Klaus Zimmermann's Corner

Throwback to when I first started using Linux

These past weeks, I became quite nostalgic regarding my past computing, remembering the times that surrounded my initial days around beginning to use GNU/Linux as a, until then, Windows-only user. I briefly covered that story once in my Peertube Channel, but only as a very brief introduction of the very "genesis" moment of it (plus it's pretty hard to record a podcast while playing a game properly).

It's important to record our own history and feel proud of it, however turns it took. It's no different with the software world, and I'll be sharing a little more about my own history here. Perhaps this will inspire new users to try their first GNU/Linux distribution, what to do or not when doing so, or only entertain seasoned users. At any rate, this sort of nostalgia is a fun passtime for me, so let's get it going.

From tragedy a new life begins

The date is February 2010. Windows 7 has been released for a few months now, PC sellers are rushing to substitute the failure of Vista with the new savior, while individual users are rushing to the stores to get over the train wreck. Apple launched an "affordable" line of Macbooks stripping down their price to "only" US$1000 to grab college students' pockets, and I'm sweating, staring at nothing short of a disaster.

My laptop has died.

Later, I would find out that it was only my hard drive that did, taking with it about 3 years' worth of data, but at this moment, I'm absolutely torn. No computer = end of the world in a digital sense. Game over.

What can I do now? Will I really have to resort to going to the library to do my assignments like a loser? Will I never again be able to work from the comfort of my room or chill by myself? Do I have to buy another computer and shell out precious and scarce money for it?

Luckily, my good friend next door, a "computer whiz" type for as much as I could infer at the time, had a spare laptop he could lend me for about a week until I got my laptop fixed. There was one condition, though: that machine ran "Linux." Was that okay by me? He asked. Seeing there would be no real alternative between that and having no computer at all in my spare time, I thought sure, what could be so bad, right?

Two things happened that afternoon: first, I discovered what a "netbook" was, a tiny, cute and very handy minilaptop. Second: I had my first experience with GNU/Linux - Ubuntu 9.04 to be exact. And just like that, there was I, someone who until then had never used any operating system besides Windows, diving head first into the world of GNU/Linux without any training wheels.

Painful experience? Surprisingly, no!

Either due to sheer luck or extreme competence by Ubuntu, everything was familiar, easy and efficient. The EEEPC 900, though modest in specs, worked very snappily, and had all the software I needed to do work: my familiar Firefox browser, OpenOffice that resembled closely enough the MS Office version I had used so far. I was even able to run the Tibia MMORPG client on it due to a standalone binary being available for Linux. Was this "Ubuntu" thing all that Linux was? If so, it was way less scary than so many people made it look like.

The party was over sooner rather than later, though, because the Netbook I had purchased arrived at the end of the week and thus I had no longer a good reason to keep using my friend's. My knowledge, however, had been forever changed: and I'd be looking forward to using Linux again - and soon.

"It's only when you've lost everything that we can have everything"

In hindsight, one thing that inadvertedly helped me at that point was my lack of almost any useful or precious personal data. When my PC fried, silly me at the time basically lost everything, forever - only a tiny amount of stuff got backed up to either Dropbox or my 4 GB flash drives (huge at the time). That, however, helped me shed my fear of trying out Linux: if something went bad and I had to format the disk, what had I to lose after all?

Losing all your data is not a pleasant thought and thankfully today I keep better backups of everything, but at the time it worked as a springboard of motivation for trying out those "risky things" related to computing. Today, I think that might be one of things that keep so many newcomers from giving Linux a real try.

That's some good "food for thought" as to how we could make the "transition" for Linux virgins as painless as possible: what could we suggest so as to make sure their data is not at jeopardy, and maybe making restoring it as easy as a single-click?

Since I had a limited experience with Linux in that week, the next question was: which one should I try?

Hop, hop, baby

Soon I Googled (yes, Googled it!) "linux distributions for beginners" or something similar and thus began my lengthy adventure down the rabbit hole known as distro-hopping. To my relative surprise today, the first result (or at least the one I ended up clicking anyway) that appeared was not Ubuntu. Can anyone take a guess what it actually was?

Fedora, actually. Which back then was releasing I think Laughlin.

Young me was very excited to download its ISO file, but then... what now? I still had not grokked that you had to do the burning to USB, plugging in, rebooting and choosing from the BIOS dance of Live Media, so I sat on the issue for a while. Cue in aforementioned Linux-mentor friend who explained to me the procedure, but also went ahead and mentioned the safety net of dual-booting: keep windows up the sleeve in case you don't like Linux.

That in itself introduced me to another problem: partitioning the disk to allow for both to coexist. During said attempt I naturally also messed that up and ended up with a messed-up system that would not boot anything again. Not giving up yet, I then decided to try again, but this time, I noticed another interesting distribution. This one promised the same great Ubuntu that I tried on my friend's, but suitable for Netbooks like my own. Which one?

That's right: EasyPeasy, the now-defunct conversion of Ubuntu for a netbook-oriented UI, was the first Linux distribution I ever installed and used from scratch on my own. And it was great: all the great software that I was used to was available as well, including Skype and even the then-unavoidable Flash player.

a screenshot of EasyPeasy Linux
The vanilla EasyPeasy UI. Seeing this green background theme and the applications being displayed like a mobile device again is so nostalgic for me!

I eventually got tired of the netbook UI and decided to try something that fit best a desktop, as I got an external monitor that didn't play very well with the UI. What were other distros out there that were friendly enough for me to try? Lots of them, actually. Distrohopping became commonplace for me, as though I was looking for a new home.

I then went on to try the other Ubuntu derivatives like Kubuntu (which at the time I regarded almost as a separate distro), afterwards PCLinuxOS which I found very interesting, got to know the amazing Puppy Linux (and made a habit to keep a LiveUSB of it with me ever since). I explored further the "netbook" fad with the Peppermint OS distribution and Crunchbang - this one introducing me to conky, another entire world of things to explore - and tried elive to see what this Enlightenment WM was all about. I gave Fedora a (short-lived) try again, and even tried GhostBSD for a change, but it would still be a good decade until I actually settled on BSD for good.

Distrohopping was fun while it lasted, but I realized that I had to eventually get back to serious use with one of them. If Linux was to be a serious Operating System, It had to be reliable and constantly usable. Which distribution would fulfill that gap?

Getting serious

Getting both feet back on the ground, I decided to settle on Ubuntu 10.04. Come to think of it, it didn't actually have any "killer features" of usability over other mature, generic-computing distros like Fedora or PCLinuxOS, but the main reason I chose it was the familiarity with its tools available, which I mostly got to know from the EasyPeasy days.

The software center presented a good one-stop shop to pretty much everything I needed, and soon I learned that typing commands in the terminal was much faster and better. The look of GNOME 2.x was very appealing to me coming from Windows XP not because it was familiar, but because it was different - it invited me to explore it. And it didn't feel like a toy, something "built for the netbook" unlike EasyPeasy, but rather a full-fledged OS that would suport all my requirements. Later I discovered Compiz and the deal was essentially closed with that desktop environment.

A firm foothold was established, I settled down, wiped clean my windows partition and moved all my data. I had finally become a full-time Linux User.

Reaching Linux-vana

The rest, as they say, is history, but little did I know at the time that my adventure was just beginning.

I would still pass through many phases of use such as Linux Fanboy, Microsoft Basher, "Open Source Google" supporter - later turned basher as well - Ubuntu lover, Ubuntu hater, Single-distro-evangelist, Terminal-only-aficionado (this one still lasting today), and many other ones that resemble one's troubled teenage years. Looking back, I can say that after a few years I reached the "Nirvana" of Linux usage, which I can summarize as:

Use whatever the hell suits you best, and be happy with it.

Free Software gives us many freedoms, and it's my belief that the single biggest one of them, larger than any of the four listed on the definition, is the freedom to choose. There's no single-sized solution in Free Software, so you can use it and combine it however you wish. This also means that you'll have to spend some time learning it, but that's the true joy of it.

Today, it's been about 11 years after that day my friend lent me his netbook, introducing me to the Free Software world. And funny thing is, I seem to have come back full circle with it by reproducing almost the same steps when I tried FreeBSD this year.

Who knows what turns could I have taken in my life had I not had the misfortune of losing my HDD at that exact moment? I can only wonder, but in hindsight, I'm thankful that it actually happened. Who knows what's reserved for my next 10 years of using Free Software? I sure don't, but I'm very excited to find out.

How did you start using Linux in your life? Share your story with me in Mastodon!

This post is number #13 of my #100DaysToOffload project. Follow my progress through Mastodon!

Last updated on 06/10/21