Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Operating Systems – Mixing Closed and Open Source

Nowadays, I am a heavy user of Linux, but that was not always the case. My entry into computing was via macOS and Windows before I was exposed to UNIX during doctoral studies in Edinburgh. At the time, what I encountered felt like a comedown from what was offered by the others. My computing career has had a few false starts and this, along with encountering Fortran 77, was one that was overcome in the fullness of time.

There are a few reasons why those impressions of UNIX may not have been a fair impression. Low spending (or lack of funds) together with a lack of awareness of what was happening in personal computing at the time may have had their part to play too. They made for having archaic hardware and the user interfaces hardly were inspiring either. All this made the lure of PC technology all the stronger, perhaps slowing my academic progression as much as other distractions. In time, I made up for all that and gained my university degree.

As it happened, I was more accustomed to WYSIWYG and point-and-click ways of working; the attractions of working with computer code lay in the future. Thus, Microsoft Word suited my workflow more than LaTeX while the graphical output from OriginLab Origin looked far better than that from Unigraph. Working on computer terminals offering a two-bit X Window display felt utilitarian compared with even an 8-bit PC display, and there was better to be had in the PC world. Microsoft Windows machines were better for browsing the web too, even in an age when NSCA Mosaic and Netscape pervaded.

With my research degree offering up dark moments, I also took refuge in personal experimentation on my own Dell PC. Much of this involved Windows 9x and some missteps that impressed on me the importance of having good backups. Learning of the existence of Linux only took things further, especially on seeing it being used in a university lab and being attracted to the idea of getting a whole operating system free of charge.

Even being an impecunious university student did not stop me buying computing magazines and one sported an installation disk for a flavour of Linux that I no longer can recall. This was one experiment that did not go so well for me, offering some computer restoration practice in the process. A version that came with a book also featured and occupied some of my time looking at what could be done.

Eventually, the fascination with Linux would lead me to try out Red Hat and SuSE. By then though, I decided that experimenting on a spare PC was best and I now use virtual machines for the same task whenever I get to such things. Windows was retained on a separate machine for priority work like writing my thesis or looking for work, much as is the case for my current freelancing.

Moving away from Windows for home computing took a series of horrid experiences with Windows XP before inertia was overcome. By then, hardware support had become so much better that everything just worked. It was not like being unable to access the internet because of non-support for a software modem that needed Windows to function (those devices had become obsolete by then anyway and the one that I had was killed off by seasonal thunderstorm activity). Where once it was Linux that got virtualised, the same now applied to Windows; things had swapped. There may have been issues to resolve and new things to learn, but there were no showstoppers. It helps that a large user community means that solutions are there to be found somewhere on the web.

Linux Mint is my main operating system these days, mainly because its user focus means that things evolve with every release; experiments are best kept away from everyday usage. With the Windows desktop seeing undesirable changes at times, that has to be a good thing. Encountering big surprises on a machine that you use for work is a non-starter. Otherwise, Ubuntu and Debian have their uses for hosting websites while other Linux distributions and UNIX systems get checked out from time to time.

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