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