One More Linux User

Still mortified by those gnaw marks on the keyboard from a rage-making experiment with Linux last decade? Consider giving the OS another try; Linux has matured. I switched last summer, endured far less grief than expected, now rarely boot into Windows.

Virtualized Windows 7 in Linux

Windows 7 running in Linux Mint through VirtualBox

Warning: this post is geeky. If you don’t know or care what a “Linux” or “OS” is, I’ve already kept you too long.

WHY I SWITCHED

My saga began in mid-2015, when little blue pop-ups began to appear near my Windows 7 start menu. The pop-ups announced that I qualified for a free “upgrade” to Windows 10. Lucky me!

I didn’t want Win 10, irritably clicked the pop-ups closed.

Some time later, I noticed that a huge, hidden sub-directory had metastasized on my hard disk. $Windows.~BT, it called itself. Online research indicated that this gargantuan six gigabyte directory housed the never-requested Windows 10. Microsoft had downloaded it to my computer without permission.

A much younger Tim might have interpreted this stealth download more charitably. So they want to get all the computers on the same page; is that so terrible? Gee whiz, they’re giving it away free!

An older-and-homelier Tim did not interpret the stealth download charitably at all. I did some research, discovered that Win 10 includes mandatory updates, data sharing described as a privacy nightmare, and a new forty-five page service agreement that bequeaths unto Microsoft rights to, according to the EDRi: “collect everything you do, say and write with and on your devices in order to sell more targeted advertising or to sell your data to third parties.

Unh unh; deal me out. I might be wed-by-shotgun to Big Data when using the ‘net, but don’t want to start seeing ads for budget burials and casket clearance sales if I vent about a sick relative to a word processor diary file. I steeled myself for a sure-to-be-miserable transition to Linux.

LINUX? GNU/LINUX?

Linux now drives fewer than two percent of desktop computers worldwide. Its official mascot is Tux, an obese, sedentary penguin of doubtful sobriety. Promotional material often suggests an OS that is similarly dreamy and half-baked, like a Rube Goldberg unicycle pitched unseriously for a weekday commute.

This PR misleads, spectacularly. GNU/Linux — the oft-omitted GNU for the work of Richard Stallman, and Linux for Linus Torvalds — is the free, open source spawn of legendary UNIX, the Big Daddy OS that powered Bell Labs mainframes when Bill Gates was still playing tic-tac-toe on a terminal. 90+% of supercomputers run Linux. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and other big companies run Linux. Linux or UNIX lurks under the hood of your MAC OS desktop and both Android and iOS smartphones. GNU/Linux-son-of-Unix was born to multitask, to juggle multiple users, to assign file permissions and user hierarchies.

But, early “distros” of Linux for personal PCs were geeky, fit only for computing cognoscenti. I gave one a whirl over a decade ago, couldn’t make it print, chalked up personal Linux as a hobby project.

HOW’D IT GO THIS TIME?

Much better.

I downloaded the friendly-to-newbies Linux Mint distro, experimented with a rarely-used laptop, then swallowed hard and let Linux create a “dual boot” configuration on my workaday computer. (A calculated risk; had the install borked, I would have faced a messy clean-up.)

On start-up, I now see a menu similar to the one below, allowing me to boot into either Linux or my old Windows 7 set-up.

GRUB dual boot menu

GRUB dual boot menu

Linux went smoothly online, recognized my twin LCD displays and several external drives, pushed pages out of a laser printer, and scanned pixels on a flatbed photo scanner. I couldn’t get it to talk to a sheetfed document scanner.

How about software? I liked Linux’s free browsers, e-mail clients and LibreOffice word processor as well as anything I used in Windows, and configured a Windows accounting program and address database to run under Linux via the Wine and CrossOver apps. Wine is free; Crossover cost sixty bucks.

That left my photo enthusiast software. I coughed up $130 for a new Windows 7 license, and used Oracle’s free VirtualBox to configure a separate, virtualized, OS-within-an-OS under Linux. VirtualBox did not configure itself effortlessly, required some unpleasant under-the-hood settings changes, but now handles all the Windows chores I regularly need to get done. I can still boot into my original Windows 7 set-up, as I did before downloading Mint, but often don’t do so for weeks at a time.

A VERDICT?

I’m glad I changed, but wish I hadn’t had to.

Linux may be faster, safer and arguably more elegant than Win 7, but I don’t like launching a virtualized PC to run photo apps, and judge Linux printer and scanner utilities as cruder than Windows equivalents. I live with rough edges I didn’t deal with last year.

But I also no longer compute in fear of my own OS. I’ve switched to a platform I can use and augment for years to come. Linux won’t try to hang an advertising ID on my personal PC (I don’t think), or railroad me into an “update” with onerous privacy terms and compulsory updates.

Many folk sit at a computer only to use big dollar Win only or Win/Mac apps like Avid, InDesign, AutoCad, Photoshop, Illustrator or Quickbooks. These users may be joined at the hip to Redmond or Cupertino, and I wonder if Microsoft counted on their unhappy allegiance when specifying the “features” of Win 10.

Other users shrug off privacy concerns, foolishly or not. Still others will feel as I do about privacy, but balk at attempting big system changes. What if the dual boot configuration hangs, for some reason; what if you can’t get into your computer anymore? I have nuked hardware in past experiments, struggled to make things right afterward.

I can share only my own experiences. I suffered far less in the transition than expected, and encourage frustrated Linux experimenters of years past to at least give the penguin another look. (An easy method: download the free VirtualBox for your current Windows computer, then install an also-free Linux distro and dink around in it. Don’t like it? Uninstall VirtualBox.)

AN AMUSING DISCLOSURE

I own shares of MSFT. Microsoft stock.

I don’t recommend stock picking, choose my own only because I don’t want to be a fractional owner of Altria, Lorillard and other unsavory-industry companies through an index ETF. (Consider this list of excluded companies from the bank managing Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.) Surely I could own Microsoft! Didn’t I admire Bill Gates for his philanthropy? Hadn’t I relied on Microsoft software since MS-DOS days?

Companies change. I don’t think this OS bullying is kosher, wish it were illegal, now contemplate selling MSFT and swallowing a capital gains tax to stay within my own ethical parameters.

But a part of me thinks I have a right to stand pat.

I have fled in horror from the flagship product of a company I own shares in. I believe (but can’t prove) that Microsoft is hard selling their new OS mostly because they can get away with it, that they crave software-as-service wampum to plump income statements and EPS figures, and thus boost the price of my MSFT shares. MSFT is up almost 19% for 2015. New revenue streams may send it higher in 2016. Earnings conference calls must be festive.

I’ve paid for this change. I don’t feel safe booting into my legal, licensed Windows 7 installation anymore. I’ve turned off automatic updates, safely or not; I research every update that Microsoft suggests to insure it won’t try to sneak Windows 10 onto my system. I’m an OS refugee.

Maybe I’m entitled to make some money off the deal.

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Update:  All shares of MSFT sold, 1/4/2016.

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