Saturday, 16 July 2011

Thoughts on switching to Linux

As far as the operating system goes, I've always used Windows (way back to Windows 3.0 and MS-DOS, up until Windows 7 64-bit today), and I still believe it has a lot of merit. However, I found out that Ubuntu can be a very powerful and efficient tool in a work environment, provided you don't need to run any Windows-dependent software (you can run Windows software on Linux, using Wine, but it's not 100% compatible).

So, what makes people not using Linux?

Well, first it involves a lot of Do-It-Yourself: no matter how easy it is to install, for example, Ubuntu, the mere fact that you have to DIY puts the wide majority of users off, either because they are afraid of bricking their PC, or simply because they couldn't be bothered.
Since almost no company sells Linux preinstalled on their computers (ASUS did it when on the first eeePCs, but quickly gave preference to Windows again) and the wide majority of computer retail stores and support centers don't officially support it (or if they do, they don't advertise it), Linux will never be able to gain a significant market share.

Secondly, it lacks some software that the average user takes for granted. I'm referring, in particular, to Microsoft Office. There is an alternative to it, LibreOffice (a fork from OpenOffice, that is now the default office suite in many Linux distributions), that is a great piece of software evolving at a great speed, but still needs some improvement in order to be considered a full Microsoft Office replacement. However, I believe it can be used by many users instead of Microsoft Office, and I strongly encourage people to install LibreOffice and try it first on Windows, before thinking of spending money on Microsoft Office.
In this context, one major problem with Linux is the absence of commercial and professional software. Some may think this goes against the Linux philosophy of free software, but I think it is essential for Linux to gain market share. I'll give two examples:
  • When you buy a hardware peripheral for your PC, it usually comes with software that makes it work out of the box for Windows (and sometimes Mac as well), or at least the software helps making your way with the peripheral much easier. With Linux, if the hardware isn't supported, you have to wait until the community does it, or you code the software yourself. This approach, in my point of view, isn't realistic and therefore hardware companies should release software for, not only Windows or Mac, but also to one or two popular Linux distributions.
  • One of the software that many professional artists, developers and designers would certainly miss if they made the switch to Linux, would be the Adobe suite of programs (Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Premiere, After Effects, etc.). I'm sure that if Adobe ported them to Linux, many users (specially in the corporate environment) would switch to Linux in a heart-beat. Sadly, even after the problems that Adobe had with Apple in the recent past (which even led Adobe to post a big “We ♥ choice” advertisement on their website), they didn't feel the need to provide costumers with an alternative to Windows, and most importantly, Apple MacOSX.

Lastly, it does have a learning curve. Don't get me wrong: Linux is very user-friendly nowadays, but there are some things that users have to relearn that are different from Windows.

When I want to explain the issue whether Linux is good for someone or not I usually make an analogy to home improvement: When you want to fix something in your house, you have two choices: you either hire a technician to do it or you DIY. In the first case, you have to pay for it, and you'll get things done without having to worry too much, or loosing too much time. However, it can also mean absence of flexibility, in a way that the technician will ONLY do what he/she was paid to do, and may not show sensibility for some details or problems that may arise during the home improvement.
If you DIY, you have the maximum freedom to do exactly what you have in mind, without having to pay to a third-party. However, you pay it with your own free time and sweat, and, depending on your skills, some things may be too difficult for you to handle.
Fortunately, I believe nowadays Linux is in the middle term. In the “home improvement analogy” it can be represented by that situation where you ask help from (or hire) a relative or friend, who is a skilled technician. Even if you hire this person, you will help out in certain things, and due to the fact that he/she is a relative or a friend, his/her work will be detailed and flexible, making sure that everything works out as a whole, and even solving problems that may not be in the context of their work directly. In such a situation, you know you will have to get your hands dirty and help out, but the result can be a lot better, even if it takes a bit more time to accomplish.

This is exactly how I see Linux's potential.
It is nowadays very user friendly, and you don't even need to install it in order to try it: Just go to one of the distributions' sites (like and burn it to a CD; then you can run it directly from the CD to see how it is. Moreover, it has a great community that has reached a point where you can solve most problems by simply googling them, or posting on a support forum. I also think that it is very efficient: I installed Ubuntu on my eeePC 1000H and is a lot faster than Windows XP.

All this advantages, of course, will demand a bit of DIY, and although this drives many people off, I do think the majority could handle the challenge if they put their minds into it.

My first post

Well, my first post on this blog. I'll probably be posting regularly in the upcoming days, but let's see if I can keep posting something at least once a week/fortnight (depending on what RealLife™ allows me to do).
The main purpose of this blog is to share my personal experience with free (as in free speech) content, being software, artwork or anything else. I believe it is a powerful way to generate knowledge that can be inherently shared across the web.
Recently I decided to bring this belief to a whole new level by making the decision of starting using Linux on a daily basis (specifically Ubuntu Linux) and using free licensed media on my assignments and essays.
I still use Windows on my secondary PC, but I'm making the effort to use free software (or at least freeware and/or public domain software) whenever possible.

I do hope that my posts can help to bring an end to the constant underestimation of free software and media, to both the average user, but also developers and artists alike.

I also take the opportunity to say that this blog is being published under a Creative Commons license, which follows the free content philosophy.