Is Linux Right For You?
This ZDNet Blogs article discusses some of the reasons why Linux hasn’t garnered a larger market share on the desktop, which of course Paul Thurrott, one of the most well-known Windows fanboys, had to chime in on. When I see these articles, no matter which viewpoint they are written for, they all seem extol the virtues of their chosen platform to the exclusion of other choices.
For me, Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X are not either-or propositions. Perhaps because I have a number of computers, or perhaps because I’m technical enough to know how, I choose the best OS for the job at hand. Sometime it’s Windows, sometimes it’s Mac OS X, and other times it’s Linux.
If your goal is to do some basic word processing and basic web surfing, Linux is a fine choice. In fact, if you have hardware that was not purchased in the past couple of years, Linux is really your only choice.
I have a Toshiba Tecra 8000 laptop from 2000. I ran Windows 98 on this laptop and used it at work for various things. I even used it to work on my book while I was traveling in Singapore. If you try to run anything resembling a currently supported Windows OS on this box and it will run, but extremely slowly, if at all. You certainly can’t run Windows 98 on the box anymore, at least if you want to participate on the Internet. Windows 98 was unsafe when it was supported, it’s most certainly not safe now that Microsoft has pulled the plug on it.
Enter Xubuntu, a variant of the extremely popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. Xubuntu is designed to run on low-end hardware, such as my Toshiba Tecra 8000. I recently loaded Xubuntu on this machine and, while I did have some difficulty getting the video working properly–the Neomagic chipsets often used in these vintage of laptops wasn’t exactly open-source friendly–I was able to get it to work. The Xfce-based user interface was more than adequate.
Out of the box, Xubuntu contains Firefox for web browsing, GAIM (now called Pidgin) for Instant Messaging, OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and a few other applications. To get a fuller experience, you will need something like EasyUbuntu, which makes it much easier to obtain things like Flash, Java, and other things that will improve your overall Linux experience.
It doesn’t work wonders–after all, slow hardware is still slow–but it does make the laptop far more usable, not to mention more secure as Ubuntu is actively being updated and patched for known security issues. It should also be immune from many of the security threats that befall Windows platforms.
In the “mixed” solutions category, I turn to my MacBook. Certainly, I can use Parallels to run Windows or Linux in a Windows underMac OS X. If you were a Windows user, you could use something like VMWare Workstation or Parallels Workstation to accomplish more or less the same thing for free, you could use the open-source QEmu. You also have solutions like Crossover Linux (formerly Crossover Office) or Crossover Mac to run specific Windows applications on Linux and Mac OS X respectively. These apps are based on the open-source Wine project. I have used Crossover Linux for years in order to run Microsoft Office on Linux, and it generally works well!
However, I think my best mixed solution is actually what I use to run Bittorrent. I have a headless server here at home that runs Ubuntu. I access this server using SSH and VNC, giving me a virtual desktop of sorts. The machine has two CD/DVD burners, so I occasionally use it for that task. The main thing I use this server for, however, is to be my Bittorrent box (i.e. it downloads my torrents for me). What application do I use for this task? None other than uTorrent, a Windows application that runs perfectly fine under Wine. Now that uTorrent has a web interface plug in, I almost never need to use VNC to control uTorrent.
In September, I’m scheduled to give a talk to WSTPA on whether Linux, or more specifically, Ubuntu Linux, is a viable alternative for your desktop. The goal of the presentation isn’t to try and convert people to Linux, as that tactic rarely works. What I do want to do is show people that this Linux stuff isn’t so very scary after all. The best way to do that is to simply show them what the desktop looks like, show them how to do typical tasks, and be available to answer questions people might have. A number of laptops will be on-hand to give people to test drive it for themselves and we will also have Ubuntu disks on-hand they can take home and try on their own systems.