The Loneliness of Linux

JUST AS LINUX, THE LITTLE 32-BIT, absolutely free operating system that could, gets a cover story in The New York Times Magazine, my own Linux box dies. It wasn't the fault of the OS; the 6-year-old 486-66 it was running on had been bombarded by dust and static; it had operated without a protective cover, been slid across the room on its side, even dropped down the stairs. The hardware could take no more, and when the hard drive blew, my carefully installed version of Linux, Slackware distribution, kernel version 2.0.30, went with it.

I hadn't bothered to back it up. I haven't bothered to take the hard drive to an expert to salvage its files. I don't care. It stored a couple of JPEGs I liked, a Perl program I'd written to update my system clock when it fell behind, scripts to keep its PPP connection up 24 hours and to alert me when friends logged on to chat. As for the OS itself, it had been free in the first place, and it was time to rebuild it anyway: According to the flurry of press I've been reading about the rise (or, to Microsoft, threat) of Linux, the new 2.2. kernel is as stable as you'd ever want an operating system to be. Next week sometime I'll buy a new computer and start all over. I'll even have fun.

As for my half-written stories, transcribed tapes and lists of phone contacts, they're all safe. All of them live either on an ancient laptop with 4 megs of RAM loaded with Windows 3.11, or on a Pentium running Windows 95. Because while Linux has so many things to recommend it -- 32-bit architecture, versatility in networking applications and a stable, customizable kernel -- it does not have the one feature most people need to get their work done: to wit, the ability to run Microsoft Word.

Coming out as a Microsoft user has been as uncomfortable for me as defending Clinton against conservatives, but there's nothing I can do. I'm outnumbered. Every attachment a fellow writer or editor sends me is in Word format, every revision mark and graphic symbol is wrapped in its binary code. Over time and under peer pressure, the customs of Word have become familiar to me; my fingers know that ALT-F-S saves a file and ALT-T-W counts words. I'm used to dragging blocks of text across the screen, and I've come to appreciate how the newer versions put that red squiggly line under desparate and indispensible (they're misspelled). Since Microsoft does not release the code to its software (duh), no smart hacker has been able to mimic or adapt Word to Linux. But nothing else will do.

I could compromise: run an older, smaller version of Word on a Windows emulator for Linux: Caldera's WABI, for instance. Corel has just released a new version of WordPerfect 8 for Linux (free for personal use from, which saves files in Microsoft Word format, and I'm anxious to try it. But not too anxious, because my continued dependence on Word serves a collateral purpose: I need a foot in the World of Windows, just like I need to watch a little TV sometimes and listen to Top 40 radio. An operating system is a culture, with ways of doing and seeing and expressing things peculiar to its members, and like it or not, the standards of Redmond -- tasks, wizards, WinThis and WinThat, files that end in .exe -- are for the moment the dominant culture. Which is why Macintosh users behave like beleaguered minorities, defending their customs through disastrous versions and "Think Different" campaigns, and why, in the end, I don't need my Linux box. But I do miss it.

What do you miss about it? friends have asked. And I am hard pressed to answer. The truth is I miss its eccentricities. I miss the copious system reports that run across the screen at boot time; I miss the error message "Segmentation fault, core dumped" and the resultant file, "core," whose contents I examine with assiduous attention, although they remain utterly mysterious to me. I miss the personalities of different README files and applications named with acronyms (my e-mail program, "Pine," was named after its predecessor, "Elm" -- "Pine Is Not Elm"). I even miss the arcane little line editor "vi," the perfect symbol of what makes people who love Unix (of which Linux is a clone) so weird: Using vi (which stands for "visual," as opposed to "non-visual") means never touching your arrow keys, memorizing 30 commands consisting of ESC and a letter, slash and a letter, a colon and a letter, a colon and a letter and an exclamation point, or just one letter. It takes years to learn, and its hardened proponents put up Web sites in its honor. Most of all, I miss counting myself among those people proud of the culture I'd come to call my own -- a culture much cooler than Microsoft's. But for now, I concede: Windows people do have more friends.


Next Week: Dispatches from the Linux World Expo.


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