PC Focus

For Consumers, Linux a Work in Progress

By Lawrence J. Magid
Los Angeles Times

February 15, 1999

While the Justice Department challenges Microsoft in court, thousands of computer experts around the world are pursuing what could, in the long run, be an even more powerful way to break up the company's monopoly. They are using Linux, a competing operating system that, like the various flavors of Windows, can be used to run both PCs and servers.

Linux is a very robust server operating system used on millions of machines throughout the world. Many Internet service providers, for example, use Linux. It's also popular on campuses and at government agencies and corporate sites. Although it is possible to use Linux as a desktop operating system, it has a way to go--as I found out after installing it on two of my home machines.

The operating system is named for its developer, Linus Torvalds, and the Unix operating system from which it's derived. What is most interesting about Linux is that it is distributed under what is called the GNU General Public License, which is often referred to as a "copyleft" licensing agreement. Unlike copyrighted software, which is owned and controlled by the copyright holder, the GNU license is specifically "intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users."

As subversive as this concept may seem, it's been embraced by some rather established companies, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.

Software distributed under the GNU can be given away free to other users, and it can be modified, enhanced and resold by others, even for a profit. There's only one catch. If you add value to GNU software, you must authorize others to freely enhance and distribute your code. Don't ask me why, but GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix."

Using that GNU license, several companies have created versions of Linux, called "distributions," that are based on the same Linux source code with various enhancements. Several of these distributions consist of a reasonably complete set of tools and applications such as text editors, Web servers and file managers. Leading Linux distribution publishers include Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com/), Caldera (http://www.caldera.com/), Debian (http://www.debian.org/) and SUSE (http://www.suse.org/).

With a lot of help from an expert, I now have Linux running on a borrowed IBM ThinkPad 600 notebook PC and a Gateway Pentium desktop system. After using it for several days, I'm convinced that it has the potential to evolve into a consumer operating system, but it's not there yet.

As with any operating system, there is a learning curve and I'm still very much a Linux novice. But even experienced Linux users I talked with admit that the operating system has a way to go before it's ready for consumers.

Unlike Windows and Macintosh, there is no single company that controls the operating system. For many Linux users, that's a big plus. They don't have to worry about proprietary software, and they're not at the mercy of a single company to enhance, improve and support the operating system. But even though Linux is stable and reliable, it's hard to assemble a complete system with everything you need to be productive. Most of the pieces are there, but you must get them from a variety of sources, and installing them and getting them to work is quite a challenge.

Short of spending an enormous amount of time poring over manuals and calling help desks, I don't think I could have installed Linux if it weren't for Robert Berger, a Linux expert and owner of Internet Bandwidth Development (http://www.ibd.com/).

Berger spent several hours at my house helping me install the operating system, a graphical user interface and several applications. But once the system was working properly, I was able to use it to surf the Web, write the first draft of this article and send e-mail. I also had a chance to play with a photo-editing program, a presentation program and several other software programs Berger installed on the system.

Linux doesn't come with an icon-and-menu-based screen, as Windows does. Experienced users can control the operating system by typing commands from a prompt that makes MS-DOS seem user-friendly by comparison. But there are several available graphical interfaces for Linux.

At Berger's suggestion, I installed the K Desktop Environment (KDE), which has a look and feel similar to Windows 98 or Macintosh.

The interface, which is distributed by Germany's KDE Desktop Environment Project (http://www.kde.org/), provides you with a "what you see is what you get" interface that's very easy to use. You can open multiple applications, each in its own window and, like Microsoft Windows and the Mac, you can copy and paste text between documents and select commands by clicking on icons or pulling down menus. You can launch programs by clicking on their icon or by clicking on the Application Starter, which looks remarkably similar to the Windows 95/98 Start menu. Like Windows, there also is a task bar that shows your active applications.

My only major complaint about KDE is that you don't get immediate feedback when you click on an icon. In Windows, you get an hourglass, but with KDE you see nothing until the application loads. I'm an impatient sort, and if I don't get feedback I keep clicking, which results in loading multiple copies of an application.

KDE isn't the only graphical interface. Another option is Gnome, which is distributed by a group of programmers (http://www.gnome.org/) that "intends to build a complete, user-friendly desktop based entirely on free software."

"Intends" seems to be an operative word when it comes to programs that turn Linux into a user- friendly operating environment. Although Linux is well-tuned as a server operating system for professionals, it is more of a work in progress as a desktop platform for the masses.

Yet, there is reason to be optimistic. There has been a great deal of progress in the last year, and the nature of the GNU license creates an incentive for programmers to keep enhancing the system. If one programmer makes it just a little better, another can take it a step or two further. Eventually, someone will come up with a system that has what it takes.

Copyright 1999