For about 2 years I had both Linux and Windows installed on my laptop. But having cut my teeth as a user and later as developer on a Windows environment, it is not surprising that I only booted the Linux installation on very few occasions – mostly when I was bored – and never really did anything useful with it. While I appreciated what looked like a decent desktop environment, I still preferred the familiar way of getting things done on Windows and the fact that I rarely ever needed to open the command prompt. In addition to that, about half of all the programming I did then was based on Microsoft’s tools so there wasn’t much professional motivation to pay attention to Linux.
Then I changed jobs and joined an organization where much of the development work going on was in Java and none of my two new teammates was writing it on a Windows platform. One guy was on Ubuntu Linux and the other one on MAC OS. More importantly, all software releases by the organization were made on VirtualBox appliances running Ubuntu. I started to worry that I would now not even be able to provide proper system support to users of our own software because it ran on an OS I was scarcely familiar with.
Making the Move
So I started thinking seriously about completely migrating to Linux. Fortunately, I got a new laptop around the same time and it shipped with Windows 8. My cumulative experience with Windows 8 to date is about 10 minutes. The 10 minutes between when I powered up the new laptop and when I decided the new desktop looked so different from Windows 7 that it felt as if I was learning to use a computer all over again. Well, almost. That was my watershed. If I was going to be spending time figuring out how to use a different environment, that environment might as well be Ubuntu’s Unity and of course, Linux in general. At that very moment, I downloaded Ubuntu 13.04 which, incidentally, was only a few hours old that day, and set it up as the only OS on my laptop. Phew! Besides having to disable the UEFI and tinkering a bit with ALSA to get sound coming out of the speakers, the installation was pretty straightforward and in about an hour, I had a working Linux system running on 4 cores and all of 16GB of RAM. How cool!
Still, there was the small matter of my unfamiliarity with the new OS. However, I felt that not having a familiar Windows OS to fall back to when things got tough was just the motivation I needed to get going. That’s how it turned out. After a couple of weeks of mucking about with terminal commands, a strange directory structure and a few other unfamiliar nuances of Linux, I felt even more competent and in control using it than I ever felt using Windows. I guess the pervasive sense of unfamiliarity and incompetence got me to deliberately study things in Linux that I only came to know by chance on Windows.
Exploring the Freedom
Within a few months of actively using Linux on a regular basis and also reading quite a bit of literature online, I started to marvel at the diversity of ways in which the OS was served up and in which you could consume it. For me, my installation of Ubuntu had been a lot like how one joins a religion early on in their lives. You get born into a Christian family and you become Christian. Then later on you grow up and form opinions of your own and you start to realize there are alternatives out there. And you start to become curious about them and to learn about them. Maybe you gather enough conviction and jump ship. Maybe you just change how you consume your original religion. Maybe you decide you don’t want to belong to any mainstream religion and you develop your own belief system… that would be Linux from Scratch :-)
It turned out that the first casualty of my new-found freedom was the Unity desktop. KDE with their Plasma Desktop impressed me greatly the first time I tried it. Maybe it is the resemblance to Windows 7. You can never underestimate the power of familiarity. But more importantly, I felt a certain dislike for Unity. For instance, I hated the way menu bars docked up at the top, especially when I didn’t have my windows maximized. I also found that the KDE desktop appeared sleeker, elegant and more modern. With loads of RAM to spare, I didn’t worry about the fancy graphics impacting performance.
Lately I have been looking at the many distros available. I have a couple of them running on VMs on my system. I like the touted stability of Debian and the academic promise of Arch. Further down the road, as my competence increases, I want to try Linux from Scratch. Linux from Scratch is not really a distro. It is a book about how to make your own distro – just the way you want it. After all, it’s this kind of freedom that makes Linux and open source in general such a powerful and liberating idea.
As for now, I still pledge allegiance to my trusty Ubuntu installation… Kubuntu really, since I installed KDE. But I don’t think it will be like that for a long time. In a few weeks, it’s probably going to be Debian or OpenSUSE. Maybe it will be Debian then OpenSUSE. Then maybe Arch, and ultimately Linux from Scratch – the Mecca of the Linux enthusiast. But one thing is for sure, I will be using Linux for a long time to come.