I’ll admit it – I’m a latecomer to the information revolution. Even though we bought our first family computer in 1997, I wasn’t a daily computer user until 2007 when my Dad bought a laptop for me to use in our small family business. At checkout, Dell gave us the option of XP or Vista. Since I liked shiny reflective glass, I talked my Dad into getting Vista.
Unfortunately, our lack of computer experience quickly came back to bite us as the 512MB of RAM and single core Celeron processor the laptop shipped with absolutely choked and died under the weight of Aero. But I really liked the shiny glass, so we forked over for some more RAM and I became a pretty content Windows user for the next 7 years.
During this time, I would occasionally hear people talk about a strange movement called Free Open Source Software (FOSS), but I pretty much thought Linux was just a breed of penguin. Sad to say, I dismissed any talk of alternatives to the Windows operating system as either unaffordable (OSX) or for uber geeks (Linux). Windows seemed like the only middle ground.
Fast forward to 2013. I had upgraded from Vista to 7, but was getting tired of reinstalling Windows every 6-9 months to get that out-of-the-box snappiness back. Granted, I was running Windows on a laptop I bought in 2009. However, it’s a higher-end laptop I paid a little over $2,000 for (a Toshiba Satellite A355-S6944 to be precise), so it didn’t seem outrageous to expect that I get decent performance from a machine where I religiously kept startup programs to a minimum, diligently cleaned the registry, and regularly ran defrags. Still, within 6-9 months, my performance would consistently degrade 30% – 40% from the virgin install.
Now, reinstalling Windows was always pretty straightforward since I keep most of my crucial data on external storage or in the cloud (remember that old rule about climbers maintaining 3 points of contact with their cliff at all times?), but what I didn’t enjoy was restarting my computer 10,000 times while Windows Update fixed and patched all of the security holes. In the end, the process generally took the better part of a Saturday by the time the updates finished and I had reloaded all of my core apps.
Thus, faced with no alternative to consistent OS refreshes unless I wanted to live with slowly degrading performance, I figured it was time to look into something else.
Being the brave soul that I am, I decided to be bleeding-edge, go out on a limb, and install Ubuntu Linux on my laptop . . . alongside Windows 7. (Hey – I still needed to use Office, OK?) The process ended up being a lot less “propeller cap” than I was afraid it would be, and soon I had partitioned my hard drive, installed Ubuntu, and was happily using Grub to boot into whichever OS I needed. I thus began tinkering around in Ubuntu, relearning some terminal commands and tweaking various aspects of the operating system.
The tipping point for me came when I discovered Ubuntu’s workspaces and bound them to convenient keyboard shortcuts. Using this OS feature, I was able to lay out a group of apps on a workspace just like I liked them, then switch to my web browser on another workspace to catch up on email or watch cat videos, then go back to work just as I’d left it with a couple swift keystrokes. Suddenly, I was able to efficiently work on my 15″ laptop without connecting to an external monitor, and my productivity increased significantly even when I was. (Note: I realize that you can get workspaces, aka. virtual desktops, on Windows via 3rd-party tools, but I’ve tried them and trust me – the experience is nowhere near as slick as the baked-in workspaces in Ubuntu. Windows 10? Keep reading :)
This success led me to other cool discoveries, like tons of free software that I could easily install/uninstall (without worrying about gumming up a registry) using a command line or GUI package manager and cron jobs that I could use to automatically run maintenance tasks. To top it off, the system remained performant after over a year of daily use.
Granted, not everyone who’s tried Linux will have as glowing a report to give as the picture as I’ve painted above. And there are tiny quirks with the OS that have required some time and Googling to solve. But, all-in-all, I’m impressed that an operating system that cost me $0 to acquire, install, and use on a daily basis outperforms and outshines one that I paid good money for. In fact, I’ve used Linux on a USB thumb drive to save 3 Windows computers from viruses in the last 3 weeks, which leads me to ponder the future of Windows in a world where Linux is only going to get more awesome.
Ahh, but some will say what about Windows 10, with its promised package manager, baked-in virtual desktops, and, that breakthrough of breakthroughs, start menu? Don’t these “innovations” prove that, moving forward, Microsoft’s OS will be a competitive offering with an important role to play in the world?
I’m sure these features will be welcome to many Windows users and probably even work well. However, I don’t think they will be the big deal/game changers Microsoft is making them out to be.
What makes me think Microsoft will continue to see its desktop market share slide is that these new features aren’t innovations, per the very definition of innovation:
innovation [in-uh-vey-shuh n]
1. something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.
2. the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.
All of these Windows 10 new features have existed in Linux (and, some of the at least, in OSX) for years.
Furthermore, think about why these features exist in Linux distributions. They weren’t added to placate a group of super geeky users or to give tech news outlets something to write about. Rather, in Linux, these tools represent the heart and soul of a mature ecosystem that, while certainly not wart free, is, from the ground up, designed with the needs of the desktop operating system user in mind.
It also does us good to remember that Microsoft has been telling us for the past 2+ years that our OS should have tiles, that our laptops (and desktops?) should have touchscreens, and that Surface tablets are better than full-blown laptops (well, in every respect besides sales numbers that is ;). But just watch – in a few months, Microsoft will start telling us about the “importance of a package manager to a modern OS” and how “virtual desktops bring next generation productivity to end users.”
My question is: If these innovations are so important, why haven’t they been a part of the Microsoft marketing message for the past 10+ years that these features have existed in Linux? I’m afraid that time will show that this messaging is nothing more than marketing speak from a company that has spent the past several years peddling a broken product as innovative. Furthermore, none of these “features” address some of the fundamental architectural flaws that cause the Windows OS to need what I would consider to be an excessive amount of maintenance in order to stay performant.
The reason I’m no longer a Windows user is I’m tired of my core needs as a desktop operating system user being subject to the whim of a corporate strategy that we’ve seen time and time again change on a dime. More than that though, I firmly believe that the core technologies used to power the modern world should be freely available, not just in the sense that they don’t cost money but also in the sense that their source code is publicly visible and can be freely used to build new products and services.
I don’t hate Microsoft or Windows – I love Linux and the freedom it represents. I love the ability to innovate and build on the work of those who’ve come before me without being hindered by restrictive licenses and legal encumbrances designed to maintain the status quo.
While not everyone ascribes to these same values, and while there exists a very real need for businesses to make a profit, I’d encourage us to think about what it means for the future if we continue to support and give market share to companies that try to sell us metro tiles, touchscreen desktops, package managers, or virtual desktops as if these things are somehow bleeding edge innovations.
We can be sheep herded about by short-sighted corporate fiat and what they think will sell the most units this holiday season, or we can take charge of our own destiny and choose freedom wherever we can. Contrary to what you’ll hear from the status quo, we do have a choice, one that will dictate what type of world we pass on to future generations.
For me, I’d rather a Windows 8 world not be my legacy. We, and Microsoft actually, can do better.