Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is there an easy way to adapt to Linux?

As popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu continue to grow and find their way to more main stream systems, it is important for Linux' success, to set up a potential users expectations up front. Handing them a different operating system to someone used to Windows is like handing over the keys to a motorcycle to someone that's used to driving cars. Sure it's another means of transportation, but a motorcycle is a totally different world. And in fairness so is Linux. This way, the surprises and hurdles are expected, rather than not and therefore leading to a much more negative experience.

Linux offers some real world features not available in Windows that are worth exploring. And for some, those features may prove to be worth making a switch. However, the transition may seem simple for some while very difficult for others. But I think that knowing up front that you have to adapt to Linux, rather than expecting a Windows like experience, could increase the chances of adopting Linux as your next Operating System.

Are you looking to make a switch? Has something in Windows gotten under your skin and Microsoft not done anything to fix it or provide you with another option? You are not alone. Windows is a nice product. But the manner in which it is designed isn't for everyone. And quite frankly I find it too restrictive. Many feel that is it's greatest flaw, but it is actually a huge reason for its success. Fortunately, we don't have to be led by the hand if we don't want to. So we'll leave Windows to the users that are quite happy with it the way it is.

So, what is the answer to the Blog's question? Is there an easy way to adapt to Linux? Well, I really hate to not be able to provide a straight forward answer, but the reality of it is that it depends on the individual. Adapting to Linux with ease is directly related to the individual's willingness to adapt. If there is no drive, there is no real interest, and thus no real effort put forth. How so?

Let's begin with a little education in an effort to setting up a potential users expectation of the test drive. The idea is to expect different, and not more of the same mundane tools we are accustomed to with Windows. If you want more of the same, then go back. Stop reading here. Linux is different, it needs to be different. If the way in which Microsoft has developed and designed Windows is what is bothering you, then you have to be willing to put that behind you and learn something new. Otherwise, you will become part of those that have approached Linux expecting a Windows like experience, and in their disappointment are going around preaching that Linux sucks. They are entitled to sounds like idiots, but you don't have to become one of those idiots. It is far more intelligent to say you tried and didn't like Linux, rather than bad mouth unintelligibly something you don't understand.

So why is Linux different? It needed to be. The Windows way of computing is proprietary. Meaning that it can't be replicated or improved upon unless it is done by Microsoft. Microsoft decides what features the users get, they decide how you are to use your computer and they decide when to stop supporting their purchased products, the latter also decides when you buy a new computer. Because of all these restrictions, users are trapped into having to adopt other similarly restrictive products. Since this business model is copyrighted, it can't be modified, so a new way had to emerge.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could control the features you get, or the way Windows looks, or how many systems you install it on? That last one really gets under my skin... specially when you consider their asking price. Wouldn't it also be nice if Windows was safe to surf the web right out of the box? This is all precisely why Linux is different. A new way had to be engineered from the ground up to manage your computer hardware in order to not mimic the way Windows works.

Microsoft is going out of their way to advertise that Linux is hard, or not compatible with certain hardware. Not true... very much like Windows, there is plenty of hardware that is compatible with Linux. And unlike Windows, Linux continues to work with older hardware effectively lengthening the life of our purchases and allowing US the choice of when we upgrade.

This new way of using your computer engineered in Linux is based on choice. We choose how many systems to install it on, we choose the file manager and the network manager to use, we choose the way it looks, etc, etc... choice, choice, choice, all yours, yours, yours.

Linux is engineered around user freedom, not expensive restrictions. With Linux, if you are so ambitious, you could write your own apps and even modify Linux itself. As a matter of fact it is encouraged. This way the amount of choices and features are constantly being improved. It is obvious that none of that could be achieved in a Windows like manner. Microsoft will beg to differ, and they'll go implement something new and claim users now have the choice, but they missed the point completely as once again they would have made the decisions for us.

Armed with the facts, and understanding why Linux is different, a more realistic approach to try Linux for the 1st time can be adopted. And in doing so a greater chance of successfully making a switch to Linux is possible. Then trying new applications, and performing day to day tasks isn't an unexpected surprise. Surprises are expected, and more sensible attitudes are adopted in the event there is need to compromise. There will be some gains, most importantly in system security, but there will be some losses specifically with proprietary products designed to specifically work with Windows.

Once a desicion is made to try Linux, ideally the best way would be via a LiveCD and taking baby steps.  Windows does not offer such convenience, on the contrary a user is rudely plunged into a new version of Windows and left to fend for themselves and forced to acquaint themselves with the changes. With Linux, if the liveCD successfully brings you to a desktop, you are able to take your time and explore at your leisure.  In my experience, the live CD detected the NTFS partitions on the drives and I began opening files and testing them to make sure I could pick up where I left off.

I quickly noticed that the basic tasks such as email and web browsing are a familiar territory.  I quit using IE in WIndows and used Firefox for a long time because IE is the main reason why Windows is so vulnerable to being compromised by viruses and malware. Therefore, my experience with Firefox made it easy for me to browse the web in Linux as easily as I did in Windows. 

If you are using tools such as outlook for email, then Mozilla's Thunderbird would be the app I'd use to try and open my email.  I use gmail, so I didn't have to put Thunderbird through a test drive, and the reason I opt for using Gmail is that over the years I've come to really hate pst files and having to repair them from time to time.

It may seem like I am making things overly simple, and in reality they did turn out to be simpler than even I expected.  There were a few things that proved quite challenging later on, such as being able to color calibrate my monitor and using The GIMP instead of Photoshop.  But I was determined and that determination has made those tasks easier with the gained experience. They say that time heals all things, and it is true with Linux most challenging tasks.

Support for Linux is available from companies such as Canonical and Dell with their Ubuntu loaded systems. But I was able to find solutions to 99% of the hurdles I encountered browsing the web, the lauchpad bug tracking site and Linux forums. Anyone price a support contract with MS?  Browsing the web is far cheaper, it may be a bit time consuming at 1st but free.

Like everyone else, the command line interface was intimidating for me as well.  But it really is a nice feature to have available.  Think of it as booting into Windows safe mode, except that it is within immediate reach by pressing ctrl alt F1-F6, instead of having to reboot. As in the Windows world, not all applications are perfect and they tend to hang form time to time.  Dropping to a terminal grants you easy access to stop that process if needed to regain your desktop in the rare instance the application has it locked.  And in Linux that is indeed rare, where in Windows it seemed to happen often and there was no way to drop to a command line to kill the offending process.

Those are some quick examples from my experience.  It is not meant to be the end all be all answer to making the switch easy.  But I hope that it serves as an example of how to approach your initial test drive of Linux.  My idea was to be able to get the most important things done via a LiveCD to justify the installation.  I figured once I did that, I would commit to figuring out the rest in time. It proved successful for me.  I have not used Windows at home since Feb of 2009.  There have been some hurdles, but they didn't feel any different than the ones I encountered in Windows.  However, the way in which I approached them helped overcoming them... and that was by not treating it like it was Windows, but rather taking time to research how to fix them in Linux.