How the Windows vs. Linux Debate Has Changed over the Past Decade
Why use Linux instead of Windows? Ten years ago, the reasons for using Linux were very different than they are today. Here’s how they have changed.
I became a Linux user in summer 2006. At the time, I was attracted to Linux for two main reasons.
The first was that Linux cost no money. I was in college at the time, and an even cheaper person than I am currently. Windows cost around $200, which was almost enough to pay a month’s rent for my illegal bedroom in Ithaca, New York. The zero price tag of Linux really appealed to me.
The second reason was that the Linux distributions I tried, SUSE and Mandriva, looked and felt a lot cooler than Windows XP. Windows XP was getting pretty stale by summer 2006. Windows Vista was not out yet — it arrived in November 2006 — but it was already getting a lot of negative press. I was not confident that Vista would make me enjoy using my computer any more than I did with XP.
So, I started experimenting with Linux. Once I did, I started to appreciate additional benefits of Linux-based operating systems. I liked that they were so customizable. I also liked that I could install most of the programs I needed from a central software repository, rather than having to scour the Internet for downloadable installation packages.
On the other hand, Linux certainly had its drawbacks. Getting my wireless card to work was a huge ordeal — so much so that I ended up buying a 100-foot ethernet cable and running it across my apartment so I didn’t have to rely on the flaky Linux wireless driver.
Compatibility with Windows applications was also an issue. Microsoft Word documents didn’t always display well in OpenOffice. Some of the software I needed for school didn’t run on Linux at all, even with Wine.
Reasons for Using Linux in 2017
Fast forward to the present and the rationale for using Linux has been reversed in some ways.
For one, cost is no longer as important a motivation for using Linux. Sure, Windows still costs a fair bit of money. But the price of a Windows license has gone down. Windows 7 prices were cheaper than those of Vista. Microsoft basically gave away Windows 10 to some users, and if you can’t get Windows 10 for free, it still retails for less than its predecessors — even without taking inflation into account. Linux’s cost advantage over Windows is no longer what it once was.
In addition, the modern Windows user experience is no longer ugly and dull. You get hardware acceleration and slick interfaces. As far as the debate about whether Windows or Linux offers better interfaces goes, it’s now a matter of preference. For example, you might say the Windows 8 interface is an unmitigated disaster. But some people think the same thing about GNOME 3 on Linux. On the other hand, at least you can customize the Linux interface more easily by installing a different desktop environment if you don’t like your distribution’s defaults.
Meanwhile, the main drawbacks to using Linux that I faced in 2006 no longer apply. Every wireless card that I’ve used with Linux in the past five years or so has “just worked,” with no additional setup necessary — which is better than I can say about Windows. Linux sets up my printer automatically. I still experience minor compatibility issues with Word files sometimes, but they are usually not serious. And because I now use platform-agnostic Web apps for almost all of my work, I no longer worry about needing an application that is not supported on Linux.
I do still think Linux’s software repository system and endless customizability are major benefits. However, these features no longer set Linux apart as much as they did in 2006. The Windows app store allows you to download most (though not all) of the software you need from a central location. And modern versions of Windows provide more customization options — even though you can’t swap out entire parts of the operating system, as you could with Linux.
One last selling point worth noting for Linux is that my Linux desktop feels more private. Windows 10 collects all sorts of information about users. Ubuntu has faced its share of complaints about spyware, but they mostly involved search tracking, a feature that is now disabled. Plus, if you don’t trust Ubuntu, you’re free to use any number of other Linux distributions that take privacy super-seriously, like Tails. As long as Windows remains a mostly closed-source operating system and Linux remains open, Linux will always come out ahead on the privacy front, simply because you can’t trust code that you can’t see.
If you’re considering switching from Windows to Linux, or trying to convince other people to do the same, it’s worth thinking about how the world of operating systems has changed over the past decade. (This is one of the topics I explore in detail in my recently published book on the history of free and open source software.) Many of the old arguments for switching to Linux are not as powerful as they once were, but others have replaced them.
This doesn’t mean it’s not worth switching from Windows to Linux. I still think it is, and I am glad I made that choice a decade ago. But it’s time to rethink the traditional arguments in Linux’s favor.