I recently decided to reinstall Linux on my aging MacBook, because Apple had squeezed my model out of the supported list for their Mountain Lion operating system and I didn’t like how that new version of Mac OS X was seemingly merging with the iOS user interface and walled garden anyway. I installed Linux Mint 13, which is like Ubuntu except with extra drivers added and an older, more compatible version of the GNOME desktop manager, called MATE. I had played around with Ubuntu back when it had first came out but it did not want to work with my sound card or wifi adapter. I spent days back in 2007 trying various arcane codes in the Linux terminal before finally giving up and going back to Mac OS X. So this is why I was utterly shocked and surprised when I put the Mint disk in and it recognized all my hardware from the get-go. It was fast. Programs loaded up instantly, even OpenOffice, which is a slow, lumbering beast in OS X. Updating and installing programs was a piece of cake. And I could get on the Internet and do everything in Google Chrome and Firefox that I could do in Google Chrome and Firefox on Windows and the Mac OS.
Which is kind of the problem, really. Working in Linux was just like working in Mac OS X or even Windows XP. Except for some font changes and different icons, everything worked in similar ways. I only went into the command line a couple of times, and one of those times was to play with the old BSD Fortune utility. Most of my time I spent in the web browser. I can do pretty much everything I need to do on a computer in a web browser these days. Email, Word documents, spreadsheets, presentations are easily handled by Google and Microsoft Office web apps (and for the paranoid among us, there are Web office suites that can be run in any webserver.) Quicken doesn’t balance my checkbook anymore; my credit union’s online banking has an app that can do that for me. Many online photo hosts have editing tools that rival Photoshop, heck even Photoshop is coming out with an online version of their program. My phonebook isn’t a huge yellow book sitting on my desk, it’s the Internet. Same with my encyclopedia. I used to have a Hypercard stack on my Mac with all of my contacts in it; it could only be opened in Mac OS 9 or below. I kept a Classic Mac emulator running for the purpose of accessing this list (and playing Glider and Dark Castle). But now, two clicks and I can read this list on any computer I wander by, or my phone, or my Xbox. (Heck, Facebook has even pretty much negated my need to maintain a separate contact list… which is why it pissed me off to no end that they changed EVERYONE’s email address on their profiles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Especially when Facebook Contacts synced up with my phone and suddenly, one day, all my friends’ email addresses were gone. But I digress.)
So it really doesn’t matter if I use a Windows PC, or a Mac, or a Linux box. The cloud is the computer now. The thing you and I are sitting in front of right now is merely just a thin client for web-based computing. Oh I mean, there are some things that Windows does better, like games, that Mac does better, like being shiny and expensive, and that Linux does better, like run on a vast range of hardware and be safe from most viruses, but the choice of which desktop operating system I use no longer seems relevant to me. But you know what those billions of web servers running Facebook and Google and my own humble website run for their operating system? Linux. According to this W3Techs survey, over 60% of web servers use Linux, BSD or another Unix-based operating system. Pretty much all of those web servers serve the web with Apache, another open-source, free software program. So people can fret and worry all they like about how Windows 8 is locking down their app store and messing up a perfectly usable 20-year-old user interface design with distracting eye candy and unwanted banner ads embedded in bundled applications, but the truth is that open source has already won.
The Web is free (as in speech, not as in beer) not just because of open source software, but because people are fighting to keep it free. There is a whole world of information out there outside of the clutches of Microsoft, Apple and Facebook. I am glad I live at this time in history when I can say whatever I want and publish whatever I want without needing the permission of governments or large corporations. And I am going to fight to make sure it stays that way. My next major purchase, if I get that promotion I always wanted, will be to get DSL in my apartment, so I can run my own web server.