Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Great Switchover - Prelude

Most of the people I know in Pakistan have illegal copies of Windows installed on their computers. It's not that I have an inordinate number of criminally minded acquaintances. It's a combination of convenience and convention.

First the convention part. Somehow, we don't really take copyright seriously. It doesn't strike most people here as theft. My discomfort with people buying pirated books strikes them as yet another of my endearing (or not so endearing, depending on the person, their mood, the context, etc.) idiosyncrasies. And these are people who would never steal an object or money from someone, people who think of doing an honest day's work as an act of worship, etc., etc. Somehow, intellectual property does not compute. There may be a connection with the fact that Bhutto (ZA, not his daughter) actually abolished copyright laws when he was prime minister. We haven't really registered that they're back on the books.

The convenience part is this: Actually getting legal, licensed software is much, much, much, harder than getting pirated/unlicensed software. This is not as true for laptop buyers, since most of them ship with pre-installed OS, but for desktop users it is pretty much universal. Unless you are one of the few Pakistanis for whom money is no object, you aren't going to buy a branded PC, you're going to go down to Hafeez Centre/whatever the computing plaza is in your city, and shop around a bit, and then buy a pre-assembled computer from one of the many tiny shops in the plaza, maybe ask someone who knows a bit more than you about computers to go along with you. If you are a bit more hardware-savvy, you might buy the components from Hafeez Centre and then put it together yourself.

When you buy the pre-assembled computer, the guy behind the counter will ask you, "and what software do you want installed on this?". If you're the average PC user, you'll look blank, and he'll say, "OK, I'll go ahead and put the standard stuff on", and this will include Windows, Microsoft Office, anti-virus software, something for email and webbrowsing, some kind of media player, and possibly a plethora of other software like Acrobat Professional, Photoshop, etc., etc. Also, there will be a ton thrown in that actually IS freeware (Think Google downloads, Skype, etc.).The average PC user won't even know that they're getting pirated software, they just think that it comes installed with their computer.

If you're a bit more PC-literate, you may have specific software that you want installed, and some that you know you don't want. And the guy will go ahead and customize the installation to suit you. In a week or so, you'll start seeing the Genuine Advantage Validation Failed nag screens (or not, depending on how savvy your vendor is), and so you might come to realize that you're actually using unlicensed software. Or not.

Or you could be more conscious of copyright and licensing issues to begin with, and ask for licensed software. And the vendor will look at you as if you've suddenly grown horns. A couple may be able to tell you where to get it, but those two vendors will be reluctant to do so, and tell you how stupid you would be to go for that option. No one else will even be able to tell you where to purchase licensed Windows XP.

If you're particularly persistent, you'll ask around, maybe look online. At that point, you'll see the price of genuine operating software, look at the difference between what you would have paid at Hafeez Centre (nothing, or maybe Rs 100=USD1.25 per program if you wanted the installation disks. If the vendor was a nice guy, he might just burn the installation software on to a DVD for free, complete with a text file of SKU numbers, and possibly key generating software.).

If your conscience is loud enough, you'll still want to buy the software, and you'll find that you can only purchase it online. And that to do so, you need a credit card. And like most Pakistanis, you will not have a credit card. So you can either look for a friend who will lend you their credit card or do the transaction for you, or you can apply for a credit card, or you can just forget about it.

It's not that it's completely impossible to get legal Windows; it's just SO much harder, and SO much more expensive, that the number of PC owners in Pakistan would drop by at least 50% if there weren't pirated software vendors. And no, I haven't really done the research on it, but I have spent years feeling guilty about using pirated software, and knowing that I couldn't own a computer if I had to buy the software that I regularly use, even just the bare minimum. And I earn a decent salary. So it's safe to assume that other people, who earn less decent salaries, and have more dependants, would similarly be unable to afford home computers if they had to purchase software at the prices that Microsoft charges.

And you may sit in moral judgement on them for doing so (and if you're Microsoft, you may actually come after them with a police team), but the fact of the matter is that most people are not going to forgo the utility that a home PC offers because of what seems like some abstract notion of ownership. Particularly when the sale of pirated software is so ubiquitous that I would guess the majority doesn't even realize they're using pirated software. They've never seen genuine, licensed software. Literally everyone they know has the pirated discs.

Given the convenience+cost equation, most people just don't bother with genuine software, even when they are aware that they are using pirated. It's kind of like if the lost & found department were in a poorly marked room on the fifth floor and there were no elevator; how many would bother to go turn in a found item? It isn't that people don't know that the right thing to do is turn it in, but it's just too darn hard.

I feel strongly about pirated books. I feel strongly about pirated music. By pirating, I mean someone selling copies of someone else's work. I'm less certain about copying your legally purchased CD for a friend, and am positive that there isn't anything ethically wrong with creating a mix CD of tracks from various CDs that I have legally purchased, so long as I don't sell it. So I spent some years feeling guilty about using illegal Windows, because I didn't know about Linux. And a few more after that feeling guilty because I didn't know about OpenOffice.

Linux seemed really intimidating, but OpenOffice sounded fantastic, so last year I removed Microsoft Office from my laptop and installed OpenOffice. There are things I know how to do in MS Office that I still haven't figured out in OpenOffice, so it still takes me a bit longer to get stuff done, but it's at the point where on most things, it's just that muscle memory hasn't yet set in, but I can get the job done.

As of last year, I no longer have any illegal software on my laptop, other than the Windows operating system (My laptop was shipping with Windows Vista, and I REALLY didn't want to install it. So I felt very little guilt in installing XP from the disc my computer guy was kind enough to provide.). The process of finding alternatives for all the software I use regularly has been fun, and a highly educational experience.

So what software have I ditched and with what have I replaced it?

1) MS Office to OpenOffice, and am considering SoftmakerOffice and go-oo as potentially faster alternatives.
2) Adobe Acrobat Professional to PDF X-Change Viewer and PDFTK Builder
3) Symantec Antivirus to AVG Antivirus
4) Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox, although I'm considering trying out Google Chrome (not bothering with links to those).
5) MS Outlook to GMail and Mozilla Thunderbird w/ Lightning. This is the conversion I'm least happy with, because I haven't figured out a decent integration of all the PIM stuff that Outlook used to do.
6) Windows Media Player (which I always hated) to foobar2000, iTunes, and MediaPlayerClassic.
7) Nero to ImgBurn
8) WinZip to 7Zip

In the process of looking for alternatives, I have also discovered utilities and misc programs that can do things I would never have thought of. In fact, I had no idea that people had come up with so many cool ways to get so many cool things done.

Lifehacker has been an invaluable resource. The articles are very helpful, and the comment threads really flesh things out, providing a variety of perspectives.

I've gone a little nuts downloading things that I will have to re-assess for usefulness to me, but I can now clone disks, resize partitions, remove duplicate files (I have been LONGING for someone to do this for me), and am learning to do stuff at the command line.

All of this has led me slowly but surely to decide that it is time to ditch Windows and take the plunge into Linux. The plan is to change my desktop and my laptop, but I'm not brave enough to do both simultaneously. The desktop is older, a P4 I bought 6 yrs ago, at least. And I use the laptop more.

So this is also providing the impetus to actually clean all the crap off of my desktop. I inherited my dad's P3 when he died, and have been trying to figure out what to do with it. The hard drive is bigger than my P4's, and I have to get data off of it too. I haven't had the energy to really deal with figuring out what on the computer is worth saving, e.g. pictures that my sister sent to my parents but hasn't kept copies of, and business related documents, vs. recipes and maps that my dad was downloading.

So, I installed his hard drive into my own computer case, but haven't done much with it yet. Moving to Linux means repartitioning the hard drive, which I've been planning to do anyway, so I'm doing the prep work in the mean time. In fact, I've been writing this post on my laptop while I removed 6-7 GB of duplicate files from my hard drive, then making a backup DVD of my work related files.

Next post will be about the process of prepping for the switch, including things like, what to do with 6 years of hoarded email, which files to backup, etc. Very little of this is stuff I've figured out on my own, but I figure even just having the links in one place might be useful. Also, more selfishly, I then have a kind of checklist for redoing this process on my laptop.

More soon.

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