Realism (now w/quick addendum)

April 22nd, 2006  |  Published in old and busted  |  5 Comments

I’m coming to hate the word “realism.”

One of the side effects of working on “enterprise” focused Web sites is an adoption of a “realistic” view of the subject industry. You learn that the value of things is assessed not so much as a function of their qualitative worth, but the chance they have of making a quantitative impact. A few examples:

  • Boot Camp will not dent the “enterprise” market, so it’s effectively “vaporware.” (Paraphrase of some coworkers, who didn’t seem to understand that if it’s running on a bunch of computers, it’s not exactly vapor anymore, even if it isn’t going to cause Apple to drive Dell from corporate desktops.)

  • Moving enterprises to Linux desktops is not likely to happen thanks to the overwhelming entrenchment of a variety of non-Linux-compatible desktop and server applications, so Linux desktops are worthless.

  • The GIMP, while feature-packed and powerful, has a few flaws that will keep it from penetrating most professional design shops and varies wildly from the Photoshop menu structure, mostly for the worse — it’s not a very good application.

From a mainstream technology journalist’s point of view, those are all very realistic and sensible stances, even if we don’t like to contemplate them. The filter of “realism” helps a journo plow through the stack of press releases, prioritize the weekly queue of requests for briefings, and assess a mediascape that’s completely and totally saturated with self-serving hype, deceptive astroturf, hired forum enthusiasts, lying publicists and demented computer zealots who have nothing better to do than insist that their favorite toy is the next big thing.

The unfortunate thing about all this realism is that it’s predicated on a few things that might be true of large organizations (“the enterprise,” by which developers usually mean “suckers waiting to be fleeced for the privilege of having a badly reengineered kitchen sink thrown into their ‘solution,’ and journalists mean “like, rilly rilly big and stuff,”), such as “it’s hard to just move everyone over to something new” or “people have become unspeakably lazy about technology in ways that bode ill for a society that likes to imagine it’s going to stay out front in that area,” but that aren’t very useful for speaking any sort of objective truth.

I realized that last night when I noticed that gimp.app has been recompiled as a universal binary, something that Adobe’s not going to do for any of the current products on the market.

That piqued my interest because I’ve been struggling with Photoshop Elements on the iMac the past few days, seriously hating it with every new benchmark that comes to light. I mean … yeah … it runs “fine,” where “fine” = about .25 GHz faster in practice than it ran on my 1.25 GHz eMac, but it wasn’t every really what you’d call “snappy” on an eMac. So I downloaded gimp.app, a repackaged version of The GIMP, which provides some nice stuff like a very Aqua-esque GTK theme and drag-n-drop from the rest of the OS X GUI (like iPhoto or the Finder or Safari) and tried it out.

Holy crap. It flies. By “flies” I mean that it performs with the same buttery smooth speed that I’ve come to expect from every other app running on this computer besides Photoshop Elements, which I expect to grunt and heave even to merely load.

Naturally my inner realist began to protest:

“The interface … it’s strange and fussy!”

“The filters — they’re named for the obscure 20th century mathematicians who invented the algorithms behind them!”

“There are NO SIMPLE BUTTONS THAT SAY “MAKE PRETTIER!”

Then I thought “This is insane.”

Because it suddenly occurred to me that I’m running a piece of software that, for free, does everything I could want in a digital photography tool provided I spend a few sessions not knowing where everything is and maybe having to tweak a few settings. Plus it does it three or four times as fast as the $75 app Adobe sold to me.

Read all that as you will. Since I know of only two people I can reasonably expect will make it to the bottom of any entry I write about technology, I don’t feel super-compelled to spell much out very explicitly except that this gives me something new to chew on in a few other areas where I’ve let “realism” cloud my thinking about quality.

Update: More to the point, and by way of useful clarification via a conversation with Amy:

“The point I didn’t make clear before I petered out was that I kind of ‘get’ the realist perspective because I have to, but that it’s a bad criteria for when I’m sitting in front of my computer in my bathrobe deciding which image editing software to use.”

Sorry for running out of steam before actually making a point. :-)

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