September 13, 2007
The Linux value proposition
In the last year or two, a few Linux makers have designed desktops expressly for PC users, not geeks. The main contenders are: LinuxMint, Linspire, Mandriva, Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED to its friends), PCLinuxOS, SimplyMepis, Ubuntu, Linspire and Xandros.
They all include the operating system, a host of utilities and a full suite of Office, Internet, Graphics and Multimedia applications. You can check the goods on offer with the Live CD, and installing a full system can take as little as half an hour.
Getting there is not beyond the scope of a competent Windows user. The install is mostly automatic and includes setting up the internet connection. Common printers, scanners and faxes take a few clicks and a few minutes to install. These desktops offer 3D graphics that rival Vista and OS X in terms of 'eye candy'. Software updates are semi-automatic, and that includes all applications on the system. And Linux never asks you to reboot.
You can make this cube spin and you can make the panels transparent, and you can do all this on an ordinary PC with a basic Intel graphics card.
The value proposition becomes irresistible when we consider that most of these Linux desktops cost nothing, including all the applications. They come from the Open Source community, a group of very smart people spread all over the world who contribute their skills, energy and time to the endeavor of creating software for people to share.
There's an old joke that begins like this: What if operating systems were airlines?
Windows Airlines -- The terminal is pretty and colorful, with friendly stewards, easy baggage check and boarding, and a smooth take-off. After about 10 minutes in the air, the plane explodes with no warning whatsoever.
Mac Airlines -- All the stewards, stewardesses, captains, baggage handlers and ticket agents look the same, act the same, and talk the same. Every time you ask questions about details, you are told you don't need to know, don't want to know, and would you please return to your seat and watch the movie.
Linux Airlines -- Disgruntled employees of all the other OS airlines decide to start their own airline. They build the planes, ticket counters, and pave the runways themselves. They charge a small fee to cover the cost of printing the ticket, but you can also download and print the ticket yourself. When you board the plane, you are given a seat, four bolts, a wrench and a copy of the seat-HOWTO.html. Once settled, the fully adjustable seat is very comfortable, the plane leaves and arrives on time without a single problem, the in-flight meal is wonderful. You try to tell customers of the other airlines about the great trip, but all they can say is, 'You had to do what with the seat?'
I've had plenty to say about the problems I had with Linux distros, so it's time to talk about some of the advantages I found after spending more time with them.
- Cost -- Down under, an upgrade from XP to Vista Home Premium would cost me US$ 250, and an upgrade to Ultimate over $400. Moving up to Office 2007 would cost the same again. For folks running a business with several servers and lots of desktops, a low cost alternative like Linux must be music to their ears.
- Security -- Citizens of the kingdom are fed up with all the crooks, spies and burglars who roam the highways. Most of them envy the folks in the mountain villages who leave their front doors unlocked, even at night.
- Performance -- Linux boot-up times seemed slow compared to my XP systems -- 1 to 2 minutes versus 45 seconds. Linux makes up for that be being ready to use moments after the desktop opens, while XP takes another minute or two for all the start-up programs to get out of bed and for the AV to load down the latest updates. In other words, XP gets to the starting blocks faster but takes time to put its running shoes on. Once they're up and away, there's isn't much distance between them, but XP tends to run a little faster.
- Optimization -- My XP systems are optimized for speed while the Linux distros I tested were not. I looked into this but soon retreated -- a look here will explain why. If I'd compared Linux with the Dell Inspiron Core Duo the way it worked out of the box, XP would've been a distant second at every stage of the race. The effort it took to get rid of Dell's bloatware and to free the laptop from McAfee's iron chains is another story. Linux doesn't come with bloatware, and that's a big bonus.
- Resources -- The distros I tested used between 200 and 250mb of RAM just ticking over, and double that with half a dozen apps running. A standard Linux install occupies around 3 to 4gb of hard disk space, including applications. It uses about the same resources as XP, leaving Vista unchallenged as the heavyweight champ (2mb of RAM, 15gb of disk space).
- Dual booting -- Setting this up had me on the edge of my seat the first time but I needn't have fretted. Some time later I read that you must defrag your drive before you repartition it, so I'm even more surprised that My XP partition is still intact after dozens of installs.
- Configuring hardware -- Many distros set up internet connections automatically (on Ethernet at least) and install printers in a heartbeat. To install the Laserjet on XP was a 20 minute job using an HP CD; to get hooked up to broadband was a similar routine. I moved house recently, and had to change my phone number. After ADSL was enabled by my ISP, XP wouldn't cooperate, saying there was a problem with the address of my laptop. I rebooted in Mepis, which had no issues with the connection, then rebooted in Windows and the problem had gone away.
- Keeping track of software -- Like most Windows users, I have a shelf full of software CDs and keep a little book with serial numbers under my bed in case I have to reinstall the lot. With Linux, there's no need to worry about serial numbers or even losing your install CD -- all you need is a fast internet connection. That's a lot of freedom.
- Losing track of software -- A workshop I took my PC to a while back managed to lose my XP install disk. When I called Microsoft, they wanted to charge me money for a replacement and insisted on proof of ownership. I asked them where the Advantage in the WGA was if I had to dig out the original invoice or photograph the sticker on the box. I never got an answer to that question.
- Updating software -- Linux updates all the software on your system in one session, not just the OS. Microsoft updates are automatic but you have to update each program you've added from other sources (about 60 on each of my PCs), and that's a real pain. My son wasn't impressed with this feature, saying Macs did this too. Of course they do -- OS X is based on a version of Linux.
- No need to reboot -- That's the icing on the Linux cake. With XP, you're nagged every ten minutes until you curse and reboot your machine. And if you choose custom install to select only the updates you want, XP hounds you like a mangy neighborhood dog until you give in. The penguin is much easier to get along with.
- Nothing's lost when you do -- You can shut down Linux with a bunch of programs open and they'll all come up ready to go next time you start up your PC, without a single complaint about abnormal termination.
- Re-installing the OS -- You can't just download an updated version of Windows. With Linux, you can download the latest version of your distro at any time and, if you created a separate partition for your home folder, your data will remain intact. You can arrange to install Windows like that, if you're smarter than the average user, but it'd still takes hours to download all the patches issued by MS since your install CD was burnt.
- Applications -- There are 15,000 apps that run on Linux. That they're free doesn't mean they're not up to scratch. Open Office is a viable alternative to Microsoft Office and has some neat features, like a PDF creator in the Writer toolbar. Scribus will do most of the things Publisher does, Evolution is more than a match for Outlook, and Firefox makes IE7 look stale. ShowFoto is as slick any photo editor I've used on XP. The Gimp has a reputation for being hard to use but who'd argue that Adobe Photoshop is easy?
- Windows apps on Linux -- There's a utility called Wine that lets you run Windows apps on Linux, which I believe has its limitations, so does the commercial equivalent, Codeweavers' Crossover. I didn't try either but that's what the guides say.
- Migration -- Ubuntu's Feisty Fawn includes a Windows migration wizard that recognizes Internet Explorer bookmarks, Firefox favorites, desktop wallpapers, AOL IM contacts and Yahoo IM contacts, and gives you the option of importing them during installation.
- Windows files on Linux -- I was surprised that I could not only access Windows docs with Open Office (on several distros), but even edit them and save them back into the NTFS partition in MS format.
- Freedom from bloatware -- All you get with Linux is the software you need or want. There's no crap to get rid of.
If you expect me to argue with the 13 reasons Kim Brebach gives for why the Linux desktop is unlikely to make it to a desktop near you any time soon, prepare to be disappointed. He's right.
No, you didn't mis-read that. Brebach may be a Linux newbie -- well a newbie who's getting up to speed at a remarkable rate -- but he hit the nail right on the head with his 13 reasons for why the Linux desktop isn't likely to make it. There's only one reason I disagree with him on. But, what he doesn't do is look at some of the reasons why Linux may yet become a popular desktop despite itself.
It's the OEMs, not the Linux distributors that are going to get Linux 'boxes' onto the store shelves and into people hands. And, as they do so, they're also going to be providing, along with the Linux distributors, the kind of tech support that normal users expect from a company.
At the same time, Linux is getting easier to use. As Brebach noted in the seventh part of his series on his adventures with Linux, there are many Linuxes -- like SimplyMEPIS, PCLinuxOS, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, Mandriva, and Xandros -- that already are good, usable choices even for a still wet-behind-the-ears Windows user.
Now, so long as the hardware vendors keep moving forward with bringing Linux to the masses with better marketing, good systems, and state-of-the-art support, I feel pretty darn certain that Linux is going to grow into becoming a serious desktop contender for everyone.
I'm currently giving Antix, MEPIS' smaller, slimmer, younger brother a whirl. My plan is to install it on an older PC for my children. It's a 400 MHz machine with 256 or 512 Mb RAM (I don't remember how much memory is installed). Such a machine would choke on XP, and Vista wouldn't deign to piss on it. However, Antix should run pretty well, as it doesn't have the bloat of KDE or Gnome. Rather, it uses Fluxbox as its windowing manager, although you have other options, such as Icewm, to choose from, all of which are very low overhead. Right now I'm working through resolving some wireless issues. Once that's fixed, the PC should be good to go. It will run smoothly and quickly and it won't cost me anything except a little bit of my time. Oh, and the spouse will be glad to see the extraordinarily large paperweight in the corner being put to good use again. I'll report back once the system is up and running. It might prove useful to others trying to get some mileage out of older machines.
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