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Subject: [hangout] Linux, Still an Awkward Alternative (Washington Post)
Date: Tue, 6 Jul 2004 16:27:40 +0100
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Linux, Still an Awkward Alternative
By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, July 4, 2004; Page F07
The choice of software to run our computers can get awfully depressing. On
one hand, there's Windows XP -- expensive and woefully insecure, but it
works on almost every machine out there. On the other, there's Mac OS X --
far more secure, but also expensive and restricted to Apple's own computers.
Where's our independence from this pair? For a growing minority of users, it
comes in the open-source operating system called Linux. It's either cheap or
free (depending if you buy a packaged distribution or download a version
online), it's secure and it can run on any Windows-ready machine.
And because its code is open for anybody to modify, users, not marketers,
can get the final say in this operating system's evolution.
But Linux doesn't offer up these rewards easily. At worst, installing it
means hours of thumb-wrestling the software into submission, first tweaking
it to work with a PC's hardware and then mastering the inscrutable routines
needed to update and manage this code.
The first problem arises because many hardware manufacturers provide
enabling software only for Windows, forcing Linux programmers to do that
work on their own. The second is a consequence of how Linux was first
crafted by hobbyists for other hobbyists.
With a lot of work by developers, those issues have improved greatly in
recent years, and Linux has gotten easier to find in stores (Wal-Mart's Web
site even sells desktop computers with it pre-installed).
To check up on Linux's progress, I tried two commercial distributions, SuSE
Linux 9.1 Personal ($30, www.suse.com) and Mandrakesoft's PowerPack 10 ($85,
www.mandrakesoft.com), and one download-only release, Fedora Core 2
(fedora.redhat.com), a community project sponsored by Chapel Hill,
N.C.-based Linux developer Red Hat Inc. (Windows XP Home goes for $199 new,
or $99 at the upgrade rate.)
All three incorporate the latest updates to the underlying Linux software,
differing mainly in the programs wrapped around that kernel of code. All
show the progress that has been made -- and the work that remains to be
At one extreme, consider the "LiveCD" SuSE -- pop this in your CD-ROM drive,
reboot and you can run Linux right off that disc without touching your
existing Windows installation. It's a quick and painless way to try out this
Mandrake's protracted setup routine, however, didn't configure a graphical
interface automatically and kept asking me to confirm technical details like
"mount points" that other distributions handled on their own. (Mandrake's
cheaper Discovery edition includes a LiveCD, but PowerPack omits it.)
Unfortunately, to install any of these versions without wiping out most
Windows installations, you'll need to buy a third-party program to partition
your hard drive.
Hardware compatibility is the stickiest part of loading Linux, and all three
distributions had their moments on my three test computers. Fedora didn't
accept an ancient IBM desktop's network card, SuSE didn't recognize the
sound cards on two of three PCs until after a reboot, and a different sound
malfunction in Mandrake caused a Dell laptop to emit an ear-piercing
screech. None supported the laptops' modems or system-suspend modes.
Most things, however, did function normally after each install. For example,
all three Linux versions detected an IBM laptop's WiFi receiver and
connected to my wireless network (the Dell's Centrino WiFi circuitry,
however, didn't work). Mandrake and Fedora also printed to a Hewlett-Packard
printer-scanner device on the first try. The CD-burning tool in Mandrake and
SuSE looked and worked about as cleanly as anything sold for Windows.
Connecting an old Canon S100 digital camera was easier in Linux than in
Windows XP; I didn't have to download extra software or click past ominous
warnings about the perils of unsigned drivers. But a newer Pentax Option 550
camera didn't work, and I couldn't synchronize a Zire 31 handheld organizer
using the software each version provided.
The greatest differences between these distributions came in their vaguely
Windows-esque interfaces. Mandrake's was the most cluttered, with its
thickly nested menus; SuSE pared down the complexity but suffered from
initially puzzling settings (icons on its desktop respond to single clicks
instead of double clicks). Fedora looked far cleaner.
Mandrake and SuSE, however, also bundled the largest number of Internet,
productivity, multimedia and utility programs. Fedora's setup required extra
downloads for such basics as MP3 playback.
That brings up Linux's biggest embarrassment: software installation. Outside
of core system updates (ably handled by each distribution's auto-update
software), my attempts to add new programs were routinely stymied by the
chancy availability of prepackaged downloads and "dependency" issues, in
which the installation failed because the computer lacked needed library
The traditional fix has been to download a program's source code and build
it into the finished product on your computer, a lengthy and tricky process.
The better solution is the smart package-installer Fedora employs; its "yum"
utility fetches a program from an online archive, resolves dependency issues
and sets it up with one command.
It's a clever system. Except -- duh -- there's no graphical front-end to it,
forcing users to use a text-only, command-line interface.
To judge from comments I've read in online forums, I'm not the only person
bugged by that. That, in turn, means that a friendlier interface can't be
long in coming. And in this way, bit by bit, Linux will continue to grow
stronger. It's a fascinating process to watch, even if the results aren't
always what you'd want for your everyday system.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob-at-twp.com.
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