Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why I don't use Windows

In the world of computers, I've always loved trying new things and looking for better ways of doing things. This has led me down many roads; some better than others. I've learned that a person needs the right tool for the job and that the right tool for one may not be the right tool for another. This is especially true when it comes to computers.

I started getting involved with computers at a very young age (thanks Dad!) and, to this day, their uses and potential uses fascinate me. I remember when I was in high school and playing Wizardry on our old IBM PC with the green screen. I remember buying DOS 4.0 when it first came out. I remember purchasing my first computer, an IBM XT with a 10 MB hard drive and an EGA video card (that's means it could display 16 different colors!). That beast served me well my first year of college. It ran WordPerfect 5.1 and Civilization; what more could a college student want? Up until my second year or college, I think I was a pretty average computer user. To me, comptuers were for games and writing papers. Then I learned about OS/2...

OS/2 came out in the early 90s and basically blew Windows 3.1 out of the water in terms of power, configurability, and stability. IBM marketed it as a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows. In addition to running native OS/2 software, it could run DOS and Windows programs. It was new, shiny, and oh so cool! I fell in love immediately. Unfortunately, as a poor college student, I had neither the income, nor the hardware to allow me the privilege of getting OS/2. That did not stop me from researching it, telling all my friends about it, and as soon a possible (it took a couple of years), buying it.

I really liked OS/2 and wanted it to succeed. I even convinced my brother to try it on his new computer (which caused his computer to crash due to a BIOS incompatibility and I had to reinstall Windows on it for him). I stuck with it as long as I could but it never got the application support it needed and with the advent of Windows95, you couldn't run the new Windows applications on it either. I had my computer set to dual boot Windows and OS/2 but found myself using OS/2 less and less while using Windows more and more. Eventually, I stopped using OS/2 altogether. Although a commercial failure, OS/2 taught me that a computer is more than just a tool, it is an infinite set of possibilities. True, I didn't realize it at the time, but it opened my mind just the same.

My first contact with Linux came during my last couple of years of college (1999 to 2000). One of my lab partners was a Linux fan and liked talking about how cool Linux was. I personally thought that having your computer spend an entire night compiling your kernel was a bit excessive. It seemed to me that it was just slapped together and didn't have near the polish of Windows98 or OS/2 (which I still held in very high regard). Top that off with the fact that my lab partner was kind of annoying and you see why my first impression of Linux was not all that good. It would take years for me to get over that.

The next operating system (OS) that caught my fancy was Solaris 7. Sun was giving away free copies of Solaris 7 for x86 (intel) processors so I decided to get one. I was intrigued with the possibility of getting a real Unix (similar to the HP UX workstations that I used for my computer engineering assignments). I liked the CDE desktop but didn't know much more than how to run programs that had already been installed. Well, Solaris didn't have any software that I was interested in so it didn't last long (although I kept the CDs around for a while).

Up until I graduated from college, I mostly thought of alternative OSes as toys that were fun to play around with but not very useful. The exception being the HP UX workstations in the engineering labs. They were very powerful but only had very specialized software. For day to day use, Windows was my preference. I had even tried out Mac OS 7 and 8 but found it limited and frustrating (however, my experience was mostly limited to fixing broken Macs as part of my computer support job). Definitely not for me.

My first job out of college was as a software engineer doing database programming for a web hosting company. On my first day of work, they gave me a computer and FreeBSD install disks and told me to get myself set up. For the next week I spent my time learning the ins and outs of FreeBSD, setting it up, and configuring it. I think using FreeBSD every day for a year and a half changed my perceptions. I got used to doing work as well as email and surfing the web on FreeBSD (using the WindowMaker desktop for those that are interested in such things). I really enjoyed the whole OS setup for FreeBSD. It was stable, well designed, extremely configurable, and, thanks to ports, really easy to get software for. It was almost as good as OS/2 (what can I say, OS/2 was my first love in the software world). However, I still was quite happy using Windows at home. In fact, at the time, I never really considered using anything else at home.

Well times change and so do jobs. When the dot com bubble burst, I ended up a victim. For about 9 months of 2001 and 2002, I spent my time looking for work. I finally found a job as an Oracle DBA. This was when things started changing. First of all, it felt wierd to use Windows at work. I was so used to FreeBSD that Windows seemed awkward and unfriendly. I spent about a year trying to get it the way I wanted before I finally gave up and asked if I could use Linux. My manager approved and so I went on the hunt for the perfect Linux distribution. Why Linux when I had such a bad opinion of it? One word: Oracle. Oracle shipped a Linux client but not a FreeBSD client. I'm a DBA so Oracle support is everything, so Linux it was.

Around this time, things began changing at home too. It started with an email virus. I've never been much of an IE fan but my wife liked it and also used Outlook Express for email. Nothing wrong with that, it's what she was used to. However, that changed when Outlook Express decided to open and email and install a virus with any user intervention. This was my first virus and my wife and I were upset. We cleaned the virus off of the computer, went out and bought a virus scanner, and I installed the Mozilla Suite for web and email. From that point on, IE and Outlook were not used in our home and since then, we haven't had any virus problems.

Back at work I was researching various Linux distributions and found one that I thought would do the job. It was Xandros. Here was a Linux distribution that was easy to install, easy to configure, easy to hook into a Windows network, and easy to use. I was sold. My manager was nice enough to authorize the purchase price and I've been on Linux at work ever since. I liked it so much that, after a few months, I installed it on all of our computers at home as well (with the exception of my wife's laptop).

My decision to move to Linux was influence by many factors. Not only was I used to working with it, but I was very comfortable on it as well. I also have issues with Microsoft's politics and how they've leveraged their monopoly to dominate other markets as well. They've put out of business or severly crippled applications that I once loved such as OS/2, Netscape, WordPerfect, etc. The icing on the cake was how much better Linux is at working with Solaris (where our databases run). This made it an easy choice for work.

At home my political opinions weren't enough. My wife uses the home computer 90% of the time and she's not really swayed by political arguments. The real selling argument was that Linux is stable, secure, and cheaper (free). As a family that doesn't even have cable, paying subscriptions for security software is really annoying and a waste of good money. With Linux, I don't pay for any of that. The OS is free, the software is free (I use Opera and Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, and OpenOffice.org for documents, spreadsheets and presentations).

I went down a road less traveled and have enjoyed myself immensely but that doesn't make it the right road for everyone. In my many years as an IT professional, I learned that everybody has different needs. Linux has the price/performance package that works for me. For others a Mac may work better and, since OS X has come out, I've changed my opinion on Macs and would love to get one (if I could afford it). Windows PCs can also work very well as long you have the right security software on them. Remember, pick the right tool for the job and what's right for me may not be right for you.

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