Author's Note: Whenever I speak with someone about Linux, I frequently hear the lament, "It's too different from what I'm currently using." The implication in this type of comment (which we'll learn is patently untrue) is either that Linux is so alien that it is unlearnable or that the speaker is so steeped in the tradition of his current OS that he is unable to make the switch.
This month, we'll hear from Tim Streightiff, a college student whose summer internship I have been privileged to supervise. Tim, like many IT majors, had been exposed primarily to Microsoft products and, until he came to work for me, had never seen Linux in action. So I asked him to write about his experiences with Linux. Let me underscore that I didn't tell him what to write or otherwise influence his comments in any way. All evaluations and grades were submitted prior to my seeing his report (so no GPAs were affected by this report).
Yow! What is this non-Microsoft product you want me to use? Why aren't you using any of the software behemoth's products yourself? These were just a few of the questions that crossed my mind on the first day of my internship as my boss escorted me through the building and directed me to my workstation. Let me give you a little background....
I'm a junior majoring in Information Sciences and Technology (IST) at the Pennsylvania State University, commonly called Penn State. During the summer, I worked as an Information Technology intern for an electric co-op in south-central Pennsylvania. Prior to my internship, I had been a long-time, die-hard Microsoft fan, and before I converted to that cult, I was a user of Apples and the Mac OS. When I began computing, I was introduced to Apple and its nice, easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI). I continued using Apples and the Mac OS for several years, until the high school I attended purchased two labs full of new PCs. I took a liking to them and decided to purchase one myself.
My new computer came with everything imaginable, including the newly released Windows 98. This is where the downward spiral into the Microsoft world of bug-ridden, crash-prone, and insanely ridiculous software began. I used everything Microsoft; I thought there was nothing that could beat it; I thought that it was the best.
Then along came my internship, and I was faced with Microsoft's arch rival in the OS market: Linux. When introduced to the workstation I was to use throughout the course of my internship, I was a little hesitant because of the horrible things I had heard about Linux and the world of open source. They were the untalked-about dark side of the computing world, where only a few brave souls ever go and even fewer return. I had heard about how cumbersome Linux was if you didn't use a command line and attempted to use a GUI (if you could get it installed). Another horror story that made me shy away from Linux was the lack of software available for use on the OS. Support and drivers for hardware was another sticking point; where most hardware comes packaged with Windows drivers, Linux drivers are not so easily obtained.
The first of these Linux issues I faced was ease of use and the cumbersome GUI. After the initial shock of seeing no familiar icons or the ubiquitous Windows start button, I began to explore Linux. My workstation was running Redhat 7.3 on a dual-Pentium, dual-monitor system with all the bells and whistles you could imagine. That obviously blew right out of the water the myth that Linux would not support any new hardware or advanced features. Once I logged in, I was presented with the KDE desktop (which looks similar to a Windows GUI), making my transition a little less stressful. Like a Windows system, the layout had a button at the bottom left to act as the beginning point, a few other quick-launch application buttons and a few icons on the desktop that basically represent the same things as the Windows icons. Any Windows user would be able to adapt to the subtle differences between the two operating systems' GUIs without any trouble.
I quickly began to settle into Linux and, after a few days of use, I began to notice little features that I really liked--things that Windows didn't provide and probably never will. Most notable was Linux's ability to run flawlessly and never crash, even during times of extreme multitasking. My boss had told me of this ability, but I didn't believe him because I'm an old pro at easily crashing any Windows system I touch. I'm a firm believer in "the more the better," and I tend to run about 10 applications at a time with as many Windows open as possible. So I put the Linux box through my usual torture test. As my boss had forewarned, however, I was unable to crash it, even though I used it hard all summer. That alone was enough to impress me, since I was used to multiple restarts and crashes on a daily basis.
A feature that took me longer to adapt to was the command line. It was something with which I had little experience, other than the occasional drop into DOS. One of the hardest things about the command line was learning the UNIX commands (which are fairly straightforward once you begin using them). Wow, was I ever amazed! You can do anything and everything from command lines and have complete control over the process while you are doing it. And talk about fast...as soon as I was familiar with the commands, I was able to perform tasks in seconds that normally would take me several minutes to do using any GUI.
After I was comfortable using the command line, I broadened my horizons and started to use secure shell (ssh) to access other computers on the network. Ssh allowed me to use whatever computer I had access to by sitting at my desk and simply issuing commands. It was of those features that Windows had never provided me and yet another reason my fondness for Linux was growing.
The rumor that there's no software available for Linux is just that. For some projects during my internship, I had to find, download, install, and use open-source programs on my Linux box. I thought there would be only a few free applications floating around on the Internet and was surprised to find that wasn't the case. In fact, there are hundreds upon hundreds of programs out there--programs that are absolutely free and can do anything a user could ever want to do and more. Uncovering the variety of free software available helped to reaffirm what my boss had been telling me: Linux is not only better but also cheaper to run and maintain.
I had done all the "basic stuff" people do with a Windows box on Linux and had been very pleased. However, I had yet to install it. Then, along came my opportunity: There was a need for another Web server at the company where I was interning.
I got the install disks, popped the first one into the CD drive, and restarted the computer. The Redhat Installer welcome screen came up on the display, asked me a few questions, and took off. As I sat there watching the installer run, I wondered when it would crash or give some kind of error message (like I had heard it would). That time never came; the installer finished and restarted the computer. We were up and running! The process was many times less painful than a Windows install or reinstall (which is a regular occurrence for Windows users).
I continued to use Linux for the entire length of my internship, and I continued to find more and more features about it that I liked. All of the horror stories I had heard about Linux had been wrong. I was very impressed with my experience and would recommend to anyone to give Linux a shot, even if it means going for a walk on the dark side of computing. If you're lucky, you'll never return.
So there you have it--an unbiased report from one user. If, however, you'd like a more formal presentation concerning Linux desktop usability, download the study released by the German research firm Relevantive. It compares Windows XP to Linux for ease-of-use in accomplishing common user tasks. Perhaps Linux on your desktop isn't as far-fetched as you might think!