year of the linux desktop
about a year ago, on a similarly unremarkable January morning, I turned on my computer. knowing it would take about five minutes to boot up, I went downstairs to make a coffee. after logging in I spent another five minutes thinking, staring, pouring my coffee, waiting for my computer to become responsive and actually let me check my emails, read an article, play a game, chat to a friend or do practically anything else I would want to do on a daily basis.
this seeming irritation had become completely routine to me, as I think it has for many people. I didn't really see it as something I could change, besides perhaps buying a new computer. after all, it was 9 years old at this point, and the recent mitigations for the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities actually had made most people's computers measurably slower, mine included.
that day I read that Windows 7, my operating system, was to reach end-of-life in a year's time. continuing to run it after that point would mean being more vulnerable to malware, and perhaps being blocked from online banking and other things; I could only be complacent about the situation for so long.
I began to consider my options.
I could move to Windows 8- but I'd already experienced it on my laptop and disliked the confusing tablet-style interface, and doing so would only delay the inevitable; Windows 8.1 would reach end-of-life a mere 3 years later.
I could move to Windows 10- in fact, when it was offered as a free upgrade to Windows 7 users, I had been in the queue for it until I started hearing that Windows 10 would log your keystrokes and mine your data and send it to Microsoft. panicked, I jumped through the necessary hoops to cancel the upgrade. to this day I'm not entirely sure how bad Windows 10's 'telemetry' is, but the simple fact is that I will never be able to trust it. besides, I've seen how it will serve adverts, surreptitiously install software and lock a computer down for lengthy updates several times a week with absolutely no warning or consent.
I could buy a Mac- pffffhahahahahahahahahaha fuck no
so what's left?
I had some experience with Linux before; in 2005, when Ubuntu was all the rage, I had installed it and quite liked it, but gave up on it due to a lack of music production software and games. in 2016 I had installed Linux Mint on a junky laptop to use as a TV media centre- it played videos, DVDs and YouTube just fine, but what about all my other needs?
I had my doubts, but I also knew that I could just put a Linux distribution on a USB stick and try it out without any commitment. immediately curious again, I did some research but settled on the familiar Linux Mint and wrote it to a spare USB stick. upon booting from USB, I was immediately impressed by how much faster it started up and how much more responsive it was. at this point I remembered I had a spare hard disk in my computer- why not install it there and have it as an option every time I start the computer, even if I stick with Windows most of the time?
as it turned out, I only ever booted back into Windows three or four more times. whatever Windows offered didn't seem worth waiting ten minutes for. I installed Steam and was shocked to find that half of my games were supported- then I was shocked again when I discovered a setting that would allow me to play most of the remaining ones. basically all the software I used on a daily basis was still available. I imported my music library, my documents, my passwords. I set up everything how I wanted and it never felt like the computer was fighting me. it wasn't long before my computer felt like home again.
I don't want to imply that everything has been smooth sailing; the lack of compatibility with my familiar audio production and DJ software is a problem, but I still have Windows 8.1 installed on my laptop for DJing (and nothing else!) and I've been able to make music in Milkytracker and Bitwig, even if it's not what I'm used to. My audio interface works but is not well supported- not all of the inputs are available in my recording software. one or two of my favourite games are not currently playable on Steam. videos on Twitter on Firefox have no audio for some reason. broadly though, the positively vastly outweigh the negatives. it's easy to get used to the new normal and forget that my computer is now faster, more responsive and more stable!
I'm also not naïve enough to suggest that Linux is for everyone- some people may have hardware that's not supported (very new motherboards, odd peripherals, some printers) or require some very specific software that's not supported (some business software, some newer games, the latest and greatest versions of Office and Photoshop, etc.) or simply dislike the experience as a whole. but if the only investment is a USB stick and an open mind, I think it's worth a try. if you're at all interested in moving away from the expensive walled gardens of Office and Adobe, free software alternatives such as LibreOffice and Krita are also available for Windows and Mac- so why not give them a go?
I'm incredibly pleased that my computer feels like new even though it's a decade old. far too often we find excuses to throw gadgets away and it's often unnecessary. I don't want to imply that keeping old hardware running is 100% “green”– an older computer is less energy-efficient for example- but modern computers are being used to run increasingly inefficient software anyway, and the environmental cost of manufacturing new hardware is not trivial either.
I feel there's a class antagonism going on with tech's increasingly short upgrade cycle and the pervasiveness of planned obsolescence. be a first-class citizen and buy a brand new £2500 Macbook Pro every couple of years. be a second-class citizen and buy a brand new £300 Windows laptop every few years when creeping unnecessary Windows updates render your computer too sluggish to deal with. be a third-class citizen and struggle on with an “obsolete” computer, risking threats such as ransomware and identity theft. and let's not forget those who have no internet access and struggle to access necessary services. one of the things we can do to help each other under late capitalism is to fix each other's tech if we're able!
one year ago, a friend joked to me “2019 is the year of the linux desktop”. at the time I didn't know this was a running joke – poking fun at Linux's continued inability to gain market share for over 25 years – but for me it rang true. if that makes me the butt of a joke, that's fine by me- I'm still smiling.