The Linux Experience

It’s been a while since my last entry and from the slew of responses, I wonder if I should apologize at all to my imaginary readers. Well, they’re MY imaginary readers. I imagine them loyal and understanding.

I’ve been using Linux (the Ubuntu incarnation of it, with gnome as the UI – I found Unity insulting as it certainly is far from ready and it reminds me too much of Vista) for maybe a month and a half or two, after about 20 years of Windows and even more using computers in general to work.

Weeks one through three were traumatic, requiring at least two full re-installations of the operating system because I managed, as a very novice user that knows enough to be a threat to himself, to royally screw things up.

After that, it’s been smoothER sailing, but this experiment has been anything but smooth per se, and at this point I’m torn because it has carved a serious dent into my productive time. I must note that I was aware that I would loose a number of hours to getting accustomed to familiar things being in different places than where I had expected, but I didn’t expect the amount of time devoted to “settling-in” being so huge.

To add insult to injury, as a novice, I also lack the tools normally gained from experience to resolve problems quickly so, for example, a recent printing problem (printer suddenly stopped printing for no apparent reason and without manifest error messages of any kind) stole about one hour of my precariously-scarce time. It didn’t take longer because that’s what took for the problem to resolve itself “magically” – I didn’t do anything besides scour whatever forums I could think of, looking for a solution.

Almost two months into my little experiment (which I hope doesn’t end up being just that) I have serious doubts about this operating system’s ability to ever reach the masses. The reason, from my still ignorant perspective, seems to be that the labor behind it is volunteer-based. In a world where bread doesn’t just magically appear on the cupboard every day and banks, credit cards, and grocery stores expect to be paid with money, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where, in the priorities food-chain, volunteer work falls (that is, unless you manage to hire an army of coders suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome).

This is unfortunate, really, because in a world dominated by Microsoft-based desktops (and you’d have to have your head up your ass to disagree with this), it really is refreshing to use an operating system that’s not only stable, but doesn’t consume 2GB of RAM just to show you the desktop, doesn’t require a CPU capable of running all of NASA’s programs from the 50’s to the 80’s to play minesweeper, can be configured and backed-up with the simplicity inherent to just copying a handful of TEXT-based configuration files, and, at least so far, is impervious to a plethora of spyware, virii, and other non-sense, among other advantages that my lack of experience surely prevents me from seeing. (And for those among my imaginary readers that will quickly point that Linux is a powerhouse in the servers sector, yes, I know; but I’m not talking about servers here.)

The applications I’ve installed so far (Libre Office, Wine, and a few others) are all sprinkled with inconsistencies and, granted, so are Windows-based apps, but here it’s much more noticeable, and the length of time for which people have been reporting bugs or requesting features that still haven’t been implemented just confirms what I said before: developers have to eat and giving code away doesn’t put food on the table (some of them quite basic, such as cut/insert-paste in Libre/Open Office’s spreadsheet program – you can do it with a mouse, but not with the keyboard, and mousing around is quite inconvenient when you have to drag and drop a bunch of rows over a document that has thousands of them!).

Linux doesn’t belong to anyone, or at least that’s what I keep hearing, but the very existence of various camps (Ubuntu, Debian, KDE, RedHat, and a SLEW of others) makes it extremely hard for a user to even get to the point of considering it as an alternative to Microsoft’s offering. It’s a no-brainer to walk into an Apple store if you’re fed-up with Windows. Those who’ve converted years ago probably lost touch now with the strain that choosing a Linux flavor can put on someone. After two months of using it and contless hours reading over the past weekend, I still can’t fully comprehend the difference between basic components such as distributions, desktops, and windows managers. The difference between distributions is anything but clear. Are they different Operating Systems? Are there specific apps that will run on one but not on the other? And what about KDE and Gnome (to mention just two)? How come there are some products that SEEM to be specific for one or the other. To add to the confusion, you can apparently run either KDE or Gnome on most distributions.

I am an experienced user (computers ARE my job) and I hardly recall EVER being this confused in my life. Visiting the various distributions’ web sites is useless. I have never read so much useless fluff. As a user I would be hard-pressed to care less about the philosophies and the beliefs of the community behind each. I respect them and think it’s great that they all have mission statements and goals and ideals, but again, as a potential customer, all that information is utterly useless for me. Guys, please allow me to put this in perspective: buying a car is easier than choosing a Linux distribution.

I “landed”, and can’t imagine a more appropriate term, on Ubuntu because two people suggested it, and I remembered the name, so I figured it was a popular distribution and will likely give me little or no grief, but after two months of using it in my main computer, and considering how many other distributions are out there, at this point I’m wondering if I made the right choice. And I’m only wondering because I don’t know enough about the other distributions to tell whether they would solve the problems I have (pulseaudio and skype have a rabid tendency to misbehave and, although just a cosmetic problem, compiz just doesn’t work smoothly with nvidia hardware, so I’m using metacity).

My user experience, in general, is characterized by compromise. I’m taking it in stride but, objectively speaking, I’ve had to choose to be content with less perfect results than I had when using windows. I realize all too well that Libre Office is not MS Office (I used Office 2000, which was great), that eVince is a far cry from an old version of Foxit Reader, and that grscan2pdf requires about twice the amount of keystrokes and mouse-clicks to scan a document into a pdf, just to name a few, but when compromise becomes as pervasive as in my case, I can’t help wondering if I did the right thing.

Chances are I’ll keep wondering because I don’t know if it’s really worth it to spend another two months researching whether other distributions would resolve the handful of issues I have or whether they would replace those issues with new ones, and, you know what? Time is money and this, my faithful readers, is costing me dearly, so I’m also wondering if I should perhaps consider going back to XP and not have to bend over backwards in order to get work done because, after all, most of the development tools available for Linux (python, apache, mysql, etc.) are slowly and surely showing up in Windows flavor as well.

Right now, I think I’ll move in the direction of trying another flavor of linux (Debian doesn’t seem to be plagued with the pulseaudio problems that seem to be a routine part of Ubuntu, and having used Windows for the past 20 years, one of my main reasons for leaving the Redmondites behind is stability and reliability. Ubuntu doesn’t seem to have much of either; at least not while I’m using it.

As far as Linux, as a desktop for the masses, I think it won’t happen until some entrepreneurial soul packages a really water-tight distribution, with the most popular apps ready for a positive out-of-the-box user experience and charges a fraction of what Microsoft does for the same and, most importantly, TREATS THIS AS A BUSINESS and not as an after-hours activity.


5 Responses to “The Linux Experience”

  1. Mary G Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post and I expect your experience as a new linux user is quite a common one. I remember many years ago when I was first persuaded to try linux experiencing the similar feeling that there was a remarkable lack of information not helped at all by being constantly reminded that ‘linux is all about choice – it’s up to you how you configure your system.’ Not very helpful when you have no idea how it SHOULD be configured. Nowadays I run gentoo on most of my computers. It is probably the most difficult of all the linux flavours as putting the OS means writing config and profile files and producing a custom kernel. All in all I set myself a few days aside to install gentoo on a system. It has however taught me all about the inside workings of linux in general and the differences and compatibilities between the various distros and environments. I convert hardened Windows users to Mint – a superb and very easy version of linux based on Ubuntu. Well supported and documented and I haven’t found anyone who hasn’t got on well with it yet.

    There isn’t the ‘safety net’ you get with Windows and although there are thousands of free software packages to download the instructions and information about them is minimal. When you turn to linux google becomes your friend. That’s where you find all the help you need. Essential kit as a linux user – either a second computer or a bootable CD to get you back on line if you have a problem. SLAX is my favourite but many distros run without installing.

    Good luck and enjoy discovering the huge advantages of an OS that doesn’t have to be clogged up with a host of anti virus and anti malware software.

  2. Johannes Says:

    I also made similar experiences years back. In fact, some problems you describe never stop, e.g. the need to make choices when you have no clue: For example, when compiling a new kernel, or when deciding between different spell checkers. Sometimes it’s easy and one choice is “deprecated,” the other recommended, but then it still takes some googling until one can be sure.

    At least I don’t have any hardware problems at the moment (no intel graphics driver glitches at the moment, but I wonder if they will return with the next kernel?), and so I am quite comfortable with my Gentoo. I still have a Windows partition, but every time I boot it (which only happens in rare circumstances) I am confused that I cannot move windows with the mouse by pressing the ALT key…

    In Windows I had the impression that I needed a special program for anything I wanted to do. Everything is hidden away from the user. I found it much easier to learn how Linux works “on the fly” (and the knowledge grows with every problem…). Chances are that someone already had the same problem or the same wish, and you can find his solution on the net. And if not you can look at the sources yourself – which is of course not as easy as it sounds.

    Just one more remark, concerning the “inconsistencies:” If you want to use programs “such as” LibreOffice, then Linux does not have many advantages; the program tries to look the same as MS Office (and furthermore, you can also use LibreOffice on Windows, if you just want to save money). But in my point of view, there’s one big advantage of Linux, which is quite important for my work: Most programs can work with text files. That’s quite important if you want to use many different programs. Of course, the precise formatting (with white space separation, or line ends, or commas) is different, but that’s relatively easy to change (at least easier than repairing a ppt-file for use with another office version).

    Anyway, I must admit that my Windows partition saved me several times, because it gave me a last resort opportunity to reach the internet.

    • blogsperiment Says:

      Hi Johannes,

      From the short experience with Linux so far, I can infer that just like Windows, this operating system is plagued by its own demons (no pun intended). I see some of it as a business opportunity.

      What exactly do you mean when you say that things are hidden in WIndows? I’m too new with Linux to even be able to make the distinction between something being hidden and just me not being able to find it due to my own incompetence.

      In terms of functionality, I’ve come to the conclusion that every OS will do at least reasonably well the things most people use computers for these days: browsing the web, writing, and playing music.


      • Johannes Says:

        I find it much easier now to configure my Linux than to configure Windows. For example, I want to use custom key bindings: replace caps lock with control (WHO NEEDS CAPS LOCKS ANYWAYS?), replace the left control with another alt gr (for some stupid reason you need alt gr for brackets on German keyboards). On Linux I could do it with xmodmap (I had to fight with it, since the documentation is not perfect, but in the end I won). In Windows I had to install another program from the web to do it. I would love to move around windows by just pressing ALT and clicking anywhere in the window to drag it around, but I have no idea how to do it. Of course it’s just a habit, but once you get used to it, you start being too lazy to search for the title bar with your mouse. In the end a lot depends on your googling skills (the crazy naming schemes of the Linux community is not always helpful there – and your post about outdated information also applies).

        It’s my impression that usually Linux gives you more choices directly. Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to figure out, what the choice is about… On the other hand, Windows looks much more homogeneous across different installs, which has its own merits: It’s very easy to use someone else’s Windows computer (and my girlfriend always complains when the keys on my keyboard don’t do what they are supposed to do…).

        Under Windows I often had to adapt myself to the OS. Under Linux it goes the other way round – at least sometimes… Of course, it takes time to configure everything, but well, it’s a nice hobby.

        I agree: For most users, once the basic applications work (which tends to happen earlier on Windows) most modern OS are interchangeable.

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