Free and open source desktops are great, but they aren’t exactly popular. Many people don’t know they exist, and among those that do, many still also use commercial operating systems. Even among my fellow Linux writers here at MakeUseOf, only a couple of us exclusively use Linux at home.
I do, and I have done so for years. Linux has become the standard I compare other operating systems against. Right now, I see little reason to switch to something else. Aside from a three-year flirtation with Chromebooks, I’ve been running Linux exclusively for the better part of a decade. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Because I Can
I’m not saying this out of spite, or to be snarky. I just want to make it clear up front that if you want to do all of your computing from Linux, you can. Linux is no longer just a place for programmers with deep technical knowledge of how machines work. I may know how to type a few commands into the terminal, but I rarely have to. The Linux operating system I currently use is about as hard to figure out as a Chromebook.
Free software works. Day in and day out, I get online, check email, write, import photos from my camera, listen to podcasts, and play music without much problem. Sure, I encounter the occasional bug, but that has always happened regardless of which operating system I used. Linux does what I need, and I see little reason to switch to something else.
2. Linux Is Free
In our times, using computers has become a prerequisite at school and work. My parents bought me my first computer when I was in middle school. It was an old laptop with a dead battery and a dial-up modem.
I didn’t have expensive programs such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. My computer ran Windows, but if it weren’t for free software like OpenOffice, I wouldn’t have been able to do my school assignments at home. When my Windows installation died in college, I was able to get the computer back up and running for free by installing Linux.
While I was hooking up my old Dell to a phone jack, my wife, whom I wouldn’t meet for several years, had an Apple iBook. Her school provided them for free, and they connected wirelessly to broadband at home and at school. This was in addition to the other computers her family already had. Whether you have access to computers, software, and reliable internet is largely a fluke of where you were born and the resources available to you. With so much of school and work reliant on these technologies, that puts many of us at an inherent disadvantage.
The cost of computers has gone down over the past decade. With Google and Chromebooks, you don’t need much money at all to be able to get work done. But Google makes free and low-cost products because its real profits come from ads. The company tracks us and monetizes our information. I don’t feel comfortable with a situation where people with means can afford privacy, but more cash-strapped folks can’t.
Linux makes computing available in a way that is affordable. Software is free out of principle, giving people the tools they need to take part in modern society. Unfortunately Linux isn’t widely known or accessible to the average person. That’s part of why I do what I do here at MakeUseOf, to help people utilize tools that — while not necessarily the best — are available to anyone. I don’t care if people view Linux as better than Windows or Mac. I just want them to know it’s a usable option.
3. I Feel Respected
Commercial software is treated as a product. Someone makes the good, and we buy it. If we don’t like how the product works, we’re welcome to buy something else. Simple.
Except it’s not.
Software isn’t like physical goods. An application may look like a product, but it’s really a bundle of code. It’s writing. It’s text that can say and do anything. Without the ability to see what text is written, we have no idea what an application is actually doing. That means we don’t know what we’re buying. We don’t know what’s getting installed on our computers. We don’t know what’s really being tracked.
Developers who create free and open source software give us the courtesy of showing exactly what goes into an application. We know what we’re getting. Not only that, we can do with the software whatever we want. That, to me, feels like true ownership.
Commercial software comes with all sorts of restrictions. You may not be allowed to share a copy with a friend or install a program on both your laptop and your desktop. You can’t look under the hood the way you can with a car — you have to trust that nothing fishy is going on.
4. It’s All About Trust
“They’re tracking everything you do on those PCs. All of your information is being sold to other companies. Someone can hack those servers and steal all of your data.”
As a teenager familiar with email, social networks, and PCs in general, I used to view people who said these things as old and paranoid. Then I found out that they were right.
Entertainment media and the press do a decent job of making us concerned about hackers, but they aren’t as diligent about documenting the ways companies collect and manipulate our data for profit. If someone were physically intercepting all of our paper mail, making photocopies, and selling binders on each of us to whomever was interested, the law would be quick to intervene. When done online, we’re still having debates over whether this activity is that big a deal.
Windows 10 has made many people aware of just how much information Microsoft is collecting. The company has demonstrated how you just don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes in a proprietary operating system. But as outraged as some of us may be, we have no ability to make them stop. In the eyes of the law, they’re perfectly within their right to collect what they want, especially when users “consent” via a license agreement that no one reads.
In a marketplace, you vote with your dollars. I can’t tell Apple or Microsoft not to collect data on me and expose that information to others, but I can decide not to use their products. Going with a free and open source operating system lets me compute with more confidence that what I think isn’t being tracked actually isn’t being tracked, because there are many people out there checking the source code to make sure nothing suspicious is afoot.
5. You Can’t Miss What You Don’t Use
One of Linux’s most enduring criticisms is a lack of certain applications. Does it have software? Sure, Linux has plenty of great programs, and that number is steadily growing. But it doesn’t have much of the commercial programs that developers make exclusively available for Windows or Mac. Someone dependent on those apps will miss them when switching to another operating system.
For years, I have turned to LibreOffice whenever I need to type up a paper. It has consistently done whatever I need it to do. The last version of Microsoft Office I used was 2010, and it didn’t do anything that made free software alternatives less appealing. Has the situation changed since? I don’t know. You could say I’m missing out on something better by keeping myself willfully ignorant, but is something better if I cannot trust it?
Among technology writers, it’s common to want to try out all platforms so that we feel better able to speak with authority about which platforms are best at what. Ultimately, a lot of what we write still comes down to personal preference. I’m not here to make objective comparisons between platforms — I’m here to help you make use of Linux.
Being someone who makes a living entirely using free software helps me provide you with an idea of what Linux can do. I’m happy doing so, and I have little to gain trying out commercial software that I know isn’t available on the operating system that does what I need in a manner I can trust.
6. I Can Put Linux on All the Things!
To be clear, I don’t mean Linux can run on any computer. Trying to replace Windows on brand-new machines can be an exercise in frustration. Even if you succeed, many components won’t have drivers. The kind of bugs you encounter can drive you up the wall.
A bad experience is far less likely to happen on a slightly older machine, and it’s guaranteed not to happen on a computer that comes with Linux pre-installed. I know this, so those are the only kinds of computers I buy. If a computer is too old or slow to run the Linux desktop I want, I can switch to a different environment and still use a current version of Linux. I’m not left getting online with outdated, unsupported software like I would be using a computer running an ancient version of Windows or Mac.
Linux is flexible. Not only does it run on desktops and PCs, but it’s powering most of today’s smartphones. To be fair, Android hardly feels like Linux, but there are more open options you can install on certain phones.
That’s just scratching the surface. Linux can run on many exciting form factors. Just look at some of the cool things people are doing with Raspberry Pi’s and other tiny CPUs.
With Linux, there’s no End User License Agreement. I don’t promise some company that I will only use an installer to install one copy of Linux on one machine. There are no background services running to enforce this policy. There’s no legal threat of being considered a pirate. I can install Linux on as many devices as I want.
7. Linux Isn’t a Product
If I tell you to use Windows, I’m giving Microsoft free marketing. The same is true with Apple and Mac or Google and Chrome OS. I may be helping people do more on their computers, but I’m also helping these companies increase their stranglehold on the market. That leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I may write about tech, but I don’t do it to be a salesperson.
No one company owns Linux. Sure, using a certain version may benefit Canonical, but only indirectly. I could nudge you toward Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but you can get the same experience for free by installing CentOS. If Canonical or Red Hat were to disappear overnight, Linux would go on. Commercial operating system makers have built ecosystems around their core products. Linux is an ecosystem. It makes computing available in a way that no one organization or entity can control.
Linux isn’t entirely immune from the corrupting influence of corporate pressures, but it is far more insulated from them. This reduces the likelihood of manipulative practices such as vendor lock-in. That makes me feel much more comfortable using Linux and recommending it to others.
8. Dual-Booting Irks Me
Dual-booting isn’t hard to do. Installing Linux alongside Windows has been easy for well over a decade, assuming you have compatible hardware. If you can click checkboxes in an installer, you can dual-boot.
To me, the hassle comes from having to maintain two separate operating systems. Typically I’m going to develop a preference and spend all my time in one. Then, which I switch back to the other, everything is horrible out of date. The OS needs updates. The apps need updates. Updates for days.
If you find that you want to change how much space goes to each OS, that can be risky to adjust after the fact. Removing one OS isn’t entirely straightforward either.
Is dual-booting the ideal solution for some people? Absolutely. Some of my MakeUseOf colleagues are happy to have Windows and Linux installed on the same machine (or keep a copy on a USB stick). I’m just not a fan.
Should You Only Use Linux?
I’m not out to convince anyone that Linux is the best operating system out there. I think that’s a fruitless argument and one that, frankly, doesn’t matter to me. I use Linux because I’m free to do with the software what I want, use it however I need, share it with whomever I can, and compute reasonably confidently that the software I’m using isn’t doing something shady in the background (web browsers notwithstanding).
This is the way I feel computing should be. I can’t make all software transparent and openly accessible regardless of means, but I can personally embrace the software that is.
That said, Linux isn’t the only option. There are other free and open source operating systems that most of these reasons still apply to. Linux is simply the most supported, mainstream one.
Why do you use the operating system that you do? Have you paid a great deal for software? Do you mind? Have you ever had to do without software that you were expected to have?
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