We are conditioned as users to think our choice of computer operating systems is binary — Mac or Windows. It’s an ancient tech rivalry, spawned by two of the most renowned entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley history, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And, of course, there were those twee commercials in the 2000s with actor John Hodgman famously embodying the clueless Windows PC.
There is, however, another option that gets less attention: Linux. An open-source operating system, Linux has long been popular for webservers and other enterprise-type functions. But now there are an increasing number of consumer-focused versions of Linux out there, of increasing quality that makes switching over easier than ever.
I can vouch, as someone who switched over the version of Linux called Ubuntu about six years ago, that it works just fine as my day-to-day laptop OS. I email, surf the web, write documents, and do a bunch of other tasks just fine (or better) than when I was using Windows and Mac.
My reasons for switching were very similar to those of veteran tech columnist and journalism professor Dan Gillmor, who has written very eloquently about his own switch on several occasions. If this is something you think you might want to do, I’d highly recommend you check out Dan’s 2016 piece in Wired in particular, as it contains a bunch of useful nitty-gritty that still holds up pretty well today.
As an open piece of software, Ubuntu gives me full control to tinker and customize my computer however I like. Crucially, to borrow a phrase from Dan, it also frees me from the increasing “control freakery” of Apple and Microsoft.
The only thing I’d add is that, for me, using Ubuntu for my desktop computing has also had the unexpected knock-on effect of drawing me deeper into using Android for mobile. Android is based on Linux, so it “plays” very nicely with my Ubuntu computer. My phone mounts as a readable drive on my computer via USB, and I can add or remove whatever files I want directly to it that way.
In this way, I’ve created a personal computing “ecosystem” that works very well for me across all my devices, including greater compatibility with any new tools I might add to the system as I go. You can’t really do that with the big tech companies’ proprietary stuff, as they tend to purposely make their products not work with those of competitors.
Purists would point out that the version of Android you get on consumer phones isn’t really open software. The developer’s version of Android is, but not what the one you get at your local mobile carrier store, including additional proprietary customizations. Using Android does thus put me somewhat in the clutches of another tech giant — Google. But I find that problem a little easier to mitigate, mostly through purposely avoiding Google’s software and services, setting defaults for non-Google apps, and so on.
For instance, my default browser is mobile Firefox, not Chrome. My default search engine is DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track my personal details in the same way that Google search does. And so on.
This approach to mobile is an imperfect workaround, I’ll admit. But it just underscores the lack of truly viable open-source options in that world.
That said, there’s a promising mobile version of Ubuntu that’s been in the works for awhile. I’m not using it as my “daily driver” for mobile quite yet, but I have been tinkering with it on an older phone recently. I could definitely see making a full-on switch to it at some point, especially when they add compatibility with Android apps, as the core developer community for the OS is planning. So stay tuned.