Moving to freedom, one step at a time

Time to get on with the move. Giving up Windows is like kicking a drug habit. It’s easier to take the path of least resistance and keep using. If quitting proprietary software was a twelve step program—although, let’s not push the analogy too far—maybe after admitting we were powerless over our proprietary programs, coming to believe that a Higher Power could restore us to Freedom, and so on and so forth, maybe we’d... make a searching and fearless inventory of cross-platform free programs we could run on Windows first so that a new operating system wouldn’t be entirely alien when we finally sobered up and moved to GNU/Linux?

Or something like that.

Hi! I’m new around here. First I’d like to say thanks to Free Software Magazine for inviting me to start a blogging account. I have minimal free software credentials but I think this works for the angle I’m pursuing: how to make the switch to free software.

(In the interest of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that I’m also writing about this and related topics in my blog:

Where I’ve been and where I’d like to go

I’m not here to bash Microsoft. (Well, not that much, anyway.) I like using Windows and many other proprietary programs. I’m comfortable in my Microsoft world: productive with the operating system and applications that I use today.

But I’ve been interested in the free software movement since first learning about it in 1998. The idea of using GNU/Linux was immediately appealing to me, yet I’ve failed to start using it in several attempts over the years. The switching costs have been very high: mainly the time to learn the new OS and migrate all my programs and data. I know Windows very well and feel helpless when confronted with a Linux box of my own to administer.

Still, I kept reading about free software and using free programs when available on Windows. I’ve come to believe strongly in the principle of free software. Even if it gave me a good buzz, I knew I needed to quit Windows.

This summer I read Free Software, Free Society and it pushed me over the edge into taking action (again!). I’d previously read some of the essays included in the book and other articles by RMS, but this time I really felt inspired to not only start using it myself but to be more vocal in promoting the free software movement. Will I succeed this time? I think writing about the migration is one way to reinforce the process. Don’t let me fall off the wagon again!

Onward and upward

I look forward to writing in excruciating detail about the principles of the free software movement and a free society in the weeks ahead, but for today let’s start by talking about practical and measurable steps to freedom. As mentioned above, one thing we can do to prepare is start using free software on Windows. (Same goes for the Mac, obviously, but I’m going to talk about what I know.) I’ve been using Firefox for a few years now and several months ago switched from Eudora to Thunderbird for email. More recently I started using These are all great applications and it’s good to know they’ll be there on GNU/Linux when I cross over. It’s kind of like packing up boxes for the move.

Now let’s work on preparing the new home. It’s not that hard to install a GNU/Linux distribution on a machine, but then what do you do? It’s easy for me to procrastinate going in there and getting my hands dirty. Where do I want to start? What is the first step? So many applications, so much data.

Maybe it would help to begin with a more limited goal. And I’ve found one, which I’ll introduce with some background:

Clinging to the old ways

Last year I purchased an old IBM P3 with Windows 2000 on it for $100. Eeyore was mainly being used by my wife for web browsing (including web email) and for working on Excel spreadsheets from her work. I hadn’t intended to move that machine to GNU/Linux right away, but then recently it started acting up. I didn’t want to invest the time in troubleshooting and fixing it, but I also wasn’t prepared to move it to GNU/Linux. So like a junkie going for a fix, I tried reinstalling Windows. I guess I just wasn’t ready to commit to freedom.

Then the reinstall didn’t go so well. This was unusual. Let me back up and defensively proclaim that I’m not a serial reinstaller. Windows 2000 and XP have been stable for me and I’ve almost always been able to work my way through OS problems without resorting to starting over. When I have installed Windows, it’s usually pretty straight-forward. I was suspicious in this case of a hardware problem. Again, I didn’t want to expend a lot of effort on an old machine and a platform I was trying to leave behind.

But still my dependency controlled me. I saw that Dell had some cheap computers for sale in the $300-$400 range that came installed with (of course) Windows XP Home. I thought maybe I should get one to take over Eeyore’s duties. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having XP Home instead of Pro, but I rationalized that it was just for Internet and spreadsheets maybe I could live with it. It would be so much easier to get it and be done with that machine until later, at which time hopefully some distribution of GNU/Linux would run on the hardware...

No. This is just so wrong. First of all, it’s clinging to the Windows teat. Secondly, I haven’t been very happy with the last machine I bought from Dell and don’t want to give them any more business than I have to at the moment. It would be like going back to an abusive partner. (Dell: “Trust me, it’s going to be different this time.”)

No, really, onward!

So, I’ve decided to try putting Ubuntu (or possibly Xubuntu) on that box. All it needs to do is run Firefox and I’ve verified that OO.o Calc will handle the spreadsheets. I like having this narrow set of requirements -- it seems much more manageable.

Maybe the box is dying, in which case I’ll have to consider the next step. Despite my earlier temptation, I don’t want to spend even $300 on a new machine right now. It seems like I should be able to dig something up for much less or even for free. And that’s one of the joys of free software, that if I do try to reanimate some old machine I’ll be able to throw an operating system on it for nothing, and I’ll have options if it’s not the latest and greatest hardware.

I hope I can stay with the program this time. However, if quitting Windows represents sobriety, why does the thought of using free software seem so... intoxicating?


Reusable with this attribution, and please note if modifications are made: Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2006. Originally published in Free Software Magazine. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-2.5).


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.