There's a story titled "A Linux user goes back" that's been circulating recently. It's the story of a three and half year user of Linux who has gone back to using Windows on his desktop. The article a good read. It reminds me of my struggle to find a decent OS for the last 5-7 years.

There's even more good reading in this thread on the ArsTechnica forum. Unlike most discussion forums (think slashdot), it's not a flame fest. Instead it's a small group of folks talking about why they use the desktops they do. I wish there was more of that (reasoned, calm discussion) on the web sites I frequent.

Maybe it's time that I tell my story too. Well, maybe the abridged version. Yeah...

Ever since I learned Unix back in 1992 (wow, it's been over 10 years already), I began looking for a "good" operating system to run on my computers. For a while, I ran Windows 3.1. Then Linux came along and I used it for a few days. But it was rather immature. I went back to Windows and stuck with it until discovering OS/2. I loved OS/2. It was a real 32 bit operating system with a decent user interface and great stability. But there were few mainstream applications for it. It was a lot like Linux in more recent times.

I eventually ditched OS/2 for Linux and ran it for a year or so. I had a Linux box on the Internet via 10 megabit Ethernet back in 1994 (or maybe 1993?). It was a lot of fun. I was in college and cared about e-mail, Usenet, Gopher, and browsing the Web. Since I was a Computer Science major, I didn't write many papers--mostly programs. But since I worked in the computer labs, I had ready access to Mac and Windows when I needed them.

Then, in 1996 I got a co-op job working for a mid-sized oil company. There I was introduced to Window NT 3.51 and really liked it. Yes, it had the crappy Windows 3.x user interface, but it ran all the apps I cared about and was really stable and responsive. Not long after that I got my hands on Windows NT 4.0 beta 2 and ran it as my desktop at home for over a year. It was good enough that I didn't care to upgrade to the release version until something forced me to. Finally, a stable OS with a good UI and plentiful apps.

All during that time, I also had a Linux box. It was a Pentium 133 with 64MB of RAM. It was my firewall and proxy. It sat in the corner and did a good job. But at some point in 1999, I re-caught the Linux fever. It was all over the press. The Internet boom was, well... booming. Microsoft was about to go down in a big way!

So I switched to RedHat. I learned all about RPM hell. I got pissed at RedHat eventually. Wanting a better UI and a more "desktop" Linux, I tried Mandrake. It was better. Keeping up to date was a pain in the ass. But I stuck with it. At the end of 1999, I moved to the Bay Area to work for Yahoo!. In 2000, I got religion and moved to Debian. I also bought an IBM ThinkPad 600E to replace the one that I had to leave with my former job.

That's noteworthy because it expanded the range of things I needed a good operating system to deal with. Not only did it need to be a good "desktop" OS, it had to be a good laptop OS too. Linux was just struggling to get there. PCMCIA was still hit and miss. USB worked if you knew how to make it work. But I got the 600E working beautifully. I loved it.

As time went on, I got all my home computers (there were 5 at the peak) running Debian Linux. I had a small army of machines running a bullet-proof OS and I was damned proud of it. I even manged to get 802.11b wireless support working well (a bit of a struggle).

But then cracks in began to appear in the armor. I got to be a very busy person. The tasks that I used to enjoy (figuring how to make X or Y work in Linux) became quite burdensome. I began to value my time far more than I had before. I found myself wondering if I could get things done faster in Windows. It reminded me of that anonymous quote I've seen before:

Linux is only free if you don't value your time.

In fact, I started to feel the truth behind that statement. I spent far too much time trying to make USB stuff work right, setup my new printer, and so on. I'm not stupid. I've been using Unix for a long time, as I've pointed out. It's just that, as any Linux user knows, things aren't always as intuitive or well documented as they need to be.

At work I had two computers. One ran FreeBSD (my main development desktop) and a crappy old P-200 running Windows NT 4.0. The Windows box was there so I could test things in Internet Explorer--just like 98% of our users would actually see them. And at home, I bought a copy of VMWare to install on the ThinkPad. I installed Windows 98 and ran it under Linux. That allowed me to use Internet Explorer, Word, and PowerPoint when I needed to. Life was a little better.

Earlier this year I acquired an Apple Powerbook G4 Titanium (long story). I've been using it a more and more recently. OS X is pretty darn nice. There are a lot of good applications for it. And the machine is self is excellent. I have minor complaints about it, but no more than with any other. I'm not at all tempted to try and install Linux on it.

The two and a half year old ThinkPad 600E was starting to show its age. I had long ago put in a bigger disk (20GB) and more memory (512MB) but it was still sluggish in the VMWare instance. I decided that I needed to get an new laptop and that it probably ought to run Windows (either 2000 or XP). I wanted a laptop because I travel occasionally and really don't see the need for another desktop machine. Plus, I like being able to take my computer to work once in a while.

Thanks to EBay, I got a new IBM ThinkPad T23 with a 1GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, a 48GB disk, and Windows XP professional. I'd have rather had Windows 2000, but XP is reasonable.

So now I have three laptops. The oldest runs Debian Linux nicely, the new ThinkPad T23 runs Windows XP, and the TiBook runs Mac OS X. Amusingly, I find myself using the XP and OS X machines 98% of the time. Sure, I often SSH to work or one of my co-located Linux servers (there are two of those), but for desktop use I find both XP and OS X to work quite well. They're still far better than what's available in the Linux world.

Linux may be headed to the desktop someday, but it's not there yet. Maybe in a few years. Linux is great on the server. So is FreeBSD. I can only see limited reasons for ever running a Windows server. The same has become true of a Linux desktop.

That's the short version.

Don't get me wrong. I still use Linux a lot, just not on my desktops (or laptops).

Posted by jzawodn at July 11, 2002 09:36 PM

Reader Comments
# HELPER said:

Same thing here,I started using linux on the desktop many years ago (mainly to get away from microsoft)but after I played with linux and saw what It could and couldn't do,I decided about what I'm going to do My future in computing.

Im going use windows on the desktop and use linux on the servers,freebsd too.

I see no reason to use one operating system for both tasks because it just don't work...I have quite a few websites running linux and for security,ease of use,cost and flexability nothing beats linux not even windows 2000 advanced server.
But when it comes down to the desktop nothing can beat windows,sure linux can do alot...might even look nicer, but when your working in a rapid enviroment of installing and uninstalling software,playing games,listening to music or working with office software..linux just takes too much time ecspecially when you need xyx.lib this and glibxyz.lib that,you really end up spending more time on getting things working instead of getting things done.

on July 13, 2002 03:10 AM
# jude bradley said:

I use win for games and DVD , (trying to use mplayer for linux and getting there ) and Linux for internet and stuff , seems to be like everyone else
with windows , you could never recompile the app or Kernel and still run the OS , I'm proud of that fact

on July 13, 2002 07:33 AM
# Michael Willems said:

Me too - many years, many machines, but now tending to Linux servers and Win destop boxes.

although I must say, I do rather enjoy my one remaining Linux desktop machine ,that I use as sysadmin machine. I simply need the seven desktops and the 'it keeps running for months" stability that RedHat 7.3 gives me. Yes, I am missing good fonts, simple X, easy printer setup, etc etc, but it's a sysadmin box (it runs all my Linux servers etc), and I have a Windows laptop and my wiofe has a Windows machine at the desk next door - I use that whenever I need to run a Win app.

on July 13, 2002 05:59 PM
# Michael Chang said:

Ditto. Exactly. I've tried, on and off for the past several years, to use Linux as a desktop OS; however, it never really took off --- it was always missing something that I needed, or maybe I was just too spoiled by the clean and intuitive interface that MacOS had delivered to me for so many years. Either way, my last attempt was this past Spring when I booted into RedHat 7.2/KDE. Although nice in some respects, and definitely improved since the last time (about a year prior), it still missed the mark in terms of useful and quality apps as well as a coherent and consistent interface. That's when I decided, once and for all, that I'd use my Mac as my primary desktop machine and *N*X _solely_ as a server OS. I believe in using the right tool for the job. Different OSes offer have their own pros and cons, and if you can't find everything you're looking for in one single OS, then it's totally okay to just mix and match and use the OS that's best suited to the task at hand.

on July 14, 2002 10:41 PM
# jeroen ost said:

I switched from windows to linux three years ago, and never ever felt the desire to go back. I still work with windows machines on the desktop at work, but my own linux box is configured better than windows can be. I use the remote control of my tv-tuner card to access xmms for mp3s, mplayer for dvd/divx, I read ICQ's with that same remote control which has a zoom button to switch to an ultra low resolution and read incoming messages from 5 metres. That same TV-tuner card remote control also dims the light in my room with a relay. My computer records the news on television in realtime divx compression at 7pm every day. It updates my entire mp3 collection database, creates an html list of all albums and publishes it on my web-page. It backups itself every saturday night. I log in remotely from work to grep in my mailbox folders for a 5 year old email. It has a matrix orbital lcd display to see what songs are playing when the monitor is down. In the audiogalaxy era I used a little script called "getallcds ", which looked up an artist on allmusic, then started queuing all songs from all albums, then autmatically sorted them in to directories, renamed files to a uniform naming convention, etc. etc. etc. My kernel is ultra light, compact, and perfectly optimized for my CPU and chipset.
Many of these things are just very hard or impossible to do in windows.
No, I'm not going back, never. Why would I ? Sure, it took me a lot of free time to get all things configured. But it was a great learning experience. Spending time at home learning linux allowed me to get a great linux job in a great company.
And now that wine/winex is getting so great, I could even play a lot of games, if only I had the time.
Linux is definately worth it.
They've made so much progression over the past year.

on July 15, 2002 02:06 AM
# jason johns said:

Things have changed - and quickly. I was forced into using linux when i started working for a Linux-only hosting company about a year ago. At the time I was using XP at home and Debian (KDE) at work. I hated KDE but lived with it.

About 6 months ago I switched to Ubuntu. It's nice being able to install the software you need for free, without having to worry about spyware and viruses. It's nice - as a non-techie - to be able to use a nice, uncluttered Desktop that's stable.

I bought a new laptop this weekend with XP on. Although I'm not going to install Ubuntu on it (we need a windows machine) I am not happy with it. Windows still has the edge when it comes to games and software like Macromedia. However, this isn't a feature of Windows - The software makers have little choice. Apple and Linux desktops are valid alternatives for productive people now. Windows isn't doomed but it will not increase its lead in future

on January 10, 2006 03:28 PM
# FG said:

I recently jumped ship from windows to Ubuntu 7.10 and I love it . AS a Linux nub this was the easiest jump Ive had so far . everything works that I use +games , I see no future with windows on my machines any longer .

on February 1, 2008 05:48 AM
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