Thoughts from the Future of Linux
By technology standards, I'm an old man. I remember when 3.5" floppies became common ("Wow! 1.44MB! These little things hold so much data!"). My childhood hero was Matthew Broderick war-dialing local numbers with his 300-baud modem. I dreamed of, one day, owning a 386 with more than 640k of RAM. At the pace that computing moves forward, I'm practically a fossil. So, if you were to ask me, "What is the best way to encourage kids, today, to get into open source?" Well, I honestly haven't a clue.
So, "What do kids want to do with Linux?" And, "Where will the next generation take open-source computing?"
I don't have good answers to those questions either. I'm just too stinkin' old. No, to get answers to those questions, we need to talk to the people that actually know the answers—the kids themselves.
Specifically, I mean people still young enough to be "the next generation" while old enough, with sufficient experience, to understand Linux (and open source) and create well founded opinions, goals and dreams of where Linux goes from here—perhaps young adults nearing the end of high school or just beginning their college (or work) lives.
Those are the people who will be running open source in 20 or 30 years.
After Linus Torvalds officially retires, these kids will take over Linux kernel development. When Richard Stallman finally calls it quits, these kids will push the ideals of the Free Software movement forward. And, eventually, I (and the rest of the Linux Journal team) will retire—hopefully to somewhere with a nice beach. And these kids (and the rest of their generation) will be the ones reporting on and writing about Linux.
So, we found three kids (young adults, really) who are eating and breathing Linux and open source in the United Kingdom: Josh Page, Samadi van Koten and Matthew Lugg.
Gentlemen, introduce yourselves to the world, and give us the quick overview of what you're currently doing with Linux and open source.
Matthew Lugg: Hi, my name's Matthew. I'm a year 11 student living in Devon, and I tend to spend most of my free time either coding or playing games. I've been using Linux—specifically Debian—as my main desktop OS, as well as on my VPS, for around a year now (both for dev and for gaming), and I've never looked back!
Josh Page: My name is Josh. I'm in year 11, and I use Linux for networking mainly, VMs, routing and the like.
Samadi van Koten: I'm Samadi van Koten, known online as vktec. I've recently finished my A levels and am currently taking a gap year before going to study Computer Science at Bath University this September. I'm currently in a software development contract at a multinational company that makes GNSS test equipment.
Though I do occasionally help out coworkers with Linux issues, most of my Linux use is at home. Right now I'm running Linux on both my laptop and my desktop. My distribution of choice at the moment is Void Linux, though I've used many others including Debian, Arch and Ubuntu.
In the past, I've performed significant customization to my whole environment, from shell to text editor to window manager; however, I now prefer to keep my configuration files as small as possible. I'm using the Cinnamon desktop environment, Vim and Bash, all without much customization.
Bryan Lunduke: Here's a deceptively simple question for the three of you: Why Linux? What brings three young whippersnappers (saying that word makes me feel like I need a big, grey beard) to open source? How about you, Matthew?
So, essentially, what I like about Linux is that it doesn't hide what it's
doing from you. On Windows, the system is constantly doing stuff in the
background that it doesn't tell you about—for instance, while I don't really
consider myself that concerned about privacy (I accept that the NSA knows
everything about me, and while I'd rather they didn't, I can deal with it),
I don't like knowing that Cortana is sitting in the background, eating up
resources by sending everything I do to M$. Another thing it does in the
background is updating, which, while it's become a bit (lot) of a meme, is
genuinely, to me, one of the worst experiences I've had with OSes in
general. But on Linux, that issue isn't there at all. So long as I
update && apt upgrade every once in a while, everything's fine. It happens
when I tell it to, and never any more.
Bryan: "When I tell it to, and never any more." That's a very "UNIX"-y idea. I love it.
Matthew: Also, just a minor thing, but as opposed to Windows updates, I don't have to wait for hours on end with an unusable machine—in fact, you only really have to reboot for kernel upgrades, and it saves hours. We have a Windows PC in the house, and the constant reboots and crashes whilst updating are unbearable!
I'm also very much a fan of the ability to customize Linux. I'm currently using a tiling WM (impossible on Windows), with custom keybinds (impossible on Windows), with custom scripts to control my GPU fan just to the point I like them (very difficult on Windows). Plus, I find Linux to be more performant than Windows for desktop use (for example, explorer.exe is very slow and clunky nowadays), including, ironically, running Windows-only software through Wine—even 3D games, for which I use Valve's Proton.
Of course, I've not even mentioned the entire FOSS nature of Linux yet. I think free software truly is the way to go. In fact, it's been directly helpful to me—I've been playing with OS development in my spare time, and the Linux kernel source code being open is ridiculously helpful. I also love how efficient it makes patching and such—I'm nowhere near smart enough to contribute to the kernel, but I love the fact that I theoretically could, and that other people can and do!
Bryan: That was...an astoundingly well put set of reasons for using Linux and free software! I'm having one of those "the future is in good hands" moments. Over to you, Samadi. Why Linux?
Samadi: The simplest answer is that I use Linux because it's easy to use. That may seem strange to some people, but for me, it's the truth. When something goes wrong with a Windows machine, your best shot is restarting things until it works, just like the IT Crowd joke: "have you tried turning it off and on again?"
I have similar issues with modern versions of macOS: Apple "simplifies" things to try and make them easier to use, but at the expense of making more complex tasks cumbersome or simply impossible. One example of this is Apple's Disk Utility: it used to be a fantastic partition manager—one of the best graphical ones I've used—but now it's so oversimplified you can barely do anything with it.
Linux, on the other hand, provides nice graphical user-friendly front ends, but it doesn't hide the underlying systems from you. If you want to configure your networks manually using /etc/interfaces you can, but if you don't, there's NetworkManager. If you want to run the system without graphics, you can, but X11 and Wayland are easy to set up and use.
Bryan: Yes! That is so, absolutely true! In ye olden times, Linux was flexible and configurable, but the user interface wasn't exactly the most easy to use or pretty. Nowadays, Linux has some of the most visually stunning and easy-to-use interfaces, but it still retains those amazing underpinnings that let you tweak (and even recompile) absolutely everything. 100% with you. Please, continue!
Samadi: Everything about Linux is customizable to the way you want it, and while I don't tweak my system to the extent I used to, I find it invaluable to know (or be able to easily find out) exactly what my system is doing and how to change or fix it.
As for the reason I use Linux for servers, well, it's the only operating system I'm familiar with that I believe is suited to that environment. Windows or macOS have graphical interfaces, even on their server versions, which I find unnecessary. There are reasons for that of course—those systems are not geared towards command-line use and almost every program that runs on them is graphical—but it imposes a huge overhead in terms of resources, which could be better spent on the software you actually need and want to run. Of course, BSDs are also an option, but I'm not very familiar with them, so I wouldn't be able to run one on a server.
Bryan: I think you are very much not alone in your reasoning, Samadi. Over to you, Josh. Why do you use Linux?
Josh: I use Linux on my servers because it is really simple to set up something quick, and it doesn't need as many resources as a Windows Server, and it's far more powerful. I can run 5–10 Debian VMs for the same resource cost as one Windows VM. This makes my limited server resources go further, while still allowing me to run what I want/need to keep my services intact and running smoothly. I also like FLOSS software, and I try to use it where possible (though it is not always due to school systems being in place), and I can know that I am not being tracked by Google or other agencies (which is why I self-host as much as possible).
Bryan: I've got to ask, what sort of things are you using Linux virtual machines for?
Josh: My Linux VMs include a basic internal web server, Jellyfin (an Emby fork that is staying FLOSS, even after Emby has gone closed-source), game servers, internal web servers for various things. My hypervisor is Proxmox, which is of course Debian-based, and even my router is VyOS, another Debian-derived OS. (It may be evident that Debian is my distro of choice.) I aim to set up more monitoring for my network soon, using FLOSS as much as possible, naturally, and trying as much as I can to move away from externally hosted services, for cloud storage, email, and my online social needs.
Bryan: Oh, man. I can relate to so much of that. You're striving for many of the same goals as many grizzled veterans of my generation—moving away from hosted silo services, toward more free software, and self-hosted and distributed services.
Ok, so I'm very curious. What got you started with Linux?
Samadi: I first learned about Linux when I was 9 years old, from a guy who lived across the road. I was just getting into programming at that time, and he was your typical grey-beard: he ran Linux and open source everywhere he possibly could, though he especially seemed to like old Macs.
I didn't actually start using Linux until a few years later though, when my grandmother gave me a Raspberry Pi for my 13th birthday. My first experience of desktop Linux was Lubuntu, which I ran on a 700MHz machine that I'd rescued from my old primary school when they were throwing out some old PCs.
Bryan: That's incredibly cool to hear about people getting started with Linux using a Raspberry Pi. I know that was one of the goals of that project, and it's great to see it work! How about you, Matthew?
Matthew: I got started with Linux on Raspbian probably around five years ago, and I went on to full-blown x86 Linux probably about a year later. At first, I just used it for servers, but over time, I began to look at it for desktop use. I was stubborn at first, but I finally made the full switch about a year ago.
Bryan: Wow. Both of you got started on Raspberry Pis? That little thing really does the job!
Now that you've been eating and breathing Linux for a while, if you could change just one thing, what would it be?
Samadi: Picking just one is hard! I'll be the first to admit that Linux and open source are a long way from perfect. Some fields, such as gaming, audio production, video editing, etc., still rely heavily on proprietary software that only runs on other platforms. Taking that into account, one thing I'd definitely want improved is Wine. It's come a long way and is fantastic, but it's still not perfect. Of course, in the long term, I'd rather the software that was needed ran natively.
I'm a hobbyist music producer, so improvements to software such as Ardour and LMMS would definitely be on my list. I also think the Open Source community is a bit lacking in art software; GIMP and Inkscape are fantastic, but they're still not on the level of offerings by Adobe or Affinity.
Bryan: One final question: when you look ahead to whatever comes next for you—work, school, Intergalactic Space Piracy, life in general—do you see Linux fitting in to that?
Matthew: In the rest of my education, definitely. Most schools use Windows, which to be honest, I don't massively mind in general, but Linux is definitely my dev platform of choice (and I'm studying computer science, maths, etc.). After that, ideally, yes! It might not be specifically Linux, it depends where I end up, but wherever I work in future, I'd love to use FOSS and UNIX-like systems, because I find them so much simpler and more logical to use than their counterparts. Even macOS, although made by one of the greediest companies on the planet and being very limiting, is still very rich in its command-line interface, but, of course, ideally it'd be a Linux system. Intergalactic space piracy sounds fun though. I'd be up for that.
Samadi: Absolutely. I'm planning to start a Computer Science degree in September and will be using Linux heavily throughout that. Past that point, I'm hoping I'll get the chance to use it in my work as well. The only thing that would stop me is employers that require the use of company-mandated Windows machines, but hopefully I'll be able to find a job that lets me use Linux!
Bryan: Ha! The company-mandated Windows machine is the bane of many Linux and free software enthusiasts' existences! I swear, the USB thumb-drive industry makes a pretty penny off Linux users smuggling in live versions of their favorite distros to boot on work computers.
Matthew, Josh and Samadi, thank you for taking some time to talk Linux with me, and best of luck in making the world a little more Linux-y in the years to come.