Keep Calm and Install GNU Linux

Microsoft’s “Windows XP” operating system, first introduced in August, 2001 reaches its official “end of life” on April 8, 2014.

After that, Microsoft will stop issuing patches, bug fixes and updates for this 13-year-old computer operating system. At present, depending on whose statistics you believe, 20 to 30 per cent of the world’s PCs are still running Windows XP.

A scary thought is that most bank ATM machines and many retail point of sale (POS) systems are running embedded XP. In the U.S., Target’s POS system was broken into and millions of customers’ banking information was compromised.

You can do nothing and keep using it. The problem is that you’ll be stuck with XP the way it is with all of its security problems. Your WinXP box is going to be the target of every malware writer on the planet. The longer you keep using it online, the more vulnerable your computer is.

Don’t believe me? You don’t have to.

Perhaps you might believe Microsoft’s own “Director of Trusted Computing.”

In his blog post of August 15, 2013, Tim Rains explains that security flaws that exist in one version of the Microsoft Windows operating system often occur in multiple versions of Windows. So, on Microsoft’s monthly “Patch Tuesday,” they patch all versions of Windows simultaneously.

The problems with Windows XP will begin sometime after the first set of Windows 7 and 8 patches are released in May. Malware writers will immediately start attempting to reverse engineer these patches examining the software source code to see if they can find the flaws that Microsoft was fixing.

Once they start figuring them out, it’ll pretty much be open season on the now unpatched Windows XP machines.

Rain’s advice to you is to stay on the Microsoft treadmill by upgrading to Windows 7 or Windows 8.

There are some problems with this. First of all, there is the cost of purchasing Windows 7 or 8 at  somewhere between $80 and $160. Secondly, your current computer might not have the computing horsepower necessary to run Microsoft’s newer operating systems.

So that usually means some hardware upgrades as well. At the very least it will involve purchasing and installing additional RAM modules for your computer ($40 and up). You may also need to look at upgrading your video card (at least $40) if you’re on a desktop. If you’re using a Windows XP laptop, you’re pretty much stuck with the video chip your machine came with.

You might also run into problems with older peripheral devices like scanners. I have an older Canon scanner that doesn’t play well with Windows 8. Sticking with Microsoft might mean buying some new equipment.

When all is said and done, you’ll most likely end up spending more money than your computer is worth to stick with Microsoft.

Many people and organizations will buy new PCs not because there is anything wrong with their existing hardware, it’s just that it won’t run Microsoft’s latest version of Windows. Millions of computers around the world have already been turned into electronic trash with all the associated environmental problems. On my last visit to the City of Toronto’s Bermondsey Road waste transfer station, I saw Pentium IV computers being thrown into the e-waste bin.

There is an alternative to tossing your computer or paying for expensive upgrades. The solution I’ve been talking about for at least a decade is to make the switch to a GNU/Linux operating system. Now, you’ve got a reason to make that switch and it’s never been easier.

In fact, installing a GNU/Linux operating system is actually simpler and takes a whole lot less time than installing Windows from scratch. Most computer users have never had the experience of doing a fresh Windows installation because thanks to Microsoft’s monopoly power over the PC industry, the Windows operating system was installed at the factory.

But, I’ve had years of experience installing both systems and can tell you that getting a basic GNU/Linux installation done usually takes about 20 minutes and then perhaps another 15 minutes to apply the latest security patches.

Installing and patching a new Windows installation can take hours and that doesn’t count installing any application software. In fact as I write this, I’m installing Windows 7 on a couple of work laptops.

When you install a GNU/Linux distribution the base installation will also install application software so that you can actually do some work with your computer right away. If you need additional application software you simply use your “package management” software. It works much the same way as an “app store” on a smart phone or tablet. Just launch your package manager, enter your user name and password, check off the applications that you want to install, click on the “apply” button, walk away and in a few minutes you’re done.

That’s also the way you do your software updates. You update all of your software at once instead of the “one at a time” way that Windows handles updates. Rebooting your computer is something that’s extremely rare. Updating software on Windows has always been a pain and that’s why many less technical Windows users don’t bother doing it.

Aside from the cost and technical considerations, moving to GNU/Linux means moving away from proprietary software to the world of software that is “free as in freedom.”

In a post Edward Snowden era, we need to be running software where someone other than the software vendor is constantly checking the software source code for bugs and security issues. We need to be able to easily find out if our software has a back door that’s phoning home to corporations or the world’s intelligence agencies. Shifting to free software is the first step towards digital freedom.

Because GNU/Linux is free software there isn’t just one GNU/Linux but instead over 200 different versions or “distributions” (distros for short!). Since people are free to modify GNU/Linux, they exercise that freedom. This means that there’s a GNU/Linux distro for just about any computer you can think of. The popular site “Distrowatch” tracks them all!

For the typical Windows XP-era computer, most users would be quite happy running a GNU/Linux distro called “Lubuntu.” Lubuntu is a modified version of the popular “Ubuntu” distro, but uses a “lighter weight” desktop user interface called “LXDE” much better suited for slightly older computers.

Lubuntu runs quite nicely on a Pentium IV vintage computer with between 512 MB and 1 GB of RAM.

If you have a slightly newer PC, say a later vintage Pentium IV or an early vintage 64 bit machine, I might be inclined to try “Xubuntu” which is simply, Ubuntu using the slightly heavier but still fairly light weight “XFCE” desktop. You might also want to take a look at the XFCE desktop version of “Linux Mint.”

On really old Pentium III computers, I’ve had good success with a distro called “Antix.”

Of course before installing GNU/Linux you’ll want to copy off all of your personal files i.e. documents, photos, music and video files onto external media because you will be completely wiping Windows XP off of your computer.

Once you’ve picked your distro then just go to your distro’s website and download the “.iso” CD or DVD image file. You’ll need some “real” CD or DVD burning software, by that I mean a program that knows what to do with .iso image files. You then just burn the image file to a blank CD or DVD disk.

Another way to do it is to create a bootable USB thumb drive using a little programme called “Unetbootin.” Just make sure to copy off any files you might need first!

You can also use old camera cards. You can usually find USB adapters for camera cards in any half decent electronics store for about $10. I’ve even found them in Dollarama stores.

Just make sure that the USB stick or camera card is large enough to handle the .iso image file. A four gigabyte stick or card will usually do and you can sometimes get away with using a two gigabyte stick or card. Installing from USB media is usually quite a bit faster than using a disk.

If your computer is a little bit older, say pre 2005 vintage, it might not be able to boot from USB. In that case you’ll install with a CD or DVD disk.

Then you’ll just insert the USB or CD/DVD media, tell your computer to boot from it instead of the hard drive and then follow the usually straightforward instructions.    The base install will finish in 20 to 30 minutes, you’ll reboot, login and your adventure with the move to free software will begin.

If you run into a glitch along the way, pay a visit to the help forums of your GNU/Linux distribution. Chances are that whatever problem you are having, someone else has run into the same problem already and resolved it. Most of the glitches you’ll run into are proprietary software “gotchas.” In most cases, there’s a fix.

The important thing when switching to a new computer operating system is to stick with it and not be afraid to learn a few new tricks. Like anything new, there’s a bit of a learning curve. If your expectation is that everything will be exactly the same as it was on Windows, you’ll get frustrated and go back to proprietary software.

I began playing with GNU/Linux about 15 years ago when installing and configuring it was much harder than it is today. I had an older computer that I switched to GNU/Linux and a newer computer running Windows. I gradually taught myself how to do everything in GNU/Linux that I knew how to do in Windows. Eventually I found myself using the old PC more than the new one. It was at that stage I decided to make the switch permanent and I’ve never looked back.

What helped me to stick with it was the politics more than anything technical. The free software movement’s values of freedom, privacy, sharing and co-operation are more in line with my own values than those of Microsoft, Apple and other proprietary software vendors. I’m sure that those values are in line with most rabble readers and supporters.

Free software means that I am typing this article on a 2005 vintage desktop PC that I purchased used for about $120 five years ago. It sits next to an even older used IBM Thinkpad laptop that’s still running strong.

My old Canon scanner works perfectly. All I had to do was plug it in.

In my workplace a Pentium IV computer that had been toasted with malware was converted into a WordPress web server. A 1999 vintage Pentium III powers an electronic sign that has run 24/7 for two years and has only been knocked out of commission by the occasional power failure.

Windows XP may be fading into the sunset, but GNU/Linux and free software lives on and will give your old computer a second life. It’s time to make the move towards digital freedom.

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler is a blogger and has been a labour and social justice activist his entire adult life and then some! He’s also a geek with a capital “G”! He’s so geeky...