Petreley's column: The Open Source

It seems that someone writes at least once a week to tell me why Linux can never succeed on the desktop. Invariably, the proof they offer is in the form of a list of the problems they had installing and running Linux or Linux applications.

Before I continue, let me be clear that I'm not trying to discourage folks from writing in with a question about how to solve problems they encounter in Linux. By all means, keep sending me your issues (and tips), and I'll do my best to address the most common problems in future installments.

Rather, I'm talking about those folks who are not interested in making Linux work, but instead are trying to evaluate Linux based on their single data point. Nine times out of 10 the author relates a horror story about installing Linux or trying to get Linux to print to this or that printer. I've no doubt that these stories are true. Most of them involve notebook computers, an unusual bit of hardware, or an old version of Linux. But make no mistake: Some of the problems involve the best Linux distributions and the most common hardware.

But allow me to balance your data points with a few of my own. I've been using Linux for several years. It has been my primary desktop operating system for almost two years, meaning that I do all of my work, but only some of my play, using Linux. Although Netscape has crashed countless times (as it does under Windows), none of the Linux distributions I use have ever crashed in the past two years. I have had to reboot to solve a problem only once -- and that problem was self-inflicted. I forced Linux to load an outdated sound-card driver in the false hope that it might work. Everything worked fine, even with the bad driver loaded, but I had to reboot for the system to unload it.

In contrast, despite making all the recommended printer settings changes, Windows 98 SE often generates out-of-memory errors when I print to my Hewlett-Packard Co. LaserJet 6MP. Linux prints the same documents without problems on that printer. My Windows 98 SE machine still refuses to shut down even after applying the appropriate Microsoft fix for this problem. A consultant I know has 50 machines with the same problem. As for stability, we have three Windows 98 boxes that crash so often that my 3-year-old son now says, "It crashed," when I switch a TV program off. Windows NT is better, you say? According to a data point given by Bill Gates, 5.2 days is the uptime benchmark one should use for Windows NT when comparing it to Windows 2000.

You say there isn't enough desktop software available for Linux? Here's what I use (you can find any of these packages by visiting and entering the name as the search term). In order to remain current with what is available, I use a variety of window managers and graphical desktops including Enlightenment, Gnome, KDE, IceWM, WindowMaker, and Xfce.

I use a wide variety of productivity software to get my work done. Most of my e-mail gets done thanks to a program called Mutt, but I usually recommend the less esoteric Netscape Mail or any of the other graphical mail clients for Linux. My Internet browser is Netscape. I plan to switch to Opera when it becomes available. I'm using StarOffice to write this column, and I also use it to create and give presentations. I use Gnumeric to work with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. I just started using a program called jpilot for my calendar, notepad, to-do list, and address book. It synchronises everything with my Palm. I use CompuPic to view and organise graphics files and Gimp to edit those files.

I ran a program called ripperX this morning to convert all the songs on a Steps Ahead CD to MP3 format so I can listen to the music at the computer without having to remember to bring the CD into the house from my car. I use the program xmms to listen to these songs. I use Xcdroast and Gnome Toaster to back up data to CD-ROM disks.

Does my single data point mean that Windows is unusable or Linux has come of age on the desktop? Of course not. But keep it in mind the next time you want to come to blanket conclusions to the contrary.

Nicholas Petreley is contributing editor for LinuxWorld ( and InfoWorld, and works with the Linux Standard Base. Reach him at, and visit his forum at

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