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The purpose of this post is to document my experiences using Linux over the past few months. My hope is that it might add some value to other MSFT investors who are trying to assess whether Linux is a viable threat to dethrone Windows as the desktop of choice on business and (most) personal PCs. I undertook this endeavor to gain some personal perspective on the question, because most opinions on the topic--aptly illustrated on this board--fall into one of two fairly juvenile camps ("Linux Sucks" or "Bill Gates is Evil"), neither of which is of much help to the serious investor.

So I installed a copy of Linux on a spare laptop in my den, spent some time configuring it and debugging a number of issues, and then tried to use it on a fairly regular basis over the summer. This note shares a little of what I encountered.

Please note that that this exercise only enabled me to assess the value of Linux as an end-user desktop. It did not address the significant issues around whether or not Linux will impede the adoption of Windows 2000 Server or whether the open-source coalition model of the Linux community is a business model that can effectively compete with Microsoft. I have to find other ways to explore those questions.

First, A Bit About Me

I'm a bit reluctant to do this publicly, but knowing a little about my background might help you in assessing the value of what I share. In a few weeks I'll be forty-two years old. I'm an IT executive in the largest division of one of the world's largest public accounting firms. In that role, I have significant influence on technology decisions that affect tens of thousands of professionals (in short, I'm the kind of person MSFT targets most). I've been involved with personal computers since about 1980 when I taught myself 6502 assembly code on a Commodore Vic20. Since then I've run CP/M on first-generation Compaqs, migrated to DOS, was a serious Mac user for a while, and have spent the last few years using Windows95/98/2000. Early in my career I spent a lot of time writing code and supporting users. These days, however, I spend most of my time dealing with management issues, personnel problems, and budgets. As a reformed geek, my technical skills are more than a little rusty, but I would still rate my technological acumen as above that of the average user

Taking the Plunge

I toyed with the idea of just downloading a copy of Linux for free and installing it, but quickly abandoned that idea. Instead, I trotted down to CompUSA and bought a copy of Red Hat Linux Deluxe 6.1 (before somebody points it out, I know that Red Hat is now at version 6.2, but I haven't chosen to upgrade yet). I also purchased two books to go with it: Peter Norton's Complete Guide to Linux and Naba Barkakati's Secrets of Red Hat Linux. Net investment was about $120. (Observation: Purchasing a commercial distribution of Linux turned out to be a crucial decision. Without the help of a professionally-packaged distribution like Red Hat, a real human being would have no hope of installing and configuring Linux. And the distribution comes with lots of other goodies. So while one may freely copy the distribution, the first copy is not free.)

The machine on which I chose to install Linux was an IBM Thinkpad 600E. That machine had previously been configured with Windows 95, so before I dove in I took the time to open up the system utilities in Windows and copy down the properties of all the peripherals and devices attached to the system. I figured that because I no longer had the system documentation for this computer, using Windows to learn this info--which I figured would be necessary during installation--would not spoil my experiment. I familiarized myself with the contents of the Red Hat package and I also read both Norton's and Barkakti's books before starting (Confession: OK, OK, I didn't read every page. But I did scan them thoroughly, which is more than most users would ever do.).

Getting Started

Before I attempted to install Linux, I reformatted the hard drive so that I was starting with a virgin system. It was interesting to note that the Red Hat documentation assumed that I would set up my system for a dual Windows/Linux configuration, and the process for doing so is documented pretty thoroughly in the manual. But I wanted to be a purist, so I wiped the drive clean, crossed my fingers, and stuck the installation disk in the CD drive. (Observation: Whenever I ran into trouble and quizzed a book, manual, or web site for help, a common diagnostic tip was something like "if you can't determine the appropriate setting, log on in Windows and see how it is configured there." I found that more than a little puzzling, and thoroughly unhelpful since I had chosen to go the wilderness route.)

Much to my pleasant surprise, the installation went relatively smoothly and quickly. I needed very little of the system information I had so painstakingly copied down. Within an hour I had the system up and running (if not completely usable at that point). I selected to use the Gnome graphical interface. There were at least three to choose from, the other popular one being KDE, and I think both KDE and Gnome are variants on X Windows. I have no way of knowing whether I made the best choice. The interface was cleaner and organized better than I had originally thought it would be, and I found it reasonably intuitive (I had to make some adjustments, but I didn't have to sweat over any of them too much). I was able pretty quickly to set up the desktop the way I wanted it, complete with screen savers and background pictures. I set up the system with four users: root (admin), one for me, and one for each of my two teenage sons who also wanted to play with it.

(Confession: Up to this point, I was having a lot of fun. A good deal of my time on the system was spent playing an incredibly simple but addictive game called SameGnome. Anybody able to beat 6,000?).

The distribution came with a copy of Netscape Communicator 4.61 and Sun's Star Office 5.1, so I figured I had everything, within reason, that I needed to begin doing useful things. All I needed to do was to get connected to my ISP, and I should be off to the races.

The Good

Before we get into that adventure, however, let me share some positive observations:

1) As I said, the Gnome interface is reasonably usable, although not elegant.
2) I turned the system on in April and have only rebooted it once. While I haven't stressed it very hard, it has proven to be very reliable. More than I can say for Windows 98 (jury's still out on 2000).
3) The Red Hat on-line and written documentation was good and fairly thorough. I'm not sure, however, that a typical user would wade through it, even thought it was well put together. Users will always complain about documentation, no matter how good it is. I have no idea about the quality of the documentation in the other distributions (Observation: There are a number of distributions, and they differ a good deal in what is included in each. I don't know how to determine which was the best: Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE, TurboLinux, Debian, Slackware, or others I don't know about. I found this variety more confusing than reassuring. )
4) The Red Hat web-based help was *very* good. Whenever I had a problem that I posted on their web site (the distribution gives you access to free installation and other help for a limited time...another reason to buy it) I received an e-mail answer within 24 hours that was courteous, helpful, and sometimes even solved my problem. I would rate them as better than any other vendor I've used at on-line support. They are miles ahead of Microsoft, but I don't know how far they could scale up and keep that same excellent level of service.

The Bad

OK, so much for the honeymoon period. During the installation, I had several problems that I figured I would be able to work my way through...some I did, some I didn't. Most important to me was getting connected to the internet, because without such connectivity this experiment wouldn't last very long. That proved to be harder than I thought it would.

While I already had an account with AT&T Worldnet ( part of the world doesn't yet have any high-bandwidth options for home users), they only provide installations for Windows and Mac. No problem, I thought. I set all the parameters to match those required by AT&T in the "Dialup Configuration Tool" and gave it a whirl. Nothing. I eventually contacted Red Hat for help (Observation: The swift among you will note that the only way I could do so was to go to from one of my Windows machine. I had to do this on several occasions. Don't go in the water without a lifeboat nearby.)

It turned out that I had to download two "packages" (PPP and RP3) from the web site (again using my Windows machine) because the executables included in my distribution were no good. In doing so, I also had to figure out how to "mount" a DOS diskette in Linux, which required about a half dozen commands

(Observation: Although Gnome provides a reasonably clean graphical user interface, you will find yourself resorting often to the command line shell because many essential utility functions are available only that way. Linux doesn't shield you from the command line nearly as well as Windows shields you from DOS. If I weren't an old DOS dinosaur, I might have given up right then.)

Nevertheless, after much consternation, I eventually got my connection up and running. The PPP dialer I have is still a bit flaky, so one of these days I'll have to resort to the inevitable upgrade that I'm sure is available somewhere. It takes much longer (about 1 minute 20 seconds) to connect to AT&T on the Linux box than through Windows (10-15 seconds). Not sure why, and I have no clue how to find out.

(Question: Can one of you Linux experts tell me how I can determine easily what my connection speed is?)

Another issue was figuring out how to install Star Office so that more than one user could access it. I don't remember the exact details, but it took a couple of evenings crawling around the Sun and Red Hat sites, and diving into the Sun documentation to figure that out. It was much less intuitive than one would think for an intrinsically multi-user operating system. I've spent only a limited time exploring Star Office (I did write this article using it, but the formatting I applied to make certain words bold were lost when I pasted it into Navigator), so I'm not able to comment on how functional it is relative to MS Office. It feels a little clumsier, but that may be more related to my relative unfamiliarity than anything else.

The Ugly

Lastly, there were three significant configuration issues I've never been able to solve, despite many, many hours trying.

I have never succeeded in getting the video driver configured correctly. It works, sort of. Pictures and illustrations look OK, but virtually every font on the system is distorted, making it very tiring to work on for any period of time. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that I'm running on a laptop, but I haven't found anything at the Red Hat or IBM sites to fix my problem.

Second is that I've never been able to get my sound card to work at all (because I'm an amateur musician, I thought this Linux box might be an interesting addition to my MIDI studio, but it doesn't look like that will ever happen). Sound support, it turns out, isn't something that is supported natively in Linux, so unless your distribution contains the appropriate sound driver, you have to find one on the web and install it yourself. I did find one at an all-purpose Linux sound site (the name escapes me at the moment) and attempted to install it. To do so involved recompiling the Kernel. (Observation: I tried this. Trust me, "recompiling the kernel" is every bit as scary as it sounds.) Many hours and brain cells were invested in this effort, and my computer still has no sound. This is one of my biggest disappointments with Linux so far. Again, to be fair, this may be related to the fact that I'm running on a laptop, but it should be much easier to configure than it is.

Last, I've never been able to make my Iomega Zip drive work either (which would have been a nice way to share files with the other computers in the house). I contacted Iomega and found out that the only drivers they have supported a later version of the kernel than I had, so I would have to recompile. No thanks...been down that road already. I'll do without.

(Observation: As I mentioned earlier, the Linux command line intrudes into the user experience far too often. That extends even to commands on the Gnome menu that have bewildering names which betray their Unix heritage. Right there on the "friendly" menu are things labeled Mutt, exmh, lcal, lynx, slrn, trn, and xrn. I am not making this up.)

(Observation: Everything in Linux is case sensitive, which I knew but continually forget. This is exasperating with some commands and arguments...particularly when the uppercase and lowercase arguments to a command do different things.)

(Observation: I still haven't figured out the directory structure in Linux. Granted, once you're down in the bowels of Windows things aren't very friendly either, but I seem to have a harder time determining where things go in Linux. It seems like I have a multitude of folders repeatedly labeled bin, sbin, src, lib, usr, and var. I recognize some of them from my programming days, but I have no clue why I need so many of them.)

(Observation: I would have thought that the open-source movement would lead to better and better versions of programs. At least that's what I've seen promised. Instead, the tendency when a particular programmer doesn't like the way a particular function is implemented, rather than fix it he simply creates a similar tool that does the same thing but in a different way. There are multiple distributions of Linux. There are multiple GUI interfaces for Linux. There are multiple command shells for Linux. There are multiple text editors for Linux. And on and on. If Microsoft has done anything positive for computer users, it is that it has brought consistency and relative stability to the environment in which we work. I think this overwhelming number of choices will deter the adoption of Linux, not help it.)

(Observation: Downloading and installing programs from the web is a fairly daunting exercise for many things, depending on where they come from. The Red Hat RPM packages are fairly straightforward, but you will have to learn several other methods for decompressing, extracting from a tar, and perhaps recompiling tools. It isn't nearly as straightforward as unzipping a file and running an installer.)


To bring this long and boring post to an end, I have to say that my experience with Linux has not been as bad as I thought it would be (and I intend to keep this system up and running for a while to learn more). Those who have donated their time to making it more friendly can take great pride in what they've accomplished so far.

But my estimation is that it still has a long way to go before it can expect the kind of mass acceptance that Windows has found. In order to overcome the enormous cost of switching an enterprise (or even my family) to a new operating environment, the reasons to do so have to be completely compelling. Linux is interesting, but it is not compelling, and in my estimation from having worked with it for several months, it may never catch up. Even my techno-savvy seventeen-year-old son gave up on it and went back to Windows.

I realize that this post might generate a little heat, which I will try to ignore, but I hope my experience will prove helpful to at least a few people like me who were struggling with this question.

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