Why I Use Linux

Actually this is a story less about why I use Linux than how I came to use Linux.

Back in the mid-1990s, I was working as a programmer for a strictly Microsoft shop. Our company consisted mostly of programmers who wrote FoxPro code to tailor the SBT accounting package for use by various customers who had special needs. You’ll find this true of most companies who buy an accounting package. If they buy an off-the-shelf accounting package, they generally need to make modifications to it to make it work they way they do. Generic accounting packages just don’t fit that well for a lot of companies.

Our company had a considerable investment in Microsoft. We ran Windows on our desktops, used Microsoft software tools elsewhere in the office, and had a rather expensive subscription to Microsoft’s TechNet service, which kept us up to date with the latest operating system and other software.

Of course, like most companies who ran Microsoft software, we had a love/hate relationship with the software. The worst thing we encountered was that every six months, we found the need to wipe everything from our local machines and re-install Windows. That was just the reality. Otherwise, your machine was going to grind to a halt or eventually fail in some inexplicable but spectacular way.

By nature, I’m a techie. I look at a tape recorder and see a machine I’d like to take apart (and have) to see how it works. Naturally, that’s how I ended up being a programmer. By the time I was in this job, I’d been dealing with computer technology one way or another for twenty years. I was by no means the full-on guru of computers, but I knew my way around them and wasn’t afraid of them.

Of course, I was one of the more vocal critics of Microsoft at my office. And I wasn’t a fan of Apple, which in my opinion was worse. But my opinion of Microsoft was that they were more or less a criminal monopoly that could afford to put out mediocre software (a lot of which they purchased and didn’t develop themselves) and get away with it. The very idea that every six months I’d have to reinstall my operating system was outrageous to me. Imagine having to do that on the old mainframes! I just considered it intolerable.

Now, years before I’d had some contact with Unix and Microsoft’s variant of it– Xenix. I thought it was a pretty interesting system. The philosophy of it was that, rather than having huge monolithic chunks of software to run, you ran small, single-function programs, and put them together with other small programs to achieve a result which was more than the sum of the parts. The commands were simple. The file system had a unique but very consistent set of rational conventions about where things were stored. Networking was built in. The operating system seemed to be pretty transparent. I would later learn how true that was. Configuration on a Unix system was relatively simple. By contrast, Windows’ “registry” was a dang nightmare, which in my opinion caused a lot of the problems Windows had.

But that was years before, and I’d more or less put that behind me. You couldn’t find a desktop implementation of Unix for less than a few hundred or thousand dollars.

So that’s where things stood. Now I kept a finger or two on the pulse of the computer industry in general. So I was sort of vaguely aware when new stuff was coming online. And along about the mid-90s, I started hearing about this sort of poor man’s Unix called “Linux”. Apparently, you could install it on your hard drive, and it would be a more or less full on implementation of Unix, again, more or less. I looked into it, but I didn’t relish the idea of having to invest a lot of time in learning the system and trying to install it on an existing piece of hardware at home. And I couldn’t necessarily see the benefit. Would it do the stuff I normally needed it to do? I didn’t know. Details were sketchy.

And then someone came up with what I considered a “genius” product. It was called “Linux On A Disk” (L.O.A.D.). It was a full Linux implementation (Slackware, I believe), burned onto a hard drive, which you’d simply insert into a convenient machine, and set the machine to boot from that hard drive. No time-consuming installation process. Just hook it up and go. And it wasn’t all that expensive. Not appreciably more than the hard drive itself. I investigated this and decided it was a good way to find out about this Linux stuff. I’d always liked Unix, and if Linux was more or less a copy of it, it would at least be a relatively inexpensive research project.

So I sent away for this thing, received it, and installed it in my desktop computer at home. Of course, installing a hard drive in a computer might have put a lot of people off. But like I said, I’m a techie by nature, and I’d been dealing with computers (both hardware and software) for a number of years by then.

Ultimately, I fired this thing up and started to learn about the system, how it worked, what came with it and what you could do with it. It had the standard Unix tools, but it also had the stuff you normally needed in a desktop PC as well. Like a graphics editor, a word processor, a spreadsheet, etc. It had games, and it had email client(s) as well. Email was just starting to become something useful at the time. For those of you who remember back then, I had an old CompuServe account and a Juno email address. Interestingly enough, if I’m not mistaken, it also had a DOS emulator. You could theoretically run a copy of FoxPro under the DOS emulator. At the time, though I was running Windows at work, I was coding in FoxPro for DOS (FoxPro version 2.6, as I recall).

So I’d go off to work every day and use Microsoft Windows. And at night I’d come home to fiddle around with this Linux stuff. By the way. My Linux at home was a lot more stable and transparent than my Windows installation at work.

The more I worked with Linux, the more I liked it. It just made sense. And I could configure it with far more ease than I could Windows. It wasn’t prone to viruses like Windows.

Now, as it turned out, while all this was going on, my wife was busy starting up her own business at home. As time progressed that business made more and more money for us. It wasn’t something we’d get rich on, but it did eventually replace a reasonable income she might have gotten from a regular 9 to 5 job. Eventually, the business bought its largest customer, and was theoretically able to pay us both a salary. At that point, I saw my chance and exited from the company I’d been working for, and came to work at our own business full time.

When I moved into an office in our business, I brought my computer with me, the one with Linux on it. I decided since I could run stuff on the DOS emulator under Linux (which meant I could also continue to code in FoxPro), I could fashion software which might aid in dealing with accounting and such for the business. Over the course of the next couple of decades, I wrote hundreds of thousands of lines of code toward that end. First in FoxPro and then in PHP. I wrote a full accounting, payroll and customer management system. I wrote a calendaring system. For a lot of tasks, I used off-the-shelf Linux programs, like Mutt for email, and LibreOffice for word processing, spreadsheet and such. I learned SQL and learned to work with the best SQL database outside Oracle, PostgreSQL (and MySQL for that matter).

And the rest is history. Every few years, I dump the version of Linux I’m running and re-install a newer version. Not because my computer has become unstable, or my operating system vendor insists. But just to take advantage of new features and easier deployment. I save off everything in my home directory (where all my important files are) and just recopy them after the install, if necessary. No biggy. Like every smart computer user, I make daily backups (I’m looking at you, Buddy).

Oh by the way. I don’t pay huge sums for upgrading. In fact, I upgrade for free. I also don’t pay for new software. I just download it (legally). I don’t worry about viruses or malware (at least not very often). I’ve used Linux as my desktop software for a couple of decades now, and I’m very happy with it. Far more so than I would every be running Windows (remember Windows Me and Vista?) or MacOS (what my wife currently runs).

And one last thing. I don’t use “The Cloud”. The Cloud is Big Software’s (Microsoft, Adobe, et al) attempt to take back control of their software, and force you to pay them rent every month for software that ought to belong to you from the outset. All the software I run, I own.

And if I ever need a bug fixed or a feature added, I can usually communicate with the folks who wrote the software. No guarantees they’ll ultimately do what I want, but there’s sure a better chance of it than with Microsoft, Apple or Adobe. That’s the world of Linux.

That’s how I came to use Linux and why I still do.