Linux Fanatic Turned Windows Pragmatist
It was 1999, and I was a junior in high school when I installed Linux for the first time on my computer. It was a royal pain in the ass, but I enjoyed the challenge. The onboard modem did not work because it was software driven and my display was all kinds of messed up—thanks to integrated devices. Despite my inability to get my onboard soundcard working, my determination centered on getting Linux working. I had no clue what I was doing (a complete noob). My PC at the time was running Microsoft Windows 98, and I am almost sure Hewlett Packard had did not design it to run anything but Windows. But I was relentless in my determination to install this elusive yet foreign and fascinating operating system. But first I’d like to give you a little background on my Linux journey.
My father was an independent self-employed salesman for Mylec Street Hockey—ergo my love for ice, roller, and street hockey—and various boot companies. Around 1988, my father bought his first desktop computer, the Mac SE. Now, this computer was strictly for his work to use Lotus-1-2-3 to track sales and finances. My fascination with this nascent technology would grow to an intense obsession. It did not take long for my father to foster my interests and kindle my desire to learn about the enthralling exemplar of late 80s technological achievement. The first computer game I played, Dark Castle, which we got from a local MUG member. It was interesting, but the novelty wore off—a resounding theme with my computer game interactions—because of my overbearing curiosity to learn how the computer worked.
What was it about, this drab, boxy, device with its black and white display and 1 Megabyte of RAM? Everything! I could conceive its remarkable potential in my feeble prepubescent mind. To my parent’s dismay, I was curiously destructive; often they would come home only to discover I had disassembled the television, Betamax recorder, or later a VHS player. I had to know how things worked and sometimes—to my parent’s fortune—I put some of these expensive items back together. Although, I never performed such procedures on my father’s primary computer because I knew how crucial it was for his work. However, it wasn’t until my father handed-down his older Power Mac 7100 to me at a much later date that I explored the internals. The Power Mac was my first, very own computer that resided on my desk in my bedroom.
At the time, around 1994, there was this program allowed you to tinker with the Mac operating system and customize the splash screen and various other settings (mostly editing plist files). I thought it was so neat to personalize the operating system whereby the startup splash screen displayed “RushOS” with some absurd trailing version number—yes, I’m a dork. It was fun changing settings that escaped everyday computer users. But it was not until my father got a modem for the real fun to begin.
At first, it was the slow and loud dial-up to bulletin board systems (BBS) supported by local Mac User Groups in the Pittsburgh area. I remember many times going with my father to these user groups, and at the time it seemed like a place for older men with yellowing beards faintly smelling of cigarettes to swap and sell software and old computer parts. Often there were members demoing computer games; times were different then because copies of the games were freely passed out. I am almost sure this is how we obtained our first computer game “Dark Castle.” I have completed very few computer games throughout my life. Computer games never captivated me like tinkering with software and operating systems did. So, I spent most of my time messing with system settings and customizing the user interface—small things that were amusing at such a young age.
My friends at the time had Windows machines, mainly IBM. I never developed the fondness I had for Macs for any of the Windows machines I encountered. I think it was Windows 3.1 and the constant necessity to use DOS that instilled a sour taste in my mouth. I despised DOS because it seemed so antiquated in comparison to the Macintosh operating system and it’s GUI; at that time, I was young and accustomed to the Mac way of doing things so using a terminal was unappealing. Which is odd considering the love I developed for the Bash Shell. I could not avoid the Linux terminal when I first installed Linux. I can remember at first having no GUI, and I was almost overwhelmed with frustration in my attempts to get KDE to run on the Red Hat distro I bought from Barnes and Noble. Eventually, I realized it was useless on my current machine, so I built a second computer exclusively for Linux. Over the years I have bounced from Linux to Windows to Mac, and back again; however, I mostly used Linux up until now. I do not have a single machine running Linux natively and here is why.
It seems there was always something in the way abandoning Windows for Linux even though it has come a long way. Mainstream Linux distributions are typically easier to install than Windows, which is surprising since OEMs prioritize driver support for Windows. I know vendors are delivering Linux on their devices, but I have always needed Windows for either work, school or random projects. Notwithstanding, I frequently found myself tinkering with Linux in ways not possible with Windows which is a benefit but also time waster. I have no clue how many times I have nuked my computers only to install a different distro. I became the worst of distro-hoppers because something new and shiny would arrive on another distro. And right when Linux was getting more usable than ever, Windows 10 came along. Okay, before you curse at me, flip me off, or stop reading this, let me explain.
I fell victim to my idealism which was hindering my ability to progress in learning software development and more lucrative skills. I was a FOSS enthusiast who evangelized for open source software and more importantly Linux. But this was starting to wear down on me because I was using open source software at the expense of time and more importantly constant frustrations—certainly self-induced. Yes, I was tired paying a premium for Macs which I used for almost a decade; furthermore, I was tired of all the frequent failures caused by previous Windows versions. But with Windows 10 I get a Bash Shell (hindrances aside) enabling nearly all shell tools available for Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Kali Linux. I am sure the Windows 10 Subsystem for Linux (WSL) will fall short some users and unique cases. Nonetheless, I want to use the best tool for the job, and as of today, Windows 10 checks more boxes than Linux or Mac. Windows 10 is a massive improvement over previous versions, and I am sure all its detractors can chime in and blast me for such heretical blasphemy from a Linux veteran but I—as well as many others—can say the same for Linux.
As hard as it is for me to believe, Microsoft has started to embrace open source software (WSL, Visual Studio Code, FreeBSD for Azure, Xamarin SDK, .NET Core, etc.); not without many caveats and reasonable suspicions, but the days Steve Ballmer’s pervasive hatred for Linux are long gone. Never would I have thought I would be making such statements, but I have become more of a pragmatist and less idealistic. Of course, I want to see open source software used everywhere possible, but I now view my operating system as a dynamic tool. I know I can run Windows in a virtual machine; but why would I go through all the trouble to satisfy an ideology. I can also use Docker for Windows when I reach a wall with WSL. Times have certainly changed, and Microsoft has capitalized on the advantages of open source software.
Let’s face it, Linux is not going anywhere, it is undoubtedly the most prolific kernel to exist—and it’s not going to fade into oblivion anytime soon. However, the Linux desktop is fragmented which makes it difficult for average computer users to adopt. Idealism certainly clouds thinking, perspective, and open-mindedness. I certainly wanted Linux to usurp Windows desktop market share, but now I don’t think that’s important nor necessary for the success of Linux. Maybe it’s not so catastrophic if we never see the “year of the Linux desktop” as we envisioned. Linux dominates so many sectors of technology, and that is why Microsoft was compelled to add WSL to Windows 10–developers indeed lean towards *nix systems.
On the other hand, maybe the “year of the Linux desktop” happened with Chrome OS and Windows’ WSL but it’s too difficult a pill to swallow. Nonetheless, Linux is not going anywhere anytime soon, but for widespread adoption of desktop Linux to occur, fragmentation and interoperability between distros require a lot of work. Linux has revolutionized and shaped the world we live in and considering it is younger (first released September 17, 1991) than Windows and Mac is genuinely phenomenal. So, just maybe, we might accept that between Microsoft and Google, the “year of the Linux desktop” already happened but we missed it because it wasn’t what we expected.