My Linux Story: The Big Switch

A longtime Linux expert talks about his early days with the open source operating system.
Posted January 25, 2016

Matt Hartley

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It recently occurred to me that I've been running Linux on my computers for about thirteen years. I'll be the first to admit, it doesn't seem all that long ago. But as I reflected upon my switch over to Linux, I began to realize that there wasn't a single event that pushed me over to the Linux desktop. In reality, it was a series of events and discoveries. This article will explain how my switch to Linux came to pass.

The Repair Guy

Roughly thirteen years ago, I ran a busy little repair shop dedicated to repairing Windows PCs. Early on, I knew I wanted to keep to smaller businesses and home users while avoiding larger entities. At the time, smaller businesses and home users were a good match for the type of clients I enjoyed working with.

During my years in this field, I found many of the issues my clients faced were actually quite preventable. And so long as my clients followed my suggestions and provided constraints, issues were mostly avoided. Keep in mind, I was never the server managing IT guy type of person. So my experiences were centered around a casual user's perspective from day one.

As my free time permitted, I experimented with different Linux distributions. I tried out Red Hat, SUSE, along with a few others only to end up with Debian as my "Linux testing distro." As time passed, I found myself looking at the other distributions that were available. A new trend to make Linux easy was gaining popularity and I saw a lot of potential with the idea.

Then I tried out a relatively new distro called Knoppix. I was blown away by the live CD experience. Right before my eyes, I was watching hardware being detected in real time, as each device was found by the Live CD. I also remember being dumbfounded by the idea of running a Linux distro from a CD instead of a hard drive! For a casual Windows PC repair tech, this was quite astonishing.

Knoppix as a data recovery tool

Previously I had always used Linux as more of a curiosity. Since I had never used Linux in my work before, I soon found that running Knoppix as a data recovery tool was like finding water in a desert. This was especially useful when I had to deal with problematic laptops with difficult to access hard drives. Instead, I could simply run Knoppix and use it to extract data that way. Keep in mind back then, most of the files that I was recovering were little more than documents and images. Video files were quite rare at this time, especially for casual computer users. So using the Knoppix CD to recover user data was quite easy and convenient.

During the this period, I ended up with a new computer and didn't make the time to reinstall Debian on it along side of Windows. I ended up keeping Windows XP on the PC while looking for something new to try on my laptop.

Simply Mepis

I then stumbled upon a relatively new distro called Simply Mepis. To say it was love at first sight would have been an understatement. Finally, a distro that really provided a dependable casual user experience. KDE-based, my early experience with Simply Mepis was fantastic. Having found myself disillusioned with other newbie friendly distributions of that era, I found Simply Mepis to be the perfect balance between GUI tools and a friendly community.

So why didn't I just stick with distributions like Debian? Because I was in the process of supporting Linux with clients and I wasn't going to do this without GUI tools for networking. There's nothing more obnoxious than trying to help a client over the phone by asking them to drop to a terminal.

Simply Mepis also allowed me to feel like I was using a modern operating system vs something that had to be manually configured from a command line. Again, my goal at this time was duplication and ease of use. When Simply Mepis was popular, their tools for X-Windows, user creation and networking were second to none. I also was thrilled that Simply Mepis worked very well with my PCMCIA wireless card. Back then, getting wifi to work was a bit more challenging as the drivers weren't as plentiful as they are today.

For at least a couple of years, Simply Mepis became my full time desktop as I also began sharing Windows again on my desktop computer. This meant my laptop at that time and desktop, both ran this distribution.


Having played a bit with GNOME on other distros, I was a big user of KDE thanks to Knoppix and later, Simply Mepis. And early versions of GNOME weren't anything to get too excited about. But, then I started playing with early Ubuntu.

By the time Ubuntu Dapper Drake rolled around, I was hooked. I found their version of GNOME and their growing community, to be interesting. I was burning out on Simply Mepis at this time (I was becoming a distro hopper) and Dapper Drake happened to appeal to a renewed sense of trying GNOME again. Perhaps it was the minimalist interface that grabbed me, it's hard to say.

Bundling this with ever-growing hardware support within the kernel and I soon found myself going to Linux full time. This means I finally wiped Windows from my desktop completely. I was sold completely on Linux for my desktop at this point.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Linux desktop

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