Installing Linux: 18 years later | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: I installed Linux on my work computer. After having been unable to properly use it for the better part of the past three years, I asked IT whether I could wipe Windows off the machine. It turns out to be one of the best decisions I did regarding that computer, and now I have not one, but two workable computers. In this article I compare this experience to my first one 18 years ago, and conclude with whether I can recommend Linux for productive use.

It is around the year 1997 when I first came into contact with computers. I remember that my grandfather put me in front of a computer and said: “This will be the future. Look at what this thing can do!” We went and set up Windows 95 – the most recent Microsoft operating system back then. It was wild: You’d first have to set up MS-DOS, and then from there on update to Windows 3.1, until you’ve reached Windows 95. There was no DVD you’d insert, let alone a bootable USB drive. It was all on floppy disks.

Fast-forward about ten years, to the early summer of 2006. I started developing some programming skills since I was 14, and I began to see issues with Windows XP – back then the most recent Microsoft OS. While it definitely was the most stable operating system Microsoft had ever produced, it felt lacking. Especially the lack of customizability. Yes, there was an avid modding scene back then that tried to undo some of the most horrible design atrocities Microsoft had done. But it felt weird – having a fully functional operating system, and then retrofitting some components so that it looked … less bad? Also, Windows is notoriously difficult if you want to do anything more advanced than writing a batch script.

First Experiences: Ubuntu 6.04

So I wanted to try out something different to Windows. And since we were never an Apple household (classic working class family with little money), I chose Linux. Retrospectively it is insane how just ten years after having to install an operating system from a floppy disk, the world had arrived in the bootable USB era: I downloaded the back then new and shiny and recommended consumer Linux – Ubuntu 6.04 – shoveled it onto a USB stick and booted into my computer.

Suddenly, my computer looked much different from before: It was eye-opening to realize that one didn’t have to stick to Windows to run a computer.

However, the amazement of a shiny new operating system quickly dissipated after realizing the downside of free software back then: drivers were not working, the system had no idea that there was a LAN card installed in it, and the supported display resolutions were educated guesses at best. In these times the dialog “Do you wish to keep the new display settings?” made a lot more sense than today.

I remember vividly that it took me an entire week of after-school troubleshooting sessions until I finally found, installed, and configured all necessary drivers onto the beast so that it would do more than just boot.

After a few days of additional experimentation, I quickly installed Windows XP back onto the computer; not the least since I wanted to play video games and support for Linux was non-existent, with Steam’s compatibility layer not even on the horizon.

Managing a Server

However, this experience has shown me that one doesn’t need Windows for everything. Instead, I knew there was an option out there – even if it didn’t work for me at the time, it was there.

About ten years after that first dive into the Linux world, the “cloud” was becoming the trend of the time. Having amassed several GB of free Dropbox storage after inviting all my school friends to the service, I realized that if I didn’t pay for something, maybe it’s me (or my data) that is the product. So I searched for alternatives, and I found a whole ecosystem of self-hosted software that one could install and use from anywhere on the world.

The only requirement: An always-on computer that is connected to the internet, a.k.a., a server. And I quickly found that these things often ran Linux. So I went forward, and paid a small fee for a virtual server, and began learning Debian. It turns out that, if there’s no graphical user interface involved, Linux is an extremely capable and stable operating system: Perfectly suited for a server, not so much for end-user usage.

Going Apple

At around the same time, I switched my main computer from the Fujitsu laptop that I bought during my undergrad for university lectures and term papers to a used 2011 MacBook Pro. That was around 2014. And since then my main computer was always (with one exception) a MacBook.

For me, macOS (back then: OS X) was exactly what I was imagining in my wildest dreams: Linux, but with enough proprietary support that everything runs perfectly well on the computer. Suddenly I had a Linux command line interface on the same computer as Photoshop. I didn’t have to choose between a proper development environment, productivity software, and a great desktop environment.

Microsoft’s Home Turf: Companies

However, at work I always used Windows. Be it while I was employed at my university’s admissions office, be it while I was at IFSH, or when I switched to Linköping University: My work computer was always running Windows.

And indeed, big organizations that have to manage hundreds or even thousands of computers really benefit from the Microsoft ecosystem. When it comes to ensuring that employees have access to internal documents and still being shielded from viruses or other attacks, Windows is top of the notch. But this also comes at a disadvantage: Microsoft’s Active Directory domain service is superb, unless a user must use non-standard software. As soon as a programming language such as Python enters the room, Windows goes from a simple solution to becoming a liability.

For my regular academic work at IFSH, Windows worked perfectly well, because what I needed was only a web browser, Zotero, and an office suite. That is easily managed for any IT department. However, once at Linköping University, I suddenly found myself having to run large language models and a ton of non-standard software that lives in sometimes obscure places on a computer. Also, I had to interface frequently with Linux-based servers (specifically, the Swedish Tetralith and Alvis high-performance computing [HPC] clusters in Linköping and Gothenburg, respectively).

Microsoft’s ecosystem is made for white-collar office workers who manipulate Excel spreadsheets all day long or who work with the internal accounting software. It is not made for anyone with more delicate technical requirements.

Yes, I was issued a work-computer by my university on which I was supposed to work, but since it ran Windows on an Active Directory domain, I couldn’t do much. Especially installing anything Pythonic (which I needed) was practically impossible.1 I did try, received local admin privileges from our IT department, and experimented – to no avail. I would always encounter errors and problems that would’ve required yet another ticket to IT.

And for the sanity of both our IT folk and me, I quickly fell back to using my personal MacBook for this. There I had full access to anything, and moreover, most tutorials worked out of the box because I had a standard-issue shell instead of Microsoft’s command line or PowerShell.

Going back to Linux

This was true until about two weeks back when I thought to myself: “I have a work computer, and I should be using it for my work, so why not give it one last chance?” I opened a ticket to IT, asking for permission to nuke the computer and install an operating system that I knew would work for my purposes. It took IT not long to give me permission, and I could venture off searching for a distribution.

My first idea was Ubuntu, since that is what started it almost two decades ago. But in the meantime, many other Linux distributions have been released, none of which really comes with too many downsides. There is pop!_OS, developed by System76 for their laptops, there is Mint, which is supposed to be an alternative to Ubuntu, and I knew from many Zettlr users that they preferred Manjaro or some flavor of Arch Linux (btw).

So I decided to try something new and settled for Manjaro. I quickly downloaded the ISO-file, grabbed a USB drive and performed (mostly) the same steps I did 18 years ago to install Linux. A few minutes later, and my work laptop was running Linux.

To my initial surprise, there was neither an error, nor any warning during the installation. Connecting to eduroam was a bit of a hassle since I had to download the Root certificate first, and my university really hides its Linux guides well. But other than that I did not experience any roadblocks.

Compared to 18 years ago, it worked just as flawless as setting up Windows. One could really feel the development Linux went through. A few hours of installing the necessary programs and copying the large data sets from my MacBook, and I am up and running. Even while I am writing these lines, I still cannot believe how flawless the setup has worked. Many things felt very similar to 18 years ago – the live system, the setup wizard, the UI. But yet, under the hood it went from UX nightmare to a 3-minutes experience.

I have now been using it in production for about two weeks and can say that it indeed works almost flawlessly for me. The biggest problem I have been facing is a lack of enterprise software support. The Microsoft-products that my university unfortunately bought into only work in the browser – but that’s what pinned tabs have been invented for. VS Code has some weird issues with running Python notebooks, but jupyter notebooks works just fine. I had to install what feels like a ton of additional software for basic tasks. This is mostly only surprising when you come from macOS, but as opposed to Windows, most of these tools do exist – even as Open Source Software. Yes, Linux takes longer to configure properly, but this is not a drawback. Rather, it has to do with the fact that Linux usually comes pretty bare-bones so that you can install only the software you really need.

The only issue not even Linux can fix is the fact that my work computer is a potato. With an Intel i5-8625U it doesn’t take a lot to make its fans spin. More intensive workloads still run on my MacBook that feels like 20x faster than the Linux machine, but this is no fault of Linux. What should be noted, however, is that the operating system itself works much faster and smoother than Windows, highlighting how Linux is very useful for slower computers.

18 Years Later: Is Linux Ready for Consumers?

So, can I now recommend Linux to end users, after my horrible experiences 18 years ago? Well, as you can imagine, there are a few asterisks involved. Certainly not many – but a few.

Let’s have a look at the pain points during the setup. Firstly, I should mention that the setup was flawless for me due to my extensive Linux and software knowledge. I can read quite a few types of otherwise obscure errors and know what I need to be doing. Yes, Linux has stellar support for various hardware setups by now and has become a breeze to install, but there were still things where technical knowledge that surpasses the average user’s really helped in making the experience less painful.

The two big show-stoppers 18 years ago as today – are Wifi and printer support.2 If I hadn’t already connected to various eduroams in Germany and abroad, a few times with other (non-Apple) computers and if I hadn’t known how eduroam works (via WPA2 business encryption with PEAP authentication and an accompanying CA2 Root certificate), it would have definitely been a bit difficult finding the proper steps.

Printing is another issue. While CUPS – the software that powers printing on Linux – has received much development, it’s still not ideal. 18 years ago, I never managed to get to the stage where my printer would spit out anything. I spent weeks trying to get the drivers installed, but it never worked. Today, it took me about 30 minutes to install the software and successfully print a page. However, the process still involved a lot of technical knowledge and being able to identify a few errors in my university’s sparse documentation.

Another thing that still upsets me is the software management chaos. On Windows, you download and install an Exe-file. On macOS, you download a DMG-file, and you’re good to go. But on Linux? Well, on the server side, all is well: You have apt or yum, sometimes add a few more repositories, and everything works well.

But when it comes to the desktop Linux experience, it’s more difficult.

First, you have the system’s built-in software store – in the case of Manjaro, it’s called pamac and it comes with a graphical application that makes it feel easy … until you realize that most software that you need sits in the AUR – the Arch User Repository. First you have to enable it, and then a lot feels like the Carl Sagan meme: “If you wish to make Apple Pie, you first have to invent the universe.” Most software must be compiled from source.

(Disclaimer: After talking to a colleague and giving it a second look, it turns out that most packages in the AUR have a “from source” option and a binary option, identifiable with the “-bin”-suffix. I did not know that, because it was not immediately obvious. We could now ponder the various catastrophes on the UX side of things in the Linux-universe, or the fact that the Manjaro documentation is … mostly absent [?], but that is something for another article.)

There are two projects that aim to make software distribution simpler: Snap and Flatpaks. The snap store, maintained by Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) is more established, but some software only comes as Flatpaks (including Zettlr). There are also AppImages, but those have fallen a bit out of favor, so I didn’t have to install any AppImage (yet?!).

So I ended up having three different software stores installed just to have all the software that I need: Manjaro’s official software repositories, the AUR, and Flathub. I heard that apparently it’s similar in the Android world (except you only have two main ones, the Play Store and F-Droid). But still, this is a prime example for why unregulated competition is extremely inefficient and monopolies can (not must!) be good, regardless of whether it’s something economic or just your computer.

From a user perspective, I want a single store, maybe two, and no more. I know that some value the anarchist nature of the Linux community, but while I agree that a bit of anarchism always helps security, privacy, and innovation, it more often harms the (technically inexperienced, read: average) user.


I will have to see how my new Linux adventure will go from here. But I am confident it will go much smoother than 18 years ago – also because I will still be using macOS at home. Linux has come a long way.

But, can I recommend it? Maybe. Unless you know you need or really want it, you are probably better off with either Windows or macOS, depending on your use-case.

To be fair, if my university didn’t have an AD with a lot of restrictions in place, I would’ve probably been able to just install the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) and go from there. But I hadn’t. So the second-easiest solution after using my private computer for work was to go for Linux.

Compared to 18 years ago, Linux is absolutely workable for the average person today. But it does require you to do a few mental gymnastics. It is really the OS-sification of “With great power comes great responsibility”. I would recommend anyone to definitely try out Linux — but not on their main computer. This is the great advantage I had with my personal server for all these years: If I accidentally nuked it, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but if I accidentally bricked my personal computer? That would’ve been more difficult.

In the end, lacking this particular experience is precisely for why I went Apple: The whole thing just works out of the box and for 90% of your daily needs you never need to touch any config file. But — and here’s what Windows is sorely lacking — if you really want to, you can do almost anything you want on a MacBook. It is basically what I wish Linux would be. But it isn’t – because corporate support is lacking (nVidia *cough*), and the fragmented, leader-less structure of the Linux community makes having a shared design goal difficult.

But I do see a future for Linux on consumer computers: With Microsoft heavily pivoting into enterprise-only territory where it becomes more and more tied to business workstations; Apple’s lack of vision for smart consumer software; and Valve’s heavy push for Gaming on Linux, it will become a better choice every day, until it someday, eventually, will pull equal to the OS giants. And let’s not forget: Almost all the internet already runs on Linux.

1 I should mention that IT did offer that I could fill in a few forms to fully unlock my computer and free it from the fetters of the AD domain.
2 My IT department even jokingly said something along the lines of “Have fun setting up eduroam, lol”.

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2024). “Installing Linux: 18 years later”., 1 Mar 2024,

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