Moving towards open source: From Windows XP to Linux (Ubuntu)

After an aborted attempt to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, I decided to see how Linux actually works. There are some appealing aspects about Linux. For someone who was a teenager in the 1970s, there’s a sense about moving back to something simpler; back to cars where you could actually seen the engine when you opened the hood – and work on it. Back to standard transmissions, where you not only had more direct control but could feel it. The downside of that era was that while you could work on the car yourself, you also needed to with some frequency – and analogy that also carries over to open source.

I had decided to install Linux on a new, unformatted hard drive which I had recently purchased (increasing the capacity from 80GB to 500GB), and leaving XP on the smaller drive as an alternative system. That sent me searching for information about what kind of format I should use to back up files for this conversion – for which I basically found nothing. Information about the installation was also extremely slanted towards those who planned to install Linux over XP, to create one dual-boot drive. That left me with the problem about formatting the new hard drive for Linux. The preferred format is ext3, but it seems to require Linux in order to do that – a double-bind.

I downloaded Ubuntu 10.04 and burned it onto a CD as the (limited) instructions described. What information I could find about the installation seemed straightforward, so I tried simply using the CD to install directly to the blank hard drive, in hopes that it would take care of formatting, too. I managed to get the CD to run and watched the drive spin for about an hour and a half. It seemed like a big hard drive – I had no way to guess what was happening or how long it should take. As it turned out, nothing was happening.

I eventually gave up, shut down the process, and checked again for more information. I found that the installation required getting the computer to boot from the Ubuntu CD, which for some reason was also not simple. (In my case, it required installing an extra piece of software from the CD to help with the boot process.) I got the installation started and – low and behold – not only did the Ubuntu disk take care of formatting the drive, it also installed Open Office, found drivers for my printers, and made a copy of all the files on my other C drive. (I’m still not sure how that happened.)

Over the next few days, using Ubuntu varied between wonderful and exasperating. Ubuntu starts up and shuts down in seconds – not minutes, like Windows. It is, in many ways, elegant in its simplicity. It’s actually difficult to find antivirus software for Ubuntu, apparently because it’s considered unnecessary. But it is clearly built and maintained by programmers and engineers, not designers.

Small things are only small if they are familiar. The image on an external monitor defaults to the same resolution settings as the laptop screen. Adjusting that seemed simple. You go to System: Preferences: Monitors, uncheck the box that says “same image in all monitors,” and then two monitor images appear with new choices for the external monitor. The only problem was that this caused the panels (like Toolbars in Windows) to disappear – so that there was no way to find or start any settings or programs on the screen. After forcing a shutdown, restarting, and doing some additional searching, it turns out that you have to turn off the laptop screen while using the external monitor, then everything works fine. But this kind of quirk seems to appear with regularity.

More critically, Linux represents many of the gaps between the ways that engineers think and operate in the world, and the way that “regular people” do. Average users simply do not work in DOS screens, or in lines of code found in root directories. Some of the help for small problems offered online seem to recognize this, as solutions are given in terms of “go to this place and paste in this line of code, then save…” But in general, Linux still exists in a world of engineers and programmers, and is not likely to gain large amounts of market share (despite being free) until that gap is narrowed.

Now on to actually using the system..

One thought on “Moving towards open source: From Windows XP to Linux (Ubuntu)

  1. @garysmetcalf Your analogy of simpler cars that a teenager might maintain as a parallel to Linux is apt. The expectation about mechanics are supposed to speak to men as opposed to women underscores how much “under the hood” we’re supposed to get. Today’s automobiles have lots of computer software built in, so repairmen have to deal with the logical as well as the physical.

    You’ve of an age where you must have experienced the DOS prompt, which is different from most computer users of today. There’s some interesting anchoring effects from prior knowledge. I was involved in the days when tests between OS/2 Workplace Shell, Windows and Mac interfaces were compared. People who had never used a computer before found the OS/2 Object-Oriented User Interface easiest. However, if they had previous experience with Windows, they had the hardest time adapting to the “intuitive” logic.

    One of the fundamental differences between Linux and Windows is that Linux is architected as multi-user system, even though desktop systems are normally only a single user. Windows comes from a single user heritage, that was expanded to multi-user. This creates different frames in the way computers work.

    I recognize the idea of extending a screen to multiple monitors, which is reasonable. Linux generally has the capability of simultaneously running multiple sessions on multiple desktops, so that you could be person 1 on screen 1 and person 2 on screen 2 at the same time. It’s possible to send things from one screen to another. (It just occurred to me that we see actors on television in intelligence shows like “24” sending a report from one screen to another … which means that they must be using Linux!)

    Finally, since Linux is free (as in gratis, as well as in liberty), will the computer user choose to pay for Ubuntu support services independently of the product? This parallels back to the practice of a car owner going to an oil change garage, when he or she actually has the skills to change the oil from prior experience.

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