news that works for you


ISSUE 496: The high-tech office- April 27 1999


For the gutsy, 'hands-on' computer user,
Linux is an operating system to beat the rest

Are you old enough to remember the classic British sports cars such as Morgan, Triumph and MG? How about a 12-cylinder Jaguar XKE? Owning one in the 1950s or '60s often meant spending about as much time fiddling with the hardware as driving. But the cars have a loyal following.

Move forward to the present and replace cars with computers. Linux is an example of an operating system for people who are willing to spend the time working with the guts of their systems to get performance that's a cut above the rest.

Just in case you've missed it, Linux is software that enables your computer to read, write files and run programs. It runs on a wide variety of hardware in place of the more common Windows or Macintosh operating systems.

Linux was developed in the early 1990s by Finnish student Linus Torvalds, as a recreation of the industrial-strength Unix operating system. One of the main reasons the system has thrived is that Torvalds insisted the original programming code be freely published, customized and altered to fit.

Like the sports car of yore, that means the possibility of endless tinkering and sports car-like performance. Even older hardware can weave nimbly around the lumbering hulks of Windows and Macs.

However, unlike our classic sports cars, many Linux users report they are able to keep systems running for months at a time with no crashes or need to restart. Linux is also affordable. Users with infinite patience can download it over the Internet. The rest of us can buy any of a variety of "distributions" on CD for about $50.

How could I resist? I've installed different versions of Linux onto several different machines from older Pentiums to an almost new Pentium-II and even onto a Mac. Installation was easier and more straightforward than I'd been led to expect, though repartitioning a hard drive for a clean installation is probably too hairy for many users.

However, as soon as it starts up I find myself immediately transformed into an almost helpless new user.

Buying a couple of books didn't help much. It seemed as if every page raised more questions than it answered. The local Linux community, however, was a real source of information and assistance ( E-mails to Linux users brought near immediate responses with one person even volunteering a Saturday to help me get up and running.

As you can tell, I'm not a Linux pro by any means. Here are a few of the conclusions I have drawn so far:

* Linux is everything that the fans claim. It's fast, powerful and seems stable. While I haven't used it as a network server, I have no reason to doubt that it would perform well in a wide variety of settings such as a print server or Web pages host. In these areas it will certainly perform much better on older or limited hardware than Windows NT.

* There is an increase in standard business applications for Linux. Most distributions include the Netscape Navigator Web browser. Corel has released a Linux version of Word Perfect that is free for home users. The company has also promised to bring the rest of its office suite core applications over to that platform. Less well-known products such as the Star Office Suite exist and large software firms from Oracle to IBM are increasing support for Linux.

Still, I can't recommend that Windows or Mac users rush to replace their operating systems with Linux. Too often, seemingly simple things are still too hard. For example, when you've installed Word Perfect onto your system you don't automatically get an icon on your desktop. It takes more fussing.

A new Linux distribution, TurboLinux, is promising a ready-to-use package. Linux is constantly evolv-
ing and sometime soon may be ready to challenge Microsoft and Apple for mass market desktops.

For now, it remains a strong product for fans who don't mind a little fiddling. *

Search WWW Search

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