Every time I write about computing on the Windows platform here, particularly when discussing problems, I can be assured that I’ll get at least a dozen comments/emails from folks encouraging me to switch to Linux because it’s the most secure and stable operating system in the universe. I’ve only dabbled in Linux previously, having used it mainly because my webhosts are all Linux based, but since taking on the new job some two months ago I’ve had to become a lot more familiar with it. Specifically I’ve had to get to know Ubuntu Linux rather quickly as it’s the primary distro used here at the office. I’ve mentioned before how one of the tasks assigned to me was to put together a Ubuntu based kiosk for the scanners to use when on break to browse the web. I’ve made a lot of progress since I started on that project, but there’s still a bit to go before it’s completely done. I’m still far from a Linux expert, but I’m much further along than I was when I started two months ago. Installing the OS and various packages is no longer a knuckle biting experience and I’m getting quite comfortable with VIM despite the fact that I hate it.
One of the things I’ve noticed in that time is that the much vaunted stability that Linux is supposed to be known for is largely a myth; or at least it appears to be for me. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t have ant least one crash that requires me to completely reboot the laptop to get it working again and there are often several crashes during the day that I manage to recover from. When you consider that I spend around 85% of my time running nothing other than Firefox 3 and Pidgin, that’s an impressive bit of crashing. Just getting a malfunctioning program to close is an annoying process and half the time it doesn’t restore the system to a usable state. Logging out of the system using the CTRL-ALT-BACKSPACE key combination and then logging back in will fix things once every six times or so that I try it. Every now and then I’ll get lucky and an application will freeze up, the window turning an ominous gray, and then unfreeze on its own after a couple of moments for no discernible reason.
Now I accept that it’s possible I could just be a dumb fuck who’s doing something wrong and causing his own problems, but I find that difficult to believe because I’m not really doing anything all that advanced. I’m running a web browser and an IM chat client—two things that hardly ever crash on my Windows XP box at home. I’m sure I’ll get tons of emails about how some folks have had their Linux workstations working non-stop for 10 years with nary a crash in sight, but, based on my own experiences with it, I can only imagine it’s because you never do anything with it. I say this because I have two laptops here, both running Ubuntu, and the one that doesn’t crash at least once a day is the one that I only touch occasionally to check the web based workstation monitor on. It seems as long as I don’t do much with it then it runs along just fine, but if I spend any amount of time using it it gets all pissy. I’ve been good about patching things when the little icon shows up and says there’s important updates to be installed—something which is a near-daily exercise as well—and I’ve been scanning the web looking for info on what may be causing the issues and there’s a whole host ranging from the various hardware drivers in use to issues with some Firefox plugins.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to like about Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular, it’s a shit load easier to install than it used to be for example, but from the standpoint of an every day user I have to say that this crashes at least as often as any Windows installation does and is about ten times harder to diagnose as to why. For as far along as the GUI has come on Linux, it still seems like if you really want to be sure the changes you make take hold and you’re seeing all there is to see that you have to open a command line and wade through endless text based configuration files and logs which, if you’re lucky, might be semi-readable in content. I recognize that my years of using Windows makes it seem easier to use in some respects, but I don’t think it’s all an illusion brought on by familiarity either. I’m sure some of this will become easier to diagnose as I become ever more familiar with Linux in my day to day use, but at the moment I’m less than impressed with its much-vaunted aura of stability.