Why I Use Generic Computers and Free Software

Do you depend on your computer every day? If so, I hope you’ve carefully thought about your choice of hardware and software. Otherwise you'll end up unhappy when your computer someday fails.

I'd like to explain why I rely on generic desktops and laptops running free software to give me 100% availability. They're a low-cost solution offering excellent security and privacy.

Replaceable Hardware

There are several strategies you could adopt for high availability. Some choose to pay more for higher quality equipment. Their bet is that this results in fewer failures. Others rely on vendors for support. They select a responsive company with a good reputation for service. Many prefer local support staff who are easily accessible. Here's a thoughtful article by a guy explaining why he picks iMacs for high availability.

I take a different approach. I use generic computers with all stock parts. Since they're so inexpensive I can keep several on hand. It’s easy to swap parts if necessary. PCs are highly standardized — so long as you acquire them with an eye to non-proprietary components. I open up and inspect every machine before I acquire it. (Watch it with laptops. Some vendors will mold their DVD drives to non-standard shapes or add proprietary plastic you have to fit on your hard disk to properly connect it.)

For my self-service approach to work, you have to know how to identify and remedy common hardware problems. That's not hard. Anyone can do it with a little effort. I even wrote my free Quick Guide to Fixing Computer Hardware to show you how. The key is that you identify a problem, then quickly swap in a replacement part.

If a hardware issue requires more than a few minutes to fix, I use a backup computer. Years ago, this was prohibitively expensive. Today cheap generic boxes and a huge market in used machines make it feasible.

Another change from years past is that you no longer need current hardware to run current software. I run all the common home and office apps with a few gig of memory and a dual core processor. That’s a five to ten year old machine. You can get an entire fleet of them for the cost of one hot new Microsoft Surface laptop.

Key to my approach is that you keep your work — your data — portable. Back it up and move it between machines with a USB memory stick or portable disk drive. Never get caught in a situation where your data resides only on a single machine. Or on one device.

Of course, this applies regardless of how you try for 100% availability. Machines do sometimes fail. Up-to-date data backups are essential no matter what hardware and software you use.

Replaceable Software

I also use free software that can easily be installed, copied, or duplicated.

There’s a name for such software: open source. While free open source software (FOSS) saves you money, that may not be its biggest benefit. Flexibility and licensing are the key. You control this software -- it doesn’t control you.

Here's an example: back up and recovery. In Windows World, there must be a dozen ways to recover a lost system. (Off-hand, I can think of the Recovery Console, System Backup and Restore, recovery partitions managed by the hardware vendor, the Last Known Good Configuration, Safe Boot mode, Registry Export/Import, and performing a Repair Install.)

Why so many different ways to solve a problem?

The answer is that vendors want to control your backup and recovery. Otherwise they can’t lock you in and make you a source of continuing revenue. Vendors claim “ease of use” — but is it really when you face this tower of backup/recovery babble? Once you use one of their tools to back up your data, you have to use that same vendor's tool to recover it. Or it's no data for you!

With FOSS, I issue a single command to either back up or recover. I don’t have to navigate a half-dozen different apps designed to “help” me. And I can perform my backups and recoveries any way I want, no restrictions.

Here’s a real-world example. My motherboard died last summer. I removed the boot disk from the dead system and plopped it into another. Then I booted from that disk on the target computer. Problem solved!

Windows won’t let you do this. Its Registry, authentication procedures, and licensing all specifically prevent it. They’re designed to. Why? So you don’t steal Microsoft’s software by moving it to another computer.

Microsoft has every right to protect its property. But that’s not our problem! Our problem was fixing our motherboard failure. Because of their agenda, which they hold supreme, Microsoft makes our life very difficult. Their software limits your flexibility — on purpose.

Remember, you do not own the copy of Windows you “bought.” Microsoft owns it. You only paid to license it.

With FOSS, all those Registry, activation, licensing problems, and software copying restrictions disappear. You can easily move a disk drive between computers. And you can copy software anywhere you want.

Here’s a tip: Don’t use any operating system you don’t install. Once upon a time a vendor-installed OS meant peak performance and a malware-free system. Those days are gone. Major incidents have shown that pre-installed malware is now a reality, ranging from spyware to rootkits to adware to craplets. And this problem is only getting worse.

Security and privacy require that you control your computer. If you use pre-installed Windows, you don’t control it. With FOSS, you do.

Replacing Windows

As the premier FOSS system, Linux comes bundled with a complete set of applications. These cover everything you can think of, from home and office apps, to graphics, multimedia, internet, communications, and games. It's all free. The Linux master libraries offer upwards of ten thousand more free apps you can download and install at your whim.

But even with all this available, much of the world still uses Microsoft’s desktop software. Even with increasing competition from Google's Docs and their G Suite! So a concern some bring up is: Using FOSS, how do I fit into Windows World?

First, understand that there is a FOSS equivalent for any Windows program you can name. This article and this one show exactly what FOSS apps you can use instead of Windows programs.

Second, many software vendors provide Linux versions of their Windows products. So you can still run the same application, but under Linux instead of Windows.

Third, you can run most any Windows program directly on Linux using a program called WINE. Just look up your application in the WINE database first. That will verify that your app runs under WINE and tell how you to set it up. The auxiliary tools PlayOnLinux or Winetricks help with installation.

For most of us, compatibility with Windows users means just one thing: file compatibility. We need to be able to create, update, send, and receive Microsoft Office files.

I use LibreOffice, a major competitor to Microsoft Office. LO does a great job with MO file compatibility. The only limitation is that you'll want to stick to features common to both LO and MO. Avoid obscure features and super-complex documents.

These articles help with how to use LibreOffice and Microsoft Office compatibly. And here's some irony for you. LO is often more compatible with older versions of Microsoft Office than is the current version of Microsoft Office!  That's because Microsoft has to keep changing MO in order to sell more product -- regardless of whether customers feel they need or want these "upgrades."

Note that, while word processing compatibility is outstanding, the picture isn’t quite as rosy when it comes to presentation graphics. Move a 40-slide PowerPoint file between MO and LO and you’ll see many minor changes (spacing and fonts, for example).

A Business Opportunity

When I see how many companies operate, I have to wonder how they can afford to waste money.

Some could switch from Windows World entirely and save a ton in licensing fees. Others could remain on Windows while strategically replacing specific components to their advantage. This avoids the need for a platform change while still capitalizing on open source tools and apps.

Office suites are the perfect example. Microsoft Office licenses are not cheap, especially for smaller companies that can’t swing the big discounts. Free competitors like LibreOffice and G Suite are functionally very competitive. You really have wonder why some companies don’t even evaluate them.

Some would answer: support. But what kind of support do you get from a vendor that you can’t get from the Internet? I remember back when vendors created bug fixes for customer problems. Today they just tell you to wait for the next release -- which they always insist you install, whether or not it fixes your problem. Support consists merely of advice about how-to's and work-around’s. You can get that online at no cost.

Another potential area of savings for companies is to keep Windows but replace Microsoft’s software development environment. Leave the ever-shifting sands of Microsoft’s proprietary frameworks in favor of free tools, programming languages, and databases. Some sites achieve good savings while producing excellent apps with WAMP (Windows + Apache + MySQL + PHP/Perl/Python).

It amazes me that some companies are so tightly wrapped in the vendor security blanket that they don’t even evaluate alternatives. Some security blankets are worth paying for. Others only represent inertia, or inexperience. Only you know which statement applies to your organization.

Free Yourself From Vendor Shackles

Inexpensive stock parts work well for my needs. I can switch hardware and software on a moment's notice, however I like. In return, I enjoy 100% availability, low cost, high security, and good privacy. You owe it to yourself to look into this approach.

Howard Fosdick is an independent computer consultant. Read his tutorials and how-to's here.

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