Moving to Freedom, .Org

Some Time After The Move

MTF Truck

I’ve been intending to write something to mark the “completion” of the move. I started this blog two years ago to write about free software and related topics, and to give myself additional motivation to finally make the switch from MS Windows to GNU/Linux.

So where am I at today?

I’ve been using Ubuntu as the operating system on my main personal machine since June 2007, and have essentially completed the migration to free software applications as of January 2008. With the exception of some drivers and media formats, I’ve made it to the other side.

How does it feel to be here? Is it everything I hoped for?

Pretty much. From a practical perspective, I’m comfortable using Ubuntu in the same way I previously felt at home in Windows. It’s not all perfect. But then of course neither is Windows or the Mac. I miss some things, but I don’t have any regrets about making the switch. (Conversely, using Windows at work, I frequently lament the lack of my GNU/Linux creature comforts.)

The process works. The community — including individual contributors and corporations — produces and maintains a lot of quality software, all for free as in speech and beer. I get the feeling that most of my programs and formats will be better supported in the long run than I’ve previously experienced with proprietary software.

Most importantly, I can do the things I want to do.

From a political perspective, I’ve gained a new measure of freedom. That part is just awesome. It’s a great feeling to know that if I like a piece of software, I can freely share it with my friends and family or anyone on the internet. I like being part of a community of people who share a belief in the importance of free software. I hope I can contribute back to the community in a meaningful way.

Is it really worth all the bother of getting everything to work?

Yes, really! It’s not hard to maintain the system. In many of my posts, I’ve detailed struggles I’ve had with learning things, but overall it doesn’t seem that hard now. The package management system is the key. It’s very easy to add and remove most programs, and easy to keep them up to date through the package manager.

I recently found a post by Don Marti where he talks about the “way of the package manager,” and points to Mark Pilgrim, who discusses his switch to GNU/Linux and the benefits of good package management. This is something I’ve come to appreciate also. In all this journey of moving over to GNU/Linux, I’ve yet to deal with the whole make/compile/install cycle. I mostly rely on software from the package manager and on a handful of .deb install packages. No major breakages, and I’ve been using Ubuntu on one machine since late 2006.

I haven’t had too much pain with X. The Nvidia installer compiles the driver for my kernel and it has worked flawlessly so far. It hasn’t been too much trouble to configure my dual display setup, although it took me a while to finally get rotation working. That might have been more due to lack of trying than the level of difficulty. Sure, there has been some tinkering, but it’s a small price to pay.

Hold on a second there, Mister — did you say Nvidia’s installer? Yes. I’m still using some proprietary software and encumbered formats. Nvidia’s video driver. The Adobe Flash plugin. Mp3 files for music. Maybe a couple of others. I’m not thrilled about this, but it’s a compromise I’m willing to make, for now. Maybe indefinitely. For one example, Flash is a large part of the Web today, and I’m not willing to go without at this time.

It can be frustrating when software isn’t available for GNU/Linux for some things you want to use, and when major web sites can’t or won’t make their sites compliant with basic standards and thus don’t work well with Firefox, but I’m still happy to be here.

Because, it just seems right that software should be free. That we should be able to change, share, and do whatever we want to within our personal digital domain and the wider network. It’s our shared universe, and is a world with which we interact more closely and inhabit more every year. A future where we don’t have full control of the bits and bytes seems all too likely to turn into George Orwell’s 1984 future: a boot stamping on the human face… forever. (Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic, and maybe a little too science fictiony for some people, but with opportunities for perfect control of computing devices, there is a lot of danger in an un-free digital future!)

This is not to say that people should be coerced to share their software. I think the proprietary software business will gradually move aside in time. Companies will learn the benefits of free software and pool their resources to pay people to do the scut work that volunteers don’t want to do. I think that large corporations might prefer to pay their millions of dollars to a foundation (or several foundations) for their enterprise software, and not be held up by a single vendor for support of the resulting code base.

On the personal level, any frustration and inconvenience has been vastly outweighed by the satisfaction I feel in taking large steps away from proprietary software, from a system of control that tries to tell us what we can do in our computing, and restricts how we might share with our neighbors.

For those of you who have been following along and offering advice and encouragement, thank you so much. And please, stick around! I intend to keep writing about free software, free culture, and assorted miscellany.