When you talk to anyone on the street. The question being, “What kind of computer do you own?”. The response is varied, but not as varied as it should be. We have come to accept and even endorse one platform over another. Sound familiar? I’m a Liberal! I’m a Democrat! I’m a Mac user! It’s really a good way to herd us fish into a giant pen. This pen has really cool areas we can visit, with different colours and sounds, but in the end if we decide to do something else what choice do we fishes really have.
The good news is, there are holes in the pen. Frayed holes where free thinking fish can slip out and explore other ways of living.
Until the internet there was no way for interested authors of software to join in any altruistic way. The birth of the internet was thanks to this principle, of needing to share information and resources for a research goal. Having an infrastructure in place allows like-minded software engineers to clump together and start creating the teams required to build and manage an OS capable of rivalling the giants like Apple and Microsoft. The same thing is happening in other areas. Once the technology gets in the hands of the masses, it’s a free-for-all. Another big secret corporations advertise against is that once free, people tend to be more generous. The truth of the matter is that with Ubuntu, or Fedora, or any other of the competing distributions one can get a fully functional and in many ways far superior user experience over both Mac and Windows.
My experience with any OS began in 1984 when my father bought me a Commodore64. I took to that thing like a duck to water. I learned basic and started writing programs. By the age of 16 I was an avid photographer and my programming goals at that time were to finish my relational database cataloguing all my collection of books. In 1988 when I first sat in front of an IRIS workstation my destiny was set. I fell in love with design and 3D animation. By the time I was out of University I was determined to get my own Mac. I purchased my first ‘modern’ computer in 1993, a Mac Quadra 610 with a massive 160MB drive and 4MB of RAM. On that thing I continued on my 3D quest. In those days things moved along much more slowly where an OS would be current for several years. The entire Mac OS7 fit on a single 1.44MB floppy and I loved that fact. Also in 1994 I had my first real experience with Windows. I had avoided it in the past, since in those days Windows being less capable than the Mac OS meant it barely functioned! Windows 3.1 was supposed to be a vast improvement, and as it turned out, more or less it was..
In 2000 I decided to go freelance. The company I worked for was bought out by GE (big surprise there). A good time to go freelance I figured, so I bought a new Mac and started in. At this time the Windows/Apple war was actually real. The mac being a design and production platform was horribly shunned by the Windows community. Windows was and is – in my opinion – an inferior product, yet had managed to surpass the Mac OS by using the same technique as in the VHS/Beta war. Sell it cheap and crappy and most people with buy that instead of a quality product. It works every time. Install a larger user base, then advertising and media sales go to that larger percentage. The rules of corporate earth imposing a lower standard upon the people. The corporate strategy to pit one camp against the other is primarily responsible for the zealot-like camps of OS followers. It’s just a tool, like an airbrush or a hammer.
So when it became apparent that my tool set was on one side more powerful and more stable, but on the other, software often suffered from horrible bugs not present in the Windows version. I finally caved to pressure and re-entered the windows world. I familiarized myself with the basics of building a machine from scratch and set out. The experience was both frustrating and rewarding. Dealing with Windows on a hardware level is frustrating to say the least, it’s a nightmare of antique technology with new protocols put over top. I was pleased with Windows 2000 in so far that it functioned. It was clunky and not much fun to use, but it worked rather well with Lightwave and that was my primary concern at the time. As my Mac aged the cheap replacement cost of another windows machine lured me into a path of continual upgrade of the Windows machine vs. replacing the Mac. Eventually the Mac was retired.
Last year I finally became completely fed up with Windows. When I had the opportunity to purchase a new Macintosh I finally took the plunge back into the land of MacOS. Everything was grand for a while.
Time passed and work was done. My new Mac was fast, complete and amazing. The Windows machine was relegated to testing websites and code under WindowsXP and Windows2K. At this time I started to search for an alternative to Mac or Windows. I inherited an almost new laptop running Windows Vista. Anyone ever having to actually use Windows Vista on even a dual core modern laptop will eventually find out how unusable it becomes. The laptop was discarded because it was easier to purchase a new one than reinstall or investigate why it took more than 4 minutes to open a window and sometimes 10 minutes to boot. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon in several Vista based laptop. I call it Sick Laptop Vista Syndrome (SLVS). Reinstalling Vista didn’t seem like a really great idea, so I tried something new. Linux.
I embarked on my greatest challenge yet, learning how to install and manage Linux. I went into this assuming it was going to be more challenging than building a machine from scratch and installing Windows. I couldn’t be more wrong. First a bit of understanding regarding Linux vs. Ubuntu, Fedora or other distributions. Imagine Linux as the foundation and the distros as a building. Every distro will have hot water connections, cold water, power, internet, etc. However, just like real buildings there are style difference and internal planning differences. Some buildings have their elevators in the centre, some in the front.. Some don’t even have an elevator shaft at all. When you build a building on the foundation of Linux you become part of a club dedicated to using that kind of distro, though all are Linux. One interesting note, On the aforementioned laptop Windows 7 Ultimate – clean install occupied almost 900MB of my 2GB of RAM while idle, where Ubuntu, uses only between 300-400MB leaving a substantial amount of additional RAM for photo manipulation or 3D apps. Not to mention that all tasks are executed immediately and without that expected Windows delay while it thinks things over.
The Mac OS is no more than a very sophisticated and advanced Linux distro – or house style – and costs money plus only running on a particular kind of hardware… Apple hardware.. This closed system allows for benefits, like ease of use, stability, and easy hardware management. It however doesn’t allow you to chose much about the interface, what kind of hardware you can use, or even what kind of software you can run.
I’m currently experimenting with Fedora14 but I did start with Ubuntu9.0. Most of the different distros – to continue with the building metaphor – have different available floor plans. The mac would be closest to the Gnome floor plan where Windows and it’s organization is more like the KDE floor plan. There are a couple of others worth exploring but those two are the most in use and available to the most distros. When I first boot Fedora I can chose to use Gnome or KDE as an interface because I have chosen to install those two. Both have their advantages, as any user of both Windows and Mac OS can attest. As usual the truth is, the more diverse the more powerful the tool set.
The surprising thing is, that with any of the distros, is the sheer volume of applications available. Since this is a completely open OS anyone can distribute an application, and they do! As an example, I have used Adobe Lightroom for a number of years but have had nothing but trouble with it on both the Mac and Windows. Even though I had 16GHz of power it still shuddered and clunked along. I had pretty much accepted that this was as good as things got. Until I experienced the most popular ‘competition’ for Lightroom available on the opensource side of the fence. DigiKam opened my eyes to fact that I too was a corralled fish. Here was an application that allowed me access to everything about the RAW file, perform the same adjustments and new ones too. I have more power on this quad core machine than I ever did on my my 8core Mac, and it runs faster and almost never crashes. Overall I have been more productive and my photographs have transformed in quality and clarity literally overnight. So my conclusion is, DigiKam has most of the features of Lightroom, but functioned better, faster and had some critical features – like access to the demosaic algorithm – that makes it the most powerful tool for a professional photographer I have yet used. I’m staying right here thank you.
Don’t get me wrong, there are dark spots still. I have yet to find a package which I feel competes with Dreamweaver. Though, Lightwave can easily be replaced by Blender, MaxwellRender is highly advanced but there are a couple free light simulators that produce very comparable renders. So the bottom line is this, with free tools one can get comparable functionality to tools costing hundreds and thousands of dollars. Lightwave + MaxwellRender = $2000 – Blender + opensource renderer of choice = $0
You might be baulking at this.. thinking this is too simple to be true. There is a down side. Because this is a group effort, there are often holes. It’s still advantageous for a professional to retain either their Mac or Windows machines to have access to some software that is not available for Linux. Also the ease of installation one enjoys with Windows and the drag and drop installation of the Mac is very different. Most distros use a software center, much like the app store on a Mac or the way it functions on an iPod. Except on the Linux side there are just as many apps, except they are all free! The software center contains only stable versions of Software thus either new releases or beta versions need to be installed manually. This can be a problem for people doing this themselves and are used to not having to deal with this kind of stuff. When encountering an issue, most problems can be solved with Google. Like “How to install DigiKam2.0” I could install DigiKam1.7 by clicking the ‘install’ button and five minutes later I could be using it… but if I want the cutting edge newest version, and if I know how to do it, I can install it myself. In fact! Most software allows you to compile and install a version of the latest build. Most people don’t understand this, since they are used to purchasing software upgrades when the time comes. Like Photoshop CS4 to CS5. This cycle is their service fee. To pay for the development of a product. DigiKam is free, so the newest version is always available and updates come whenever they happen to fix anything.
Once you realize you can work for free with only a small amount of learning why would one go back? The argument that it’s too complex can be overcome for a small fee. Hiring a tech familiar with Linux for an hour can save you literally thousands of dollars in software costs.
Most of the distros also allow you to install along side and thus co-exist with whatever version of Windows you have. You don’t even have to give up Windows. The OS is simply installed like any other Windows application but allows you to boot from it. This means that you can explore linux without danger, at your leisure. If you need certain functionality, like being a photographer and wanting a professional developing and management system you could use DigiKam on linux for free TODAY and hold off the purchase of $300 Lightroom, or Aperture for a while. My bet, like me, you will never go back. DigiKam is a liberating experience. I finally can balance photographs the way I want.
There is no reason to be trapped in the OS pay world. It’s a liberating experience to be completely free of both Mac and Windows.. in a world containing thousands of free applications.
Either Fedora14 or Ubuntu I can recommend as a beginning distro. Ubuntu installs quite nicely into already existing Windows installs. Fedora is great if you want to boot up in both KDE and gnome desktop environments but also can be installed VERY easily. If you have an older windows box sitting around that you feel is too slow, or out of date. Linux could return it to use! Kubuntu (which is the KDE desktop version) will run on and make useful machines you were slating for the ecostation. A P4 with a single core can be had for a song almost anywhere, yet running Kubuntu would be easily capable of any task one would imagine surfing the web or writing letters, etc.
It’s free to try and can be done without disturbing your existing OS and stands to offer you functionality, gaming and education apps that are both competitive with the most expensive of paid apps, and completely free! It’s no wonder this is catching on like mad. The big two are in trouble.
Older laptops which would groan under the wieght of Windows 7 – like my Inspiron 640m – literally scream under linux. I routinely use my laptop to process large RAW files and balance them in DigiKam. A laptop like this can be had for under $200 in most places. There is no reason everyone could not be let out of the computing corral to swim with me free and without a digital overlord to define what we should and should not do with our computers.