Add Linux and stir...

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, November 1999

In last month?s column, we started off on a theme that might be called ?two heads are better than one?, looking at my attempt to run two not-yet industry-standard operating systems, Windows 2000 and Linux on one notebook. In that episode, we took a pre-release look at life with Windows 2000, due from Microsoft ?real soon now?.

After getting W2K up and running, with computing getting back to being hum drum enough to take things for granted, it was time to shake things up again. Time for another OS?in this case, Linux. Linux is perhaps the best known example of Open Source software?software that can be distributed freely along with the source code, allowing those of us of a programming bent (not me, however), to see how it works and make any desired tweaks, modifications, or additions.

From modest beginnings, Linux has emerged as the darling of the ?Anyone But Microsoft? set, and has been gaining support, users, and practicality over the past few years. It?s been a while since I last tried out Linux, and I thought it was time to give it another look, to see how it?s evolved, and how it?s looking as an option?not for a programmer or hacker, not for a server, but for a desktop system.

Linux comes in the form of ?distributions??packages combining the basic system with varying setup routines and added extras. These might be downloaded from the Net, included on CD in books, or increasingly, in packages sold in all the standard software outlets. Perhaps the best-known is Red Hat?s distribution?currently in version 6. I used Red Hat 5.2 the last time I tried out Linux.

This time, I tried Caldera?s Open Linux 2.2. Caldera?s version is known for a slick setup program, and includes versions of PowerQuest?s Partition Magic to create Linux disk partitions while leaving your existing partition?s files intact, and Boot Magic to simplify booting between different operating systems. Caldera accepts that most users already have Windows 9x on their computers, and aren?t yet ready to nuke it and devote themselves 100% to Linux, needing sometimes to boot to Win9x, if only to play games that aren?t yet available in Linux versions.

That makes a lot of sense, though it?s not yet perfect. The limited-feature version of Partition Magic, for example, limited users to creating some oddly-sized Linux partitions?a 300 meg one that was much too small, a 1 gig one, that was adequate, but tight, or maxed-out one that barely left enough room for the Windows system. I picked the 1 gig option. And after installing Open Linux, Boot Magic refused to install?it seems it needs to go onto a FAT partition that starts and stops within the first 1024 cylinders of a hard drive?but doesn?t let you know this, until it?s too late. (And how big is 1024 cylinders?) Even the full, commercial version has this limitation?and also doesn?t bother mentioning it anywhere!

But the Open Linux setup is lovely?graphical, slick, and sophisticated. There are only a few questions to answer, and while you?re answering them, the Linux files are already being copied in the background. Afterwards, while you?re waiting, the setup program lets you play Tetris, while the file copying continues. One loss?users can choose a minimal, typical, or ?full-commercial? installation, but there?s no fine-tuning. Unlike the Red Hat installation, you can?t choose the individual packages to install?you get web server software installed whether you want it or not.

But in about 20 minutes, it reboots into Linux. Not to a command line terminal, but right into the KDE graphical environment. Complete with setup wizard waiting with the last few steps to customize your environment. Want a Windows look-and-feel? Or Macintosh? It?s all possible, and easy.

The ?full-commercial? installation gave me Netscape Navigator, Corel Word Perfect 8.0, and Star Office Suite all installed, along with a bunch of games, utilities, the Gimp graphics program, and more? pretty much a system ready to go to work?though taking up nearly 900 megs of the 1 gig partition. Though there are too many initial sub-menus on the KDE Start Menu, a little experimentation found the Menu Editor, which let me re-arrange the menus (just as I do on most Windows systems, given the chance).

(Since Boot Magic wouldn?t load, some clever readers may be wondering how can I boot between operating systems. To do this, I boot to a DOS floppy, and set either one or the other partition active?when I reboot, that?s the operating system that automatically starts up. Clumsy, but workable for now).
This year?s Linux seems much closer to being usable by the millions of users who just want a system that they can install, turn on, and use. With the application software already installed, it?s possible to get right to work or to browse the Net, or even to exchange files with Microsoft Office users.

Corel is currently beta-testing a Linux distribution that they promise will make it even easier for Windows users to make the switch. Maybe I?ll give that a try when it?s out. If so, I?ll let you know what I think.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan