In 2003 my wife switched to Linux for a year. She’d been using Windows 98 and was reinstalling the OS about once every four months to recover from some cataclysmic internal failure on the part of the Windows. This was just how things went for her – about the time she had everything working again, the system would implode and she’d have to start all over.
When it came time to upgrade her computer, she balked at the idea of giving her tormentors in Redmond more money. It felt like leasing a jail cell. We got a no-OS computer and she put Linux (Red Hat) on it.
The beginning was rough. I would usually find her toiling over some long list of terminal commands and altering – waddya call ’em – RPM files or somesuch? I dunno. They were these files you used to install programs, but which always needed a little tweaking first. She installed stuff. Compiled stuff. Read stuff. She spent a lot of time on it. She was getting faster as she learned, but it was clear that there was a certain terminal-window overhead to a lot of mundane activities. If you make a mistake in Windows you can crash a program or get a stupid dialog. If you make a mistake in a Linux terminal window you can create problems that will take you an hour to unravel and solve.
It was frustrating because it was clear that a lot of this stuff could be better automated. It could be easier to use. A lot of the stuff she was doing wasn’t stuff that required a human brain to do. It just involved making many adjustments to config files and the like. The stuff she was doing was annoying, time consuming, and required a high degree of knowledge even to perform basic tasks. It felt like she was trying to earn her pilot’s license in the hopes that she could someday build paper airplanes.
She sought help in various message boards, which were inhabited by the classic Linux fanboys: Guys who scorn the unwashed who attempt to join their ranks, and yet moan about the Microsoft monopoly and can’t understand why more people don’t switch. When she wasn’t ignored she was told to RTFM. On the rare occasions where documentation was actually available, it was either written for people who had never seen a keyboard before, or for Richard Stallman. Imagine you are learning English. You have two books. The first is Dick and Jane and the Big Ball. The second is Supra-segmental features and characteristics of intonation within the Indo-European family of languages. Inasmuch as it existed at all, Linux “help” was a wading pool where a sign saying “sink-or-swim” had been posted in lieu of a lifeguard. A wading pool which quickly and without warning would drop off into the crushing depths, leading you down to where eyeless creatures devour one another in the lightless abyss.
It was a lot of work, and she began to realize that she’d just replaced the time lost reinstalling Windows with screwing around in terminal windows in Linux and looking things up. Her computer wasn’t ultimately any less of a hassle to use than before, it was just uglier and it didn’t run any games. She switched back. We bought a copy of XP and concluded that Linux wasn’t quite ready for regular people just yet.
A couple of months ago she tried again. Ubuntu (Which wasn’t even available in 2003) has earned itself a good reputation for being user-friendly. Her old Linux scars have healed, and she was willing to endure a few terminal window adventures again.
She needn’t have worried. Linux has evolved since the last time around, and is now capable of walking upright without placing undue burdens on the user. She put Ubuntu on her machine and uses it daily without incident. It does everything she wants it to do. It even has a nice collection of (free) games. There is a plentiful supply of help and walkthroughs aimed at normal people, written by users who understand that writing and compiling code should not be step one of using software. It’s also good looking. I know this last item earns an eyeroll from some people, as if anything more than amber text on black is just needless and gaudy. But if you’re going to spend all day looking at an interface, it might as well be easy on the eyes. Ubuntu is sexy.
I’m just putting this up to give a nod to the people behind Ubuntu: Those folks are doing something right. While some large professional software packages and PC Games are still mostly exclusive to Windows, more pedestrian activities can be done at least as well in Linux. If all you want to do is email, web, and so on, then it’s difficult to justify paying $100 to Microsoft in order to do so. It’s like paying to use a tire swing when you can ride a rollercoaster for free.
I develop software for Windows, so I’m more or less married to the platform, but after seeing Ubuntu in action my OS fidelity has been put to the test. After fifteen years with Windows I’m resigned to our arrangement, but I can’t help but wonder if I could get away with seeing Ubuntu on the side.
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