Rambling Thoughts from a Wandering Mind


Linux, Lubuntu, and free and open software

I recently installed GNU+Linux on my laptop. I’m running an Ubuntu-based distro called Lubuntu. It’s a very lightweight distro, designed for older hardware. It’s essentially Ubuntu with the LXDE desktop environment and a selection of lightweight programs (for example, AbiWord and Gnumeric instead of the more resource-intensive LibreOffice).

It’s simple and light. The GUI looks a bit old fashioned (it reminds me a little of Windows 95/98), but it runs great and has given new life to a device that’s seven or eight years old. I had installed Windows 10 when they were giving it away for free (not mentioning that it was constantly phoning home and collecting a ton of data on the user – something I should have suspected given that Microsoft has typically charged for their operating system). I’d read that it was supposed to run faster than Windows 7, even on old hardware. That turned out to be untrue. It ran terribly.

Windows 10 turned my laptop into a sluggish piece of junk. It was a chore to do anything. Something as simple as launching a browser to do something that couldn’t be accomplished on a website’s mobile version was frustratingly slow. It was painful to use and I seriously hated having to use my laptop.

Since installing Lubuntu, I haven’t had that feeling of dread. My laptop runs quickly again, even with Windows 10 lurking in the background (I kept my Windows partition, just in case I ever need it again). Lubuntu Linux is fast, effective and has made my laptop a joy to use. I actually look forward to doing stuff on my PC. I’m writing this document on my PC and LibreOffice is responding much quicker than it ever did on Windows (I rarely used MS Word, because I only had a limited free version, being unwilling to pay for the MS Office suite).

All in all, I’m loving Lubuntu and will likely remove Windows altogether if I find I haven’t needed to use it in six months’ time.

My newfound love of GNU+Linux has got me looking into free and open source software a lot more than I ever had in the past. I’ve used plenty of open source software. Some of it was also philosophically free software. But, until recently, I always thought of free software as being “free as in beer,” as they say. It didn’t cost money and it did what I needed it to do. I liked that it was free and sticking it to the man (usually Microsoft), but I didn’t think much about free software as a political/philosophical movement. The more I learn about the political side of it, the more I want to ditch proprietary software for the free alternative. I know that’s not always possible, and I’m pragmatic about it. There will likely be times when the best software for the task at hand will be non-free.

But I am becoming more selective about the software I use. I’ve switched from using Chrome as my primary browser to Firefox. And, while I still occasionally use Chrome on my mobile device (and at work, where it’s the default browser and I don’t have the option of installing Firefox), I haven’t installed it in Lubuntu. I’m using Chromium, the open source version of Chrome, instead. It’s effectively the same browser, minus a few non-free pieces of code, so it does the trick and even imported all my Chrome settings, bookmarks, et cetera when I signed in using my Google account (also arguably non-free, but it’s hard to avoid doing business with Google – they’re still the best search engine around[1] and I have yet to find an email service that works better than Gmail/Inbox[2]).

Just to take things to an even more ridiculous level, I haven’t added any proprietary fonts to my version of LibreOffice. Arial? Times New Roman? Nope, Microsoft owns those. So, although you can’t tell by looking at it on WordPress, this article was written in a font called Liberation Serif – a surprisingly preachy/pretentious name for a basic (and kinda ugly) serif font. I’ll probably have to abandon this particular piece of idealism at some point. If I ever apply for a new job, for example, using Microsoft fonts may be necessary to ensure the file displays properly on the employer’s computer if they don’t accept PDF applications. For now, though, I’m going to stick to just the free fonts that came pre-installed with Lubuntu. I’ll see how long I can get by without adding any proprietary fonts.

Why am I doing all of this? Well, partly because it’s made my life easier. I didn’t switch to GNU+Linux for political or philosophical reasons. I switched because Windows 10 doesn’t run well on my hardware. If it hadn’t slowed my laptop to a crawl, I’d probably still be using it (all the while grumbling about the privacy implications which, again, would be a bit hypocritical since I continue to use Google, Facebook and a variety of other free-as-in-beer but not so free-as-in-speech services that are “free” precisely because they require users to give up a certain amount of privacy).

But now that I am using Linux (sorry, but calling it GNU+Linux all the time feels kinda silly, even though I understand the politics behind it; Linux has become the de facto name by which most people know the operating system, so I’m mostly OK with calling it that, despite the anguished cries of Richard Stallman), I’m finding myself drawn to the philosophy and politics that underpin the free software movement.

Free software matters. It gives the user total control over their software, their data and their computer. Because it’s usually free-as-in-beer – as well as free-as-in-speech – it’s also a small act of resistance against global capitalism. While I’m not exactly anti-capitalist, I’m not a fan of the harmful influence large corporations can have on democracy. If I can use free software and avoid enriching powerful mega-corps, that’s something I’m happy to do. (I am aware that, by not fully embracing the free software movement – continuing to use non-free Google applications, for example – I am engaging in a certain degree of hypocrisy but, at least for now, I can live with that.)

This is all to say that I’ve embraced Linux, and free and open source software. My computing life is better for having it. Thank you to everyone involved in the free software movement. You’ve given me my laptop back and renewed my love of all things geeky.

[1] Since this post was first published, I’ve switched to using DuckDuckGo as my default search engine. It’s mostly open-source and respects my privacy.

[2] Since this post was first published, I’ve switched to using ProtonMail as my primary email provider. In many ways, it’s inferior to Gmail, but it’s vastly superior for privacy, which matters a great deal to me these days.

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