July 11, 2002

A Linux user goes back

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 09:36 PM

Spam the Spammers

I got some spam yesterday. I run SpamAssassin aggressively, so I don't see most of the spam directed at me. But this one was different. It was different because it went to my pager. That' right, my cell phone got all exited about it. And I got VERY, VERY PISSED OFF about it.

I decided that this particular spammer had crossed the line. (In fact, I later found that they had spammed ALL of my virtual domains). It was time to fight back. This spammer was also a little strange in that they asked you to reply via e-mail if you are interested in their "offer", so I did.

I wrote a Perl script using Net::SMTP that talked directly to their mail server and delivered messages to them on my behalf. In fact, it would do that in a loop. I let it run for a few hours from a few machines. By my calculations, I had sent them about 50MB of messages (a few thousand, in fact). I could have sent a log more, but there's a lot of hops between me and their server (hosted in Asia, of course).

I have access to A LOT of network bandwidth. They probably didn't expect that.

I figure that they'd either null-route my servers or they'd get the point and take me off their list. Either way, I'm happy. But there's no way to be sure, so maybe I'll fire it up again later today and send a few hundred thousand "did you take me off your list? I await your reply!" messages.

I really hate spammers.

Posted by jzawodn at 04:58 PM

Anarchy and Infrastructure

Doc has an interesting presentation that's now on-line. Anarchy & Infrastructure was first delivered at this year's Jabber Conference. Good stuff.

Posted by jzawodn at 03:54 PM

Wireless on the Plane

Doc Searls has an interesting entry in his weblog today about RF interference and the impact that notebooks with WiFi electronics may (or may not) have on commercial airlines. As someone who is likely to use a TiBook on the plane (it gets over 4 hours on a charge!), I wonder about this. After all, I did recently put an AirPort card (ironic name, huh?) in it. And removing the card is a non-trivial task.

Posted by jzawodn at 03:14 PM

xsh - The XML Shell

Leave it to the Perl community to come up with a shell that can perform all sorts of cool tasks. The XML::XSH module and the accompanying xsh command-line shell provide a ton of ways you can browse, manipulate, and transform XML documents using a shell-like interface. Check out this story at O'Reilly's XML.com for details.

Posted by jzawodn at 02:55 PM