I was eating in Chipotle, browsing Hacker News on my phone when I read some outdated article about how the NSA may or may not have backdoor access to some cryptographic function of Windows.
Considering that the NSA’s interest in my computer is probably around zero, and that I don’t even use windows cryptography, this backdoor probably wouldn’t ever affect me. But the sentiment of it did, and it was just enough to push me over the edge.
I’m not new to Linux. In 1998 my friend Phil and I drove across town to a shabby computer store to by Slackware Linux on CD. He sideswiped a lady as we approached the parking lot, so I ran into the store to buy the CDs while he swapped insurance cards.
We ran Linux for the summer, or at least dual-booted it, but eventually practicality made way and Windows was installed again. Diablo II just wouldn’t run in Linux.
Windows wasn’t much to look at in those days, but Linux GUIs were even worse. They were ugly, inconsistent, and counter-intuitive. The saving grace was the command line, but even that could be frustrating.
Every few years I’ve given some Linux flavor another shot, and every time it looks promising, but ends up not quite being good enough.
Five years ago I caught a crazy deal: $25 a month for a pretty awesome dedicated server. It had no control panel, so everything had to be installed from the Linux command line. That was tricky at first, but eventually I started getting the hang of things, and even developing a sixth sense for where in the bizarre file system (/usr/local/bin/…?) a file probably belonged.
As SETT began to accumulate more bloggers we moved servers around, at one point distributing the load between three separate servers. I had to really get my hands dirty for that sort of stuff, and I actually began to enjoy it. Once a certain repertoire of commands gets etched into your brain, working with Linux is pretty effortless.
Last week, prompted by the NSA story, I cautiously gave Linux another attempt. I downloaded Ubuntu 13.04, loaded it onto a flash drive, and booted it up. What I saw was amazing — Unity, Ubuntu’s GUI, has gotten really good. It’s organized intelligently, looks nice and has a lot of powerful features (like integrated sound menu, integrated calendar menu, smart indicators for programs).
Windows has been getting better over time, but not consistently. Windows Vista was pretty bad, Windows 7 was pretty good, and then Windows 8 was worse than both. Microsoft is making things simpler and dumber, and prioritizing form over function even more than Apple is.
OSX, from my outsider perspective, seems to be getting consistently better, but slowly and mostly in ways that don’t appeal to me.
Linux is getting better rapidly, way faster than either OSX or Windows. I don’t have any conviction that it will overtake either of its competitors in popularity, but the experience of using the OS is currently far better than Windows 8 and probably in the same ballpark as OSX. At the current pace, it should be clearly better than Windows and OSX within a couple years.
As these three operating systems have evolved, so has the way that we use computers. So much of what we do is online now that native software selection, while still important, has become a lesser factor.
Developer software for Linux is excellent, and I spend most of my computing time on developing. Sublime Text runs on Linux, as does Chrome. All of the server software, since our SETT server is also a Linux server, is exactly right.
The one and only big missing gap is a replacement for Lightroom, the software I use to manage my photos. I still haven’t found a good analogue, and I can’t get it to run in Wine (which is apparently possible).
So far everything I’ve mentioned puts Linux on par, or slightly worse, than other operating systems. What pushes me over the top is the ability to customize my environment, and the belief that I’m running an OS with longevity.
Windows keeps making changes that I find horrifying. The start menu disappeared in Windows 8, and this ridiculous “charms bar” appeared on the right hand side. The OS is being geared towards touch, and I have no desire to touch my screen. It’s sort of like living in an apartment where the landlord keeps moving walls around. I might stay a while, but I won’t settle in.
Linux is going in a direction that I like. It’s becoming more aesthetically pleasing and more user-centric, but it’s not compromising the features that appeal to power users. This makes me feel comfortable and willing to invest in the platform.
I can write little programs to automate common tasks, and I know that they’ll still work and be useful on the next iteration of Ubuntu. If Ubuntu starts going in a direction I don’t like, I can switch to Mint or Arch and keep everything I’ve built.
More than anything, it feels good to be using an operating system that’s geared towards power users and doesn’t try to sanitize everything. Yes there’s a software center that lets me install pretty much any Linux program with one click, but I can also compile it from the source if I need to make changes. Having that breadth of possibility is very liberating.
It feels good to be running Linux. I think I’m here to stay. Now if only I could find something that could handle all of the images I foolishly converted to Adobe’s DNG format.
Photo is me playing a piano.