Nine months ago I decided it was time to check out Linux as a computer operating system. I’d been reading the odd good thing about Linux, including suggestions that it had moved out of geek territory and was ready for use by the rest of us. And Linux was free: no tax payable to Microsoft or Apple before I could use my computer hardware.
I entered this new world with the Linux version of the tiny Asus Eee PC laptop (or netbook, as the genre is now called). The little machine has a nine-inch (30mm), very readable LCD display, weighs next to nothing and runs for over three hours on battery power alone. It worked fine for me once I had sorted out the all-important thing: connecting to the wireless Internet network. Soon I was happily using the machine and praising Linux to the skies. Lots of applications were already installed, including OpenOffice, a capable office suite that is compatible with Microsoft Office. It had the Firefox web browser, which I used anyway on Windows. It had Skype, which I knew well, and Thunderbird, an OK email client I had also used in Windows. That was enough to start with, but there were plenty more pre-installed programs.
My Asus Eee, based on the Xandros flavour of Linux, turned out to be particularly good for the internet. At home, where most of my computing now revolves round the Net, the Eee is used far more than my high-end Windows laptop. One reason, apart from the more convenient size, is that the eee starts up and closes down much faster than Windows. OK, it’s still not flick of a switch like TV or a microwave, but it’s brought us much closer to the age of instant information. We’ll turn it to do a quick Google search for something of no pressing consequence – the sort of query you wouldn’t even bother starting up a Windows machine for.
Next I converted two unused desktop computers to Linux, turning them into a dirt-cheap internet cafes for use by visiting children. I downloaded the popular Ubuntu flavour of Linux, installed it easily and connected immediately to the Web. Again, like all Linux distributions, it included Firefox, OpenOffice etc.
Problems came with all three of my Linux machines when I wanted to install additional software. This can be a tricky process, partly because there are many different versions of Linux out there, and there are incompatibilities to worry about. I still haven’t sussed program installation out properly. Some programs have loaded, some haven’t and some loaded but didn’t like my versions of Linux.
Compared to adding programs to Windows, Linux is a minefield. I have seriously screwed up the Eee twice and had to restore everything, including the operating system, from scratch. Fortunately it’s easy to restore the Eee to ‘factory’ condition, but it’s time consuming to get things such as email setups, data files and newly added programs, back to the way they had been.
Once Linux programs are in place, they work well – some are identical to their Windows and Mac counterparts while most Linux-only programs are useable and easy on the eye. But don’t be fooled by claims that Linux is rock solid and never crashes. It does, though less often than Windows.
Fortunately there are good Internet user forums where, if you are lucky, you can ask questions and get answers you can understand from people who are sympathetic to newbies. But not always: beware the arrogant, get-a-life geeks who also haunt these forums! Think proselytising city cyclists and you’ll get an idea of their charmless attitude.
Yes, you can now set up a Linux-powered computer that will provide an excellent and relatively trouble-free portal into the Internet, and a good word processor, for people with limited needs and expectations. Great for the ‘if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it’ type of person who doesn’t want to keep adding new programs like I do.
I’d give Linux machines, rather than Windows machines, to elderly computer newbies who just want to browse the web, keep in touch with their family and friends through email and Skype, and type the occasional letter. Linux does the job, it’s snappy and less prone to digital sclerosis than Windows. Older people suffer enough progressive decline in their own bodies without having to put up with it in their computers as well. And less confident computer users certainly don’t want to be continually fighting and losing the battle against viruses and other forms of computer malware. With Linux they don’t have to.
Needless to say, Linux is also great for people at the other end of the spectrum: the inveterate geeks who seem more interested in playing with their operating system than using the programs it supports.
Am I ready to switch to Linux altogether? No, though I like the idea of breaking free from Windows. The key Adobe software graphics and publishing applications I need for my business aren’t available yet and won’t be any time soon. Linux won’t run my accounting program. Program installation is still messy and potentially dangerous outside a fairly limited selection of programs available for your particular flavour of Linux. And the superior (without just cause) Linux attitude is still something I can do without.
But I’ll stay with Linux on the Asus Eee. I wouldn’t change even if Windows XP could be installed, guaranteed trouble-free, with the wave of a magic wand.