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    Linux OS still not quite ready for prime time yet

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver Issue #784, November 2-8, 2004; High Tech Office column

    While virus, spyware, and other attacks have increased in frequency (500% more virus varieties released so far in 2004 than during the same period in 2003), users of Macintosh and Linux-powered computers have been quietly laughing up their sleeves; there are currently zero, count ‘em, zero viruses and spyware varieties out and about aimed at these computers.

    Not that it’s impossible to infect these computers but the default settings for both the Mac OS and Linux make it harder to do. And with their smaller market shares, malware creators know they’ll get far more bang for their buck going after the vast majority of Windows users.

    And while switching computer systems is time-consuming and stressful, so is continual vigilance against the nasty stuff aimed at Windows, to say nothing of the stress and time consumed in dealing with systems that have been taken down by virus or spyware infection.

    Early in October, telecommunications giant AT&T reported that it was looking at both Macintosh and Linux as potential replacements for the company’s tens of thousands of Windows PCs.

    Linux is increasingly used to power network and Internet servers, but it hasn’t gained a strong presence as a desktop operating system. Several big-name vendors have tried marketing PCs with Linux pre-installed without finding enough sales for them to continue. Even in developing countries, where Linux’s low cost would seem an attraction, Gartner Group in September estimated that in these countries on computers with pre-installed Linux, it is removed and replaced with pirated Windows copies about 80% of the time.

    Every year or so, I give Linux a try, installing an up-to-date version to see if it’s something I could be happy to use on my desktop. I’m not a Linux or Unix expert by any means, but I’m willing to spend some time exploring and fiddling.

    This time around, I downloaded the latest version of Mandrake Linux ( Linux comes in a wide range of so-called distributions, often freely downloadable. Mandrake 10 downloads as image files that are used to create a set of three CDs.

    I installed it on a year-old Dell laptop; I removed the hard drive holding the laptop’s Windows system, installing Linux onto an empty drive. Installation was fast and easy, no more complex than installing Windows. When installing Linux in the past I had problems with it recognizing some of the hardware; the video hardware, or the network adapter, or most often, the sound card didn’t work. This time around, Mandrake got everything right; after installation, it booted up with everything in order.

    By default, most Linux installations boot to a desktop that looks pretty familiar to Windows users: there’s a start menu, a taskbar, desktop wallpaper and screen savers. Linux distributions include a wide variety of additional software as well; office suites, graphics software, much more that comes with Windows.

    While the Mandrake installation included several web browsers, I wanted to try out Mozilla’s Firefox; I’ve been recommending that browser for Windows users. It was easy to download the Linux version, and it ran without problem after installation. But after shutting it down, I couldn’t find an icon to restart it. I searched the drive looking for the installed program, without success.

    I’m sure it’s there somewhere; I know I’m Linux-challenged. And I’m sure that the helpful people at the Vancouver Linux User Group ( would have pointed me in the right direction without making me feel too stupid. But if I can’t install a program and then be able to figure out how to start it up, Linux and I are not yet ready for each other.

    Linux is far more polished than when I first started looking at it; many users may find that it meets their needs already. I’m staying virus and spyware-free by doing most of my work on a Mac; I’ll give Linux another try in a year or so.

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