logo Living With Linux in a Windows World
(A low-hassle approach to computing freedom.)

Time for a change?:
When I started this site, the Windows Vista release was just around the corner. The hints were all around that it was going to be pretty messy for consumers. The test versions were resource hogs: slow, replete with glitches and incompatibilities. New features did not appear to be worth the expense and performance hits. It looked like it was a bad value being forced upon consumers by withdrawl of older versions.

A year later, Vista arrived and has been at least as disruptive as predicted. Enterprise customers have been able to force reversion of bundled software to XP. Individual consumers have been disadvantaged in this process. Some have forced vendors to revert to XP, others have swallowed hard and waited for service packs.

Amid press releases touting Vista enhancements and deployments, Microsoft has also announced extension of availability of XP "to give small businesses and customers in emerging markets more time and flexibility to test and prepare for the operating system upgrade." I translate that into, "the customers do not like what they see so far with Vista."

The predictions appear correct. Vista has been a hassle and it has been expensive. It has also been slow and prone to get slower.

Windows 7
Microsoft went back to the drawing board and produced an upgraded Windows they called "Windows 7." It is different enough to make previous Windows users scratch their heads trying to find familiar options. It includes more security add-ons.

Unfortunately, the things that were most insecure about past versions of Windows are still a major part of Windows 7. Is it faster? A bit. Is it safer? A bit. Is it a giant leap forward? Nope.

For the newness you also get a "compatibility mode" in order to run some older software. Upgrading mostly means not just Windows but also your applications. Meanwhile, although they have tried to end-of-life terminate Windows XP--Microsoft's customers have demanded continued support and that now extends to 2014 for XP.

Linux offers freedom
There are alternatives to Windows. The Mac is one that is gaining market share . Macs come with a fine operating system but that operating system does not prevent lock-in. It will require new application software to be functional. That software will be delivered by many of the same vendors that are eager to sell you Windows applications. It is lock-in with a different flavor.

Many of us have found Linux to be a terrific alternative to Windows. It has a sophisticated design that is built upon the principles that have evolved over decades of UNIX development. That design is modular network-centric. Security, modularity and stability have been intrinsic design features from the beginning. Thousands of applications are available.

Linux and most Linux-compatible applications are available as free software. Often "free" means free of cost, but importantly, free as in freedom or free speech. 

Linux is economical
Many Linux distributions are available free of charge, to simply be downloaded from the Internet. Virtually all of them come with hundreds of applications that are installed during the Linux installation process.

Windows, MSOffice, Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat will set cost you close to $2,000. The typical Linux distribution gives you this functionality and much more for $0. In addition, you get advanced networking capabilities and far greater security and system stability. Some distributions of Linux charge modest amounts for enhanced packages or subscriptions that include support options and early availability of upgrades. I have no problem whatever with folks or companies charging for value added to the software.

Escape from Lock-in
Microsoft's Windows® operating system, in one version or another, runs about 90% of the world's personal computers. It must be one terrific operating system to have all those users, right? Maybe not.

Regardless of how terrific you might find some aspects of Windows, the reality is that users are running Windows more out of vendor "lock-in" than out of love, admiration or confidence in the product.

What is vendor lock-in? It is the inertia that is caused by dependence on the vendor's products. In the case of Windows, it is dependence on both the operating system and the applications that run on that system. The lock-in is caused by the need to be able read and modify your previously created files. It is due to the requirement to read and modify the Windows-created documents that others send to you. Finally, lock-in is also due to the cost in time and money that is required to learn the alternative system.

Minimize Lock-out
Microsoft has invented a class of doublespeak around tools and techniques intended to give customers less control over their hardware in support of various business interests. "Genuine Advantage" is a term that sounds good but is intended to let them "frisk" your operating system to make sure you paid them enough.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a class of effort in software and hardware to prevent you from using parts of your computer unless someone has gotten  payment. Ostensibly this is to prevent piracy. In reality it can also prevent you from freely using the hardware fully on freely licensed content.

Should you switch?
The process of changing operating systems can be filled with false starts and frustrations. Even the decision to switch has its pros and cons. How should you start? Should you set up Linux on your current system or an older box you are no longer using? Should you set up dual booting?

Your analysis for this question should be a typical cost vs benefits approach. What will you get and what will you lose by switching to Linux? What are the immediate costs (time and money) vs what are the long-term costs

Windows is intrinsically insecure
This level of domination affects all who use computers directly if they run Windows, and indirectly for everyone else.

Windows arose to its current status in the days before the Internet and at a time when personal computers were simple machines without significant computing power. As computers gained power and resources, Windows grew more complex and functions were added.

Functions like networking, file-sharing and Internet browsing were added to an operating system that was never designed to deal with the security issues that come along with this kind of exposure. Security weaknesses in Windows largely stem from this haphazard approach to development and to various "ease of use" features that give easy access to key operating system resources.

In addition, the way in which major systems for dealing with networking are woven into the Windows operating system causes other problems. This integration makes it more difficult to improve things except by major operating system upgrades. The integration also makes security intrusions more dangerous when they do occur.

Linux is different
Linux arose as a project to make a UNIX-like operating system for personal computers. Linux built on much of the design history of UNIX. This history is fundamentally different from the history of Windows. One major difference is that the hardware systems that UNIX was designed to run on were large, relatively powerful (for the day) multiuser systems that were networked. Both of these attributes demanded attention to security from the ground up.

Because many processes would be going on simultaneously, this also means that UNIX and Linux evolved robust ways to keep those processes, and the resources devoted to them, separate. This is the foundation for the exceptional stability of UNIX and Linux.

Linux on the desktop
Originally, UNIX operating systems were the 18-wheeler trucks of the computing world. They ran on big machines that most people had little contact with. Personal computers were different because they were the mini-bikes of the computing world. Things have changed, The rapid advance of computing power now puts computing power like those early truck-like computers onto every desktop. Today's powerful personal computers are fully capable of taking advantage of the power of UNIX-like systems.

Linux arose from Linus Torvald's interest in having an operating system for his personal computer.Linux is used in large super computers and tiny embedded systems. It is used for servers and for personal desktop systems.

Applications are the key
An operating system is a platform for running applications. The key to the usefulness of Linux as a desktop operating system is the availability of thousands of desktop applications that run on Linux. These range from browsers like Firefox and Mozilla to office productivity software like OpenOffice.org, Abiword and KOffice. It includes software for burning CDs and DVDs as well as software for downloading photos from digital cameras and editing those photos. Basically, nearly everything you can do in other desktop operating systems, you can also do in Linux.

Linux on the desktop is ready now
It seems as if every week or two someone writes a web article or blog entry that asks the question, "Is Linux ready for the desktop?" The assumption is that Linux has not been ready for desktop productivity for years--when indeed a large number of users are quite satisfied to use Linux for all manner of common desktop tasks.

What the questions usually boils down to can be restated, "Is Linux ready for my desktop?" Or, perhaps, "Is Linux ready to deal with all of an enterprise's business computing needs?" When the question is asked in absolute terms the absolute answer is generally, "Well, not quite yet."

No sudden switch over of any set of processes is ready to be accomplished instantly.

What about your Windows files?
Nothing causes people to pause when considering switching as much as their old collection of letters, emails, photos, spreadsheets and other data files that they do not want to leave behind. No elements are more important to decisions about switching than compatibility of old data and old ways of working. Fortunately, for the most common Windows applications there are Linux applications that do a pretty good job of reading and translating special formats. This includes Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, email, images and so on. Files you generate with open source software is typically free of proprietary restrictions and should remain available long after proprietary formats become unreadable.

Pure as in pure frustration?
For some reason, the choice of an operating system is often associated with zealotry. The rise of the computing purists goes along with the increasing dominance of Windows. Although it is easy to sympathize with those who want to unhook from Windows "lock-in" once and for all, it is not alway practical. In addition, completely unhooking from Windows is not a hassle free path.

The first step is to make life more secure by switching to Linux for most of your day to day computing. The next step is to find Linux applications to replace applications you are using in Windows.

In the end, you will probably have some remaining Windows applications that you want or need to continue to use. For these, you will need to find the way to use them which best integrates with the rest of your Linux life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What do you mean computing freedom?
A: Freedom from lock-in to high costs, low security and instability.

Q: What do you mean by "low-hassle?"
A: Most people who switch to Linux still need to interact with the larger world of Windows users and Windows applications. Low-hassle means choosing solid and simple ways of maintaining that ability without staying on the Windows treadmill.

Q: Are you saying I can run Windows programs under Linux?
A: You can maintain compatibility with Windows programs and Windows file formats in many ways. For instance:
  • You can run Linux versions of some applications that you currently use in Windows.
  • You can run Linux programs that are compatible with the file formats used by Windows programs.
  • You can install and run many Windows programs under WINE, and use them as if they were native Linux programs.
  • You can install versions of Windows in virtualizing software under Linux and then run Windows applications from those Windows sessions.

Q: But aren't you defeating the purpose of switching if you run Windows applications under Linux?
A: Not at all. Switching should be about improving your computing experience. The reality is that you will probably need to maintain compatibility with Windows programs. Accepting that reality makes it easier to switch and makes switching a lower hassle endeavor.

Q: Don't I keep reading that "Linux is not yet ready for the desktop?"
A: Probably so. A great many people and some powerful business forces have a lot at stake in worrying people about switching from Windows. On the other hand, a great many people are quite satisfied to use Linux as their desktop environment. Only you can decide if you are ready for the Linux desktop. That will include deciding if some of the solutions for running Windows applications under Linux will enhance your computing potential or make it more awkward.

Linux links:

Linux documentation, like Linux software itself, is online. For detailed help in Linux installation, configuration and troubleshooting, use the Internet. For strategies for making the switch to Linux low-hassle and productive, buy Living with Linux in a Windows World.

Why Linux is Better
A neat and amusing introduction to why Linux may be better for you than your current operating system.

The Linux Documentation project
The granddaddy of all collections of Linux documentation. When you want to dig into things this is one place to bring your tools.

A venerable source of Linux information and links.

Linux Forums
A new and promising place to ask questions and get answers. I think the distribution-specific forums might be better targeted.

Linux news. Often bogus "news" sponsored by the big-money competition. Nevertheless, a reasonable way to find new stories.

Linux Planet
Another site with news and links--lots of links.

Linux Newbie Administrator Guide
The online version of an aging but still very useful guide.

LInux Command Line
A good set of tutorials on using the command line tools in Linux.

Linux Software "Equivalents" (find equivalents to Windows stuff)
A huge and useful list of Linux applications that can substitute for Windows applications. Equivalent is in the eye of the beholder. Many of the Linux applications are different in ways that make them superior

Linux App Finder
More than a list. Well-organized and with a commentary, this application finder is terrific.

Using Linux
Another on-line version of a book. Detail-oriented books quickly go out of date in the rapidly changing world of Linux but this one is full in good stuff.

Virtualization made fast, stable, easy and affordable. Run Windows or various versions of Linux under your main Linux installation.

This is The Source of official new Linux Kernel versions. Lots of documentation about the nitty-gritty of the kernel.

Kernel Newbies
Basically a how-to site for kernel development wannabes. Full of useful information about getting into the kernel and its development.

TuxFiles (Linux Newbie)
Lots of great Linux documentation.

© 2006-2012 by Don Campbell
last modified 02/01/2012