local bank and their B200 computer. We still used the same KSr-133 but the turnaround was the next day because we could go to the bank after hours and see our programs being run. If the errors weren't too bad we could use their KSR-133 and do a "quick" correction on the spot.

    I never used Fortran after that class, and it was only ten years later, in 1978, that I got back into programming using Apple II BASIC. In 1980 I resigned my teaching job and I've been programming every since. In 46 years I've seen "programming" go from patching a breadboard to using tools like Eclipse, KDevelop, MSVC++.NET on PERSONAL computers that are millions of times faster than the 402 Tabulator, or even the IBM 1400 series transistorized computer, which was just on the horizon as I graduated from Barnes. Now, researchers are beginning to get a handle on optical and quantum computing with 10's to 100 GB of RAM and all solid state storage replacing mechanical HDs.

    What a ride it has been!!!
  • by SquadBoy (167263) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:27PM (#14346723) Homepage Journal
    As usual Neal Stephenson said it best.

    "Note the obsessive use of abbreviations and avoidance of capital letters; this is a system invented by people to whom repetitive stress disorder is what black lung is to miners. Long names get worn down to three-letter nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river."

    He was talking about directory names but the same concept holds true for commands and for those of us who still seriously punch deck all day every day and well into the night this is *still* a concern and that's why it lives on.
  • by dsci (658278) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @03:31PM (#14346756) Homepage
    To say that Windows "just works" for the average user is not consistent with the very large base of call-in help desks and even radio shows dedicated to answering questions regarding Windows problems. It might work INITIALLY for the 'average' user, but that is not to say it is more maintenance free.

    To me, long term maintainability is the selling point of Linux. I'll concede Linux is in general harder to set up, but only because the end-user is not typically setting up Windows; it is preinstalled (and configured). If you hide that initial set-up at the vendor, then the user would see Linux as a much easier to use machine LONG TERM. That is, I'd argue that once set up, Linux is far more reliable, more durable and much, much easier to extend into areas the user wants to take the computer after the initial set-up.

    Ultimately, to each his own. I have a family member who will not, under any circumstances, even look at Linux. He does not care if it can do x, y or z better. Do I continue to try to "sell" Linux to him? No way. His box - his choice of OS.

    But, that is not to say that I firmly believe he has more computer headaches than I do in maintaining his systems. And mine are doing much more complicated things.
  • by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @04:01PM (#14347038) Journal
    Wood shop: a place where one works with wood.
    Metal shop: a place where one works with metal.
    Auto shop: a place where one works on cars.

    Following that logic, where does one work with photos....

    PhotoShop.

    Secondly, I am sure you are right when you say we don't need the "brainless among the users". After all, no one wants to see Linux on the Desktop make it. We certainly don't want to see Microsoft taken down a notch or two. God forbid that someone who is a CEO/CFO/etc and knows just enough to use Windows uses Linux and decides it would be good for the 50000 workers in their company use it as well.

    Thirdly, you are right, I am sure the people trying to improve the usablity of OSS are doing nothing for the open source community. Improved usablity is worthless. And, people actually using OSS do nothing for it either. Check it yourself. It is almost a law of nature.

    Now, for what you convienently glossed over. Of those 20 programs in your KDE/Graphics menu, how many do you actually use? How many are actually easy to use? How many are big steaming piles of code crap? Of the programs installed on your box, how many are in permant beta? How many have not had a new release in months or years? How many have no programmers because all the sexy code has been written and no one wants to do the polish, upkeep, and maintenance?
  • by Rick Genter (315800) <rick@genter.gmail@com> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @04:05PM (#14347073) Homepage Journal
    Windows assumes you're an idiot, and Linux doesn't.


    Don't equate "being an idiot" with "not being tech-savvy". There are plenty of Windows users who aren't idiots, but aren't necessarily tech-savvy. That shouldn't prevent them from migrating away from Windows.

    Some people just don't put a priority on memorizing non-intuitive names for software applications...
  • by Arroc (208497) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @04:50PM (#14347464)
    Windows: photoshop (a place to buy photos?)

    from Dictionary.com:
    shop Audio pronunciation of "shop" ( P ) Pronunciation Key (shp)
    n. ...
          2. An atelier; a studio. ...
  • Marketing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Himring (646324) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @04:54PM (#14347500) Homepage Journal
    It's the marketing people -- something MS has always done well and OSS has hardly done at all. It's the same problem with Domino, or should we call it "Lotus Notes." In the mule-choking Domino book I bought they even admit that nomenclature is a problem.

    Our corporation was doing pre-project testing to upgrade/migrate our email system. We were looking at Domino, Exchange and OSS. I setup all three and presented. I wanted Squirrel Mail. I made the huge mistake of leaving the default webpage intact which plainly displayed both the name and the picture of the cute little squirrel. Upper management nearly fell out of their chairs. Forget the PHP stuff I showed off, the LDAPing into our existing Active Directory, the money-saving, the history, the name it. That name and picture killed it.

    Say what you will, but Bullet Tooth Tony always rings true ("Never underestimate the predictability of stupidity"), and the people in power are more likely than not to be stupid about technology. We ended up purchasing and migrating to Exchange. Why? Because MS had marketed it well in all those colorful "CIO" magazines, the name stuck, it had nice bright colors just like my kid's crayons and it all flowed well and had for years -- I'm talking about marketing.

    To the contrary, the more research I did into OSS solutions for email the more frustrated I personally became. "Sendmail is ok, but Jim's Mail is much better and here's why," and then "Jim's Mail was good, but Ted's mail improves on things this way." On and on and on -- it seems OSS is too polluted with each and every dude trying to rebuild the wheel forgetting the fact that the people with the really nice cars and corner offices only know of "Cartman" from that whacky cartoon and I would only use "Bitchx" in a big meeting if I plan on turning in my resignation (do I have to explain women COs and PCness?).

    Much of the OSS community simply has too much of -- as Lucas put it trying to produce 1977 Star Wars -- "a hippy mentality." They come at the man with an attitude and dare anyone to get all up their face over silly and whacky names and over the fact that they've re-invented the wheel over and over and over.

    At the end of the day, COs don't mind tossing change (and it is change by comparison) at a "name brand" product like Exchange. Forget the fact that MS itself thumbed its nose at age-old SMTP commands barfing out Cisco PIX. Forget the fact that they stole and copied things Sendmail does without giving credit. Forget all of that. They know how to talk to the big man with the hot secretary and they know how to market. Until OSS gets this point and stops imagining that these guys -- who spend as much money on a suit as you do your annual PC budget -- read /. then nothing much will change.

    The irony is, is that I actually had to use OSS and Sendmail to do the complicated routing to migrate 1000s of users over to Exchange. Once all was done, I euthanized the Linux box and sent it to that great /. in the sky....

  • by rmdir -r * (716956) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @05:38PM (#14347780)
    How is it a fair comparison to take the windows binaries out of the context of their menus but leave the Ubuntu apps in the context of theirs?


    Wow. That seems like a very fair criticism, exposing a biased post. Unless, of course, you read the first line of the grandparent:

    Let's do the comparison one more time using the names in my Ubuntu Breezy menus vs. the EXE names on Windows. Fair is fair, right?


    Huh. Wow. It looks like he already knew that. In fact, it looks like he already knows that it's a stupid way of making a comparison. But you, of course, missed the sarcasm.


    Maybe he was making a point about the article or a previous post through sarcasm and a counterexample? But you couldn't be bothered to read the article or even the thread.

  • by filmchild (719727) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @05:40PM (#14347805)

    As a person who is trying to get into Linux, I'm glad someone brought this issue up.

    Coming fresh from a Windows environment to Linux, one of the first things you notice is the plethora of ridiculous and sometimes mystifing program and command names. I realize that to a programmer, code junkie, or any other overly technically inclined individual, the inside joke with the prefixes of G and K everywhere is chuckle-worthy. To everyone else, it seems like either a silly joke or deliberate obfuscation. To a new user, you feel like you're too stupid to get what the point of naming something 'Gaim', 'Xine' or 'LiVES' is. The worst offender (and shining case point) is GIMP.

    This is not to say that this problem is universal with Linux software. There are plenty of examples of well-named, easy to remember, and relevant names in the Linux library. OpenOffice, MP3c, and Muse are all well named programs that have some relationship to the work they perform.

    My point in all this is to say that if Linux is ever going to become mainstream (and by mainstream, I mean my mother and little sister use it): it's simply got to grow out of the Alpha Geek culture it was created in. I firmly believe the biggest problems with Linux right now is the lack of a truly slick GUI and the God-awful naming conventions. These two issues conspire to make Linux look like an out of control Ham Radio project to the average user. Regardless of the disdain that some people on /. have for average users, they are the people Linux will have to cater to if it will ever be anything more than a robust server platform and a hacker playground. It's a exercise in futility to attempt and point out the disassociative names used in Windows programs because more than a few of them already have become so popular that they have become synonyms of the functions they perform. Linux doesn't have that luxury. The attitude that these kinds of issues are only problems to people who haven't 'learned' Linux will keep Linux on the back burner.

    Too bad I've got such horrible Karma, I doubt anyone will ever see this.

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @06:18PM (#14348131)
    Calling a graphics program The GIMP (yeah, I know it's meant to be a snarky acronym; newsflash: after the age of 16, nobody cares.) is like naming your son Susan.

    I worked for a company that needed a full-feature RADIUS server with all the bells and whistles. So I recommended Funk Software's Steel-Belted RADIUS. The CIO said that the company would never buy anything from a company named "Funk" and that I'd have to find another server. So yes, naming does affect sales, and "cool" names do annoy the ancient relics with no sense of humor that dish out the money at most companies.
  • by tcgroat (666085) on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @07:05PM (#14348462)
    Like all operating systems of the time, the short names reflected the hardware limitations of the computers running it and the skill expected of the person using it. Both core memory and disk space were very expensive, and thus very limited. File systems restricted the length of file (command) names to conserve space in the directories. Terminal speeds were slow by today's stanmdards: 9600 baud (960 char/sec) for local users, 300-2400 baud (30-240 char/sec) over a modem. Long commands meant poor throughput. The users were expected to learn that OS and its commands, and use them regularly: it was targeted for skilled users, not the average Joe.

    Unix offered an extraordinary luxury for its day by not limiting file names to six to eight characters (plus a short "file type" suffix that was the user generally doesn't have to type). Brevity was not only a matter of efficiency, but essential to avoid running out of room. The brevity ethic carried over into unix, probably by force of habit, even though the file name length limitation no longer demanded it. Microsoft followed the common practice of the day in MS/DOS and Windows through '98; only with NTFS did they adopt a file system with native support for filenames exceeding CP/M's "8.3" format.

    And yes, many still do type with some kind of hunt-and-peck method--with that many years of practice, we old dogs are fast enough that retraining us is pointless.
  • by zsau (266209) <slashdot.thecartographers@net> on Tuesday December 27, 2005 @09:59PM (#14349445) Homepage Journal
    OS/2 had this nifty feature in menus where a menu item could be both a submenu access point and an action item combined. Maybe menu-based free desktop environments could do with something similar, so you'd get:
    |v^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^v|
    |Movie player |>|
    |Grip CD ripper |
    |^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^v^|
    So that if you clicked "Movie player", you'd run the default, but if you chose the arrow you'd get a bunch of different options, like Xine and Totem. I suppose there's some usability problem with this, though.
  • by LQ (188043) on Wednesday December 28, 2005 @05:52AM (#14350858)
    ls, rm, df, du, etc . . . did any of the engineers at Bell Labs type 10-fingered?
    I guess you've never typed on one of those old teletypes. [kuleuven.ac.be]

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