While Microsoft Windows is still the dominating operating system for personal computers, it is by far and away not the only one. Linux distributions are much friendlier to the user than they used to be, to the point of making the difference between it and Windows almost nil. By reducing the hurdle that once made Linux installation arduous, the choice of an operating system is now a question of which one better suits your needs.
In her book, Spring into Linux, Janet Valade describes how to install and use Linux and the most common applications that currently run on that platform. The intellectual tone of the book is geared toward the information technology professional and is a thorough guide to the Linux universe. A chapter excerpt is available in a free TechRepublic download.
In the following interview, Janet describes some of the more tangible benefits of Linux and open source software and addresses the breadth of professional-grade application software available to the information technology professional.
[TechRepublic] In your book you mention distrowatch.org, which tracks 320 Linux distributions. That's a lot of distributions for a professional to wade through without some knowledgeable advice. You feature Fedora Core in the book, is that the distribution you recommend? Why?
[Janet Valade] It's in the nature of open source programmers to make their work publicly available so that anyone who needs it can benefit.
Consequently, when a developer, or group of developers, puts together a distribution to meet their own needs, they often make it available on a Web site. Thus, 320 distros. Some of the distros are very specific, addressing very unusual environments. On their Web site, Distrowatch provides a page showing the 10 most popular distributions. If I were beginning to research Linux distributions, I would begin there. The average user can find a distro that meets their needs in the 10 most popular.
My book features the three most popular desktop oriented distributions—Fedora Core, SuSE, and Mandrake (recently renamed Mandriva). I use Fedora Core as the featured distribution because it seems the most suitable for the average user. Mandriva is more oriented towards beginners. It tends to protect the user from himself and sometimes flexibility suffers. SuSE, on the other hand, is slightly more oriented toward technical users. However, Fedora may not appeal to users who are most comfortable installing from a boxed set, following instructions in a printed manual. Fedora doesn't come in a boxed set.
[TechRepublic] Putting aside the passion open source development can create in some people, why, in practical terms, should an information professional consider Linux as the operating system for their next PC?
[Janet Valade] Windows vs Linux discussions bring fans of each to the battlefield. Many advantages argued by Linux enthusiasts (better security, better reliability, more flexibility, more efficient) are disputed by Windows devotees. However, one Linux advantage is clear—the cost of software.
Users can download and install Linux for absolutely no charge. Or, they can pay a very small price for CDs. Even a boxed set of Linux costs less than a boxed set of Windows. Furthermore, a single Linux system can be installed on as many machines as the user wants. Linux does not include a license limiting its installation to a single machine.
Of course, new computers generally arrive with Windows already installed, its price invisible in the price of the new computer.
However, computers require application software, as well as an operating system. Application software is available free for Linux. A cost-conscious user can download at no cost all the application software needed to make a Linux system into a fully functioning computer. For example, GIMP is a fully functional, free graphics package that runs on Linux. Users running Windows need to purchase PhotoShop, or an equivalent commercial package, to edit graphic files. Furthermore, the future cost of the software is zero, as well. When software upgrades are available and needed, they can also be downloaded for free.
[TechRepublic] The chapter we are featuring as a download deals with the graphical user interface (GNOME and KDE), which is very similar to Windows. Do you believe this generally familiar interface makes switching to Linux easier? Will most users still have to deal with the command line from time to time, no matter which GIU they choose?
[Janet Valade] Desktop users who work mainly in applications can easily work entirely from their desktop. Opening applications, managing files, accessing the Internet, and other tasks performed by most desktop users can be done from the desktop in a manner very familiar to Windows users.
System administration tasks can also mainly be performed from the desktop. Most Linux distributions provide utilities that work well from the desktop. However, many tasks can be performed more easily and with more speed and flexibility using the command line. And a few technical tasks require administrators to use the command line.
[TechRepublic] You spend a good portion of your book discussing the various applications that exist for the Linux operating system. Just about everything you could possibly need is available including word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, Web browsers, and graphic manipulation applications. Is there a certain application that you would like to see developed for Linux that is not currently available or possibly up to the proper professional standard it needs to be?
[Janet Valade] In general, Linux is still behind in multimedia applications, although it's making major strides. This type of application is the weakest area for Linux. The problem is partly due to licensing issues, partly due to software development. However, many people are now working seriously in this area and applications are improving all the time.
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.