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.


Anonymous said...

Ubuntu has a migration tool which you can use during the setup, but as I have never used it I don't know if it only works on dual boot scenario's. Anyway, I understand your pain, that is why about 3 years ago I bought a secondary hard drive and migrated to the open source windows products, such as Thunderbird for e-mail, Firefox for browsing, so when I made the leap to Ubuntu all I had to do was get Ubuntu to mount my secondary drive on startup and hey presto all my data.

Anyway, glad you have made the leap, welcome to the world of GNU/Linux :) Oh and just ignore the daft ol' zealots and fanboys who will invariably raise their heads and start an all out holly war over your "newbie" ways. Its those that kinda give us normal users a bad name.

kozmcrae said...

When you hire a contractor to build your house, you have a kind of relationship with him/her. If you change your mind about some detail half way through the construction, the contractor will just have to grin and bare it.

When a community comes together to build a barn for you, your relationship with them is very different than the one with the contractor. That's the way it is with Linux.

Unlike the proprietary companies, Linux answers to no one. It responds to the aggregate input from the community, that means you. It will evolve at its own rate. And in the process it will slowly change the way people think about their computers. Even more than the technical and visual differences Linux is cognitively different. After using it for a while, you will begin to think differently about your computer.

Account Administrator said...

To Kozmcrae:

"After using it for a while, you will begin to think differently about your computer"

You miss my point entirely! My struggle has very little to do with USING the computer. It has everything to do with SWITCHING from XP to Linux. My rant is about the hassle of migration - not how Linux functions. I already think differently about my computer - I just can't get my 6 years of business work to leap from one OS to the other. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the difficulty of migrating, but are you sure that you're putting the blame where it belongs?

For year, Microsoft has been doing everything they can to make it as difficult as possible to migrate away from Windows. This includes secret, proprietary file formats, software dependencies, and so on.

If you have been paying any attention at all to the PC industry, then you already know that.

So now that you are trying to leave mother Microsoft, why would it surprise you to find that your data is trapped in Windows?

NotZed said...

Microsoft make migration difficult on purpose - to make more money out of you. If you have years of data stored in their proprietary formats (which was prior knowledge by the sounds of it), you really only have yourself to blame. You can hardly blame others for your own mistakes.

Second, you are coming from windows at a late stage (its been at this level of functionality for some time) - many free software developers have never owned windows or did the move ages ago. I went straight from c64-amiga-linux for example, and at the time the only other system i'd used in anger was unix. Not only do i have no experience with data migration from windows, I simply have no great interest in it either. Not only that, now I have to use windows for work (first job ever), I wouldn't even consider using locked proprietary formats for storing anything I wanted to keep hold of.

Having said that, when I was working on evolution - some time ago (not since late 2005 - and since then I haven't even run evolution once) - we looked into pst importing. We didn't have the expertise or manpower to reverse engineer it ourselves, and there were real legal questions over the use of work that others had done at the time - given that we were based in the USA, with is corrupted anti-competitive laws (and at the time it was rather immature at that, so it didn't really work anyway).

And finally evolution is actually a little older than thunderbird. It was started proper about 2000, and thunderbird had its 0.1 release in 2003 - as far as I can tell. I can't remember our first release date, but it was well before then.

kozmcrae said...

Do you remember learning your native language? Do you remember learning how to use XP? Learning your second language or you second OS will never be as easy as the first no matter how good it is.

Account Administrator said...

Thanks for all the great comments - please note that I approve ALL comments (unless they're just plain nasty or mean) - thanks for taking the time.

The Mad Hatter said...

I dumped Windows 2 years ago, after messing with various GNU/Linux, GNU/BSD, and GNU/Solaris distros for closed to 10 years. You are right. Switching is damned hard, and there is a real need for a good program or set of programs to make migration easier.

Several things made it possible for me:

1) Windows blowing up and taking a bunch of my data with it. This meant that I had a lot less to transfer, and most of what needed transferring was backed up to CD or DVD.

2) Free Software which ran on Windows. At one point I got a new computer, with a newer version of Windows that would not install Office 95, and I couldn't afford to buy Office 2K. I started to look for an alternative, found Open Office, and this started me looking for other alternatives, such as Firefox. In the last 3 years I ran Windows, it was the only Proprietary software I was using.

3) All of the Free Software distros have gotten easier, with better hardware support. The latest Ubuntu (9.04 Alpha 2) installed on my Acer Laptop, and got all the hardware right including the wireless card, which is something that no version of Windows is capable of.

4) Sheer bloody mindedness. Windows blew up once again (I don't know how many times I've had a Windows install go bad over the years, but it's a lot) and there was no damned way I was going to set myself up for more problems, so I was determined to make it work, and I did.

But someone else, like yourself may not have had the time, or skills to do it. You were lucky, you had Jeremy. For those without a local geek switching could be an impossible task. Someone needs to work on this, and come up with an easier way, because there are a lot of people who would love to escape the Microsoft trap.

imchairmanm said...

I understand the frustration that you're feeling right now, but like it's been mentioned, in a lot of ways it's not the OS's fault.

In terms of hardware support, Microsoft has the luxury of building software with the knowledge that pretty much every hardware vendor will move to support. On the other hand, Apple's development approach lets them fine-tune their software on very specific hardware, making it possible to write the software around certain known configurations. Linux, on the other hand, is forced to either reverse engineer windows drivers, write drivers from scratch, or somehow make a working compatibility layer that tricks hardware into thinking it's on a different OS. It's a much different game that Linux has to play.

In terms software support, it has to work around many of the same propriety road blocks and challenges. On top of that problem, Linux is developed in such a way that it's a constant moving target. Because a GNU/Linux system is composed of hundreds of different applications and libraries, each developed and maintained independently, there is no stabilization point where developers are able to relax a bit and work with the OS as it is. The fact that Linux is always achieving forward progress is a good thing in many ways, but it makes it much more difficult in some ways.

In addition to those problems, each distro is different. There is no person or group to be mad at when something doesn't work, because everyone is just working with what they have available to them. Saying the "Linux community should concentrate on so-and-so" or any similar phrase is strange because while there is a definite and unique culture that goes with linux, it's in no way unified and it doesn't have the usual corporate structures that allows for this to happen. It's an organic structure. One of the good things about this though is that if you want to, you can create the functionality you need from the OS because of its open nature. If you don't know how, there's certainly someone else who can. I realize that this doesn't help you with migration problems, but there are reasons that things are the way that they are and it's not as easy as with a proprietary OS to change course, because in essence, there's no one steering the ship, everyone's just along for the ride.

All of this being said, it's a shame that things aren't easier, but they're also constantly improving. Each year, the issues that migrating users have diminish. Like you said, it'd be nice to see some companies taking a chance at linux as a platform, and it'll happen, it'll just take some time. I think I've written too much, but that's okay.

Account Administrator said...

Golly you guys are great - I'm learning a lot from the great responses here - I'm typing this from my car outside my hotel in Kennewick, WA using Linux (of course) - I don't have a closed mind on this at ALL and have really enjoyed the feedback. Thanks for taking the time to write. I do love working on a computer 100% free of MS or Apple products and will keep on keeping on... thanks folks

The Mad Hatter said...

I don't know if you have any spare computers available (many of us do these days, what with hardware dropping in price so much over the last 25 years), but if you do, and they are fairly standard, I'd like to suggest that you try a couple of other distros. While Ubuntu is my personal favorite, there are a lot of alternatives out there, each offering a different viewpoint (a lot of people consider this a weakness of Free Software, I think it's a strength that Windows just can't match).

The ones I would suggest are:

Desktop BSD
Puppy Linux

Each of these has something to offer, for example Puppy Linux runs fantastically well on older hardware, Sabayon has multiple desktop environments (as does Mandriva) which you can switch between, Desktop BSD uses the BSD kernel, and Belenix uses the Solaris kernel. I've used and liked all of them (at present I have machines running Mandriva as well as Ubuntu, and I'm going to install Desktop BSD on a machine this weekend for fun).