Linux for the common person

Most Windows users will have probably encountered them: The hardcore Linux fanatics: People that will swear that Linux is the ultimate OS and utterly hate everything that has the name Microsoft on it. Normally I wouldn't really mind these people. After all, it is completely up to you what kind of OS you want to be running on your system, and when you are happy with your current OS, why would you need to change?

This is what makes some of the Linux users out there kind of dangerous. Thinking of themselves as cyber prophets that need to rid the world of the evil called Microsoft they will verbally abuse every ms user until they give in and decide to give Linux a try. This is where for most people the nightmare begins...

A good piece of advice: BEFORE you even attempt to download a Linux distro, ask yourself: Do I really need Linux? Proven fact: The reason why most people will attemp a linux installation is curiosity, end of line. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course , we can all understand that it gets boring after a while, looking at the same Windows desktop every day again, however: It is unlikely that switching to a Linux desktop will suddenly make your computer experience more pleasant. Linux fanatics will remind you over and over again about the security issues in windows, the fact ms is spying on us, the high amount of viruses, the high price you need to pay if you want to use everything legally, hell...according to some people your computer might even explode the moment you install the latest version of Windows. Though, when you think about it yourself: Microsoft doesn't make bad software. If windows was really THAT bad, everyone would have switched to Macintosh a long time ago, so let's take a look at those disadvantages:

Windows is filled with security holes and can be easily hacked into
True, new security issues are found every day, and new patches are also being released every day. However: this in no different from a Linux system: Unless you invest a lot in security, hackers will ALWAYS have an easy way to get in your system. The fact that Linux is mostly open source makes it even more dangerous. Why don't we hear Linux users complaining then? Because most Linux users that need to protect important data, know damn well what they are doing, and will take enough security measures in order to prevent security breaches. Same CAN be done on a windows system, but 95% of the windows users are "ordinary" people that don't care about tight security anyway, thus they will be targeted by script kiddies who see an easy target to hack into. Not to gather important data, but just for the kick of it.
More and more Windows viruses are made every day
So what is the goal of a virus writer? Right: to infect as many people as possible. What do most people run on their PC? Right: Windows!. Face it: the moment an OS becomes popular, more and more viruses WILL pop up. Imagine that everybody switched to a Linux system tomorrow, you will see a huge boom in Linux viruses. Agreed: At this point it is quite hard to create a good allround Linux virus, because of the dozens of different Linux distros that all use different structures. But if Linux wants to become popular one day, they WILL have to agree on a good standard sooner or later.
Microsoft software is expensive, while Linux is free
Indeed a true advantage that will become more and more disadvantageous for microsoft in the future. More and more Linux desktop distros will appear, creating a true competition for microsoft. More about this later
Microsoft is very vulnerable to spyware
OK, this is a proven fact. For example, the Microsoft Media player sends statistics about every file you play. Sure, they give you an option to disable this, but for validating wma music files, you still have to connect to the internet. Despite the fact than nobody really knows what exactly they do with that data (but you can imagine it can be easily used for legal issues) it remains a disturbing fact for someone who wants to keep his actions secret. Also, there are plenty of 3rd party programs that include a lot of spyware/adware. This simply doesn't occur in Linux applications because of their open source nature. Ofcourse the common person won't worry about MS knowing he just sent his pictures of little Billy to grandma, but there are also a lot of people that DO worry about this, so I guess it is quite natural that they go look for an alternative OS. I said before: this is a HUGE step you would make. Windows has some REALLY good features that simply aren't available in linux: It is foolproof, installing software is extremely easy, configuring drivers and hardware is a breeze (well...most of the time) and it is the most supported OS out there. For a very long time, linux distros had none of those features, thus they were only interesting for people with a lot of free time and devotion on their hands. However: Huge changes are going on in the world of linux...

Recently more and more so called desktop distros start showing up. Basically, these are linux distros aimed at the common man. We had Lindows before, but this is still far from what a daily user needs. A desktop user basically wants the following thing: A computer environment on which he/she can perform all his/her tasks without having to worry about what is running beneath. Nothing more, nothing less. People don't want to fiddle around with config files, they don't want to spend an entire day just to get the scrollwheel of their mouse working. They just want to boot up their computer and see everything in working order. This is exactly what recent destop distros like Xandros and Arklinux are trying to accomplish.

Let's take a look at Arklinux for example: The installation of this OS is done in 3 mouseclicks and 20 minutes, wich is even better then MS software (for comparison: Gentoo linux takes a whole day to install). Next thing you reboot your computer and all your usb and pci devices are detected and installed. It's almost too good to be true: Even microsoft could learn from this. Installing new software? Just clicking on the right title in the nice "install new software" GUI you get. In other words: These distros are meant to get you started as soon as possible, yet with full functionality. So if you want, you CAN tweak your linux if you have the courage for it, but it is not needed to get everything working.

What we see here is that there are now several distros coming up that try to get the same advantages of windows, but without its disadvantages (spyware, price of software). This is a very good thing actually: Now linux becomes available for everyone, without turning their life into a nightmare. This can also become a good challenge for Microsoft to further improve their products and work out their main disadvantages. A lot of people claim than 2004 will be the year of the desktop distros. And I am really curious how everything will evolve. How many people will try to make the switch to another userfriendly OS, and how will Microsoft react on all this? Time will tell, but the battle will sure be interesting to watch.

A view from a very common computer user

"It's all about choice. I have the choice of how my OS works, how it looks and above all, what it does. Windows has failed me on all those counts, and Windows 10 with its telemetry and uncontrollable updates was the final straw."
— a speaker's comment at a recent Linux Users' Group meeting


Okay, let's be clear about one thing. Whilst I have a somewhat technical background, having done tech support for Windows and Apple computers, trained phone support personnel and both built and (to a limited degree) supported networks, I still only want my computer to just bloody well work. I don't expect much of my computer, but I want its operating system to get out of my way so I can communicate, write, read or watch silly cat videos.

I'd been an MS/DOS and Windoze guy since I started using computers for myself (though my first computer use was data entry and control on some guv'mint and banking systems, and later playing with a Sinclair Spectrum at home). I was happy with Windows in all its iterations. My first PC build was a glorious(‽) Windows 95 machine, and I supported end-users on that until the release of Windows 98, when I was seconded to my company's training department, and I still loved Windows.

This was the beginning of the end for me. I watched as Microsoft began to limit both choice and control for their users, and began to develop a yearning for a mysterious something other. The opportunity came with a Linux installation cover disk from some computing magazine. My memory is that it was in the late 1990s, and the distro (distribution) was Slackware. I painstakingly installed it on a machine I built from old parts. It was horrid, but it mostly worked. Mostly. I fiddled with it for a few weeks, found it clunky and too reliant on reading the man pages and copious Google searches. I installed Debian and had a similar, if slightly easier, time. I think I ran out of patience a after a couple of months, but I did at least have a Linux server that worked more often than not.

That continued for about a couple of years, every so often I'd return to tweak something or pound a keyboard in frustration. Then along came Ubuntu. This was a game-changer. Installation was easier, the system had a usable and stable graphical interface, it did exactly what it said on the tin.

Finally having a system I could use day-to-day meant that I started to use more open source software, and as Microsoft began to change their Office interface to something I didn't like, found myself using (as I recall) Open Office more and more. This should have marked the beginning of the end for Windows, but there was one fly in the ointment; while everything Just Plain Worked on my desktop, my laptop was another issue altogether. You see, with the advent of WiFi I'd bought myself a laptop. Whilst most everything worked well, getting wifi to work was a pain. It turned out there were at the time no Linux drivers for my wifi chipset, and whilst there was a workaround (which involved using another bit of software widgetry to load a Windows driver) it was kludgy, unreliable and plain ugly to mess with. I tried for a couple of months to love it, but I failed.

Meanwhile, Real Life™ intervened, and I found myself coming to live in the US. The circumstances were such that I didn't fancy messing with Linux a great deal, and so despite my growing loathing of Windows in general and Microsoft Update in particular, I continued to use Windows 98 then Windows 7 (I tried Vista, skipped it and never wanted to move to 8). Increasingly I found myself wanting to wrench control of my system from Microsoft's nannying. I found myself using more and more open-source programs, joined the local Linux Users' Group and did a lot of reading.

After Christine died, I found myself at a loose end and began my experiments again. Distro hopping from Debian to Ubuntu to Mint and back, I would run the live boot images to play with, but lacked the courage to install it as a boot option. Finally the day dawned when the hard drive on my laptop began to fail to the extent that Windows would no longer boot. In desperation (having backed everything up), I installed Xubuntu, and (cue angel voices) the bloody thing worked. The slowly-deteriorating hard drive was replaced (thanks to a donation from a random Redditor) and I was off. Microsoft Windows was no longer on my system, a sort of reverse defenestration.

That was over three years ago. After a couple of distro changes, I'm now running OpenSUSE Leap on my laptop and considering a move to their rolling release, Tumbleweed. Linux is my daily driver now, which is in keeping with an increasing suspicion of mainstream, proprietary software. I'm the vice-president of my local LUG and a strong privacy advocate. Wearing these two hats (both vice-presidential and tinfoil hat) is far more comfortable for me. I'm home.

So, does Linux work? Is it for you?

Well, it does work for me. I write, I play music and video, I browse the Web. I can use email, there's a Signal¹ protocol client on my desktop (that's a tale for another day!). I use it to do presentations and video conferences. It's pretty and I've plenty of tools and toys to play with. I've configured it pretty much exactly the way I want it, it only updates when I'm ready.

Is it for you? Possibly not, but then I've installed it for two older folk who just wanted it for web-browsing and simple tasks and they've been happy for over a year with no support interventions required. A couple of questions will sort this out for you (and I know this is a very blunt tool, but it's all I've time for…)

Ah, the sticky questions… The occasionally sticky answers
Are you a gamer? Specifically are you mostly playing newer AAA games? Probably best stick with what you've got, unless you want to dual-boot.
Do you like having complete control of your system? Linux does give you more choices in how things work, especially in terms of look and feel.
Are you concerned about privacy, and what your computer is sharing about you? Not so much for Apple users, but Microsoft is increasingly having Windows "phone home" to its servers.
Is security important for you? Most operating systems are easy to secure, but Linux (and the BSD Unixen) are potentially easier to keep that way.
Are you happy to do a little work to switch over to a new way of doing things? Linux does require some changes in workflow, and a little understanding of what's under the bonnet. Hood, whatever.
Do you need to use a specific piece of software for work (for example 3D CAD, photo/video manipulation)? This could be problematic. Photoshop, for example, keeps a lot of people from running Linux as a daily driver. There are ways around it using emulation (I know Wine is not an emulator, sue me) or a virtual machine. You can even dual boot, which means installing two operating sytsems and switching between them.
Are you up to a new challenge occasionally? Linux does throw a curve now and again. Especially if you mess with your system a lot. But you will learn lots.
Would you describe yourself as a patient person? Linux does require some patience and perseverance. But the Linux community is generally pretty forgiving, especially if you've read the man pages.
There's a saying that "the best way to learn about Linux is to break it". Does this fill you with shivering dread? Run. Run away now. No-one will judge you.
Are you willing to give it a whirl without taking any risk at all? Downloading and installing a bootable Linux image to a thumbdrive will let you boot your system without changing anything on your computer.
My system is broken now, what do I have to lose? Back up your important stuff. Install Linux on your system. Profit‽

  So I'm happy in my little computer world. My three (soon to be four) computers will all run Linux. I am in control, I learn something new every day. I have stopped worrying and learned to embrace the command line, and gladly don my geek hat at ever available opportunity. It's a little more than an operating system, it's a philosophical choice too.

¹ Incidentally, Signal is by far my preferred way of communication these days. Think of it as a secure SMS texting application. In fact you can install the app (hate that word!) instead of whatever you use for texting from your phone, and there's a nice desktop client as well.

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