Linux Ubuntu Windows

Linux can be Windows sometimes, can’t it?

Quite frequently on the Ubuntu Forums, someone will make a suggestion that Ubuntu (and/or Linux distros in general) adopt a feature or approach that Windows has to handling a task. Inevitably, someone else will counter that Linux is not Windows and then link to the appropriately titled article “Linux is not Windows.”

The problem is that logically (and I believe the author of the article in question would agree) it doesn’t make sense to say that just because Linux is not Windows that Linux should never under any circumstance adopt features or approaches that Windows has to user interfaces. After all, desktop Linux already does share some features in common with Windows:

  • Alt-Tabbing to switch between windows, bringing minimized windows to the front.
  • Allowing maximizing of windows.
  • Generally closing applications once the last window of the application is closed.
  • Having Alt-F4 be the shortcut to closing a window.
  • Having a menu like the Start menu that allows you to access programs and documents.

The list could go on and on, but these are all features and approaches to user interfaces that Windows and Linux distros have in common that Mac OS X does not. It’s not a question of originality. I don’t really care if Windows copied *nix systems or vice versa. The point is that the two sets of operating systems can and do have some things in common.

To be sensible human beings (and not fanatics), we have to avoid two extremes. I’ll be the first to tell people that Ubuntu (and/or Linux at large) should not be a Windows clone. But we should not make Linux in every respect the antithesis of Windows either, nor can we. The best approach to creating a usable operating system is the adoption of the best of several approaches. If Windows does something right, then Ubuntu should have no problem adopting that approach. If Windows does something wrong, then Ubuntu should avoid adopting that approach. Ubuntu fanatics, please understand, though, that I love Ubuntu a lot, too. Yet, somehow, I’m able to recognize that Windows does some things that Ubuntu should also do. Package management in Ubuntu is a great way to install software—perhaps something Windows could learn from Ubuntu. Previewing photos before you upload them in a web browser is a basic expectation that many desktop users have‐perhaps something Ubuntu could learn from Windows.

Linux is not Windows. We get it. We get it already. But Linux can learn from Windows occasionally, and that would not be a “free software sin.”

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Without education, it doesn’t matter which OS is “more secure”

In Linux online communities, oftentimes there are debates about which operating is the most secure—Windows or a Linux-based distribution. The debates usually go something like this:
Do I have to worry about security in Linux the way I did in Windows? No, you don’t have to. Linux is much more secure. But isn’t that just because it’s less targeted? If it were as popular as Windows, it would have just as many security problems. No, it wouldn’t. Read this article about how Linux has better security, and don’t forget that Linux servers are huge targets and still more secure than Windows servers.

And it goes on and on. The details of a secure structure, sensible (from a security standpoint) defaults, and frequent patches for exploits are all important parts of security. Ultimately, though, security debates about the structures of the OS are moot when the user does not employ good security practices. It’s a bit like people debating whether kevlar is “more secure” than chainmail armor. Well, what if the attack is through biological warfare rather than a bullet or sword? What if the person you’re trying to secure can be tricked into taking off the kevlar/chainmail? Then it doesn’t really matter which covering is more difficult to penetrate, does it?

And this is also why bringing in servers into desktop security debates doesn’t shed light on whether an increase in user base will lead to more security compromises. Servers tend to be administered by server administrators—professionals whose job it is to constantly battle and prevent online security breaches. On the home desktop (and sometimes even the business workstation), users tend to be less savvy about what to click or not click, what to install or not to install, and when it’s a good idea to type one’s password.

Yes, developers should try to strengthen the security of the OS in terms of structure and defaults. Yes, developers should create patches for newly discovered exploits (buffer overflows, for example). Nevertheless, if the Linux user base does increase to the point where desktop Linux is a significant target for malicious users, and computer users in general remain as uneducated as they are now, then all those security patches will be for naught. Users who can’t discern the difference between a spoofed webpage and a real webpage are the security exploits that can be patched only through education. Users who will give their passwords away to untrustworthy sources are security exploits. Users who will install some “cool” program (yes, in Ubuntu it could be a .deb file you double-click or an added repository) that happens to contain spyware or a rootkit are security exploits.

A larger Linux user base with no better education than computer users as a whole have now is going to be subject to the same social engineering malware attacks that the current larger user base Windows has. No developer-created patch is going to fix that hole.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

File Recovery Fun

She thought she was doing everything right. She wanted to departition her computer and reinstall Windows. So she backed up all her files to an external hard drive, deleted all the partitions and reformatted as NTFS, then reinstalled Windows. She didn’t remember she still had her backup drive still plugged in, though, when she was doing the reformatting, so she ended up deleting her backup, too—years of work and lots of music and photos. She tried using a recovery program she found and was able to get some stuff back but not all of it (most importantly, her MS Office documents).

Well, she just hosted Thanksgiving dinner for us, so I brought over my toolkit (basically a Linux Mint CD and my own external hard drive) and got to work on it while we ate and did other stuff. The recovery process is pretty low stress but extremely time-consuming. I booted up Linux Mint, plugged in her external hard drive, plugged in my external hard drive, installed photorec, ran it, picked which drive to recover (hers) and which drive to save the recovered files to (mine), and then it took over three hours to scan her entire 160 GB hard drive for files. Afterwards, I copied the recovered files back to her drive (another two hours). Finally, I copied most of her files from the external hard drive backup back to her computer (another hour).

I’m amazed at how effortless photorec is. I’m also glad that once she realized her data had been deleted that she turned off the hard drive and didn’t do anything else… otherwise, I don’t think we could have gotten those files back.

Computers Linux Windows

ReactOS could be good… much, much later

Many hopeful migrants to desktop Linux expect Linux to be a cost-free version Windows without problems. It’s with that expectation that many of these potential convertees run back to Windows at the first sign of trouble… or just culture shock. Well, there is a free version of Windows called ReactOS. It’s done in partnership with the people who do Wine (the Windows compatibility layer for Linux).

For at least a year since I first heard of the ReactOS project, I’d always wondered how viable it is as a replacement for Windows. In theory, it’s built to have full compatibility with Windows binaries. It’s basically supposed to be open source Windows.

After trying it out, though, I have to say that the warning on the website (Please bear in mind that ReactOS 0.3.3-RC is still in alpha stage, meaning it is not feature complete and is not recommended for everyday use.) is not just a disclaimer. It’s absolutely true. In fact, good luck running ReactOS for more than five minutes without it crashing on you.

The ReactOS download page has several options—an installation CD, a live CD, preloaded Qemu for Windows, and preloaded VMWare virtual machine. I went for the latter, which was only a 21 MB download. I had VMWare Player installed on Ubuntu, so I figured—why not?

Well, the bootup screen is black… looks a lot like Grub.

Then, you get some verbose loading stuff. The entire boot process, even in VMWare is fast. I didn’t time it, but it felt as if the boot time was about ten seconds.

You get a standard Windows-looking screen.

The Start menu looks a lot like Windows’ Start menu. The interface for ReactOS (again, even in VMWare) is snappy and feels like a lightweight window manager (more like Fluxbox than Gnome or KDE).

When you launch Explorer, you get the option for spatial mode and a split window.

Here it is with a split screen.

If you try to browse to the web, you have to install ActiveX first. Weird.

Ah, but if you try to actually visit a website (here I am trying to download Internet Explorer off the Microsoft website… then you get the freeze-up. Mouse cursor won’t move. You don’t even get a “blue screen of death.”

I tried booting it up again in VMWare. Trying to get to the web again gives me this wonderful screen.

So when they say it’s in the alpha stages, they’re not kidding. Stay away from ReactOS unless you’re a developer who can help. I think it’s not even ready for testing and bug reports.

If you want Windows, stick with Windows. If you want something else, then you can try Linux. Open source Windows full compatibility is far, far off.

Further Reading
Linux is not Windows
Here’s an idea – YOU make it more like Windows!

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Open Source for Non-Programmers

On a Linux forum, when you get into discussions of the benefits of open source over proprietary software, inevitably someone will say something to the effect of If you don’t like it, you can change it—that’s the beauty of open source. While that may be the beauty of open source for programmers, how does that benefit affect non-programmers?

I myself am not a programmer, so being able to modify the source code of a program is a dubious benefit for me. I do, however, enjoy several fringe benefits as a regular software user.

These are the main ways I benefit from open source:

  • Low or No Cost
    Yes, it’s true. You can legally charge money for open source software, but very few people do, and the prices can never be exhorbitant (say, $500 for an office suite), because people can easily compile the source code themselves for less than $500. The cost you pay, if you pay anything at all, is usually marginal and covers the distribution costs, the packaging, the shipping, or support. I’ve never had to pay money for any of the open source software I use, though.
  • Peace of Mind
    Free? Hm. Does it have spyware? Does it have adware? Is it a virus? Well, I’ve yet to come across an open source program that’s installed malware on my computer. I have, back in my Windows-using days, installed freeware (different from open source, by the way) that’s come with malware or at least nagware (Want to upgrade to the full edition? Your free trial is almost over!). I think this is a combination of open source program creators generally having good intentions and other open source programmers being able to examine the source code.
  • Community Support
    This is a double-edged sword, of course. Some open source projects are funded by a company, but most are developed by a worldwide community of programmers and testers, meaning that if the project is successful enough, it’ll never die just because one company decides to discontinue it. It also means no company can lock you in to the way they want to do things. If a previously excellent open source project starts going in a bad direction, you can bet there are programmers out there who are working on a fork of the project.

    Here’s where the other edge of the sword comes in, though: someone has to do it. If the project isn’t funded by a company, it’s usually volunteer or subsidized by donations. So if no one’s interested in continuing the project, the project just dies or remains stagnant.

Interested? You may have already started using some open source programs—Firefox, Audacity, FileZilla, GIMP.

If you’re not a Linux user, there are still plenty of great open source programs for you to try out:


Evolution trumps Outlook for Exchange?

I just took a new job, and my new school uses Microsoft Exchange for email, so Thunderbird is out as an option (yes, I’ve tried to read about how to use Thunderbird for Microsoft Exchange—all the instructions are too complicated or incomplete). The computer I got for work was supposedly configured to check Exchange using Outlook, but it didn’t work. I was able to check the web version of Outlook Exchange, but I couldn’t check my email using regular Microsoft Outlook. I kept being prompted for my password, being told Outlook was offline (with no opportunity for me to put it back online), and being unable to launch Outlook and fix it after the errors appeared (I’d just be kicked out of Outlook completely after all the error messages disappeared).

It’s entirely possible that the official tech support might have figured it out for me come Monday, but I spent the weekend trying to figure it out on my own… because I’m just that way. Eventually, through a lot of Google searching of error messages, trial and error, and registry editing; I managed to get Outlook and Microsoft Exchange to play nice with each other. It took me about three hours spread out over two days.

The truly odd thing, though: the Microsoft Exchange email worked perfectly with no fuss when I configured it in Evolution on Ubuntu. No error messages. No extra tweaking. It just worked. How weird is that? (By the way, part of my attempts to get an email client in Windows working with Microsoft Exchange included trying to use a Windows port of Evolution, but that didn’t work out.) I guess I just assumed that since Microsoft created Microsoft Exchange and also Microsoft Outlook that the two would be a cinch to work out with each other. I also thought that maybe Evolution (being a Free application primarily for Linux) would have a hard time working with Microsoft Exchange (a non-Free application designed to work with Windows).

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.

Linux Windows

A Linux/Windows Comparison

Someone posting on the Ubuntu Forums asked if there was an article around that honestly compared Windows with Linux in a way that’s not anti-Microsoft. Honestly, I couldn’t find one. And, as someone who has no loyalty to any operating system (truly… in our household, we have one computer that dual-boots Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux, and we have a Powerbook with OS X), I thought that article should be written, so here it is. I’m dividing up my audience into two groups—business users and home users—and hoping to not get caught up in stupid impractical debates about what’s “better” or not “better.” My hope is that I can help you find what’s most appropriate for you and/or your business.

Business Use
Now, “business” here can mean anything from a mom-and-pop store to a small corporation. It could be a school, a non-profit organization—anything that’s considered “work,” even if it’s fun work. And I’m specifically addressing desktop use, not server use. I know nothing about servers. There are two serious considerations in business when it comes to making computer choices.

First, you have to consider cost. There are a lot of studies out there (with conflicting results, believe it or not) about what the “total cost of ownership” is for the various operating systems out there. Of course, one of the flaws inherent in any of these studies (apart from possible bias because of who’s funding the study) is an assumption about resources. For example, Linux, by itself, is cheap as a set of operating systems. However, it’s usually the support you pay for—either written, phone, or in person (or all three).

If you’re a small business, and you have one person on staff who is fully proficient in Linux (and you know she can be easily replaced should she leave), then it probably makes a lot of sense in terms of cost to go with Linux. I’m not sure the extent to which this is true for Red Hat and Novell, but Ubuntu is free and has no licensing fees. You can get as many copies of Ubuntu as you want free, and you don’t have to pay for the number of computers you install it on. However, if you want Ubuntu’s official support (as opposed to your own in-house support), you have to pay for it. You can pay per year per desktop, or you can pay per incident. The cost savings of Linux go beyond the actual operating system, though. You’ll probably use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office. And, for OpenOffice and most Linux software, you don’t have to pay a licensing fee. Of course, you can also use OpenOffice on Windows, but keep in mind that you are not paying for the Windows licensing fees, either.

I’m not blanket-recommending Linux for business users, necessarily. What I’m saying is that you have to weigh what kind of support you have/want for Linux (and for which you’re going to have to pay) against the cost of the software and licenses. I’d say if you have strong technical support or meager needs (basic word processing, basic spreadsheets, email, and internet), Linux will save you a lot of money in the long run. If you have weak technical support and a lot of software needs (Windows-only software or office features that are available in only Microsoft Office), it’s probably worth paying for all those licenses to be able to stick with Windows. By the way, I’m not saying Linux is so deficient as an OS that it needs more support, but since it’s not as well-known even to some techies, more support might be needed even just to answer simple questions at first.

In addition to cost, businesses need to consider which operating system saves time. Honestly, I can’t say that in general either operating system is more efficient in and of itself than the other. In my experience, efficiency comes with training, whether you are using Linux, Mac, or Windows. For example, recently I was taught a function in Excel (it’s in OpenOffice, too—don’t worry) called VLookup. It compares a value in one column to an entire column in another sheet. If it finds a matching value, it returns whatever’s next to the comparing column to the function cell. Okay. You read that and thought, “Huh?” The point is that VLookup has saved me literally hundreds of hours of work. Also, learning keyboard shortcuts has saved me all the mouse time I would have used otherwise. While the actual keyboard shortcuts vary from OS to OS, the use of keyboard shortcuts in general saves time. It takes me a lot less time to alt-tab or cmd-tab between applications than to move my mouse back and forth and keep clicking on each one. This is OS-independent. So if you’re truly worried about efficiency, the number one thing you have to do, regardless of whether you use Windows or Linux, is train your employees to be efficient computer users.

That said, sometimes Linux does make better use of people’s time. For example, the average computer user knows very little about how to protect herself from spyware and adware. I’ve seen countless hours wasted at work because of all this malware. The hours are doubly wasted because they’re wasted for the person whose computer is infected (she can’t do her work because her computer is being repaired) and for the person who has to fix the computer. Add to this the fact that most Windows users don’t even realize they have spyware right away. They just think they have a lot of pop-up ads or that their computers are running slow “for some reason.” That kills productivity. There are numerous debates about why Linux doesn’t have as much spyware and adware. I don’t want to go into all that right now. The point really is that Linux doesn’t have spyware, adware, or viruses. It also means you don’t need to spend money on anti-virus software. Though, you should still have some kind of firewall in place.

On the other hand, since almost all businesses and schools already use Windows, the time it takes to train people on a new operating system is not negligible. It’s also not a one-time deal, depending on how high your staff turnover is. Sure, you may spend a few weeks having your staff adapt to Linux’s interface(s), but if someone leaves, you can almost guarantee the replacement you hire won’t know Linux or be familiar with it. She will probably know Windows and Microsoft Office or maybe Mac OS X and Microsoft Office.

Still, when properly set up, Linux is just as point-and-click as Windows and Mac. Whether it’s using a KDE or a Gnome desktop, Linux always has the equivalent of a Start Menu and a taskbar. The only hard parts of adapting would really be on the IT side of things. Administering a Linux network may be easier, but it’s also extremely different. That’s another thing to consider. If your IT staff is well-versed in Windows and knows nothing about Linux, you have to consider, “Do I fire these people and rehire Linux-trained folk? Or do I send them to training programs for Linux?” Either way, you’ll be spending more money. Linux-trained IT folk (due to their relative scarcity) usually charge higher pay rates, too.

Bottom-line for Business
Weigh out how much money you’d have to spend versus how much time and money you think it will eventually save you. It’s simple economics.

Home Users
For home users, the choice weighs in different factors. For example, since businesses buy or lease computers all the time, they don’t often consider buying a computer and paying someone to install Linux on it a big deal. In fact, that person may just be IT staff. For home users, though, installation is a big obstacle in Linux adoption. All the stories about “my grandma uses Linux!” usually come from serious Linux users who can troubleshoot just about any problem and who usually know how to set up Linux so that it works flawlessly. You really have three viable options for installing Linux as a home user:

  1. You have one of these grandma-uses-Linux friends who knows
    just about everything about Linux. You don’t have to worry. Find this friend. Say, “Hey, I want Linux on my computer. Can you set it up for me?” She’ll not only have it set up for you, but you probably will never see a crash or an error message again. Your Linux experience will be amazing, and you’ll have done almost nothing make it so.

  2. You install Linux yourself. You have to have the time to do this, and you have to be willing to learn a lot, even with a “user-friendly” distro like Mepis, Ubuntu, or Xandros. It’s taken me three months to get to the point where I’m truly comfortable with installing and configuring Linux. I’m still no expert—not even an intermediate—but I know enough to be able to help new people out. If you view the learning of a new operating system as an adventure, and you have some spare time, go for this option. You will be rewarded.
  3. Pay for a computer that has Linux preinstalled. This usually means both buying a new computer and paying for software installation subscription (as most preinstalled commercial Linux computers use Linspire). Many I-don’t-want-to-be-bothered-with-installation folks swear by Linspire, though.

Cost shouldn’t be such a big consideration for home users, unless you go the Linspire route. Most Linux distributions are free in some way, if not completely free. For example, Xandros has an “open circulation edition” that is free. The only stipulation is that you can burn CDs only at the slowest speed. Otherwise, you pay for the “surfside” Xandros. Likewise, Libranet usually releases its slightly older version for free but makes its newest version cost money. Mepis allows you the option to pay for it, but it also has free downloads available. Ubuntu is completely free (though, if you want to donate, you can). In fact, Ubuntu will even ship you the CDs and pay for shipping. Naturally, since the shipping is free, you have to wait over a month to get the CDs.

You may run into some “use” obstacles, though, even if you get a Linux distro for free or cheap and you’re successful in installing it. For example, if you use Hotmail or Yahoo!, you won’t be able to check it consistently in Thunderbird, Evolution, or any of the other Outlook-like Linux email programs. Again, I won’t go into the reasons for this, because, in some ways, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, if you have Yahoo! or Hotmail, you have three options with Linux:

  1. Get a new email provider
  2. Check email only through the web browser
  3. Get some third-party hack like Gotmail or Mozilla’s Webmail to decode the tricky Hotmail and Yahoo stuff. The problem is that the “tricky” stuff keeps changing, so if it changes, you won’t be able to check your email through a mail client until Gotmail or Webmail is updated, too.

I’ve also heard that GIMP, while a wonderful graphics program, doesn’t offer the full functionality that Adobe Photoshop has for graphic designers. So if you’re a graphic designer by profession, stick to Mac or Windows. Likewise, if you’re a serious gamer and need the latest and greatest commercial games, you may want to stick with Windows. Not even Mac gets all game ports.

The default user/security model of Linux (not held up by Linspire, by the way) may throw off Windows users. Windows makes the first user of the computer an administrator. That means that user can add and remove software, change system settings, and let in all sorts of malware that can damage the entire operating system. Most Linux distributions set up a user and what’s called “root” (the Linux equivalent of the Windows administrator). The user cannot do anything to damage or upgrade the system without the root password.

The last thing Windows migrants have to get used to is installing software on Linux. First of all, there is no standard way to install software on Linux. In Windows, you either have a .exe file you double-click that walks you through a wizard, or you have a CD that autoruns and walks you through a wizard. After that, icons are usually placed for the new program on the desktop, in the Start Menu, and on the quick launch bar.

One reason Linux installation types vary is the existence of different Linux distributions. You may notice that some distributions use a variant of the .rpm file popularized by Red Hat or the .deb popularized by Debian. Sometimes you may download .tar.gz file you have to unpack and configure from the command-line.

Most of the time, though, you’ll use a graphical front-end that draws on online “repositories” to download software (and their dependencies) and install software. This could be called YaST or Yum or Synaptic or CNR. It’s a totally different way of doing software. It’s not easier or more difficult necessarily. It’s different. It’s kind of like the difference between renting movies from Blockbuster and renting movies from Netflix. I have found, though, that the appearance of icons for newly installed programs is a kind of hit-or-miss in Linux.

There are several distinct advantages Linux has over Windows. I’ll outline those, then talk about what advantages Windows has over Linux.

Linux comes in many different flavors. At first, this may seem like a disadvantage because you won’t be able to figure out easily which flavor (or “distro”) to use, but soon you realize that having different distros means suiting different users’ needs. For example, I hear many “not ready for the desktop” arguments talk about Linux as not being enough like Windows or relying too much on the command-line. Well, if you want a distro that is like Windows and has no command-line, maybe Linspire’s your distro. Or maybe Mepis is. You can also have the computer-literate user-friendly distro Ubuntu. You have the crazy built-from-scratch distros for those who want a totally custom system (Gentoo, Slackware). You have the crazy small distros (Damn Small, Puppy, Feather) for those with modest hardware (under 128 MB RAM, for example).

There are no registration keys in Linux. This may not sound like that great an advantage, but I have to say it offers a freedom from worry that I cherish a lot. For my copies of Microsoft Office, I carefully guard and back up my registration keys—with their hard-to-remember mix of numbers and letters. For my Linux applications, I don’t have to enter anything to install them. I can just install them. And there are so many apps at your disposal in repositories. And if the repositories aren’t enough, you can enable more repositories. I soon realized that my base XP install did not have a CD burning program, a serious image editing program, or even anti-virus software. Oh, and it doesn’t come with an office suite, either. All these and more are available for free in Linux.

Customization is king in Linux. You can use whatever desktop environment you want. You can change icons, toolbar transparency, splash images, window decoration styles. I tried to do this in Windows and realized I had to pay money for this.

The Linux community is also very supportive of new users. Sure, there are some annoying things about the Linux community. For example, many in the community are extremely negative towards anything Microsoft. Many think Linux can do no wrong. Many think newbies should just learn to live with the command-line. Still, people tend to be patient in answering questions. The Ubuntu community in particular is extremely responsive, welcoming, and helpful.

So what does Windows offer? Well, for one thing, compatibility. The compatibility works both ways—it’s a kind of “I pat your back…” thing. Software designers and driver-makers and hardware manufacturers tailor their products to work with Windows, and vice versa. Chances are, if you walk into Best Buy, Office Depot, Circuit City, or even Toys ‘R Us and buy a piece of software, there will be a Windows-ready version available. You won’t have that luck with Linux or even Mac. Printers, computer games, random programs will sometimes work on Windows only.

Windows also has a few functions that are available by default that Linux can have if customized but lacks otherwise. Fo
r example, in both Nautilus and Konqueror, I haven’t yet found this great Windows functionality: if I’m browsing in a folder and hit control-F, there will be a custom find for that particular folder and its subfolders. After the find is done, I can have the results show as list, icons, details, whatever.

It may just be my poor install of Linux (as I said before, I have only a few months experience with it), but I have not found Linux to be as stable as Windows XP. Sometimes (very seldom—I’d say once a month) things freeze up so that I can’t do anything to alleviate the situation except to shut down X and go back to full terminal. Almost always in XP, I can hit control-alt-delete and be at the dialogue box that allows me to shut down the computer, lock the computer, or go to the task manager and shut down a program. Once again, it may be that I installed Linux badly, but that’s what I’ve seen.

I hope something I’ve written here gives you a sense, either as a home user or a business user, of whether Linux is right for you. At the end of the day, an operating system is an operating system. You’ve got your programs. You’ve got your mouse. You’ve got your keyboard. You’ve got your data. You can always cut and paste and type and all that. Choosing an operating system is all about figuring out what your priorities are.

Apple and Mac OS X Linux Windows

Mac Zealots, Linux Zealots, and Windows Zealots

Mac Zealots
For a while, I read with interest a site called X vs. XP. After a while, though, I got sick of all the zealotry, particularly on the part of Mac users. Now I understand that people like their OSes—that’s generally why they use them. What bothers me most is that some Mac fanatics will not concede that there is anything wrong with Mac OS X. Even if you give three criticisms of Windows for every one criticism of OS X, Mac Zealots will fight that one criticism with all their might. They also have the cheap defense of “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s worse” or “What’s intuitive for Windows users isn’t necessarily what’s intuitive in general.” Of course, Mac crazies think it’s more intuitive to delete a file by pressing Cmd-delete than it is to delete the file by pressing only delete. I just stopped participating in the site’s forum, since in one particular thread, I attempted to bring some peace, saying that one OS is not necessarily better than the other but that each one suits the needs of its users—I included specific examples of some things I thought were worse in XP and some things I thought were worse in X. The site’s owner (who claims to want to minimize bias as much as possible) insisted that OS X was clearly superior as an OS and would not concede that there was anything wrong with X. One Mac zealot even got quite upset by one of my criticisms of X (despite the fact I had many criticisms of XP as well), explaining that I had come on to his “territory” and he had a right to defend it.

Whoa! Operating systems may be used by your family, but they are not your family, or shouldn’t be, anyway.

Mac zealots think that OS X is always superior to XP, that whatever Jobs decides is the best and most intuitive way to do anything, and that anyone who uses Windows must be a fool. Mac zealots used to never shut up about how superior PowerPC architecture was to Intel architecture. Now that Steve Jobs has announced Macs will be moving to Intel architecture, they don’t know what to do. Mac zealots used to laugh at flash-based MP3 players until Jobs announced the iPod Shuffle. It’s just speculation on my part, but my guess is that if the iPod was the only flash player that had a screen, Mac users would say, “Apple’s iPod is clearly superior, as it has a screen”; since iPod Shuffles are the only flash players without a screen, naturally Mac zealots exclaim that screens are stupid and that you should always know your own music anyway. This is the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard. Speaking as someone who has a flash player with a screen, I can tell you there are many reasons I use the screen. The screen not only tells me what’s playing at any given moment, which is helpful particularly for songs that start off quietly or new songs that I’m not yet familiar with, but it also gives me various displays and menu options (options iPod users should be more than familiar with from the regular iPods)—equalizer settings, volume levels, battery life, etc.

What bothers me most about Mac zealotry is its counterproductivity. No one will listen to someone who is unreasonably in favor of only one position, who does not admit that there is any fault with that product. Several months ago, I advised a friend of mine to buy an iBook, explaining all the pros and cons of getting an iBook versus a Dell. He was impressed and said it was the first time anyone had actually convinced him a Mac was worth getting. According to him, anyone in the past who’d recommended an Apple computer never admitted there was any alternative. Too many Mac users think Mac is the only way—that’s what turns most Windows users off from “switching.” Remember that operating systems aren’t a way of life; they’re simply computer programs that help us do what we want to do. Don’t make an operating system into a religion.

Linux Zealots
Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Linux. I have to say, though, some of the Linux zealots are nutcases. They insist, similarly to Mac crazies, that Linux is the only way… well, a couple of Linux zealots concede that Mac OS X might be okay to use. What matters most to Linux zealots is not that people use Linux (again, OS X is okay) but that people not use Microsoft products. There’s a definite anti-Microsoft passion in the Linux community. People will often refer to Windows as Windblows, Windoze, or Window$. What’s most ridiculous about some Linux nutcases is their insistence that there’s no reason to use Windows and that only brainwashed automatons would ever use Windows.

As a matter of fact, there are a lot of good reasons to use Windows. First of all, I recently tried to switch a Windows user over to Linux, and she had to switch back because Hotmail and Thunderbird were not working well together (even with the webmail extension in Thunderbird that enables Hotmail checking). People get attached to their email accounts (because it’s a pain to change emails and then notify all your family and friends of your new address and still check your old address in case there are lingering emails that still arrive there—and a lot of commerce websites have your login be your email address… Netflix, for example), and Hotmail and Yahoo just don’t work that well in Linux. Even if you check your email with a browser instead of an email client, Yahoo! mail has limited functionality in Firefox or any non-Internet Explorer browser.

There are a lot of Windows applications that just do not have sufficient Linux equivalents. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve heard Quickbooks does not have a good Linux alternative. I’ve also heard that while GIMP is a very good graphics program, it lacks some of the features Adobe Photoshop has. Linux has a wealth of free applications—far more than Windows has, and without all the spyware—but for commercial applications and compatibility, Windows just can’t be beat. If you play a lot of computer games, Windows also cannot be beat for selection. My wife loves the Sims games and is bummed that it takes so long for them to be ported to Mac OS X. As far as I know, Sims does not get ported to Linux at all.

My point isn’t that Linux is a bad OS. In fact, I love it a lot. If it weren’t for iTunes (and, believe me, I’ve tried Muine, AmaroK, Rhythmbox, Juk, XMMS, and all the rest), I wouldn’t even be dual-booting—I’d go straight to a Linux-only desktop. You just can’t blame people for using Windows. Sure, a lot of people who just check non-Hotmail, non-Yahoo email, who surf the internet, and who write the occasional Word document, Linux is probably a more appropriate OS than Windows, but there are good reasons for a lot of people to use Windows.

Windows Zealots
Rare though they are (or at least rarely audible), I have to say Windows zealots are the worst of the bunch. I prefer Linux zealots to Mac zealots, but I prefer even Mac zealots to Windows zealots. I mean, Microsoft already dominates desktops around the world. Isn’t it something like 90% of desktops that are on Windows? Why rub it in? Being a Windows zealot is like being a white supremacist in America. You already rule—what else do you want? Despite spyware and virus problems, despite endless bugs, Windows zealots still think Windows is the best, bar none. Of course, rarely has the Windows zealot even bothered to give Linux or Mac OS X an honest try.

What They All Have in Common
No one can truly be objective about OSes, but, as someone who dual-boots a desktop with Windows XP and Linux and also uses a Mac OS X G4 Powerbook, I have to say that each operating system has its merits, faults, and ideal users. I laugh when Mac users complain about Windows’ “blue screen of death” because I’ve never seen a BSOD on Windows XP or Windows 2000. Control-alt-delete handles all instability or program crashes. Likewise, most criticisms of Mac OS X by Windows users are unfounded either because Windows users have not really explored OS X
or because they’re actually thinking of Mac Classic or OS 9. Linux users usually do have some exposure to other OSes but may have become so geeked out that they don’t realize how difficult it is for people who’ve grown up their whole lives with Windows to learn how to use Linux.

You should not force someone to use an OS. It’s like forcing someone to learn a new language. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to learn a new language, and being bilingual or trilingual can actually be useful and also be an enriching experience, but when it’s forced, it’s unpleasant and often builds resentment. I’ve also found that learning new languages is useless unless you have a way to practice that language. What’s the point of forcing someone to learn OS X if she doesn’t want to shell out the money to buy a Mac computer (even a Mac Mini with a decent amount of memory—512 MB of RAM—is $550. You can get an eMachine for the same price with twice the processing speed, four times the hard drive space, and three times as many USB slots… oh and a keyboard and mouse)?

So, which OS is best for you? I wish it were as easy as just “picking an OS.” Unfortunately, Mac OS X is tied to hardware—you can’t just install it on any computer you want. And it’s not easy to find a computer with Linux preloaded on it. If you get Linux, you probably will put it on a native Mac or Windows computer. Well, I’ll give you the basic run-down, anyway:

OS X: If you like a name-brand computer with slick-looking graphics, and you don’t want to worry about spyware and viruses, and you have enough money to shell out, and you don’t play a lot of video games, Mac OS X may be your OS of choice. It’s also handy for people who work heavily with graphics (graphic designers, for example). The ideal audience, though, is the clueless computer user—someone who knows almost nothing about computers and just wants to check email and surf the web. Even though that’s the ideal audience, Macs also appeal to total geeks who like tinkering under the unix-like hood of OS X and who like to memorize keyboard shortcuts that can sometimes involve as many as four keys pressed at once.

Linux: If you don’t mind doing a little bit of set up and learning of a new language, Linux may be for you. Unfortunately, if you’re tied to certain programs or proprietary software, you may have difficulty using Linux (see above part about Hotmail). The best part about Linux is that it’s almost always free (cost-wise), including the thousands of programs you can download. It’s also endlessly customizable. What pushed me to Linux this last time (the first time was spyware on Windows) was that customizing themes and styles in Windows required either money to Microsoft for some Plus thing or money to a third-party vendor for a special widgets-modifying program. Like Mac, Linux will appeal to both super-geeks and super-novices alike. The only difference is that Apple will preconfigure Mac OS X for you before you buy it. If you’re a novice Linux user, you’d better have an expert Linux user set up Linux for you.

Windows: If you game heavily, Windows is for you. If you use Hotmail and Outlook, Windows is for you. If you like “maintaining” your computer, Windows is for you (I’m talking about updating virus definitions in anti-virus software, defragmenting, scandisking, cleaning the registry, etc.). If you like cheap computers and don’t want to learn Linux, Windows is for you.

Find what’s best for you… but chill. It’s just an OS. Don’t be a zealot. Be a user. Be human.

Apple and Mac OS X Windows

Mac v. Windows: The Sequel

This is an excerpt from an email I wrote recently to a friend who is considering buying a computer but isn’t sure 1. whether to get a desktop or a laptop and 2. whether to get a Mac or a PC.

Believe it or not, _______—if you get a laptop, Apple may be your best bet. An iBook is about $1149.00. A Dell Inspiron 600m is $1497.00. This is with these specifications:

iBook Inspiron
Memory 256MB 512MB (includes Dell promotion)
Processor 1.2GHz PowerPC G4 1.6GHz Pentium
Hard Drive 80GB 80GB
Wireless Card Yes Yes
Video Card 32MB 32MB
Display 12″ 14.1″
Weight 4.9 lbs. 4.98 lbs.

The Apple iBook has the added advantage of already including firewire and Bluetooth. I’m not sure how important those things are to you. You could argue, of course, that with the $300 more you’d be spending on the Dell, you’re also getting twice as much memory, two inches more screen space, and a slightly faster processor. iBooks do come with Garageband, though.

Also, if you don’t want 80GB of hard drive space, both laptops would be about $100 or so cheaper. Considering you’ll be getting an iPod and may be playing around Garageband, you’ll probably need all the space you can get!

Of course, you could always get an eMachine at Best Buy for $599.00 with these specifications:

Memory 512MB (expandable up to 4.0GB)
Processor 3.06GHz Pentium
Hard Drive 160GB
Wireless No
Video Card 224MB

160GB of hard drive goes a long way.

No Apple computer with 160GB would ever be under $600 [after-thought, since the new Mac Mini has arrived on the scene: its $600 model has less than half the processing speed of the aforementioned eMachine, half the hard drive space, half the memory, and a third the number of USB output slots—clearly the greatest appeal of the Mac Mini is its small size]. Now that I have constant access to both Mac OS X and Windows XP, I’m extremely fascinated by the whole Mac/PC debate (of course, a lot people caught up in semantics insist that Macs are PCs, but most people just use “PC” as an abbreviation for “Windows PC”). People get very emotional about this topic. I certainly have more of a leaning toward PCs, but I can appreciate a lot about Mac, and I’m obsessed with the idea of eventually getting one of those cute 12″ iBooks. There are many things Windows can do that Mac can’t, and vice versa. I’m learning to be bilingual, and I’m also appreciating that, as some in the minority of this debate contend, it’s not so much that one operating system is “better” than the other. It’s all about personal preference. Why should one be able to recommend a type of operating system for all users, unless one of the operating systems is so deficient as to be unusable?

In my experience, Windows appeals most to those who are intermediate computer users who also like to customize their computer experience as much as possible—people like me. I want all my folders to open in list view by default. I want to be able to control whether the control-alt-delete security log-on appears at the boot screen or not. I want to have easy access to the registry and all files on the system. I want to be able to turn on the start-up noise, turn it off, or change it to something else. I have to confess, even though Windows allows me to do all these things, its default settings are terrible. Whenever you do a clean install of Windows XP or add a new user, the desktop is totally empty except for a trash can (er, recycling bin—sorry!). There is no documents or systems folder to click on. You have to enable through start menu preferences the quick launch bar. I’d say it takes me a good hour and a half to fully customize XP to my liking, including the installation of Firefox, Thunderbird, iTunes, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Audacity, etc. (and their respective shortcuts and quick launches).

Macs seem to appeal most to both absolute beginners and extremely advanced users. Beginners like Mac because it doesn’t have a blank desktop straight out of the box. It has a dock ready to go. All the majors programs are installed, and all the major buttons are in place. Most beginners don’t care about changing the start sound or picking a folder view other than icon view. They just want to be able to launch programs and use them—Word, Excel, Safari, and some email program. Extremely advanced users appreciate that Mac OS X is unix-based. They like to tinker “under the hood” of the operating system. And everyone (even Windows die-hards) knows Mac just plain looks better.

As you can see from the above email, it’s a tough call. Mac is lowering its prices in one sense. It really depends on what you want, though. Dell can customize every little thing, whereas Apple will let you change only a few specifications before your purchase.

When it comes to value, though, don’t go to Dell. Definitely buy an eMachine. My wife and I have had only positive experiences with our two eMachines, and they’re by far the cheapest, most reliable computers around.

Bottom line: My best advice for computer purchasing is to keep an open mind. Don’t listen to the Mac-onlys or the PC-onlys. Find what’s best for you, what suits your needs, your lifestyle, your work, and your personality. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to do so, get one of each. Being proficient in two operating system “languages” can only benefit you in the long run, and Mac OS X and Windows XP communicate well with each other (as far as file and printer sharing go).

P.S. I’ve also found that there are few comparisons like the one above. Everyone will say, “This is cheaper,” “No, this is cheaper,” but very few people will make an actual dollar-to-dollar comparison.

P.P.S. Do some real investigating. Most of things PC-people say Mac “can’t” do can be done; they just don’t know how to do them. Same goes for what Mac-people say Windows PCs “can’t” do.

P.P.P.S. I’ve changed my mind. I was just in a store looking at the current G4 iBooks, and they look like the cheapest pieces of plastic I’ve ever seen. The Powerbooks look much better (but are more expensive), and Dell has since dropped the price of their Inspiron 700m model considerably. (20/03/05)