A casual user's view of Linux on the desktop: Will it fly?

February 19, 2003
©2003 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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I consider myself to be a fairly casual user of Linux. I currently run LTSP version 3, which is based on Red Hat 8. I upgraded last week after running version 2.1.1 for several months. That, in turn, replaced Mandrake 8, which I installed after trying Red Hat 7.2. So I've been around the Linux block, but I've never been truly Unix-savvy. I muddle through the problems I encounter by relying heavily on Internet documentation and search engines, and on the basic principles I learned from a Unix sysadmin who worked for me back in the 20th century when I ran a data center. So I consider myself a fairly competent user of GUI-based Linux but a rube when it comes to system internals and many command-line procedures. I think that combination of skills puts me on a par with the typical Windows user's knowledge of that OS. It's an interesting perspective from which to evaluate desktop Linux for the mass market.

My impressions of Linux as a user run to both extremes. When it's good, it beats Windows hands down. When it's bad, only my foresight in not logging in as root stops me from formatting the hard drive and installing something I can understand, like Windows for Workgroups. As a user, I feel like a good ice skater who can't swim. I can perform neat tricks on the surface, but when I break through the GUI ice I'm immersed in an unforgiving command-line interface that offers little in the way of support to help me back out of the soup.

Each new version of Linux I've installed has offered far better GUI-based management than its predecessors. But none of these tools are complete, and dealing with the slightest omission requires a mastery of Unix arcana. Related information is stored in multiple locations, and relatively trivial configuration changes, like changing a static IP address, can require coordinated manual edits to three or four files in different directories. Almost all important commands have non-intuitive names and an alphabet soup of case-sensitive single-character options (in the identical context, -v and -V can have dangerously different meanings) that are almost impossible to remember unless you use them every day. Programs and other files are stored in directories that have similar but different names - what goes in /usr/bin as opposed to /bin? How does /usr/lib differ from /var/lib, or just /lib?

On the plus side, the Unix system of online help through man pages beats the pants off the help system Microsoft briefly added to DOS. But even the help system is a mixed blessing. It offers no search capability or top-level view that would guide a casual user to the right command. The help system is oriented toward people who need small reminders about a program they already know how to use, not those who are facing the full mystery of the Unix command line. I think that's to be expected, since most Unix software developers are writing the tools they need themselves. But until there's a Linux usability lab, and someone in it to watch novices take their first steps, and a working group to write the tools that those users need to help with those steps, the vast majority of Linux beginners are going to stumble over something that sends them running right back into the comforting arms of Microsoft.

Positive experiences with Linux Terminal Server Project

With those complaints out of the way, I have to comment on the excellent packaging of LTSP's variant of the Red Hat distribution of Linux. Both version 2 and 3 installed quickly and cleanly, and the necessary modificatiions to the system configuration were well-documented and fairly easy to perform (I have to admit that my experience in the data center was an unfair advantage here). Version 3 has an outstanding selection of packaged software, including OpenOffice as a substitute for MS Office, Evolution doing the job of Outlook, the Mozilla Web browser, a Photoshop counterpart called the GIMP, several IM clients, and countless others. All of these products - and more, including enough Internet servers to duplicate the capabilities of Microsoft's IIS - installed along with the operating system in a single pass, hands-off after the intial selection of options, and with far less work than would be required to configure the equivalent set of capabilities under Windows. Almost no configuration was needed to get everything up and running, and what was necessary was well documented on various Web sites (thank you, Google). The Samba server was automatically installed and let me create network shares that were mountable by my Windows systems, allowing the Linux box to coexist immediately as a near-equal on my Microsoft network. RedHat's up2date service distributes system updates just like Windows Update, except they almost never require a system reboot. The only time I ever have to restart is when I need to boot the Windows XP system that shares the Linux box - and it's those needs that remind me of how far Linux still has to go as a desktop OS.

Linux limitations still take center stage

Why do I still need Windows on that computer? Linux doesn't support my mainstream HP scanner. I could download a driver that somebody wrote for their own use, but installing it would require that I recompile the Linux kernel. Anyway, the documentation the guy wrote for his driver mentions that it still has a few bugs. I also can't play DVDs. Even though I downloaded and installed the Ogle player, which supports DVD playback, the video and audio keep going out of sync (this is a 1.6GHz Pentium 4 with a Riva TNT that has no problem playing DVDs under Windows XP). Also, I can burn CDs, but I can't use the disk-at-once feature because the burner doesn't support DAO for my drive (again, Windows XP does the job just fine). I can't use it to read pictures from my digital camera - the USB port recognizes it but can't make the connection (XP instantly accepts the camera as a mountable disk and lets me drag-and-drop pictures from it.)

It's not that I haven't tried to solve these problems. I've found solutions online for most of the issues I've had, but those solutions are incomplete, buggy, or require a sysadmin's level of knowledge of - and confidence with - the OS. That won't cut it for a desktop OS, at least not for most people.

Linux on the desktop: not if, but when.

But given the current rate of progress, the intense desire by Linux adherents to offer a viable alternative to Microsoft, and the increasing software licensing and DRM restrictions being imposed by Microsoft, Linux is almost guaranteed to offer serious competition to Microsoft, probably in time for the Palladium-enabled version of Windows that's due out in late 2004. The good news is that desktop Linux, works well enough today for at least trial use, and that a relatively full suite of available applications makes it a pretty complete and viable solution, at least for adventurous individuals and for corporate organizations with good Unix support staffs. The potential of desktop Linux is an important issue to discuss, and this is the right time to have that discussion.

Random Linux comments

LTSP: A terminal server that really works

One aspect of LTSP's version of Linux that's worth talking about is the feature from which it gets its name. The Linux Terminal Server Project allows a single Linux machine to support GUI sessions on a number of less powerful systems. It allowed me to resurrect a 133MHz Pentium system with 128M of memory and no hard drives, and turn it into a fully functional workstation that boots from a floppy disk. So I can log in once on the Linux box itself, again on the antique Pentium, and a third time through an X session on my laptop. Windows .NET server can do that - at least it will, when it's commercially released, for people who are willing to pay the price. Compared to XP, well, it sure beats Remote Desktop, which only allows one user at a time and requires XP Pro.

Where's all the Linux badware?

Here's something that's puzzled me about Linux. On my Windows system, I subscribe to three programs that are absolutely vital to prevent commomplace attacks: Norton AntiVirus for eliminating file and email viruses, PestPatrol for detecting spyware and memory-resident attack software, and the ZoneAlarm firewall which also blocks malicious Web-borne gifts like Web bugs. These programs eat processor cycles and memory as well as money, but without them my computer would be a useless pile of slag within a month, and identity thieves would have carried off enough of my personal information to convince my children that they've been listening to the wrong father all these years. Other than the included firewall, Linux offers none of these protections. In spite of this, successful attacks on Linux systems are relatively rare (although they do happen). Is Linux really that much more secure? Are hackers less interested because there are fewer users, or because it's not Microsoft? The growing community of somewhat naive Linux users, running with no protection, would seem to be a tempting target for an avant-garde hacker. Is this an accident waiting to happen? Is Norton AntiVirus for Linux in our future?