10 years with Linux, and how my usage has changed

It’s been 10 years since I started using Linux as an operating system for my home PCs. A decade ago, I’d grown interested in using Linux for various reasons, including:

  • A free (as in cost) operating system, as well as free (as in cost) software. I didn’t have much money to spend on an office suite, etc., so the prospect of all-free software was strong.
  • Cheaper to buy a PC and put Linux on it, versus buying a new Mac to replace my then-already-ancient Power Mac 7500. The Mac Mini made its debut in 2005, but either I had forgotten about it, ignored it, or (more likely) really needed an even cheaper computer than the Mini. I also wasn’t too taken (at the time) with OS X’s GUI changes over OS 9.
  • No other non-Windows cheap computing alternatives at the time.
  • Curiosity about Linux/open source.
  • I like open standards, and feel being able to access one’s own data (media, word processing documents, etc.) across any platform is important.
  • I dislike digital rights management. One’s media purchases shouldn’t be a glorified rental, or permanently tied to a particular platform.
  • I wanted to expand my tech skills.

Either way, someone on an online forum I used at the time mailed me a test Knoppix CD which I tried. Finding it OK, I soon bought a “Fedora For Dummies” book (this was back before I got broadband), and the rest is history.

However, in the past several years, things have seen me mostly shift away from using traditional Linux distros as a home desktop computer. The biggest aspect of this was my finally buying a Mac Mini several years ago, and demoting my Linux Mint-powered laptop to travel/secondary computer usage. A year ago, even the laptop got largely retired once I bought a Chromebook. Recently, the Mint machine’s been put back in service (the hard drive dying on the Mini), but several bugs/inconveniences remind me why I bought a Mac Mini/Chromebook.

Looking over the above points today:

  • Linux and various open source software (LibreOffice, etc.) are still free, which is a big reason why they’ve caught on. Linux in particular has succeeded as an OS of choice for servers, smartphones (Android), Chromebooks, and various devices…everything but home desktop operating systems, Chromebooks aside.
  • It’s still cheaper to buy a Windows PC and put Linux on it over a Mac. However, the Mac Mini’s become a cheap entry-level Mac.
  • Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion in alternative computing devices running non-Windows software. Smartphones (running Android or iOS), tablets (also running Android/iOS), and Chromebooks all have greatly changed home computing. I don’t need to struggle with putting Linux on a home computer and deal with hardware incompatibilities, etc.—I can just buy a Chromebook instead.
  • Obviously, my curiosity about Linux/open source has long since been satiated.
  • I still feel open standards are important. The fight’s largely shifted from making Linux a dominant desktop operating system to open standards promotion, since the latter’s actually winnable. There’s been a great deal of changes in file formats and more open standards since 2005, with even Microsoft Office files now more easily readable by non-Office programs.
  • Digital rights management is still an issue, though that’s changed in some ways (music is now DRM-free, and comics increasingly so), but not in others. Video files are still tied up in DRM, especially with the shift from DVDs/Blu-Rays to digital video platforms.
  • My skills have improved since using Linux, though part of it’s from being forced to use my college-era Unix skills in Linux’s terminals to fix some of the odd bugs, inconveniences, etc. that’ve been ever-present in various Linux distros.

Overall, Linux has been helpful in saving money on software, as well as giving my family a reasonably modern computer system via fixing up an old desktop. Even my brother’s switched from using Windows to using Ubuntu. My first published magazine articles were also for Linux magazines.

However, the downsides of my experience with Linux have shown why the traditional “download and install yourself” Linux distro has largely failed to gain any traction among average home computer users. There’s also Apple’s rise in popularity and dominance in the 2000s and 2010s, making MacBooks the main default alternative to Windows. OS X has most of the benefits of Linux, but few of its downsides. If she had a Mac, my mother wouldn’t have been calling me asking why she can’t watch Netflix. (Yes, there’s support now on Linux for Netflix, but there wasn’t any average-user-friendly support back when she called…)

Finally, there’s the reasons I outlined in a previous post on why Chromebooks are the successful “Linux desktop” fans have long sought after. Google achieved this in part by addressing and tossing out most of the flaws of traditional Linux distros, even if the end result isn’t in a way that’d please the Richard Stallmans/hardcore Linux users of the world. My Chromebook isn’t as powerful as my HP laptop with Mint, but it’s more polished in various ways. There’s no odd, bizarre, or brain-breakingly bad bugs like the ones I’ve encountered with Linux over the years, or even most recently: a broken weather applet; Chrome/Chromium throwing up a bunch of minimized desktop windows in Gmail’s tab when not using the computer in awhile (?!); or even replacing the Linux kernel included with Mint by hand.

Overall, between Linux distros’ still-glaring flaws, the existence of tablets/smartphones, Chromebooks on the low computing end, and Macs on the higher computing end, there’s few or no reasons I can think of anymore to recommend a traditional Linux distro to an average home computer user, unless they have easy access to tech-savvy family members for tech support. As for my Mint machine, installing Plex and Samba on it has made it work well as a file server, so I might keep it in usage as such once I get my Mac Mini fixed.

Still, I’m glad Linux exists, since it saw me through a rough time computing-wise, plus brought about a number of changes in computing overall. While traditional distros (versus Chrome OS, Android, etc.) will never become a popular average-user operating system, Linux’s flexibility should mean it’ll stick around for the forseeable future.

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