My Rocky Road to Linux

I’ve not always been a Linux user. In truth, it’s something that I’ve fiddled with on and off for years, usually bouncing back to Windows when I was done with it or hit the limits of my knowledge.

Now, I use it on a mostly full time basis. My laptop is a dual boot Kubuntu/Windows 7 machine. Most of the time, if I’m in Windows, it’s because there are a couple of games my kids play that only work in Windows. When they’re done with it, I reboot into Kubuntu Linux and start working on the the things I want to work on.

So what changed? What made me stay?

Well, that’s the biggest part of my road to Linux. I’ve always loved the idea of Linux. Open source software as a philosophy suits my own personal philosophies of computer usage, but it goes deeper than that. As a librarian and technologist, open source software is a very attractive option for libraries. People aren’t locked into Microsoft and libraries need not be locked into Microsoft licensing for the relatively simple needs of the typical library patron. Your average library user who needs a computer usually wants to do certain key things. They want to get online and check their email, social networks, and favourite websites. They want to write something on a word processor. They might want to listen to a song or watch the odd video on YouTube. Or they need to do all of these things — get online so they can research a paper that they’ll have going in another window.

Nothing about those needs per-supposes a need for Microsoft anything. Don’t get me wrong, as a slider, I love Windows and OS X, but libraries are notoriously cash strapped, so if they could save money on operating systems and volume licensing, all’s the better.

Then again, you’ll get the occasional patron who wants more. They want to do some photo editing. They want to put together a video. They want to design some kind of logo. They want to cut together and mixdown some audio. These things are certainly possible on a Windows workstation, but the software doesn’t always work as well unless you buy the expensive stuff. So does one expect libraries to have workstations with Photoshop, Premiere, Illustrator, and Audition? None of those products are cheap.

Because you don’t need a ribbon to write a document.

Meanwhile, a technically minded library person could easily outfit a Linux workstation with all the necessities and do so for free. For writing and office related needs, there’s LibreOffice. Want to surf the web? Chromium and Firefox are there for you. Need to do some multimedia work? No worries. For almost all of those patrons, GIMP, OpenShot or Kdenlive, Inkscape, and Audacity will work exceptionally well for them and will be more than they need for most of their projects.

But how did I end up using Linux full time? Well, like I said, the change was in the changes.

It was the late 90s when I first set foot into the Linux world. I had a friend help me set up Slackware. It was pretty cool, but not knowing a whole lot about Linux, I got stuck often. I hated bugging my friend all the time with what had to be simplistic, newbie questions. So I eventually went back to Windows because I had a far better understanding of it. A couple of years after that I tried Red Hat and then Mandrake. I liked both quite a lot but, if I recall correctly, Mandrake used an early version of KDE. Being a bit of an artist and designer, I loved the look. By this time, I was working at a public library and occasionally helping out in the IT department with some minor tasks. The head of IT was a good friend of mine. Heck, we played D&D on the weekends. While we used a Windows based ILS, he utilized thin client technology and Linux to deliver the ILS to staff on the public floor.

For those who don’t know, an ILS is the integrated library system. It’s the software that makes the library work, not only handling the checking in and out of materials but also the cataloguing and online aspects of the library’s collection.

Being able to work with it in a practical setting greatly increased my overall knowledge of the operating system and, for a while, I ran Mandrake and KDE at home. However since this was the early 2000s, there were some simple things like software installation and dependency satisfaction that made things a little more difficult than they needed to be. Enthusiasts were already talking about “desktop Linux for everyone” but anyone who wasn’t a fanboy could easily see that more work had to be done if regular people were going to see this as a viable alternative.

KDE – The OS X of the open source world.

I gave up on it for a bit and just concentrated on Windows. Buy that time I was in college and didn’t have as much time to fiddle around with an operating system. I was busy working on a degree and figuring out a future. After college, however, I took another look at the open source landscape and by then there was this new thing called Ubuntu on the scene. My geek friends had a love/hate opinion of it because they saw it as an easier road to Linux, but curiously didn’t like it for the very same reason. I guess they figured that some of the exclusivity was going away if anyone could easily install and run a Linux distro.

So I gave it a shot and liked it. Being fresh out of college I didn’t have a lot of money for a dedicated Linux system, so I ran it off and on as I could. Ubuntu was the first big change for me. It was the easiest distro I’d ever installed. There wasn’t a whole lot of weirdness and, for all of my love for computers, there are times I just want things to work and work easily. So Ubuntu became my distro of choice. The great thing about it is that installing a separate desktop environment was as simple as knowing the apt-get command which was a welcome change, and that’s the thing, the changes.

The changes were what made me switch on a permanent basis. While the ease of Ubuntu was a big change over the challenges of other distros, there was an online change in that Google appeared on the scene. When I first got into Linux, there wasn’t a Google. There was a Yahoo, but it wasn’t all that great. Now, let me lay out a scenario for you. Tomorrow I fire up my Linux laptop, log into KDE, and start working on something. I found out the day before there’s a cool app I want to try. How did I find that out? Through one of the great online Linux websites now available online. I go to install it and, oh, it’s not in the repositories for Kubuntu.

Meh, no problem. I’ll Google up the PPA and add it.

Oh GAWD yes I want this.
Oh GAWD yes I want this.

That’s the biggest change. I have a problem, I Google it. I don’t have to rely on a couple of knowledgeable friends, I can rely on tens of thousands of knowledgeable friends. I can Google up a solution because, since I’m not running anything weird and bizarre, there’s no way my problem is unique. Hundreds of people have had my problem and hundreds helped solve it. As a librarian, it’s almost poetic that I switched to Linux simply because the information is so ambiently available.

So here I am, I started this post on my Android tablet and I’m finishing it in Linux. At some point I’ll have to replace this aging laptop and I’m looking at something akin to an ultrabook, and chances are it’ll be a Linux ultrabook. To be perfectly honest, if I could find a Linux laptop with a similar form factor to a 13 inch MacBook Air, I’d stop carrying my tablet all together.

But that’s for later.

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