My Linux Story: The Big Switch

Monday Jan 25th 2016 by Matt Hartley
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A longtime Linux expert talks about his early days with the open source operating system.

It recently occurred to me that I've been running Linux on my computers for about thirteen years. I'll be the first to admit, it doesn't seem all that long ago. But as I reflected upon my switch over to Linux, I began to realize that there wasn't a single event that pushed me over to the Linux desktop. In reality, it was a series of events and discoveries. This article will explain how my switch to Linux came to pass.

The Repair Guy

Roughly thirteen years ago, I ran a busy little repair shop dedicated to repairing Windows PCs. Early on, I knew I wanted to keep to smaller businesses and home users while avoiding larger entities. At the time, smaller businesses and home users were a good match for the type of clients I enjoyed working with.

During my years in this field, I found many of the issues my clients faced were actually quite preventable. And so long as my clients followed my suggestions and provided constraints, issues were mostly avoided. Keep in mind, I was never the server managing IT guy type of person. So my experiences were centered around a casual user's perspective from day one.

As my free time permitted, I experimented with different Linux distributions. I tried out Red Hat, SUSE, along with a few others only to end up with Debian as my "Linux testing distro." As time passed, I found myself looking at the other distributions that were available. A new trend to make Linux easy was gaining popularity and I saw a lot of potential with the idea.

Then I tried out a relatively new distro called Knoppix. I was blown away by the live CD experience. Right before my eyes, I was watching hardware being detected in real time, as each device was found by the Live CD. I also remember being dumbfounded by the idea of running a Linux distro from a CD instead of a hard drive! For a casual Windows PC repair tech, this was quite astonishing.

Knoppix as a data recovery tool

Previously I had always used Linux as more of a curiosity. Since I had never used Linux in my work before, I soon found that running Knoppix as a data recovery tool was like finding water in a desert. This was especially useful when I had to deal with problematic laptops with difficult to access hard drives. Instead, I could simply run Knoppix and use it to extract data that way. Keep in mind back then, most of the files that I was recovering were little more than documents and images. Video files were quite rare at this time, especially for casual computer users. So using the Knoppix CD to recover user data was quite easy and convenient.

During the this period, I ended up with a new computer and didn't make the time to reinstall Debian on it along side of Windows. I ended up keeping Windows XP on the PC while looking for something new to try on my laptop.

Simply Mepis

I then stumbled upon a relatively new distro called Simply Mepis. To say it was love at first sight would have been an understatement. Finally, a distro that really provided a dependable casual user experience. KDE-based, my early experience with Simply Mepis was fantastic. Having found myself disillusioned with other newbie friendly distributions of that era, I found Simply Mepis to be the perfect balance between GUI tools and a friendly community.

So why didn't I just stick with distributions like Debian? Because I was in the process of supporting Linux with clients and I wasn't going to do this without GUI tools for networking. There's nothing more obnoxious than trying to help a client over the phone by asking them to drop to a terminal.

Simply Mepis also allowed me to feel like I was using a modern operating system vs something that had to be manually configured from a command line. Again, my goal at this time was duplication and ease of use. When Simply Mepis was popular, their tools for X-Windows, user creation and networking were second to none. I also was thrilled that Simply Mepis worked very well with my PCMCIA wireless card. Back then, getting wifi to work was a bit more challenging as the drivers weren't as plentiful as they are today.

For at least a couple of years, Simply Mepis became my full time desktop as I also began sharing Windows again on my desktop computer. This meant my laptop at that time and desktop, both ran this distribution.

Ubuntu

Having played a bit with GNOME on other distros, I was a big user of KDE thanks to Knoppix and later, Simply Mepis. And early versions of GNOME weren't anything to get too excited about. But, then I started playing with early Ubuntu.

By the time Ubuntu Dapper Drake rolled around, I was hooked. I found their version of GNOME and their growing community, to be interesting. I was burning out on Simply Mepis at this time (I was becoming a distro hopper) and Dapper Drake happened to appeal to a renewed sense of trying GNOME again. Perhaps it was the minimalist interface that grabbed me, it's hard to say.

Bundling this with ever-growing hardware support within the kernel and I soon found myself going to Linux full time. This means I finally wiped Windows from my desktop completely. I was sold completely on Linux for my desktop at this point.

Linux on my desktop today

These days, I run Ubuntu MATE as my primary desktop and Archas my bleeding edge distribution. Since I'm no longer in the "repair biz," I have more time to distro hop and try new things as they come out.

The one thing that still amazes me today is how far newbie friendly Linux distros have come. From Mandrake, Linspire, Xandros, Simply Mepis to Ubuntu, Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS today. The shift in distributions has been a productive one in my opinion. It's clear to me that the most popular distributions of Linux will always be the easiest to use with the most stable user experience.

For advanced users, I've been fascinated by the rise of Arch over other distributions. Thanks to pacman, the AUR and a do it yourself approach, I believe Arch will remain the king of non-newbie distros. And rightfully so, because their documentation is second to none.

As I look back, I found that my switch to Linux was a fairly straight forward one. It was a path that started in seeing how Linux could be a tremendous tool for file recovery and then grew into a lifestyle from there. Today, I feel completely out of my element running Windows and OS X. Don't get me wrong, I have access to these operating systems, but I honestly don't have a need to bother with them anymore. They simply don't appeal to me and frankly, I usually end up feeling a bit put off by the experience.

An interesting note that Linux newcomers reading this might find compelling is this: Linux has become as familiar to me as Windows once did. The way a computer behaves, reacts to my input or new peripherals...all of these considerations are very Linux-centric for me now.

Clearly, switching to new operating system is an act of personal dedication. Back then, I balked at the idea of using a command line to accomplish tasks. I simply found the idea to be archaic and dated. Today, I spend at least half of my day in an SSH session or adjusting something in a text file from a command line editor.

This doesn't mean that I'm looking to take up a career in Linux-specific IT though. Rather, it's merely a measurable indicator of how I use a computer has evolved over the years.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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