Is Linux really harder to use?

Linux may feel different for first-time users, but it's no more difficult than more popular operating systems such as Windows

Not surprisingly, the misperception that Linux is harder to use than other operating systems is also one that competing vendors routinely use to scare potential new users away from Linux.

Case in point: On a page (cached) recently put up on Dell's U.K. site--and removed soon afterward--the PC vendor suggested that Ubuntu is suitable primarily for users who are "interested in open source programming," and who don't mind "learning new programs for e-mail, word processing etc."

For most everyone else, Dell recommended Windows. How's that for injecting a whopping dose of unease in all but the most determined visitors?

Now, it's become clear in recent weeks that Dell is suffering from some sort of internal conflict when it comes to Windows. This page, after all, is still up on the site. Nonetheless, it's time to dispel once and for all this notion that Linux is too hard.

"It's Not Windows"

When North Americans learn to drive a car, they learn to drive on the right side of the road. Those in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, of course, learn to drive on the left. Neither option is "more difficult," per se, they're just different. Once you're used to one approach, however, it can feel awkward at first to do the other.

So it is with computer operating systems. Desktop Linux is simple, elegant and logical, but it works differently from Mac and Windows.

In Linux, the graphical user interface (GUI) is optional, for instance. The desktop environment can be completely customized, and package managers let you install software in just a few clicks, no surfing the Web or searching for serial keys required.

Then, of course, there's the fact that so many software programs for Linux are free, and that you don't even need antivirus software.

For those whose understanding of computers was formed based on Macs or Windows, Linux can feel a little strange at first. After all, the majority of the world still does use those two platforms, as recent Net Applications data confirms. Once you begin to see the benefits of Linux, however, that feeling will quickly pass.

"A Huge Learning Curve"

Linux lets you do everything you want to do on your computer without requiring enormous resources, expensive software, or perpetual vigilance against malware. Rather than getting in the way with an interface that restricts what you can do and how you can do it, Linux simply stays out of the way.

Much of the software for Linux will also feel extremely familiar to most users, particularly those for basic office productivity. The OpenOffice productivity suite, for instance, works just as it does on Windows, and it's very similar to Microsoft Office. Even better, it's compatible with Office, and it can open Office files.

For browsing the Web, Firefox requires basically zero getting used to if you've ever used a browser before.

With Linux and the apps that go with it, you can do pretty much everything you've been doing in a Windows or Mac OS--definitely more cheaply, and sometimes even more easily.

"Complicated Commands"

"But don't you have to know all kinds of complicated commands to use Linux?" is a concern I'll sometimes hear.

The answer: definitely not. For typical everyday Linux use, there's absolutely nothing tricky or technical you need to learn.

As you get more familiar with the Linux distribution you choose, you may want to begin learning how to use the Unix/Linux shell, but it's by no means necessary, particularly for standard business productivity purposes.

Running a Linux server, of course, is another matter--just as running a Windows server is. But for typical use on the desktop, if you've already learned one operating system, Linux should not be difficult.

"Compatibility Issues"

Finally, hardware and software compatibility is another oft-cited issue that can cause potential users to fear that Linux will be too difficult to make productive.

It's true that there are a few remaining instances of software packages and hardware equipment that Linux can't yet support because the developers of those tools have chosen to keep the necessary codecs, software or drivers closed and proprietary.

That, however, is becoming less and less common--and generally there's an alternative that will work just fine. There are also packages like Wine and Crossover Linux for running Windows-specific software.

Countless volunteer developers are out there right now, too, working hard to make Linux even easier in the future.

The Reality: A Winning ROI

Bottom Line? Linux is not hard--it's just not what you're used to, if you've been using a Mac or Windows.

Change, of course, can be hard, particularly when you've invested time in learning one way of doing things--and any Windows user, whether they realize it or not, has definitely invested a lot of time. But all that time and more will be repaid to you if you take the time to get used to Linux.

For small businesses, of course, the cost savings that result from using Linux and other free software can be particularly compelling. The lack of software license fees, first and foremost, can save a considerable amount of much-needed cash, as can reduced hardware costs, since PCs don't need to be upgraded as often.

Also considerable is the effect of Linux's reliability, which minimizes both maintenance and unplanned downtime. All told, using Linux generally saves some $400 to $500 per desktop.

My advice? Try to break out of the Windows or Mac box and keep an open mind--don't expect Linux to be Windows. Remember too that you're investing in a lifetime of free software with the flexibility to do whatever you want, however you want, free from the dictates of any huge software company.

How often do you get a return on investment like that?

In short, Linux is free, flexible, and powerful, but it definitely isn't hard.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)

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