offers another Windows alternative
Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business
September 19-25, 2006; issue 882
High Tech Office
This column has been looking at Linux, an alternative to
Microsoft’s Windows. Linux comes in a dizzying variety of
“distributions,” some free and some not. We’ve looked
at a pair of commercial Linux releases: Xandros, which is aimed at home
and small business users, and Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop,
which is primarily for users in large organizations.
Both are from companies offering a ready-to-install package of
operating system and applications combined with value-added extras and
support. But Linux also appeals to do-it-yourselfers, users prepared to
set up and configure their own systems and less interested in formal
tech support. (And even if you’re not in that category, when was
the last time you got actual support from the likes of Microsoft?)
The current favourite of the Linux do-it-yourself set is Ubuntu Linux,
the name of which comes from an African word that roughly translated
means “humanity to others.”
describes its offerings as “Linux for human beings.” Its
versions are free and open source, with support from the community of
users. If you’re unable to download the 600-megabyte CD images,
they’ll mail you copies of the installation CDs free.
Ubuntu comes in versions for standard 32-bit PCs, new high-end 64-bit
PCs and PowerPCs (such as Macs made prior to 2006). The standard Ubuntu
uses the somewhat Mac-like Gnome user interface. There’s an
alternative Kubuntu package based on the more Windows-like KDE
interface, as well as several other variants.
Because it’s fully open source, whether you’ve downloaded
and burned your own CD or gotten an official one mailed to you, you can
legally use it on as many computers as you like. The installation CD is
also a “live” version, which means you can boot directly to
it and run all the programs on it without installing anything onto your
hard drive – a good way to try Ubuntu without having to commit to
keeping it or to have a safe and secure way to connect to the Internet.
Also handy: disk utilities on the CD can be used if Windows is being
cranky or if you want to modify your hard drive partitioning without
wrecking your data or Windows installation.
Assuming you’ve got 10 gigabytes or so free, you can install it
while keeping Windows; at boot-up, you pick the operating system you
want to run.
There’s a down-side to Ubuntu’s free, open source
philosophy. Unlike paid Linux distributions like Xandros or
Novell’s SLED, Ubuntu doesn’t include anything that
isn’t covered by open source licences.
If you want free software like the Linux versions of Adobe Acrobat or
Real Player, you’ll have to add them yourself.
Luckily, Ubuntu makes that easy. There’s a well-integrated
Add-Remove Programs item in the menu that makes it simple to add
software. (A tip: click the options to show “unsupported”
and “commercial” applications for the most choices).
And a fresh Ubuntu installation is somewhat multimedia challenged.
While software to run popular music and video files is installed, out
of the box it won’t work with files as common as music MP3s,
because the file formats require non-open source add-ons. EasyUbuntu (http://easyubuntu.freecontrib.org/
walks users through the process of making it all work as it ought to.
Right now, I’m typing this on a laptop using
OpenOffice.org’s word processor running under Ubuntu. With it, I
can get my work done, do pretty much all the Internet stuff I might
expect, connect to my printer, digital camera, iPod and Palm PDA, as
well as connect to the Windows systems and Macs on my network and more.
And all using an operating system and applications that are free (and
legal) and virus and spyware free. Pretty good for a do-it-yourself