TIAMTOW (There Is Always More Than One Way): Or, Just Say “No” to Microsoft

In a couple of previous posts, we detailed the efforts we went through to get Windows 10 running at Chaos Central–if only for the tax season.  As it happens, the new year brings an anguished thread on the Facebook “cousin network” on the problems others, mostly not computer professionals, are facing or have encountered with either upgrading to Windows 10–which is, after all, a choice–or, even more ominously, keeping the Windows 7 or 8 systems they already have, in the face of the changes Microsoft is making to services to take advantage of new Windows 10 capabilities, that also require forward-compatible changes to older systems.

Despite the shortcomings of Microsoft and Windows in general, the fact remains that every computer sold that doesn’t have the Apple logo on it comes pre-loaded with the current shipping version of Windows, like it or not.  This is the result of all-or-nothing sales contracts between Microsoft and every major computer manufacturer that persist despite anti-trust litigation that flares up from time to time across the planet.  If you don’t want to pay the Apple premium for what is admittedly high-end hardware packaged in a designer shell, your choice is a range of quality and capability (and corresponding price) in a box that comes with Windows.  For the sake of argument, we focus on desktop and laptop computers, rather than the choice of tablets and phones, which offer a third choice, Google’s Android system.

But, speaking of Android, there is a third paradigm available for desktop and laptop users.  This third range of choices doesn’t even require you to buy new equipment–it is available to replace Windows on the computer you have.  Or, if you want, you can take advantage of competitive sales of competing Windows models and just accept the slight “Microsoft Tax” for the installed system you will not be using.  This third choice is the family of Open Source systems based on GNU/Linux, which, coincidentally, is also the core basis for the Android system.

Despite having paid the Microsoft Tax for the existing system on your old (or new) computer, switching to GNU/Linux costs nothing, unless you choose to purchase–at nominal cost– a set of DVDs or CDs for the installation rather than downloading and burning your own network installation disk.  The principal behind this is the idea, espoused by Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, that openly shared software benefits the entire economy rather than enriching a small cadre of individuals who hide their code–which may be of dubious quality and may not do exactly what you want or need.  Open Source means that anyone with the skill and need can improve, extend, or adapt the programs, and is obligated to share with others.

We call this a paradigm rather than a fixed choice because there are many versions, or distributions, of GNU/Linux from which to choose.  There are currently three different “families” of distributions that are popular:  Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which is an industrial version that comes with expensive licensed technical support, but also provides “free” versions as CentOS (Community ENTerprise Operating System), that is a proper subset of RHEL, and Fedora (a jaunty, experimental Red Hat).  A slightly different offshoot distribution, SuSE, evolved in Europe and is also more suited to industrial and high-end server use.  The widest variation in distributions is based on the Debian model developed by the late Ian Murdock.  A distribution consists of the core, essential GNU/Linux packages, plus a distinctive set of desktop presentations and productivity applications, with a repository of optional packages.  Pure Debian and the Gentoo bare-bones file set are popular with developers, but users looking for an alternative to Windows find that Ubuntu Linux or Mint Linux are more suited to “zero-administration” use, are very easy to install, and have a default set of productivity applications that meet the needs of most casual users.

Ubuntu Linux 14.04 Desktop (shown in a virtual machine window on another Linux machine)
Ubuntu Linux 14.04 Desktop (shown in a virtual machine window on another Linux machine)

So, what does the Linux experience look like?  Installation consists of downloading a network installation image, burning it to a CD or DVD, rebooting from the new disc, and either replacing the existing Windows system or repartitioning the hard drive to make room for both Windows and Linux, with the choice at boot time.  Once Linux is running, Ubuntu shows the Unity desktop, which is somewhat similar to the Windows 8 or 10, with a disappearing icon bar on the left from which to choose programs.  Mint Linux, based on Ubuntu, offers MATE or GNOME desktops, which are more familiar to Windows XP users, with a menu panel at the bottom and a popup menu at the lower left.

Screenshot from 2016-01-02 21:55:48
A document shown in page mode in LibreOffice

Default installations include LibreOffice, which has the same tools as Microsoft Office–word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, etc., and can read and write in Office-compatible formats as well as the native Open Document Format files.  Mozilla Firefox is the default internet browser, but Google Chrome is easily installed.  Mozilla Thunderbird is an excellent email client, and the alternate Evolution email client is similar to Microsoft’s Outlook client.  The Totem video player will play MP4 video files or movie DVDs.  VLC is another video player that is very good.  If you want to edit your own videos, OpenShot is easy to learn.   There are several different photo gallery managers and editors available, and the GIMP is equivalent to Photoshop for image editing. Scribus is a page layout/desktop publishing  tool, like Microsoft Publisher.  Incidentally, all of these Open Source productivity tools, with the exception of OpenShot, are available for Windows or OS/X as well (OpenShot depends on some Linux intrinsic libraries and the UNIX philosophy of multiple elements working together, the best way to develop complex applications, but a Windows version might be forthcoming: part of the issue is that it is the creation of a team of exactly one programmer).

Ubuntu Software Center--a place to download free programs
Ubuntu Software Center–a place to download free programs

The software repositories include thousands of applications, tools, and games, all downloadable for free.  Almost any application you can buy for Windows has a corresponding free app that serves the same function.  Also, many popular programs written for Windows can be installed and run on Linux through the WINE (WINdows Emulator) system.  Alas, Quicken, TurboTax, and Garmin Connect are not in that category.

Fiberworks PCW, a Windows program for designing weaving drafts, running under WINE on Linux.
Fiberworks PCW, a Windows program for designing weaving drafts, running under WINE on Linux.

If you don’t want to trust yourself to install a dual-boot Linux partition on your existing computer, you can convert an old XP or Vista computer to Linux, or, if you have a TV with a spare HDMI connector, you can buy a Raspberry Pi starter kit (originally designed in Great Britain to teach computing to children) with a Raspian system on an SD card and extra mouse and keyboard for less than $100 and try it out.  If, like me, you decide Linux is the “one true operating system” and want a “pure” environment without inflating Microsoft’s “shipped system” statistics, you can buy a more powerful machine with Linux pre-installed on it from one of the handful of vendors who build them.  Of course, these low-production-run, built-to-order custom machines are much more expensive than a big-box-store commodity Windows machine, even without the Microsoft license, but they run out-of-the-box, without the user needing to become a system administrator or installer.

There are any number of advantages to running GNU/Linux instead of Microsoft Windows, not the least of which is relative immunity from viruses and other attacks, mainly due to the increased security inherent in systems built on the UNIX mult-user model.  The multi-tasking model is much more efficient as well.   The obvious disadvantage is that most commercial software vendors make their programs exclusively for Microsoft Windows, or maybe also for Apple OS/X.  Another disadvantage, which also applies to Apple products, is that many features offered by Microsoft and Apple depend on proprietary access to the vendor’s cloud services.  However, there are system-neutral independent cloud services if you need that sort of thing, like Dropbox and Google Drive.

So, there is another solution to the aggravation and insecurity of Microsoft and the expense of Apple:  GNU/Linux is not owned by anyone–it is free as in Liberty as well as available at no cost other than your own time and a blank DVD or thumb drive.  GNU/Linux is developed by hundreds of ordinary people all over the world, most of whom are not millionaires, but work at regular jobs, at companies that embrace the Open Source philosophy.  This world-wide community  creates software not as a means to an income stream, but to support the services they provide, leveraging contributions from others and freely sharing their own enhancements.

GNU/Linux is stable and safe: Linux runs more than half of all web servers in the world, and is the foundation for most of the world’s supercomputers, as well as the core of the Android system in the majority of cell phones and tablets.  After 20 years of grass roots growth, Linux only owns a small percentage of workstation desktops, but many of those are also listed on the Windows ledger, as the machines were originally sold with Windows.  Many businesses and government agencies are switching to Linux throughout their organizations.  Is your household next?