Moving to Linux

What follows is the story of how I became a Linux junkie. And why you should, too.

My first computing was done in junior high school, using mainframes over slow TTY links. I continued to be interested in computers over the next several years and took some computer science courses in my early years at Duke. I was thrilled when, in 1982, the original IBM PCs appeared at Duke. Imagine the thrill when some of them even turned up with 128KB of memory! And hard drives!

I never much cared for Windows, even at the beginning. I appreciated the windowing system itself, but I missed the access MS-DOS gave one to the system. One could write very useful MS-DOS programs fairly quickly, even programs that needed access to the system at a very basic level. As Windows became more complex and more integrated, that problem got worse and worse. I felt as if I were no longer in charge of what was happening on my own machine. Indeed, I wasn't. It is essentially impossible now to fully uninstall a program from Windows.

Of course, that was the least of it. The constant crashes left me feeling more than a little annoyed. Even when I wasn't losing data, I was losing time. And the fact that Microsoft had become Micro$oft made me want all the more to change my allegiances. And let's not even talk about viruses, worms, and all of the other security issues.

So I thought for a long time that I ought to switch to Linux. But it never seemed to happen. I was too attached to the software I ran under Windows and thought it would be difficult to find good software to use under Linux. I thought it would be hard to learn Linux. But then, one day, I got home, and I couldn't boot my computer into Windows. It would just freeze partway into the boot process. Fortunately, I'd had RedHat 8.0 put on that machine when I'd bought it, thinking I'd make the switch one day. It booted fine. So I spent three or four hours screaming at my machine—and more usefully, scouring the web for information, using the Linux system that worked. Finally, I found the problem: My Zip drive had gone bad and, as a result, was causing problems on the IDE bus. Windows XP—yes, the renowned Windows XP—was completely unable to deal with the problem and so was refusing to boot.

That night I started using Linux.

And I quickly found out that my fears were completely unfounded. There is no shortage whatsoever of good software to use under Linux. In fact, if there's a problem, it is mostly the opposite problem: There's too much good software that runs under Linux. Without the Micro$oft monopoly to stifle creativity and diversity in software, many flowers have bloomed, and there are several different programs available for almost any purpose you care to name, each of them taking a different approach, with different strengths and weaknesses. And you know what? You don't have to choose among them once and for all. You wish you had a simple, fast word processor to use writing letters and a more complex one to use for that newsletter? No problem. And they'll all read your old Word files, too. Or even old WordPerfect files, though you may need to get libwpd for that purpose, if it isn't included in your distribution.

And most of the software you'd be using under Linux is free, both as in "no money" and as in "freedom". And the old myth that open source software is buggy or unreliable is long since just that: a myth, propogated by those who have money to lose to open source software. And hey, if you do find a bug, you can fix it yourself, if you like. Or, if you're not that adventurous, you can send an email to the people who wrote the program, ask about it on their mailing list, post the bug on their website, or whatever. And if you ask real nice, and it's not too terribly huge a problem, someone might fix the bug that night and post an update the next day. (It's happened. Try getting that kind of service out of Micro$oft.) Or if they don't have time to do it or don't regard it as a priority, and you can't do it, you can hire someone who will do it. How long did it take Micro$oft to fix the footnote bug in Word? Is it really fixed? I still get a lot of papers with misplaced footnotes.

You say you're a gamer? Run a dual boot system, then. Load XP to play Doom 3 or Grand Theft Auto or whatever. Load Linux when you want to do actual work. Better, buy a good specialized game console that's designed for that stuff. And there are more and more games available for Linux. Check out Linux Games and Happy Penguin. Or check out Transgaming's portability software.

Is Linux hard to use? Well, certainly, there's a period of adjustment. But no, it's not hard to use. I have the director of my church's homeless shelter running Linux, and he is a very long way from being a computer geek. And you know what's really amazing? You can still run a modern Linux distribution on a 233MHz Pentium II with 256K of memory. It's not exactly turbocharged, but it's entirely usable. You can't even install Windows XP on that machine, let alone run it. (And let's not talk about more recent releases of Windows.)

Yes, of course, if you were to switch to Linux, you'd have to relearn some things. It takes a little time. But it's really not that hard, and the benefits far outweigh the costs. If you're running a business, for-profit or otherwise, consider what it means that you can run Linux perfectly well on old hardware. You could save a few thousand dollars but not upgrading some of your computers, even if there were only four or five of them. And how about those security issues? I spent two solid days disinfecting my church's network after we got hit several summers ago by the Blaster worm. Linux systems are essentially impervious to email viruses and other such garbage. And they'll stay that way, because Linux (like other *nix systems) is designed from the ground up as a multi-user, networked operating system, with all the security features that requires.

But that's only the beginning. Once you start using Linux, you can start to relate to your computer in a new way: It works for you, and it will do what you say. It may seem easier to point-and-click, and sometimes it is. But imagine needing to convert, say, a hundred HTML files to PDF. You want to do that by loading each one into Microsoft Word and then exporting it as a PDF? I don't think so. I can write a shell script to do it in under a minute. And you can, too. You only need to understand the very most basic aspects of how to use the shell to be able to do it. (Google "bash tutorial" for some good introductions.)

You say you have exactly that problem? Download html2ps if you don't have it. Put all those HTML files in /tmp/html (or just link them there) and then run:

pushd /tmp/html; for i in *.html; do j=$(basename $i .html); html2ps $i | ps2pdf - > $j.pdf; done; popd

How long that takes to run will depend upon the size of the files, of course, but you're probably looking at a few minutes to process a hundred decent-sized HTML files. You can play XBill while you wait. (Who said there weren't good games for Linux?)

Those were Word files you needed to convert? Get the WvWare utilities and make a few small changes to the above command line.

Yeah, I know you could do all that under Windows, too. If you had the utilities. The point is that you don't have the utilities, and Windows doesn't include a compiler. And even if you're a geek like me, you probably don't do shell-scripting under Windows. It's just not how the system works or encourages you to think, and the DOS shell sucks. When you use Linux, you simply relate to your computer differently.