Among the many things I’ve been in my life, “computer geek” is one of them. I’m not a professional anymore, in that I don’t do it for a living, but I’m still more than a little of a computer nerd. It’s been a part of “who I am” for 30 years now. Over the course of that time, I’ve used most of the operating systems, word processors, database and spreadsheet applications, web browsers, and other software packages that have come down the pike. Starting in the late ’90’s, I began to get a little bit of a luddite attitude towards much of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t still like computers, it was just some of the trends that were disgruntling. For example, I now had to buy an “office productivity suite,” when really all I wanted was just a word processor and a spreadsheet application. Even more, they usually came with a huge set of features, which for the most part I had no use for. There was also the Microsoft “tax” on computers, and the headaches of having all the extraneous stuff that Microsoft seems to feel you “want” when you buy their operating system.
Which was pretty much just something for me to gripe about for a while, until I entered the world of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). It turned out there were alternatives, and while not all of them were very good, some were very, very good. Right now, the blog post you’re reading was created by FOSS, and the site it’s residing on is running a FOSS package. I’m doing it using a computer running Ubuntu Linux 04.10 (Lucid Lynx), with Firefox as the web browser accessing WordPress. For “office productivity,” I can use OpenOffice, or if I just want to knock out a quick document, AbiWord. Want to play videos or music files? I have VLC, or Amarok for music. There’s a pretty wide selection of software, and it’s often better than the commercial varieties.
The really nice thing about the software, besides their functionality and cost? They’re cross-platform. I not only run them on my Linux set-up, I also run them on my Windows set-up. I don’t have to relearn every piece of software when I switch between operating systems, and the files I’m using on one system can be used on the other. I can even set up Ubuntu under Windows, and remove it using the “Add/Remove” functionality if I’d wanted to – they have thoughtfully provided a system called “Wubi” which does that for you, so if you want to try it, you can, without touching your Windows installation. If you’re really geeky, you can run Windows under Linux, using one of the virtualization programs.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much progress has been made over the past decade. 10 years ago I remember it taking a considerable amount of time and tinkering to get a Linux box up and working. Today, it takes me less than an hour to get everything going, and it mostly “just works.” A lot of the software was “clunky,” with spotty functionality and sometimes arcane instructions on installation and use. Today, I rarely have to worry about any of that, or complain about what isn’t there, or spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to install it and use it.
The best thing of all is that it’s free. Yes, there are “paid” versions, and you can purchase various things if you need to, but the basic stuff is all free for the download and use. I still do buy software and use Windows, because after all, I’m not a fanatic about it and I do need it for some things. But I am definitely in favor of Free and Open Source software, and for the most part it’s a great thing to try out.