Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Loosening the shackles of Windows

Having been spent much of my professional life dependent on Microsoft Windows, it seems odd to start doubting its utility. Yet with the popularity of Mac and Linux, not to mention upstarts like Android and Chromium OS,  the options are widening. For me, this comes as good news.

So what's the problem with Windows? In a word, the restrictive licensing which ties my copy to my hardware.

Hardware shackles
Like most users, my computer came pre-installed with Windows, and has an OEM license which ties my my copy of Windows to the actual hardware on the PC. If my PC were to develop a fault which required a replacement motherboard or drive, there is no guarantee that Windows would run even if the replacements were identical. In that case, the only solution would be to purchase a brand new copy of Windows.

Unfortunately, Windows XP is no longer available, so an upgrade to Windows 7 would be necessary.  However Windows 7 is not a good solution as it doesn't support all my current hardware.

OK, so let's forget the doomsday scenario. Say I just wanted to do a plain reinstall of Windows, perhaps to deal with a virus, or a disk corruption. As is normal these days, my PC did not come with a Windows recovery CD. Instead,  I would have to perform a System Recovery off a hidden recovery partition.

Well, I really don't like being dependent on hidden partitions. The partition lives on the same drive as the active copy of Windows, and is just as susceptible to physical damage.

Enter Ubuntu
In an effort to regain some control over my IT affairs, I've been casting an envious eye over to Linux. It's free, has no restrictive license. So I can keep it running for as long as my hardware lasts, and if my hardware breaks down, I can restore to alternative hardware no problem.

Now, it's been a while since my last experience with Linux, and I'd heard that things had improved with the recent distros. Ubuntu seems the most popular flavour, so I downloaded the iso image, burnt a CD and installed it on my spare AMD Athlon machine. Ubuntu had no problems detecting the hardware and installing the appropriate drivers. Connecting my network printer was also straightforward.

Ubuntu 11.04 comes with LibreOffice which is a perfectly functional replacement for MS Office. Out of interest, I prepared a presentation for my photography club, using Impress. I had no problem viewing it using a Powerpoint viewer. As a bonus I was able to generate PDF's directly within Impress. (The only real disappointment was Base, which doesn't really  compare  with MS Access.)

Ubuntu includes a variety of backup and partition tools available like PartImage, GParted, DD etc.  This makes it possible to tailor your own backup strategy at both the partition and file level.

Ubuntu also comes with a Terminal Services client for remote controlling a Windows PC.  This opens up some  interesting possibilities in terms of re-using older hardware as a remote Windows client.

Long term
Ubuntu may not be quite as polished as Windows, but has two great things going for it: (a) there's a huge amount of good free software available and (b) it gives you back control. While I will still use Windows, Ubuntu is is firmly installed on my second machine and I'm going to have a lot of fun exploring its capabilities.


Adrian Smith said...

Glad you're finally seeing the light!

John said...

You should look at WINE to run Windows programs on Linux. I use the Mac version of WINE -- crossover -- on a Mac and have no difficulty with MS Access.
WINE is an implementation of the Windows APIs in Linux and does not need a Windows license.

RC Soar said...

Interesting thought. I tried Photoshop 6 under WINE and it worked very well. Access will be more of a challenge though as most of my DB's contain VB code.