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After 20 Years, Windows No More (mostly)

July 12, 2010 Leave a comment

“In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Windows anymore…”

Last month, after running my ThinkPad X61 as a dual-boot Windows/Linux (Ubuntu) laptop for 14 months, I finally wiped Windows off of my hard drive and opened up 160 GB of space. I had kept the Windows XP boot option there as a safety since the beginning, but after not using it for several months I decided I no longer needed the crutch.

I’m by no means a revolutionary as many others have done this, but as with my move to Google Apps (detailed here), the shift is very telling, especially for the small business community (which I’m a member of). In the new world, especially where much of one’s transactional life happens in a web browser, one fundamentally doesn’t need Microsoft Windows anymore. That’s a big deal, especially in a time where a recent decision to put Windows 7 Ultimate Edition (64 bit) on one of our laptops cost my business $258.99. Obviously there’s more to this than money, including the ability to run on a wide variety of hardware (including old seemingly out of date computers) and stability (e.g. no blue screens, viruses or spyware).

A Little Detail and Some Back Story
I started the Linux thing purely as an experiment. The whole idea that there was a very large community of people collaborating on excellent free software was always very intriguing to me. I was also attracted to the idea of technology that could easily run on low-end hardware and was free of licensing restrictions. In 2004 or so I took an old desktop PC and installed whatever the “easy to use” flavor of the Linux-day. In spite of my comfort with PCs, I was immediately confused and disoriented. I quickly gave up.

Last year, after doing lots of homework I went at this very step wise and methodically. One of the engineers who worked for me talked up Ubuntu and I felt compelled to try again. I first built a home server for storing my music and our family’s backup files. Nothing special. I bought some very cheap hardware off of NewEgg.com, salvaged an old hard drive, and installed the operating system on a cheap compact flash card (same kind as you’d use in a camera).

This first go round was not in the least bit difficult, but it was still strictly hobbiest stuff. Still I was successful enough at the process that I decided to go after my day-to-day computer.

Linux had evolved significantly by my second go round, so by the time I built my home-brew server I was able to install it easily, and the system was immediately familiar and usable to me. Today that home-brew server not only streams my music collection throughout the house, it is also a backup device for my wife (Windows 7) and my daughter (XP), and acts as a print server for our household color printer. Not bad for a very low powered system that cost less than $200.

Not Ready for the Deep Dive
When it came time to my day-to-day computer, I wasn’t ready for the deep dive immediately, so started my transition by installing an Ubuntu variant called Wubi. Wubi lives completely inside of your Windows install, and doesn’t require uninstalling anything or making a commitment—a perfect try before you buy scenario. You keep Windows as is, but have a choice at boot time whether to launch Ubuntu or Windows. It doesn’t allow you run both at the same time like other virtualization schemes (more about that later), but it’s a remarkable piece of practical engineering that allows you to play around like it’s the real thing. Don’t like it? Very easy to uninstall it without a trace.

After about a month I was ready to make a bigger move and installed Ubuntu side by side with Windows XP (I’d abandoned Vista a few months before because of very serious bugs I was running into, and Windows 7 was not yet available). The stock Ubuntu installer does a nice job of separating church and state and soon enough I was able to choose whether I wanted Windows or Ubuntu upon boot. I  created an NTFS  partition (standard Windows file format) that could share my working data between the operating systems (documents, images, music, etc…), and soon I was living in Ubuntu most of the time.

I admit it, I use Crossover and VirtualBox, but I’ve found lots of good non-Windows software I like
Let me admit a few things. As much as I’ve tried to embrace the open source OpenOffice for day-to-day word processing and business chores, I don’t love it and still use Microsoft’s Office 2007 (which understandably doesn’t have a Linux version). I bit the bullet a few months back and purchased Codeweaver’s Crossover, an application layer that allows you to run regular Windows programs in Linux (also on Apple computers). While it is possible to run Microsoft Office in Linux without Crossover using the free Wine, Crossover takes away a lot of the headache of doing this. I do find myself running Microsoft Office less and less and using the OS agnostic Google Docs instead, but Google’s office apps are still incomplete so it’s nice to have standard Word and Excel available when needed.

My business does customer support work that requires us logging into customer sites using a variety of VPN protocols, not all of which play well together on the same computer. Also, many of the applications we support are Windows-based, so having a Windows-capable environment is necessary for me a few times a week. To handle Windows when I need it, I’ve turned to Oracle’s free VirtualBox which runs nicely inside of Ubuntu and gives me Windows on demand.

XP (or whatever Windows is your preference) runs really nicely inside of VirtualBox and can run any Windows application natively. I end up using VirtualBox for GoToMeeting and a handful of odd ball scenarios where I need Windows (like websites that only run on Internet Explorer).

What About those Trusted Applications?
Like most computer users I’ve come to rely on some trusted niche applications that I needed to find equivalents of in Ubuntu/Linux land. More than a year into this process, I can tell you that a die-hard Windows guy like I used to be can get along just fine with a little bit of fishing around. There are some amazing folks out there writing open source applications and you’d be surprised at how evolved some of the offerings are.

Here’s a short list of some of the applications I use on a day-to-day basis:

Category Linux App Replaced Windows app Comments
Web Form Filler LastPass (also works in Windows) Roboform I was so reliant on Roboform that I simply could not jump to Linux without a good form filler, password management utility. LastPass gives Roboform a run for the money and then some, especially since it’s completely browser based and will run across platforms.
Screen Capture Shutter Snagit SnagIt is one of those incredible utilities that you become dependent on quickly. Shutter is not as good as SnagIt but pretty darn good (and getting better).
Document Capture/Scanning gscan2pdf Adobe Acrobat Professional You can clearly live without Acrobat Professional (or Standard) in Windows, but if you do a lot of work with documents, it’s nice to have the real deal. On Ubuntu one can put together a variety of programs that take care of the things that you would do in Acrobat. I use Gscan2PDF to scan receipts and just about anything that I need to digitize. It’s simple, fast, and works like a charm at what it does.
PDF Manipulation PDF Shuffler Adobe Acrobat Professional As with Gscan2PDF, PDF Shuffler is a bit of a one trick pony. I use it to rearrange PDF pages, and also put together separate PDFs into one document.
PDF Manipulation/Editing Foxit PDF Editor + Wine PDF Editor FoxIt makes a great PDF editing program for Windows that allows you manipulate PDFs after the fact. There are some rough Linux equivalents, but nothing close to Foxit. Turns out that their PDF Editor works fine under Wine.
Folder Backup/Sync Grsync SyncBackSE I started replicating “My Documents” under XP years ago with SyncBack. A great little utility (there’s a free version too), I would schedule backing up my data nightly to an external drive (or network drive). Many folks do this via the native Linxu tool rsync. Grsync adds a graphical front-end. Not as fully featured as SyncBack, but does a good job nonetheless.
Ghost/Hard Drive Replicatioin Clonezilla Macrium Reflect and/or Ghost Clonezilla is not a pretty application, but it is very effective and have found that I can get by using many of the defaults. Several folks have written good instructions which can be easily be found via Google searches.
Digital Audio Conversion/Manipulation SoundJuicer + SoundConverter dbPowerAmp Nothing comes close to dbPowerAmp’s Swiss Army knife set of tools for Windows audio. I’ve found that it runs very well under Wine. That said, I mostly use the native Gnome apps Sound Juicer and Sound Converter.
Cleanup/Optimization BleachBit CCleaner They say this is not necessary in Linux, but BleachBit is the equivalent of CCleaner and cleans up artifacts of old programs and “crap” that your browser accumulate.

Should I Jump?
As much as I would like to say so, Ubuntu (or Linux) is not for everyone. It it a really viable option for a lot of people? I think so.

Unless you are extremely motivated to learn yourself, I think a key in making the jump is having someone who you can call on for support. I mostly didn’t have someone, but I was interested in learning and used online resources. For the motivated, there are several great blogs and forums that can help and  the Absolute Beginner area at Ubuntu Forums is incredible place to start. I also have learned a lot from the following blogs: OMG! Ubuntu, WorksWithU, Tombuntu, and UbuntuGeek. You’d be amazed at the generosity of the community, especially towards newbies.

Oddly enough, I think one real stumbling point for consumer adoption is the iPod or iPhone. Since I’m not an iTouch, iPhone, or iPod user, this was not an issue for me, but for many of the folks I know, this would be an issue.

A couple of months back I chronicled my 12-year old daughter’s Windows malware meltdown. For a few days while I worked through getting her computer usable again, daughter used my Netbook, configured with Linux Mint (a variant of Ubuntu). She actually rather liked it and was quite open to giving up on Windows. What held me back, was that she is a regular iPod user, who uses iTunes to purchase and manage her music collection. While there are ways to get iTunes to run in Linux, I wasn’t looking forward to being her personal tech support slave.

Yes, the new version of Ubuntu can easily sync iPods (and other Apple devices), and there are several good music management apps like iTunes (the current version of Banshee integrates nicely with Amazon’s mp3 store); however, if one has older DRM tunes purchased through the iTunes store, reconciling all of this can be an ugly process. In the next 6-12 months I see this situation continuing to improve as Apple is beginning to have some serious competition in the online music purchasing business. Could we have just run out and bought her a Mac? Perhaps, but the stumbling block is cost, and of course openness.

For the small business owner? it really comes down to who will support you… if you have a great support vendor, or internal resources, this is a great direction, especially if your core business applications can be done in the cloud.

Are you someone who’s made the jump? or are you sticking to Windows 7? or are a Mac user who thinks Ubuntu is blatant rip off? Feel free to leave a comment.

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