04 October 2007

The Next Leap for Linux

LINUX runs the Google servers that manage billions of searches each day. It also runs the TiVo digital video recorder, the Motorola Razr cellphone and countless other electronic devices.

But why would anyone want to use Linux, an open-source operating system, to run a PC? “For a lot of people,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, “Linux is a political idea — an idea of freedom. They don’t want to be tied to Microsoft or Apple. They want choice. To them it’s a greater cause.”

That’s not the most compelling reason for consumers. There is the price: Linux is free, or nearly so.

Unlike Windows from Microsoft and OS X from Apple, Linux is not owned, updated or controlled by a single company. Thousands of developers around the world work on Linux, making improvements and issuing new versions several times a year. Because the core Linux software is open source, these developers have the right — some would say responsibility — to borrow from one another’s work, constantly looking for enhancements.

But Linux has always had a reputation of being difficult to install and daunting to use. Most of the popular Windows and Macintosh programs cannot be used on it, and hand-holding — not that you get that much of it with Windows — is rare. But those reasons for rejecting Linux are disappearing.

Until recently, major PC makers shied away from Linux. Now the industry is watching as Dell is selling two Linux-equipped desktop models ($549 and $870, including a monitor) and a $774 notebook PC. (Hewlett-Packard offers Linux systems to businesses, and Lenovo, the Chinese company that bought I.B.M.’s PC division, sells Linux machines in China and says it will soon offer Linux-based computers in the United States.)

The Ubuntu version of Linux runs the Dell computers. Because Dell does not have to pay a licensing fee for the operating system, the computers are $80 cheaper than PCs with Windows Vista Home Premium or $50 cheaper than the stripped-down Vista Basic edition.

Ubuntu is generally regarded as one of the more consumer-friendly versions of Linux, so the Linux PC experience is similar to what you would get with a Windows-equipped Dell. When you start the machine, the screen looks familiar; preinstalled applications can easily be found and run from an Applications menu at the top left of the screen. A “Places” menu lets you search for files, and a System menu is there for setting preferences and finding help.

And there is a lot more than just an operating system. Ubuntu, like some other Linux distributions, comes with a lot of free software, including OpenOffice, an alternative to the Microsoft Office suite with a full-featured word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation program. It also comes with the popular Firefox Web browser as well as an e-mail program, an instant messaging program, a graphic image editor, music player and a photo manager.

Thanks to open source developers, there are thousands more free programs. An Add/Remove function actually makes finding programs easier with Linux than it is for Mac and Windows. Without having to go to Web sites, it lets you browse through categories of software. It took me only seconds to find several additional music players, a PDF reader and other programs. In addition to downloading the software, this feature installs it and finds any necessary additional files.

You do not have to buy a new Dell PC to try Linux. You can order a free CD or download a copy of Ubuntu at ubuntu.com. The Ubuntu CD can be used to install Linux on a PC’s hard drive, or you can boot from the CD to test-drive the operating system on a Windows machine or an Intel-based Mac, without having to install or delete anything. Running Ubuntu from a CD is considerably slower than from a machine’s hard drive but all the functions are there, so it’s a good way to get a feel for how it works.

One challenge for Linux users is finding media players that work with encrypted music and DVDs. Ubuntu comes with a movie player, but it is not automatically configured to play copy-protected commercial DVDs. To watch a movie, the Linux user must install necessary codecs, or decoders. One way to do that is to first download a program called Automatix from www.getautomatix.com.

When you run that program you get an ominous warning that downloading and installing “non-free codecs without paying a fee to the concerned authorities constitutes a CRIME in the United States of America.” Users in the United States are advised: “please do not install option AUD-DVD.” Users who ignore that legal warning can then configure Ubuntu to play commercial DVDs.

There is no iTunes for Linux, but the Banshee Music Player is one of several programs that will let you sync unprotected music files from a Linux machine to an iPod or other MP3 player. It will not work with copy-protected music bought from iTunes or other online music stores. You can find it in the Sound & Video section of the Add/Remove utility or download it from banshee-project.org.

The hardest way to get Linux is to download the installation files. It is often difficult to figure out what files to download and in many cases you will have to burn those files to a CD or DVD. Windows users will need a commercial CD burning program or the free BurnCDCC (available at terabyteunlimited.com/utilities.html).

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, acknowledged that “there are a few dark spots but they really tend to be fairly rare, and in practice quite often the biggest hurdle is simply that Linux mostly doesn’t come preinstalled and set up for you.” He also says that the easiest way to get Linux is to buy the DVD (or CD) from one of the most common sources. One way to ease the transition to Linux is to buy a support contract. For $50 you can download Novell’s version of Suse Linux with a year of support. For $35 more you get a CD.

After using the operating system for writing, Web surfing, graphic editing, movie watching and a few other tasks, it is easy to conclude that Linux can be an alternative to the major operating systems. But since common tasks like watching a movie or syncing an iPod require hunting for and installing extra software, Linux is best for technically savvy users or for people whose needs are so basic that they will never need anything other than the bundled software.

However, trying Linux — especially if you boot it from a CD — is a great way to find out what a lot of open-source adherents are so excited about.

And with prices starting as low as free, you certainly cannot complain about the price.

Source: New York Times

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