I’ve been using Linux off and on for over a decade.
As I’ve written before, I love the idea of an open-source operating system. The idea is that, if it doesn’t do what you want, and you’ve got the chops, it is not only permissible, but actually encouraged to crack something open and make it do what you want. Add to this the notion that everyone else who uses the thing can reap the benefit of your improvement, and you’ve got the original crowdsourcing.
Throw in both senses of “free” (“Free as in Beer”, and free as in “Do what you want with it”), and in my opinion, you’ve got a winner, and a model for creativity in the digital age.
Of course, for a very long time, Linux was strictly the domain of the nerds. When I first got interested, there was no such thing as a plug-and-play installer. Devices had to be set up individually, often drivers needed to be written, and the whole thing happened at the command line. To me, that actually sounds like kind of a fun way to spend a few days while the wife and kid are out of town. Most people, however, would sooner volunteer for experimental dental surgery. Conversely, Windows isn’t all that expensive in the grand scheme of things, especially if it comes pre-installed on a computer, and most people can get a handle on single and double-clicking, so the Linux market share has stayed quite small.
In the last few years, however, things have been looking up for end-user Linux. There have been a couple of distros (Linux Distributions) that have gotten some serious backing, both in terms of finance and development. Chief among these, of course, has to be Ubuntu, published by Canonical systems. It has everything you’d want in a desktop environment: an automatic installer, huge repositories of free software, active support forums, and, in Linux terms, a huge installed user base. But is it really ready to be a replacement for Windows?
A few years ago, my parents, who were in their early seventies at the time, inherited what was already an old computer from a relative. Loaded with Windows 98, the case evoked classic late 20th-century office equipment: Ginormous, sharp corners, and the ubiquitous “Computer Gray” that screamed “I am a PC!”, and not in a good way. My Dad wanted to see what this whole internet thing was about, and asked me to help him get it set up. A look inside that gigantic case (which was actually roomier than some apartments I’ve lived in), told me this would be a really long and miserable project, with nothing better than mediocre results to be hoped for. I decided to take a different approach.
I took my Dad to Best Buy and got him a brand-spankin’ new computer, a router, and a cable modem. I had him set up in an afternoon, and he was happily browsing away, reading this blog, and looking at baby pictures of my daughter.
Not long after that, I got a call from my Dad. Sheepishly, he informed me that someone had done some unsafe browsing. I’m not going to go into great detail, except to say that I am quite sure that my 70+ year old father is not the one downloading poker applets and signing up with Adult Friend Finder. That’s another story entirely, but the point is, there was enough malware, spyware, and all kinds of other things that get loaded onto your computer when you click on a “Claim your gajillion dollar prize” popup, that trying to actually clean it all off would have been a days-long proposition.
I had recently upgraded my own Ubuntu installation a couple of times, and got something of a radical idea: Why not install Ubuntu on Dad’s computer, and see how he gets along with it? Like an awful lot of people, he uses his computer pretty much for browsing; Email and public library searches, all web-based. For him there was no Windows-only application that he absolutely needed to use to keep him tethered to Microsoft. The plus side, of course, is that the on-line poker applets are all Windows-only, as is virtually all Malware, so they wouldn’t run anyway. We were at the point where we were going to have to format his hard disk and start over anyway, and I figured we could still reinstall Windows if Ubuntu turned out to be a bust. I asked him if he had any documents or anything that he needed to keep, and he kind of looked me funny.
So away we went, formatting his hard disk and installing Ubuntu 9.04 “Jaunty Jackalope”. Ubuntu comes pre-packaged with Mozilla Firefox, which he had been using as his web browser, so there was zero learning curve there. The Gnome 2 shell that was the default in Jaunty was close enough to Windows that Dad had no trouble adapting (in all honesty, he’s never really gotten the hang of when to double click and when to single click anyway).
So for my 70+ year-old Dad, Linux meets his needs just as well as Windows did, and does it without having to worry about unsafe browsing issues. Score one for Linux!
No too long after that, I got another call, this time from my mother in-law. Turns out she was having a similar issue. Have you ever seen that particularly pernicious pop-up window that flashes and screams that it’s detected a virus, then shows a graphic of a Windows XP desktop running something that looks like a virus scan? Well, one day my mother in-law did, and when it showed her an animation of itself actually finding a virus (Surprise!), and gave her the option to pay $59.99 to remove it, she bit. Of course, now she actually did have something sitting on her computer, and it certainly meant her no good. So I went over there, armed with all my virus/malware removal tools. After a little while of messing with it, I asked her just what she used her computer for. Again, web-based email and browsing were her main activities. I also asked her what kind of anti-virus/malware protection she used. She told me that the computer had come with 6 months of McAffee, but she hadn’t renewed, and it had been a couple of years. She mentioned that she had some photographs she wanted to keep. No problem, we copied them to a thumb drive, then installed Ubuntu, this time 10.04, Lucid Lynx, which is a Long Term Stable (LTS) release. There was a small issue later with getting her printer to work correctly (If Linux has an Achilles’ heel, it is printer support), but that just took me a couple of hours to sort out. Again, she had been using Firefox as her primary browser, so it was a painless transition. I showed her Ubuntu’s stock photo-organization app, Shotwell, and she seems to have taken to it quite easily. It’s been over a year now, and she’s doing just fine, virus free, and still not paying $20-50.00 per year for an anti-virus subscription.
What I was able to take away from these two examples is that there is a very large number of users who are primarily browser users, and really aren’t specifically tied to any particular platform-dependent application. For this group, the advantage of Linux over Windows is particularly striking: Linux is immune to the vast majority of viruses that are out there in the wild (of course, no system is completely immune, but the way Linux is set up, it is certainly not low-hanging fruit), it is available free of charge, including updates and upgrades. Standard file formats (think .doc and .xls) are supported, and in many cases, by the exact same applications that are available on Windows or MacOS (Firefox, Google Chrome, Open/Libre Office). It’s stable and well-supported.
So, is it ready for Prime Time? Absolutely!