Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Migration from Microsoft to Linux - O, the Joy

So I finally made the plunge. I've long wanted to be part of that geeky elite who broke from the crowd, stepped aside from their fellow computer lemmings and took a different plunge - not off the cliff, but into an alien and poorly understood (by the masses) computer operating system - Unix.

In 1994 I attended a geek fest of sorts in Seattle - essentially a large flea market filled with jumbles of computer parts, new and used, and more sweaty fat techno-geeks than I could count (yes, I'm sorry but the stereotype does have a basis in fact). I fit the model, sans the sweaty fat part. I had never purchased a PC (not since the Commodore days) - I built them. Motherboard, RAM, case with power supply, choice of processor, etc. I was at this particular computer fest to acquire all of the above for a 'new' computer - the best (at the time for me) I had ever built.

And I thought how cosmically geek-chic it would be to set it up with zero Microsoft software of any kind on it! So to my great pleasure (at least at that moment) I found a new, still-sealed copy of the now-legendary (and defunct) SCO (Santa Cruz Operation) Unix for a mere $39! What a steal, I thought - cheaper than a new copy of Windows 3.11 (but who actually bought Windows back then - Copy Disc was your friend!).

I got the box running, tested it with DOS 6.22, then Windows 3.11 - all was well. Wiped the hard drive, and off to the races with Unix. Yeah, right. And here I thought I was a pretty good geek. Nope. Not even close. That was the most evil experience I have probably ever had with a computer, trying to get that insanely complex (and dare I say ugly) operating system of Computer Giants. Two days later I had the fastest, coolest, bitchinist (yes, it's a word) Windows 3.11 computer I had ever owned. The SCO Unix went for $5 at my next garage sale (sort of like Jumanji - let someone else fight those monsters!).

Fast forward to December 4, 2008. My 14 year-old geek son called me and said "Dad - you've got to try Wubi (Windows Ubuntu (Linux) Installer) - I just wiped Vista off my laptop and I've gone totally Linux - you've got to try it!" Ok - never mind I just bought him that laptop for a grand, and six months later Vista is just a faded memory of fragmented binary strings scattered about his hard drive. Wow. Most dads would probably have tweaked at the thought - "YOU DID WHAT???" Not me. Jeremy is a geek like me. Except better. And he has that fearless kid thing I once had but long ago lost.

So I tried this Wubi thing myself. It's a simple Windows 98, XP or Vista download that sets up Ubuntu (a Debian based Linux distribution which now owns 30% of the Linux market) simply as a Windows program. But once you reboot, voila! - you get a 'dual boot' option to choose your old Redmond, WA system or the pretty Ubuntu (South African based) Linux distro.

With that simple download I found myself carried back to 1994 - maybe now I could finally achieve that '100% Microsoft or Apple products freedom' I so longed to achieve. I cautiously installed Ubuntu on a backup laptop first - success! And I actually liked the interface and how it works - at first, anyway. Then I raised the bar and Wubied my dual-monitor 'man room' core-duo XP box (my man room is where I can surf in peace, sitting by a gas fireplace, smoking a stogie without fear of interruption). This is where I started to hit the 'Linux Learning Curve' - too fast, poor brakes, rain-slick road - right through the guard rail! Turns out that while Dual Monitors is a few mouse clicks in XP or Vista, it simply ain't so in Linux. 9 re-installations and much hair-pulling later, I finally gave up on getting dual monitors to work. And with that, I just went back to the Satanic Evil I already knew - XP. Oh well. At least my dual screens worked.

But Jeremy came out for Christmas (he lives out of state and I'm Jewish, but that's a blog for another day). I told him if he could get my dual monitors going, I'd pay him $50. My wife and I took off for lunch and shopping, and came back 2 hours later. Needless to say, he had it all up and running in about 15 minutes ($ sudo apt-get install genius-kid-Jeremy -14), and had loaded themes (I love the Mac clones - makes my Mac friends crazy!), a ton of software and tweaks and updates and more tweaks. Ok - XP on the back burner, Linux under the heat lamps waiting to be served. Cautiously (God, what if I f*** up the dual monitor setup, I thought) I started tweaking my own tweaks and tip-toeing into the sudo apt-get world of Terminal. Oh, and yes, I happily paid him the fifty bucks, while he grinned from ear to ear.

Next came my 'main' computer - quad core monster in my main office, with 4 gigs of RAM and all the goodies, tied to dual 24" HP monitors. Gulp. "JEREMY - HELP ME!!!!!". Again, 15 minutes
later, both monitors were up and running, Mac themes installed, Compiz desktop effects (O, how I love those wiggly windows!), more tons of software and tweaks, and that utterly amazing rotating desk-cube that rotates all 24 possible desktops against a stunning outer space panorama photo (that I am proud to say I found and installed). This was starting to look like it could really be my 'Corporate Free' box I have longed to have for 14 years.

But then the realities of Linux started settling in - after all the fun of the 'new look' and really nifty visual effects (mostly from Compiz) had sunk in, the task of truly migrating is now the nagging concern. Those of us over 45 surely remember the 'heartbreak of psoriasis' commercials from the 1970s - well, I now have the 'heartbreak of OS migration', but without the annoying itching and dandruff that those commercials warned us of (what ever happened to seborrhea, anyway? Only your doctor will know for sure). I really want this migration to work, and to do my daily work chores (I work from home) on a Ubuntu Linux box. But it seems I daily have some heartbreak of 'oh well - guess I won't be able to do that'.

Why don't the Linux distro folks come to the collective realization that until MIGRATION is easy, Linux will always be relegated to uber-geeks or low-power users who only need a browser? Just the seemingly simple act of importing all my gazillion Outlook emails and contacts from the last 6 years was daunting to say the least. Yes, today (after many tries) I finally got it to work - (install Thunderbird under XP or Vista, import from Outlook, locate the Profiles folder (buried in Windows), copy it externally, reboot into Linux, locate the Thunderbird Profiles folder (buried in Linux), save a backup of the default folder, then finally paste the external copy into the Linux location and hope it all worked).

Email and contacts from Outlook and Outlook Express live in the SAME PLACE on all installations. Thunderbird under Linux stores email and contacts in the SAME PLACE on all installations. Why in the hell is there not a 'migrate from windows' function in Thunderbird (or Evolution, the newer and, in my newbie opinion, buggier email client) to do this automatically? I mean really - it's just 'take this folder and copy it over here' for heaven's sake! I'm talking specifically about a dual-boot machine, where ALL the Windows files are all right there on the main hard drive. It just shouldn't be this hard.

Same with dual monitors - it' almost as if the Ubuntu Linux folks never conceived that someone would want to use dual monitors! I have 2 major computers that are double-headed, and regularly use my laptops in that mode doing sales presentations. Yes, there are great third-party applications (RandR and an edit of the video driver is what worked for my two installations, but only thanks to the patient geeking of my 14 year-old kid Jeremy) for setting up dual monitors. But I cannot imagine why Ubuntu (and I'm sure other distros) didn't just program a widget to do this 'out of the box'. At this point all you Linux gurus may now groan. But face it - you not only do not care a whit about migration, you abhor the masses taking over your private geekly domain. Be honest. May the hosannas of 'go back to XP' now begin. Been there - read that. Yawn. I'm committed to making this work - not from an Uber Geek stance, but rather a normal businessman who simply wants to be free of Microsoft or Apple products for my own reasons.

If the reason for this Migration Checkpoint Charlie attitude is some elitist 'geek know-how' proficiency test, then the Linux distros clearly have no real interest in overtaking Microsoft or Apple and their financial stranglehold on the OEM computer market. If it takes me Herculean effort to migrate (thank you, Jeremy!) I shudder to think what Jeremy's grandmother must think of this whole 'change the OS' thing (her computer recently crapped out on Windows and Jeremy installed an older Ubuntu Linux (couldn't find the XP restore CD) on it so she at least now has her email and web back). If OS Migration were ever to become a priority for some Linux distribution, Microsoft would really have a long hard struggle ahead.

But aside from all of this, I'm plugging ever nearer my goal. OpenOffice.org is in fact a really decent replacement for Office (lacking tons of Office features, granted - but entirely usable). Gimp does a decent job of editing photos. Sadly, no meaningful Publisher equivalent yet exists (please - don't tell me to use Scribus - if you do, you clearly never used Publisher 2003 or 2007). Thunderbird seems to work great for email, and numerous other little apps fill in a lot of holes in my system.

However, until the day that migration from MS or Mac becomes a priority, and significant numbers of new Linux users cross over, the only hopes for quality software will lie with just a scant few Open Source providers (such as OpenOffice.org) and others who do it for love (and the small return from paid technical support). One day, an as-yet-unborn software company will see the coming tide change from MS to Linux and create commercial grade applications (yes, we will actually have to buy them at Amazon and Best Buy) in the spirit of capitalism, and we will finally see the tide turn yet again in the OS wars. Where is it written that all software for Linux must be free? It's not about that - it's about breaking the monopoly of MS and Mac and giving people another choice. And if it takes paying a quality programmer to achieve that goal through good software (and good migration programming on the OS side), then I'm all for it. Just because someone gets paid for quality software does not make them a wonk to the corporate world or software giants. It simply means they are incentified to produce a better product than most of the free software out there (OpenOffice the exception), and I would gladly 'add to cart' when that day finally comes.

Until then, I'll keep working at it. And in the meantime, after 14 years, I can finally append my emails with the signature 'Sent from a computer 100% free of Microsoft or Apple Corporation products' and feel smug in a small, small way. But sadly, it's like peeing your pants in a dark suit - you feel warm all over for a while, but in the end, no one really notices, or cares. It's just an operating system.