Linux Lives, Microsoft Maps

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - I've been curious about Linux for a long time, and I've actually received a number of copies of it from various distributors during the past several years. But somehow, it never made it to the top of my project pile.

Last weekend, I took the plunge. I decided to attempt to install Linux on the second hard disk on my home machine. I had three Linux versions on hand - including Mandrake 7.0 from MandrakeSoft Inc. in Altadena, California, and TurboLinux Workstation 5.0 from TurboLinux Inc. in Brisbane, California - but I opted to try Corel Linux Deluxe. I chose the version from Corel Corp. in Ottawa for two reasons: First, it came with a Linux version of WordPerfect, an application I've known and used for years; and second, I figured that an applications company might have paid more attention to installation issues.

I started the install process fairly early on a day that I'd left pretty open, prepared for delays by all the horror stories I'd read. Except for an unrelated hardware issue that stemmed from a mixed SCSI-EIDE hard-disk environment, the installation went smoothly. I waited anxiously for the system to lock up or ask me for some obscure technical information about system components that I wouldn't be able to supply.

Didn't happen. It installed, it booted up, it ran. The graphical K Desktop Environment (KDE) that was installed is fairly similar to the Windows graphical user interface, and I was able to navigate it and start up installed applications, including Netscape Navigator and an image-editing program, without fuss and without even opening the manual.

Overall, I was impressed with how simply it went. I've installed just about every version of Windows, from 3.0 on up to 2000 Advanced Server, as well as several versions of Mac OS, and this Linux was smoother than most of those.

Only in a few places did some of the raw underpinnings show through. When I used the file manager, I was greeted with the typical Unix directory structure - /usr/bin/ and the like. But I found that I could avoid facing even that if I stored my documents and applications in the "My Home" folder, which is accessed via a desktop icon, just like the Windows "My Documents" folder.

Although I installed Linux into its own Linux-formatted disk partition, WordPerfect was still able to read all my documents created with Windows, which were stored on FAT32 partitions.

Round 1 goes to Linux. The surprises, so far, have all been pleasant, and now I can begin to explore this new-to-me operating system with an eye to its usability. (I already know - or at least expect - that it's going to be more stable and crash-proof than any of my current versions of Windows.) I'm looking at Linux not as a server platform but as an end-user client, trying to determine how good it is, how strange or different it is from what Microsoft Windows has accustomed us to and whether there is any reason to consider using it as a desktop operating system in preference to Windows.

My first conclusion is that there's no need for an ordinary user to be afraid of the graphical shells on Linux - or at least not the KDE shell that I tried.

I'll try some others in the coming months. But it seems pretty clear that if you can find the application you need, Corel Linux works, and looks, pretty much like Windows.

Should information technology management think about using Linux as a desktop operating system? That's an intriguing question, but I'm going to let it hang in the air for a while.

Where Do You Want to Go Today?

Microsoft Corp. keeps asking us that question in its ads, and now it has supplied a first-rate package that can help us answer it. The product is MapPoint 2001, a mapping program that has a lot of intriguing and powerful database capabilities and integrates well with the Microsoft Office suite. In addition to street-level maps of the U.S. and Canada (a European version will be available soon), the program has multisourced demographic and census data, down to individual ZIP codes.

This isn't a full-fledged geographic information system (GIS), but in some ways it's better and easier to use. With MapPoint, you can drag a highlighted area of a spreadsheet - representing, say, sales in various states during a certain period - and drop it onto a map of the U.S. It asks what style of representation you'd like and then creates a map that shows the data graphically. You can also use data directly from Access and Outlook.

You can give MapPoint 2001 a list of addresses and have it plot the most efficient route to travel to all of them - and you can customize the routing to take into account time-of-day travel factors. You can also create customized maps for downloading onto a pocket PC's Pocket Streets program.

I've used GIS applications and several other mapping programs. While they've all been useful and delivered what they promised, I've never found one that was easier to use or one that I like better.

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