Is Linux right for you?

Existing Linux companies made plans to go public, new Linux companies sprang up like lemonade stands during a heat wave, and companies that had never heard of the OS stumbled over themselves to adopt a "Linux strategy" (and watch their stocks rise). Major Windows-only computer vendors such as Dell and IBM started offering server and desktop equipment with "Linux inside".

For Windows users, the Linux hype raises many questions.

Is Linux just another computing fad soon to disappear from the headlines, like push technology? Or is it here to stay, like the Web? Not only is it here to stay, but the number of people using it at the corporate and desktop levels continues to mushroom.

What makes Linux so special compared with other OSs? The answer is that it's inexpensive to install and maintain, resists crashes better, and can run on numerous platforms - from Intel-based PCs and Apple Macintoshes to high-end Sun servers.

Could Linux become a realistic alternative to your Windows desktop? Perhaps - and sooner than you may think. Dell Computer will install Linux on servers, workstations or other machines if a customer requests it. Compaq offers RedHat Linux 6.2 on its servers, Alpha stations and select Deskpro PC models. And Corel is making desktop Linux a more palpable reality with no-sweat installation, a user-friendly desktop, and the promise of a tool that will let you use Windows applications (if your PC is set up in a networked environment).

If you love something, set it free

Linux inside?

Looking for the killer app

Things you should know before you installPick your flavour of LinuxThe Linux almanac - facts and software on the WebYour Linux questions answeredCan I put Linux on my PC?

Will my current hardware support Linux?

Can Linux coexist with Windows?

I've heard that, unlike Windows, Linux doesn't have a standard graphical user interface. Is this true?

How many major apps are available for Linux?

If I install Linux, what sort of learning curve should I expect?

How do I choose a distribution?

Linux sounds like a real mixed bag. How do I know whether I should try it?

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DOCUMENTATION AND SUPPORT

COMMENTS

LinuxCare

www.linuxcare.com

The big fish in the Linux support sea. This vast site of forums and knowledge bases is free to browse.

Linux Documentation Project

www.linuxdoc.org

With contributions from Linux users worldwide, the LDP house essential how-to documents and other data.

LinuxNewbie

www.linuxnewbie.org

Offers simple-to-understand help files geared toward new Linux uers.

LinuxWorld.com.au

www.linuxworld.com.au

News, reviews and Linux how-to's for Australian readers from IDG, the publishers of PC World.

Freshmeat

www.freshmeat.net

Updated daily, this site features new Linux utilities, apps, games and software - all free for downloading.gPhotowww.gphoto.orgHook up your digital camera to a computer running Linux, and view your shots.

LinuxApps

www.linuxapps.com

More free Linux software at a clean, organised site that makes it easy to find what you're browsing for.

Sun StarOffice

www.sun.com/products/staroffice

Grab a copy of Sun's free office suite here.

The Gimp

www.gimp.org

Think of it as Photoshop for Linux.

TUCOWS Linux

www.tucows.com

If you're familiar with the TUCOWS site for Windows software, you'll feel right at home at TUCOWS LInux.

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DISTRIBUTION

PRICE

COMMENTS

Caldera OpenLinux 2.4

www.caldera.com.au

$89

Caldera prides itself on easy installation (you can play a game of Tetris as the OS installs); it focuses mainly on business users.

Corel Linux OS 1.0

linux.corel.com

$79

(standard edition)

The new kid on the block, the 1.0 release has a few rough edges but is the easiest, friendliest Linux yet.

Debian GNU/Linux 2.1

www.debian.org

$49

Corel built on this distribution to create its own product. Debian does not yet market its distribution directly, but you can grab a CD from online resellers. No support is included.

Linux Mandrake 7.0

www.mandrake.com

$79

(PowerPack edition)

Originally an offshoot of the RedHat distribution, Mandrake now has a comprehensive Linux installation program.

RedHat Linux 6.2

www.redhat.com.au

$70

$150 (Deluxe)

$300 (Professional)

One of the oldest, most trusted distributions around, RedHat has long been considered by many Linux veterans to be the best distribution for Linux servers.

Slackware Linux 7

www.slackware.com

$59

The granddaddy of Linux distributions - think of it as a "by hackers, for hackers" offering. Walnut Creek CD-ROM distributes and markets Slackware.

SuSE Linux 6.3

www.suse.com

$90

This German distribution is popular in Europe. It sets itself apart from the rest of the pack by shipping with hundreds of applications.

TurboLinux Workstation 6.0

www.turbolinux.com

$49

The most popular distribution in Asia, TurboLinux is gaining support in the West among IT professionals who tie many PCs together to act as one powerful computer (a technique know as clustering).

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From all the hype, you probably know that Linux is open-source software - which means that Linux users can download, test, use, alter and copy it as much as they want. Among its benefits, open-source software is supposedly more stable than proprietary, or closed-source, software. The reason is simple: peer review. When something goes wrong with open-source software, any programmer can go "under the bonnet", analyse what's wrong, and offer solutions for all users.

Windows users will find the willingness of the open-source community to respond to bug reports downright astonishing. For instance, when I found a bug in a third-party Linux ICQ client, I e-mailed the author about it, and - voilĂ ! A new, corrected version appeared within 48 hours.

Like the Internet, Linux isn't controlled by a single company. Linus Torvalds created the "kernel" - the core of the alternative operating system - in 1991 while he was still a student at the University of Helsinki, and he chose to make it available to everyone. Developers are free to change the kernel source code for their own purposes, but all of the modifications they introduce must be made public, and many are submitted to Torvalds for incorporation in later versions of the kernel.

Torvalds himself works for a company that doesn't even produce a version (or distribution) of Linux for PCs. Instead, that job has fallen to such firms as Caldera, Corel, Debian, TurboLinux and RedHat. Each of these companies adds its own embellishments to the Linux kernel - a unique graphical user interface (GUI), various applications and applets, a customised setup program, system utilities that keep everything running smoothly, etc. As a result, distributions of Linux differ.

Although anyone can download the latest kernel for free, Linux distributors generally charge for their particular add-ons and technical support (see "Pick Your Flavour of Linux").

People who've adopted the OS - from staff members of corporate IT departments to end users - say Linux is a stable operating system that rarely crashes. That news surely gives pause to companies considering an upgrade to Windows 2000.

Frohwitter, an international patent attorney firm (based in the US), had considered upgrading its network operating system from Windows NT to Windows 2000 but opted for Linux instead.

"We wanted Linux for its stability and also to preclude the need to upgrade to Windows 2000," notes Ronald Chichester, a lawyer with the firm. "One of our staff attorneys ... discovered that Windows NT crashed up to three times per day. But now that we run NT on top of Linux, her computer has not crashed in weeks."

Like most businesses, Frohwitter depends on an array of Windows-based applications and didn't want to lose access to them. By using VMware's $US299 VMware for Linux ($US99 for individual, non-business users), the firm can get the stability of Linux while still using Windows apps. Corel will be adding similar functionality to its Corel Linux OS, thereby enabling users to access and display Windows applications running on networked servers. Although Linux currently enjoys a 25 per cent share of the server market, it commands only 4 per cent of desktop operating systems sold, according to figures provided to International Data Corporation.

Corel, which is probably best known for desktop PC apps such as CorelDRAW and WordPerfect Office, is banking on the anticipated Linux juggernaut. The company is reorganising itself and has merged with software giant Inprise/Borland in an attempt to become a Linux powerhouse. According to Derik Belair, director of strategic applications for Corel, Linux's stability and versatility are its central strengths. "Linux can power a handheld device or run a cluster of very powerful machines. And [because the architecture is open] we can make all these devices talk to each other," says Belair.

Other Linux developers share Belair's opinion. Bob Young, the chairman of Linux distributor RedHat, notes that the operating system is ideal for thin-clients (for example, PCs used exclusively to run a Web browser) and for Internet-connected appliances such as the RedHat Linux-based TiVo set-top box for television. Even Royal - a business machine maker since the half-forgotten days of the manual typewriter - is porting Linux to its line of low-cost DaVinci handheld personal organisers.

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Is your computer ready for Linux? Until now, a notoriously frustrating installation process has stopped most people from loading Linux on their desktops and notebooks. Corel has remedied this problem by introducing a simple four-step setup. Corel Linux also includes a copy of WordPerfect 8 for Linux that can read and save documents in Microsoft Word and other common formats.

Hardware compatibility, especially for printers, has posed another obstacle to using Linux on your PC. Hardware vendors have been slow to offer driver support, but in response to the massive growth of the Linux user base, peripheral makers have begun to come up with the necessary drivers. "Now that we have the public support of the major PC vendors," says RedHat's Bob Young, "they are putting pressure on their suppliers to ensure that the components they use support Linux."

ATI, 3dfx, S3 and a number of other major video graphics card producers now accommodate Linux and cooperate with the open-source community to make drivers available. The upcoming Linux kernel release 2.4 will bring USB and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) support to Linux, and Corel has been spearheading an effort to standardise Linux's printer support.

The final roadblock facing Linux has been the lack of popular software that will run on it. The absence of Linux versions of big-time business and personal applications like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Intuit Quicken still hampers the OS, but PC users no longer have to choose between running Linux and using their favourite apps. Third-party solutions - notably VMware and GraphOn's Bridges - let Linux PCs run Windows 9x and NT software.

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Linux advocates expect the software situation to improve soon. Corel is investing not only in its own distribution of Linux, but in a Linux version of its massive Windows-based WordPerfect Office suite, which includes the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, the Paradox database, Corel Presentations, and Corel Central (a personal information manager). So far, WordPerfect Office is the only major business-oriented application suite to cross the Windows/Linux divide. However, other applications such as StarOffice now run on Windows as well as Linux.

Will the advance stop at Corel? Analysts believe that further Linux versions of popular Windows apps are unlikely unless someone develops a killer app to get desktop adoption of Linux rolling on a Windows-imperilling scale. (A killer app is a program with such outstanding benefits that its underlying technology - say, Linux - is worth adopting.) Certainly, a lot of techies and tech visionaries feel a strong affinity for Linux. That's why Tony Iams, a senior analyst with D. H. Brown Associates, says he wouldn't be shocked by the emergence of a Linux-based killer app. "In fact," he says, "[such development] could be happening in some garage right now."

In light of Linux's impressive progress over the past six months, the choice between Windows and Linux has become a lot more difficult to make. To simplify the situation, we've formulated several questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether to make the jump or stand pat.

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Of course. But getting it to work properly might take some work - or even require that you replace hardware. As noted earlier, one long-time problem with Linux has been its hardware support. For instance, you might have trouble making graphics hardware work under Linux, because vendors only recently began working with the open-source community to provide drivers for Linux's graphical user interface, XFree86. This situation is steadily improving: the latest release of XFree86 provides support for NVIDIA's entire line of graphics accelerators - including the GeForce 256 - plus new adapters from S3, ATI, 3dfx and others.

Modems are another source of trouble, although any external modem and many internal ones will work with Linux. Problems arise with devices called Winmodems. They work like regular modems (and are sold as full-fledged units), but Winmodems rely on your computer's CPU to handle much of the processing that standard modems do themselves. This makes them cheaper but also leads to conflicts with Linux, since the software that makes the magic happen runs exclusively under Windows. Modem manufacturers, fearing support troubles and being reluctant to give away their secrets, have not provided open-source developers with enough technical information to create third-party Winmodem drivers. These widely distributed devices are, for the moment, useless under Linux.

Previously, built-in printer support for Linux was minimal. Most current Linux applications produce output in PostScript - a page layout that only expensive, high-end printers tend to support. A utility called Ghostscript lets these apps talk to non-PostScript printers, but Ghost-script drivers can't support the entire range of printers. (In addition, some apps provide their own set of printer drivers.) The bottom line: if your printer is a few years old or a high-end model, you have a better chance of being able to make it work. The printing situation should improve significantly over the next year because Corel has open-sourced the printer routines developed for its office suite and Hewlett-Packard says it is developing Linux printers.

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Check with the makers of the various Linux distributions. Most maintain extensive hardware compatibility lists online. For modems, your best online resource is Rob Clark's database page called Winmodems Are Not Modems (www.o2.net/~gromitkc/winmodem.html); check here to determine whether your unit is a true modem or a Linux-incompatible impostor. The Printing HowTo Support Database (www.picante.com/~gtaylor/pht/printer_list.cgi), a similar database from engineer Grant Taylor, may help you figure out whether your printer will work under Linux. Yet another set of third-party Web pages on the University of Texas Web site (www.cs.utexas.edu/users/kharker/linux-laptop) tells you which notebook computers (past and present) will properly run Linux.

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Yes. If you want to install Linux but you don't want to jettison Windows from your system altogether, you can arrange to put Linux in a separate area on your hard drive (most distributions need approximately 500MB of space). Whereas Windows uses just one hard-drive partition, Linux generally re-quires at least two. Some Linux distributions - such as Caldera's - will safely shrink your Windows partition and then create the new partitions for you. Others, however, require you to run a utility like PowerQuest's PartitionMagic first, to get your hard drive ready for Linux. Then, when your machine boots, a tiny program called LILO (the Linux Loader) will let you choose which OS to run. (See Upgrader on page 114.)If you want to enjoy both the stability of the Linux operating system and the breadth of software available for Windows, VMware's new VMware 2.0 can help: it permits you to run Windows 9x, NT or 2000 on top of Linux - or Linux on top of Windows NT/2000. It accomplishes this by creating a "virtual PC" inside the host operating system - your main OS. You can then install a secondary OS on the virtual machine. The technology isn't perfect, but it works much better than you might expect. GraphOn's Bridges lets Linux boxes use Windows applications, but it works across networks, the Internet, or dial-up and requires a Windows-based server.

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Yes. But don't get scared. A Windows system's look and feel are determined by the OS itself: Windows defines what menu bars, scroll bars, dialogue boxes and so forth will look like. Linux doesn't provide such definitions - XFree86, the GUI architecture that ships with all Linux distributions, doesn't dictate the look and feel of the interface. Another piece of software, called a window manager, handles that job. The window manager you select (there are many) determines what your on-screen windows, menus and buttons look like, but it may not provide other features, such as a taskbar. Your desktop environment handles that.

The two main desktop environments currently vying for Linux supremacy are GNOME and KDE. Despite some differences in software architecture, both provide a taskbar, an application launcher resembling the Windows Start menu, and various applets (note-pad, calculator, CD player, and so on). Corel Linux OS and Caldera OpenLinux ship with KDE. RedHat Linux and Linux-Mandrake ship with both environments, but RedHat defaults to GNOME whereas Mandrake defaults to KDE.

Neither environment is superior. Both put a clean, straightforward interface on top of Linux - so most Windows users who have never seen Linux before can start to work right after the installation. Both the GNOME and KDE environments are open-source, collaborative efforts, and the development teams for each are striving to build free office applications that will one day be integral parts of their respective environments.

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More than you'd expect, but probably fewer than you would like. The most popular business application suite in the world - Microsoft Office 2000 Professional for Windows - is not available, and Microsoft says that it currently has no plans to port Office to Linux. In contrast, Corel has spent more than a year porting its WordPerfect Office suite to Linux, and the finished product is now available. One of the Corel suite's main goals is to achieve interoperability with Microsoft Office.

In some instances where popular apps are unavailable in Linux versions, open-source alternatives are plentiful. So even though Adobe doesn't make a Linux edition of Photoshop, there's an excellent free alternative, The Gimp (www.gimp.org). This package matches many of Photoshop's features and has a few extras. Similarly, your digital camera didn't come with Linux software to view its pictures, but download a free copy of gPhoto from www.gphoto.org, and you're fully equipped to view your images.

There are hundreds of Linux applications, though most are either highly specialised (like 3D object modellers) or targeted at servers (like robust databases). One exception involves Internet applications. In addition to current versions of Netscape Communicator and Navigator for Linux, there are dozens of e-mail apps, news readers, and more.

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That depends on what you'll be doing with it. Performing the installation is the hardest part of becoming a Linux user (though, as we noted, Corel's distribution makes this much easier). Once you've cleared that hurdle, you'll have a very stable, very powerful, Internet-ready operating system at your fingertips. And with the GNOME or KDE desktop environment your Linux distribution sets up, you'll have an easy-to-use, handsome-looking interface that might make your Windows-using friends jealous. On the other hand, there are no drive letters for Linux: in their place is a single, all-encompassing directory structure.

If you use your PC to handle a few core tasks - word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, and so on - you'll probably get used to Linux quickly.

The learning curve looms larger if you undertake bigger projects. Changing your hardware configuration, for instance, will produce some headaches. And if you like to tweak your OS for greater performance or a customised look and behaviour, you'll have a lot of learning to do. In all such operations, don't expect your Windows knowledge to apply.

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Again, that depends on what you'll be doing with your new OS. If you just want to give Linux a spin to see what it's like, Corel Linux OS, Caldera and RedHat are good bets. With its simple installation process and a slick, customised implementation of the KDE desktop, Corel makes Linux easier than ever to set up and use. The package's inclusion of WordPerfect further enhances its appeal. See "Pick Your Flavour of Linux" for specific information and comments about the major Linux distributions.

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Ask yourself this: is your PC already doing everything you need it to? If the answer is yes, Linux makes little sense in your immediate future. If the answer is no - because you want to run a simple Internet server, say, or because you're sick of "blue screen of death" problems with Windows - then perhaps Linux is worth a look.

As we've noted, some hardware compatibility issues remain, and there is no killer app to justify Linux yet. And though a tonne of software is available, it might not be the software you're looking for. Linux is growing tremendously, but it's still an infant, and infants aren't for everybody.

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Each distribution has a totally different setup routine. We aren't talking apples and oranges here - more like apples and Orcas. Way different. Accordingly, here are a few precautions:

Get the hardware low-down

Before you commit to a particular Linux distribution, check the vendor's Web site for a hardware compatibility list. Make sure all of the peripherals and components you need to use are listed. If one is not listed, check to see whether another distribution supports it. If you already have Windows running on the PC on which you would like to install Linux, go into the Device Manager (right-click My Computer, click the Device Manager tab, and click the Print button). Choose to print out "All devices and system summary". This data can be useful if your distribution's setup program asks for specific information about your hardware.

Free - almost

If you have a high-bandwidth connection and don't think you'll need tech support, you can download many Linux distributions directly from the vendor and use a CD-R or CD-RW drive to burn a setup disc. If that's not an option but you'd still like to save some cash, online resellers like Linux System Labs (www.lsl.com) will sell you copies of certain distributions (including Mandrake and RedHat) for less than $US10. Of course, at that price, the OS comes with neither support nor bundled extras.

Test the waters

If you have an extra PC with no critical programs or data on it, you might want to use it as your Linux guinea pig.

Know your resource needs first

Make sure you have enough hard disk space, RAM, and CPU speed to accommodate and handle a Linux install - either on its own or in separate hard disk partitions on your Windows PC. Check the Linux distribution you plan to install, and ascertain its hardware resource requirements; then see what your PC has available.

Scare up a spare floppy

Most distributions will prompt you to create a rescue disk installation. Have a blank floppy ready so you won't have to skip this important step.

Safety first

Installing a new OS is no walk in the park for your hard drive. To be on the safe side, back up all your important data on removable media before beginning the Linux installation.