posted by Matthew M.J. Fogel on Sun 11th Apr 2004 21:27 UTC
Icon"You ever tried Linux?" my wife's Uncle Toby asked me as I sat in his home office that cold winter day. We had been discussing the rise and fall of the BeOS and he mentioned that he had tried a few different *nixes on his home server/firewall. "Here let me show you," he said as he flicked the switch on the monitor next to his Windows XP box.

Uncle Toby was running Mandrake Linux 9.0 on his server. He was using it as the firewall for his cable internet. He showed me how easy it was to navigate the KDE desktop and also showed me Kasteroids and Tux Racer. I asked him whether you could use microsoft file formats and he fired up OpenOffice.org and showed me the settings for opening MSoffice docs. That night I took home a freshly burned copy of Mandrake Linux 9.0 on 3cds.

Now, almost a year and a half later, I am huge booster of open source and I have converted four of my fellow computer geek friends to the Mandrake distro. But there are many pitfalls for the Windows user making the switch to Linux. Here are a few that I have encountered myself.

One of the problems faced by the open source community in general and Linux in particular is that we have all been engrained with certain preconceived notions about software. When Uncle Toby burned Mandrake for me that night, I asked him if he could also copy OpenOffice.org for me. He showed me how the Mandrake Software Sources installer worked and tried to explain that I didn't need a disk for every application that I wanted to install, but I insisted that I needed OpenOffice.org so just to shut me up, he went to the OpenOffice site and downloaded the latest tarball for me and burned it to CD. I have never used that CD. I never needed to.

What I didn't realize until after I had installed Mandrake for myself a few nights later, and what most Linux newbies today still have a hard time grasping, is that Linux is by it's very nature a network based operating system, and because most of the software is open source, there is a large amount of software that just plain ships with the distro.

I know this seems old hat to most OSnews readers, but really, this is revolutionary stuff. You just search the software database for the program you want to install, and after a short and completely automated download your new application is ready to run. (I have since learned the untar, configure, make, makeinstall ritual, but compiling from source is beyond the scope of this article. I am merely pointing out a few of the "gotchas" that snag new Linux users)

Brand recognition is another thing that gets in the way of "getting" linux. The first thing a new Linux user asks is "Can I use Windows Media Player in Linux." It takes a while for the new user to realize that the question should really be, "Is there a killer MP3 player for Linux."

Another concept that is hard to grasp for the new Linux user is the fact that so much of the software is free. Once they get it they are often amazed. The usual response I get when I explain how it works is, "So let me get this straight. You link up your Mandrake Linux to a bunch of FTP sites with software and then you just steal whatever you want?" And I answer, "No.. not exactly. It's not stealing, because it isn't commercial software. There is commercial software for linux and you do have to buy that if you want to use it, but most of the commercial software comes bundled with the OS if you buy the Official version, but the download version is free and so is all the software that comes with it."

Another preconceived notion about computers brought about by Windows9x/NT/2k/XP: The reboot. I ran a dead slow Compaq Presario 433 for 4 years as my answering machine. It ran for months at a time without a restart. It was running the Compaq version of Win3.1 and it was slow, but it was stable. Mind you, every month or so I would exit to DOS and run scandisk and defrag, so it wasn't without user intervention. But it was stable. I have since used Win95, Win98, WinME, WinNT4.0 and Win2000/XP in either my home or at work, and they will never be as stable as 16bit Windows on 16bit Dos. Repeat after me: "I have seen the bluescreen in WinXP and now I believe."

But Linux is STABLE. If it starts to choke on a tricky piece of code it will divert necessary resources to that code in an effort to get the job finished, often at the expense of user time cycles. So the desktop will slow to a crawl and lock up even though everything is fine at a kernel level. But it takes you a few months of use to realize this. So the linux newbie does what he would do in Windows: Restart.

On my current super slow machine (celeron400, 440bx mobo, 512mb ram, 40gig and 20gig harddrives ancient ATIragePro videow/8mb ram and LG dvd+rw combo drive) if I am doing some particularly processor intensive task the desktop will lock up. Coming from Windows with the preconceived notions that I had had, I would restart the computer after 2 minutes with no response. I would think to myself, "And they say it's stable, well, I'll show you stable you computer you. Look how stable my finger is as I press the reset button!"

One day the system locked up while I was editing audio files in Audacity. Because Cooledit2000 locked up on purpose when you did the same thing in Windows, I figured, ah I'll let it run. Sure enough the desktop came back. Now I never restart. I figured it out. On my little Cele400 it can lock for over 5 minutes, but it will recover everytime. I bet a lot of newbies reboot their systems unnecessarily just like I used to.

The final gotcha that I want to point out today is the reinstall. In the Windows world, nearly all of the really big problems with the OS need to be solved with either a fresh install of the OS or a system restore. I had reinstalled Mandrake some 10 times before a friend of mine taught me how to edit fstab and also the little trick with the script files in your home directory. I had thought that these config files were like registry files and that the system wouldn't boot without them. When I realized you could wipe them to restore your default settings it saved me a lot of hassle. Learning to edit fstab and the other configuration files is tricky, but I was pretty good with windows .ini files so I have a bit of a background anyway. But here is my point. The average windows user.. not power user, but average user, solves everything by reinstalling windows. And given a Linux distro they will do the same thing at the first sign of trouble. X-windows won't load video config failed: reinstall. Of course, now I know this is completely unnecessary, but it is a gotcha.

In many ways Linux can be so much more graceful than Windows. The KDE project and the commercial desktops based on Gnome (Ximian, Sun JDS etc.) demonstrate this. And for daily use, I enjoy KDE more than I enjoy XP, period. It makes more sense to me. But the initial configuration and the gotchas that I have outlined above will continue to stunt the growth of large scale adoption. It's not that the learning curve is too high, it's that this entire generation of computer users has learned how to use computers the Microsoft way. Flaws and all. And unlearning all of that baggage is the biggest factor in "figuring Linux out."

About the author:
Matthew Fogel lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada with his wife Sheri and his two sons Drew and Joey. He works for the SITEL corporation as a tech support agent for one of the big 3 PC manufacturers. He runs Mandrake Linux on his home computer and about that he says, "I don't intend to ever buy another piece of Microsoft software again... Bill Gates has enough money." Matthew has played guitar for over 14 years, and is quite good.

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