June 06, 2006
Love it, hate it, heard lots about it, but still don't have enough of a handle to form a firm opinion? Then we must be talking about Linux, the open-source operating system that's alluring because it's heavy duty and it's free. Simultaneously, it's intimidating to newbies because it's typically more difficult to install and configure than Windows.
However, now is an opportune time to get past those concerns. Interest in Linux is expected to spike throughout the year, thanks to Microsoft's delay of its consumer version of Windows Vista. The hang-up could cast a pall on the year-end PC sales season. Perhaps that's one reason the mainstream media is discovering this "revolution" in software that's nearly 15 years old.
So if you've ever planned on giving the open-source operating system a whirl, but, like the Georgia bride-to-be, got cold feet at the last minute, we've ferreted out six useful facts that'll ease your path when you decide to take the plunge.
1) How many versions of Linux are there?
Lots. At least 350, according to the list maintained by the enthusiast site DistroWatch.com. The site skews toward smaller distributions, with current flavor of the month Ubuntu listed as the most popular among the site's readers. Ubuntu has gained traction recently, garnering an endorsement from Sun Microsystems chief executive Jonathan Schwartz.
Ubuntu also appears to be gaining legitimacy via heavy grass-roots support. User-spawned Web resources include a blog devoted to the distro, a quick-start guide for dummies and a more advanced (how to install anything!) manual. (However, as What PC? points out, despite its funky name, Ubuntu is not noticeably simpler to get going than any other implementation of the OS.)
Ubuntu has a great back story: Its development was funded by South African Internet entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth as an outgrowth of his efforts to offer improved educational opportunities to his nation's young people.
Another distribution much in demand is SUSE, available for free under the OpenSUSE.org program sponsored by Novell or in a for-pay version that comes with end-user support from Novell.
Originally developed by German vendor SUSE Linux, the software has been heavily marketed to enterprise users ever since SUSE was acquired by Novell in 2004. Since that time, Novell has positioned itself as the main alternative to Red Hat, which is widely considered to be the leader in the enterprise Linux market. (In that regard, Novell CEO Jack Messman predicts that his company will emerge as one of the two dominant corporate suppliers of Linux, alongside Red Hat, as the market for paid open-source shakes out over the next two to five years.)
Other popular distros include Mandriva, Debian, and Fedora. (The latter is a free offering spun out of Red Hat. Don't forget Slackware, Knoppix, Gentoo, Mepis, and others too numerous to mention.)
For those disinclined to deal with challenging installs, the easiest path may be Linspire. The eponymous company was founded by billionaire Michael Robertson, who made his money with the early Internet download service MP3.com. Robertson has positioned Linspire as consumer-friendly Windows alternative that costs a lot less -- it's $50 -- and is bundled with many drivers and a bunch of applications.
6) You've given me lots of facts, but not much advice. How do I get started?
One pain free way to go (OK, it'll set you back $16, plus shipping) is by reading Test Driving Linux. The book, by David Brickner, includes a CD that allows you to boot Linux on a Windows computer without destroying the Windows install. On the downside, the book's Linux is, like the title says, a "test drive" that runs only off the CD; it won't permanently install the OS to your hard drive. (A further caveat is the CD is a bit fussy; it won't run if you can't get your PC to boot first from the CD drive. It didn't like my old Compaq desktop, for reasons unexplained, but it ran like a champ on an HP Pavilion laptop.)
If you're ready to give Linux a more permanent whirl, go back to Question 1, above, or to this list of distros. (The Wikipedia offers a "Which distro is right for you?" quiz.)
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