Moving to freedom, one step at a time

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Time to get on with the move. Giving up Windows is like kicking a drug habit. It’s easier to take the path of least resistance and keep using. If quitting proprietary software was a twelve step program—although, let’s not push the analogy too far—maybe after admitting we were powerless over our proprietary programs, coming to believe that a Higher Power could restore us to Freedom, and so on and so forth, maybe we’d... make a searching and fearless inventory of cross-platform free programs we could run on Windows first so that a new operating system wouldn’t be entirely alien when we finally sobered up and moved to GNU/Linux?

Or something like that.

Hi! I’m new around here. First I’d like to say thanks to Free Software Magazine for inviting me to start a blogging account. I have minimal free software credentials but I think this works for the angle I’m pursuing: how to make the switch to free software.

(In the interest of shameless self-promotion, I’ll point out that I’m also writing about this and related topics in my blog:

Where I’ve been and where I’d like to go

I’m not here to bash Microsoft. (Well, not that much, anyway.) I like using Windows and many other proprietary programs. I’m comfortable in my Microsoft world: productive with the operating system and applications that I use today.

But I’ve been interested in the free software movement since first learning about it in 1998. The idea of using GNU/Linux was immediately appealing to me, yet I’ve failed to start using it in several attempts over the years. The switching costs have been very high: mainly the time to learn the new OS and migrate all my programs and data. I know Windows very well and feel helpless when confronted with a Linux box of my own to administer.

Still, I kept reading about free software and using free programs when available on Windows. I’ve come to believe strongly in the principle of free software. Even if it gave me a good buzz, I knew I needed to quit Windows.

This summer I read Free Software, Free Society and it pushed me over the edge into taking action (again!). I’d previously read some of the essays included in the book and other articles by RMS, but this time I really felt inspired to not only start using it myself but to be more vocal in promoting the free software movement. Will I succeed this time? I think writing about the migration is one way to reinforce the process. Don’t let me fall off the wagon again!

Onward and upward

I look forward to writing in excruciating detail about the principles of the free software movement and a free society in the weeks ahead, but for today let’s start by talking about practical and measurable steps to freedom. As mentioned above, one thing we can do to prepare is start using free software on Windows. (Same goes for the Mac, obviously, but I’m going to talk about what I know.) I’ve been using Firefox for a few years now and several months ago switched from Eudora to Thunderbird for email. More recently I started using These are all great applications and it’s good to know they’ll be there on GNU/Linux when I cross over. It’s kind of like packing up boxes for the move.

Now let’s work on preparing the new home. It’s not that hard to install a GNU/Linux distribution on a machine, but then what do you do? It’s easy for me to procrastinate going in there and getting my hands dirty. Where do I want to start? What is the first step? So many applications, so much data.

Maybe it would help to begin with a more limited goal. And I’ve found one, which I’ll introduce with some background:

Clinging to the old ways

Last year I purchased an old IBM P3 with Windows 2000 on it for $100. Eeyore was mainly being used by my wife for web browsing (including web email) and for working on Excel spreadsheets from her work. I hadn’t intended to move that machine to GNU/Linux right away, but then recently it started acting up. I didn’t want to invest the time in troubleshooting and fixing it, but I also wasn’t prepared to move it to GNU/Linux. So like a junkie going for a fix, I tried reinstalling Windows. I guess I just wasn’t ready to commit to freedom.

Then the reinstall didn’t go so well. This was unusual. Let me back up and defensively proclaim that I’m not a serial reinstaller. Windows 2000 and XP have been stable for me and I’ve almost always been able to work my way through OS problems without resorting to starting over. When I have installed Windows, it’s usually pretty straight-forward. I was suspicious in this case of a hardware problem. Again, I didn’t want to expend a lot of effort on an old machine and a platform I was trying to leave behind.

But still my dependency controlled me. I saw that Dell had some cheap computers for sale in the $300-$400 range that came installed with (of course) Windows XP Home. I thought maybe I should get one to take over Eeyore’s duties. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having XP Home instead of Pro, but I rationalized that it was just for Internet and spreadsheets maybe I could live with it. It would be so much easier to get it and be done with that machine until later, at which time hopefully some distribution of GNU/Linux would run on the hardware...

No. This is just so wrong. First of all, it’s clinging to the Windows teat. Secondly, I haven’t been very happy with the last machine I bought from Dell and don’t want to give them any more business than I have to at the moment. It would be like going back to an abusive partner. (Dell: “Trust me, it’s going to be different this time.")

No, really, onward!

So, I’ve decided to try putting Ubuntu (or possibly Xubuntu) on that box. All it needs to do is run Firefox and I’ve verified that OO.o Calc will handle the spreadsheets. I like having this narrow set of requirements -- it seems much more manageable.

Maybe the box is dying, in which case I’ll have to consider the next step. Despite my earlier temptation, I don’t want to spend even $300 on a new machine right now. It seems like I should be able to dig something up for much less or even for free. And that’s one of the joys of free software, that if I do try to reanimate some old machine I’ll be able to throw an operating system on it for nothing, and I’ll have options if it’s not the latest and greatest hardware.

I hope I can stay with the program this time. However, if quitting Windows represents sobriety, why does the thought of using free software seem so... intoxicating?


Reusable with this attribution, and please note if modifications are made: Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2006. Originally published in Free Software Magazine. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-2.5).



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

If you have Firefox, you can find manual how to easily speed up Firefox over speed up firefox

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The drug habit analogy is an interesting one. I'll have to give it some more thought. Personally I have been fond of saying that the continued use of Windows is analogous to living in an abusive relationship. The parallels are striking.

Scott Carpenter's picture

Ha! --> "You have trouble ending the relationship, even though you know inside it's the right thing to do."

Thanks for your comment and the link. I agree with your disclaimer on that page (it is yours?) -- I had some concern about offending some people that might think I was making light of drug addiction and abusive relationships. That wasn't my intent at all, either. I don't know that the addiction analogy is all that great but it gave me some mileage in writing about the move.


Terry Hancock's picture

I was kind of lucky, because I was using a combination of Sun Solaris and Macintosh "system something or other" on what I guess was a "G4" in 1998-99[*] at work, so I was only using my home system for play anyway and had no particular motivation to be Windows compatible. After an incredibly depressing ordeal at trying to download a copy of Debian "Slink" over dialup, I realized the incredible value-for-money of cheap mail-order CDs.

Then I installed the system. It was pretty awful as a desktop, but I was intrigued by some of the "Unix" software that I could run which used to be inaccessible to me. Especially all those free compilers (I had suffered a lot trying to pay for compilers on DOS and Windows on "academic discounts" and the like). I mostly program for fun, not profit, so I was pretty hesitant to pop out hundreds of dollars for a compiler even before I realized there was an alternative.

But I just bulldozed my way through, and managed to get it to do the things I needed most. I used the (non-free) Netscape browser for a long time, until Mozilla finally caught up in performance (i.e. went to 1.0).

The desktop experience has improved enormously since then, of course.

[*] Clearly, I was not the one who picked Macintosh as the work platform. There was nothing especially wrong with it, but I've never been a particular fan of Macs, mainly because they've always been pricey. However, Solaris and Mac platforms have been very popular in the scientific community for a long time (because they are nice, and someone else is usually picking up the tab!).

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I started my journy into Linux a few years ago on an old AMD K6-400 that had finally given up the windows ghost. One of my admin friends loaded up Debian and while I loved the system I hated the fact that I didn't know how to administer it.

I bought a HP laptop soon after and after Windows got taken out by a particuarly bad case of Spyware I decided I was going to try out linux. I wanted a 'starter' distro to play with found the Xandros 3.0 Open Circulation edition and installed it. It was much better then installing windows and I learned a lot from it. I could administer my own system and I even was productive.

Once I got my feet wet with Xandros I felt confidant enough to handle a "main" distrobution and switched to Fedora Core 4. WOW! I loved the freedom I had. It worked great and I could do things in Linux I could only dream about on windows (like surf the net without spyware crashes :) ).

I've learned a lot about Linux just because I dived into it. That's the best way to do it. Take "Eeyore" and give him a spin under linux. Just remember, you have to find the Distro for you (and Eeyore if you have hardware issues). If you don't like Ubunut, try Mepis. Mepis isn't your cup of tea, give SUSE a shot. It's a bit uncomfortable to begin with but it's worth it. After a few months you won't miss windows and after a year you'll really wonder WHY you used it in the first place.

And when your trying to figure out if it's worth it...go shopping for a new PC. Just the whole "No windows CD for you" thing is enough to make you scream.

Linux is a much better way to go and if you have friends who can help you...more power to you. Either way, give it a shot. You'll be glad you did.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I'd suggest using Ubuntu or Kubuntu if you're looking for a beginner's system, as the respective graphical environments Gnome and KDE support, for instance, setting up the printer and other system settings. XFce on the other hand (in Xubuntu) doesn't try to be more than a window manager and doesn't have such utilities, which makes some administration tasks harder for the beginner. (I still prefer XFce to the others, but that's just me.)


Scott Carpenter's picture

Thanks, Robin. I probably will try Ubuntu first. (Soon, hopefully!) No printer to set up on this one, but still.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Dear Scott, preparing for a migration is like preparing for your wedding - a lot of details you haven't thought about and everyone has an opinion. :-) 2 is not Microsoft Office
GIMP is not Adobe Photoshop.
GTK 2 with XP theme is not Windows XP
Kontact or Evolution is not Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express
Mozilla Firefox is not Microsoft Internet Explorer
Tremulous is not Halo.
Printers/scanners/other periferals need drivers - do have them?

Don't get me wrong - migrate - just without the migraine. Prepare the whole family.

Most of the above software is available for Microsoft Windows, so install that and live with it for three months - yes, three months. Using either Cygwin or a LiveCD, let your family try to do what they normally do - how to find files, what menues to navigate, where is that extra hard drive if it is not mounted and how to mount it. The hardest part is probably the introduction of privileged/unpriviliged users. On Windows XP it's completely broken, on GNU/Linux it works like a charm, but if you don't know it is there and assume Windows-pre2000, they're in for a nasty surprise.

Don't surprise the family who love you now. They cannot install none-GNU/Linux binaries and assume they will run. Muvee, copyprotected WMA files, fun/popular utilities don't work. WINE will probably suck a lot of the time, then again you may be lucky. You need have the alternatives ready BEFORE they get angry because this or that DOESN'T WORK, DAD! You don't want Microsoft Windows back on that machine before dinner, do you? Do you know enough, or do you need to educate yourself a bit more? LiveCD, LiveCD, LiveCD - and a paper notebook! :-)

Installation wise, a dual-boot with Microsoft Windows as the first alternative, autostarted after 3 seconds if GNU/Linux is not chosen, will probably be a good idea AFTER A BACKUP. I would have chosen openSUSE 10.1 myself, because you're up and running in 15 minutes, but Ubuntu is probably a very good choice too.

Good luck, Scott!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I know it's only in beta and just barely gotten it's feet wet but maybe you could try Freespire on Eeyore? Freespire comes in a LiveCD as well so it will cost you literally nothing to try. That said, I have not tried it myself but I do have a CD ready to give it a go! :-)

Just wanted to add my .02 about U/K/Xubuntu and my experience. I've been using Kubuntu for just over a year now as my exclusive desktop. As many have already stated, you'll wonder why you didn't jump in much sooner.


Scott Carpenter's picture

Unfortunately, Eeyore is dead. Thanks for mentioning Freespire. I had heard of the other member of the Spire family, Lin, but not the bastard stepchild, Free. It was interesting to read about both at Wikipedia.

Scott Carpenter's picture

Hi! Thank you for your thoughtful comment and good advice. In this case I'm fortunate that so far my wife is the only other one who uses this computer, and she really does stick to web browsing and spreadsheets. She has started using OO.o Calc on Windows and it's going ok. She did comment that one of the conveniences that Excel offers wasn't there so I need to investigate to see if there is a similar feature available. I need to be responsive to this most important "user" :-)

I have a baby daughter but she is a few years away from using a computer. (Although I did have her hammering on the keyboard the other day.) This poor kid will be relentlessly indoctrinated in the free software ideology, but I hope I don't turn her in to one of those kids that is so political at a young age. She needs to have fun and not worry about the politics for a good dozen years or so. If I do my job well, she'll be fluent in both GNU/Linux and in Windows and will wonder why anyone would want to use Windows if they had any choice in the matter. And hopefully not be unbearably smug about the whole thing. And of course, I realize that none of my plans will go the way I imagine.


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Hey Scott, that's a fun read, thanks! I feel I'm in a similar situation, having used Windows for over 10 years. I also use and advocate free (as in speech) software whenever I can (Firefox, Thunderbird, oOo, Eclipse, Audacity, Miranda, etc.) and run Ubuntu on a spare machine at home so I can play with it. The one thing that's always kept me from making the switch is the jerky-window-interface, the undesirable tearing-windows effect that's been haunting me since I first started my Linux adventure little over a year ago. My desktop just feels sluggish compared to XP. I've tried out all sorts of desktop environments (KDE, Gnome, Xfce & Blackbox) on different machines (also dual booting with XP on my 2.8 Mhz 2GB machine). Roamed lots of topics at the Ubuntu forums and tried different guides and howto's. As much as I learned from all that, it hasn't solve my problem. It just never feels as responsive as good ol' Windows does. I do have high hopes for Compiz & XGL, and I heard it will be supported in Edgy Eft, so perhaps that will do the trick for me.

Anyway, thanks for the article!


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on


I am no expert. But... I moved to Linux *because* Windows XP was sluggish! I found Linux much, much faster and more responsive.

Maybe you had a problem with your video drivers? I don't know. I am no expert. But... well, I just wanted to say that I had the OPPOSITE experience!

Scott Carpenter's picture

Hi, ap. You're welcome and thanks for your comment!

I really like the feel of the Windows interface. It feels polished to me, compared to what I first see when I experiment with GNU/Linux GUIs. I think part of it is from not being familiar with the new environment. I don't know about the tweaks and shortcuts that are available. So I expect some issues to be resolved by learning how to use Gnome or KDE or whatever. But I also expect some things just won't work as well.

For the most part with free software, I think it is as good and better as its proprietary counterparts, but I also think there are going to be some sacrifices to be made. GNU/Linux doesn't have to do everything I do today in the same way -- I'll still make the switch.

BitShifter's picture

True, windows is a hard habit to break. I'm new at this free software thing so I don't really have a lot to say about this. But thanks to you, I'm slowly learning what's best to use. Give me a couple of months and I'll be kissing windows goodbye! Thanks and keep up the good work!

Author information

Scott Carpenter's picture


Scott Carpenter has been lurking around the fringe of the free software movement since 1998 and in 2006 started a more concentrated effort to "move to freedom." (Chronicled at the Moving to Freedom blog:

He has worked as a professional software developer/analyst since 1997, currently in enterprise application integration.

(Views expressed here and at are strictly his own and do not represent those of his employer. Nor of miscellaneous associates including friends and family. Nor of his dog. It's possible they're representative of his cats' opinions, but unlikely. Void where prohibited. Local sales tax applies.)