My Life as a Linux User: Reflections on Attitudes Toward Open SourceMy Life as a Linux User: Reflections on Attitudes Toward Open Source
Reflections of a Linux user on how his relationship with open source operating systems and other software (such as OpenOffice and Firefox) has changed over the years.
September 15, 2015
This summer will mark my 10th year as a Linux user. Reflecting recently on that upcoming milestone, I began thinking about how my attitudes toward Linux and open source software have evolved since that time. Here are my four stages of life in the Linux world.
First, some background: I am not certain why I began using Linux in the first place. At the time, I was a college student majoring in history and French literature. I was a geek, to be sure, but not of the computer-enthusiast variety. In fact, the only computer I owned was a tired, virus-infested Pentium IV Windows XP machine that I used mostly for playing Age of Empires II and instant messaging people living down my dorm hall (which seemed much more logical to us than actually communicating in person).
All the same, for reasons unknown to me, I installed Linux—the now defunct Mandriva distribution, to be specific—on my computer for the first time circa July 2006, in between my sophomore and junior years of college. From there, I never turned back—although my relationship with Linux and open source has certainly gone through some major changes since my first flirtation with the world beyond proprietary software.
Stage One: Learning Linux
For my first six months or so as a Linux user, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to make stuff work. My wireless card lacked a native driver at the time, so I learned to use ndiswrapper to get it running. I fiddled with xorg.conf files for endless hours to make my NVIDIA graphics card play nicely with Mandriva. I taught myself to use OpenOffice and other open source apps to do my work, replacing the proprietary ones I had run on Windows.
These were trying times, and I found myself booting into Windows—which I kept on my computer in a separate partition—often to do schoolwork that I couldn't complete using Linux. I probably would have given up on Linux entirely if the brutal Ithaca, New York, winter didn't set in shortly after I started experimenting with Linux. By dispelling most of my interest in doing anything that required leaving my apartment, it kept me around my computer with nothing better to do than learn more about Mandriva. Thanks, Ithaca.
Stage Two: Loving Linux
By early 2007, my most frustrating days as a Linux user had passed. I had figured out how the thing worked, and I started to appreciate the unique user experience that the open source way of life offered.
I liked that I could browse the web without worrying so much about malware, or installing obnoxious, resource-hogging antivirus software. I learned—thanks in large part to a class on Unix basics that I audited—how simple, command-line tools could come so much in handy for automating tedious tasks. And I soaked up the free-software evangelism, eagerly becoming one of those people who delight in convincing others to run a Linux live CD or badmouthing Microsoft.
My youthful idealism probably mattered a lot in this context. I wanted to save the world, and spreading the good word of Linux seemed like one way to do it.
It was around this time that I began volunteering at Linux "install fests" at my university, where we installed Linux on people's computers and gave away Linux CDs. I also made a habit of providing technical support on the Ubuntu Forums, where I specialized in wireless and networking issues, and eventually became a site moderator. I once even wrote an op-ed (which I can no longer find, alas) in my college newspaper touting the merits of Linux.
Probably my biggest jolt of enthusiasm for Linux came in the spring of 2007, when I was on a semester-abroad program in Paris and used aircrack-ng to help myself to wireless access. I still remember the first WEP passphrase I cracked—funnily, it was a simple A1:B2:C3:D4:E5—and how amazed I was that Linux could do such powerful things. (Now, of course, I regret this youthful indiscretion: Using other people's wireless networks without authorization is not the right thing to do. Even if you're a starving undergrad in France with no other means of getting online other than going to your local McDonald's.)
Stage Three: Realities
For several years—well into graduate school, which I began in 2008—I remained convinced that Linux and open source software were perfect. It was hard for me to recognize that Linux and open source are not perfect for everyone.
Eventually, however, that attitude changed. I came to realize that, in some situations, Linux, even if by no fault of its own, just doesn't work.
For example, I learned the hard way that publishers of scholarly works deal only in Word format. They don't know or care what .odt files are. And they don't like it when you submit .doc files created in OpenOffice, which can generally open and save Word files well enough, but not without imperfections that cause a lot of problems when you are trying to process and publish an article manuscript. In you want to make it in academia, I realized, you're going to have to suck it up and use Microsoft Office sometimes.
I also found that I had increasingly little time to solve problems on Linux. In earlier years, I could afford to spend hours troubleshooting bizarre wireless-connectivity issues or figuring out why a particular website wouldn't display correctly. But as I finished up my Ph.D. program and moved increasingly closer to being a grown-up (my wife is still uncertain whether I've fully arrived, but I've come far since my days as an undergrad), I just wanted things on my computer to work.
I never stopped using Linux during this period. But I grew much less enthusiastic about free-software ideology. And I became unashamed of booting into Windows—usually via a virtual machine—when I needed to.
Stage Four: Happy Mediums
In the last couple of years, my fervor for open source has returned in many ways. I no longer make a point of handing out live CDs, or stopping to chat with people in libraries when I notice they're running Ubuntu, but I have begun to appreciate the transparency and flexibility of Linux much more.
In large part, that's because the Web has grown increasingly closed in recent years. We have become inundated by "apps" that offer restricted, intrusive versions of content that could be more easily and conveniently delivered via a traditional website. (Kudos to Google for taking steps to punish sites that implore you to install an app.) In a broad sense, open source standards seem to me to be a way to combat this trend.
It has helped, too, that Linux has become easier than ever to use over the past several years. My wireless card now just works, including for complicated configurations such as enterprise networks. I haven't seen the insides of an xorg.conf file in years. HTML 5 has made the web much more Linux-friendly by decreasing reliance on Adobe Flash, which never played nicely with Linux.
I still use Windows apps once in a while—but usually via Wine, rather than in a virtual machine. (Whenever I do have to boot up my Windows virtual machine, all of the nagging notifications and slow responsiveness quickly remind me why I am better off sticking with Linux.) And I care much less than I used to when companies that claim to support open source release closed-source apps, as Canonical does from time to time, for example.
All in all, I think I've reached a happy medium. And I hope I'll still be running Linux in fifty years.
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