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Why Linux?


The Question

Why use Linux? How is it still relevant?

These are important questions in the 10's. Go to any Linux User Group meeting and you'll likely see many of the same individuals as you'd have seen there in 1998, now sporting gray hair. Linux people still use laptops and even desktops, for gosh sakes. Where's the relevance to 2015?

Why would anyone whose entire tech career has taken place in the 21st century be interested in Linux? Let's face it, isn't Linux just a neckbeard technology whose Boomer and GenX adherents can't let go? Who in their right mind lugs around a laptop in 2015? Who in their right mind cares what OS their device runs? It's just an appliance.

Why would anyone want an OS that constantly needs tweaking? Don't Apple devices, including Mac Laptops, just work? So you can get your work done without playing Mr. IT?

These are all very legitimate questions. They need answers.

The Answers

Let's start with the easiest answer first. If you need to deploy a server, whether direct metal or as a VM, Linux or one of the BSD's is your best choice. Performance, stability, ease of licensing, all the things a server must be, is what Linux delivers. This is nothing new, we've known it since very early in the century. Heavily used servers are rarely deployed on iPads, Androids, or even full power Mac or Windows computers. More and more every day, servers are deployed using Linux or one of the BSDs, and Linux is the most popular and has the most applications.

If you need to deploy a server, Linux is what you need.

Which does nothing to answer the question: "Why should I haul around a Linux laptop?"

The preceding is really two questions: "Why should I haul around a laptop?", and "Why should I use Linux on a laptop. The first question is easy: Those who consume content use devices, but those who produce content use computers with full keyboards. The programmer needing to produce a couple hundred lines of code per day isn't going to do it with his thumbs. The author needing to pound out 2000 words of content per day won't use his thumbs.

Nevertheless, use of a laptop rules out the majority: The guy whose main work product is top-posting "I'll be there" on a meeting email. Only the minority of us produce enough content to justify a bulky full keyboard. But there are still plenty in that category.

What makes this minority truly small is the second question: "Why run Linux on my laptop?" Go to any Ruby on Rails meeting, any Python meeting, any web technology meeting, and you'll see Apple laptops as far as the eye can see. If they see you running Linux, they'll say "When your time gets as valuable as mine, you'll switch to a Mac, because it just works, right out of the box, for anything you want to do!"

Without commenting on the implicit elitism of their statements, the fact is, they're right. They don't spend time getting their user interface "just right." They don't have to redo their user interface every time a software update messes with it. Their Wifi always works. You can get a good-enough Mac laptop for $1200, and never need to tweak your work environment again. Sure, you save $600 to $800 buying a commodity laptop and putting Linux on it, but given the hours of tweaking, there's no economic justification if you're well paid for your work.

There's only one reason you'd choose a Linux laptop over a Mac one: DIY. If you're a Do It Yourself kind of person, you'll understand the attraction of Linux on your laptop within a few days. You control every last bit of software on the computer. You control the user interface, and tailor it to your exact preferences. It's your computer, you know every last software component of your computer, and can make it do almost anything.

If you're not a DIY kind of person, no amount of convincing will tempt you away from your Mac.

This is the Decade of DIY

It might surprise you to hear me say that the '10s are the decade of DIY. After all, people are leaving do-anything computers for appliance devices in ever increasing numbers. Every year, the definition of "tech-savvy" changes ever-farther to "I know which link to click." As time goes on, the ability to program in C, or even in Python, is ever more viewed as an irrelevant hobby. The vast majority continue to lose control over the operation of our possessions.

But the abdication of DIY is anything but universal.

If you're one of the people participating in the Hacker Spaces and Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires across the country, you know DIY is more accessible than ever before. You know that when you put a Raspberry Pi computer into a project, you're not just building a radio kit or a robot kit, even if what you build turns out to be a radio or a robot. The Raspberry Pi lets you build it your way, to your specifications. And you know that when you use a Raspberry Pi, you want to use Linux, because that runs on them, it's the best supported OS that runs on them, and it's the most DIY OS that runs on them.

So join your local LUG. What they can give you is decades of broad and deep Linux knowledge. A Linux perspective resistant to bad-idea fads. A perspective all the way down to C language kernel calls. And what you can give them is something new and interesting: Linux as more than just what keeps their laptops and servers running.

Two more things. First, once you've tasted DIY, it's hard to go back. After you've had complete control over a computer, you'll feel constrained operating your laptop the way Steve Jobs or Bill Gates decided you should operate it.

Secondly, always remember that the opposite of DIY is HIDTY.

Consider the Possibilities

If you're an old time Linux guy, consider the very practical things that you can do with a Raspberry Pi, leveraging the Raspberry Pi's advantages of low noise, low power, and tiny size:

Most of the old-time Linux guys I know already have good solder stations, protoboards, meters, and pretty much everything else you need to make such a project. If you've always wanted to make a certain type of thing, consider whether you could do it with a Raspberry Pi.