Saying goodbye to Microsoft Windows ...and hello to Linux with ubuntu

I've been programming and working with computers professionally since 1983. Ever since the dawn of Microsoft with their buying up of QDOS and the subsequent appearance of Windows, I've admired their ability to market and promote software. When they bought QDOS it was an acronym for 'Quick and Dirty Operating System' which was immediately changed by Microsoft to 'Quick Disk Operating System' and thence to 'MS-DOS' and promoted aggressively to OEMs (more or less creating the term in the process if I recall correctly).

As a technical user of Windows through all of its iterations from 3.1 to Vista, I can see how Microsoft have become increasingly trapped by their own need for backwards compatibility and the marketing driven 'add features we can sell' so that they have now produced a very fat (memory hungry), very complex and very opaque system that stifles the PC's performance and its users' productivity.

This is not just a Microsoft thing, its human nature too. As people learn complex systems they naturally develop a resistance to wanting to learn other systems. This is compounded by a natural impatience so we often reinvent wheels rather than take the time to find and use alternatives.

With the Mac, Apple found a niche in the printing and graphics arena. Leveraging Open Source, Linux has become the defacto OS of choice in the Internet server community where it generally runs Apache to serve us up with our favourite web sites, not because its free but because it has high transparency making it much easier for system administrators needing to adjust, tune and maintain systems.

A recent key advance for Linux came with ubuntu. I've always appreciated Linux as a great operating system for servers and for embedded applications but with Ubuntu, it is now a serious option as a replacement for Microsoft Windows on the desktop. Ubuntu provides an off the shelf supported OS that is somewhat easier to use than MS Windows and includes compatible free alternatives for all of the Microsoft Office applications and formats as well as a good spread of other applications for music, video and picture processing.

I've been trying ubuntu out. After three weeks, I've moved over and now only retain a licensed version of MS Windows on my laptop for compatibility testing. I am left wondering why the majority of people are not using Ubuntu in preference to Windows, particularly if their main use of the PC is for general office work and/or internet browsing.

My PC is now running ubuntu 9.04. The extensive OpenOffice has been a delight to use. I've just copied and loaded very complex Excel spreadsheets (using macros and remote data access) and a range of documents without needing to do anything other than double click on the files once they are copied across (which is made easy either over the network or by just plugging in an external drive which works find on both Windows and Linux).

Using the OpenOffice Drawing gives good comparable behaviour to Visio and the music players etc. all work fine. I love the one click to dump a music CD into my library so I can replay it on the PC whenever I like.

Screem, the html editor looks nice but sadly keeps crashing on any non trivial work. So I'm still looking for a good open source html editor. Until then I'll keep on using Dreamweaver. Its big and cumbersome but its html editing is good.

For my primary development work I've kept to Zend studio which has a native Linux implementation - I was tempted to try the basic eclipse because its open source but as Zend is built on it I was too nervous about losing features I rely on. Zend does a reasonably good job of SQL editing and a very good job of PHP development and these are the mainstay of my coding these days.

For other applications such as Navicat (for synchronising MySQL databases), Photoshop CS2 (while I learn the free and very similar Gimp) and Dreamweaver CS3 (while still seeking a suitable free HTML editor) there is an interesting Windows emulator called Wine. This works pretty seamlessly and allows me to run all of these applications.

Wine also apparently also runs most windows computer games - 3D games are probably the main technical reason people will stay with windows because games tend to be written for DirectX which is Windows proprietary code although, that said, Wine seems able to cope with most of the popular games and the growing Linux community is an obvious target for games producers in future given the modest cost of porting.

While there is no real 'killer app' for ubuntu (or Windows), the bash shell is worthy of mention. The bash shell that comes with ubuntu is a developer's dream. Along with the natural transparency of the Linux system I can apropos my way through all of the manual commands and achieve a great variety of tasks using the command line. I'll have to write more about this but there is plenty on the web if you google 'bash shell'. Even a smattering of knowledge about bash eliminates the need for a whole gamut of expensive and complicated tools I needed in windows for finding files containing certain things, comparing files, efficiently renaming and copying files, creating deployment scripts, extracting and listing information etc...

So, apart from bash which is great, and saving a few thousand dollars of license fees which is also great, why have I switched to ubuntu? I suppose its because Linux in general and ubuntu in particular are a lot closer to the way I think a PC OS should be. Free, transparent and fully accessible to anyone. Out of the box you get everything you need for a general purpose workhorse, and its all legitimate and well tested.


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