What if the TFM sucks? Do I still have to R it?

When I first started using Linux, I visited several Linux forums. No one targeted the RTFM (read the fucking manual) response specifically at me, but I did see it used on other new users, and I didn’t appreciate that. After I joined the Ubuntu Forums, I realized that life without RTFM is a good life for all involved—both the helper and the “helpee.” My wife getting the RTFM treatment (and not appreciating it, by the way) on the Drupal forums only reinforced for me the validity of this assessment.

RTFM serves no purpose other than to make the giver feel better about herself and the receiver feel worse. Please try to imagine this exchange. You’ll probably have to imagine it, because I’ve never seen anything like it:

Original Post-er: I’m having a problem with blah blah blah and blah blah blah
Responder: Ah, geez. This has been posted a million times already. Go do a search or just RTFM, stupid noob!!!!
OP: Oh, thanks. I’d hadn’t thought of doing either of those. I’ll RTFM right now.
R: Damn straight, idiot. Go do it now.
OP Okay. I’m back after reading the manual and doing some Google searches, and those fixed my problems. I’m so glad that you told me RTFM instead of just spoonfeeding me the answer. Now I feel I’ve actually learned something on my own. It’s a good thing people like you are around on these forums to type RTFM to us newcomers so that we’ll learn how to do things without burdening you supreme beings with stupid questions.
R: No problem. That’s what I’m here for.

Yes, I have encountered situations in which new Ubuntu users have posted questions that have been asked “a million times already.” Yes, I do believe that people exaggerate when they say “Linux documentation sucks.” Nevertheless, I have never told a new user to RTFM or “just use Google.” Here are some reasons why:

  • RTFM is a cryptic abbreviation that will mean nothing to a new user who doesn’t realize the question has been asked a million times already
  • New users may know how to use the search function on Google or on forums, but they do not often know what to search for in order to get the best results.
  • While the manual referred to by RTFM may, in fact, be general documentation, I think its origin stems from the built-in manuals for *nix commands that you can invoke by using the command man command—for example, man apt-get to learn more about how to use the apt-get command. man pages are cryptic and usually mean little or nothing to new users. They appear as just a flurry of hyphens and brackets with no immediately obvious practical application.
  • When you’re a new user with a problem, sometimes you aren’t in a calm state of mind and aren’t necessarily thinking about the best way to learn something, and all you want to do is solve your problem. Once you’ve solved your problem, you may be more inclined to learn how it was solved, but someone telling you to RTFM isn’t going to make you learn—it’s just going to make you get angry.
  • If your time is so precious that you can’t be bothered to help a new user, then don’t help. Get off the forums already and do something else. The whole point of support forums is… well, support. If you want to volunteer your time on the forums to help new users, don’t do so grudgingly and give rude responses instead of helpful answers; just get off the forums and go for a run or a camping trip.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from five years as a high school teacher, it’s that people learn at their own paces and in their own ways. I’ve read on the Ubuntu Forums people saying that the Ubuntu Guide isn’t good since it encourages users to copy and paste commands instead of learning what those commands mean. Speaking as someone for whom that guide was the reason for sticking with Ubuntu and its forum community and then ultimately learning what those commands mean, I’d have to disagree with that conclusion. For some, copying and pasting commands may not lead to learning. For others, it may lead to learning for oneself and further teaching to others.

One person may learn best by being “spoonfed.” Another may learn best from studying manuals and books. Still another may learn best by observing screenshot or video tutorials. Personally, I started off copying and pasting commands from the Ubuntu Guide, reading a few books, asking “stupid newbie questions” that had been asked a million times already, and doing Google searches for online tutorials. If people on the Ubuntu Forums had told me to RTFM, I probably would still be a Windows user. Since they were patient and they bothered to explain things to me, I ended up being a forum moderator, regular forum participant and helper, and general Ubuntu tutorial writer. I made it a regular habit, when I was active on the forums, to link people to what I thought were the most helpful tutorials and then follow-up with some “spoonfeeding” if the new users had trouble following the tutorials’ instructions. My linking to a tutorial helped new users avoid a painful weeding-out-of-Google-search-results process to get straight to quality tutorials to solve their problems. As their understanding grew, many of those new users in turn helped out other new users.

It behooves veteran users to help new users, because new users today will be veteran users tomorrow, and helping new users also serves to solidify your own knowledge as a veteran user. There’s an adage about teaching being the best way to learn, and, in the Linux world, that holds true. Let people blossom in their own ways. If you ever find yourself losing patience for “lazy” new users, consider this little tirade a manual for “oldbies” and R this FM before you’re tempted to advise a new user to R another FM.


Is KDE ‘more Windows-like’ than Gnome?

What’s the issue?
I’ve seen it mentioned many times on the Ubuntu Forums that KDE is “more Windows-like” than Gnome. To what extent is this true?

Why do people say KDE is Windows-like?
Well, if you press the people who assert KDE’s Windows-likeness, they often offer up as “proof” the single toolbar at the bottom and the blue/silver default theme in Kubuntu.

Both of those reasons fall short of being meaningful. Gnome can just as easily have one toolbar at the bottom, just as KDE can easily have two toolbars—one at the bottom and one at the top. KDE also does not have to use blue or silver. Its colors can be easily changed.

So in what ways is KDE more Windows-like than Gnome?

  • Well, it won’t apply changes until you click Apply. Gnome will apply changes immediately (same as Mac).
  • It has more immediately visible graphical configuration options (which a lot of anti-KDE folk claim are “confusing”) instead of hiding them away as Gnome does in gconf-editor (same as Mac, which hides them in .plist files).
  • The file manager and default web browser are tied together (Konqueror), although this may change for KDE 4.0 (Dolphin file manager?), just as Windows has Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer tied together. Gnome doesn’t necessarily have a default web browser (its native one could be Epiphany or Galeon, but Ubuntu defaults to Firefox) and uses a separate application for file browsing (Nautilus), just as Mac has Finder for file management and Safari for web browsing.
  • Konqueror has a “restore from trash” feature. Nautilus does not… yet.

In what ways is KDE less Windows-like than Gnome?

  • It defaults to annoying bouncing icons when you launch an application from the toolbar (just like Mac’s Dock icons).
  • It allows you to have a universal toolbar, just like Mac’s universal toolbar (one toolbar for any windows within the same application).
  • It defaults to single-click for opening files (Gnome defaults to a double-click, just like Windows).
  • Control-Q always quits programs in KDE (much like Mac’s Cmd-Q), whereas you sometimes quit programs in Gnome with Control-W (closing the window).

How are KDE and Gnome both different from Windows?
KDE and Gnome actually have a lot more in common with each other than either has in common with Windows:

  • Both have multiple workspaces.
  • Both allow you to run the file manager as root easily from within a regular user account.
  • Both have easily installable themes and icon themes (no need to install Windowblinds or Litestep).
  • Both have their application menus grouped by type of application… not just one huge menu with all applications.
  • Both easily allow you to show seconds on the clock.
  • Both have flexible keyboard shortcut assignments.

There may be more you could add to all of those lists, but the point remains: KDE and Gnome are their own things. In some ways, you could say KDE is “more Windows-like” than Gnome; but more importantly KDE is not “more Windows-like” in every respect, and KDE and Gnome have more in common with each other than either has in common with Windows. The most important thing to recognize is that KDE and Gnome are more flexible than the Windows environment is (without weird registry hacks).

Computers Linux

Gaining Perspective on PC Gaming

The skewed perspective on gaming
In the world of Linux, there are many who believe PC gaming is bigger than it really is. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a big business. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t exist. Gaming companies would have otherwise long abandoned making PC games. It is not, however, as big as many Linux users believe it is—not by a long shot.

Take, for example, this blog entry, published on ZDnet 2 November, 2006, in which the author tries to make the case that the lack of PC games is a major barrier to Linux desktop adoption:

Let’s face it, for your average home PC user, gaming is pretty important aspect of PC ownership. In my experience, even people who really aren’t all that into games still indulge the occasional new game.

The belief that “average home PC user[s]” buy PC games and consider it a “pretty important aspect of PC ownership” is commonplace on Linux forums. If you don’t believe me, look at this forum thread entitled “time for debate: Games are the biggest barrier to desktop linux!”

The real perspective on gaming
The real truth, of course, is that most average home PC users either don’t game at all, play console games, play online Flash/Shockwave-based games, or play non-commercial games like Solitaire, Hearts, or Minesweeper.

Most average home PC users do not go out and buy the latest World of Warcraft or Doom. Seriously.

If you look closely at any argument to the contrary, there is never any hard data to back it up—only anecdotal data (“Hey, everyone I know plays PC games…”). Well, I went scouring all over the internet to find some hard data, and here it is.

Exhibit A
From Poll: 4 in 10 adults play electronic games: Board, card, strategy games, action sports most popular, here are a couple of excerpts:

40 percent of American adults play games on a computer or a console…. Among those who describe themselves as gamers, 45 percent play over the Internet…. Forty-two percent of online gamers said they spent at least four hours playing games during an average week, compared with 26 percent of those who don’t play online. About one in six online gamers play more than 10 hours a week.

Let’s do the math. One in six online gamers play more than 10 hours a week. Online gamers are 45% of those who describe themselves as gamers, who are, in turn, only 40% of American adults. That ends up being 3% of all American adults. That’s right—3% (hardly most… not even a large minority) of American adults game online for more than 10 hours a week.

Casual games like board or card games were the most popular, followed by strategy games, action sports, adventure, first-person shooters and simulations, the poll found. Casual, strategy and role-playing games were most popular among online gamers.

Another fact some Linux users are hard-up to acknowledge—the most popular games among normal PC users are casual games, not the latest commercial first-person shooter.

That poll was conducted in April 2006, based on a sample of 3,024 American adults.

Exhibit B
Gaming is for Grown-Ups cites a December 2005 study of 1,767 “adult video game households” and 500 teenagers by the Consumer Electronics Association, in which one of the conclusions is that

Fifty-eight percent of households owning both a PC and a console system consider the console the dominant gaming platform.

I’m not sure what an “adult video game household” is, so 58% seems pretty low to me, but even that is a majority (over 50%) preferring the console over the PC for gaming.

Exhibit C
Wikipedia isn’t always a reliable source, but in this case, it’s actually citing another source that isn’t editable by just anyone.

This is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on video games:

The NPD Group tracks computer and video game sales in the United States. It reported that as of 2004:

  • Console and portable software sales: $6.2 billion, up 8% from 2003[2]
  • Console and portable hardware and accessory sales: $3.7 billion, down 35% from 2003[2]
  • PC game sales: $1.1 billion, down 2% from 2003[3]

As you can see, PC gaming is big. I’m not denying its existence or its profitability. $1.1 billion is a pretty substantial sales number.

Nevertheless, as you can see, console and portable software sales are 5.6 times more than PC games sales.

Final thoughts
If PC gaming isn’t as big as a lot of Linux users think it is, why don’t they realize it? Well, I would propose that serious gamers tend to be friends with other serious gamers, and that if most of your friends game seriously, it would be easy to imagine that most people in general game seriously. Not being a serious gamer myself, I know very few people who do PC game. Most of my friends and relatives who do play games play console games (PS2 and the like), so the fact that console gaming is a bigger market than PC gaming isn’t a surprise to me.

Anecdotal “evidence” is fine to trot out every once in a while, but sometimes you also have to look at some statistically significant figures.


The Linux Desktop Myth

The Issue at Hand
It’s entirely possible that you may not have heard of Linux. Maybe you own a Mac or Windows computer and don’t read the technology news. You may have a TiVo, but it doesn’t have a huge sticker on the box that reads “Powered by Linux” (even though it is). You may use Google, but it doesn’t have any announcement on its homepage that it’s run on Linux servers (even though it is). Whether you’ve heard of Linux or not—it probably plays a role in your life somehow.

In all likelihood (yes, even if you’re reading this), you probably don’t have Linux running on your laptop computer at home or your desktop computer at work. The “desktop market” is dominated by Windows. Mac has a very small share of desktop computing (arguably even smaller than Linux’s market share—it depends on whom you ask), but it is high profile—Apple stores abound in the US (there are also locations in the UK, Japan, and Canada), Mac computers feature prominently in Hollywood movies, iPods are the portable player of choice, iTunes dominates the digital download market, computer peripherals that are Mac-compatible have a logo on the side of the box indicating that they are, and major software is available for Mac OS X (Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office, for example).

So why are you probably not running Linux on your computer? Why have you probably not even heard of Linux? What’s stopping Linux from being more high profile, being more widely adopted?

The Linux Desktop Myth
Every year—or perhaps several times during the year—if you read technology news, you’ll spot a Linux desktop article proclaiming (or quoting someone who proclaims) that “this year” is going to be the year of the Linux desktop. Clearly, they were wrong,

Linux desktops come in various flavors (or distributions). Unlike Windows and Mac, which each have only one current version (as of this writing, those would be Windows XP and Mac OS X Tiger, respectively), Linux has multiple simultaneous and different versions. They all share the same core (the Linux kernel), but they differ in terms of development cycle, business model, default applications, installation method, and hardware detection. There are literally hundreds of Linux distributions—many of which are aimed at desktop use (as opposed to server or embedded device use) and which are under rapid development. Ubuntu, the top-ranked distribution on DistroWatch, for example, releases new versions every six months. Windows, on the other hand, seems to release new versions every three to six years.

Because of these frequent releases that each come with new features, people who proclaim that “this year” is the year of the Linux desktop subscribe to and continue to perpetuate a myth about Linux—namely, that it’s Linux’s features that hold it back from widespread desktop adoption. In other words, according to the myth, there are hundreds of millions of Windows users out there (and some Mac users as well) desperately waiting for Linux to match their current operating systems feature for feature, and when that happens, they will all download a disk image, burn the Linux CD, install and configure the operating system themselves, and then ditch their current operating system for a Linux distribution. (If you don’t know what a disk image or an operating system is, then I think you get my point—the majority of Windows and Mac users will not be installing Linux regardless of how many features it has.)

What is holding Linux back?
In online support forums for Linux, there are frequent debates about whether Linux is “ready for the desktop” and also why it’s not more popular as a desktop operating system. These debates can go on for hundreds of posts, and there’s usually never anything resembling a consensus reached.

Some of the frequent charges against Linux’s “desktop readiness” are its lack of commercial games, its lack of general commercial applications, its lack of easily installable/obtainable hardware drivers, its different software installation models, its variety of flavors, its lack of point-and-click configurations for certain tasks, its lack of “user-friendliness,” and its bad marketing. That’s not a comprehensive list of the criticisms against Linux distributions, but those are some of the main proposed reasons for Linux being almost unheard of on the desktop.

To properly evaluate these criticisms, you have to know a little bit about what desktop Linux is like and what goes into using desktop Linux. Afterwards, we can start exploring the path that Linux can take to desktop prominence… or why it may never get there.

My Linux Switch Story
My family’s first computer, when I was growing up, was an NEC. I don’t know the model number, but it was an all-in-one computer with a monochromatic screen and two floppy disk drives for 12″ floppy disks. It had no graphics to speak of, and my parents used it mainly for word processing. My brother and I used it mainly for playing a text-only game called “Millionaire,” in which you buy and sell stocks in the hopes of finally earning a million dollars. There was no mouse for this computer because there were no graphics. It was all text.

Over the years, my father built PC computers that ran MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 2000. My brother got a Mac for college in the early 90s, and I used that same Mac when I went to college in the late 90s. After I graduated college, I used Windows ME and XP at home and work, and I also used Mac OS 9 and OS X at work. Even though Linus Torvalds developed Linux in 1991, I don’t think I’d even heard the word Linux until the turn of the millennium. I did see my father using Linux once—he was launching an application from a grey terminal screen—and my immediate thought in response was You have to type commands? How primitive.

I didn’t touch Linux myself until the summer of 2004. During that time, spyware and adware were rampant, and I hadn’t even heard either term until the laptop my wife and I had was infested with them both. The computer had slowed to a crawl, and pop-up ads would appear even when I didn’t have Internet Explorer open (only later did I learn that Internet Explorer is always running on your computer, whether it appears open or not). I don’t remember the exact details, but in searching for how to get rid of spyware and adware, I somehow came across Linux and had the silly notion to install it instead of Windows XP.

The first place I went (what I thought made sense) was It was a confusing site with many links. The download link takes you nowhere and asks you to go to the distributions link. Some of the download links were to older versions of distros. I didn’t know which distro to pick or what distinguished one distro from another. There seemed to be hundreds of distros available. Eventually, I ended up with Blag. I chose it because all the Linux books I found in my local library were on Red Hat L
inux, so I wanted to get something that was based on Red Hat (Blag is based on Fedora, which is the community-supported version of Red Hat, which is the more enterprise-focused, commercial edition). Blag was also only one CD. I didn’t feel like (even with a fast internet connection) downloading four or five CDs. (Only later did I find out that multi-CD distros needed only the first CD—the other CDs were add-on CDs for more software.)

I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out how to burn Blag properly. Most Linux CDs come with an .ISO extension, which means they are disk images, not files. It’s kind of like the difference between handing someone a Word document of an article as opposed to a photocopy of the article. Both have the same article contained within, but the Word document contains the actual words, which you can edit and remove at will; the photocopy appears to contain words, but it’s really just an image of those words—you cannot add and remove words. A disk image is a single file—about 700 MB in size—that is an image of the CD, not a collection of the files in the CD. If you burn the .ISO as data, you’ll get a CD with one big file on it. If you burn the .ISO as a disk image, you’ll get all the files contained within. (If this paragraph confuses the hell out of you, then you’re getting closer to the real reason Linux isn’t more widely used on the desktop.)

Finally, I installed Blag on our Dell Inspiron 500m. I have to admit my first impression was a good one. I liked that there seemed to be a wealth of software available on one tiny little CD. The questions the installer asked weren’t difficult to answer, and the installation was all point-and-click (no need to type in commands). The desktop looked very similar to Windows’ desktop. I had a menu button to click (it was a red hat instead of the Start button) to run applications. There were desktop icons. There was a clock in the panel. Everything seemed fine except for two things. First, the screen resolution was terrible. The Dell’s optimal resolution was 1024×768, and Blag was giving me something virtually unusable (320×480, or something like that). If I opened a dialog box, the OK and Cancel buttons were off the screen. So I did some web research and found a patch that fixed the screen resolution. When I tried to install a program, though, I ran into what’s commonly referred to as dependency hell. I downloaded an RPM file and tried to run the command rpm on it (which all the books said would work to install it). But I didn’t have any of the dependencies. One by one I tried tracking down each dependency, and I gave up after the third or fourth one. It was back to Windows for me.

Surprisingly to me at the time, the Windows installation was not as painless as the Blag one. Windows’ installer had quite a bit of text-based interface (not all point-and-click), and it did not detect the monitor’s screen resolution or the computer’s sound card. I was also unable to play DVDs, as Windows did not include the proper codecs for viewing DVDs. It was then that I remembered we’d actually received three restore CDs from Dell—not just one. The first CD is Windows XP Service Pack 1, which has the basic Windows operating system. The second CD was Dell’s drivers and utilities CD. The third CD was InterVideo WinDVD, the program that allowed you to play DVDs on the DVD-ROM drive. It didn’t take me long to track down the drivers and utilities CD, and I was grateful I found it, but for a week or two, I still couldn’t find the InterVideo WinDVD. So I had to search around a bit to find something that would allow me to play DVDs, since Windows Media Player wouldn’t.

Eventually, I tried VLC, which was unstable (kept crashing) but at least had a codec for playing DVDs. I also found a web browser called Firefox, which was supposed to be more secure than Internet Explorer. In the end, I recovered even the InterVideo WinDVD, and Windows XP was back to normal, and I didn’t encounter any more spyware/adware issues while using Firefox.

My second Windows installation experience involved a self-built computer my father had. I was visiting for Christmas, and I wanted to install iTunes on a spare PC my parents had, but the PC was running Windows 98. In order to run iTunes, I needed either Windows XP or 2000. My father had a copy of Windows 2000, and I tried installing that. Still the text-mode installer. Still no drivers found for the sound or the screen resolution. I also had no idea where to get these drivers or which drivers to get. I had no idea whether the screen resolution was messed up because I needed a driver specifically for the monitor or for the computer’s video card—the yellow question marks in the Control Panel were not helping. I ended up taking a screwdriver to the computer and opening it up to find out what the video card’s and sound card’s models were. When I did internet searches for these drivers, I came up with a lot of sketchy websites (with a lot of hyphens in their URLs). I wasn’t sure which links were legitimate or not. Some links, instead of having actual drivers for download, would just take me to other links, and the hardware was so old the manufacturer’s website no longer had drivers for them. After several hours, I did finally get it all sorted out. Another painful Windows installation was behind me.

That year, I was a pretty happy Windows user. My wife, meanwhile, had purchased a Mac G4 Powerbook for school, and I was a bit envious of her computer’s “eye candy.” When I looked at my Windows themes settings, there were only two themes available—Windows Classic and Windows XP. The XP theme had three colors—blue, silver, and olive. There was one option to find more themes online, but that just took me to the Microsoft page for buying separate software from them that would allow me to install more themes. No thanks. There was a project I stumbled upon called WindowBlinds. It allowed you to customize your Windows desktop easily—installing new themes, getting a Mac-like dock, and changing icons. I had two problems with WindowBlinds, though: it wasn’t free, and none of the themes integrated well with each other. If you didn’t pay for WindowBlinds, you got nagware—a pop-up every now and then reminding you to buy it. And the pixelated icons I could do without.

I saw a few other programs to help you customize Windows, but all of them looked a little too complicated to install and involved hacking the Windows registry.

I don’t know why, but suddenly I got the urge to explore Linux again. Things might have actually changed, or I may have actually gotten better at doing web research, but my migration to Linux seemed a lot smoother this time around.

First of all, I came across a site called DistroWatch. It has rankings based on number of hits on a page for different Linux distros, and it displays prominently on the front page the top 100 distros. It’s not a scientifically accurate ranking system, but it does give you a general idea of which distros are popular, so if there really are 400 distros, you can check out only five or six.

The local library also happened to then stock a non-Red Hat Linux book called Point & Click Linux, whose title appealed to the Windows user in me (who was deathly afraid of the command-line) and which featured a distro I hadn’t heard of before—Mepis.

Mepis seemed magic to me at the time. Blag was one CD that had a wealth of so
ftware, but Mepis one-upped Blag. Mepis was one CD that was a live CD that could also install itself to your hard drive and include a wealth of software. For those of you unfamiliar with live CDs, a live CD does not affect your hard drive, but if you boot to it, it creates a session from the CD itself and your computer’s RAM (temporary memory). In that session, you get a preview of the operating system—how well it detects your internet, sound, video, what software it includes (you can actually use the software during the live session). The live session may run more slowly than an installed session, but it usually has less to work with.

The bulk of Point & Click Linux was too elementary for me. It showed you how to use OpenOffice (a program very similar to Microsoft Office) and how to browse the internet with Firefox (which I had already been using in Windows). What helped me, though, was its explanation of partitioning and how to set up a dual-boot with Windows. When I installed Blag the year before, I had installed it right over Windows, replacing Windows. With a dual-boot, I had the option to use either Windows or Mepis. The book also explained a new way of installing software. Synaptic Package Manager would take care of all dependencies and download and install them for you. No more dependency hell.

Mepis recognized my screen resolution, and software installation was easy. Best of all, customization was easy. I could right-click an icon and just browse around for a different icon. I could download icon sets and themes from KDE-look and not have to buy and install a separate program to use those themes. The themes integrated well, and the icons were not pixelated—many were SVGs or high-resolution PNGs.

Eventually, the customization bug took me away from Mepis. The software in Mepis is great, but the user community was generally unknowledgeable about intermediate issues. No one, for example, could tell me how to change the boot-up splash screen from the Mepis pyramids to something else.

After that, I tried a series of distros—probably fourteen in total—looking for the perfect one. I almost always came back to Mepis, though. One of the first distros I tried after Mepis was Ubuntu. Ubuntu got a lot of hype at the time, both in the mainstream technology press and on DistroWatch. I was unimpressed, though. My first encounter with Ubuntu, the CD kept getting stuck at 79% when installing the operating system (I later found out this was because I was using a corrupted .ISO download). I came back to Ubuntu later, though, after I stumbled upon the Ubuntu Guide.

The Ubuntu Guide was the ultimate in documentation. It was one webpage (one long, scrolling HTML page with anchored internal links) that told you how to customize in Ubuntu just about anything a new user like myself could think of. Here was the irony of it, though—this highly appealing document was all terminal commands. Command-line-fearing me had embraced the command-line. Why? Because these commands were all in one place and just a small series to accomplish any given task. I would just copy and paste the commands one by one (didn’t even have to retype them) into the terminal, and suddenly things would be working.

Yes, Ubuntu required more initial work at first than Mepis did. Ubuntu, for example, doesn’t come with a lot of popular codecs and software (Flash, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Skype, MP3 playback). You have to install these yourself (or get a script to do it for you). This is mainly a philosophical decision on the part of Ubuntu’s founder Mark Shuttleworth to provide not only a cost-free operating system but an open source one as well (no proprietary software). Using Ubuntu didn’t stop me from using proprietary software (yes, I still use MP3 and Flash), but it did make me more aware of what software is proprietary and what is open.

With Ubuntu, I found a home distro. It was a stable software environment. It had good documentation, and the community users could answer just about any questions I threw at them. Best of all, it was completely free. Most Linux distributions have a free version, but you can get a bit more if you buy a subscription or the “enterprise” edition. Ubuntu is entirely free and even ships CDs free to you (and pays the postage costs)—it may take a couple of months, but your CDs will arrive.

As I got to know Linux better and better through using Ubuntu, I realized that a lot of stuff I thought I couldn’t do on Windows… I actually could. I also realized that most of the open source software available in Linux was also available for Windows. And Ubuntu users are quite knowledgeable about how to customize Windows without using WindowBlinds. Nevertheless, I found a freedom… and some fun in Linux that I couldn’t find in Windows, so I wasn’t going back. I had to use Windows at work—I would not be using it at home, too.

What have I found to be the advantages of Linux on the desktop?

  • Freedom. I don’t have to worry about losing my activation key for any software. All my software is easily reinstallable, and can be installed on numerous machines.
  • Less worry. Since I have several online repositories’ worth of Ubuntu-approved software, I needn’t worry about scouring the internet for software that suits my needs. I can just fire up my package manager and search for what I’m looking for and install it with a couple of clicks. I don’t need to worry about whether that software has spyware or is only a 30-day trial.
  • Support. is an incredible mix of expert, intermediate, and novice users who subscribe to Ubuntu’s philosophy of “Humanity Toward Others.” They can answer all my Linux questions, and they can usually answer my Windows and Mac OS X questions as well.
  • Affordability. Sure, Windows XP came with the computer I bought, but when I want to upgrade to Vista, what will I do? I’ll have to buy it, probably buy better hardware to accommodate it, or bootleg a copy. And if I don’t… eventually Microsoft will discontinue support for XP. When a new version of Ubuntu comes out, I can download a new CD for free or just do online upgrades for free.
  • Ease of Customization. The Ubuntu Forums users helped me to make my work computer bearable, but I did have to install some helper software to get my themes and icons working the way I want—and I would not have stumbled upon those things myself. With Ubuntu’s centralized package management, I can find relatively obscure programs with a few clicks of my mouse.

And, it’s also helped me to learn more about how to solve even Windows or Mac problems. For example, through using Ubuntu, I became familiar with the rsync command, which allows for differential backups (copying over only files that have changed or been added since the last backup), which I could use for my wife to back up her Powerbook. Also, since Ubuntu provides an easy interface for setting up keyboard shortcuts, I realized how much more efficient I can work using those shortcuts, and I insist on using keyboard shortcuts (different ones, of course) when I’m using my Windows computer at work or my wife’s Powerbook at home.

What can be said about my experience?
In many ways, my experience with migrating to Linux is typical—the frustration with installation, the confusion in finding a distro to pick out of many Linux distros, the need for research in learning what to do with an .ISO file, the desperate search for documentation (in books, websites, and forums). The migratio
n is also usually prompted by the same factors—security and customization. I’m not sure if I’m typical in one last regard, though; I stayed for neither the security nor the customization but for the freedom and the fun. I can make a Windows computer as secure as a Linux machine. I can also customize it almost as much as I can Linux. But I can’t make Windows free. I can’t make it not proprietary. I can’t get rid of complicated license agreements or product activation keys.

In terms of the typical Windows-to-Linux migrant profile, I fit the skills but not the needs. Most Windows users who migrate to Linux are what the technology department at my workplace calls power users—not necessarily programmers or system administrators but not anyone who would identify as “computer illiterate” or “not very good with computers.” Power users like to point and click with the mouse and also customize their experiences a little bit. They’re not afraid to look for new programs that will do the same jobs as their old programs.

If I were to generalize, I’d say most Linux users fall into one of these three categories: absolute novice, ex-Windows power user, *nix expert. I’m atypical in that in terms of my abilities and drive, I’m an ex-Windows power user, but in terms of my needs, I’m more like an absolute novice.

The Absolute Novice
Absolute novices become Linux users because they have a friend or relative who is obsessed with Linux and on whom the novice relies for all tech support. What happens is the novice has seemingly endless Windows problems (crashes, spyware, adware, viruses, slowdowns) and every time she encounters those problems, she calls her Linux-using friend or relative. Eventually, the Linux user says, “Look, I’m tired of supporting you on Windows. I’ll set up Linux for you.” After she installs and sets up Linux, she tells the novice, “Here is your web browser—this icon. Here is your email program—this icon. This is how you shut down you computer.” There is a little resistance at first: “Where’s the Start Menu?” “It’s right here.” “But it doesn’t say Start on it.” “That’s okay. I can change the icon for you.” After a while, the novice has no more computer problems and everyone’s happy.

The ex-Windows Power User
She knows Windows inside and out. She can edit a few things in the registry. She defragments. She does disk scans. She knows all the free but good anti-virus, anti-spyware scanning tools. She has a list of about ten or twelve programs she uses and loves to use in Windows. She also gets called to solve her friends’ and relatives’ Windows problems. Something happens one day, though—she’s tired of all the maintenance she has to do on her Windows computer, she’s tired of her Linux-using friends always talking about how great Linux is, or she just wants to try something new. So she installs Linux. Very likely, she will encounter problems. Either her wireless card won’t work, or the CD burning program doesn’t do absolutely everything that Nero does, or the Linux fonts “look ugly” to her. Then, there are two ways she can go. She either throws her hands up and screams (virtually or actually), “I can’t take it any more. This OS sucks. I’m going back to Windows. Linux is not ready for the desktop” or she rolls up her sleeves and says, “I’m going to make this work. This is fun figuring this out.”

The *nix Expert
This person has a lot of experience using Unix, Linux, BSD, or some combination of the three. She probably programs or does some kind of system administration for a living, and she uses Linux on her desktop at home because she thinks it’s fun, and it’s a natural extension of having to use Linux at work for administering servers. She probably doesn’t think most users should be using Linux, as she has a lot of training on computers and thinks that ordinary folks wouldn’t be able to handle installing and configuring Linux themselves.

As things currently stand, any one of these groups would be successful in migrating to Linux. Note, though, that the first group needs the help of an experienced Linux user. I’ve been using Linux for over a year now, and I would not feel confident enough to set up a Linux machine for a novice and say she won’t have to worry about anything after that. Also, the second group has two major ways that it reacts. A lot of these potential migrants don’t migrate at all—just as I did with Blag, they give Linux a shot and then give up very shortly after they encounter a roadblock or two.

The Biggest Obstacle to the Linux Desktop
If you ask most of these migrants (and most of them will be ex-Windows power users) what the biggest obstacle is to Linux desktop adoption is, you’ll get a range of responses, and they’ll usually stem from each user’s bias. One user who couldn’t get her printer to work might complain about third-party hardware support. Another user who couldn’t get the proper screen resolution on her widescreen laptop might complain about the hardware detection. Yet another user who loves gaming on her PC might cite the lack of commercial games in Linux.

Obviously, publicists for certain Linux distro companies and pro-Linux essayists—both of whom occasionally proclaim a certain year to be “the year of the Linux desktop”—imagine that these obstacles are the ones to be overcome. As each new version of Ubuntu or SuSE or Fedora or Mepis or Linspire comes out, some Linux advocates imagine that the new features will demolish that barrier or series of barriers that stops ex-Windows power users from adopting Linux on the desktop.

Well, here’s where the myth breaks down.

Ex-Windows power users may make up the majority of migrants to Linux, but they do not make up the majority of Windows users or computer users. Anecdotally, I’d say I’m the only power user in my office at work. In my family, my brother is a power user, and my father is more like a *nix expert, with my mother a novice. My wife is a power user, but most of our mutual friends are novices, and almost all of her family members (including extended family) are novices. Now, keep in mind, even the power users I know (my brother, my wife, a couple of our friends from college) have never undertaken a Linux installation. So these are not folk who have tried to install Linux and then gotten frustrated and given up.

So out of my friends and relatives, my father and I are the only ones who have installed Linux.

Something else must be stopping everyone else.

The barrier isn’t a dual-boot being difficult to set up. The barrier is not there being too many distros to choose from. The barrier isn’t the difficulty in obtaining and burning an .ISO correctly. The barrier isn’t the two features Photoshop has that GIMP does not.

In order to understand what’s stopping masses of people migrating from Windows to Linux, we need to examine what makes people go to Windows in the first place, and also debunk some of the “Linux isn’t ready” propaganda that could just as easily apply to Mac as well… after all, no one says Mac isn’t ready for the desktop.

Why do they choose Windows?
Well, the answer is obvious—they don’t. With few exceptions, everyone I know who uses Windows uses it because they’ve always used Windows (inertia), because they feel they can’t afford a Mac (money), and because the non-Mac PC they buy comes with Windows on it.

Buying a computer with the operating system already installed and configured takes care of many of the obstacles to Linux adoption. You don’t have to figure out which distro to use because you just use the distro that came with your machine. You don’t have to figure out which .ISO to download or how to burn it correctly, and you don’t have to figure out how to install it. You don’t have to wonder if your screen resolution or sound card will be detected properly. Dell, HP, Sony, or some other vendor has already done all that testing for you and included the necessary drivers for it all to “just work.”

And since most people buy computers with Windows preinstalled, that also means most of the
ir friends and relatives and coworkers also buy computers with Windows preinstalled, which in turn means that they don’t feel left out. No one wants to make a stupid choice, but if you’re going to make one, might as well not be alone in making that choice. After all, if you buy a Windows PC and it crashes, your friend with a Windows PC is likely to say, “Yeah, I hate it when that happens.” But if you have Linux on your PC and it crashes, your friend will likely say, “Oh, Linux doesn’t seem very stable.” And, along with that commiseration in Windows, you may also get a helping hand. Maybe your friend will say, “Yeah, I hate it when that happens… have you ever tried…?” But if you’re using Linux, all you’ll get is, “Linux doesn’t seem very stable.”

Windows is also in the public eye. System requirements for software often indicate a Windows operating system. Windows has commercials on TV. Printers, MP3 players, scanners, keyboards—just about any peripheral you buy—will indicate a compatibility with Windows and also include a Windows driver to ensure it works with Windows. If you walk into Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, or any major electronics store, you’re very likely to see Windows computers. You may or may not see a Mac computer, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a computer with Linux preloaded.

This is why people “choose” Windows. It’s already been chosen for them. It’s everywhere. I didn’t choose to use Windows when I was growing up any more than I chose to be a US citizen. I was born in the US, and I was born into Windows for all practical purposes.

Is Mac “Ready for the Desktop”?
Apple’s computers have a very low desktop share, unlike their iPods. I grew up in an upper-class neighborhood with a mix of upper-middle-class and upper-class friends. I went to college with a similar socio-economic class. Most of my friends, despite having financial means, still prefer Windows PCs because they’re cheaper. One friend of ours from college uses a Mac because the school she teaches at uses Macs. My wife uses a Mac because she’s in school for a second-degree and the program requires you to use a Mac. Now, I’m not saying my wife and our friend from college use Macs grudgingly. They’ve both fallen in love with Apple computers since, but they probably would not have bought those computers if they hadn’t been forced to.

A lot of the criticisms leveled against desktop Linux also apply to Macs:

  • Few commercial games available (and only after a long period of waiting)
  • Less hardware support
  • Few users (compared to the vast majority of users—who use Windows)
  • Culture shock ( a different way of installing programs, managing windows and icons)

Yet Macs do not face the “not ready for the desktop” criticism. Even though my wife and I had to carefully look for the blue smiley face on printers before we could buy one for her Powerbook, even though she had to wait a really long time for Sims 2 to be ported to Mac, even though none of our family members and few of our friends use Mac, even though my wife still complains about the usability of the Mac OS X interface… no one in the public sphere declares that Mac is not yet ready for the desktop.

There are two things Mac has going for it that Linux does not—publicity and preinstallation. Yes, Macs are not in every electronics store. Depending on where you live, you may need to go to an Apple store to buy one. But every Apple computer comes with Mac OS X preinstalled. And since Mac OS X will work on only Apple computers, you don’t need to worry about hardware detection. And you are not a freak if you use a Mac. People don’t walk over to your Mac and say, “What’s… that?!” It’s cool to use a Mac. It matches the iPod “everyone” has. All the movie stars in Hollywood use Macs in the movies and on TV. There appear to be more Mac advertisements on TV than Windows advertisements—at least in the United States.

There is no Linux store. There are a handful of stores that sell Linux computers and a handful of online vendors who sell Linux computers, but there is no Linux store similar to an Apple store. The only Linux commercials I’ve ever seen (and seldom, at that) are for servers, not desktops. The only time I saw Linux in the movies was in Roving Mars, where NASA people were using it to track their little Mars probes. It was an exciting moment for me, but it also reinforces the stereotype that ordinary people don’t use Linux—only scientific types. I’m not a scientific type, but that’s beside the point…

Usability does play a role
There are a lot of misconceptions about usability in operating systems. First of all, an intuitive interface is a nice thing to have, but it’s also highly overrated. After all, it’s not intuitive to access the Start menu (indicating a beginning) in order to shut down (an end), but Windows users get used to this easily. It’s not intuitive to drag a USB drive to the trash (which usually erases files) in order to eject it, but Mac users get used to this. Every operating system has its own quirks.

Yes, desktop Linux is pretty much a point-and-click environment, but the two most popular interfaces for Linux—KDE and Gnome—forget what you copy to the clipboard once you close the source application. It took me quite a while to get used to this, and if I’m copying two lines (i.e., not a lot) to the clipboard, I don’t see why I should have to keep the source application open to keep those two lines in the clipboard. Yes, there are programs that help you “solve” this problem, but they are separate programs, and, in my experience, they don’t work that well. In KDE, the automount configuration for external devices (USB drives, CDs, DVDs) is extremely confusing. In Gnome, you can’t choose what folder you want your screensaver slideshow to take pictures out of.

In the end, though, you adjust. I had to adjust to Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X coming from a Windows background. Likewise, I had to adjust to Linux.

Software installation can be extremely easy in Linux if you stick to centralized repositories (which contain a lot of software), but if you have peculiar needs or want the absolutely most up-to-date software (can’t be more than five months behind), you may have to compile some applications from source, which is well beyond the scope of many even intermediate users.

The way I imagine this being fixed—since a universal installer is not going to be adopted en masse out of principle or mandate—is one distro simply becoming more popular than the other ones, to the point where it is the dominant Linux distro and all software developers who want to make a Linux port would be foolish to not create a binary for that distro. Then, that becomes the de facto “universal” installer. Otherwise, we’re stuck with easy installation for repository programs and painful installation for other applications.

What’s going to make the difference, then?
Well, certainly it doesn’t hurt for distros to improve the quality of their software. Better usability is a good thing, more graphical frontends for tasks is a good thing. Good hardware detection and more applications are good things. It won’t matter, though, how easy you make the installation of Linux (and, believe me, right now it’s extremely easy if I can do it)—most users do not install operating systems.

It’s true. Most users won’t even use Windows restore CDs, let alone install Windows from scratch. Why would they install an unfamiliar operating system on their computers?

There are some small vendors who sell Linux preinstalled systems. Linux Certified. Emperor Linux. Koobox. Groovix. System76. The key to getting Linux on the desktop adopted is to support these vendors. Unfortunately, many Linux users (more than I th
ought before I did a poll of Ubuntu Forum members) prefer to build their own computers and install Linux themselves. Sure, they don’t have to pay the “Windows tax,” but they also do not send the message to small Linux vendors “Hey, you’re doing a good thing” or, in turn, to larger vendors like Dell “Hey, this Linux preinstalled thing is a profitable enterprise.”

Money talks in the computer business, just as in any other business. If the Linux desktop is seen as a profitable area for companies, companies will sell Linux desktops. If it’s seen as a big black hole because Linux users just build their own computers anyway, then Windows will continue to dominate the desktop market.

Likewise, if Linux desktop users want more support from hardware manufacturers, they should let those manufacturers know Linux users have money to spend and will spend it on their competitors if those competitors make Linux-compatible hardware (or release driver code to Linux developers). A letter to this effect might help: “I really like your product, but unfortunately it’s not compatible with my Linux system, so I went with your competitor’s similar product. I hope you will consider making your drivers available to Linux developers, as I look forward to buying your products in the future.” Show them a copy of the receipt if you think it’d make a difference.

What else can we do in the meantime?
Yes, it all sounds like a glorious plan, but of the tens of thousands of Ubuntu Forums members, I know of only two who have actually bought System76 computers. Most prefer to build their desktop computers or buy “white” laptops (i.e., laptops with no operating system installed). Some want to buy Macbooks or really cheap Dell computers.

I won’t lie to you. System76’s computers are not dirt cheap. Their pricing is competitive with some of the major Windows computers vendors out there—especially when it comes to 12″ laptops—but they are probably one of the most affordable Linux vendors out there, too!

It’s tough to pay more for a computer on principle, especially when that principle isn’t saving lives, feeding the poor, or stopping wars. You’re just trying to promote free and open source software on the desktop.

So what else can we do?

  • Provide good documentation. There are some Linux compatibility lists out there, and the more we improve them, the less mystery there will be about what to buy. You’ll be able to find out easily whether or not a printer or wireless card works with Linux or not. You’ll get a good sense of what hardware manufacturers release Linux drivers, too. There’s an online quiz at Zegenie Studios, too, that allows you to answer a few simple questions and get three or four recommendations on which Linux distros might be good ones for you to start with (as opposed to weeding through hundreds to find your perfect match). A common misconception in Linux circles is that people don’t like choice. They like choice—they just want to make informed choices. A big list of cryptic-sounding names isn’t choice; it’s confusion. But a list of choices with reviews and detailed descriptions will make people feel empowered. I don’t want one pizza, one car, one movie, or one book. Why would I want one desktop, one operating system, one application? It was ultimately documentation—not software—that got me into Ubuntu, so do not underestimate the value of a good tutorial.
  • Be Welcoming to New Users. I’ve read horror stories of old Linux users yelling at new users to RTFM (or “read the fucking manual”) instead of actually helping. Part of what will make desktop Linux more accessible to new users is an atmosphere that encourages new users to ask questions and not fear being ridiculed or scolded instead of helped. The Ubuntu Forums offered this, and I think there are other Linux distros displaying similar attitudes on their forums.
  • Contribute. Some new Linux users who get frustrated feel that they are somehow making Linux better by whining about how it’s “not ready for the desktop” or “needs” to improve certain features. Well, signing up for a forum account and posting a message to other users doesn’t make Linux any better. You can file bug reports (that the actual developers read and respond to), you can contribute code yourself if you’re a programmer, you can donate money if you have some to spare, but whining really doesn’t improve Linux one bit.
  • Educate and Be Honest. Recognize that Linux is not a cure-all and is not for everyone. Everyone should have a choice, and there are some times when you have to tell people a Linux distro may not be the best choice for them at this time. There are other times when you have to tell people it’s worth a shot. Anyone who, like me, checks email, surfs the web, types documents, listens to music, organizes and manipulates pictures, and designs some websites (albeit poorly… but that’s my fault, not Linux’s) will be fine with Linux. If you love Lexmark printers, AutoCAD, Adobe Creative Suite, and Flash MX Studio, Linux may not be the best option for you right now. Don’t be a crazy evangelist. I was at first, and I think I permanently turned a friend off from Linux. Just remember—one bad experience will leave a lasting first impression. Enjoy it. If people see you having fun with your computer, they may get curious—”Why are you having so much fun with that thing?” On Windows, I can get work done. On Linux, I can get work done, too… and have fun while doing it.

What else is happening?
We users aren’t alone in promoting desktop Linux. Companies like Red Hat and Novell are promoting enterprise Linux for businesses. Linspire has targeted schools for some testing of Linux in the classroom. Recently, South Korea decided to create a “Linux city” dedicated to using open source software, and Taiwan declared that government computers had to be Linux compatible. Meanwhile, MIT is working on the OLPC project (One Laptop Per Child)—getting a $100 Linux laptop out to developing countries.

My guess is that there will be no “year of the Linux desktop.” This is a myth, wherein one year troves of Windows users who had previously never even heard of Linux will suddenly realize that all usability and compatibility problems have been solved by X distro, and they will begin installing it over their Windows systems. It’s not going to happen.

The other myth is that once Microsoft stops offering support for an older version of Windows, those Windows users in large numbers will install Linux instead of upgrading to the newest version of Windows. The truth is that most Windows 98 users will either stay with 98 without the security updates, will buy or pirate a copy of Windows XP and install that, or just buy a new computer with the newest version of Windows preinstalled. There wasn’t a flood of new Linux users when Microsoft stopped support for Windows 95. I don’t see why there would be a flood now.

There are only a handful of scenarios that I can realistically see making a particular year the “year of the Linux desktop”:

  • People show Dell that Linux laptops are profitable and Dell begins displaying them prominently on its website. “Ordinar
    y” people then start buying Linux desktops. It would really help, too, if around that time a virus hit Windows home users like never before.

  • Schools making deals with Linspire actually have a “success story” and spread the word to other schools that it cost them less in the long run and their students learned a lot. As the song goes, “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way…”
  • More governments force their employees to use Linux workstations. What you use at work is what you use at home—that’s what usually happens. This may happen in Asia and Europe a lot faster than in North America, of course.
  • The OLPC project fails for its intended purpose (helping developing countries’ children) but leaves a surplus of super-cheap computers for the affluent, who then buy it just to try it out (“What’s the harm? It’s so cheap!”), and you suddenly have a ton of new Linux users.

Why does it matter?
Of course, there are always the old guard Linux users who do not care. Why they would have gotten thus far in my treatise is beyond me. If you don’t care, go about your business. Don’t read this.

There are two (sometimes related) schools of thought in the I-don’t-care Linux desktop camp.

The first camp feels that desktop Linux is fine as it is and will slowly evolve into becoming more popular (the way that it already is). There’s no need to rush it.

The second camp feels that desktop Linux is fine the way it is and likes the fact that there are fewer users because it also means there are fewer incompetent or uneducated users. There’s a sense of accomplishment and elitism in the idea that the masses should use an operating system for the masses, and the elite should use an operating system for the elite.

Naturally, I disagree with both camps. Sure, desktop Linux’s market share will grow naturally. It is already growing. But if it’s going to happen anyway, why not make it happen sooner? I certainly don’t believe that Linux is the best operating system for everyone, or even for most people. I do firmly believe, however, that more people should be using it than even know it exists. If a restaurant had two menus—the public menu and secret menu—you might not actually like the items on the secret menu, but unless you know the secret menu exists and are able to see what dishes are on it, how can you decide whether you like it or not? How can people properly assess if a Linux distro will meet their desktop needs if they don’t even know Linux has a desktop… or that Linux exists at all?

Linux will also improve in its third-party support if it has a larger user base. It doesn’t need to be in the majority. Even if Linux desktops make up 10% or 15% of the market, they will be a formidable enough base that Adobe, HP, Epson, et al will not be able to ignore them.

As for Linux being for the elite, that has long since passed. I may be more computer literate than your average user, but I’m no genius. I don’t know how to program. I was deathly afraid of the command-line when I installed my first Linux distro. And yet I was able to install and configure many a Linux distro. If I can do it, there’s nothing to be elitist about for using Linux on the desktop. It can be a challenge, but even the installation and configuration processes are becoming accessible to the point-and-click ex-Windows power user crowd.

More Links:


KDE vs. Gnome

Note: This was originally written in September of 2005. A lot has changed since then. For example, you don’t need to install SMEG to edit the Gnome applications menu, and I no longer dual-boot KDE and Gnome (right now I’m using IceWM, actually). Nevertheless, you may find this a helpful read to just get a sense of the different usability approaches and priorities that Gnome and KDE have.

One of the most common questions people new to Linux ask is “Should I use KDE or Gnome?” Unfortunately, the answers are usually useless—anything from “Just try each one to see what works for you” to “Gnome is much better.” That said, selecting a desktop environment should probably be one of the last things you worry about as a Linux “newbie.” Hardware detection, email set-up, etc. are far more important to day-to-day functioning than your desktop environment. It’s sort of like just learning how to ski and worrying about the color of your skis—learn how to ski first! Also, most versions (or distributions) of Linux have a default desktop environment (for example, Blag and Ubuntu default to Gnome, and Mepis and PCLinuxOS default to KDE), so if you’re really conflicted about what to use, just use the default one that comes with your distribution. If you’re later dissatisfied with it, you can always install and use another desktop environment on the same distribution.

Okay, I won’t avoid the question, though, because some people are actually curious, so I’ll give specifics based on my experience.

Please note: these are my limited experiences just to give new users a basic idea of the differences between Gnome and KDE. I haven’t used both desktop environments on every single Linux distribution out there, and I’m not a desktop environment expert. Also, I realize that new features in both environments get implemented with every new release, and a lot of these things will be obsolete probably within a few months of my writing this.

What Gnome and KDE have in common
A lot of people say that KDE is more Windows-like, but I have no clue what this means. Sure, it has something like a Start Menu, and it has a taskbar, but so does Gnome. They both have desktops that can have icons. They both can have launchers and window lists for multi-tasking. They both have screensavers and theme options. In general, they’re essentially the same for day-to-day functioning. If I’m in Gnome, and I want to launch an application, I click on the icon to launch the application or use a keyboard shortcut to launch it—same thing in KDE, though. They both have clocks (or can have clocks) on the taskbar/panel, and they both have themeable log-in screens. The theming part is important to take note of because if someone tells you Gnome or KDE “looks” a certain way, it doesn’t matter. You can always go to KDE-look or Gnome-look and download and install a new theme to change the appearance of your windows, your icons, and your login screen. I have both my Gnome and KDE desktops looking “aqua” in a Mac style with Mac-like icons.

What KDE is better at
KDE has more graphical tools that are helpful to new users. For example, in Knoppix and Mepis, there’s a “browse as root” button that lets you browse around and make a few folder changes as root (or administrator) while still logged in as a user. This is helpful to new users who may be a little intimidated by having to type commands to make administrative changes. You can, of course, in Gnome create a launcher similar to this, but I’ve never seen a Gnome default desktop on a distro that includes this button. You can actually make the entire taskbar transparent (I’ve found in Gnome you can make only certain parts of it transparent). KDE also offers you the option to change your settings to be a certain style (Mac-style or Windows-style, for example) that will affect the way windows and keyboard shortcuts behave.

Other stuff that seems to be important to new users that’s easier in KDE: you can, via a few checkmarks in the Control Center, choose to have your other partitions (say, your Windows partition) just show up on your desktop, whether it’s “mounted” or not. You can also, through the Control Center in KDE opt to have numlock turn on every time you boot up. You have a lot more control over customizing the KMenu. Some versions of Gnome don’t even include SMEG (the menu editor for Gnome), and SMEG itself is limited in terms of which menus it can edit.

Making keyboard shortcuts is easier for new users in KDE. You just edit the KMenu and click on “shortcut,” and you can create a shortcut for that application. In Gnome, you have to go to the configuration editor > apps > metacity > Global Keybindings and Keybinding Commands and get the command number to match with the keyboard shortcut. You also, in Gnome, have to type in the keyboard shortcut (the word shift instead of just pressing the Shift key).

Some random quirky stuff seems to work better in KDE. For example, when I try to open a .php file to edit it in KDE, it opens in a text editor right away. If I try to open it in Gnome, I get some warning about how the file is executable and so is prevented from opening and that I shouldn’t open it unless it’s from a trusted source, so I have to right-click the file and select “open with” and then pick the application to open it with—not the most convenient way to have to open a file. Of course, that applies to only particular files, but it’s still annoying.

I have to say, too, that KDE generally has some better native applications (this depends, of course, on what you want to use). You can use KDE applications in Gnome, and you can use Gnome applications in KDE, but I’ve found that using applications in their non-native desktop environments sometimes leads to them not functioning correctly or taking a long time to load up. For example, when I use AmaroK in Gnome, and I drag and drop a song from the library on to the desktop, it actually moves the song there instead of making a copy of the song. This doesn’t happen when I use Rhythmbox in (its native) Gnome or AmaroK in (its native) KDE. Kolourpaint is a sophisticated paint program that’s a lot like the MS Paint program from Windows, and it’s useful for those of who don’t need all the bells and whistles of the Photoshop-like GIMP but want to tinker around a little with images. KWord can import, edit, and export PDFs, in addition to being just a generally good word processor (by the way, OpenOffice is usually the default office suite Linux distributions give you, but the KOffice or the Gnome Office suites load up a lot faster in KDE and Gnome, respectively, than OpenOffice does in either KDE or Gnome). AmaroK is one of the coolest music players in the Linux world. You can have the name of each new song pop up on the screen as you begin playing it. You find the lyrics to almost any song that’s playing. It has some good playlist capabilities as well. I have, however, found it a bit buggy sometimes in terms of refreshing the directories it scans and in terms of its responsiveness to keyboard shortcuts (to move to the next song, say), so JuK (also a native KDE application) is a good substitute—minimal functionality but strong stability. Rhythmbox in Gnome is okay, but it really doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of AmaroK, and I can’t get it to manually refresh or rescan the appropriate folders where I store my music.

What Gnome is better at
I’ve found themes much easier to install in Gnome. If I download a theme from Gnome-look, I can usually just go to the theme manager, click “Install new theme” and have the theme ready to go. The same cannot often be said for KDE themes. I’ve often had to manually copy icons or folders to random places and edit config files or do a ./configure make make install on the folder after un-tarring the .tar.gz. Sound complicated? It is.

In particular login screen themes are much easier to install in Gnome. You just go to the login screen setup and click “Add Theme” and select the .tar.gz. In KDE, you either have to compile a theme manager or un-tar the .tar.gz and put it in the appropriate theme folder and then manually edit the theme configuration file to point to that location.

Gnome is also a bit faster. Sure, I’ve encountered a few KDE distributions that are super-fast out-of-the-box (PCLinuxOS and Kubuntu, for example), but once I tweak them and install all the software I want and change up the themes and load in the icons I want, KDE inevitably becomes sluggish. When I click on an icon, it can take up to around 10 seconds for the application to launch.

Gnome is also more stable. Sure, I’ve had the occasional freeze-up in Gnome, but it’s usually because of something I did wrong, and it almost never freezes up the entire screen—maybe just one program. I won’t say it happens frequently in KDE, but I’ve had at least twenty freeze-ups in KDE in the past five months, and they’re not recoverable. Control-alt-escape doesn’t help, and the mouse won’t even move. The keyboard shortcuts won’t respond. A freeze-up in KDE is a disaster worse than the blue screen of death in Windows ME. I also have had a lot more random errors and application crashes in KDE. Sometimes I’ll try to click on an application icon to launch it and it’ll look as if the application is going to launch but it doesn’t. I click on the icon again and it does launch. Weird. Sometimes I’ve encountered situations where I enter my password to do something that needs root privileges (use Synaptic, for instace), and the dialogue box will disappear and the application won’t start. I don’t want to scare people. This has just been my experience with KDE, and these issues, although recurring, don’t pop up very often. My point is simply that they almost never happen in Gnome or haven’t for me.

In Gnome, when you choose to rename a file, only the actual name of the file gets highlighted for editing. In KDE, the entire name, including the extension gets highlighted for editing. I prefer usually to rename only the file, not the extension—though, you can always highlight the extension in Gnome, too, should you choose to do so; it just doesn’t happen automatically.

Also, when you modify an image, the thumbnail gets refreshed the moment you save the file. This doesn’t happen in KDE, which will often use the obsolete thumbnail even after the image gets modified and saved.

One last random thing that Gnome has over KDE—though, this may be specific to my keyboard—is that it recognizes the multi-media keys on my keyboard (it’s the keyboard that came with my eMachines computer). It doesn’t recognize their functionality right away, but Gnome can at least be programmed to use those keys. KDE doesn’t even recognize those keys exist (and the eMachines keyboard is not in the list of keyboard layouts in the Control Center). Of course, KDE recognizes the Windows key as an actual auxiliary key (like shift or control), so that it can be used in conjunction with other keys for keyboard shortcuts (e.g., win + e), whereas Gnome thinks the Windows key is just a key by itself, so tha
t it can be assigned as only one shortcut (e.g. win).

Final Verdict
I wish I had one. Honestly, at this point, I’m torn. I currently triple-boot Ubuntu Breezy (Gnome), Kubuntu Breezy (KDE), and Windows XP. I would say overall that I find KDE a more pleasant experience when it’s working and Gnome a more pleasant experience in general. Of course, you’re not limited to these two, either. You can use XFCE, too, or any number of window managers (Fluxbox, Blackbox, IceWM, etc.). For a complete list of window managers, you can go here. If you want to see what Gnome looks like, try this Google search. Use this Google search to see what KDE looks like.

P.S. Some people ask me why I have separate boots for KDE and Gnome. Theoretically you can have both desktop environments on one installation, but I’ve found that that clutters things up and sometimes (rarely) makes things malfunction. I just like my installations clean.


Linux Doesn’t Need a Unified Distro

Every now and then, someone on a Linux forum will suggest that—in order to make inroads into the desktop market—Linux should make a unified distribution. While that may, in fact, be one model for success in the desktop market, it’s also a pointless suggestion for several reasons:

  1. The current model is just as likely to be successful as a “unified distro” model
  2. A unified distro simply won’t happen
  3. Linux standards are already in the works (and posting about them in a forum doesn’t make them get adopted any more quickly)
  4. Not every Linux distribution aims to “conquer” the desktop market

The irony is that a lot of times when this suggestion is made, the person making the suggestion objects to the high number of distros out there and then wants to create a new “unified” distro. If X number of distros is too many, why would you want X+1 distros?

There’s an implicit assumption in the suggestion that Linux lacks direction and that all of the developers developing these different distributions are, in fact, wasting manpower. However, because Linux and most of the projects associated with the kernel are open source, energy spent developing one distro or parts of one distro often comes back to help the rest of the community. For example, Ubuntu bases itself on the unstable branch of Debian, but Ubuntu developers give back to the Debian community the improvements they make. Linspire, though reviled by many in the Linux community, actually makes a lot of its apps open source and sponsors many open source projects.

The other side of open source is doing whatever interests you, not some company. This is why a “unified” distro will never happen. If that “unified” distro aims at imitating Windows in order to woo Windows users, then someone (either who is working on this “unified” distro or who isn’t working on it) will say, “Hey, I don’t want to imitate Windows. I want some other desktop,” and a new distro will appear. Then, someone else will say, “I want a distro that specializes in older hardware,” and a new distro will appear. Someone else will say, “But this ‘unified’ distro doesn’t suit the needs of schools,” and a new distro is born. Then, a new one will appear for servers, for business desktops, etc. Pretty soon, even if a unified distro happened for one week, you’d end up with as many distros as you have now.

A unified distro will not last because there’s nothing tying this unified distro together (open source means anyone can fork at any time—no one company owns the Linux kernel) and because people have different interests and needs.

More importantly, as any evolutionist can tell you, diversity leads to survival and growth. Sure, Microsoft dominates the desktop market now, but the dinosaurs once ruled the earth, too. In fact, that lack of diversity is a major contributing factor in the prevalence of viruses and malware in the computing world.

And, in fact, if Linux had a unified desktop distro, that distro would bring all of desktop Linux down with it, should it fail—as much as it would bring all of desktop Linux up with it, should it succeed.

There’s a false assumption in the unified distro idea, though, that competing efforts will not lead to mass adoption. That’s like saying people will never eat pizza because there are too many kinds (deep dish, New York-style) or too many topping choices (anchovies, garlic, mushrooms) or too many sizes (small, medium, large). People like choice, as long as they know what the choices are.

That’s the real problem—people don’t know what the choices are. In fact, they get overwhelmed by the number of Linux distros because they aren’t used to having a choice and because they know next to nothing about the choices. The names of major Linux distributions just sound like gobbledygook to the unitiated (Blag, Mepis, Ubuntu, SuSE, Gentoo, Mandriva, Fedora). Perhaps two of the few descriptive Linux names out there are Damn Small Linux and Linux from Scratch—and neither of those is going to seriously take the Linux desktop up above the 10% mark.

What will help Linux succeed on the desktop are the following (not a unified distro):

  1. More publicity for Linux desktop choices. Linspire, SuSE, and Red Hat make it into the news every so often. A few commercials might help Linspire. SuSE and Red Hat target more of the corporate arena.
  2. Mainstream vendors like HP, Dell, etc. selling Linux preloaded. Presumably, HP is already planning to sell Ubuntu computers.
  3. Experienced users helping/teaching new users to install and configure Linux on their already existing computers (I heard that Linux User Groups already have installation parties that happen every so often).

As a closing note, I often hear from some purists that “Linux doesn’t need more users” or “Linux doesn’t need more market share.” As long as we’re using the word need, I agree. Linux doesn’t need anything, but Linux could certainly benefit from a greater desktop market share. It doesn’t have to dominate the desktop—no operating system should—but it could use at least 10% of the market.

If Linux were to gain a substantial amount of the desktop market, hardware vendors would be more likely to make Linux drivers or release driver code to Linux developers, and commercial software and gaming companies would be more likely to port their wares to Linux. The percentage of Linux users who dual-boot to Windows just to play computer games is staggering. Cedega can’t handle everything.

So can we please stop with the unified distro talk? It isn’t a good thing. It isn’t going to happen. And, if it did happen, it would be only momentarily until a split happened. It’s also just not needed.


Anatomy of a well-intentioned Linux Troll (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the penguin)

A troll will always be successful on a Linux forum, and I’m about to explain why. Despite numerous protests of “Don’t feed the trolls” and “The best thing to do is ignore posts like these,” people will continue to respond to trolls because trolls (like Linux distros) come in different flavors and varieties. One troll in particular seems particularly impassioned and genuine and so always gets responses:

The “If I can’t use it, nobody can” troll

I actually believe this kind of troll is well-intentioned, and that’s why people respond. This isn’t someone who’s trying to just stir up emotions or just laugh at how people respond negatively to her post. This person has genuine concerns, so people try to genuinely address those concerns.

Here’s what happens:

Someone with a lot of Windows experience—an insane amount of Windows experience—who knows a lot about programming, web developing, administering servers, DOS commands, etc. hears about Linux from some friends at work. She figures, “Hey, I’ll give this a shot. People keep talking about how great it is, and I think I even read an article in 2001 about how it’s almost ready for the desktop market. Let’s see if it is.”

She takes what’s touted as a “user-friendly” distro—say, Ubuntu. Ubuntu doesn’t recognize her screen resolution. She’s used to being able to download a driver to fix that. She can’t find the driver. She wants to install some software. So, she does what she usually does in Windows—finds a program on the web, downloads it, and tries to install it. Instead of a wizard, she gets a README file that tells her to type ./configure, make, and make install. Just about everything she tries to do she can’t do because she tries to do it the Windows way. She also notes a lack of GUI for several things she’s used to having (but that most regular users never need—say, finding the IP address of the computer). After a while, she throws up her hands in frustration. “I’m a programmer, for God’s sakes. If I can’t figure out Linux, how’s an ordinary user [“Joe Sixpack,” Grandma, etc.] supposed to figure this out? I’d better tell all these Linux people to stop telling people it’s ready for the desktop.”

So she signs up for a forum and does just that, not realizing this has been done many, many times before. She’s well-intentioned. She wants to help people. What happens? Instead of “Wow! You’re the first person to tell us that. We couldn’t imagine a long-time Windows user having difficulty with Linux. Well, surely we must go into hiding and develop some more before we can release any Linux distribution to the general public,” Linux users rightly get upset. “You’re doing it the Windows way.” This troll doesn’t understand what Linux users are talking about. “The Windows way? The Windows way is the easy way. After all, I haven’t had any trouble with it.” What she doesn’t realize is how long it’s taken her to learn the Windows way and that now, like a second language, Linux seems hard not because it is hard but because it’s different.

Her assumptions are also flawed. Her logic runs like this

IF var=computing experience, THEN I > the masses IF var=Linux, THEN I have trouble THUS, IF var=Linux, the masses have even more trouble

Using a new operating system, however, is a lot like learning a new language—the syntax is different, the vocabulary is different, even the culture is different. But a linguistic expert in English may have more trouble learning Chinese than the expert’s four-year-old daughter (who clearly knows less about language than her mother does). Just ask children of immigrants how often they have to translate for their parents. Likewise, someone who is so ingrained with the Windows ways of doing things will have trouble with Linux. Most regular users (not programmers) won’t have to ./configure, make, make install and find dependencies. They’ll click a few things in Synaptic Package Manager, and all their programs will download and install along with their dependencies. “Regular” users, who know very little about computers, have less to unlearn. They may be accustomed to certain Windows ways of doing things, but ultimately, they’re used to just seeing an icon and clicking on it.

Well-intentioned trolls also operate under the assumption that Linux is supposed to work for everyone. It’s not. Nor is Windows. Nor is OS X. Contrary to what some companies would have you believe, no OS is for everyone. Now, for some Linux purists, that means not for the weak-hearted. These are the Read the F’in Manual people. They’ve been with Linux a long time and don’t believe that Linux should cater to new users. If new users like Linux, fine. If they don’t, they should bugger off. Others, like me, believe that at least some distros should cater to new users (and many do, actually), but that doesn’t mean Linux is for everyone. It’s for those with an open mind and certain computing habits. For example, if you use Windows-only software, are a big fan of every commercial computer game that comes out, and have a winmodem, Linux isn’t for you. If, however, like the majority of computer users, you do what I call the “basic six,” you’ll be happy with Linux:

1. Check email/instant message
2. Surf the internet
3. Organize pictures
4. Listen to music
5. Word process
6. Play silly games (Solitaire, Tetris)

The last bad assumption these trolls have is that Linux distros are Linux. They try one distro and assume that all distros must be like that. Then, they start making “suggestions” for how Linux “must” improve in order to woo Windows users, not knowing that many of those “problems” have already been fixed. I’ve seen these trolls complain that there are too many programs installed for any given task (solution: Ubuntu—one program for each task) or that the boot-up is verbose instead of silent (solution: Mepis, Mandriva, just about any user-friendly distro) or that themes are difficult to install (solution: Gnome) or that there needs to be a Windows clone distro (solution: Linspire). The amazing thing about Linux is how much variety there is. You can choose a lightweight distro or heavyweight one. You can choose a do-it-yourself or an automatic. You can choose KDE, Gnome, Fluxbox, IceWM, XFCE. You can’t make judgments about “Linux needs to do this or Linux needs to do that” until you’ve tried several major distros. And by “try,” I don’t mean pop the CD in, tinker for a few minutes, and give up.

And we’re tired of all the “it should be easy to install like Windows is” arguments. Windows isn’t easy to install. And most users don’t ever install Windows. Period. It doesn’t matter how easy Linux gets to install and configure—people aren’t going to adopt it en masse until companies start buying more Linux computers for their employees to use, schools start getting more Linux computers for their students, and companies like Dell start preloading computers with Linux.

Many regard Mac OS X as the most user-friendly operating system around. Well, for a long-time Windows user (me), it was quite difficult to use OS X at first. I had to get used to a whole new set of keyboard shortcuts (Cmd-tab instead of control-tab, Cmd-comma for preferences, etc.). I didn’t know how to install software by dragging things from some white disk-looking thing to the Applications folder. I was used to wizards. I didn’t know I needed third-party software to turn off the bootup noise. I didn’t understand why clicking the + sign on a window didn’t maximize it. I didn’t understand why minimized Windows wouldn’t maximize when I Cmd-tabbed to them. The list goes on and on. I was a frustrated user. I sucked it up, though, and now both my wife and I are proficient in daily Mac OS X tasks. Same for Linux. I sucked it up. Now, I’ve embraced Synaptic Package Manager, and I can’t stand wizards any more. That’s twenty years of Microsoft and four months of Linux talking.

By the way, I am not a programmer. I’m not a sys admin, a web admin. I’m not a graphic designer, a game designer, or any kind of engineer. I’m ju
st an ex-English teacher who gave Linux an honest-to-goodness shot, and I’m a total convert now. I’m not anti-Microsoft. I’m not anti-Apple. I’m just pro-Linux and tired of hearing all the same “suggestions” over and over again.

The well-intentioned trolls should save themselves some typing. It’s all been done before. And I hope the next time we get one of those trolls, that you just link them to this post. I know I will. I’m tired of typing these rebuttals over and over again.
If you really want to do some good, instead of whining on some Linux forums, do one of the following:

1. Put some of those programming skills to good use and help develop Linux
2. File a bug report at the appropriate distro/software website
3. Donate some money to help Linux developers

Other than that, no one’s resting on her laurels. Linux distros are constantly being updated and improved, and new Linux users are popping up every day. Linux isn’t for everybody’s desktop, but it’s ready for many people’s desktops.

Linux Windows

Software Installation: Windows or Linux?

This document is in response to two things I’ve seen on Linux forums:

  1. People asking for Synaptic Package Manager tutorials
  2. People insisting that installing software on Linux is difficult

Before I continue, I should say that I’ve been using Windows since 3.1 (and DOS before that). I’m a big Windows fan. I am, however, a big Linux fan as well, and I think it should be presented as a viable alternative for those who are interested. I don’t appreciate people trying to scare off potential Linux users with lies about how difficult it is to install software on Linux.

Disclaimer: Not all software
I believe (as I’ll show in the step-by-step comparison below) that for most software, Linux can actually be easier to install software in. However, there are exceptions; for example, even though repositories house literally tens of thousands of software packages—and you can always enable extra repositories—there are just some programs you’ll have to install from source in Linux. In Windows, you will always have a graphical installer, whether you download a .exe or use an installer disk. I’m using the example of installing 3D software because it’s obscure enough that people won’t say, “Oh, of course 3D software would be in the repositories,” but it’s not obscure enough that it actually wouldn’t be in the repositories.

Disclaimer: Not all package managers
From what I’ve read from others, I believe Fedora’s Yum, SuSE’s YaST, and Mandriva’s urpmi package managing systems are similar to Debian-based distros’ Synaptic Package Manager, but I can’t vouch for the same simplicity in other distros. You can use Synaptic Package Manager in any Debian-based distro (Mepis, Ubuntu, Xandros, etc.).

Okay. Let’s get started.

The Debian-based Linux install

First, we open up Synaptic Package Manager.

Then, we’ll be prompted for a root (administrator) password, because we don’t want software accidentally being installed on the system.

The repository information needs to be reloaded so that we know we’re getting the most up-to-date software that’s available.

Wait for the information to be updated.

Then we do a search. I prefer control-F (for Find), but you can also just click on the Search button.

The great thing about searching for software in Synaptic is that all of the results are software, and the results also have descriptions. So I scroll down to the best-looking program, Blender, and I mark it for installation. I would like to reiterate that tens of thousands of programs are available through repositories. It should be mentioned also, though, that if I weren’t able to find something in the repositories, this “easy” install wouldn’t be so easy.

Synaptic Package Manager also resolves all dependencies, so you don’t have to worry about the mythical “dependency hell” people keep talking about.

Once we OK this, Blender will be “marked for installation.” Part of the beauty of Synaptic Package Manager is its resemblance to the “shopping cart” of e-commerce (think Amazon). You can queue up a bunch of different programs, marking them all for installation. They’ll later be downloaded and installed all at once. You don’t have to repeat this entire process for every program you want. You have to “check out” only once.

Once we have queued up all the software we want (or don’t want—you can mark programs for uninstall, too), we apply the changes.

You’re asked one last time if you really want to carry out the changes. Right now the changes are hidden, but you can click on the arrows to see what exactly will be changed.

First all of your software will be downloaded.

Then, it will be installed.

Now, the program is available for you to use. In all fairness, there have been some times where Synaptic doesn’t pop things into the menu right away, but most of the time it does.

The Windows Install

First, we find the software by going online. I prefer Firefox, but you can use Internet Explorer or Opera as well.

Then, we have to search for what we want. Depending on how good you are at searching on the internet, this step could be extremely easy or extremely difficult.

As it turns out, the search for “3d software” wasn’t too difficult.

So we go to the Blender homepage. Now that I’m looking at the page again, I see that there’s a direct link to download Blender.

When I first got to the page, though, I chose to go to “Download.” Blender has the advantage of having downloads easy-to-find. Some pages really make you poke around in order to find the latest version.

I find the version I’m looking for.

I save the installer to my desktop.

The installer downloads.

Then, I find the installer on my desktop and double-click it.

Up comes the install wizard.

Then, I’m led to the next screen, the terms and conditions.

Some Windows crazies might say I’m being unfair to Windows installers because I have two screenshots for “one” step, but I’d argue that you can’t (or shouldn’t) just click “next” here, because you’re an idiot if you don’t read user agreements for free Windows programs (how do you know you’re not installing spyware?), and, honestly, some programs won’t let you click “next” unless you do read the entire agreement, or at least scroll to the bottom of it.

Click next.

Click next.

Click next.

Now Blender installs.

Now, we’re finished with the wizard. Some Windows installers might have you reboot. Luckily, Blender doesn’t.

I like to delete installer files so they don’t clutter up my desktop. In Synaptic, you can choose as a preference for installer files to be deleted after installation, but even if you don’t, they won’t show up in your regular file folders or desktop. Of course, you could argue that if I didn’t want the Windows installer cluttering up my desktop, I shouldn’t have saved it to the desktop in the first place, but I still would have had to find it after downloading it—the desktop is a convenient place to save installers you have to double-click on.

Then, Blender is ready to use.

As you can see, installing software in Linux is easy—some would argue even easier than installing software in Windows.


Picking a Linux Distro

Which distro is right for me?
Which distro should I use?
What version of Linux is the best for beginners?
How do I choose a distribution?

I frequent Linux forums to offer and receive support, and these questions are asked almost every day by someone new to Linux. I asked it myself when I began. Before I make recommendations, I should start off by saying that I have tried 12+ distributions. I should also say, though, that some of the distributions I didn’t stay very long with or get to know well, and there are some major ones I haven’t even dared try (Gentoo, Slackware, Linux from Scratch, for example).

This isn’t intended to be a complete list, and it’s not intended to be unbiased. It’s intended to give people new to Linux a starting point. I’m prejudiced in favor of Debian-based distributions, but I also think that even if you don’t end up with a Debian-based distro, there should be at least one Debian-based Linux that will suit your beginner needs. Once you get more comfortable with Linux, you can always try out others. To be fair, I’m also going to post links to more comprehensive lists of distributions, in case Debian-based distros don’t suit your needs.

The format will be distribution name, then a description of whom the distro is ideal for.

You love Windows. You’re used to Windows. You want to do almost everything the Windows way. You want software installation to be click-n-run. You want excellent hardware detection and no command-line. And… you don’t mind paying a little money. Note: Linspire (as of 5.0) has you run as root (administrator), just as Windows does. If you want better security, you should create a user and run as user, not root. Oh, and your computer has at least 256 MB of RAM (preferably 512 MB).

You don’t love Windows, but you’re used to Windows. You want to be able to try out Linux before installing it. You don’t mind ugly logos (at least until you change them). You want things point-and-click, but you don’t mind dipping into the DOS-like command-line every now and then if you have to. You want a distro with very little support but that, frankly, usually does not need much support. You want a free distro but don’t mind the prospect of possibly having to pay for it in the future. Oh, and your computer has at least 256 MB of RAM (preferably 512 MB), same as Linspire.

You’re moving away from Windows, you could do without Windows and “the Windows way” of doing things. You want something completely free—so free that you don’t even want to pay for shipping and handling to have these free CDs mailed to you. You also don’t mind it being so “free” that it doesn’t include multimedia codecs—you’ll have to install those codecs yourself. You want something basically user-friendly, but you’re not afraid of using the command-line, as long as you’re given specific instructions on what to type there. You’ve got a decently modern computer (256 MB of RAM is preferable, of course).

You’re ready to dive right in to Linux, and you don’t care about “user-friendly.” You want stable, fully-customized, and fully free. No, they won’t ship you free CDs like Ubuntu, but you get to build the system exactly how you want it. Oh, and you love using the command-line. Any RAM will do, as long as you build the right system for it.

Damn Small Linux
You either have a very slow, old computer (less than 300 MHz processor, less than 128 MB RAM) or you want to have a Linux distribution that you can carry around on a USB stick (the entire distribution is 50 MB—about the same size as ten MP3s). You’ll do whatever you can to make it work.

And that’s it. As I said before, these are good starter distros based on the aforementioned user profiles. If Debian-based distros don’t do it for you, you can always move on later to Fedora-based ones or use SuSE or Slackware or Vector Linux. The whole point, though, is not to confuse new users with too many options—the above five should suit any beginner’s needs.

Why Debian?
Well, first of all, that’s what I know the most about. Secondly, there are several prominent Debian-based distros that meet just about every beginner user need (listed above), but there is not, for example, a Red Hat-based version of Linspire. Nor is there a Mandriva-like version of Damn Small Linux. Lastly, the package management/software installation is so easy. You either, using Synaptic Package Manager, search for a package, double-click it, and hit “Apply” or just type su apt-get install packagename, and the package is downloaded and installed (and so are all dependencies).

Need More?
Linux Distro Chooser
Choosing a Distro: A Newbies Guide
Beginner’s Guide to Linux Distros


My Linux Switch Story

I still remember my family’s very first computer. It was an NEC that had floppy disks that were about 8″ long and 8″ wide. It was entirely text-only and monochromatic. The only thing I used it for as a kid was playing a text-only game called “Millionaire,” in which you could buy and sell fake stocks and eventually become a millionaire or become bankrupt.

Shortly after that, we got an IBM. Every family computer after that has always been a my-dad-put-it-together home-made one, as far as I can tell. DOS was the first “operating system” I can remember. I still remember all the cd/ and dir commands and constantly looking for .exe and .com files. Eventually, we got a word processor of sorts called T3. It ran from DOS but was still not point-and-click. It used F-keys (F1, F2, F3, etc.).

At one point, we actually got Windows 3.1, but even that was launched from DOS. I don’t remember that being entirely user-friendly either. In those days (the mid-eighties), Mac was all the rage. Sure, it had the black bomb when it crashed, but it had a little Apple icon and was point-and-click all the way. Mac had mice, and that was always fun for little kids.

I really don’t remember Windows 95 coming out. I just remember using it. All throughout the late 90s I used a Macintosh Classic SE (which I’d inherited from my brother) to type my college papers while using Windows 95 on school computers to surf the internet and check email. Even though we randomly had that Mac Classic SE, our family had always been a Windows family. I grew up believing, as many Windows users do that Windows is practical, while Mac is just eye-candy. I also had no idea there were alternatives to Windows and Mac.

My family kept using Windows. It was 3.1. Then, it was 95. Then, it was 98. Then, it was ME. Then, it was 2000. Even when my wife and I first moved out to California, we looked for the cheapest computer we could find, and it was a Windows ME computer (Windows ME, by the way, is probably the worst operating system in the history of computing—crash city!). Windows was in no way a choice because… well, Macs were expensive, and I didn’t know other operating systems existed. Plus, to be perfectly frank, before OS X, Mac was almost unusable crap. I discovered this quickly because my first job after the move required me to use an iBook that was loaded with OS 9. No Expose. No Dock. All that hiding and unhiding of applications drove me crazy. That wasn’t multi-tasking. So, when my school gave me a Dell, finally, instead of the iBook, I was extremely grateful. Windows XP was a wonderful thing. In fact, my wife and I even got ourselves a Windows XP Dell notebook for home use (our Windows ME desktop was horrible and had even worse usability than OS 9).

My first recollection of Linux was seeing a huge Linux Bible in my dad’s study. My dad is a computer fanatic. He likes to build his own. He taught himself assembly language. He likes tough, thick reference books on computers. He doesn’t buy “…for dummies” books or “idiot’s guide” books. I saw that Linux Bible and was a bit curious, but I didn’t say anything. I do remember seeing one time my dad typing something into a gray terminal and then seeing an application launch. When I asked him what that was, he said it was Linux. The turn-of-the-millenium me had vague memories of once using DOS for things, so when I looked at the gray terminal, I just thought, “How primitive. Linux uses the command-line?”

The first time I considered using Linux was last June. Probably because of Kazaa or some other “freeware” program, we unknowingly had downloaded all sorts of spyware and adware onto our laptop computer (the XP one). At the time, we’d never even heard of spyware or adware. Something was clearly wrong with our computer, though. Our homepage would sometimes magically change to something other than Google. Even when Internet Explorer was closed (only later did I realize you can’t really “close” Internet Explorer—just its windows), pop-ups would flood our computer. In our C:\Program Files folder, random programs would be there that we clearly did not choose to install, and when I tried to delete the folders, they’d simply reappear. I tried using Spybot Search and Destroy and Ad-Aware. I even tried manually editing the registry, but nothing short of a clean install of Windows would fix things.

I don’t know where I got the idea to try Linux, but I probably had read somewhere that Linux is more secure than Windows or doesn’t have malware (maybe I read this when trying to research how to get rid of spyware and adware). It took me quite a while to find a fully-functional distro that was a one-CD installer. I wanted a Red Hat-based distro, because I could find Red Hat books in the library. So I eventually ended up with Blag. I tried setting up a dual-boot using advice from the internet and from books, but I couldn’t get it to work, so I just had Blag completely overwrite my hard drive.

At first, Blag seemed amazing to me. It had all these applications with it—DVD ripping software, CD writing software, FTP client, games, office suite, etc. I was overwhelmed. I did have a bit of a problem with screen resolution. I found that frustrating. The only resolution available for choosing was 480 x 600 or something like that. The native resolution was supposed to be 1024 x 768. I had to find a patch that I downloaded. That was a godsend. I soon realized, though, that I didn’t know how to install software. When I downloaded software, I tried to follow the instructions to un-tar .tar.gz zip files and ./configure and all that. I very quickly ran into dependency hell. Even after resolving dependencies, I noticed that icons did not appear in my little Red Hat start menu for newly installed programs. That did it for me—Linux was “too hard.” I quit. (Note: unlike some people, I just quit and did something else—I did not sign up for a Linux forum and declare that “Linux is not ready for the desktop” and that it needs to be more like Windows, as if I were making some kind of groundbreaking discovery.)

So I reinstalled Windows. When we bought our Dell laptop, Dell sent us three CDs—Windows XP, drivers and utilities, and InterVideo WinDVD. At the time that I reinstalled Windows, I could find only the XP CD. I couldn’t get the screen resolution to work or the sound to work. I couldn’t play DVDs because I didn’t have the codecs to play them. I tried using MPlayer instead of InterVideo WinDVD, but it wasn’t very stable. Installing Windows was even more difficult than installing Blag. So I scoured frantically for those two extra CDs. Eventually I found them, and I was a happy Windows user again.

I couldn’t let malware infect my computer again, though. I remembered reading in Liz Castro’s HTML book about a browser called Opera, so I tried that out for a while and liked it, but it did not function on many websites that required Internet Explorer, so I looked at some other browsers. There was one I discovered called Firefox. I was blown away. The IEView extension took care of the non-W3C-compliant websites, and the tabs and easily configurable security settings were great. Suddenly, I became a security expert for Windows. I tweaked all of my IE settings to the most secure settings, allowing only Windows update and a few other trusted websites to work with it. I turned off almost all cookies. I read emails in text only. Any “free” software I downloaded I read the terms and conditions of very carefully, no matter how many pages they were.

I still do these things for my work computer, which is XP. And when we finally got an XP desktop, I did the same thing there as well. For my wife’s schooling (she’s going for some post-graduate studies), she had to get a Powerb
ook, so suddenly we were immersed in the world of OS X. Both my wife and I were long-time Windows users, so there was a lot we had to get used to. We still often close windows, forgetting to actually quit the application. We had to figure out that third-party software was necessary to turn off the annoying boot-up sound. Little things like that. Still, OS X has been a fairly positive experience.

We did learn from OS X that there’s a lot to be said for eye-candy. If you have to be staring at a screen for hours, it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for that screen to look nice. It’s kind of like what my old youth pastor said about looks and spouses. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it went something like this, “Sure, looks shouldn’t matter, but you should also keep in mind that whatever face your spouse has—that’s the face you’re going to have to wake up to every morning for the rest of your life.” By that logic every time I turn on my computer, perhaps I may not want to look at those ugly-ass Windows icons.

So ultimately, it wasn’t security but rather cosmetics that turned me back to Linux again. So, I tried to get Windows to look better. After a while, the Luna theme wasn’t enough. I tried to click on the “add more themes” (or whatever the link is called) button from the system properties menu, but that just took me to some stupid Microsoft page where they wanted me to buy some Themes Plus thing. I did a bit more research and found something called Windowblinds. It was actually a great program, but it was not free. The trial version had nagware—constant reminders to buy the product (much like Quicktime’s reminders to buy Quicktime Pro). Also, the icons and themes did not look very good—most were not scalable vector graphics; they were pixelated and ugly.

Back to Linux I went. Had it improved since my first try? Well, first of all, I found a lot more single-CD distros (now that I know more about Linux, I wonder why I was unable to find these before—they were certainly around in June, 2004). I downloaded Knoppix and was blown away. It mounted my hard drives and put them on the desktop. It looked slick. It seemed fast for something run completely off RAM and the CD, not affecting my hard drive. It could not, however, save settings easily (because it was a live CD). So, I downloaded some other CDs—SuSE, PCLinuxOS, Lycoris, Xandros, etc. Nothing really seemed to work for me. There was always something I couldn’t figure out. I wanted to read more books about Linux, so I reserved a bunch of books at the library. One of them was called Point-and-Click Linux.

The book wasn’t that interesting. It spent a lot of time explaining stupid things like how to create a Word document using OpenOffice. However, it explained the partitioning and dual-boot process well, and that encouraged me to give this “point-and-click Linux” (called SimplyMEPIS) a try. SimplyMEPIS is Knoppix-based, so I was again wowed. The installation process was so easy. The only thing I didn’t like about SimplyMEPIS was its lame hotplugging. Pretty soon after I installed it, though, the new 3.3.1 came out, and the hotplug ability for that version was flawless—every USB device I plugged in automatically showed up on the desktop. Linux had arrived.

And downloading software was suddenly much easier. I didn’t untar anything. I didn’t ./configure anything. I simply went to Synaptic Package Manager, searched for packages, marked them for installation, and clicked “Apply,” and they were installed and in the KMenu. I could get some beautiful windows decorations, splash screens, boot splash screens, icons, wallpapers. Linux was alive.

Pretty soon afterwards, I encouraged a friend of ours to install Linux on her computer, which was actually our old Windows ME computer. I ran into quite a few problems this time. First of all, her printer was a rare brand that was hard to find even Windows drivers for. Secondly, she used Hotmail—and Hotmail and Thunderbird don’t mix well. Eventually, even though Mepis was slightly faster on her 128 MB RAM computer, she preferred Windows and switched back. I then realized Linux isn’t for everyone. You have to come to it yourself. If you’re willing to learn how to use it, though, it’s a lot of fun.

For a while, I was a big proponent of Mepis. I haunted the Mepis forums, and when people asked why they should try Mepis, I’d go off on a point-and-click spiel. Even now, I recommend Mepis to people who want an all point-and-click environment. Enabling extra repositories can be done point-and-click. Mepis has a graphical user interface (GUI) for partitioning, and it automatically puts partitions on the desktop. Mepis is both a live CD and an installer CD.

But Mepis is sluggish. It’s over-bloated with a lot of applications, and it uses KDE, one of the slowest desktop environments out there. Soon, I tried Ubuntu. At first I found it frustrating. Nothing loaded on the desktop. The screen resolution was off. The Ubuntu community is supportive and responsive, though. Pretty soon I found the Ubuntu Guide and that solved all my problems. I even gave the new Blag a spin, and I found it’d vastly improved over the course of one year.

If you use Linux, you’ll probably find a distro that suit your needs. You have to have an open mind about it, though. Linux, like Mac, is not Windows. I’m not a computer expert. I’m not a programmer. I was an English major. And I’m a long-time Windows user—we’re talking decades here. I simply am not dumb, and I’m willing to try new things. If you have that attitude, Linux can do wonders for you, too.