Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Linux for the rest of us?

Back in the late 1990s, people were touting Linux as the “next big thing.”

Think back to 1998 when an internal memo released by Microsoft about the “Linux threat” was leaked to the public. It appeared that Linux might be on the verge of seriously challenging Microsoft’s dominance in the marketplace. At the same time, people were worried about security vulnerabilities in Windows 98 and the stability issues of the operating system.

Indeed, some of them were mad enough at Microsoft to give Linux a try. It was touted as a free operating system that had a lot of software support (which it was) but was a bit difficult for non-technical types to install and learn (that was true, too).

The end result of the whole hubbub was that Microsoft released a better operating system in Windows XP and Linux did win a few converts, but nothing on the scale that some had hoped. In short, one might argue that competition from Linux — either real or imagined — prompted Microsoft to get its act together and take a hard look at making operating systems that are both more secure and more stable.

By the way, we’re not discounting Apple’s efforts in competing with Microsoft. Mac OS X, after all, does share some things in common with Linux in that both operating systems have their roots in Unix. Rather than going into that, it’s probably sufficient to say that Apple’s OS X platform has been quite successful, partially due to its simplicity. Mere mortals can, indeed, install and use the thing.

That same claim couldn’t be made of Linux in the late 1990s or, indeed, even the early 2000s. Installing programs required some knowledge of how to navigate around in a terminal window and finding the right hardware drivers was a challenge. Linux developers, then, were faced with a challenge of their own — making the operating system more accessible was the key to finding more users.

That challenge was taken up by Ubuntu when the company issued its first Linux distribution in 2004. Ubuntu’s mission is to both make Linux easier to use and update it regularly. That version of Linux — like most of them — is free.

How is Ubunto doing? Pretty well, actually. I installed it on my netbook the other day after my hard drive developed a logic error and needed to be formatted. The thing about a netbook, of course, is that they typically don’t have DVD ROM drives installed, so you don’t get backups of the operating system that ships with them. In my case, I had Windows XP and a license number, but didn’t want to go through the hassle of getting a new OS. I needed the netbook in a hurry, so I opted for going to the Ubuntu site, downloading the latest Linux distribution, putting it on a pen drive and installing Linux on my netbook from that drive.

The installation, believe it or not, was a breeze. The Ubuntu site walks users through the entire process and tells them how to make a bootable pen drive and installing Linux to it from a computer that is working. Yes, the netbook was pretty much worthless without an operating system but my desktop still has its stout copy of Windows XP up and running, so I was able to download Linux and put all the files I needed on a pen drive.

Now, bear in mind that the folks at Ubuntu realize that some people may be apprehensive about getting rid of Windows entirely and installing Linux. No problem. The Web site will tell you how to run Linux from a CD ROM or pen drive so you can try out the operating system without risking losing Windows. It also has handy tips on how to make a “dual boot” system that can swap over to either Linux or Windows. Handy stuff.

Ah, but I needed an operating system and needed one in a hurry. I well remember how tough it was to install a Linux distribution back around 2000 and was worried about running into some of the same problems. However, the Ubuntu distribution installed on my netbook in about 10 minutes and installed all the necessary drivers. Well, almost all of them. I couldn’t get my Wi-Fi card to work with Ubuntu, but a quick Google search led me to the solution. In under an hour, then, I had an operating system that up and running. In other words, you don’t have to be a software engineer or someone with a ton of time on his hands to install this and get it to work well. Linux has come a long way, indeed.

Oh, and a lot of the programs I’ve used for years were already installed with Ubuntu. The GIMP — a great graphics editor — was already installed as was OpenOffice.org, a viable alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. The Firefox Internet browser was already installed, too, as was the Thunderbird email client. One of my favorite applications I used with Windows — Dropbox — wasn’t installed, but getting that up and running was very easy. The only program I couldn’t get that I wish was available is Evernote, a program that allows one to easily share notes from one computer to another.

Oh, here’s an update — a very nice Linux user by the name of Erik Rasmussen sent me an email telling me I could get Evernote running through WINE — a Linux program that can handle some Windows applications. I’ve got Evernote 3.1 up and running well right now. I didn’t even ask for help and someone offered assistance after reading my earlier comment about not having Evernote on my system. The Linux camp has always been stocked with enthusiastic supporters willing to help users learning the operating system. That’s appreciated.

Here’s the downside of Linux – some of those programs you have probably used with Windows for years aren’t compatible with the operating system. Yes, there are some programs that offer similar functionality, but they aren’t exactly the same. OpenOffice.org, for example, can read and write Microsoft Office documents quite well, but the compatibility isn’t perfect in some instances (that’s particularly true when it comes to Excel spreadsheets). Still, Linux does make it possible to get by without Windows well enough and that’s all that counts for some people.

One of the beauties of Ubuntu is how rarely it requires the user to dive into terminal mode (think Unix shell or “DOS ‘C’ prompt” and you get the idea). Installing software under Linux used to be a bit of a chore, but Ubuntu makes it easy. Want to find an application? No problem — just click an icon, head to the Ubuntu software store, run a search and find what you need. If that Linux program isn’t in the store, it is possible — in most cases — for the operating system to read the file and install it for you. It’s all very easy.

Here’s another thing that’s easy. Ubuntu has some pretty good user documentation available online and something even more valuable — an active forum full of people willing to help newcomers solve the problems they’re having. Again, Ubuntu puts the emphasis on ease of use and its flavor of Linux reflects that philosophy quite well.

The menus make sense, too. Applications are generally stored where they need to be, games are located where you’d expect them, the file structure is similar to what you’re used to in Windows, etc. In other words, Linux has come a long way in terms of being easy to use over the past decade. One thing that does feel odd but is pretty slick is the ability to set up independent “workspaces” in which different projects are run. For example, go ahead and work on a word processing document in OpenOffice.org in one workspace while Linux downloads and applies updates in another.

Ubuntu promises to make the system even easier with its Unity desktop. That’s standard equipment on the netbook distribution of Ubuntu and is, essentially, a toolbar that runs down the left hand side of your screen and allows you to access various menus and programs quickly. While I went for the default interface with my Ubuntu (yes, there’s a way to download and install the “desktop interface), I haven’t gotten rid of Unity. Ubuntu issues updates about every six months, so who knows what will be built into Unity in the future?

How about security and speed? Linux is pretty secure, really. Any time a program wants to access a crucial part of my system, I get a dialog asking me type in my user password and give it permission to proceed. There’s not a lot of talk about viruses with Linux, so I feel pretty good about that. As for speed, I have noticed that Linux uses fewer system resources than Windows XP did, but the difference in speed seems nominal. That could be because the system I typically used is a netbook which isn’t going to set any speed records, anyway.

I’d love to say that Linux is dandy and wonderful and that I’ll never use Windows again. However, I simply don’t know enough about it yet to make that determination. Linux does look promising so far and I was thrilled to have my computer back and running as usual with most of my familiar applications in just a few hours. However, Windows is still more familiar to most users and Windows XP and 7 are solid enough to likely cause a lot of users to wonder why they should bother switching. Microsoft is still the industry standard and the OS seems to accomplish what most people want to do with it.

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