Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The month Microsoft lost me...

This month I turned 27, maybe that's got something to do with this, maybe not, but something about me has changed. The tide has turned, and boy has it turned. It's not that I've suddenly gone anti-Microsoft, it's just that this month I started to think that my interests will be better served without them.

As changes go people might think that this is not a big deal, but for me it is. I have been mocked for most of my "adult" life for being very pro-Microsoft, and quite frankly for good reason. Until recently they've always done well by me. Not that they know this, I have had no direct contact with them, but they have been a major factor in my life as a techie up to this point.

In the beginning

You see I wasn't going to be a developer, in fact I wasn't going to be anything to do with computers. I was always going to be a sound engineer, I was going to mix live concerts, record the great orchestras and bands. But that was the early nineties, when I was in high school, and that was when the recording industry began to go digital. The first ADAT machines were launched, 8 track digital tape machines recording onto S-VHS video tape. It was when MIDI was branching out from simple drum machines and when SMPTE synching seemed like the most important task in the world.

Obviously to be the best sound engineer I knew that I had to learn all I could about this strange new digital world ... that was when I became hooked on computers. I saved up for 18 months till I could afford my first machine, a 486 with 8Mb RAM and 40Mb Hard disk. Wow, was that a machine that gave all it could. I still have most of the parts lying around, and the case has a Cyrix chip motherboard wedged in there now.

As a quick aside, it is funny how things stick with you. Even now, as I am writing code and designing systems, I still think of things as sound channels. Inputs are microphones which are pulled together in the mixer which can process the signals in many combinations to produce different sounds. Channels have outputs which can be fed back into other systems as inputs until one is considered the final output and fed back to the user.

Windows 3.1 - 2000

So back to our story. In those days I was a wet behind the ears computer newbie, and so Microsoft was king. I started with Windows 3.1, a great operating system but one which was bettered by Windows for Workgroups 3.1.1. Now that was the greatest of the pure 16bit operating systems from Microsoft. With its 32 bit filesystem access, add in WinG (the predecessor to DirectX) and the Win32 extensions (which given a push would run Office95) and you had a great and stable system.

Of course I was utterly fascinated with all of this and constantly consumed knowledge about computers. So much so that Win 3.1.1 was soon not enough. It was then that I first braved the world of beta operating systems, and for most of the next 5 years my computers always had some beta software on them, mostly the os.

I went through 5 different Win95 betas onto the production code, then Win95 OSR2 (when Microsoft finally got it right). After that came Windows NT 3.5.1 with the Alpha of the NT4 desktop (the first Win 95 like desktop for NT), that never really worked. Next up were a couple more Win 9x betas till finally the leaked (as in Microsoft Germany "accidentally" opened up the FTP server and didn't close it for a week) Windows 2000 code, at the point when it was still called NT5.

As another little aside, my friends found it hilarious that after warning me off of installing a Windows beta it booted up to reveal its build number as 666. This was the only beta I ever had trouble with, and in fact that wasn't Windows' fault.

I love Windows 2000, I still use it at work, and at home I am writing this on Windows 2000. But that is soon to change.

What I really need

So we are back to present day, and the title of this post tells you that something has changed, that I am, or at least am about to, move away from my reliance on Microsoft. I suppose it started towards the end of last year. In fact last autumn, when I began to start coding at home again, trying to recapture the fun of being a developer. I was really starting to get back into it when the proverbial "shit" hit the fan at work, and so began another drawn out sequence of late nights in the office, some right through till morning. This obviously put somewhat of a crimp in my home coding time.

Flash forward to January of this year when a good friend of mine is living on my sofa after having just moved to London. He wants to use my computer to hunt for jobs on the net, but it doesn't appear to be playing ball. I've not use it for three months by now, so I really don't know what state it is in, but something has definitely gone wrong, at the BIOS level. It's old anyway, so I don't really bother fixing it, thinking I'll get another one soon.

Flash forward again to the summer, and I actually want to, finally, get back into my home coding and still have not fixed my computer. It's just about usable, if I reset the BIOS on each boot.

At around this time I got an offer of some old machines from a friend of mine who works for a large London university. These machines are old, slow, but I had a need for a few specialist servers for running CVS/Maven/Tomcat etc and these seemed to fit the bill. However I knew that they would have to be running Linux to be able to get any real use out of them. Beside I like to remain legal and the thought of paying for that many MS Windows Server licenses freaked me out.

At that point I had decided to set up three of my computers as servers with Linux, keep this one as Windows for .NET testing and running my Matrox rt2500 with Adobe Premier and get a new workstation. Then a thought struck me, I asked myself, "What is it you really want to be doing on your computer?" and the answer was simple. Write code and articles.

The wonderful world of Open Source

As a developer I understand and truly appreciate the world of Open Source. I use OS APIs all the time at work and at home, and as I'm sure you've read in my other posts, my company is about to release all of our software as Open Source. Perhaps this had something to do with it as well, maybe I was finally ready to shed the shackles of commercial software reliance.

Or perhaps not.

The Novell Effect

I've always liked Novell. I went to a presentation from them the year they launched NDS (Novell Directory Services) and it blew me away (that was when I still wanted to be a network guy not a programmer), it also made me want to cry because I knew that they had already blown it and were being quickly overtaken by Microsoft. But I guess I underestimated them. Their come back with Linux has been inspired, I don't think they could have done it better.

Porting Novell Netware to run on Linux is a no brainer, but buying Suse so they could offer a version of Linux with their convoluted Unix IP insulating people from the insanity grenade that is SCO and their lawyers, is fantastic.

But they have gone further than that, fully embracing the Open Source world and becoming a partner with it. So I guess the imminent release of Suse Professional 9.2 probably had something to do with it as well.

Linux and me

So I had asked and answered my question about what I really wanted to use my PC for and Linux offered it all. I had realised the cost of legally supporting Microsoft on all my machines and almost fainted and finally Novell had entered the game and really impressed me. So here I am, enjoying the last few weeks of Windows before I say goodbye to it, at least for now.

I cannot, and will not say that I will never be back. To tell you the truth all the Longhorn stuff I've seen looks and sounds really great (even without WinFS). But right now Linux is the right choice, I know this. I think Microsoft has some really big troubles ahead of it, they are on for a 2006/7 release of Longhorn, where will the Linux desktop and server be by then? Another 4 or 5 releases, another kernel. Look at the money that is pouring into Linux from IBM, Novell and Sun. I've enjoyed my time using Microsoft software, I still won't say much against it, but I am really looking forward to my time with Linux.

Final aside. Although I had already made my decision to move to Linux, something else happened that would have pushed me over the edge anyway. PC Pro, a fairly Microsoft leaning magazine, did a group test of Office software. This is the first time they've done a group test like this that I can remember since Office 95. In the test Open Office won (with Star Office recomended for businesses that wanted to pay for the support). They went to great lengths to say that it did not win simply because it's free. To me that's about the biggest IT news of the year!

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