Three-week Ubuntu Experiment – Migrating to Open-Source

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This past spring I made an attempt to move myself out of the shackles of the commercial software world and truly embrace open-source. I tried to move my primary machine off Windows 7, and onto Ubuntu Linux. I knew the transition wouldn't be seamless but I'd heard so many good things about living in a Linux universe that I decided it was time.

The experiment did not go as well as I might have hoped, and despite my efforts to stick with it for some time, I eventually had to cut the experiment short. As I was preparing to re-image my system I started a blog post which I decided not to post at the time. I've included a short excerpt which shows my state of mind back in May, just after the experiment concluded.

I told myself I was going to stick it out for at least 3 months. But here I sit, not 3 weeks after making the decision to migrate my primary machine to Ubuntu, with the Windows 7 installation disk in hand. What could possibly have brought me to this point? Primarily, time.

It's going to take me about 8 hours of work to prep all the data on my system for the transition, wipe the linux partition, re-install windows, re-install the applications, re-install VMWare, re-install my Linux VMs (I do still have a use for them!). The problem is, things on linux generally have taken longer than they should. Some of this is due to the fact that I'm learning, and I've tried to ignore those. Others are generally due to the fit and finish of Ubuntu.

So what went wrong?

Problem #1 - 10.10 or 11.04?

I generally resist the temptation to move to the latest OS release, but when I tried setting up a Windows VM under VirtualBox in Ubuntu 10.10 the audio was mucked up. It seemed a bit slow too, but that may have been my imagination. So I tried installing the newly minted 11.04. The VM now worked like a charm, but that was a long multi-step process.

Problem #2 - Virtualization

Trying to set up a virtual machine that would start up at boot time (like a Windows service or any number of linux daemons) proved a nearly impossible task. After several hours of searching, tweaking, testing, and ultimately failing, I decided to abandon the effort and live with manually starting my VMs.

Problem #3 - File Sharing

Setting up network shares was probably one of the better experiences I had. I was able to set up a "public" share on the linux machine and access it from anywhere on the network... as long as I didn't want to protect it with a username and password. That was going to require more voodoo and black magic than I was prepared to endure for such a simple task. Overall, not a bad experience.

Problem #4 - Flash in Browsers

Like it or not Flash is still an integral part of the web, and Flash in the browser was just one of those things that never quite worked right. When I talk about fit and finish of a product, this is what I mean. Blocky artifacts showing up on video players was the most common issue, though there were other things like playback and audio problems as well.

Problem #5 - Lack of Air Support

The fact that I felt compelled to write a blog post calling attention to a tutorial for getting Adobe Air installed under Ubuntu 11.04 speaks to just how difficult this didn't need to be. On any other major platform, you can go to a website and simply click the install button. The rest is automatic. Not here though.

Problem #6 - Button Clicks

I constantly had problems just clicking on buttons. Sometimes in an application (Chromium comes to mind) but sometimes just within the Ubuntu environment itself. This kind of thing makes you start to question the faith you have in your OS.

Problem #7 - Learning Curve

I suppose it's a bit unfair to put this here as it's undoubtedly the same issue that would come up moving between any two major operating systems. The bottom line is that I have a young family with whom I like to spend the majority of my day. That means that when I decide to sit down at the computer to do something, I don't really have the time to spend learning how to do things all over again.

There were a few things that were also pleasant surprises during this whole thing. Mostly to do with 3rd party applications.

CrashPlan support

CrashPlan was able to seamlessly match up my Windows backup to the Linux file system. This made it very easy to move everything over. I just hope it works as well in reverse.

AcidRip

Digitizing DVDs has never been easier. It took a couple of tries to get the quality settings just where I wanted them, but the process worked out really well.

Shell

I love the *nix shell, Bash in particular. This is the one thing I will truly miss when I move back to Windows. Having commands like rsync at my disposal, and built in SSH support are also fantastic. While this is something that has to be hacked into a Windows installation, it is available by default on OS X.

In summary...

The availability of good software to do most tasks is one of the key benefits of moving to an open source experience, but the truth is that the experience really didn't live up to my hopes or my expectations. I'm getting to the point where I want my computing time to be spent creating, not just experimenting with different ways that I could set up my tool sets. And as time moves on, the number of free or open-source applications available on the major commercial platforms like Windows and OS X is growing. Once either of those operating systems is installed I can do everything I want to do without having to pay a license for another piece of software -- and in many cases the applications are as good or better than the open-source tools available for the Linux platforms. Add to that the growing number of applications which reside in the cloud and are completely browser and platform agnostic and it starts to become a simple equation for me.

Is it worth the $150 or so that it costs to get my new computer preloaded with a commercial OS? Yes.