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Does Linux have a role in the home?

With all the issues surrounding Microsoft Windows, do you think the day
might come in the near future where those of us in the middle ground of
technology, those home users who know enough to keep our boxes up and running
and to tinker here and there, might want/be able to switch to one of the
friendlier distributions of Linux?

What do you think? Is the Linux community gaining enough common ground that
it one day might be a viable alternative?

Absolutely. That day is coming.

In fact, I’ve become enamored with one particular Linux distribution that’s
really caused me to believe that, for exactly the crowd you describe, that day
might just be today.

But as I’m also finding out, it really depends on what you do with
your computer. Some things aren’t quite there yet.

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I’ve become a big fan of Ubuntu
Linux. It installs easily, has a broad base of support, and has a good update
mechanism. In fact, I run Ubuntu on a couple of machines now – one dedicated
machine (an older machine I’m trying a few geeky things on), and in a virtual
machine (using Parallels Desktop) on
my Dell laptop.

For basic use – email, web browsing, word processing and the like, it looks
like a very reasonable and workable platform for “mid range” users – as you
say, those who aren’t afraid to tinker a little here and there, but are still
mostly interested in just getting things done.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues. For one example, it was quite a
bit of exploring and “geek and tweak” to get my Ubuntu install to recognize
that my laptop was capable of a larger screen size than it had detected by
default. That kind of thing, while out there, could be intimidating for some
users.

And local area networking and sharing, already a bit of a nightmare for
Windows users at home, doesn’t get any easier when you introduce different
operating system into the mix. In my case, I’m currently stuck with my Ubuntu
machine being able to see my Windows machine(s), but not the other way
around.

So why haven’t I switched completely?

Well, as mentioned in my MacBook Pro investigation, Thunderbird, the
cross-platform email program I want to switch to still has a couple of bugs that
prevent me from migrating my inbox rules. That’s not a Linux problem, but
highlights the fact that migrating is about more than operating systems – it’s
about migrating everything you do. In my case email is a critical part of my
day. I rely heavily on some of the features in Microsoft Outlook under Windows
XP, and if I can’t migrate those features, I can’t migrate.

Similarly, I rely heavily on being able to use my Treo as a modem when I
travel. That’s currently only something that’s available under Windows, and as
a result has stymied my migration to either Linux or my MacBook Pro.

But I am finding a lot of things that, unexpectedly, work. For example I
rely heavily on TrueCrypt, a data
encryption program, and on Hamachi, a
VPN utility – and to my surprise I now have both available and working on one
of my Ubuntu installs. With surprisingly little effort, I might add.

Some software I use regularly is already open-source and cross-platform, so
it’s simply a mater of locating and installing the Linux versions, if they’re
not already there.

After that it starts to become a matter of taste.

In many cases equivalent software is available, but it can best be described
as “the same only different”. Open Office is a great example. For much of what
folks do, it has many of the same features as Microsoft Word or Excel and
family – but presents a slightly different look and feel. It can be jarring to
try to switch. Other programs – the graphics program GIMP comes to mind –
provide very powerful features that might match many popular Windows
equivalents, but do so with such a dramatically different user interface that
“jarring” doesn’t seem to capture the difference.

“Linux is definitely, albeit slowly, becoming a viable
alternative for more and more people.”

The other problem that I do have with most open source software (which is
most of what you’ll find for Linux) is documentation. Not that documentation
for retail products is necessarily perfect or even complete, but it typically
does cover the basics for most users. Open source documentation can best be
termed “spotty”. There’s great stuff out there, and there’s … well, in some
cases there’s nothing; you’re on your own.

The big mitigating factor is that for most every major piece of open source
software there’s typically a very active user community providing some level of
support. This, too, runs the range from “arrogant and geeky” to actually
helpful, but there’s a lot of it out there. My video resolution issue I
mentioned earlier took just a few minutes of Googling to find the appropriate
community and answer.

But in short, distributions like Ubuntu are definitely elevating Linux from
the “geek” realm to those who I’d simply call “adventurous”.

While I’m not ready to make the switch myself for the reasons I mention
above, I have ordered more memory for my laptop so as to be able to run Ubuntu
more often, and use it for more things, along side (or rather, within) Windows
XP.

Linux is definitely, albeit slowly, becoming a viable alternative for more
and more people.

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15 comments on “Does Linux have a role in the home?”

  1. Ubuntu is probably the closest, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. One thing I notice about a lot of free Linux distros is that support for propriety media formats (notably MP3) isn’t included–something that’s virtually a given on Windows and OS X. A user has to go online and find the appropriate packages to download and install in order to do so.

    OpenOffice.org is excellent, but aside from the word processor I find that the other included apps just aren’t as… mature as their MS Office counterparts. Granted, it IS free, though.

    Reply
  2. Absolutely!

    As a matter of fact, I just finished creating my own Media PC for home and I’m a Windows guy. I just used a version of Fedora to create a MythTV system (MythDora).

    It seems Linux comes up faster than Windows on this machine. Interesting. 😉

    Great post!

    JD
    http://www.dcs-media.com/

    Reply
  3. And, a note for those who think that Linux is some “new kid on the block”, I’d like to point out that I’ve been using Linux since Windows 3.1 was brand new. I still have a set of Linux disks from 1994. It may have only recently gotten noticed by the “real world”, but it’s been around for a long time.

    Reply
  4. Ubuntu is an excellent distro. It’s the first I’ve ever used and have been using it on my Desktop since April. I’m no expert but I find commands more user intuitive.

    One graphics application you may find interesting for Linux is Xara Xtreme (http://www.xaraxtreme.org) I just downloaded and installed it, it seems very powerful.

    Since moving to Ubuntu, I hate working on Windows machines, the user interface is so ugly among many other things.

    -Dan

    Reply
  5. For the “closest thing to Windows” Linux, you may want to try the latest beta of Freespire – they have a “live CD” version which – for the first time of any distro- loaded and ran without a hitch on my Dell laptop- Linux and laptops don’t often get along so well- Ubuntu was a close 2nd but I was really impressed – especially for a Beta – and they offer an distro which includes proprietary codecs etc….this one is ( IMHO ) the leading one that could be the “Linux on the desktop” for Joe Sixpack…and they are just starting…Linspire ( on which it was based) never worked for me…but this one I could almost go 100% for…give them a bit of time ( and support) and they could be what all the buzz was about 3-4 yrs ago when Linux was supposedly “threatening” (*cough*) the Windows market…

    Reply
  6. I started with Linux when I became so frustrated at Win 98 routinely crashing. The good news was that Linux was stable, the downside was that very few things “worked” right out of the box. Now, years later, I’ve grown accustomed to using Linux, and cringe whenever I have to use a Windows machine.

    One the other hand, when friends are fed up with spyware, worms, virii, etc, I tell them to get a Mac. For the average non technically inclined user Linux still poses challanges. It is hopeless to tell a casaul user to download an installer, open a virtual terminal and drop down to run level 3, navigate to the installer and run the script, then restart X, just so they can run a 3-D screensaver.

    I think some of the few box sets out there (Mandriva comes to mind) have all these proprietary software on the disks. That is probably the best way for a newcomer to go.

    Reply
  7. Hi Leo,

    Ubuntu, whilst having a progenitor who is really cool (Bill will have to balloon round the world), is still a hobbyist distro.

    For example, one has to look on the web and follow a tutorial to get Internet sharing to work.

    I’ve been trialing SLED 10 for Linux newbies and think this distro is definately easy for the home user.

    It has everything they want out of the box. iPod and camera connectivity. DVD playing, The wonderful Beagle search tool. The outlook and office clones, and Firefox which many have already used.

    And with a 3D video card and some software installation through the superior Yast administration tool, the amazing and very productive XGL/Compiz virtual desktop manager.

    The menu system is different from Windows and very usable for the newbie.

    I think the differences from the Windows interface this distro supplies, helps newbies to migrate, as they don’t seem to expect it will be the same, something the other distros might benefit from.

    Out of 11 SLED 10 installs, no one has complained so far, something I have not experienced with Ubuntu.

    And really, what is $50 for someone who wants a workable free software system.

    So move over Ubuntu and make way for the new kid on the block.

    Kind regards,
    Stomfi

    Reply
  8. I agree with Stomfi, personally i can’t understand this hype around Ubuntu, i’ve tested it and noticed it to be years behind SUSE in every aspect. And this Windows-like thing with root permissions, why in the world it must be like anyone can do anything with root permissions? Just waiting Ubuntu-spesific linuxmalware…

    Reply
  9. Hello,

    Nice article, I agree with most of what is being said. But I also think that Ubuntu is not the best distro for newcomers (at least at this moment). It has far too little tools for configuration and system management. That’s why I would really recommend Mandriva or SUSE who help the user through wizards (Mandriva Control Center and Yast respectively) with these tasks. This takes away the need to dive down into configuration files and command line stuff, while still allowing to do a lot with the PC. You can find an article on Mandriva Linux for home use on my website here: http://coulier.org/CMS/MDV_2006_homeusers_1_EN.html
    As a long time Mandriva user, I wrote about Mandriva, but I have some experience with SUSE as well, and must say that SUSE rates almost as good in my book.

    Honestly, I think that Ubuntu is mostly popular with more experienced Linux users that have to habbit of editing configuration files and using the command line. Hence the popularity in the EXISTING linux community. But that does not make it the best choice as introduction to linux for windows users.

    Kind Regards,

    Wim

    Reply
  10. Leo,

    This is not an insult, but there’s a term for people like you. It’s called “locked in”. I’m not blaming you for it, but I’d like to mention it so everybody can watch out for it. Vendors try to get customers locked in all the time.

    You became addicted to certain features in Outlook. It’s no surprise that Microsoft doesn’t offer Outlook for anything but their own Windows operating system, is it? Years back, the same thing happenned when we all got locked in to VHS format video tapes. The result is that we continued to use a certain brand or format even though there might have been something better available.

    I’m mentioning this so that other users can notice it and be careful about it. Do you save videos in Windows Media format (wmv)? That format is owned by Microsoft. Do you have a large collection of music bought from the iTunes store? When your iPod breaks, you’ll surely be buying another one because no other portable players can play that music. Somebody commented on mp3 playback–did you know that it costs money to play mp3’s? That’s because the mp3 format is owned by a company that charges royalties to anybody who manufactures mp3 players.

    The moral of my story is that if you’re content to stick with Windows for the rest of your life, then go ahead and use all of Microsoft’s formats. If you’re sure you’ll always want an iPod, then buy from the iTunes store. But if you think you might want to switch to Linux someday (or to whatever comes after that, or whatever comes 50 years from now), try to use open source and open standards. It’ll make future migrations easier.

    Open source is computer software that has no secrets. The source code is available for all to see. This is like the “blueprints” of a computer program. Open standards are used in file formats such as ogg (a superior alternative to mp3), odt (an iso-approved format for word-processor documents), and others. These formats are available to any individual or software company to use–for free.

    There’s a lot of discussion lately in governments about open standards. It comes down to one main concern: who owns your data, you or your software vendor?

    Reply
  11. I’ve been using Linux at home since 1996. My kids (aged 12, 8 and 4) use it. My parents and sisters use it. In fact, my parents have never used Windows, having gone straight from DOS to Linux, so they never had preconceptions about how things were “supposed” to work, and found Linux a breeze.

    Right now, at my house, I even run the phones on Asterisk, which is a great way to avoid telemarketers (Google for “Zapateller”) and do all kinds of cool things with your phones.

    Reply
  12. Hi,
    I’ve been using linux for close to 8 years now. I started with a Slackware distro that a frien lent me. It installed from a set of about 20 floppy disks, but it was a lot of fun and worked very well. Since then I have tried many distributions and although I keep learning more and more about Linux, I seem to be gravitating towards the easy to use ones. I used Mandrake for a while, then SUSE for a couple of versions, but recently I decided to explore my options. I tried SUSE 10.1, including its very cool new 3D desktop. I know this 3D desktop is the future of Linux, but they need to still fix a couple of issues with it (3D acceleration is not available to applications). I tried Kubuntu, but to me it felt like a barely beta quality distro. SimplyMepis was recommended to me as “a better Kubuntu than Kubuntu”, since it uses KDE and Ubuntu repositories. Now, this was much better. I was able to install the proprietary nVidia drivers for my graphics card without having to touch the command line, but I could see there was still some margin of error for someone that doesn’t know what he is doing. I then tried a couple more that promised an “easier to use experience”, Freespire and PCLinuxOS. Freespire is very good. Everything worked well. The fact that CNR (their package manager) is now free, makes it even more appealing. The only thing I don’t like about it is their scheme of not having an active root account, but having users use su or kdesu to run applications that require root level permissions. To me, this creates more problems than what it solves. So, with one more distribution to try, I forged ahead to try PCLinuxOS. And, I am very glad I did. This distributions is the easiest way for a new Linux user to get going. Everyhting works. The proprietary nNidia drivers installed even easier than with SimplyMepis. Sound worked without problems (although I did have to disable the onboard sound card since I also have a Soundblaster card). MP3’s and DVD playback was a matter of installing a single package from Synaptic (the package manager) for each one. And, well, I think it looks very nice. All in all, I think there are some very nice options for the new Linux user. SimplyMepis, Freespire, and PCLinuxOS are all easier to setup and use than Ubunto or SUSE, but I definetly recommend PCLinuxOS above them all at this point in time. Here is a nice review to check out:
    http://www.tuxmachines.org/node/9123

    Reply
  13. I’ve been using Linux (Ubuntu) For 1 year now
    and its a very simple OS for me..
    I dislike the Microsoft Corporation ( For My Own Reasons ) Ubuntu has simple user interface.. I dont recommend a n00b to hop right on Ubuntu..
    If you are about to make that hop, I would recommend Dual-Booting Linux With Windows ..
    I said windows only because windows (XP) is the simple(st) OS for n00bs . i dont know how can you not know how to operate one, I used Windows XP 2 years ago but wasnt satisfied was looking for something harder.. I found Linux i thought it was a challenge at first but not after a while it was the best secure OS for me… But to all you n00bs
    if you really want to Use Linux.. Get Linux XP Desktop search it up on google. Its compatible with alot of windows programs..

    Well in conclusion Linux Rv13s..

    RuCCi4/ Russian Member-
    D0RiN

    Reply
  14. Do people not comment on Linux anymore (last comment September 1 2007 !) Linux Ubuntu 9.04 with standard interface, and the sister Linux Kubuntu 9.04 with the worlds nicest looking interface are now available. Load wine and you can now play many, many Windows format games on Linux. Even CAD and many other software trough wine are been converted for Linux as we speak. Magazines like PC Format recomend the change to Linux Ubuntu/Kubuntu 9.04.and most, after using 9.04 even say it is better than XP or Vista.
    pieter cloete

    Reply

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