How I finally got permission to use my own computer

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I've always had a passion for technology and computers. But, with a poor upbringing in a trailer park in Flint, Michigan, I didn't have the luxury of owning a computer until I was 18. At school, I would use computers for browsing the Internet, but when I finally owned my first computer I was able to really learn how to use one.

I remember that computer well, it was a Pentium III Gateway desktop tower with a 15GB hard drive and 64MB of RAM. It ran Windows 98, which crashed on me constantly, but it was all I knew so I dealt with it. Later on, I was able to upgrade it to 384MB of RAM, which for me at the time was quite something. Later on, during the time when Napster first hit the scene, I was obsessed with downloading MP3s. Eventually, I downloaded an MP3 that contained a virus that managed to wipe out my entire computer.

I didn't have any type of restore disks for my computer, but because I was in college at the time I was able to get a discount on Windows XP Professional (just introduced at the time). After installing and activating Windows XP, I was back up and running. Around that same time, I decided to take a course on Linux as part of my elective coursework in college. I had just finished a UNIX class, so it was a no-brainer. I fell in love with Linux as soon as I started the course, which was based on Red Hat 7. This was before Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) was introduced, and back when Red Hat offered an end-user distribution of their own (that would eventually become Fedora).

Although I loved Linux and enjoyed the class, I didn't think to use Linux by itself, so I dual-booted it with Windows XP. Back then, there was no easy way to install Nvidia drivers or to get MP3s to play. And, don't even get me started on printing. Today, these types of things are trivial and easy. But back then you had to recompile your kernel to install certain drivers, and this risked breaking your entire system. In fact, I broke my Red Hat installation more times than I can count. But, despite how hard Linux was to use back then, I kept at it, even though Windows XP was still my primary operating system.

In regards to Windows XP, I reinstalled it multiple times. I was learning Information Technology for the first time (it was what I was going to school for), so I would wipe my computer and reinstall the operating system about once a month. Maybe I thought I would gain more speed by partitioning differently, or perhaps I wanted to try a bigger or faster hard disk that I salvaged from spare parts somewhere. Regardless of the reason, I loved to tweak my computer, tear it apart, and put it back together. It was a fantastic learning experience.

That's also when my loathing for Windows began. Around thirty or so days after another episode of "pave and reload," Windows XP displayed a message box, asking to be activated. I've done this before, many times, so I was prepared to let it do whatever it was that it needed. But this time, it didn't work. Apparently, I must have activated it too many times. It demanded that I telephone the activation center and wouldn't let me activate online anymore. At this time, I didn't have a phone! I was making $5.15 an hour at the time working as a receptionist, so I wasn't able to afford a home phone. I could barely afford Internet, which I didn't even have all the time.

So, I did what I had to do. I grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and walked down to the local pay phone (which existed back then). I called the phone number to activate my computer and was asked to provide a long series of numbers, which I had written down, and the automated robot on then other end read me an activation code.

At the time, it was November, and so it was quite cold and rainy in Michigan. My constant shivering made it hard for me to even write down the numbers! On my walk home, I was armed with an activation code that I would use to activate Windows. But I started thinking, "why am I asking for permission to use my computer?" The computer I worked hard to purchase. Why does someone else have the ultimate say in whether or not I am able to use it? It didn't make sense.

Not only was my computer expensive, but I paid $199 for my copy of Windows XP Professional. So, I didn't appreciate limitations being placed on me. I understood at the time that Windows is licensed (and not owned) but it made no moral sense to me whatsoever. There I was, icecicles forming on my face as the rain turned into a freezing drizzle, walking home with an activation code that acted as a permission slip granted to me to unlock my computer.

I had heard of the ethics of free software before, but at the time didn't explore it further, opting to use what I knew and ignore the fine print. But I'll never forget that moment. Meanwhile, there were activation cracks circling the Internet, and pirated copies were easy to get. Those with malicious intent were able to use Windows XP without any restrictions, while I felt punished for playing by the rules. It was then that my passion for Linux and open source came to fruition.

I swore to wean myself off Windows and transfer all of my use cases to Linux.

As I learned more about Linux, it became easier to use with time. I was impressed by the contributions of open source developers to it as well. Use cases that were really hard for me at first became easier as more advancements were made in the Linux community. At one point, finding and installing codecs to play multimedia files was annoying, but later it became a cinch. Proprietary drivers (when absolutely necessary) required me to recompile my kernel, but it is now often just a checkbox. Free drivers have also made leaps and bounds.

Watching Linux transition from something difficult to use to something almost everyone can use, has been an amazing experience to witness. Developers of open source software see usability flaws and eliminate them right before our eyes. And, one of the things that impresses me most about the open source community is the way in which everyone collaborates. If a feature is needed within an application, anyone is welcome to create the code and submit it for everyone else to benefit from. And if someone doesn't know how to code, he or she can seek mentorship or simply suggest the idea for someone else to develop.

Everytime I use my computer, I appreciate of all of the great usability features from people around the world. And best of all, I can help make it better.

Today, Linux and open source are my primary passions. They also help pay my bills! Constant studying of Linux helped me achieve several certifications (including LPIC-2), which helped kickstart my professional career. During the day, I help support over 600 Linux virtual machines. It is a great deal of fun. And, when I'm not at work, I enjoy writing and helping others.

My first professionally published book, Linux Mint Essentials, was released last year. My hope is that it will help kickstart others to free their computers, as I did with mine. I wrote a science fiction novel too, Escape to Planet 55. And, all of my books were written using only free and open source software.

I also create Youtube videos as JtheLinuxguy in order to provide the community with tutorials and distribution reviews. With these videos, I've helped people learn how to use open source software! The feeling I get when I discover that one of my videos has helped someone is beyond words. It's a great feeling to give back and help others, and it's an even greater feeling going to work every day supporting technology that I really believe in.

My Linux Story


This article is part of a series called My Linux Story. To participate and share your Linux story, contact us at: open@opensource.com.

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Jay LaCroix is a technologist from Michigan, with a focus on Linux and open-source software. Using Linux since 2002, Jay has been a die-hard fan ever since. He is currently a Senior Solutions Architect and freelance consultant and enjoys training and empowering others to use Linux and to make the most of this amazing software.

11 Comments

I love your story. Thanks for sharing. I've shared it already on Facebook this morning with others who would like to declare their own independence from proprietary software.

Congratulations on a great article. Jay. Your experience wias similar to my own. My last 'proprietary' OS was Win98, when I installed Redhat 5. It was an adventure, just as you describe--drivers, display problems, network access--all were problems to be defeated, but I did it.

No more Micro$oft! YIPPEE

Jay -- LOVED your story! BTW, the Windows XP activation system was my reason for switching to Linux, too. In my case, it was late 2002 and I had Windows 98 on my computer, and I was looking to upgrade to Windows XP. I was at Barnes & Noble one night and sat down to read Windows XP for Dummies, when I saw the thing about the activation system. While reading about it, I thought to myself "OK, that is absolutely uncalled for!".

I remembered watching a documentary on Linux on the Sci-Fi Channel several years before. At the time, that piqued my interest, but I wasn't interested in switching at the time -- but after learning about the activation system built into XP, I said to myself "self...let's learn all we can about Linux and eventually switch to it".

I took my transition to Linux fairly slowly, by first downloading and installing as many Windows versions of software titles that I knew were available for Linux in order to familiarize myself with them. Several months later, I discovered a few books at Barnes & Noble about Linux that had live Knoppix CDs in them, so I just had to buy them and play around with them. Being out of work at the time, I enrolled in a few classes at a local community college and discovered that they had computers set to dual-boot in a computer lab about Windows XP, 2000, and Mandrake Linux -- I was in hog heaven!

A year later, my computer, on which I had Windows 2000 at the time, began displaying error messages every so often, and I couldn't figure out why. They gradually became more and more frequent, and eventually, it got to bad that those error messages kept popping up every few minutes. At that point, I had had ENOUGH. I finally broke down and went for broke, backed up all my stuff, wiped Windows 2000, and installed Mandrake. VOILA! -- problem solved!

I've had several distributions on there since then, and now, I currently use the new Monara distro, which is a fork of the recently-discontinued Crunchbang, although I added LXDE to the stock Openbox configuration. Ever since that day I finally declared my freedom from Microsoft in January of 2005, I haven't looked back since. B-)

Great story!

I'm a great SciFi enthusiast, so I'm definitely going to order the Kindle edition of your novel.

Very cool article. I started computing on the Apple 2 and Linux appealed to the kid in me who learned BASIC so that he could write his own Star Wars games. (grin)

While I run Windows to launch certain games, my Alienware has a pretty hefty Fedora 22 partition and my work system is running RHEL 7 as a workstation. (but that's one benefit of being at the Hat)

Free software is wonderful. Free software that works better and better over time is life and career changing. I can testify to that personally.

I remember when RH did that, I also had just gotten xp installed.
however I did have disc clone software so I made backup of the xp disc (just in case) then put second disc in and dual booted setting priority in bios

iirc the redhat box had 5 or so discs in it and I could not get any modem to work with it.

I remember these experiences very well. "Permission to use my own computer" is the best way to put it, and it's exactly why I can't use Mac or Windows anymore.

Something very close to this happened to me. I was only tinkering with Linux when I built a computer for my daughter and of course bought a Windows XP licence for $150. She loved to download music, so of course got viruses often (Teens always know more than dad huh) and that meant a reformat. Well after about a dozen reinstalls of Windows I also was forced to make the phone call to Microsoft and get 'permission' to run the PC like Jay did. I was mad! But things got worse. My daughter got another virus, and another reformat later I was advised to call the number again. This time I was accused by Microsoft of pirating that licence and they completely refused to activate it. I was livid. Like Jay I was not making much money and even living in a mobile home so $150 was a lot of money and now I was forced to go to the store to spend another $150!!!! Needless to say MS leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Now I use Linux exclusively and it's so nice to have an OS that I own or software that I simply just install and use. I stll use Windows but only for gaming and it annoys me to register, log on, put in codes, etc just to enjoy a little free time on the PC.
As a side note; I work in a position where mentioning Linux is a conflict of interest but I have been caught by a few clients blurting 'accidentally' that "I use Windows 8.1 for non essential work and I find nothing wrong with it". Usually the response is "Non essential work? So what do you use for important work?" You know where the conversation goes from there.

Some of my favourite early-Linux memories are of camping out for a day inside a bookstore, rabidly reading every book I could find on Unix and Linux and open source. It seems strange to think that books like "Linux Mint Essentials" are still important tools in finding out about computer topics, but I think there will always be a place for these kinds of books. I'll have to hunt down a copy of yours.

Enjoyed the story which many "old timers" will recognise - DOS stories anyone.
Just got a bit overexcited by the headline which, for a minute, I thought was going to be about how you convinced the corporate drones to let you use YOD.
A story for someone else to tell.

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