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FOSS Academic

Thinking of Switching to the Linux, Fellow Academics?

Ok, so Microsoft did a thing, a potentially privacy-violating thing, called Recall. Microsoft has been doing lots of other things. Apparently these things have led to people not wanting to use Windows 11, the latest Windows – or even stop using Windows altogether.

It seems people are upset – so much so, they are talking about switching to Linux. For those of you who are academics (or in related fields), I can tell you: the switch is entirely feasible.

I’ve been using Linux since about 2008 or so to do my academic work. After writing three books with a fourth on the way, as well as nearly 30 peer-reviewed articles, I’d say it’s clear the work can be done with Linux.

I should note I’m in the humanities, not computer science, so I’m using Linux mainly to write, research, and collaborate with other authors doing social science work. And it’s also important to note that I have worked at “Microsoft Campuses” for my whole career, meaning most of my colleagues use Windows and the IT folks support mostly Windows. In fact, when IT finds out I use Linux, they tend to say “We don’t officially support that” (and then they help as best they can). So I am definitely proof an academic can survive using Linux.

Here, I want to talk a bit about my experience using Linux and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) as an academic for the past two decades and toss in some tips for those thinking of switching. I hope it’s helpful, and if you have questions, let me know!

(Also, before I begin: use whatever computer OS you like! I’m not judging! I just want to help academics who might want to switch.)

Use an older computer

One thing I’ve enjoyed over the years of using Linux is that it works great on older computers. These days, when I buy a new computer, I expect to get about 5-10 years of performance out of it. This keeps computers out of landfills, and it helps me with things like writing routines.

So, if you’re considering switching from Windows to Linux, get an old laptop (buy a used one, or grab one you have in a closet) and install Linux on that one. That way, you’re not stressed out about losing data. Even if you make a mistake in installing Linux, you’re not out of luck. You can start out small, doing some work tasks on the Linux machine with the safety net of the Windows machine as support. Over time, you can migrate data and accounts to the new machine until you’ve developed a new workflow.

Another approach that’s similar is “dual booting” – that is, using the same computer but with two operating systems (e.g., Windows and Linux). You pick which one you want to use when you start the computer. Many Linux distributions will guide you through installing Linux alongside Windows. You keep your old data this way, but you have a new operating system to experiment with.

Or treat yourself!

Or, if you’ve got the funds, buy a computer with Linux pre-installed. There are companies that specialize in this, like System76 in the US. And big computer companies, such as Dell and Lenovo, offer Linux options. You can get anything from budget machines to really high-end computers with Linux pre-installed.

Pick a distribution of Linux

Probably the most confusing part of this is the fact that there isn’t just one Linux – there are many “distributions” (“distos” for short). The good news is most of them are great for people switching from Windows, because that’s a really common path people take.

If you buy a new computer from a company like Dell or System76, they will do the work of selecting a distribution for you. System76 uses one called Pop OS, and Dell offers Ubuntu. Those are great choices!

And there are others. I myself am using Fedora, specifically one with a user interface called KDE.

And you can switch later! If you use one distribution, and you want to try others, you can. It’s called “distro hopping” and I do it for fun.

But! I don’t want you to be overwhelmed. Basically, I’d suggest picking one (Ubuntu is always a safe choice) and using it as you learn. Don’t stress too much about this.

Find a buddy, tune out the zealots

Linux users aren’t as common as Windows users, but we’re out there. Chances are, you’ve got a colleague who also uses Linux. Having a buddy can be useful if you run into trouble. That buddy might even be in your university’s IT department, which might be useful if you need support.

A flipside of this: tune out zealots. Linux (and FOSS in general) can have folks getting quite pushy and judgy. If you use Ubuntu, someone might scoff and say “I use Arch.” Ignore these people.

Use whatever apps you need

As I mentioned above, I’ve worked at Microsoft-dominated universities for my career. This means many of my colleagues use Teams, and Outlook is our provided email system. The good news is Teams works on Linux, and Outlook emails and calendaring can either be done online or with a FOSS client like Thunderbird. Word documents and Powerpoint slides can be opened and edited with either an online editor or with LibreOffice.

There’s a Zoom client for Linux, too.

The bottom line is: even if you’re using Linux, you don’t have to entirely abandon applications if you need to use them.

I myself use these things, although I also consider myself a sort of experimenter, and I try to find FOSS alternatives, such as Nextcloud, to do the same tasks. No matter what task you’re trying to take care of, there’s probably a FOSS alternative that can help. But you don’t have to use the alternative in many cases. You can carry on using the apps you’re used to.

Live the dream

With Linux installed, you can live the dream!

I call it the FOSS Academic Lifestyle Dream. The benefits of using Linux and FOSS are many! Whenever I hear about Microsoft or Apple doing something weird, I can tune it out, because I now have so much more autonomy over my computers. Whenever I hear about this or that application selling off personal data or using it train AI without consent, I can tune that out, too – these things don’t happen with FOSS. I enjoy a lot more privacy and flexibility as I use my computers, and I’ve learned a lot, too.

Deeper Dives

If you liked this post, I have previous posts talking about my workflow and the software I use:

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