For the last couple of days I’ve been trying to install some new software on the Ubuntu Linux machine that my kids use in their playroom. Being able to get a real computer for the kids for about $75 (about half of which was spent on the monitor; the box itself is a castoff desktop from the college that I bought for $10) and run all the software they could possibly want to use at their age for free has been great. But having to deal with the technical side of Linux and the usability issues in software reminds me of why I no longer use Linux in my daily life.
Back in 2001, when I started my new job at my current institution, I took the plunge and installed Red Hat Linux on my school computer rather than Windows. I had a colleague at my former work who was a Linux zealot and I figured I would take the transition period to my new job to switch operating systems. At the time, one of the driving reasons for doing so was the simple realization that, although I used computers all the time in my work and at home, I really didn’t understand how computers work. I figured running Linux would allow me a chance to learn, as well as expose me to some very good open-source software.
My experience with Linux satisfied both of those objectives very nicely. I learned about what an operating system actually is, how it works, what can make it fail, how software works when designed to work with a certain operating system, and more. As for software, there are a lot of good applications out there, and I still miss Kile for doing editing.
But Linux wore me out. I was running it on a Toshiba laptop, and all too frequently, the basic functions that I needed from the computer would simply not work — or stop working as soon as I performed a kernel upgrade. Wifi was a huge problem, as was printing. I was constantly having to go in, tweak all kinds of technical settings, fail at those, then spend an hour surfing Linux discussion boards for a solution, trying a few that often screwed the system up worse than it already was, and then maybe after a couple of hours of this, the system would work as it was supposed to. Or maybe not.
Eventually I realized that I was losing so much productivity during the work day, having to surf the internet and try stuff out just to get the damned printer to work, that I was losing time to spend with my wife, and later my kid. The final straw came one afternoon when I had to stay at work an extra hour because the computer wouldn’t shut off. Why am I wasting all this time trying to get a computer to work? Is it just geek hubris, trying to prove to the world that I can do my job without having to pay for my OS or software? Well, how much value have I lost in trying to attain to that?
Soon after, in 2006, I switched to a Macbook Pro and never looked back. Yes, it’s proprietary. No, the stuff on there (not most of it) is neither free nor open-source. I am paying money for stuff and there’s a good possibility I am locking myself in to a certain make of software from which I cannot extricate myself if I had to. And I’m loving it. Why? Because it all just works.
More recently, when I was setting the kids’ Linux box up, I had to practically move heaven and earth to get Flash to work in the Firefox browser. Almost all of what the kids do with the computer is go to the internet and play Flash-based games. Without Flash, the computer basically serves as a footrest. I did manage finally to get Flash working on the browser, but I cannot explain how I did it and certainly could not do it again if I had to — not without another two hours of looking around the internet for other people’s workarounds.
I understand that with Linux, I am working with a free, open-source OS — and OS’s are complicated, delicate things that have to handle all kinds of hardware on systems where the hardware is not designed to work together. And moreover, I understand that Flash is a commercial product and you cannot just stick it on a free, open-source OS. I get it. But it’s dumb. Flash is everywhere, like it or not, and by golly it ought to simply work on a browser without my having to mess with it while my 5-year old is hanging over my shoulder saying “Daddy, when’s the computer going to be fixed?” for the umpteenth time. Understand? It’s for the children!
Another example: When I download a game for the kids, and it successfully installs, why doesn’t it automatically show up in the Games menu? Why should I have to figure out how to add things to the menu, and then when I read the instructions the icon for the game isn’t there to add it? And why does this happen with some games and not others? (True story.)
So to sum up, I like the idea of Linux. I like using Linux — when it works. I managed to make it work for me in my job as a professor for five years. But ultimately the problem is that Linux has a long way to go to simply work in all the situations where I need it to, and every time I use Linux I am reminded of why I switched. Until the “just works” factor improves with Linux — and to be fair, with Ubuntu, Linux has made some giant steps in the usability direction — I remain your faithful Mac fanboy, using all the OS power of Unix underneath a shiny, happy, Steve-Jobs-saturated veneer of OS X goodness.