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Going Open Source: Switching to Linux

June 10th, 2011

About a month ago, my computer got infected with the insanely messy Windows Vista Recovery virus.  This is partly my fault for being really lazy about virus protection and updates.  I hate anti-virus programs.  They slow the computer down.  Windows alone loads up your computer with all kinds of Microsoft crap and just on startup with a clean install my memory usage is at least 50%.  Anti-virus is also expensive and I don’t trust that they will protect you from everything.  So I just naturally get into the habit of not using them.

Trying to figure out how to clean the virus off of the computer was a lot of running in circles involving downloading various anti-malware apps and trying to edit lines in the registry, running commands and then rebooting, etc.  In the end the only solution seemed to be to buy an external drive, transfer my user folder and restore Vista to the factory install.

This inspired me, as it has every other time I’ve had to reinstall Windows, to set up a clean and usable system: carefully go through the list of installed applications and take out all the proprietary crap that you don’t need, look for fixes online to get rid of redundant icons and customize stuff that Microsoft doesn’t like you to customize, run Google searches like Why is “Encrypt Contents to Secure Data” grayed out?, Hide unused icons in user folder, and Disable Acer Empowering Technology.   I ended up with a cleaner, more usable system when I was done, but something didn’t feel right.  It’s hard to explain.  It’s like I had to stuff this monster into an elegant, clean and friendly mask.  But it’s still a monster, and it doesn’t fit behind the mask anyways, so I’m not really fooling myself by cleaning it up.

My friend advised that I get a Mac.  I thought about it, but said that I wouldn’t.  That doesn’t feel right either, but I didn’t know why.  I guess now I would say that Apple builds a much prettier monster, but in my opinion, it’s still a monster.  I admit that I probably have a somewhat naive perspective when it comes to Macs, and the most honest answer as to why I wouldn’t buy a mac was that I was used to PCs.  Committing to a completely different proprietary OS does not appeal to me.  The other thing I thought was that it seemed ridiculous to have to buy a new computer just to change operating systems.  I’m not actually sure if I could install OSX or something on an Acer laptop, but I assume not.

At some point I realized that I’ve never given Linux a try.  I had gradually over the years been replacing the pirated software I acquired back in my design-school days with open source alternatives, and just recently got rid of the last one: Photoshop.  (I had been using 6.0 since who-knows-when.) I take issue with using proprietary commercial software more than the fact that it’s pirated.  Legitimate or not, Windows was in the same camp as Photoshop.  With so much friendly, open software populating my system, Windows seemed to be the last weak link.  Switching to Linux seemed like a good thing to look into.

Since I finished my Vista reinstall, I’ve been navigating the learning curve for Linux.  The experience has been far from utopic, and at this point, I’m making the move for philosophical reasons.  The easiest thing for me to do would be to set up Vista and just use it, not getting all bent out of shape about Microsoft, etc.  It’s just an OS, right?  But I’ve decided that stepping outside of easy is a good thing to do here.  To configure Linux at all is a little bit of a struggle, but overall I think it’s worth it because Linux is completely configurable.  I experienced the same thing moving from Blogger (proprietary) to Wordpress (open source.)  With Windows, the things they let you configure are easy to configure and everything else is blocked off.  For good.  So screw you if you liked this about the old version and that about the new one, and screw you if you like Vista but you want a Mac-style dock.  With Linux, you can get in there and change whatever you want, provided that you know how to, or that you know how to find out, or that you can find someone who’s already done it and copy them.

It also seems like the world of the open OS is getting closer and closer to Windows/Mac-type instant-gratification usability.  I think that one day you will be able to just download whatever Linux distro looks good to you and throw it on any old laptop without worrying about whether or not your hardware will work with it, and all your software will be easily integrated without having to think about it.  Right now, it would be easy for someone to take a look at this process I’m going through and just say, “Linux is not ready for widespread use.”  To set up anything specific, you need to go into the forums, try out code in the Terminal, you’ll find out that some things are just not supported and you have to learn to live with living without.  For instance, on my computer running Linux, the Wifi light is off when the Wifi in on.  The light is on when Wifi is off.  It’s backwards and that’s just the way it is.  Some day things will be more cohesive.  But not today.

I don’t blame the open source community for this.  I’m not too well-read on it, but generally I think that widespread open-source OS use is being held back by the commercial hardware and software developers.  Put simply, my computer was built with Vista in mind, not Linux.  It should have been built with it’s users in mind.  And there are plenty of Acer Extensa 4620z users, who paid good money for their hardware, who are fighting the manufacturer’s “intended use.” Technology companies are very obviously restricting the use of their products for the purposes of manipulating how they can make a profit off of them.  It seems to me that things that are out there in the open tend to be put together in useful ways by the people who know how to do it.  Nature, for example, didn’t have shareholders.

I’ll focus on Linux itself in my next post, with specific info about the distro and desktop environment I’m using.