Tuesday, December 7, 2021

From Linux to Windows and Back

What does it mean to use Linux and how is the user experience better than in Windows, here is a personal narrative of a user who sides with the former and tells us exactly why.

Perhaps I could write about this as a journey from living in India to living in America and back. Though it is a little different from that, there is also something that is the same. 

I have used Linux since 1998. I had moved to it for several reasons. The Windows I used before it was buggy and kept hanging. It was expensive, too, and I didn’t have the money to buy a legal copy. Linux was free and was built and shared by volunteers. I loved that, the idea that one should work for helping others, not for money. I found the spirit of community in Linux bracing. The slogan was it’s free – as in beer – you give your friends a free beer and eventually you’ll get a free beer back too. I’ve done everything on Linux since then. I haven’t found a real need to use anything on Windows for more than a decade. Everything I needed to do, I found a way of doing it in Linux.

Then a few days ago I began to think of using Windows again. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it is this Covid thing. One feels more and more frustrated and tied down. That feeling finds different pegs to express itself upon. I felt fed up with my Linux version of Zoom, I couldn’t see my students most of the time. I felt irritated with my Linux version of Microsoft Teams, I could see only four faces of my colleagues at a time (on the rare occasions that they switched on their cameras). I couldn’t scan from my mother’s all-in-one printer-cum-scanner. I couldn’t buy a new printer-cum-scanner because the new ones weren’t supported in Linux either. 

Maybe Windows would be better. I would be able to see more people, use more devices, feel happier and the sky would be blue again. So I got my university’s ever-helpful IT folks to install Windows and MS Office on my laptop. That was two days ago. And today I am back to Linux.

Why? Well, yes it is true that lots of devices work better with Windows, especially the newest ones. The apple of my eye, the stylus my university gave me to write on a whiteboard during online classes, directly converts my handwriting into computer text on Microsoft OneNote. More features of my mother’s printer-scanner work now. Even the sound on YouTube is better. The sound hardware company Realtek has special device drivers for sound under Windows. Nothing like that for Linux. I can hear it fine there, to be sure, but there is an extra oomph in my headphones under Windows. 

The other side is that Windows grabs you with a bear hug. It takes much more space on my hard disk. It eats up a huge amount of RAM. Opening programs takes longer than on my Linux installation. And sometimes they still don’t work. I opened a complicated file made on a previous version of MS Word in the latest MS Word on my laptop. It froze. I tried again, it froze again. Then I tried it on the open source LibreOffice which I had been using on Linux. It sprang onto my screen in a fraction of a second. 

Starting and closing Windows can be a pain. It wants to install updates again and again. Even otherwise it takes a long time for my desktop to be usable. And then everything is slower than on Linux. Mine is a relatively new laptop. But this must be torture on an older machine, I thought.

Windows is a superb thing, no doubt about it. It is stable and it is well integrated. There are a great many programs available in it which add to and enhance your work. But I’m back to Linux. It’s small, it’s fast and it does everything I really need it to do. 

What about the things it cannot do? With a bit of extra effort on my side I can achieve those things all the same. I can still write with the stylus and convert it to computer text (I use Xournal and pass it through Google Lens), my printer works. I write articles, edit images and videos, surf the net, send emails, do statistical analyses, do qualitative analysis, etc. For some things it takes a little more doing than Windows, that’s all.

The most important thing, however, is that with Linux I stand by some people whose values I really like. These are people who collaborate and work together on incredibly complex things. They demonstrate that it is possible to be a highly sophisticated society without needing corporations and the state to do things for us. They put up their produce for everyone to share. Anyone can use their programs and even edit and improve upon them. Their programs make it possible for poor students and many others to be able to use a computer without being called a thief. How many people can shell out an extra 8000 rupees over and above the cost of a laptop for the price of Windows and MS Office?  Linux is what we, the people who make up most of the world, can use instead. 

I felt today this was like the choice between working and living in developed countries and staying on in India. Things over there work smoothly – the ambulance comes on time and so does the police – and that’s a great blessing. But I stay on in India. Things are simpler here and more basic. They are more chaotic, certainly, and there are many challenges. But people are working here to improve life for the weak and for strengthening those who are on the losing side in the game of power. If these people leave, then who will be left to be on the side of those who struggle to get even the basic necessities of life.

We know quite well that technologies have emotions and values embedded in them. For those who want more facilities and lots of bells and whistles, I recommend Windows. Why that, I recommend they go the whole hog and get a Mac. But for those who are willing to accept a bit of hardship so as to do what is right, I recommend Linux. When we use Linux we will be part of a collective effort to provide technology to people which does not deny most of the world access to it. We will have something sophisticated but simple and which can work well on less powerful hardware.

We will also feel the moral dimensions of using it. When I pay for Windows that is the end of the matter. But when I use Linux I feel indebted to all those worked on it. So many people have put up their labour for the world to use without any legal coercion to pay them. This is what anthropologists like Marcel Mauss call “a gift.” I must now return their gift by doing something else for my world. Such are the relationships I would prefer to be part of. I stay with Linux.

Professor Amman Madan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India.


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