Friday, June 19, 2009

The long route to Microsoft

Sometimes I surprise myself. I have no Microsoft software installed on my office computer. I have Microsoft Windows Vista on my laptop, because it was pre-installed, but it is in a separate small partition that I almost ever use. I detest Windows, and have detested it since it was a separate program that one used by typing "win" on an MS-DOS computer. (Actually, I have rarely used it since those days.)

But a couple of days ago, I set the default search engine on my Firefox search box to Microsoft Bing.

I've been going back-and-forth between Bing and Google for a while, and not only does Bing look nicer and show up a useful mouse-over preview of search results, but the results look mostly more relevant. Most of my searches are academic-related. I still have the Google toolbar installed, with its own search box, so I can easily go back and forth. When searching for scholarly articles, I use either Google Scholar or PubMed -- so far there seems to be no Microsoft equivalent of those, but I won't be surprised if it's on its way.

I used to be a free software idealist, but the question is somewhat moot with online services. Besides, I have figured out now that what I really want is customisability. (This is also the reason I was never very tempted by Apple.)

Linux is almost infinitely customisable, but the days when I would build my own kernel and compile much of my software from source are long over. Nowadays it's just a question of selecting from the options in Ubuntu's software repository -- and, in rare cases, enabling an external repository.

Now, suppose my next computer is pre-installed with Windows 7, and it turns out that I can configure it to a unix/X-like interface with my own key bindings and can install most of my favourite open-source software, pre-built, with a few clicks (as I can in Ubuntu): would I consider going with it, and not repartitioning and installing some form of Linux? Till recently, I would have laughed at the idea of Microsoft becoming so open-source friendly: but the world is becoming a strange place now.


Kapil Hari Paranjape said...

I don't think switching from Google to Bing can be compared with
switching from Ubuntu to Windows 7!

In any case, one other aspect of using free operating systems that
I have come to appreciate is control over one's data. You know where
it resides and in what form. You can control which part of it is
available to other people, in practice and in principle.

So suppose you were to switch from using Ubuntu to (say) Fedora or
even Nexenta, you would know what data you need to copy over; the same
would apply in the other direction. Moreover, though the settings may
not be in identical locations, once you figure out how to use the new
system, you would be able to input your older settings in the right
places as well.

Now some people may argue that switching over to MacOSX (or perhaps
Windows 7 as well) would not be much harder. Let's buy that for the
moment. The really difficult problem would be switching _from_ these
systems to something else--- there is no advantage for the authors of
these systems to provide you with easy migration tools _away_ from
their systems. So once you switch you are "locked-in".

km said...

Say it ain't so, Rahul :)

But I am going to give Bing another spin (after reading your post) and decide if it's worth the "switch".

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Kapil - I think you are arguing for open standards, not free operating systems. Transferring data to and from a proprietary Unix should not be a problem. All Unixen treat permissions, hierarchies, symlinks, etc, the same way. On the other hand, one can imagine a free operating system with a filesystem that is inconsistent with most Unix (UFS-like) filesystems.

Or are you talking about file formats like Microsoft Word? Same answer: if the format is open and documented, it doesn't matter if the program is not free. On the other hand, lots of open-source programs work only on Linux and transferring their data to work with other programs on other systems would be non-trivial, to say the least.

km - have fun!

km said...

Those sneaky bastards in Redmond. They "integrated" my favorite airfare prediction site (Farecast) with Bing.

Is Mountain View listening?

Ranjith said...

Besides, I have figured out now that what I really want is customisability. (This is also the reason I was never very tempted by Apple.)

Since Mac is a Unix based OS, it is also customisable, isn't it ? I switched from Linux to Mac and I find it nice. I still use everything: Vi editor, gcc, my shell scripts etc etc!

To me, the switch to mac was worth it because (1) It has unix-like features (2) they have some amazing software that makes your life infinitely smooth: like the "spotlight" program to search files and the backup program (3) apple laptop battery !

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Ranjith - well, I meant things like configuring my own key bindings when I don't like the default, having the menu bar attached to the window rather than on the top of the screen, changing the "theme" to something other than aqua, and so on. I don't know how much of it is possible. But I know command-line use is the same as on any other Unix, and most Linux-type open source software is available. I also like having everything "just work", but that is increasingly true with linux too. Everything on my laptop works, except the SD/MMC slot which didn't work with a card I tried earlier (but that card reported errors under Windows, too).

Here's an example of something that was really useful for me, that I would have no idea how to do on OS X or Windows: on my old laptop, one particular key (the ~/` key) was continually emitting keycodes, and as a result the text I typed kept having ` inserted randomly. I remote-logged in to the laptop from another machine, created a custom X keymap that ignored that keycode, mapped those characters to a different keycode (I think ctrl+that key), configured gdm to load this keymap, and rebooted. All I needed to do was edit a couple of plain text files. I doubt it would be that easy on OS X and Windows. It is not very infrequent that I encounter other such "strange situations" where I am happy to be running Linux rather than a closed-source system.