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Why Linux?

July 12th, 2009

This is a translation of my editorial in EasyLinux 03/2009 (link to german version).

Why Linux?

Printer, scanners, and TV cards which do not function at all; popular Windows programs which will never run, except in an emulation with complete virtual Windows installation; configuration tools that differ immensely from distribution to distribution and slightly from version to version; incompatible package formats that make software installation a game of chance, even for native apps — these are criticisms often found in internet forums about questions and problems of new Linux users.

The alternative: using the “standard” operating system that supports all devices, all important programs, and that typically across many OS versions. Installing a Windows program from 1995 on a Vista machine? Likely to be successful. OK, driver availability for a ’95 scanner on Vista isn’t good either, but at least today’s equipment from your local discounter will work.

So what makes us use Linux?

This question has a lot of possible answers, and they typically depend on personal experiences gathered through years of PC usage. As an example here’s my own story: In the mid-90s I had to write larger texts during my Computer Science studies. I used LaTeX which is a text markup language, probably best explained as something along the lines of HTML. LaTeX lets you write everything from smaller essays to huge books in very high quality. Compare that to the outputs of OpenOffice Writer or Microsoft Word: the typographical quality they achieve are not worth mentioning. But LaTeX is somewhat complicated to use, you need a text editor for the text sources, a terminal window to issue commands, and a preview window to show the typeset version. In the 90s there was no comfortable LaTeX tool collection for Windows, but there was one for Linux. That brought me to the alternative OS, and I somehow got stuck with it.

Today Windows is more comfortable and also more stable than in the 90s (and finally there’s proper LaTeX support as well). So why do I abide by Linux? Force of habit may be one of the arguments, but there are numerous Linux features which I love and where Windows just can’t compare, and again those are very individual: I like logging on to my home PC from any computer with internet access, even on a slow connection — no problem thanks to the secure shell (SSH). Sure, there are SSH servers for Windows, but getting them up and running is not straightforward, and using shell commands on Windows’ command line is no fun since developers have long abandoned thinking of command line users and only focus on clicking and moving windows around. Then there are the small things which enthuse me, e.g. the possibility to have 30 or 40 windows open simultaneously on KDE or Gnome that I can distribute across virtual desktops and never lose the overview. For Windows some programmers have copied such features, but still it is not the same. Linux being free and open source software where I can trust uncounted developers having an eye on the code and thus finding and fixing problems faster than a single company can do this with their proprietary and closed code, is another important reason. The free as in free beer is not so important for me, after all a private Windows license isn’t that expensive.

Probably just a tiny fraction of Linux users will share these specific reasons with me. So what do you find fascinating about Linux? Is there a central argument that brought you to Linux? And if you’ve been using the OS for some years, have the reasons changed or are they still the same?

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