Don't be afraid, Linux isn't just for geeks

Monday, October 29, 2007

It came out earlier this week that Dell will soon offer computers running Linux instead of Windows. Not all of its machines, obviously — the company wants to stay in business — but Linux will be an option on at least two desktops and one laptop models.

It's going to be an interesting experiment. Linux is an incredibly powerful operating system, but it's a tinkerers' OS designed to let you get under the hood. There is also a huge base of developers who are coming up with new features, new software, and better ways to do things.

Older versions of Linux were strictly the province of geeks who wanted to play. But for the past several years there's been a large and growing movement to make it accessible to the non-geek — to make it as user-friendly as Windows, but with the power of the Linux community behind it.

The version of Linux Dell will be offering, Ubuntu (it's pronounced "oo-boon-too"), is one of the most popular, user-friendly, and well-designed versions — or distros —available. It's got all of Linux's power and stability, it's completely free (as is most of the software available for it), it's tweakable, and it's — mostly — easy to use.

But "mostly" is the key.

For me, part of determining whether Linux is ready for primetime is whether it would pass the Minandeli test. That refers to my parents, Min and Eli, who are no longer novice Windows users, but far from experts. Could they use Linux?

That in mind, a few weeks ago I set out to play with the latest versions of some Linux distros. The four at the top of my list were Ubuntu and its sister, Kubuntu, as well as OpenSUSE and PCLinuxOS, all of which were reportedly well designed and easy to use.

Alas, the PCLinuxOS download sites were offline and OpenSUSE didn't like my monitor, so I spent my time with Ubuntu and Kubuntu. (They're based on the same underlying code, but have different desktops, analogous to hatchback and sedan versions of the same car.)

Conveniently, Dell played right into my hands by choosing to offer a Linux distro that I had an opportunity to use.

Smooth operators

Let no one say that Linux — specifically Ubuntu and Kubuntu — isn't a beautiful, mature operating system. It installs quickly and easily.

A Windows or Mac user would feel quickly at home, and would enjoy some of Linux's nicer features, such as my favorite: multiple desktops you can switch among.

And Windows has nothing on Adept, Linux's add and remove programs feature. It doesn't just help you remove unwanted programs. It also gives you access to hundreds of pieces of software — from simple games to powerful office applications — stored in online libraries called repositories. It's like having a huge software store at your fingertips, where everything is free.

And that's where you get the first inkling of Linux's weak spots. There are two facts about Linux that deeply affect the user experience. First, there is a huge and dedicated Linux development community. This is good and bad.

If you thought the amount of software that's preinstalled on a new Windows computer was bad, Ubuntu will knock you over. Sure, it's nice having all those free programs at your disposal (unlike what's on a lot of Windows systems, this stuff isn't trialware). But for someone just getting his feet wet on a new operating system it's what psychology professor Barry Schwartz famously termed " a tyranny of choice."

Want to play music? There are 11 music players to choose from, including Audacious, JuK, and Quark. Need a text editor? Would you prefer GTKedit, Kate, KEdit, KWrite, Leafpad, Mousepad, or xae? All are available with a click or two from the gigantic repository.

If you want to install something that's not in the repositories, though, you might run into another non-Windows-like aspect of Linux. It's much more modular than Windows, so many programs need other software in place in order to work — something called "dependencies."

Thus when I tried to install the Cinelerra video editor, I had to first install some other things, and some of those needed things as well. Had my geek gene not been expressing itself, it would have been impossible.

Linux users are comfortable with this, judging by a comment in an article written earlier this year about Cinelerra: "...installation is simple: I add the correct Cinelerra repository for my CPU, along with the Debian Multimedia repository, to my /etc/apt/sources.list file, then update and install Cinelerra."

Linux folks are some of the best tinkerers on the planet, so this kind of stuff is second nature to them. My parents, not so much.

And while Linux itself — especially the version Dell will offer — is slick, much of the software available for it is not. It lacks the polish of many of the applications you'll find for Windows and the Mac.

The GIMP, the Linux image editor on par with Photoshop, really isn't on par at all. Yes, you can do most of the same things, but if you're coming over from the Adobe product you'll find The GIMP rough around the edges, to say the least.

And if you want to do video editing, forget it. There are a handful of programs available, notably Kino and Cinelerra, but neither works as smoothly as, say, Sony Vegas or even Adobe Premiere.

The best office suite for Linux is, which is very, very good ... but, again, a step below Microsoft Office when it comes to smoothness and polish.

Is Linux a viable desktop option if you're buying a Dell computer? Absolutely, as long as you're not interested in video editing (and you image-editing needs are limited), and as long as you're willing to put up with rough edges in exchange for a free operating system, freedom from just about any virus, and the potential to tinker to your heart's content.