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Linux on the Desktop – Part 1

PenguinThe introduction of the new version of Microsoft Office has me thinking a lot about Linux for my desktop. Microsoft has performed many technical fetes in their software. Many of the features in Windows XP and Office are impressive and many are even intuitive and easy to use. However, many features are not intuitive or easy and worse yet impose decisions upon the user and at times border on harassment. We all have our favorite examples of Windows/Office frustrations and I won’t bore you with mine. Microsoft is taking security issues seriously but I believe that they believe that the answer to achieving better security is to make the world "windows everywhere". I feel the noose tightening. One path to freedom is Linux. More and more servers at the world’s e-businesses are running Linux and the open source community continues to make major progress on scaleability, reliability, and manageability. The desktop is another story. Microsoft dominates the desktop more strongly than any product in any market that I am aware of. I decided to begin the journey toward Linux for my desktop, to learn more about Linux, and see how far I can get. I’ll be writing about my experiences here on patrickWeb. At IBM, there are thousands of desktop Linux users, but I would have to say that they are not average users by any means. I have confidence in the future of desktop Linux, but I do have some questinos and I intend to explore them — and also learn from the experience of others.
Some of the questions that I intend to explore include…

  • The Linux desktop is very easy to install. I have done it on various PC’s over the years. The more important question is, how easy is it to use?
  • Are the drivers I need available? I know the primary drivers, such as my keyboard and display drivers are no problem, but what about the Canon LiDE 50 scanner I use?
  • How good are the “office” programs such as Ximian Evolution for email and contacts and OpenOffice for spreadsheets, documents, and presentations?
  • How interchangeable are the “office” files between Linux and Windows users?
  • Can I run Quicken and Dreamweaver MX with Linux using Xandros or WINE?
  • Will Linux provide stability and a dramatic reduction in the re-booting that I experience with XP?
  • How good will applications perform on a Linux desktop?

I am sure there are many more questions I will have as I head down this path. I have Red Hat Linux installed on a second ThinkPad and have begun to experiment, but my primary strategy for learning about Linux is to learn from those who have already taken the plunge. One such person is Mat Nelson from the Internet Technology group at IBM. Mat first tried to switch to Linux circa 1995. He was initially disappointed but through his perseverance eventually became a very happy Linux desktop user. Mat’s chronology of his experience follow below. I’ll report on my own Linux desktop experience soon.

A Rough Start

I’d install something (Yddgrasil, Slackware, eventually RedHat and Mandrake), dual-boot because I was too afraid of losing Windows. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t “there enough” for me. It didn’t look polished. Fonts were different everywhere. The mouse pointer wouldn’t change when I’d launch an application, so I didn’t know if I’d misclicked or if something was actually happening. I couldn’t play my Windows games (I’m an avid gamer), I didn’t have MS Visual C++, I couldn’t figure out how to create a resume.doc, I had trouble with drivers for sound and video, setting up a printer was difficult, etc. etc. etc. Configuration was a nightmare. Linuxconf, Webmin… how do I change my desktop background? Is that in Gnome or Sawfish or Enlightenment, and what are those anyway? What’s a “window manager”, why does it have its own configuration menus, and where the heck are those menus anyway? How do I even add an item to the menu?
I did figure it out, mind you. I’d spend a week setting the whole thing up so it looked like I wanted, I could print something, maybe even send an email. But I definitely didn’t like the experience; eventually I’d boot back to Windows to play a game, and stay there. I’d right-click the desktop, and change the background. Ahhh, so much easier. Oh, well.
The thing is, I really *wanted* to like Linux. I wanted an alternative to Windows, even though I liked it. I didn’t like being told exactly what I’ll spend on the must-have OS for all the computers I own, and I feared a monopolistic future (especially with the demise of OS/2). So I kept trying, time and time again.

A Pledge

Early last year, I pledged to put every possible effort into using Linux. Part of that push came from XP’s “activation scheme” — I didn’t like it at all. I paid for it, now let me install it; it’s none of your business if I put in a new CPU and motherboard and hard drive. And of course, I’d kept up to date with Linux; the latest versions of Gnome (2.0 at the time) and KDE (3.0 I believe) sounded really good, and I had high hopes that this time I’d finally be happy.

Mixed Success

I installed Red Hat, I forget which version, 8? first. In fact I purchased 7.3, then 8 came out, so I downloaded it. One of the first things I got stuck on was adding something to the menu. I don’t think I ever figured it out, actually. But I proceeded to install it on my other machines anyway (NOT my Thinkpad, I didn’t want to mess with that!). Next, I wanted to get all the security updates, so I logged on to RedHat network, and was informed that I had to pay a subscription to get automatic updates for more than one machine. What?! I paid Microsoft once, I paid Redhat once. I wasn’t going to pay Redhat every year. Security is not a luxury. I might be willing to pay for features, but security? Even though it’s possible to work around the system, I didn’t want to spend time figuring that out; Windows pops up a message telling me new security updates have been downloaded. ! I was so disgusted by the situation that I dropped RedHat.
Next, I tried Mandrake, which was one of my favorites from previous attempts. Mandrake is very similar to RedHat, but more focused on the desktop than enterprise server. It actually downloaded all the security updates *during installation* on every machine; pretty cool. That was enough to convince me to stick with it for a while, “like it or not”. The update manager (MandrakeUpdate) works well enough, although I still have to start it manually.

Mandrake Linux

At this point, I had Mandrake 9 installed on 3 computers — not my indispensable laptop, though — and I was, for the first time ever, reasonably happy. I started with the Gnome 2.0 desktop, then Gnome 2.2 desktop when Mandrake 9.1 was released. I tested everything before moving my Laptop over. OpenOffice, email (evolution), connecting to IBM’s intranet (MTS), web browsing (galeon at the time), printing, instant messaging (gaim), development (eclipse), etc. I rebooted into Windows most nights to play games, then back to Linux during the day. After a successful month or so, I took the plunge: Linux on the laptop. My lifeline to my job, address book, email… everything. Scary! I backed up everything, about 20GB of it, to one of my desktops, popped in a Mandrake CD, and told it to take over the whole hard drive. No dual boot for the first time ever.
By the end of the day, I was getting IMs, email, Notes, I could print, I had a word processor and a browser, the works… on my laptop. Man was I nervous that something would go wrong, but nothing (major) did. I had a bit of trouble with one or two custom IBM applications, but after a little searching around the intranet, I found what I needed to get them going. Everything else came with Mandrake.
My main complaint about Mandrake, by the way, is that they seem to over-customize things. I went so far as to install Gentoo to see a “plain vanilla” version of Linux, then happily returned to Mandrake after the experiment. For instance, Mandrake… I think… hides the “kmenuedit” application, and exposes their own “MenuDrake”. I’d rather use the normal one. Nonetheless I think they force some customization to things so that when you install them, they actually show up in the menu, in the right place. I can live with that.

Gnome 2.2

I used Gnome 2.2 (2.0 initially) for nearly a year. It’s super-configurable; I love having the start bar/clock/quick-start buttons at the top, and the list of windows at the bottom so neither one gets cluttered. I definitely like Gnome 2.2 — yes, the icon *finally* lets me know when I’ve successfully double-clicked something. I selected Galeon as the browser instead of regular Mozilla because it seemed a little faster to me (it does use mozilla to render html, however)… I think it’s because it uses gnome widgets. I chose Evolution for email after experimenting with Mozilla; I don’t recall why I switched to it. Gaim is the obvious choice for AIM messages.
Overall, Gnome was pretty darned good. Almost everything worked. I had (still have, with Gnome) some problems with file associations; for instance, I was using xpdf to look at .pdf files. One day, my friend wanted to print one out, so I did, but some of it got chopped off the page. So I downloaded acroread from Adobe, installed it, and voila… a perfect printout. Later, I tried to get Galeon to use that as the default, but I found the configuration extremely complex. Maybe Galeon uses mozilla associations as well as Gnome associations, but I never did quite get it right. With Mandrake’s control panel and Gnome’s control panel and Mozilla’s preferences, finding which bit affects what thing is confusing and counter-intuitive. Nor was I able to tell Evolution to use Galeon as the default browser when I clicked a link; it *always* opens Mozilla no matter what I try. Problems like these convinced me to try KDE 3.1.

KDE 3.1

I’ve been running KDE for a month. KDE comes with its own set of applications – Konqueror (web browsing, yes it has tabs), KMail (can you guess?), KNode (news), KOffice (I haven’t tried it yet, I’m still using OpenOffice for now), KAddressBook, KOrganizer, etc. They all work together as you’d expect, file associations are in one place, and they launch quickly from some sort of ‘kdeinit’ process. Basically, KDE was exactly what I was looking for. For instance, yesterday I clicked on the calendar icon in the tray, and added a biweekly reminder to deal with the litter box. Last night, it went off. Simple, and it just worked.
The price of running KDE is how configurable it is. With Gnome, I could (in theory anyway) configure every tiny little thing, if I just find the place to do it. KDE gives me fewer options (I cannot, for example, have a 3×3 virtual desktop window the way I want it, I’m forced to go 2×3) but a simpler, more cohesive experience. To me, it just feels more polished. All I want from my OS is an easy to use desktop and menu system with a good looking background and fonts, and an intuitive way to configure it. KDE 3.1 finally gave me that, and I’m a very happy Linux user.

Gaming

I was dual-booting for games most of the year. Recently, I paid $30 for a subscription to transgaming, and now I have a Diablo II icon on my desktop. No more rebooting to Windows! The subscription is basically for software updates to support new games – what works now will work forever. It’s not a perfect setup – I’d rather Diablo II have a Linux version – but it’s a lot better than having a separate Window installation. (I still have XP on one machine that is dual-bootable, but I very, very rarely boot to it.)

Advantages

It’s really, really nice to be at work, ssh through my home firewall to my server, then ssh to my home desktop, and open an application there that displays at work. Or whatever, copy a file. The beauty is, everything comes with it — I didn’t have to set anything up or buy any software. I can upgrade my fiancee’s computer while sitting at my own desk; for instance, I installed OpenOffice 1.1 for her while she was playing a game on the same machine. I can install security updates on every system at home, while sitting on the couch with my laptop. I put an icon on Sarah’s desktop that lets her run an MP3 player on the HTPC, which is plugged into the stereo in the living room… and it just works. She sees the application where she’s sitting; what’s the difference if it’s actually running somewhere else?

Windows Advantages

Windows is a little easier to set up. Webpage plugins in IE are more seamless. The windows control panel is better than any I’ve used on Linux, although Linux is getting closer. Windows applications are generally more polished than their Linux counterparts, documentation is more up to date and complete (after all, someone is getting paid to write it). New products always have Windows drivers, often Linux has to catch up (i.e. the built-in wireless in my T40; I’m using an Aironet for now).
Everyone sends around .doc files, not .sxw files as OpenOffice creates, so you end up exporting to a .doc file before sending it. And of course you then have two copies, so you have to make sure you change the correct one, then re-export it, and double-check everything to make sure you’re sending the right thing to the right person in the right format. Further, OpenOffice 1.1 has a much better export to .doc than 1.0 does, but Mandrake 9.1 came with OpenOffice 1.0. Upgrading to 1.1 is a hassle; better wait for Mandrake 9.2 which is about to be released, right?
But that’s *always* happening. Some of the little things you desire in Linux are always just one release away, whether it’s support for your wireless card, or support for your .doc format, or hopefully even an automatically-maintained .doc file version of your .sxw file. Maybe I should try KOffice…

Overall

If there is any single point I’d like to get across, it’s this: Linux can be used as a desktop, today. Definitely. I have succeeded in my goal: It’s been nearly a year. It’s not perfect, but it’s *finally* good enough for me. I can live with the few shortcomings, and I can wait for the next release as long as the current one works. In my eyes, the advantages of running it (as well as the feel-good-inside part of having a Linux desktop) do, finally, outweigh the disadvantages. I love Linux now, and I never did before. It’s cool. I will never buy Windows again. Oh, and I didn’t get hit by the Blaster virus…. 🙂