Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why use Linux?

I recently received this thoughtful question from a concerned reader:


Hi,

My name is Allan. I´m from Costa Rica. First of all, let me congratulate you because it´s a little bit hard to find a good Linux site that explains everything about the shell (and how to start using commands) and how Linux works in a friendly clean way. I have always been interested in Linux (since I was 12 years old more or less, now I´m 25). But I´m still a rookie using it. Unfortunately most of us have been some kind of forced to depend (exclusively) on Windows because of all the software available, the GUI and the easiness of using it. We all complain about how bad Windows works, that´s why I´m trying to be more involved on Linux. Yesterday, I just installed Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid. Great OS so far.

I do not want to bother you, you should be very busy, but I have one big question. How can I stop using Windows if I need it for work and personal use (software like CS3, Paint Shop Pro, Ulead Video Studio, among many others). Maybe any Linux tech would tell me to look for an alternative GPL software. For example for Office, the option would be Openoffice (very nice soft!) but its not perfect or good enough recognizing many characters or text formats. For CS3 or Paint Shop, the option would be Gimp (nice one too) but it lacks of better user friendly funcionality or editing options. Maybe you can do almost the same thing with it but it´s going to take you a lot of time work. I could give you many examples like those, but I think you already got the point good enough.

Please do not think that I´m saying that Linux sucks, that´s not it at all, what I´m trying to say is that I realize that you all are working to make it better and better each day, more user friendly, more attractive for other branded companies (like Nero, Skype, Kaspersky, etc) but what does it take to let Linux runs everything what Windows runs. I have heard about Wine, but I also heard that only works fine on some specific softwares.

I just wanted to share my point of view. Maybe you can share yours with me so that I can understand better Linux.


First off, thank you Allen for taking the time to write. You raise an interesting issue that I'm sure confronts many people looking to migrate from Windows to Linux.

Changing computer platforms is a challenaging problem for anyone, not just those seeking to move from Windows to Linux. It really boils down to a question of cost versus benefit.

So what are the costs of switching? Obviously they are having to learn new applications and perhaps worse, migrating your data to work with your new applications. We all experience this when switching an application even if no platform change is involved. Using an application involves a certain amount of investment on the part of the user. An investment in time needed learn the application and the time to reshape his or her "world" of data to fit the confines of the application's needs. If you have been using a particular platform and its applications for a long time, you probably have a lot of investment in it. So for many people the costs are high.

But what about the benefits? Those are a little harder to quantify. First, there is the economics which should be rather cut and dry, but, for many personal computer users (as opposed to business users), it is not. If you actually paid for Photoshop, Office, and the other software you mention, you're talking about a lot of money (potentially thousands of dollars) spent on your application set. However, many personal computer users, don't bother with the formality of license compliance and simply use unauthorized copies which can be had to no cost. Therefore, for many people, Linux offers no economic advantage.

The second benefit is this nebulous thing called "freedom." Some people express this in somewhat abstract terms, saying that it is a virtue in its own right. I tend to be a bit more pragmatic. I think that free software offers distinct practical advantages over proprietary software. I like the fact, for example, that I can install Linux distributions all day long and never worry about having to call a vendor and ask for permission to do so. I like that fact that since the source code is freely available, many people can offer technical support. I like the fact that I never encounter, timed demos, "crippleware", and "lite" versions of products. Any time I want to install something, I can just install the full version, no strings attached.

Then there are the technical benefits of using a Unix-like operating system. Things like virus and malware resistance, file systems that don't require periodic defragmentation, a powerful command line interface, and the potential for almost limitless customization.

While these benefits are clear, many people do not have a clear picture of what a migration means. For many people who want to move from Windows to another platform, what they really seem to want is a "Windows" that does not have the problems that they have been experiencing. So many times you hear, "I'd change to Linux but I tried it once and it was different from what I'm used to."

Yes, Linux is different. Linux is very different and to successfully move to it (or any other platform for that matter) you have to be willing to accept change. Some people really cannot do this. Their minds are not built that way. They learn just enough about "the computer" to do their jobs by rote. Platforms just don't matter to them.

Platforms matter to people who enjoy and care about computing. I use Linux as opposed to Windows because I really like computers. I enjoy using them and learning about them. I find that Linux helps me enjoy my computer much more than any version of Windows ever did.

As to your concerns about OpenOffice.org and GIMP versus Office and Photoshop, yes, they are different too. I'm currently writing a book with OpenOffice.org and I have found it very satisfactory. I used to write a lot with Word and it was fine too. I don't see a lot of practical differences in what each program does, but there certainly are surface differences which may be difficult for some people. I suppose that the same may be true with GIMP and Photoshop. I've never used Photoshop so I can't really comment, but from reading the comments of others, I sense that many people reject GIMP out-of-hand because it's not just like Photoshop. Both are very capable programs and the field of digital image processing is an extremely technical one which makes any truly capable application dauntingly complex. But with the exception of of deep color support, and some pre-press functions, GIMP is very comparable to Photoshop for many tasks. I use it routinely in my photographic work.

To sum up, change requires, well, change. Forward progress sometimes means giving up old ways of doing things and learning some new ones. For anyone attempting it, the question remains, "is it worth it?" and only you can know the answer to that.

Hope this helps.