Episode 061 - Linux & Open Source are your friends

We rely on technology more and more, and yet it is one of those most expensive and shortest lifetime investments we can make. In this episode, I’m going to explain how you can save mega-bucks by changing how you think about technology, and specifically how you can use the Linux operating system and open source software to get advantages most never see. And I promise I won’t get technical and geeky either.

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Show Notes

Despite popular belief, technology can be 100% free

Technology has a seriously short shelf-life.  The average laptop, for example, should be replaced out about every 3-4 years.  The average smartphone is swapped out every 2-3 years.  This doesn’t allow for very good return on investment.

98% of people opt for the “easy” technology option because they just “want it to work”.  The problem is that they don’t really understand what they are buying.  Technology is like a car - it can do amazing things, and move you around.  But you need to know how to drive it.  And ideally you should be able to maintain and fix it yourself.  Those that can, save thousands.  Those that can’t are usually victims of their dealership.

Computers are no different.  If you run to the Apple Expert Bar at the drop of a hat, you are no different to the victim at the car dealership.  They will lie to you and tell you that you need to throw away a perfectly working computer and buy a new one, and most people just nod their heads and do that.   My recent analysis of a Macbook Pro suitable for my use came out to about $4,000 in total cost.  That is ridiculous.  I ended up paying $1,200 and got the same machine, with the same performance (in fact 2x the storage) by being wiling to open up the case and do some internal change outs on older computers (a 2017 model) myself, yielding about 80% of the performance of the 2020 model, but at 28% of the price.

However if I did this with Linux, I could have saved even more.  The truth is that most 3 year old laptops would run 2x faster than most modern Windows or Mac based laptops, if they had Linux installed on them.  Yes, that is a bold claim.  But it is true.  Same is true of desktop computers also.

Why?  Because the entire philosophy of Linux being open source differs from the same proprietary (for profit) offerings of companies like Microsoft & Apple.  Those companies have built in short shelf-life because they are responsible to their shareholders to increase earnings.  That’s fine if you are a shareholder.  It is not fine if you are a customer.  The quality of the Windows operating system, for example, is low and it is full of “bloatware” - this is due to the shorter shipping dates built into OS versions.  The current Windows 10 operating system will be replaced by a Windows 11 one soon, and with that you will either have to magically upgrade your laptop or desktop computer (for no good reason BTW), or pay $200 or so direct to Microsoft to upgrade what you already have.  And what you already have today works just perfectly.

Same is true of Apple.  Yet at least Apple make their money on hardware, so they let you upgrade OS versions without too much of an issue, but if you have a 10 year old computer (one that probably works perfectly BTW), you will be restricted from upgrading it to modern operating systems.  Case in point, I’m recording this podcast on a 2012 upgraded Mac Pro that is maxed out, and it rivals the performance of a 2018 Mac Pro model.  It cost me a total of $1,400 to buy and upgrade this.  A current model Mac Pro at this level is about $10,000 retail.

Imagine if you could buy technology that was built not to try and be instantly obsolete but because the engineers that created it were driven by the desire to push the limits of what technology can do, and worked as a team together to achieve those goals?  Would it not be in your interest to align with that, vs. being a victim at the “car dealership service department” of the Microsofts & Apples?

And that’s why you should use Linux.  Open source as a philosophy is in your unconstrained interest.  But just like anything that you take control and responsibility over, and not give up to a counter party, the buck now stops on your desk.  So let’s talk about the mindset and what you should be educating yourself in, so that you can get the financial benefits that I get with my technology.

Now first, some caveats.  I’m not your computer support.  If you go down this path, you become your own computer support department.  If you need help from the Linux community, you can get it but they expect you to take things as far as you can first.  They won’t respond favorably (in general) to requests that demonstrate laziness on behalf of the technology owner.  Of course, your local Apple store or Microsoft tech support call will never chastise you or call you out for not doing things for yourself.  Because that would affect their bottom line profit levels that they will extort out of you in some fashion, in some creative ways.  But when you take the responsibility upon yourself to manage your own technology, expect the rest of the community to expect you to have done that, or you will be ridiculed in public over it.  This can be a shock to many who first come in contact with open source, but it is also a wakeup call that you are better than you may think you are, and they will help you draw that out of you.

Depending on how much you want to push the technology, depends on how much you need to learn.  Anyone can download a Linux Distro (ie. Ubuntu) from their website, and with some basic Googling find out how to create a USB thumbdrive to install it from, and install it on most laptop computers.  Brands that are common are more likely to work without much effort.  I personally only go with Dell hardware, but HP, Lenovo, Asus, etc. all should be just fine.  Insert the USB thumbdrive, tell the computer to boot from it, and Ubuntu starts up.  You can run it as a “Live” version, meaning it is not installed on your computer but you can try it out, or you can install it.  Note once you install, there is no going back, so try out the live version first.  At least it will help you test that your video and Wifi work just fine, as well as your storage, etc.  If all seems to be ok, then you should be fine to install it.

What does this cost?  $0.   Totally free.  What does support cost?  Nothing if you use IRC or other support forums and you conform with the protocols of using it.  And all the information on how to do most things can be found on blogs and YouTube channels.  It is not hard to master this stuff, if you are persistent and you don’t give up too soon.  You’ll be surprised what you will learn and what doors that will open to you.

For example, did you know that you can install Linux on a setup top TV box and use it to have all the free TV channels and cord-cutting experience you want?  In fact, did you know that a derivative of Linux (FreeBSD) is/was the underpinnings of MacOS?  Also did you know that Android is another Linux operating system?  They have just hidden the complexities on this which is why it is freely distributed on most mobile devices everywhere for no cost.  

If you buy, for example, a NVidia Shield set top box (which I highly recommend BTW) to watch 4K TV with, it runs Android, which is sitting on top of Linux.  That’s why you can get those units for under $300.  

Now if all you need here is a laptop for your kids, Ubuntu running on a 3-5 yr old used laptop you can pickup from a thrift store or on eBay for pennies on the dollar compared to a new one, could be the answer to getting your kids online for their school.  No, you don’t need to spend $1000+ with Dell.com for this.  

You can run Windows applications (most) on Linux using a thing called WINE (Windows emulator).  There are some exceptions that won’t run, but even some 3D Games work fine in this way.  I run a lot of apps that way.  When I can’t run a certain Windows app (for example, Quickbooks does not work in WINE for me), I can install the free VirtualBox system that allows me to run a virtual Windows computer inside of Linux.  You can find cheap licenses for Windows 10 on eBay, and install them inside of Virtual box, giving you a complete Windows system that can run and install the things you can’t do with WINE.  But you might be surprised to find that the majority of applications these days are web applications that run online, and all major browsers are typically found on Linux (ie. Chrome, Firefox, Brave, Opera, etc.) and they often work faster and smoother than their Windows or Mac counterparts.

If you need Microsoft Office, you can use the free versions of these.  The most common one is LibreOffice, but I actually prefer a suite of programs from Germany called “FreeOffice”.  I use their Word equivalent - TextMaker - everyday for my work, and I’m writing my book with it too.  Works great, and 100% free of charge.  No annual or monthly subscriptions, etc.

If you need Photoshop, you can probably find ways to make the older versions work in Linux but there are free software equivalents that will probably work fine for basic photo editing.  GIMP is the most popular of these and I use it for most of my work.  Took a little re-learning, but it does work fine.

For media creation (such as Video editing), I have used programs like Kdenlive and Openshot.  I’ve done some pretty decent videos in Mexico when I was there with a Linux laptop and they were fine.  These days I use Final Cut Pro on a Mac for this, but to be honest the Linux versions are easier to use and although they might not have all the high end transitions and tricks you can do on Final Cut, for home video editing or putting something simple up on YouTube, they work just fine.

Same is true of audio recording & editing.  Audacity works great on Linux, and if you need more than that, the DAW software Ardour works well and is reliable.  In fact those programs also run on Windows & Mac as well, so you can save money just by using them if you have a legacy system already.  Now I use Logic Pro on my Mac for all of my work because I’ve been using it for over 10 years now, and it is what I know.  But I push that to the limit because I compose music and I need all the 3rd party plugins, etc.  However if I was forced to, I could do what I do with open source here as well.

Games can be played using Steam, in which many games now are natively available for Linux.  The most modern titles might not be available yet, but if you are playing on a games console on a TV, you probably don’t care that the games are not on your laptop.   However this is changing as Valve, the makers of Steam, have a new tool called “Proton” that works with WINE and has opened up a lot more cross-platform games to Linux.  But for infrequent gaming, Linux can work just fine.  Just check that your favorite titles are available or use a game console.

Another example of Linux alternatives would be watching video media.  Your YouTube videos will play in a browser just fine on a Linux machine vs. a Mac or Windows machine, but if you have downloaded a movie and want to play it, the free VLC player works fine on Linux and handles pretty much any codec in a video file, so you should not be any different for media consumption there.  As for listening to audio (ie. podcasts, etc.) most Linux distributions include at least one audio player.  Rythmnbox is a great one for podcasts and listening to your music collection.  You can even get a Linux version of Spotify.

Now look, there are definitely compromises here.  But if you can put a price on the things that might be a little more inconvenient vs. the cost of not going open source, you can quickly determine if you are being lulled into a false sense of security here.  What I have noticed over the years, however, is a more open embracement of Linux as a quality option.  When I install new software, there is normally a Linux version of it available now.  Case in point, my Ledger Wallets that I use for storing Bitcoin keys, etc. come with Linux software for managing them and it works great.

Here’s the subtle additional pay off though....

Linux isn’t just about your laptop or desktop computer.  The knowlege that you gain from installing it, can transfer to much more in your home.  I run a collection of servers in my home for my personal “lab” use, but they also include all my media servers, as well as my file storage & backup systems, firewall (again runs on FreeBSD/Linux), as well as my phone system (Asterisk), and monitoring systems (HomeSeer) for my home utilities.  All of our surveillance systems run on Linux (Xeoma - not free, but very affordable) and I run NextCloud to securely make our files & documents available to me anywhere in the world, on pretty much any device (ie. computer, browser, phone, etc.).  Even the software I use for scanning our documents runs on Linux (gScan2PDF) and that works natively with our Fujitsu scanner.

You can take this to whatever level you want, but there is no reason that you can’t find a free and open source equivalent of pretty much anything you want with Linux and when you can’t, you should question whether you really need to.  

There are also security advantages here.  Because open source software is worked on by teams of volunteer programmers, or by companies that see the importance of keeping projects alive and invest in them - either directly with money or with their staff, since the source code is peer reviewed by developers all over the world, security problems are normally found quickly.  Many proprietary manufacturers will ship insecure devices and software because of the cost of recalls and issuing new version updates.  And in many cases, the culture of an organization determines their willingness to admit to security vulnerabilities.  Remember the old Windows versions at or prior to Windows XP and the constant attacks of viruses on them?   Linux has a far more secure basic infrastructure, and it is rare that you ever even need to install an anti-virus program on Linux because of its design.  

It used to be that Linux was only used by engineers and technology “mechanics”.  It was ugly, hard to use, got in the way and something you would never give to your Grandma to use.  But a lot has changed, and these days I’d say for the average user, it is 90% of what they would get from a proprietary operating system, but with $0 the price.  Not bad ROI there at all.  

However in our current pandemic year, when kids are expected to be at home doing their school work, etc. there could not be a better time to find someone’s old, used laptop and refresh it by installing Linux on it.  I can typically take a 5 year old piece of hardware that no longer performs at all with Windows, format it and re-install Ubuntu on it, and get most of the performance back.  And for this reason, we are looking to acquire pallet loads of used laptops from school districts, refresh them with Linux and donate them to impoverished regions such as kids in Mexico.  With some teaching and help, they can be the next generation of engineers and developers because the tools will be provided to them without the discrimination of cost associated.  Why is it that India is such a tech powerhouse, but so much of the region is impoverished?  They know how to use things like Linux to ensure that everyone learns and that’s the key - if we don’t realize that by being lazy and avoiding the responsibility of understanding our technology, not only will we fall prey to being victims to the corporations that want to extort money from us, but we will not be competitive with the emerging markets that are far more embracing of working harder and using open source (shared economy) methods like Linux.

One thing I would caution you - should you want to follow me down this path....   There are hidden costs of ownership of technology.  The biggest one you should be aware of is the cost of electricity.

In Arizona, where we live, power (during the periods from about May through end of October) is charged at rates around the $0.25 per KwH rate.  This means that an average power bill in summer can be $500-$700 for a typical suburban home.  Anything that contributes to over-usage of power (ie. old HVAC systems, old pool pumps, etc.) result in increasing that power bill.  And if you decide that you want to build your own Linux server for your home, buy a KillAWatt meter first (explain).

Computers that are left on 24/7 are constantly drawing power, and the costs can be expensive.  For example, an average desktop computer that has a graphics card, if left on is probably drawing about 1Amp of power.  If you live in a region that has a $0.10 per KwH power cost, over the course of a year, that device will cost you $105 to run (or $8 per month).  If you are drawing more power, then the numbers go up.  But if you are in regions that are 2x that, you are talking around $20 a month to run that computer.  These numbers are significant, and also if you are considering using alternative power generation (ie. solar) the more high powered draw devices you have, the less likely you can find an affordable solar solution.  Therefore I would suggest that you might want to seek out newer hardware (such as the new EPYC systems) that draw less power, but will cost more up front.  Just remember they run Linux, so yes - you might pay more for the hardware, but you won’t pay for the software, and your ongoing cost of ownership will be lower.  Since the longevity of Linux is typically 5x that of the proprietary counterparts, this could be a serious money saver if done correctly.

Since you have the choice of what hardware you want to buy to run Linux, you have far more options to find more cost effective (both up front purchase cost + cost of ownership) on that hardware than you do on bundled systems.  Keep that in mind when you are looking at the total cost of ownership here.

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