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After Ubuntu, Windows Looks Increasingly Bad, Increasingly Archaic, Increasingly Unfriendly

The Changing Trajectory of Software

My recent switch to a single-boot Ubuntu setup on my Thinkpad T60 simply floors me on a regular basis. Most recently it's had to do with the experience of maintaining the software. Fresh from a very long Windows 2000 experience and a four-month Windows XP experience along with a long-time Linux sys admin role puts me in a great position to assess Ubuntu. Three prior attempts over the years at using Linux as my daily desktop OS had me primed for failure. Well, Ubuntu takes Linux where I've long hoped it would go - easy to use, reliable, dependable, great applications too but more on that later. It has some elegance to it - bet you never heard that about a Linux desktop before.

There are many night-and-day differences between Windows and Ubuntu and, for a guy that does 80% standard office tasks and the rest of the time I'm doing Linux admin tasks, it was nearly all in favor of Ubuntu after the first few weeks of the transition. Overall, my productivity and the scope of things I can do with Ubuntu far exceed what I could do with Windows and just as importantly Ubuntu (like any Linux would) lets me easily create my own productivity shortcuts of a variety of sorts.

One of the things that's become clear as I've gotten used to the appliance-like experience of Ubuntu is that the future of software in an open source-dominated world is going to be significantly different than the world dominated by Microsoft. So what distant point on the horizon has Ubuntu shone a light on for me? Simple. Software will increasingly compete on ease of use in the total software experience more than on features. The future will be more about being simple than about any other dimension.

Here are some recent use cases:

_ I needed to rebuild my T60 with a fresh OS. Which was easier? MS Windows with a factory install disk, separate disks for Office and for Virus protection and then a lot of hunt-and-peck downloading for various apps like Thunderbird, Firefox, SSH, and Calendar or....Ubuntu with one CD and an OS that includes an integrated, extensible, and slick software package manager where all the software is approved and tailored to the installation?

_ I needed to rebuild a T43. I tried to use the rebuild partition included on the HD but it was corrupt. So I tried to make factory-install disks but the corrupt partition prevented it. Next option? Call Lenovo and get disks sent for $51. That process took five days and eight CD-ROMs from start to finish. With Ubuntu, this process takes three hours max, not four days and there's no software keys or other things to track down. The labor involved is less than a fifth with Ubuntu and the delivered product is a lot more productive - for my use models anyway.

_ I needed to resubscribe to Symantec on a Windows machine. Again this is a 30-60 minute timeout from production AND a $49 charge AND a hassle with product keys and sending data about my machine and purchases around to companies that I'd choose not have it if I had a choice. But I didn't since Windows XP needs Symantec's products badly even though these scanning and cleaning products degrade machine performance badly - even with a gig of RAM.

_ And I now hear that Windows Vista renames the partition it's installed on what used to be the C: partition. I need to check out this story but the very idea of automatic partition renaming is insane to even contemplate.

So my machine sings with Ubuntu. Having no virus scanning alone unleashes a responsiveness that makes the power of the T60's Intel dual-core shine. And what am I noticing most about all of this?

Well, first off Ubuntu is good as a productivity platform. Without that, the rest wouldn't matter a bit. But since Ubuntu is not only good on features but reliability then at least some of us would crawl over broken glass to get it installed.

But, in fact, there's no broken glass in the picture. It's the opposite. Ubuntu's installation is so easy, and maintaining it once it's installed is so simple that Ubuntu nearly falls into your machine like a ying to the hardware's yang. Once there, Ubuntu happily makes a home in your head with hardly a blip. I think Ubuntu actually dropped my blood pressure. Not something you typically find when switching ALL your software for something that's about as alien to Windows as it possibly can be.

Once that major hurdle is cleared, then the other big issues come into focus. Ease of install, easy updates, easy software maintenance, easy data backups. After experiencing Ubuntu, the world of Windows looks increasingly bad, increasingly archaic, increasingly like a neighborhood that makes life hard. Why should I put up with what Windows makes me go through if I don't have to?

I've used rsync for backups for years. I back up my mail, my Thunderbird data, and "my document" directory (i.e., /home/xxxx/). One of these backup commands looks like this and sits in a single shell script and runs from cron once a day (I've already sent the ssh key to the backup target server so no need to manually login to the backup server for this command to run):

rsync -avgz /home/xxxx/.mozilla-thunderbird/ root@mycomcastipnumber:/hdb/ibmt60-ubuntu-mozilla-tbird/ >>
/home/xxxx/backup-.txt

That little command executes in a few seconds to a few minutes no matter where I am on the Internet and even if I've added some decently sized files to my computer. I've got my home router set up to pass the ssh port 22 through to a Linux server sitting in my attic. Quick and painless backups run without a hitch. It's a thing of beauty. I use the same solution for my servers so having a single platform from server to desktop has benefits and this is but one of them. I used to sweat about my Windows backups in the old days - if I did them every two weeks, I was happy. Ubuntu dropped my blood pressure on backups alone by 10% and now I have to decide how often is too often to do a backup. Also, I'm up on the MIRRA product but, trust me, you don't want to forget a password there.

Through a similar setup, I can also print to my home printer from any Internet connection. This is not a Windows- or Linux-specific feature but it's nice to have and I use it more than I expected. This is just good fun but it may also drop my blood pressure a point or two.

So far, none of this is news to those in the know about Ubuntu. It's not news but it is a big deal. A very big deal. Ubuntu is getting rave reviews: it's a productive platform, it's a reliable platform, it's a durable platform, it's an upgradeable platform, it's an easy-to-install platform, and adoption is through the roof.

What's changing in all this?

In my view, once you realize the platform is viable from a daily productivity standpoint (exceedingly so), the #1 thing that Ubuntu is then changing is ease of access to software. If I had decided to rebuild my PC with Windows XP - we won't even talk about Vista - this is what I was looking at:

1) Buy OEM Install disks from Lenovo because my rebuild partition was corrupt - $51.

2) Buy a Symantec subscription because I was done with the 90-day free trial - $49.

3) Buy an extra 512MB of RAM because XP couldn't run Firefox, Thunderbird, MS Word, MS Excel, and SSH all at once with 512MB of installed RAM - $104.

4) Install all of the above with product keys along the way - four hours? Maybe six? Maybe more because the tools for getting 2GB-3GB of mail data back into Thunderbird in Windows aren't nearly as good as the same tools in Linux.

That's $204 just to get me back to where I thought I was two months back - i.e., a machine with XP and Office on it. Symantec alone is going to want to pick my pocket again at some point.

Ubuntu releases me from these costs and from these long-term headaches:

1) Viruses - I no longer worry and I no longer need to check my PC - that's a relief. You can pick nits here about security but the bottom line is Ubuntu is orders of magnitude better.

2) Vulnerabilities - Windows is like Swiss cheese with so many vulnerabilities that it's sick - you can't connect XP to a public Internet connection (i.e., behind a router is OK but direct to the net isn't). Ubuntu? It's Linux - no worries.

3) Thanks to #1 and #2, I'm free from products like Symantec and Norton and the dollar expense, the complexity of administering them (those pop-ups are annoying and a productivity hit), and wondering when they expire next.

4) Software updates for the entire collection of software on the machine are simple in Ubuntu.

5) Backups are automatic.

That's batting for the cycle. Am I missing anything? Anything at all? Yes. Printing is easier in Ubuntu for older printers like the HP Laserjet 4 on a D-Link print server in the office and the HP 6L on an SMC print server in the home office. Multifunction printers are more of a challenge. A little care in printer purchases going forward takes this issue off the plate and I'm fine with the printer solution in place that has largely been stumbled upon.

The one bit of software that was Windows-related was a QuickBooks Timer. I haven't needed it because I began editing the output of that program in Excel six months ago because the QuickBooks Timer was too much of a clod interface to be productive. When I switched from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice on Windows XP, I continued not using the QuickBooks Timer. Doing the same manual editing of these QuickBooks Timer output files in OpenOffice Calc on Linux is a breeze. If there were a QuickBooks Timer for Linux, I wouldn't use it so I haven't checked for it.

In sum, what's changing about software? The installation, maintenance, and use of software in Windows have become a burden. A huge burden. And I don't think the average Windows user realizes how much out of their way they are going to keep their Windows PCs working. Windows challenges users and makes for a very expensive user experience in time and dollars if users follow the book and use the latest virus protection, keep that protection updated, and avoid the pitfalls that are squarely on the path that normal users use. In the best case, you end up with a machine that has a lot of crapware installed on it and is slow and clunky to use. In the more typical case, you end up with a machine that spirals to a grinding halt over six to 12 months - like the T43 I'm working on right now. A machine that has trouble opening an Excel file in three minutes because it has so much software competing for disk access and CPU cycles.

My experience with Linux on the server with its multi-hundred day uptimes broken by hardware upgrades, not software reboots, and with no performance degradation even at high disk utilizations tells me Ubuntu isn't taking me down with it. My blood pressure is truly low now.

I'm literally running out the door to get the word rolling on this changing dynamic. It's that big. And a word to IBM and Lenovo: if you're listening, Ubuntu as an OEM install on your Thinkpad T and X series would be a huge win for you and for the the OSS adoption curve. This is a classic case of experience changing perception and it's got me to thinking about a seamless platform from server to desktop to phone - think about it.

More Stories By Paul Nowak

Paul Nowak first used Linux in 1995 while migrating from Sun to Linux at the University of Michigan. He used Linux in subsequent IT projects including web, telecom, telemetry and embedded projects and is currently CIO of a small professional association based in Washington D.C.

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