Linux Is Cool, But Not Ready for Prime Time

By David Einstein, Staff Writer
The San Francisco Chronicle

September 8, 1998

One of the most intriguing aspects about Linux is its ability to run nicely on a run-of-the-mill personal computer.

It's the first Unix operating system to do so, and THAT has fostered speculation it could one day pose a challenge to Microsoft's dominance of the desktop.

But don't dump Windows just yet. A close look at Linux shows that it's still a long way from becoming a friendly, efficient system for consumers.

The version I reviewed was the latest one from Red Hat Software, the largest seller of commercial Linux packages. The $50 package includes the operating system itself, plus a bunch of utilities and small applications.

To install Linux, you need two empty partitions on your hard drive. The Red Hat CD can create the partitions for you, but you'll need to use a utility such as Partition Magic to free up the space on the drive for the partitions.

That right there should be enough to discourage most people. But if you can get past that step, installing the Red Hat software isn't too hard. The CD boots itself and takes you through the procedure with a series of screens that let you configure Linux to run on your PC. It successfully identified my system's CD-ROM drive, my mouse and my video card. But it assumed I knew the specifications for my monitor.

If installing Linux is relatively easy, using it is something else. The Red Hat system includes a graphical interface that could charitably be called a Windows wannabee. It has a Start button and cascading menus and a Windows-green background.

That's where the similarity ends. Everyday tasks we take for granted in Windows, such as finding, copying, moving and printing files, are irritatingly complex with the Red Hat desktop. (Getting on the Internet and using the built-in Netscape Navigator were pretty easy, however.)

For many tasks, it's actually easier to use Linux commands, which are similar to the old DOS commands, than it is to use a mouse. But learning the commands, and the syntax for them, can be daunting to anyone who's used to pointing and clicking with a mouse.

Another big problem with Linux is the lack of Windows-class applications. Graphical word processors, spreadsheets, databases and publishing programs are still rare, and the programs that come with the Red Hat package are unimpressive. The text editor, for instance, is an ultra-basic program with no formatting capabilities.

Good applications are starting to appear, however. I tried the trial version of Corel's WordPerfect for Linux and found it to be a near- clone of its Windows counterpart. Except for the lack of decent fonts, it works well.

Finally, the documentation that comes with the Red Hat package leaves a lot to be desired. It walks you through the installation, but then leaves you alone to figure things out for yourself. And the language it uses assumes you know a thing or two about Linux to start with. Which I didn't.

It's like Groucho Marx said: ``Clear, huh? Why, a 4-year-old child could understand this. Run out and find me a 4-year-old child. I can't make head or tail out of it.''


WHERE TO GET LINUX

Free Downloads on the WEB

-- ftp://ftp.redhat.com/pub

-- ftp://ftp.caldera.com/pub/

-- ftp://ftp.debian.org/

-- ftp://ftp.cc.gatech.edu/pub/linux/

-- ftp://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/

. CD-ROM packages

-- Red Hat 5.1 (Red Hat Software, www.redhat.com), $49.95

-- OpenLinux Base 1.2 (Caldera, www.caldera.com), $59

-- Slackware 3.5 (Walnut Creek CD- ROM, www.cdrom.com), $39.95

-- S.u.S.E.Linux 5.3 (S.u.S.E. Inc., www.suse.com), $49.95

Source: Chronicle Research


1998 San Francisco Chronicle