Over on Craig Pfeifer’s
site, I made the following comment a couple days ago:
It’s conceivable to me that within a few months time we might have an
entirely Windows-free home.
Craig responded with:
The whole "Microsoft free environment" I don’t completely understand.
To me it’s a big non-requirement.
In my house, technology doesn’t play politics.
Craig was right to call me on my statement. Holding up a "Windows-free
home" as a goal without any sort of reasoning behind that goal is nothing
more than a fashion statement on my part. I’m not really convinced in my own
mind that I have that as a goal either, but before addressing that issue, let
me explain the background behind my recent decision to experiment with Linux
on the home PC.
Experience is a great teacher
To start, let me back up some 20 years to the beginning of my professional
career, to talk about keyboard layouts. Bear with me. This does play into my
decision to try Linux, but not in the way you might first think.
In the early 1980s, I chanced to read two or three articles in relatively close
succession about the history and merits of the Dvorak keyboard layout. Until
then, I’d done all my typing in the QWERTY layout, and it had never occurred
to me that other layouts were possible. Curious about Dvorak, I decided the
only way to really learn about it was to try it, so I wrote a terminate-and-stay-resident
program (remember TSRs?) to reinterpret my keyboard, and proceeded to immerse
myself in the Dvorak layout.
Over the intervening years I’ve used Dvorak more often than QWERTY, though
I’ve had to switch back and forth a few times as I went from one job to another.
Using Dvorak, and having to switch back and forth a few times, has given me
perspective on the issue of keyboard layout that few others have. I’ve been
on both sides of the fence, I know what it’s like to switch, I know how it feels
to be using a minority layout in a QWERTY world, and I know firsthand what the
benefits of Dvorak really are, at least in my own experience.
Just as people debate Dvorak versus QWERTY, so do people debate Linux versus
Windows. There’s constant argument about whether Linux is "ready for the
desktop". I’ve always used Windows on my main desktop, except for a few
years when I worked with Macs, but many writers I work with, and also some coworkers
use Linux. One of the reasons I’ve just installed Linux on the PC used by my
wife and son is so that I can experience Linux on the desktop first-hand
in much the same manner as I experienced Dvorak first-hand. I want to know,
really know, what it’s like to live in Linux. I want to experience the subtle
drawbacks, such as somewhat slower Flash plug-ins, and I want to experience
the subtle advantages such as faster login times. I want to see web pages that
work, and those that don’t, and I want to experience for myself how much of
a problem that really is. There’s an awful lot that I can’t learn about Linux
on the desktop unless I live it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hedging just a bit, because I left my main,
work PC under Windows. No matter. I’ll still learn an awful lot from what I’m
doing. I’ve already learned a lot. I’m in a much better position today to intelligently
discuss the option of Linux on the desktop than I was even a week ago.
Curiosity doesn’t kill anybody
Another reason I installed Linux was that I was frankly just curious about
Sun’s distribution. I can offer no rational explanation for this. But curiousity
leads to learning, so I don’t see a problem here.
Money matters, so does convenience
There are some issues relating to money and convience that are leading me to
look away from Windows to Linux as a potential platform for all my PCs. On my
shelf I have upgrade copies of Windows XP Pro and Windows XP Home. These upgrades
represent over $300 of investment. Both are tied to hardware that is rapidly
nearing the end of it’s useful life. When I buy a faster PC for my office, and
I’m in the process of building one this winter, I’m not allowed to take that
Windows XP Pro license off of my old, slow PC and install it onto my new PC.
Not only do the license terms forbid my doing that, but, through product activation,
Microsoft can enforce that restriction. Likewise, the version of Microsoft Office
XP that I paid extra to have pre-installed on the Thinkpad I bought last year
is also tied to the hardware; I’m not supposed to install it on any other machine.
All this gives me pause. I’m investing a lot of money in software only to have
to throw it out when I replace the hardware. By contrast, I have a copy of SuSE
Linux 8.0 in my office, and SuSE doesn’t mind at all if I pull that copy off
of an older PC to install it on a newer PC. Not only can I move that SuSE license
around, I don’t need to call them up on the phone and kiss their behinds in
order to do it.
Another issue with Microsoft’s licensing, and especially with their product-activation
scheme, is that I can’t redistribute software amongst my various PCs as my needs
change. To some extent, this is a convenience issue, but it’s an important one.
I have two, nearly identical Dell PCs in my office. One runs Windows XP Pro;
the other runs Oracle atop SuSE Linux 8.0. I’d like to swap the machines. The
nicer of the two is currently running Linux, and I’d like that one to run Windows
XP Pro instead. Can you guess why I haven’t bothered to try the swap? You got
it. It’s that product-activation thing again. I’d likely need to call up Microsoft
and explain why I was installing my Windows XP Pro license on a different box.
Until I got it the second box fully up and running, I’d want to leave the first
box intact, so for a day or two at least I’d need to run the same license on
both boxes. I don’t want to go through the hassle of trying to explain all that
to Microsoft, and I surely don’t want to deal with them telling me "no".
All these issues go away completely if I move to Linux. In my work-life, there
is far less to tie me to Windows than in my son’s life. I write in a word-processor,
send and receive emails, read a few newsgroups, browse the web, and I run Oracle.
Windows is a distinct disadvantage when it comes to writing about Oracle. Recently
I got some pushback for using Windows-based examples in an article I wrote about
Oracle. When it comes to my bread-and-butter, Windows is becomming somewhat
of a liability.
There’s all that software
Sure there’s a lot of Windows software that won’t run under Linux, but the
reverse is also true: there’s lots of interesting software designed for
Linux (and Unix). New Oracle releases come out on Linux before they come out
on Windows. Other products that interest me include MySQL and Python. I know
both of those are available on Windows, but they are developed on *nix systems,
and I sure had an easier time of it installing MySQL on Linux than on Windows.
Related to this cornucopia of Linux/Unix software is the opportunity to learn
about it. Do you know Perl? I mean not do you know of it, but can you
write it? Many of you reading this blog entry are no doubt capable of
writing Perl. Not me. I couldn’t write a line of Perl code to save my life.
And why not? Largely it’s because somehow, in my professional career, I’ve never
been deeply immersed in Unix environments. Everywhere I look these days, I see
operating systems that are Linux/Unix-based. I sometimes think about how many
more marketable skills I’d have had I been using Linux day-in and day-out for
the past few years. If I were to go out today to look for a job as an Oracle
DBA, my lack of Unix-prowess would be a big strike against me. Running Windows
at home is nothing I can leverage in my professional career. Running Linux is
something I can leverage.
What is my goal?
So what is my ultimate goal? Is it really to get to a Windows-free home? As
I think about it, that’s not really a goal, it’s just a potential means
to an end. My goal is to have a computing environment that supports me
in doing my job for O’Reilly, that supports me in my writing career, that gives
my family the tools they need to do the things they want to do that are important
(playing a Bonus.com game is ultimately not important), that’s reasonably secure
from attack, and that’s cost-efficient. Right now, when I look at what my family
and I use computers for in light of the issues I’ve just gone over, I can’t
help but be motivated to take a hard look at moving away from Windows and towards