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My Linux Switch Story

I still remember my family’s very first computer. It was an NEC that had floppy disks that were about 8″ long and 8″ wide. It was entirely text-only and monochromatic. The only thing I used it for as a kid was playing a text-only game called “Millionaire,” in which you could buy and sell fake stocks and eventually become a millionaire or become bankrupt.

Shortly after that, we got an IBM. Every family computer after that has always been a my-dad-put-it-together home-made one, as far as I can tell. DOS was the first “operating system” I can remember. I still remember all the cd/ and dir commands and constantly looking for .exe and .com files. Eventually, we got a word processor of sorts called T3. It ran from DOS but was still not point-and-click. It used F-keys (F1, F2, F3, etc.).

At one point, we actually got Windows 3.1, but even that was launched from DOS. I don’t remember that being entirely user-friendly either. In those days (the mid-eighties), Mac was all the rage. Sure, it had the black bomb when it crashed, but it had a little Apple icon and was point-and-click all the way. Mac had mice, and that was always fun for little kids.

I really don’t remember Windows 95 coming out. I just remember using it. All throughout the late 90s I used a Macintosh Classic SE (which I’d inherited from my brother) to type my college papers while using Windows 95 on school computers to surf the internet and check email. Even though we randomly had that Mac Classic SE, our family had always been a Windows family. I grew up believing, as many Windows users do that Windows is practical, while Mac is just eye-candy. I also had no idea there were alternatives to Windows and Mac.

My family kept using Windows. It was 3.1. Then, it was 95. Then, it was 98. Then, it was ME. Then, it was 2000. Even when my wife and I first moved out to California, we looked for the cheapest computer we could find, and it was a Windows ME computer (Windows ME, by the way, is probably the worst operating system in the history of computing—crash city!). Windows was in no way a choice because… well, Macs were expensive, and I didn’t know other operating systems existed. Plus, to be perfectly frank, before OS X, Mac was almost unusable crap. I discovered this quickly because my first job after the move required me to use an iBook that was loaded with OS 9. No Expose. No Dock. All that hiding and unhiding of applications drove me crazy. That wasn’t multi-tasking. So, when my school gave me a Dell, finally, instead of the iBook, I was extremely grateful. Windows XP was a wonderful thing. In fact, my wife and I even got ourselves a Windows XP Dell notebook for home use (our Windows ME desktop was horrible and had even worse usability than OS 9).

My first recollection of Linux was seeing a huge Linux Bible in my dad’s study. My dad is a computer fanatic. He likes to build his own. He taught himself assembly language. He likes tough, thick reference books on computers. He doesn’t buy “…for dummies” books or “idiot’s guide” books. I saw that Linux Bible and was a bit curious, but I didn’t say anything. I do remember seeing one time my dad typing something into a gray terminal and then seeing an application launch. When I asked him what that was, he said it was Linux. The turn-of-the-millenium me had vague memories of once using DOS for things, so when I looked at the gray terminal, I just thought, “How primitive. Linux uses the command-line?”

The first time I considered using Linux was last June. Probably because of Kazaa or some other “freeware” program, we unknowingly had downloaded all sorts of spyware and adware onto our laptop computer (the XP one). At the time, we’d never even heard of spyware or adware. Something was clearly wrong with our computer, though. Our homepage would sometimes magically change to something other than Google. Even when Internet Explorer was closed (only later did I realize you can’t really “close” Internet Explorer—just its windows), pop-ups would flood our computer. In our C:\Program Files folder, random programs would be there that we clearly did not choose to install, and when I tried to delete the folders, they’d simply reappear. I tried using Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware. I even tried manually editing the registry, but nothing short of a clean install of Windows would fix things.

I don’t know where I got the idea to try Linux, but I probably had read somewhere that Linux is more secure than Windows or doesn’t have malware (maybe I read this when trying to research how to get rid of spyware and adware). It took me quite a while to find a fully-functional distro that was a one-CD installer. I wanted a Red Hat-based distro, because I could find Red Hat books in the library. So I eventually ended up with Blag. I tried setting up a dual-boot using advice from the internet and from books, but I couldn’t get it to work, so I just had Blag completely overwrite my hard drive.

At first, Blag seemed amazing to me. It had all these applications with it—DVD ripping software, CD writing software, FTP client, games, office suite, etc. I was overwhelmed. I did have a bit of a problem with screen resolution. I found that frustrating. The only resolution available for choosing was 480 x 600 or something like that. The native resolution was supposed to be 1024 x 768. I had to find a patch that I downloaded. That was a godsend. I soon realized, though, that I didn’t know how to install software. When I downloaded software, I tried to follow the instructions to un-tar .tar.gz zip files and ./configure and all that. I very quickly ran into dependency hell. Even after resolving dependencies, I noticed that icons did not appear in my little Red Hat start menu for newly installed programs. That did it for me—Linux was “too hard.” I quit. (Note: unlike some people, I just quit and did something else—I did not sign up for a Linux forum and declare that “Linux is not ready for the desktop” and that it needs to be more like Windows, as if I were making some kind of groundbreaking discovery.)

So I reinstalled Windows. When we bought our Dell laptop, Dell sent us three CDs—Windows XP, drivers and utilities, and InterVideo WinDVD. At the time that I reinstalled Windows, I could find only the XP CD. I couldn’t get the screen resolution to work or the sound to work. I couldn’t play DVDs because I didn’t have the codecs to play them. I tried using MPlayer instead of InterVideo WinDVD, but it wasn’t very stable. Installing Windows was even more difficult than installing Blag. So I scoured frantically for those two extra CDs. Eventually I found them, and I was a happy Windows user again.

I couldn’t let malware infect my computer again, though. I remembered reading in Liz Castro’s HTML book about a browser called Opera, so I tried that out for a while and liked it, but it did not function on many websites that required Internet Explorer, so I looked at some other browsers. There was one I discovered called Firefox. I was blown away. The IEView extension took care of the non-W3C-compliant websites, and the tabs and easily configurable security settings were great. Suddenly, I became a security expert for Windows. I tweaked all of my IE settings to the most secure settings, allowing only Windows update and a few other trusted websites to work with it. I turned off almost all cookies. I read emails in text only. Any “free” software I downloaded I read the terms and conditions of very carefully, no matter how many pages they were.

I still do these things for my work computer, which is XP. And when we finally got an XP desktop, I did the same thing there as well. For my wife’s schooling (she’s going for some post-graduate studies), she had to get a Powerb
ook, so suddenly we were immersed in the world of OS X. Both my wife and I were long-time Windows users, so there was a lot we had to get used to. We still often close windows, forgetting to actually quit the application. We had to figure out that third-party software was necessary to turn off the annoying boot-up sound. Little things like that. Still, OS X has been a fairly positive experience.

We did learn from OS X that there’s a lot to be said for eye-candy. If you have to be staring at a screen for hours, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for that screen to look nice. It’s kind of like what my old youth pastor said about looks and spouses. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it went something like this, “Sure, looks shouldn’t matter, but you should also keep in mind that whatever face your spouse has—that’s the face you’re going to have to wake up to every morning for the rest of your life.” By that logic every time I turn on my computer, perhaps I may not want to look at those ugly-ass Windows icons.

So ultimately, it wasn’t security but rather cosmetics that turned me back to Linux again. So, I tried to get Windows to look better. After a while, the Luna theme wasn’t enough. I tried to click on the “add more themes” (or whatever the link is called) button from the system properties menu, but that just took me to some stupid Microsoft page where they wanted me to buy some Themes Plus thing. I did a bit more research and found something called Windowblinds. It was actually a great program, but it was not free. The trial version had nagware—constant reminders to buy the product (much like Quicktime’s reminders to buy Quicktime Pro). Also, the icons and themes did not look very good—most were not scalable vector graphics; they were pixelated and ugly.

Back to Linux I went. Had it improved since my first try? Well, first of all, I found a lot more single-CD distros (now that I know more about Linux, I wonder why I was unable to find these before—they were certainly around in June, 2004). I downloaded Knoppix and was blown away. It mounted my hard drives and put them on the desktop. It looked slick. It seemed fast for something run completely off RAM and the CD, not affecting my hard drive. It could not, however, save settings easily (because it was a live CD). So, I downloaded some other CDs—SuSE, PCLinuxOS, Lycoris, Xandros, etc. Nothing really seemed to work for me. There was always something I couldn’t figure out. I wanted to read more books about Linux, so I reserved a bunch of books at the library. One of them was called Point-and-Click Linux.

The book wasn’t that interesting. It spent a lot of time explaining stupid things like how to create a Word document using OpenOffice. However, it explained the partitioning and dual-boot process well, and that encouraged me to give this “point-and-click Linux” (called SimplyMEPIS) a try. SimplyMEPIS is Knoppix-based, so I was again wowed. The installation process was so easy. The only thing I didn’t like about SimplyMEPIS was its lame hotplugging. Pretty soon after I installed it, though, the new 3.3.1 came out, and the hotplug ability for that version was flawless—every USB device I plugged in automatically showed up on the desktop. Linux had arrived.

And downloading software was suddenly much easier. I didn’t untar anything. I didn’t ./configure anything. I simply went to Synaptic Package Manager, searched for packages, marked them for installation, and clicked “Apply,” and they were installed and in the KMenu. I could get some beautiful windows decorations, splash screens, boot splash screens, icons, wallpapers. Linux was alive.

Pretty soon afterwards, I encouraged a friend of ours to install Linux on her computer, which was actually our old Windows ME computer. I ran into quite a few problems this time. First of all, her printer was a rare brand that was hard to find even Windows drivers for. Secondly, she used Hotmail—and Hotmail and Thunderbird don’t mix well. Eventually, even though Mepis was slightly faster on her 128 MB RAM computer, she preferred Windows and switched back. I then realized Linux isn’t for everyone. You have to come to it yourself. If you’re willing to learn how to use it, though, it’s a lot of fun.

For a while, I was a big proponent of Mepis. I haunted the Mepis forums, and when people asked why they should try Mepis, I’d go off on a point-and-click spiel. Even now, I recommend Mepis to people who want an all point-and-click environment. Enabling extra repositories can be done point-and-click. Mepis has a graphical user interface (GUI) for partitioning, and it automatically puts partitions on the desktop. Mepis is both a live CD and an installer CD.

But Mepis is sluggish. It’s over-bloated with a lot of applications, and it uses KDE, one of the slowest desktop environments out there. Soon, I tried Ubuntu. At first I found it frustrating. Nothing loaded on the desktop. The screen resolution was off. The Ubuntu community is supportive and responsive, though. Pretty soon I found the Ubuntu Guide and that solved all my problems. I even gave the new Blag a spin, and I found it’d vastly improved over the course of one year.

If you use Linux, you’ll probably find a distro that suit your needs. You have to have an open mind about it, though. Linux, like Mac, is not Windows. I’m not a computer expert. I’m not a programmer. I was an English major. And I’m a long-time Windows user—we’re talking decades here. I simply am not dumb, and I’m willing to try new things. If you have that attitude, Linux can do wonders for you, too.

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