Why I Switched to a Linux Desktop

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(apologies in advance for the long post)

Two months ago today, I switched semi-permanently from Windows XP to Linux as my primary operating system. What follows is the reasoning behind that decision. If you want to know what was NOT a factor in my switch, check out an old post of mine here on why I switched to Firefox. The same reasoning applies here; this is not a religious decision, nor an emotional one. As someone who depends on productivity tools for my livelihood, I can’t afford to make decisions about the tools I use every day on an emotional basis.

Setting the Stage

Before we get into the reasoning, a bit of necessary context. I’m a long time Windows user (who isn’t these days?) and tend towards the power user classification. I’m used to using Tweak UI and other power toys (love Send To), hacking boot.ini settings, mucking around in the Registry, etc. I’m not a hard core admin and haven’t played one on TV, but I pretty much know my way around a Windows box. For the most part, I was a happy Windows user. Sure, it occasionally ticked me off with the random crash or performance issues, but all in all I was more or less satisfied.

But for the purposes of my analysis, I began seriously tinkering with Linux on the desktop about a year and a half ago. After a relatively steep learning curve, I grew more comfortable with the system and more and more impressed with its capabilities. Despite these favorable impressions, however, I was unconvinced that it was a viable option for me. It still suffered in comparison to Windows in a number of areas, namely productivity and application availability.

At the same time, I began working more and more in Windows XP. I really liked the operating system as a blend of Windows 2000 stability (in relative terms, of course) and updated looks. Not a bad OS at all. Until a few months ago…

The Top 5 Reasons I Switched (in order of importance)

1.Software Rot:

Similar to what Tim Bray experienced here on his OS X system, my XP laptop picked up a terrible case of software rot. In what way? Well, for one, it took longer and longer to boot – minutes, even. It began to not recover from standby or hibernate (why does XP hide Hibernate, out of curiosity?). I experienced intermittent wireless connectivity issues – slow to connect, quick to drop. Now, generally speaking I know how to tune a Windows machine. It wasn’t the typical problem of virus or spyware, as I’m pretty vigilant with the former and regularly clean the latter. The performance of my machine steadily declined over the life of the laptop, despite my ministrations to the contrary. The typical fix for this problem in my past history, an OS refresh, didn’t really appeal. Now to be fair, as I discussed with the Microsoft Reliability folks in person – it’s entirely possible that many of these problems, such as my hibernate issues, were related to factors outside Microsoft’s control. But at the end of the day, it’s Windows that didn’t perform.

2.Community Support:

One of the really amazing things about Linux is the community. Few if any distros exemplify this more than my distro of choice – Gentoo (a choice I’ll go into another time) – as I noted here. But I find Neal Stephenson’s take from “InTheBeginningWasTheCommandLine” to be very reflective of my own experiences (swap Linux for tank and Windows for station wagon):

The group giving away the free tanks only stays alive because it is staffed by volunteers, who are lined up at the edge of the street with bullhorns, trying to draw customers’ attention to this incredible situation. A typical conversation goes something like this:

Hacker with bullhorn: “Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!”

Prospective station wagon buyer: “I know what you say is true…but…er…I don’t know how to maintain a tank!”

Bullhorn: “You don’t know how to maintain a station wagon either!”

Buyer: “But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music.”

Bullhorn: “But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!”

Buyer: “Stay away from my house, you freak!”

Bullhorn: “But…”

Buyer: “Can’t you see that everyone is buying station wagons?”

At times, it feels like I have my own little support staff working for me, for free, available at all hours. Tough to beat. Contrast that with the recent experience of a Washington Post reporter here:

I called Microsoft and was passed from operator to operator as I asked where I could find a list of legitimate Microsoft applications so I would know what to kill and what to leave alone. But the only response I got from one person after another — most of them in foreign tech-support centers like those in India I had been reading so much about lately — was that I needed to go to Microsoft’s online sales. After 45 minutes of this, I hung up. Then I gave up. I actually stood up and walked away from my computer.

The point here is not to lambast Microsoft; their volume and ubiquity pose some nearly insurmountable challenges in terms of hand holding and support, nor is it to claim that Linux support is perfect. Many a Linux newbie has been scared off by derisive and scornful replies to basic questions. But I think the conventional wisdom that support is an issue needs to be questioned – although to be clear, this is true for individuals and small enterprises, not large ones with big support contracts.

3.Software Availability:

Seriously. The same condition lamented by supporters of the Linux desktop (including me – give me OneNote functionality, please) is simultaneously a tremendous strength for the platform. It’s improved to the point where the environment is viable for most types of users. Virtually anything I need, I can get for free. Office productivity? Check. Full featured email client with Exchange connectivity? Check (thank you, Novell) Photoshop equivalent? Check. And so on. The vibrancy and creativity of the community is really something, and even better benefits from the Architecture of Participation, as the community is heavily involved in the direction of major projects like GNOME or KDE, in contrast to proprietary operating systems. All that said, support for certain applications like the aforementioned OneNote, or Adobe Professional, or even iTunes (FYI, I did see the recent CodeWeavers announcement, which is great news), is still absent. So Windows is still the winner in availability, by a large margin.

4.Transparency of Roadmap:

For quite some time, I was a big Longhorn fan. Still am, in fact. Whenever it arrives, I’m betting it’s going to be a great OS. WinFS, Avalon, all of the PDC stuff looked great. But then came slips in the timeline, feature changes, etc. All of which is completely normal for the software development process. But in the absence of true transparency into the planning process and the several significant changes of direction and delays for the offering, my enthusiasm dimmed. When would it arrive? What would be in it? I had no idea, and had to wait the occasional press leaks to get the scoop. With no news being worse than bad news, I started looking for an alternative, and while I considered Apple – who makes beautiful and highly usable machines – I want more flexibility in terms of hardware than they could provide, plus they’re little better than Microsoft in terms of software roadmaps. With Linux, however, I can see what’s planned. I can observe the actual conversations between developers.


This is #5 on my list for the simple reason that it’s been quite a while since I was negatively affected by a virus or other malware (knock on wood). So despite the recent vulnerabilities in IE and Windows XP, I was never overly concerned about my machine as I employed both firewall and anti-virus products to protect myself. But the spyware situation was a totally different story. Despite the fact that my browsing habits are pretty basic, I contracted spyware infections on a semi-regular basis. They were less of a problem given that my firewall had outbound monitoring and thus prevented them from phoning home without my permission, but it was an ongoing source of irritation. After two months of Linux, I have yet to discover any surreptitiously installed software (although that doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s not there).

As you can see, it was not a single watershed event that forced me to make the switch, unless you count the software rot which is the single greatest causative factor. It was rather the gradual accumulation of a number of Windows issues and Linux improvements that led to my adoption of it as my primary productivity platform. I should mention that XP is not gone from my machine; I still have it running in a partition that I use maybe two or three times a week.

Of course this is not a blanket endorsement of Linux on the desktop, nor a condemnation of Microsoft. It is rather an attempt to illustrate that both platforms have their individual merits, and may warrant consideration depending on your needs or those of your organization. In our work with various enterprises and individuals, I try to assist them in making the best choice for their needs. In the future I’ll take a look at what my biggest issues have been with the platform, as well as how I arrived at my Gentoo choice.

For now, remember that as always, YMMV, but for me personally, Linux has been a great choice.

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