In a discussion which covered some of the differences between Linux and Windows, a Windows using friend asked me if I felt compassion for Windows users.
I feel some compassion for people who have bad working environments. While using an operating system that has poor support for the business tasks does decrease the quality of the working environment, there are bigger issues. For example a while ago I was doing some sys-admin work for a financial organisation. I had to use Windows for running the SSH client to connect to Linux servers, this was annoying and decreased my productivity due to the inability to script connections etc. My productivity was also decreased because of my unfamiliarity with the Windows environment, it seems reasonable to assume that when you hire a Linux sys-admin they will have some experience of Linux on the desktop and be quite productive with a Linux desktop system – while the same can not be said for a Windows desktop. But what really made the working environment awful was the paperwork and the procedures. If a server doesn’t work properly and someone says “please fix it now” and I only have a VT100 terminal then I’ll be reasonably happy with that work environment (really – I wouldn’t mind a contract where the only thing on my desk was a VT100 connected to a Linux server). But when a server process hangs in the same way several times a week, when the cause of the problem is known and the fix (restarting the process) is known it really pains me to have to wait for a management discussion about the scope of the problem before restarting it.
But I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for people who end up in bad working environments such as the one I was briefly in. Anyone who is capable of getting such a job is capable of getting a job with a better working environment while still earning significantly more than the median income. The people I feel sorry for are the ones who work on the minimum wage. I don’t think that the difference between Linux and Windows on the desktop would matter much if you were getting the minimum wage, and people who are on the minimum wage don’t have a lot of choice in regard to employment (I think that all options for them suck).
I don’t have much sympathy for adults who use Windows at home. I have to admit that there are some benefits to running Windows at home, mainly that the hardware vendors support it better (few companies sell PCs with Linux pre-loaded) and there are some commercial games which are in some ways better than the free games (of course there are more than enough free Linux games to waste all your time – and some games are best suited to a console). Linux has significantly lower hardware requirements than Windows (my main machine which I am using to write this blog post is more than three years old and has less power than any other machine on sale today apart from some ultra-mobile PCs), so any long-term Windows user can install Linux on one of their machines which lacks the resources to run the latest version of Windows.
The only Windows users for whom I have much sympathy are children. When I was young every PC came with a BASIC interpreter and everyone shared source code. Books were published which taught children how to program in BASIC which included fairly complete example programs. For the cases where proprietary software was needed the prices used to be quite low (admittedly the programs were much less complex – so pricing is probably in line with the effort or writing the code). Now it seems that computers are often being provided to children as closed systems that they can’t manipulate, the web browser has replaced the TV.
I believe that Linux is the ideal OS for a child to use. There is a wide range of free educational programs (including kturtle – the traditional Logo turtle) and there are also a range of free powerful programs which can be used by any child. Few parents would buy Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator for a child to play with, but anyone can give a child a $100 PC with GIMP and Inkscape installed. They might as well give 3yo children access to the GIMP – it will be less messy than fingerpainting!
I expect that some parents would not consider Linux for their children because they don’t know how to use it. Fortunately Linux is easy enough to use that a child can install it without effort. Some time ago the 11yo daughter of a friend who was visiting asked if she could play some computer games. I gave her a Fedora CD and one of the PCs from my test lab and told her that she had to install the OS first. Within a small amount of time she had Fedora installed and was playing games. While the games she played were not particularly educational, the fact that she could install the OS on a computer was a useful lesson.
It seems to me that children who are raised as Windows users are less likely to learn how computers work or be able to control them properly. I expect that on average a child who is raised in such a manner will have fewer career options in today’s environment than one who properly understands and controls computers.