Web Informant #263, 17 September 2001:
Why you should wait until next year to switch to Linux


My friend A. Lizard is still using Windows, but is getting ready to switch to Linux. Here is his report.

I had to reboot W98SE three times today. I probably waste 30 minutes a day in machine crashes and trying to tweak the machine using internal Windows configuration tools and third party utilities like System Mechanic. But I don't plan on doing this forever: next year I am switching to Linux.

I predict that within the next year or so, active developer support for the Windows 95/98 applications will fade. The ability to use my current apps will be marginal at best, and the DOS apps I still use are doomed when I switch platforms, no matter what I switch to.

Since I have an AMD Wintel PC, my options are to move to Windows 2000 or XP, or choose one of the Unix versions such as Linux or BSD. I choose Unix for two major reasons: avoiding the Microsoft "tax" and improved security. Let me explain further.

The Microsoft "Tax" has several different dimensions, both in terms of my time and money. Newer versions of Windows require newer hardware to run it on with acceptable performance and similar application response times. I am tired of paying to upgrade my machine to run newer versions of Windows on more expensive and faster hardware, when my keyboard is barely beginning to show some signs of wear and tear. In a Unix environment, my two-year-old K6-2/400, 128M PC is a powerful and useful computer. In a Windows XP environment, my computer is obsolescent junk.

Another part of the tax is the time wasted in eliminating superfluous and dangerous Windows components. One of the most time-consuming parts about installing W98SE was figuring out what to turn off, how and why. Staying with Windows means I can expect to spend more time finding and turning off services I regard either as unnecessary or actively dangerous.

Dangerous? Yes. The reasons for not trusting Active-X and various other Windows Scripting elements are rather well known. While these *can* be turned off, it is another annoyance. The fun part of this is one has to find them first, before others exploit them to take over your machine. This frequently requires third-party utilities. I have better uses for my time.

Then of course there is the time wasted in installing software that should have been part of the operating system to begin with, such as Java support that was removed from Windows XP. While I can download Java separately, this is not a security approach I can be comfortable with. Telling me I can't do things because novice users can't do them safely isn't a good way to get my business.

But wait, there is more. Part of the tax includes following the new and invasive activation model when you purchase a new copy of Windows XP, Office XP, and numerous other Microsoft applications. I object to this activation on several grounds, including telling Microsoft what is inside my machine (however it may or may not be encoded), having to worry about what happens to my operating system when I upgrade various components, and having to re-activate if I have to swap out one of my hard drives. (I lost a drive last year, and even without activation issues it still took the better part of two weeks to restore everything.)

Speaking of which, there is the time wasted dealing with the "image" or system restore disks when disaster strikes. An OEM can legally package with a Windows 2000 machine this hobbled piece of junk that substitutes for the real operating system CD. If you changed anything on your machine, this image may not work properly. You may lose everything on that machine, or lose at least several hours trying to get things working. This means if I want to fix my machine, I get to buy a SECOND copy of Windows 2000 regardless of the fact that I bought a Windows license as part of the computer's purchase price.

But the Microsoft tax isn't the only thing bothering me. There are also product security issues. My NDA stuff is as important to me as Microsoft's intellectual property is important to Microsoft. Too bad that Microsoft is demonstrably incompetent at protecting its own intellectual property through technological means. I don't find it reasonable to expect them to do a better job of protecting my intellectual property or the internal operations of my workstation from outside attack. Every copy of SirCam I got came from an Outlook Express user. The reason why Outlook Express is the script kiddie playground of choice is because IT'S EASY TO WRITE EXPLOITS.

I have no confidence that Microsoft has any clue about security, either for itself or end users.

I agree that Microsoft has a right to protect its intellectual property. Of course, if I find that the means they choose to do so are inconvenient and intrusive, I have the right to take my business somewhere else. Now, with the growth of open source operating systems, this is finally becoming a viable option.

So I am looking at moving to Unix. It is certainly stable. Servers running Linux and other various Unix operating systems have stayed up for *years* in production environments without need for a reboot. When an application crashes, it generally doesn't take anything else down with it. While Windows is steadily improving in this area, it will be a long time, if ever, before it can compete with any of the Unix versions. I can also make major configuration changes without the rebooting Windows requires.

These factors mean that I can expect to spend a lot less unproductive time on system maintenance.

And when it comes to security, Unix can run rings around Windows. Linux and its applications are not the platform of choice for hackers. Linux viruses are *very* rare. The majority of exploits relate to servers. Applications generally don't run with "root" level privileges, generally limiting the damage malware *can* do. Some security-specialized distributions do a better job with this than others. My first candidates for installation are Trustix, Bastille, and possibly NSA (yes, as in National Security Agency) flavors of Linux and OpenBSD.

But any version of Unix isn't quite ready yet, which is why I am going to wait another year before making the switch. I deal with magazine editors and with potential investors. I MUST be able to read from Microsoft Office and I MUST be able to write Office-compatible documents with the confidence that they will work correctly on the machine of a non-tech user.

Truthfully, I don't expect more than say, 95-97% compatibility. What I basically expect is that basic text formatting and fonts show up on the receiver's system identically to the way it appeared on the sender's, assuming the writer chooses fonts that are compatible with what's on the receiver's system. I expect embedded bit-mapped pictures to show up where I put them and in the size I chose. I don't expect 100% compatibility because even Microsoft Word doesn't manage this completely between Mac and Windows versions of that program. I don't want Word macro support for security reasons.

This level of performance is not available in any of the Linux office suites. Since your needs may differ from mine, one may work for you.

    1. http://www.koffice.org/

              The other things I'd like to see a year from now when I install Unix are more business, graphics, CAD, and ECAD applications written for that platform, and improved user-friendliness in the installation and upgrade process.

              Here is a link to an article on how an individual business user managed his Windows to Linux transition. It also supports my conclusion that Linux isn't currently ready to allow Windows users to switch with no loss of functionality.

              I am planning to switch to Unix a year from today. I'm switching whether or not I can get everything I want. I expect VERY substantial progress in a year. I think I will be able to live happily with the results.

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