Is Linux Right for You?

SAN FRANCISCO (03/20/2000) - Last year was one big coming-out party for Linux.

Attended by a buzz worthy of a Microsoft product launch, this Unix-like operating system arrived on the computing scene as the Next Big Thing. Existing Linux companies made plans to go public, new Linux companies sprang up like lemonade stands during a heat wave, and companies that had never heard of the OS stumbled over themselves to adopt a "Linux strategy" (and watch their stocks rise). Major Windows-only computer vendors such as Dell Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. started offering server and desktop equipment with "Linux inside."

For Windows users, the Linux hype raises many questions.

Is Linux just another computing fad soon to disappear from the headlines, like push technology? Or is it here to stay, like the Web? Not only is it here to stay, but the number of people using it at the corporate and desktop levels continues to mushroom.

What makes Linux so special compared with other OSs? It's inexpensive to install and maintain, resists crashes better, and can run on numerous platforms--from Intel-based PCs and Apple Macintoshes to high-end Sun servers.

Could Linux become a realistic alternative to your Windows desktop?

Perhaps--and sooner than you may think. Dell Computer now offers entire lines of PCs and notebooks with Linux preinstalled. A new company, Tuxtops, sells an array of competitively priced Linux-only notebooks ranging from power to ultraslim. And Corel is making desktop Linux a more palpable reality with no-sweat installation, a user-friendly desktop, and the promise of a tool that will let you use Windows applications (if your PC is set up in a networked environment).

If You Love Something, Set It Free

From all the hype, you probably know that Linux is open-source software--which means that Linux users can download, test, use, alter, and copy it as much as they want. Among its benefits, open-source software is supposedly more stable than proprietary, or closed-source, software. The reason is simple: peer review. When something goes wrong with open-source software, any programmer can go "under the hood," analyze what's wrong, and immediately offer solutions for all users. (Just try that approach when you find a bug in Windows.)Windows users will find the willingness of the open-source community to respond to bug reports downright astonishing. For instance, when I found a bug in a third-party Linux ICQ client, I e-mailed the author about it, and--voila! A new, corrected version appeared within 48 hours.

Like the Internet, Linux isn't controlled by a single company. Linus Torvalds created the "kernel"--the core of the alternative operating system--in 1991 while he was still a student at the University of Helsinki, and he chose to make it available to everyone. Developers are free to change the kernel source code for their own purposes, but all of the modifications they introduce must be made public, and many are submitted to Torvalds for incorporation in later versions of the kernel.

Torvalds himself works for a company that doesn't even produce a version (or distribution) of Linux for PCs. Instead, that job has fallen to such firms as Caldera, Corel, Debian, and Red Hat. Each of these companies takes the Linux kernel and adds its own embellishments--a unique graphical user interface (GUI), various applications and applets, a customized setup program, system utilities that keep everything running smoothly. As a result, distributions of Linux differ much as competing brands of raspberry yogurt in a grocery store do.

Though anyone can download the latest kernel for free, Linux distributors generally charge for their particular add-ons and technical support.

People who've adopted the OS--from staff members of corporate IT departments to end users--say Linux is a stable operating system that rarely crashes. That news surely gives pause to companies considering an upgrade to Windows 2000.

Frohwitter, an international patent attorney firm, had considered upgrading its network operating system from Windows NT to Windows 2000 but opted for Linux instead.

"We wanted Linux for its stability and also to preclude the need to upgrade to Windows 2000," notes Ronald Chichester, a lawyer with the firm. "One of our staff attorneys writes chemical patent applications. She discovered that Windows NT crashed up to three times per day. But now that we run NT on top of Linux, her computer has not crashed in weeks."

Like most businesses, Frohwitter depends on an array of Windows-based applications and didn't want to lose access to them. But by using VMware's $299 VMware for Linux ($99 for individual, nonbusiness users), the firm can get the stability of Linux while still using Windows apps. Corel will be adding similar functionality to its Corel Linux OS, thereby enabling users to access and display Windows applications running on networked servers. Although Linux currently enjoys a 25 percent share of the server market, it commands only 4 percent of desktop operating systems sold, according to figures provided to PC World by sister company International Data Corporation.

Corel, which is probably best known for desktop PC apps such as CorelDraw and WordPerfect Office, is banking on the anticipated Linux juggernaut. The company is reorganizing itself and has merged with software giant Inprise/Borland in an attempt to become a Linux powerhouse. According to Derik Belair, director of strategic applications for Corel, Linux's stability and versatility are its central strengths. "Linux can power a handheld device or run a cluster of very powerful machines. And [because the architecture is open] we can make all these devices talk to each other," says Belair.

Other Linux developers share Belair's opinion. Bob Young, the chairman of Linux distributor Red Hat, notes that the operating system is ideal for thin clients (for example, PCs used exclusively to run a Web browser) and for Internet-connected appliances such as the Red Hat Linux-based TiVo set-top box for television. Even Royal--a business machine maker since the half-forgotten days of the manual typewriter--is porting Linux to its line of low-cost DaVinci handheld personal organizers.

Linux Inside?

But is your computer ready for Linux? Until now, a notoriously frustrating installation process stopped most people from loading Linux on their desktops and notebooks. Corel, however, has remedied this problem by introducing a simple four-step setup procedure. Corel Linux also includes a copy of WordPerfect 8 for Linux that, like the Windows version, can read and save documents in Microsoft Word and other common formats.

Hardware compatibility, especially for printers, has posed another obstacle to using Linux on your PC. Hardware vendors have traditionally been slow to offer driver support for the OS, but in response to the massive growth of the Linux user base, peripheral makers have begun to come up with the necessary drivers.

"Now that we have the public support of the major PC vendors, says Red Hat's Bob Young, "they are putting pressure on their suppliers to ensure that the components they use support Linux."

ATI, 3dfx, S3, and a number of other major video graphics card producers now accommodate Linux and cooperate with the open-source community to make drivers available. Among PC vendors, Dell offers a whole range of OptiPlex and Dimension desktops, as well as Latitude notebooks, with Red Hat Linux preinstalled and full support for Sound Blaster audio, CD-ROM drives, and 56-kbps V.90 modems. The upcoming Linux kernel release 2.4 will bring USB and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) support to Linux, and Corel has been spearheading an effort to standardize Linux's printer support.

The final roadblock facing Linux has been the lack of popular software that will run on it. The absence of Linux versions of big-time business and personal applications like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Intuit Quicken still hampers the OS, but PC users no longer have to choose between running Linux and using their favorite apps. Third-party solutions--notably VMware and GraphOn's Bridges--let Linux PCs run Windows 9x and NT software, so native Linux versions aren't necessary.

Looking For The Killer App

Linux advocates expect the software situation to improve soon. Corel is investing not only in its own distribution of Linux, but in a Linux version of its massive Windows-based WordPerfect Office suite, which includes the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, the Paradox database, Corel Presentations, and Corel Central (a personal information manager). So far, WordPerfect Office is the only major business-oriented application suite to cross the Windows/Linux divide.

But will the advance stop at Corel? Analysts believe that further Linux versions of popular Windows apps are unlikely unless someone develops a killer app to get desktop adoption of Linux rolling on a Windows-imperiling scale. (A killer app is a program with such outstanding benefits that its underlying technology--say, Linux--is worth adopting.) Certainly a lot of techies and tech visionaries feel a strong affinity for Linux. That's why Tony Iams, a senior analyst with D. H. Brown Associates, says he wouldn't be shocked by the emergence of a Linux-based killer app. "In fact," he says, "[such development] could be happening in some garage right now."

The twin arrivals of Corel's $90 Linux OS Deluxe and its $109 WordPerfect Office Suite Standard Edition (which comes packaged with a copy of Corel Linux OS) establish Linux as an affordable, viable desktop alternative to Windows.

Considering that a Windows 2000 Professional upgrade costs $219, and an Office 2000 Professional upgrade goes for $349 (that's $568 for the set), Linux wins on price as well as on stability. Linux enjoyed a banner year in 1999, and there's no reason to believe that the ride is over yet.

In light of Linux's impressive progress over the past six months, the choice between Windows and Linux has gotten a lot more difficult to make. To simplify the situation, we've formulated several questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether to make the jump or stand pat.

Things You Should Know Before You InstallEach distribution has a totally different setup routine. We aren't talking apples and oranges here--more like apples and orcas. Way different.

Accordingly, here are a few precautions:

Get the Hardware Lowdown

Before you commit to a particular Linux distribution, check the vendor's Web site for a hardware compatibility list. Make sure all of the peripherals and components you need to use are listed. If one is not listed, check to see whether another distribution supports it. If you already have Windows running on the PC you would like to install Linux on, go into the Device Manager (right-click My Computer, click the Device Manager tab, and click the Print button). Choose to print out "All devices and system summary." This data can be useful if your distribution's setup program asks for specific information about your hardware.

Free--Almost

If you have a high-bandwidth connection and don't think you'll need tech support, you can download many Linux distributions directly from the vendor and use a CD-R or CD-RW drive to burn a setup disc. If that's not an option but you'd still like to save some cash, online resellers like Linux System Labs (www.lsl.com) will sell you copies of certain distributions (including Mandrake and Red Hat) for less than $5. Of course at that price, the OS comes with no support or bundled extras.

Test the Waters

If you have an extra PC with no critical programs or data on it, you might want to use it as your Linux guinea pig.

Know Your Resource Needs First

Make sure you have enough hard disk space, RAM, and CPU speed to accommodate and handle a Linux install--either on its own or in separate hard disk partitions on your Windows PC. Check the Linux distribution you plan to install, and ascertain its hardware resource requirements; then see what your PC has available.

Scare Up a Spare Floppy

Most distributions will prompt you to create a rescue disk installation. Have a blank floppy ready so you won't have to skip this important step.

Safety First

Installing a new OS is no walk in the park for your hard drive. To be on the safe side, back up all your important data on removable media before beginning the Linux installation.

Your Linux Questions Answered

Can I put Linux on my PC?

Of course. But getting it to work properly might take some work--or even require that you replace hardware. As noted earlier, one longtime problem with Linux has been its hardware support. You can't install Linux on just any PC and expect it to work perfectly. For instance, you might have trouble making graphics hardware work under Linux, because vendors only recently began working with the open-source community to provide drivers for Linux's graphical user interface, XFree86. The situation is steadily improving on this front: The latest release of XFree86 provides support for NVidia's entire line of graphics accelerators--including the GeForce 256--plus new adapters from S3, ATI, 3dfx, and others.

Modems are another source of trouble, though any external modem and many internal ones will work with Linux. Problems arise with devices called Winmodems. They work like regular modems (and are sold as full-fledged units), but Winmodems rely on your computer's CPU to handle much of the processing that standard modems do themselves. This makes them cheaper but also leads to conflicts with Linux, since the software that makes the magic happen runs exclusively under Windows. Modem manufacturers, fearing support troubles and reluctant to give away their secrets, have declined to provide open-source developers enough technical information to create third-party Winmodem drivers.

As a result, these widely distributed devices are, for the moment, useless under Linux.

Previously, built-in printer support for Linux was minimal. Most current Linux applications (and most Unix apps, in general) produce output in PostScript--a page layout that only expensive, high-end printers tend to support. A utility called Ghostscript lets these apps talk to non-PostScript printers, but Ghostscript drivers can't support the universe of printers sold at your local computer or office supply store. (In addition, some apps provide their own set of printer drivers.) The bottom line: If your printer is a few years old or a high-end model, you have a better chance of being able to make it work. The printing situation should improve significantly over the next year because Corel has open-sourced the printer routines developed for its office suite and HP says it is developing Linux printers.

How do I know whether my current hardware will support Linux?

First check with the makers of the various Linux distributions. Most maintain extensive hardware compatibility lists online. For modems, your best online resource is Rob Clark's database page called Winmodems Are Not Modems (www.o2.net/~gromitkc/winmodem.html); check here to determine whether your unit is a true modem or a Linux-incompatible imposter. The Printing HowTo Support Database (www.picante.com/~gtaylor/pht/printer_list.cgi), a similar database from engineer Grant Taylor, may help you figure out whether your printer will work under Linux. Yet another set of third-party Web pages on the University of Texas Web site (www.cs.utexas.edu/users/kharker/linux-laptop) tells you which notebook computers (past and present) will properly run Linux.

Can Linux coexist with Windows?

Yes. If you want to install Linux but you don't want to jettison Windows from your system altogether, you can arrange to put Linux in a separate area on your hard drive (most distributions need approximately 500MB of space). Whereas Windows uses just one hard-drive partition, Linux generally requires at least two. Some Linux distributions--such as Caldera's--will safely shrink your Windows partition and then create the new partitions for you. Others, however, require you to run a utility like PowerQuest's PartitionMagic first, to get your hard drive ready for Linux. Then, when your machine boots, a tiny program called LILO (the Linux Loader) will let you choose which OS to run.

If you want to enjoy both the stability of the Linux operating system and the breadth of software available for Windows, VMware's new VMware 2.0 can help: It permits you to run Windows 9x, NT, or 2000 on top of Linux--or Linux on top of Windows NT/2000. It accomplishes this by creating a "virtual PC" inside the host operating system--your main OS. You can then install a secondary OS on the virtual machine. The technology isn't perfect, but it works much better than you might expect. GraphOn's Bridges lets Linux boxes use Windows applications, but it works across networks, the Internet, or dial-up and requires a Windows-based server.

I've heard that, unlike Windows, Linux doesn't have a standard graphical user interface. Is this true?

Yes. But don't get scared. A Windows system's look and feel are determined by the OS itself: Windows defines what menu bars, scroll bars, dialog boxes, and so forth will look like. Linux doesn't provide any such definitions--XFree86, the GUI architecture that ships with all Linux distributions, doesn't dictate the look and feel of the interface. Another piece of software, called a window manager, handles that job. The window manager you select (there are many to choose from) determines what your on-screen windows, menus, and buttons look like, but it may not provide other features, such as a taskbar. Your desktop environment handles that.

The two main desktop environments currently vying for Linux supremacy are GNOME and KDE. Despite some differences in software architecture, both provide a taskbar, an application launcher resembling the Windows Start menu, and various applets (notepad, calculator, CD player, and so on). Corel Linux OS and Caldera OpenLinux ship with KDE. Red Hat Linux and Linux-Mandrake ship with both environments, but Red Hat defaults to GNOME whereas Mandrake defaults to KDE.

Neither environment is superior to the other. Both put a clean, straightforward interface on top of Linux--so most Windows users who have never seen Linux before can start to work right after the installation. Both the GNOME and KDE environments are open-source, collaborative efforts, and the development teams for each are striving to build free office applications that will one day be integral parts of their respective environments.

This may sound complicated, but remember it all happens behind the scenes. Your Linux distribution will set things up so that, when you boot Linux, you'll arrive at a familiar desktop.

How many major apps are available for Linux?

More than you'd expect, but probably fewer than you would like. The most popular business application suite in the world--Microsoft Office 2000 Professional for Windows--is not available for Linux, and Microsoft says that it currently has no plans to port Office to Linux. In contrast, Corel has spent more than a year porting its WordPerfect Office suite to Linux, and the finished product should be available by the time you read this. One of the Corel suite's main goals is to achieve interoperability with Microsoft Office.

In some instances where popular apps are unavailable in Linux versions, open-source alternatives are plentiful. So even though Adobe doesn't make a Linux edition of Photoshop, there's an excellent free alternative, The Gimp (www.gimp.org). This package matches many of Photoshop's features and has a few tricks up its sleeve that Photoshop has yet to learn. Similarly, your digital camera didn't come with Linux software to view its pictures, but that's nothing to worry about: Download a free copy of GPhoto from www.gphoto.org, and you're fully equipped to view your images.

In fact, there are hundreds of Linux applications, though most of them are either highly specialized (like 3D object modelers) or targeted at servers (like robust databases). One exception involves Internet applications. In addition to current versions of Netscape Communicator and Navigator for Linux, there are dozens of e-mail apps, news readers, and more. Many of these apps run better than their Windows counterparts.

If I install Linux, what sort of learning curve should I expect?

That depends on what you'll be doing with it. Performing the installation is the hardest part of becoming a Linux user (though, as we noted, Corel's distribution makes this much easier). Once you've cleared that hurdle, you'll have a very stable, very powerful, Internet-ready operating system at your fingertips. And with the GNOME or KDE desktop environment your Linux distribution sets up, you'll have an easy-to-use, handsome-looking interface that might make your Windows-using friends jealous. On the other hand, there are no drive letters for Linux: In place of them, it uses a single all-encompassing directory structure.

If you use your PC to handle a few core tasks--word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, and so on--you'll probably get used to Linux pretty quickly, though small differences might initially throw you for a loop.

The learning curve looms larger if you undertake bigger projects. Changing your hardware configuration, for instance, will produce some headaches. And if you like to tweak your OS for greater performance or a customized look and behavior, you'll have a lot of learning to do. In all such operations, don't expect your Windows knowledge to apply.

How do I choose a distribution?

Again, that depends on what you'll be doing with your new OS. If you just want to give Linux a spin to see what it's like, Corel Linux OS is probably your best bet. With an installation process simple enough for a golden retriever to handle and a slick, customized implementation of the KDE desktop, Corel makes Linux easier than ever to set up and use. The package's inclusion of WordPerfect further enhances its appeal. See "Pick Your Flavor of Linux," page 127, for specific information and comments about the major Linux distributions.

Linux sounds like a real mixed bag. How do I know whether I should try it?

Ask yourself this: Is your PC already doing everything you need it to? If the answer is yes, Linux makes little sense in your immediate future. If the answer is no--because you want to run a simple Internet server, say, or because you're sick of "blue screen of death" problems with Windows--then perhaps Linux is worth a look.

As we've noted, some hardware compatibility issues remain, and there is no killer app to justify Linux yet. And though a ton of software is available, it might not be the software you're looking for. Linux is growing tremendously, but it's still an infant, and infants aren't for everybody.

For additional Linux-related questions and answers, visit www.pcworld.com/may00/linux. Matthew Newton is a senior associate editor with PCWorld.com.

Bridges

List price: $3500 (for server)

GraphOn

800/472-7466

www.graphon.com

PRODUCT INFO. NO. 606

VMware 2.0 for Linux

List price: $299 ($99 for home users)

VMware

650/475-5000

www.vmware.com

PRODUCT INFO. NO. 607.

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