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The End User Perspective (Brian's Blurb)

By Brian Robson
Sydney, Australia

From brianr at Mon Jun 10 01:02:58 2002

Linux on the Desktop

Linux IS ready for prime time, despite what all the nitpickers and microsofties say. Under their same rules they would have rejected Windows 3.0 and 3.1 and probably Windows 95 and certainly Office 95. Let's judge Linux against what really has to be done in the normal office, put the frills aside.

I have installed SUSE with the 2.2 kernel. It's pretty good, does not crash, plays CDs as installed, connects to the internet and surfs without trouble. It has heaps of word processors and editors etc. SUSE is the big German one, and the main rival to USA's Red Hat. Mandrake is the French one. All the Sydney gurus run Debian while people who run anything else seem to stay silent at meetings.

Most hardware devices are now supported, everything from 1988 Micom Interlan 8-bit ISA LAN adapter cards to the latest printers (the big companies have got the message). If a driver is not on the CD then it's out on the net somewhere. Most installations, when needing a driver off the net, assume you have a machine running Windows handy.

For Linux to network locally, you have to install the correct software for the network card, and then install Samba to read the windows file systems. In desperation, Microsoft keeps changing the file system networking, eg in Windows XP, to try to throw Samba off track. Meanwhile programmers are reverse engineering it, and publishing it all on the net. To programmers, Microsoft is now an ongoing scandal.

I recommend buying a new hard drive and a couple of trays, rather than putting Linux and Windows on the one drive. However the dual boot option is used by most people - there are lots of web articles giving the method for an installation. The Linux loader (usually LILO) is needed to give you the choice to start either Linux or Windows.

There is a stack of Microsoft scandals involving attacks on Linux and Open Source - see or and read it all. Also try to follow the court cases, especially the American states now paying heaps to Microsoft - they are not pleased with the repeated licensing. Research shows 30% of users are planning how not to pay (either stop upgrading or go Linux). The sky could fall in for Microsoft quite suddenly. The typewriter was a pretty stable device for many years; we have now reached that point with the spreadsheet and the word processor.

Open Source Effort and Programmers.

The amount of hobby and volunteer computing effort in Linux is extraordinary. It's just like the early days of DOS and PCs where everyone pooled their efforts. There has been a winding down of the corresponding support for Microsoft and newly trained Microsoft haters are joining the corporations who are still in bed with Microsoft. Home enthusiasts need to go Linux now to beat the rush.

I am actually starting to think the demand for a good Access programmer will start to decline; I heard about PHP and MySQL in the year 2000, and decided it was the new frontier for database builders. Already the market for Visual Basic tools seems to be in decline, with magazines amalgamating and software companies buying each other up. The standard of the magazines has declined, and the same goes for the related web-based newsletters. All this is an omen, as this community of programmers is normally at the forefront, because they are writing the applications for big companies.

Furthermore the new Microsoft .NET initiative has been greeted with scepticism and a lot of "so what" comments and attacks from opponents. By comparison, VB3 was embraced with massive enthusiasm around 1992/93 and spawned a complete supporting industry of add-on suppliers. Even VB4 was well received, despite the most vital of the corporate functions not working at all.

Essentially an era has passed, one we thought would go on forever. Visual Basic is still a pleasure to programme in and much of the language definitions are spot on, but an end-point has been reached. I can clearly remember late 1994 when multimedia was all the go, and all the world's knowledge would soon be available on CD-ROM. Dataflow was flying high as Australia's biggest CD-ROM distributor but suddenly in 1997 the multimedia era ended. Stalls at PC fairs are now selling ex-auction sale CDs, still marked with Dataflow stickers for $10.

Meanwhile the open source movement has no clear leadership, except for guru programmers who are revered like science fiction warriors. Open Source people say they are not competing with anybody, just writing the software for all to use. Microsoft are trying to force them to compete, so they can then be attacked. Each side is trying to figure out the moves several steps ahead.

There is little role that I can see in the scope of things for generalist companies like Microsoft, and their new licensing plan with annual fees has made it transparent that they want you to pay and pay, and all these upgrades from Win 95 to Win 98 to Win ME etc are all part of a plan to make money. The open source camp make no claims for market share etc, but it could easily be 50/50 in five years. Keep an eye on Sun and IBM.

Connecting to the Internet with Linux.

Compared with Windows, there is no difference to speak of. Linux dials and connects. There are heaps of email packages, including one just out which emulates Microsoft Outlook if you like that sort of thing. There are heaps of older ones that are more traditional, nearer to Eudora in style. As for browsers, the fully-featured Mozilla is pretty much ready to go. Other open source browsers on Linux use bits of the Mozilla code, especially the rendering engine Gecko. I tried the first Netscape 6 and it was a total dog, buggy and nasty. I hear the newer one is better. I tried Mozilla 0.96 and it was great; it does just about everything and has heaps of setup options. There are several simpler browsers; the most well known are Opera (very fast but not free) and Galleon (the one to watch).

Linux as a GUI interface.

It only takes a few days to get used to it. The problem for me is that I know where most things are in Windows (yes, it keeps changing from version to version), but not yet in Linux. It has lately hit me that some config tools in Linux are much better and simpler designs than their Windows counterparts - the thing that configures soundcards is a dream, why does Microsoft make it so hard. There is a GUI tool to configure everything in Linux, and often rival products that do the same thing. There is just a learning curve where you have to study the theory behind the gloss.

One of the scary things about Linux is that the nerds/geeks keep altering the interface to be more like Windows - more alive, more clicky, harder for beginners, faster for nerds. This is a dangerous trend and, as much as they say they are not, they are caught up at the programmer level in competing with Windows, egged on by pro-Microsoft naggers, synchophants and tame journos who keep saying "it's not ready yet".

Installing Linux.

The install is as easy as Windows, if not better. The latest distributions can be installed from free CDs on the covers of magazines. There has also been a $20 4 CD kit in newsagents; there is a great deal of Linux experimenting going on. There are some cases where a Windows installation is faultless, others where one click of the mouse and your PC locks up (my delightful experience last month.) Linux is similar, but getting better all the time. A skilled person has more chance of fixing a Linux failure than a Windows one. Don't listen to people who say the Windows Installation is better than Linux, you will need to try both on your own existing hardware.

Music and Burning CDs on Linux.

There are heaps of CD players and CD burners etc etc. If this is your field, there is a truckload of free stuff all working well. Magazines constantly review this area, advising how to do it and which burners work the best etc.

Linux does not come with the software to play DVDs. The code is illegal in open source but is freely available out there somewhere, and is even printed on tee-shirts.

The music industry is on dangerous ground releasing CDs that won't play in PCs and now we have Hollywood asking the US government to pass fearsome copyright laws to prevent all copying and preserve their monopoly. However, the music industry has already fragmented. Any pub band can stamp out 1000 copies of their very own CD without a recording contract. Too late, the genie is out of the bottle.

All these issues are inter-related. Who really owns a product, the corporation or the customer or the original artist? There are already books about the role of fans. Without fans, popstars are zilch, and likewise companies who plan to offend the market place will be discarded by word of mouth alone, and left to play in a niche market.

Just remember Classic Coke - the greatest corporate bungle in years where the punters did not want the formula of coke changed, but coke wanted to make it sweeter and milder and cheaper to make. (And remember the slogan of our public broadcaster "It's your ABC", not theirs to meddle with).

Linux and Microsoft Office.

The two rivals are Star Office (sold by Sun) and Open Office which is free. Sun is planning major support and training for their product, as far as I can see. Yes, the rivals import .doc and .xls files so Microsoft is in big trouble if Linux catches on. All corporates should be evaluating these packages for costs and benefits. The changeover can surely be no worse than from Office 4 (Word 6) to Office 97 (word 97). Keep in mind that Word 6 actually worked quite well and the reasons for discarding it are quite obscure now. These days people who have never used Word 6 are paid to say how bad it was.

Note there is no exact clone of Access, the amazing but bug-ridden desktop database from Microsoft. In Linux it seems the functionality of Access will be split apart. There are projects to build tools for database designers and various front end products, but there is little point in a new PC database format when MySQL and similar back ends are working perfectly well. Access is a big product and, clever as it is, has proved too much for most people.

Next, there is a Linux programme with the same features as PowerPoint - this word will soon be a generic term for presentations, like hoovering the floor.

Just in passing it is vital to note that Microsoft is under attack on all fronts (known as revenue streams). They have slashed the price of their XBox given that PlayStation has been surprisingly resilient. Nobody actually needs Office XP. Windows XP, well what comes next, surely we have had enough upgrades. Corporates are sick of paying and are looking for a new way out. Ordinary people are pissed off that they have to register XP and cannot clone it onto every PC in the house, same too with Office XP. No doubt the hackz sites can kill this registration rubbish stone dead. If MSIE is free, how come we have to pay so much for Windows XP where it has to be included. How come the various media players and accessories are so Microsoft oriented, especially when you are connected to the net. Do we really have to join Passport and all this other stuff, isn't there any choice out there.

In the corporate and server area, it's a myth that Windows is cheaper and easier to maintain, although there are plenty of articles claiming this is so. A few years ago it was TCO (total cost of ownership, things cost a lot to buy but are cheaper to run) and now it's ZEN - zero effort networking. It's all smoke and mirrors to keep corporates paying per seat for thousands of employees.

But Linux boxes are popping up everywhere, and if you are serving web pages, Windows 2000 is a complete waste of money. Linux also makes a good firewall and a good packet router.

At the consumer end of the market, the next lot of hand helds may be Linux powered, not Windows. The big telcos and manufacturers do not necessarily want or need to partner with Microsoft.

Other software.

There are many companies whose flagship money spinner has been cloned and reverse engineered into open source public domain software. The sales people must be shitting themselves, as their market will vaporise if Linux catches on. All of these companies will be advising their clients strongly never to go Linux. Microsoft has proposed a blanket ban on open source to the USA government for applications inside the government. They argue about all that unreliable and buggy and uncontrolled open source software.

Anyway, when installing Linux you see hundreds of packages whizzing by. The important ones are: The GIMP - pretty much does everything Photoshop does, and it's free. Adobe Acrobat Writer: The reader is free on windows, but the builder kit costs $A615. Now it's cloned in open source on Linux!!! Cold Fusion and other database stuff: Use PHP, it's a bit harder and closer to the bone, but programmers love it, and it's free. Web page editors: Quanta is free, it's one where you edit the actual code like Sausage's Hot Dog. It's project oriented too, and there are heaps of others. CD burning: Goodbye to Adaptec and Nero. Media Players: No more ads or rubbish.

Notice that there has already been massive consolidation in the software industry. Most people have stacks of software already for Windows, and much of it works ok. The software industry as we know it today is doomed, regardless of Linux.

The Virus Plague.

I strongly believe that the virus writers have got it out for Microsoft, although this is denied. Linux programmers have been far more responsible in giving security alerts on the day and being more up front. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that Microsoft does not announce the security breach until the solution is at hand, and sometimes this takes a month or more. Linux teams fix their glitches much faster. But Windows is the target for virus writers.

The Klez worm is written in Microsoft C++ and the author has not been found - he has released several newer versions and has displayed a vast knowledge of all Microsoft security problems, plus a good understanding of "social engineering" so that curious people will open it. I even got sent one by the local community FM station!!!! There is no similar campaign against Linux machines. A person on an ABC radio IT programme forgot to mention almost all the problems on the Net are related to Windows NT and Windows 2000 machines. Linux staff are doing a better job patching their software to prevent intruders.

Surprisingly, Microsoft has shouldered little blame for the virus explosion. The first viruses in word documents were called "prank macros" by Microsoft executives. Whoever heard of data files such as documents being executable? Whoever heard of e-mail viewers that can execute viruses in preview mode? The continuing security breaches on Microsoft products and the company's insistence that the .doc format is preferable to the .rtf format are sufficient reasons to call for a policy rethink.

Right at this moment nimda worms are still pounding Linux servers, still trying to find non-patched Windows servers to infect. Everywhere ISPs are installing e-mail scanners to protect Microsoft desktop products from virus attack. Reporters have failed to see that buggy and poorly specified Microsoft products are links in the virus propagation chain. The company has been let off very lightly.

The Linux Reality

Well, you would think everyone would have rushed out and got Linux but it ain't so. There is a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and a lot of caution. Linux is growing but has not reached critical mass. Many people want it to fail.

Many PC owners are not upgrading to XP, except when they buy a new PC. There is not the frenzy compared with Windows 95. I joked with a stall holder at a recent computer fair that the Windows 98 CD he was selling (OEM version with a PC) was the one to have, as it worked OK and could be used on several machines around the house (piracy). He launched into an anti Microsoft tirade and told me what web sites to go to.

Here are some sample figures for hits to two web sites:-

First web site: 7839 hits from Windows PCs, 362 Apple, Linux 2, robots visiting the site 784. Browsers MSIE 7422, Netscape 842, Opera less than 3, Mozilla not listed.

Second web site: 8088 hits from Windows, 256 Apple, 20 Linux, robots visiting 2006. Browsers MSIE 7415, Netscape 1434, Opera 22.

The first site appeals mainly to people at home, and kids doing school projects, all with fairly new PCs. Health workers are the main visitors to the second site, plus people researching health policy and older people, and probably a lot of corporates. Compared to the first site, they have more Win 95 remaining and more Netscape.

The conclusion is the Net penetration of Linux, as measured, is still under 1%. This is alarming, and shows that, despite the large number of enthusiasts and advocates, nothing is actually happening out there at two very run-of-the-mill web sites.

For a further example, if you ran a internet cafe, would you install Linux??? The answer is currently no, but it should be yes, there are heaps of options in Linux that make it look like Windows anyway. The backpacker using Hotmail would hardly notice the difference.

The Future for Linux

My prediction is that the use of Linux will increase, but there is more likely to be an avalanche of adoption, triggered by some event, rather than a gradual increase. Possible events include court losses by Microsoft, actions in foreign countries where the government goes Linux, any instance where one of the Fortune 500 goes Linux, large Linux projects announced by IBM, more public acceptance of piracy, making heroes out of Linux and open source advocates, more movies about computers and hacking, bad feelings against greedy corporations, and lastly consulting companies or magazines endorsing Linux over Windows.

If you havn't tried Linux, buy a new hard drive and get started now. Break your addiction to Windows, beat the rush and learn something new.

Footnote: Some Linux gurus hide their Linux boxes at work by running the Blue Screen of Death as their screen saver. Or sometimes they run the Windows 2000 login screen as a screen saver. I found a guru with Linux visible on his computer monitor, but as soon as I commented, he flicked a switch and Windows returned - there was an extra Linux box under the bench somewhere.