Linux Hits The Desktop

Despite its underdog appeal, Linux as a desktop operating system has been strictly for geeks until now. The open-source UNIX offshoot has not matched Windows 98's nearly hands-free installation, encyclopedic Plug-and-Play hardware support, and robust cadre of available applications. But two new versions from leading Linux distributors Caldera Systems and Red Hat Software bring the upstart operating system a step closer to the rest of us. Both offer better installation programs, broader hardware support, and new graphical interfaces that bear a striking resemblance to Windows.

Compared to Windows, Linux costs almost nothing: While the Caldera and Red Hat bundles each list for about $50, they include the core program and literally hundreds of applications; and thanks to provisions of the open source public license under which Linux is released, both companies make the stand-alone OS available for free from their Web sites. The advent of these kinder, gentler Linuxes is just one more indication that the operating system is on a roll. This year Compaq, Dell, and IBM have all announced that they'll install and support Red Hat Linux on desktop PCs. Market research firm International Data Corporation predicts that commercial Linux shipments will grow at a rate of 25 percent per year through 2003, compared to only 10 percent per year for all other desktop operating systems combined.

Early Days
Nevertheless, Linux has a long way to go to become a major contender. Latest estimates put its installed base at around 7 to 10 million, compared to the triple-digit millions running some version of Windows. And Linux has no concerted marketing campaign pushing it into mainstream popularity. (But neither did a little thing called the Internet.) More pertinent for end users, the shortage of application software, the attendant of file compatibility problems between Linux and Windows users, and a lack of hardware support--particularly for Universal Serial Bus devices and DVD drives--mean Linux is still a hard sell. But the new bundles are an indication that it's getting a little easier.

OpenLinux: Up and Running in Minutes
I tested beta versions of Caldera's OpenLinux 2.2 and Red Hat Linux 6.0 on a Micron Pentium III-500 system. Though I'd installed various flavors of Linux in the past, I'd always given up before getting many key components properly configured. So I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to get Caldera's version installed and working. The OpenLinux beta I installed was very close to what Caldera began shipping on Monday. The OS includes a special edition of PowerQuest's PartitionMagic that simplified creating the necessary Linux disk partitions. After finishing the partitioning in Windows 98, my system rebooted directly from the OpenLinux CD and zipped through installing files and identifying hardware. I encountered only one obstacle: The program that configures the graphical interface didn't get my graphics board settings quite right, preventing the KDE graphical user interface from loading. Experimenting with more conservative settings solved the problem.

A Rougher Ride With Red Hat
Red Hat's beta was less polished. As I did my test, Red Hat was still some weeks away from its planned May ship date, and my installation experience with the public beta wasn't nearly as smooth as it had been with OpenLinux. Like OpenLinux, Red Hat Linux partitions your drive and installs files with little user assistance. But installing hardware was harder. I had to scroll through a list of hundreds of boards to find my Diamond Viper 550 graphics board, though it did work fine when I finished the install. And Red Hat's installer couldn't identify and install a driver for my network adapter, meaning I couldn't use my network connection to the Web. A configuration utility let me create a dial-up Internet connection, though getting the details right may be more complex than what the average Windows Dial-Up Networking user is accustomed to.

Learn the GNOMEnclature
Once I had the programs installed, I was ready to explore their respective graphical user interfaces and start browsing the Web. OpenLinux ships with a GUI called KDE; Red Hat includes GNOME. While both interfaces trace their lineage back to earlier UNIX window managers, Windows veterans will quickly get the hang of using either. Both KDE and GNOME let you store files on the desktop, launch applications and utilities from pop-up menus, and track running applications with taskbar icons. Menus and icons generally display balloon help when you place the pointer over them. While they differ in many details, and each has its idiosyncrasies, their controls, performance, and menu behavior are similar enough that you could switch between either of them and Windows without developing a personality disorder.

Applications Still AWOL
Microsoft is unlikely to ever release a Linux version of its Office suite, and many other bread-and-butter Windows program may never appear in Linux versions. Still, determined Linux pioneers aren't exactly out in the cold. Both Linux versions I looked at ship with hundreds of applications and utilities, many of which only a UNIX aficionado would love. But the packages also include Netscape Communicator; a Photoshop-strength image editing application known simply as The Gimp; assorted spreadsheet, word processing, database, calendar, and contact programs; utilities; and lots of games.

Caldera's version also includes Corel's WordPerfect 8 for Linux, which reads and writes Word files. If you need more Office compatibility than that, you can download Star Division's free StarOffice 5.1, which reads and writes most Office file formats, though imperfectly (see link at right). But the bottom line is that if you need 100 percent Office compatibility, and if you rely on any of Office's more advanced features, such as revision tracking, you need Windows. Its lack of Office compatibility isn't Linux's only liability. Until its authors get around to writing the necessary drivers, you can forget about playing DVDs and using USB devices and other newfangled gadgets that use technology such as Firewire.

If you're glued to the latest accelerated 3D games, love to watch DVD movies on your PC, rely on a USB scanner, or can't avoid using Microsoft Word's revision marks feature, you'll need to keep a copy of Windows 98 around. But that doesn't mean you can't have a little Linux on the side. If the revolution is coming, it won't hurt to be prepared.


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