The last time I changed operating systems was in the summer of 1996. Up to that point, I had been a Mac guy – well, I can say a “Mac guy” because I’d owned two Macs (my first computer was actually a Commodore 64, but that was my mom’s so I won’t count it). My first was an old Mac Classic that a friend of mine gave me. My second was an LCII that got me (and several dormmates) through four years of college, many term papers, and my first foray into the interwebs. That is, I could, with my external 2400 baud modem, dial into my school’s mainframe to access a Unix shell for email and “web surfing.” Wow, what incredible cutting-edge technology that was at the time!
In grad school, I realized I would need to upgrade my aging Mac. However, my budget (still) wouldn’t allow for a new Mac, so I rationalized getting my first PC, thinking it would prove useful as I entered the corporate world. For over thirteen years I have only occasionally flirted with the idea of going back to a Mac, but I suppose Windows never quite bothered me enough to justify Apple’s price tag.
Out of the clear blue, earlier this year I delved into the world of Linux. I’ve tracked the story of Linux, of course, as a masterpiece of open source software and I had heard the riotous claims of the faithful decry it’s superiority to all other operating systems. I figured I’d get hands-on with it and draw my own conclusions.
So I played with two gadgets running Linux: An Asus EeePC netbook running Eeebuntu (a customized version of Ubuntu) and a Nokia N810 internet tablet (running Maemo). By “played,” I mean devoted countless hours to tinkering with…much to the chagrin of my wife and children (thank all you for your tolerance, understanding, and patience!) :). Limitations of the hardware aside, I was frankly not impressed. Mind you, while I’m a technologist by spirit and trade, I’m not a developer. So I assessed Linux based on the persepective an ordinary user. And came away with the opinion that it’s just ready for prime-time…for PCs, anyway.
While this was my first “official” test of Linux, I realized that I’ve actually been using it on many of my devices – a Garmin GPS, other media media players, and even TiVo – that use Linux at their core while providing a heavily customized user interface.
And therein lies the future success of Linux.
I agree, in part, with John Gruber’s explanation for why most people have never switched to Linux:
Early versions of Gnome and KDE were pretty much just clones of the Microsoft Windows UI … Ubuntu’s default Gnome desktop is in most ways better from a design and usability standpoint than Windows Vista. But it’s still fundamentally a clone of Windows … The idea being that if you want Windows users to switch to Gnome or KDE, you’ve got to make it feel familiar. But that’s not how you get people to switch to a new product.
Yet it wasn’t the similarity with Windows that put me off of Linux, it was the differences. Missing drivers for my webcam and other peripherals, “plug and play” that didn’t, and control panels that – surprisingly – were more confusing than those created by Redmond. Unlike Firefox, which, while being open sourced, is a polished and fine-tuned piece of software, Linux struck me as half-baked.
So I’m back to Windows XP (with a planned upgrade to 7 in the Fall) on my new 10″ Asus EeePC and happy to be in familiar territory again. Perhaps it’s the “devil I know” – I’ve become an expert in troubleshooting nearly every Windows problem encountered – but unless Macs come down in cost anytime soon, I’m sticking with Bill.*
* stay tuned for an upcoming post where I contradict this statement as an iPod fanboy.