Unix and Software Design

Getting it right in software design is tricky business. It takes more than a skillful programmer and a reasonable style guide. For all of the shortcomings to be ironed out, we also need users to test the software and share their feedback. Moreover, it is true that some schools of thought are much closer to getting it right than others. I work with both Unix-like operating systems and Windows on a daily basis. From my quite personal experience Unix software is designed much better and there is good reasons for that. I’ll try to give some examples of badly designed software and why Unix applications simple rock.

The very core of Unix is the C programming language. This imposes a certain way of thinking about how software should work and how to avoid common pitfalls. Though simple and very efficient, C is an unforgiving language. By default it lacks advanced object-oriented concepts and exception handling. Therefore, past Unix programmers had to swiftly establish good software design practices. As a result, Unix software is less error-prone and easier to debug. Also, C teaches how to combine small functions and modules into bigger structures to write more elaborate software. While modern Unix is vastly different from the early Unix, good practices remained a driving force as people behind them still live or have left an everlasting impression. It is also important to note that the graphical user interface (Xorg and X11 server) was added to Unix much later and the system itself functions perfectly fine without it.

Windows is entirely different as it was born from more recent concepts, when bitmapped displays were prevalent and the graphical user interface (GUI) began to matter. This high-level approach impacts software design greatly. Windows software is specifically GUI-centred and as such emphasizes the use of UIs much more. Obviously, it’s a matter of dispute, though personally I believe that good software comes from a solid command-line core. GUIs should be used when needed not as a lazy default. To put it a bit into perspective…

My research group uses a very old piece of software for managing lab journals. It’s a GUI to a database manager that accesses remotely hosted journals. Each experiment is a database record consisting of text and image blocks. From the error prompts I encountered thus far I judged that the whole thing is written in C#. That’s not the problem, though. The main issue is that the software is awfully slow and prints the most useless error messages ever. My personal favorite is “cannot authenticate credentials”. Not only is it obvious if one cannot log in, but it contains no information as to why the login attempt failed. Was the username or password wrong? Lack of access due to server issues? Maybe the user forgot to connect to the Internet at all? Each of these should have a separate pop-up message with an optional suggestion on what to do to fix the issue. “Contact your system administrator” not being one of them!

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