Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Big Switch

I switched over to Linux.

To understand the severity of this, you must first note that I grew up a "DOS baby." (For you young pups and non-techies, MS-DOS stands for "Microsoft's Disk Operating System", which was the precursor to Windows.) When my mother went to school for computer-aided drafting courses, she purchased a computer--our first as a family--with this curious program called Windows 3.1 on it. I was young, and knew from movies that Macintosh had GUI's, (graphical user interface) but all the cool stuff was done at a command prompt. Since Windows still had a DOS-dependency, we considered it a "sometimes" tool; just another shell instead of the full-fledged OS it has since become.

Instead, we mainly stayed in the comforting white-on-black screen of DOS, hacking in commands with a keyboard. No waiting for clicks to be registered, or the GUI to catch up; commands were executed as soon as the hardware allowed, as fast as you could type. My first programming experience was in BASIC, in a DOS-based text editor, before I was in the 4th grade. It did much to sow the seeds of geekdom into my life. Since then, my typing speed and knowledge of MS-DOS command prompts lets me use a Windows machine with a keyboard faster than most users can with a mouse.

So why switch? A few reasons. In an effort to cement their near-monopoly on the personal computing world, Microsoft has made sure each successive release of Windows is more "user-friendly." In actuality, what this means is that every other "stable" release (in my experience) is completely unusable:

  • 3.1: Good

  • 95: Terrible.

  • 98: Functional


  • XP: Stable, functional, amazing.

  • Vista: see "ME"

  • 7: Gorgeous, but crippled.

In addition to this, while the command prompt interface still exists, it is largely incapable of the type of versatility I have come to expect from a Command Line Interface (CLI), is horrifically slow, and typically has issues conversing with modern hardware in logical ways. Furthermore, Windows 7 completely destroyed the Search feature, making it nearly impossible to find anything you're looking for in a hurry. While each release of Windows tries harder to help new users pick up computers easily, anyone who knows what they're doing in any capacity quickly finds themselves frustrated with Microsoft's designs, and the software's HAL9000-esque tendency to do whatever it wants, regardless of user input.

I have long been a proponent of educational aid for the masses when it comes to learning new things, but (in almost every instance) the phrase "user-friendly" has come mean a dumbing-down of the product to such a point that it is no longer customizable, even in non-tech fields (see my rant about the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent.) Instead of preventing users from making mistakes by accidentally--oh, gods!--customizing the product to their needs, why don't we just educate users in the proper ways to do so? Don't prevent new users from searching, teach them how to find what they're looking for. The latter is much less frustrating in the long run, and serves to give them a peek under the hood of the most commonly used machine on the planet today.

Perhaps that's the trouble, though. Perhaps they don't want you to be an empowered user; maybe they like the awkwardness of Windows, because they know you're used to it. Change is bad, right? I mean, you'd lose all your files, and couldn't communicate with other machines, and, of course, since Windows is so "user-friendly" (read: "crippled"), surely any other operating system would be too hard for you to understand, right?


Linux is different, but not inherently harder. Linux has (free) programs that handle most daily tasks undertaken by Windows users (internet, email, instant messaging, word processing, file management, video/music players) in most of the formats currently in use by Windows users. Linux has (free) programs that handle other things Windows users like to keep up with (recipe books, geneaology software, flashcards) but have a hard time finding. Linux also has many (free) programs that handle a great deal of things the majority of current Windows users currently don't use (photo/image editing, sound editing, video editing, computer animation, CAD software) but could love to tinker with if the opportunity arose, and it didn't put them out-of-pocket.

Ubuntu (and other Linux distros with GUIs) still use the "click this!" interfacing Windows users are so familiar with, but additionally support a powerful CLI terminal for advanced tasks. Ubuntu uses either (with Unity in the newest release) a top-mounted taskbar and gorgeous graphic side-bar, or (pre-Unity "classic" look) a top and bottom bar to help you manage your tasks. It uses four workstations (think your "desktop"), on which you can organize a variety of different tasks. Ubuntu has a "trash" icon similar to your "Recycle Bin", that works in the same way. Overall, it's just basically getting used to where stuff is.

No, scratch that. It's easier. Ubuntu has a program that browses, searches, downloads, and installs software from a great, large repository with one click--many programs you'll need are either already installed, or available here without the hassle of typical installations. Other installation methods do exist, but I'm not used to them enough to comment (hopefully I'll figure out this .tar.gz stuff soon), and I've only run into them on one occasion for an obscure program. Ubuntu comes standard with Mozilla's Firefox, one of the best overall browsers in existence, as well as an email client, social networking post-manager, and multi-protocol instant messaging client not only standard, but integrated into the taskbar at the top so you never even have to fiddle with them unless you feel like it. Ubuntu installs your programs where it needs to, while making them easy-to-locate in the OS menus, and the "My Documents" replacement (your "home" folder), is 15x better, easier to deal with, and less cluttered than what you're used to. Ubuntu can even run WINE, which lets you run many Windows applications on a virtual machine in other operating systems. It really just takes a little getting used to.

Did I mention that Ubuntu, and most of the software that runs in it, is completely free? I don't just mean "free as in speech", but also "free as in beer." Most users don't notice it, but the Windows OS costs them thousands of dollars over time. In addition to the costs of extra programming (which typically costs anywhere from $50 to $1500, depending on what you need), the Windows OS itself costs you between $100-$300 every time you buy a computer. You don't notice it because it's tacked onto the price of the computer itself, but if you've ever had to buy a new copy of Windows for your machine, or upgrade, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Ubuntu is free.

Let me say that again.

Ubuntu. Is. Free.

Get that? You won't pay a dime for it. Period. You can download it for free from the website listed below, or you can have them mail you a CD for the cost of postage only. It's free. And most of the software on it? It's free, too. Not only is it free, most Linux software is open-source, as well. If you aren't sure what that means, it means that the code that makes your programming run is open to the public--to public proofreading, public improvement, public suggestion, and public scrutiny. What this does is allow for improvements to be made by drawing from a larger pool of expertise than just your in-house programmers. This is a big deal in the area of quality control, as it means that basically the whole world's eyes are on your programming ability.

Still not sure if Linux is right for you? Try it out. Ubuntu has many different options to choose from; you can install it inside Windows (via the Wubi installer)to get a feel for it, or you can put in bootable USB device or CD, restart your computer, and "Try Ubuntu without installing it." I recommend the latter option (I haven't tried the former), as it will let you poke around in full Ubuntu mode without actually changing anything at all on your physical computer. If you like what you see, call a local geek to back up all your old files (so you can use them with these shiny new programs) and help you install it on your machine. If you don't, you're literally not out anything but time.

Give it a chance. It's not as hard as it looks, and it's quite rewarding. As your knowledge of Linux grows, so will your capailities to customize the system to your liking. If I can do it, you can, too.

=Further Reading=

In a bit of irony, I used Notepad on WINE to hold the seeds of this entry before I posted it to the Great Aether. I'm still new to this Linux thing, and I don't know where everything is, but I'm learning. And learning FAST

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