Solitaire: A Consumer Comparison

by Ursula K. Penguin

Numerous arguments exist regarding what the most important computer applications are. There are people who tout the misnamed "productivity suites" like WordPervert Office. These people tend to be Pointy Haired Bosses (PHBs) who always want incredibly important reports in their office yesterday, if not sooner, and who also think "Bob" is cool. (Bob the program, not the religion.)

Then there are those who think serving up web pages is the most important computer application. These tend to be the people looking for the manuals for the egregiously misnamed "productivity suites", so they can find out how to operate the time machine they thought came with Microsoft Nerd.

And then there are the people who think databases are the most important computer application going. These tend to be people who don't know enough Greek history or literature to understand that the manuals for any product named "Oracle" are supposed to be cryptically ambiguous.

And finally there is this bunch of guys who think the NORAD space defense system is the most important computer application around. These tend to be people who live two miles under Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs and are probably named Sneezy, Dopey, etc.

Wrong. All of them, wrong.

A recent, highly scientific Linux Journal study proved conclusively what the world's most important computer application is.

It just so happens that the Linux Journal office is a perfectly normal, all-American office. All those 19" monitors on Sparcs, Alpha boxen, 1.5GHz Athlons, all running (of course) Linux. The Dennis Rodman hairdos. The brand new Suburbans in the office parking lot. Perfectly normal.

So, given that the Linux Journal office is a perfectly normal office, and realizing that our methodology didn't have to be any more accurate than the methodology of the typical political poll, we snuck around the Linux Journal office when no one was looking and recorded what people were actually doing on their computers.

They were playing Solitaire.

All of them. Except for the tea lady, who was hunched over a 14" monitor using Internet Exploder to read something called The Cathedral and the Bizarre.

LJ employees were playing so much Solitaire that we were amazed the magazine got published. We'll be more amazed if this article sees the light of day. In fact, when the publisher reads this article, we'll be even more amazed if there are any employees left the next day, which explains why this article was written pseudonymimously.

Now we know what happened to the "productivity revolution" that was supposed to hit us in the 1990s. Sure, employees are a lot more productive--when they bother to work, that is. Employees are playing so much Solitaire, however, that their productivity averages out to be about the same as it was in 1975, when they were playing Pong instead of working.

This is the "soft underbelly" of the computer revolution: work avoidance. Computers have revolutionized our lives in all sorts of ways. But, as Robert Heinlein (it is mandatory to cite Heinlein in seminal works on the sociology of computers and work habits) pointed out, it is very difficult to predict the secondary implications of a new factor. Anyone could have predicted that computers would make our lives easier. Nobody predicted we'd use computers for work avoidance. In retrospect though, it's obvious. We still don't like to work (which is why it's called "work") and will avoid it if we can. Computers have automated that, too.

This is really a good thing, given modern management. When your project is dilberted, you actually won't have put any effort into it, so you won't feel so bad. Also, you'll know a lot about playing Solitaire, a skill that probably will be more useful at your next job than whatever skills you were supposed to have (but lied about on your resume) for this job. See, it's all very educational and good for your self esteem. (But don't try that argument on your PHB. It's too abstract; he/she/it won't buy it. Sorry.)

Armed with this conclusive evidence, we decided to double LJ's advertising revenue by leading the way to the fad we knew would make us all millionaires if we could make it last at least fifteen minutes: consumer comparisons of Solitaire games.

So herewith, the first Linux Journal Solitaire Product Comparison. Quick, call the vulture capitalists!

The two products we will compare are Xpat2, written by Heiko Eissfeldt and Michael Bischoff, and Microsoft Solitaire, written by anonymous microserfs. Xpat2 is free software as Richard Stallman defines it. Microsoft Solitaire is captive software. Both products were probably written as work avoidance.

Solitaire on Windows

Both products require some sort of GUI. In the case of Xpat2, the GUI is X, with the Athena or Xaw3d widget set or plain old Xlib. The Microsoft product runs on what Microsoft is pleased to call operating systems: Windows NT and Windows 95, so your choice of widgets is even more limited. So playing Microsoft Solitaire on your 386-10 running MS-DOS for the sheer challenge of it is out. Sorry.

But if you want to run Xpat2 on a floppy Linux distro, like tomsrtbt, on a decapitated 386, you can do it. You just need some other computer to be an X server for the 386 and redirect Xpat2's X sockets to the server. However, this is an inherent advantage of X over the Windows GUI, not of Xpat2 over Microsoft Solitaire. In fact, you can sit in your office in, say, Manhattan, and play Xpat2 on a computer in Hong Kong if you want. If you're reasonably good at cracking, you won't even have to ask permission. Now there's work avoidance in the fast lane.

The purchase price is, in one sense, zero for both products. Xpat2 comes bundled with most Linux distros and is in that sense "free". Similarly, Microsoft Solitaire is bundled with various flavors of Microsoft Windows (don't tell the Justice Department). On the other tentacle, spending money to buy, say, Windows 2000, just so you can play Microsoft Solitaire, seems, well, a tad much. On another tentacle, spending $30 to get a copy of Xpat2 as part of a Linux distro may also be a bit much. On yet another tentacle, you can get Xpat2 from a number of sources on the Net for free, including The obvious winner, based on work avoidance, is whichever version of Solitaire is on your computer.

For most of us, porting programs is work, and that's what we're trying to avoid. In addition to work, porting Xpat2 does require a detailed knowledge of X, so forget that. Fortunately, given the results of our scientific user study above, chances are someone's already done it for you. It was probably done by one of those really weird people who thinks that porting a game from one computer to another is all in a day's work avoidance. You know, a person who thinks recompiling a kernel is fun: a nerd.

Usually the user's first interaction with either program is to launch it. For you command-line junkies, typing Xpat2 & at the x-term or sol.exe at the command-line prompt will do it. Most Windows users have no doubt already found Microsoft Solitaire at the usual dull, boring place on their GUI. For example, Start->Programs->Accessories->Games->Solitaire for Windows 95. X users, I'm afraid, are on their own because, speaking of freedom to innovate, there are far too many windows managers and desktops for us to scout them all out for you. Besides, that would be work. (But that's OK. Linux usually has chess bundled with it. Windows doesn't. What does that say about the relative intelligence of the two operating system's user bases? The Linux users will figure it out.)

Solitaire in Play on Windows

Once you have launched the two games, the first thing to notice is that Microsoft Solitaire gives you a typical Klondike card layout to play from. Xpat2 comes up ready to play Gypsy. The second thing to notice is that Xpat2 has far more pull-down menus on the menu bar than does Microsoft Solitaire. In Xpat2, one of the pull-down menus lists all the games you can play, 14 in all. Microsoft Solitaire only offers variants on Las Vegas Solitaire: draw one vs. draw three, and standard scoring (whatever that means) vs. Las Vegas scoring vs. no scoring. So, Xpat2 wins hands down in the flexibility arena. As an extra added fillip, Xpat2 includes an implementation of freecell, which Microsoft provides as another program entirely. Why, your typical office drudge can avoid work 14 times longer with the free software product than with Microsoft Solitaire.

One of the really neat things about both games is that they provide smart-card technology: click on an Xpat2 card, and if there is a legal move, the program will move the card for you. This is great for people who might miss legal moves: you can click on a card and see where it goes. The captive product also provides smart-card technology, except that you have to double click. Also, the Microsoft product lets you pick up a card and drag it. If you get it near a slot where you can legally put it, you can release the card and the program will place it for you. However, when Xpat2 moves a card from one of the slots, it turns over the card below it for you, something the Microsoft product misses.

Xpat2 on Linux Ready to Play Klondike

So both programs check for legal moves, making it rather difficult to cheat, which really is too bad. Given that work avoidance is a form of cheating, why should you not cheat in your Solitaire game?

All these cool features, on the face of it, appear to oppose the work avoider's goal. If you can play games quickly and easily, you might think that you have to get back to work sooner. But careful analysis shows that the real goal of work avoidance is to avoid real work while feeling that you have accomplished something. (This explains the popularity of Powerfully Pointless slides. The people who make them think they convey useful information, but all they really do is give someone in the audience an excuse to turn off the overhead lights so he/she/it can sleep unseen.) So the product that lets you play the most Solitaire games in an hour makes you feel like you've accomplished more.

The Microsoft product allows only one level of undo and not even that if you've just flipped over a card at the top of a slot. Xpat2 allows infinite undos; in fact you can restart a game, which is just a single-click undo back to the start. Xpat2 does what it can to keep you honest; occasionally it will print out Cheat!, along with the undo message in the status bar. It's fair, though; hit "redo" (something else missing from the Microsoft product) and sometimes it will compliment you with uncheat!. In addition, in Xpat2 you may drop a "bookmark" and return to that bookmark later on in the game. So the truly heroic work avoider can use Xpat2 to do serious research on how to play Solitaire by examining different branches of the same deal.

As for scoring, Xpat2 will keep score for those games where it applies. In its two games, Microsoft Solitaire will keep score for you if you wish.

Unlike the Microsoft product, Xpat2 will give you hints if you ask for them, which is ironic when you consider that Microsoft looks down on its users to the point where they have hints, in the form of a GUI, for everything else, whereas Linux users may and often do use command lines and vi to configure their operating systems.

Xpat2 on Linux Offering a Hint

Xpat2 has a great feature for ending games; hit the button called "move to stack" and any card that is face up will, if possible, be moved to the appropriate stack. This means that when all the cards are face up, you can end the game with one click, a major improvement over the Microsoft product. So the true work avoiders, the Stakhanovite work avoiders, the true Order of Lenin and Hero of the Worker's Paradise work avoiders will use this feature to rack up even more games in a given length of time. (The relative importance of Solitaire games and doing work is shown by the fact that Xpat and Stakhanovite have about the same number of hits on Google.)

The Microsoft product lets you choose from twelve decks of cards at any time. Xpat2 cycles between decks only at launch time and then only six. But one of the decks is a portrait of a very pretty woman, a decisive point for the male readership of Linux Journal. Besides, you can add new decks of your own design to Xpat2, unlike the captive product. Instant Matrix playing cards--cool--are obviously more important than rewriting that sales report to make your PHB look good. Especially when you're not in Sales.


Given Xpat2's clear ease-of-play advantage, availability of source code, user-friendly license and far greater choice of games, we would have to rank the free software product a clear winner over the captive software product.

So the next time some PHB wants to know why Linux is superior to Microsoft products, remember: PHBs aren't capable of abstract thinking. That's why they're PHBs instead of software engineers or philosophers. Don't explain, just sit the PHB down in front of a computer or two capable of running Microsoft Solitaire and Xpat2 and invite him/her/it to play a game of cards. What could be simpler?

And while the PHB is figuring out how to use the mouse, you can get some actual work done. Or do something useful, like play cards.

Products: Xpat2; SolitaireVendor: Heiko Eissfeldt and Michael Bischoff; MicrosoftOperating System: Linux, Linux-like OSes; probably others WindowsLicense: Partially GPLed, see the man page; Copyright by Microsoft and defended by the largest army of lawyers in the world, including the Justice Dept.Pretty girl?: Yes; NoComes bundled with: Many Linux distros; probably others WindowsGame(s) played: Klondike, Spider, Gypsy, Free Cell, Haven, Idiot's Delight, Monte Carlo, etc.; Las Vegas or StandardSmart cards: Yes; YesAccepts user-supplied cards?: Yes; NoPrice: Often bundled with Linux distros, free on the Net; Bundled with WindowsLatest version: 1.07; ??Documentation: Yes; YesRPM package: Yes; You're new here, aren't you?

Ursula K. Penguin lives in a small Oregon college town, where she teaches creative literature when she isn't dodging trees on the highway. She is the author of a number of excellent work avoidance tools, like the popular The Drill Press of Heaven computer game. She is currently avoiding work on an update of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penguins, about the titanic struggle between Microsoft and Linux.

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