[lug] Linux in the Home

Bill Wimsatt bwimsatt at coraccess.com
Wed Sep 18 18:07:09 MDT 2002

Here is an interesting article that I thought this list might be
interested in perusing:

In last week's edition of Connected Home EXPRESS, I discussed Apple
Computer's "Switch" ad campaign and the problems I believe Apple faces
persuading people to drop their Windows systems and move to Mac OS X
(see the URL below). Today I follow up with some reader feedback and a
look at another interesting OS choice--Linux.

Most of the readers who responded to last week's newsletter agreed that
Mac OS X is nice but not compelling enough to leave years of acquired
skills and efficiencies, data, and applications behind. But I find it
interesting that so many people have considered switching at
all: Although only a handful of readers said they've bitten the bullet
and switched, many people told me that they've been swayed at one time
or another by Apple's gorgeous hardware and elegant software designs.
Some readers described voyeuristic trips to CompUSA or the local Apple
Store, at which they spent time looking at the Apple hardware or getting
to know Mac OS X. But few people walked away with an Apple product.

A recent Connected Home EXPRESS reader survey mirrors their comments.
According to the survey, a scant 4 percent of readers use the Macintosh
(the survey doesn't break down earlier Mac OS versions versus Mac OS X).
And if we can believe International Data Corporation (IDC), only 2.5
percent of the worldwide computing population owns or uses a Mac. Apple
says it has 22 million active Mac users worldwide, and about 3 million
of them are using Mac OS X. But that 22 million figure has remained
relatively steady for years, making me wonder whether it's accurate. One
undeniable truth emerges: Apple doesn't own an appreciable part of the
market, meaning that third-party support is harder to come by than it is
in the Windows world.

Even existing Mac users are reticent about upgrading. Beyond learning
the new UI, upgrading to Mac OS X can incur additional costs. Imagine
having to purchase new Mac OS X-specific versions of expensive products
such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand, and
Adobe Premiere, each of which costs several hundred dollars. Although
Mac OS X supports a Classic environment for running older Mac
applications, it's often unacceptably slow for graphics work. This
reality will hit Apple's core market of design professionals right where
it hurts--in the pocketbook.

For some users, none of these facts matter. As I've noted, Apple's new
hardware is world-class, and the company makes wonderful software
products in several categories, especially for so-called digital hubs.
For other users, the safety and security of Windows just can't be beat.
To each his own.

One exciting development that might have wider ramifications in the
Windows world, however, is the open-source software sensation Linux.
Named after its creator, Linus Torvalds, Linux is a UNIX clone that runs
on the same PC hardware as Windows, as well as on other hardware
platforms. In the early days, Linux offered only a command-line
environment that was similar to DOS, but the emergence of free graphical
interfaces based on an X Windows clone called X-Free jump-started the
popularity of this OS. Today, two major graphical environments--GNU
Network Object Model Environment (GNOME) and K Desktop Environment
(KDE)--compete for the affection of Linux desktop users.

But Linux is rough around the edges and not to be undertaken lightly. As
open-source advocates and technology enthusiasts will tell you, Linux is
often difficult to install, almost impossible to get working with
certain hardware devices, and highly frustrating to use, even in the
best of conditions. I first installed Linux in October 1994--an eon ago
in computing time--and have since maintained at least one Linux machine,
which I regularly refresh with the latest and greatest Linux version.
Although the OS has improved in leaps and bounds unparalleled in this
industry's short history, Linux still has a long way to go in areas such
as application support and UI consistency. But recent Linux
distributions, such as the upcoming Red Hat Linux 8 release (now in
beta), points the way to a more refined Linux that even mere mortals
might consider.

I recently tested the third beta release of Red Hat Linux 8 (code-named
Null) on a laptop computer, which is often the most demanding (and
unsuccessful) type of Linux installation. But Red Hat Linux 8 installed
flawlessly and recognized virtually every hardware device on the system
(except for the wireless networking card, which I anticipated). The OS
sports a modern Windows XP-like UI that's astonishingly friendly and
beautiful. If anything, Red Hat has gone a bit too far over the
ease-of-use edge: For example, the Mozilla icon is labeled "Web browser:
Browse the Internet," abstracting the underlying application. I suspect
the techy Linux crowd won't be amused at such UI niceties.

So how far has Linux come, you ask? When I popped in an audio CD, the
GNOME CD player started up automatically and loaded the CD's artist,
title, and song title information from the Internet. (Just the fact that
the system's sound card worked at all is amazing, as long-time Linux
users will agree.) My digital camera worked, letting me download and
display pictures. I connected the bundled Ximian Evolution email client
(essentially a well-done Microsoft Outlook clone) to my IMAP mail
server, and it worked. My scanner worked. Networking worked. Almost
everything worked without me having to do any research and tweaking, a
hallmark of most of my previous Linux installations.

Could Linux be going mainstream? Not exactly, but it's getting there.
Although the system fonts used in the desktop and logon screen are
gorgeous, they don't carry over to end-user applications such as
Mozilla, Ximian Evolution, and the bundled OpenOffice.org office
productivity suite, where you need them the most. Instead, fonts in
these applications are small, jagged, and hard to read. I'm sure you can
fix this problem--in fact, I've done so in the past--but fonts need to
work out of the box. Such a glaring error isn't even conceivable in
Windows or the Mac OS.

So I'm not ready to give the green light to flawless Linux installations
just yet. Although the Red Hat Linux 8 beta installation worked fine for
me, I installed it only on one system, and I've had enough bad luck with
previous Linux versions to know that I should test it on multiple
systems. I'll test the OS on a few other systems before I get giddy
about this release.

In the end, my advice about Linux is to proceed with caution. Linux is
still at the stage where only true technophiles and computer
hobbyists--preferably people with extra systems--need apply. (Connected
Home EXPRESS readers seem to fall into that category: 28 percent of
respondents to the reader survey mentioned above claim to use Linux.)

More information about the LUG mailing list