Time for a Change

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

I don’t usually like to advocate for particular products or technologies. There’s no shame whatsoever in having an opinion and – in this space – it’s my job. But there’s a difference between arguing for a particular approach to something and arguing for a particular thing.

It’s time to make an exception.

The Linux operating system has a well-earned reputation as the software of choice for uber-hackers and propellor-heads the world over. That’s because it is. It runs the majority of the world’s servers right now, from giant supercomputing clusters to Google to the Dow Jones stock exchange.

So what, exactly, is this Linux thing? At its core, it’s a suite of very basic utilities that allow a computer to run. Because it’s so easy to configure and customise, it runs on everything from supercomputers to your wireless router. Google’s new Android mobile phones are built on it, as are many of Nokia’s.

Nearly two decades after it took its first faltering steps, I can say with some assurance that Linux is good enough, easy enough and – this is important – safe enough for you to pick it up and use it without really breaking a sweat.

Linux has been poised on the verge of a breakthrough for years. It had smashingly cool graphics, ran better on typical hardware, and supported more general purpose hardware than virtually any other system. It’s always been free of charge – one company will actually ship you CDs at their own expense – and it’s relatively easy to learn.

But (you knew there was a ‘but’): For all the appeal of its bits and pieces, there were always a few blemishes, mismatched parts and assorted loose ends. It didn’t support wireless perfectly; there weren’t any good financial apps; Windows didn’t always play nice with it; documents written in one system were subtly but noticeably different on the other.

None of these problems were insurmountable, but taken together they created just enough friction to stop casual users from using it.

This year, things have changed. Windows 7 is just out and with its arrival come the first death knells of Windows XP – for most people in Vanuatu, the only operating system they’ve ever known.

Windows 7 is much improved, but it’s new. Given the intense pushback that Windows Vista has received locally (virtually everyone hates it), there’s a good deal of resistance to moving to a new interface. Pretty soon, though, you won’t have a choice.

You will, however, get to choose which one you want. By every metric, Ubuntu Linux wins over Windows 7. It runs better on all hardware. It’s much prettier and better laid out. Looking for graphics software? Rather than having to remember that it’s called PseudoLogic Superbad 3D Render Graphic Pro Deluxe Edition Starter Pack, you just go to… the Graphics Menu.

There’s a ton of eye candy too. Let me assure you, a pleasant presentation matters a lot. Rather than a clutter of icons all jammed up together into a tiny corner of your screen, each of them screaming for your attention, you have a simple, clean theme whose elements cooperate rather than compete. It’s as delightful as reading in a quiet room.

Better still, you can have your cake and eat it too. XP installs and runs just fine inside the system, in something called a virtual machine. If you only need one or two Windows apps, you can install them individually, too. I’m writing this column on Word right now. It looks and behaves exactly as it does under Windows.

Linux is safe. You will not get any viruses. All of the software available for it is collected in one place. The system I use has 2174 packages including games, education, Internet and multimedia software. They’re free, not pirated, and can be downloaded from a single, safe source with a click.

Linux is professionally supported. When I asked them, CNS, Computer World, Datec, ITWorks and SPIM all indicated that they could provide technical support for your Linux system. (Daltron didn’t get the chance to reply before publication.)

All of this is to say there are no obstacles to moving to Linux. But what compelling reason is there to move? Just one: Your children.

Top to bottom, Linux is based on a philosophy of community, exploration and learning, equality and respect. It is open to investigation and improvement virtually without limitation. You can encourage your children to explore a computing environment that’s safer, more open and largely free of charge.

Whether your child is a geek or not, there is no more powerful learning tool currently available to families in Vanuatu than a Linux computer with an Internet connection.

How to get started? Ask your local geek for a copy of Ubuntu Linux on a CD or a USB stick. Most everyone has one these days. Boot the computer from that, and see how you like it. If you find it’s not for you, no problem. Just reboot and everything will be as it was before.

(By the way, did I mention that it’s so versatile you can actually carry around your own system on a USB stick? It’s a great way to protect yourself from viruses when you use someone else’s computer. Just boot from your USB stick, and you’re in your own private workspace.)

If Windows is all you know, you’ll want a little hand-holding at first, much as you would with a Mac. But really, everything is where it should be. You can cut and paste, switch between documents, log in and out almost exactly as you would with XP.

Safer, simpler, less costly and more rewarding: That’s Linux in a nutshell. It’s compatible with what you have today, and with tomorrow’s tech as well. Linux is simply better than what you have. Isn’t it time you made the change?