I wrote previously about why you should switch to Linux for all your computing needs. I would like to amplify on that assertion. There has never been a better time to abandon Windows and switch to Linux. First I’ll address the disaster that Microsoft Windows has become, and then explore the Linux alternative.
Window’s Ship is Sinking
Just like the Titanic, even though there is widespread denial, Windows is sinking into the abyss just as surely. Despite the grave metaphor, I am not saying Windows will completely go away (who knows for sure), but it will continue to shrink into irrelevance. Linux rules both the server/cloud world and dominates the mobile market as well via Android. As applications continue to move to the cloud and mobile, the raison d’être for Windows as the only platform that can run the applications a user needs is slipping away.
But irrelevance is not the only thing ailing Windows. No siree. The operating system is strangling itself. Years of legacy code combined with a closed development system has left Windows years, even decades behind its competitors, namely Linux. Even the mighty resources that Microsoft have at its disposal cannot hope to compete with the worldwide open source development community that provides us the Linux operating system. Closed source is an antiquated development model that is quickly becoming a relic of the past.
For example, just a few weeks ago, Microsoft announced it will be finally be offering SSH support in Windows after missing this key operating feature for over ten years. SSH is a secure communications protocol between computers that Linux has had almost forever. This news gets even better though. It’s not like they are announcing it is available, but rather it is now in the planning stages! With two aborted attempts in the past, how long will it take them this time?
So far, I have only addressed the fact that Windows development has been languishing for about 15 years. Windows XP is considered the pinnacle by many analysts, and the platform has been going down hill ever since. Not only is its development arrested, but the last two major releases have been disasters. Everyone acknowledges the version 8 fiasco, but no so much yet with version 10. Yet version 10 has even more problems. Version 8 was at least stable and usable, albeit with its interface hidden away. Windows 10 in reality offers nothing more than version 8.1, but rather is really buggy and only halfway done. The UI is still only halfway converted to the new way of doing things, and in Microsoft’s rush to get it out the door in hopes of saving the sinking ship, I believe they may have made the situation even worse. Numerous drivers are missing and many major defects have been reported. It basically suffers from all the same complaints about Linux ten years ago (which have now been resolved).
I have another good example. Just recently, a client needed me to mount a remote file share on his Windows 10 laptop. No problem, or so I thought. When I installed usual program for this task (which costs a fair chunk of change by the way) and tried to mount the share, Windows complained very nebulously about a driver being missing. After considerable Google searching proved fruitless, I had to resort to finding another commercial program to do the same task. If the laptop was running Linux, I could have added a single line to the
/etc/fstab file (a file mounting configuration file) and be done with it.
On Linux, doing computer configuration is really that simple. Not only that, but if you don’t know how to do it, a few minutes with a browser will return numerous well-written tutorials.
In Praise of Linux
Linux is everywhere. It runs the entire Internet. It runs on many appliances such as your router, Kindle, and some day maybe even your toaster. It runs on credit sized computers that cost as little as $15 (update – the recently announced Raspberry Pi Zero costs only $5 and still runs full-blown desktop Linux).
Microsoft has tried to bolster Windows 10 image by announcing it would run on another credit sized computer, the Raspberry Pi. What a joke. It does no such thing. What they are calling Windows 10 is a development environment you run on your desktop that can compile a program using the Windows API that then runs on the Pi. In contrast, for a few years now, you can run a complete Linux-based, graphical OS on the Pi that is as capable as a typical desktop from several years ago. And not only one flavor of Linux, but you can have you choice among several variants according to your tastes and needs. Running Linux, this little computer can do things your tablet or cell phone can only dream of. You don’t need a development environment on your desktop to build apps on. The Raspberry Pi is the computer to not only create apps, but wonderful interpreted, text-based, Python programs as well.
Linux is also cutting edge. Computers and development are continually evolving. They way things were done last year are not the way to do them today. Linux is where these cutting edge technologies are being developed and deployed. The best we can hope out of Microsoft is to get some of these technologies several years down the road.
Linux has great apps and an even better way to install them. Most applications for Linux are free and open source. Because of these properties, you rarely have to hunt them down, download them from malware sites, or pay for them. Armies of volunteers, scoop them up and put them in repositories, safe, effortless, and free for the taking.
Some stalwarts refuse to see the writing on the wall and stick steadfastly to their creaking operating system. If you are one of them, I won’t try to convince you otherwise. You are free to stay the course – a literal minefield, infested with malware, ransomware and expensive software patches. For those up for fun and adventure, read on.
Let’s Do Linux
Step 1 – Try it out
If you are with me thus far, you are probably wondering how to get started making the switch. The first place to start is by trying one of the many flavors of Linux, called ‘Distros’. Ubuntu or its variant Kubuntu is a safe bet. Also safe is an Ubuntu derivative called Mint. If the person you are providing IT support for has trouble adjusting to something new, you can even get a distro that looks just like WindowsXP – literally.You can install these distros onto a USB flash drive and ‘live boot’ to try them out live without touching your current install. Another way to try them is to buy a Raspberry Pi and try it out that way. You can even get SD cards with the OS pre-installed.
Step 2 – Take the Plunge
After you decide on a distro, installation is easy, even easier than Windows, infinitely easier than installing Windows 8 through 10 from scratch. The popular Linux distros offer easy installation alongside your Windows install, enabling you to dual-boot. You don’t have to go cold turkey, you can still have Windows for training wheels when you get scared or stuck.
Step 3 – Installing the apps
Each distro has the equivalent of an ‘app store’. The Linux world invented the app store long before Apple. Most applications are free, and just like cell phone app stores, you just click to install. That’s all there is to it for apps with graphical UIs. For command-line programs, installation is just as easy, you just do it the command-line way. Each distro has a command-line installer and installing is as easy as saying ‘install appname’. Again, Linux does the rest.
Step 4 – Migrating to new apps
The most common objection to switching to Linux is – “is Photoshop available?” or some similar objection. In probably 90% of the more common needs, there is an open source equivalent that runs on Linux. Instead of Photoshop, there is Gimp. Instead of MS Office, there is Libre Office. Browser’s such as Firefox and Chrome run on both systems, as does the popular mail program Thunderbird. Linux also offers a number of other choices for browsers, e-mail, chat apps and more. The only time you might run into a problem is with a specialized application such as Quickbooks, AutoCad, and other such niche software. For most of us, there is little need for these exotic applications.
If you do need one of them, there are some workarounds. First, look for a Linux equivalent. This is fairly common. If you don’t find one, then try to run the actual Windows application under Wine or Crossover. I recommend Crossover, as it is a spiffier version of Wine; both share the same core code. These programs are not emulators, but rather implement the Win32 API. Well behaved Windows programs will actually run natively using one of them to provide the missing parts.
Another workaround is emulation. You can install VirtualBox (part of the Linux repos) and install Windows XP or Windows 7, and install your Windows app as usual. With today’s fast desktops, you won’t notice a difference from native, except it runs inside this virtual OS. Of course, you can also dual-boot, but that is not as convenient.A third option, which is only now becoming available, is to either buy a ‘brick’ or ‘NUC’ style desktop or repurpose an old Laptop or Desktop by running Windows on it. Then using VNC, you simply log into that Windows computer from any other computer you have in the house, whether it be a desktop, laptop, tablet or Raspberry Pi. Its like having another computer inside the one you are using. I am currently using a netbook with a broken screen that I bought on e-bay for $20 to run Quickbooks – the one application I can’t be without, that unfortunately has no Linux equivalent.
Speaking of Quickbooks, a fourth option is to just use the Web version of the software you need. This option, being a continual drain on my pocketbook is not suitable for me, but it may be great for you.
So, no matter how dire your need for a particular application, one of these alternatives will make it work for you. Even if you use option three (a dedicated Windows box), it still beats Windows hands down. You can keep it off the Internet and locked down, thus preventing any nasty infection, and enjoy the use of a safe modern operating system for the rest of your needs.
The last corner of application migration is all those little utilities you may have purchased for Windows, which you are new fearing can not crossover. Have no fears, because whatever you needed to keep your Windows box running smoothly, you will find either a better equivalent under Linux, or no need at all. Anti-virus software is a perfect example. You will not need to worry one microsecond about it on Linux.