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A Test for Linux
By Charles Connell, Globe Correspondent, 1/20/2000
The Linux operating system has been getting a lot of favorable publicity lately, and
many companies, impressed by its reliability, are using Linux as the foundation for some
of their computer systems.
But is Linux ready for the small business or home office?
For a few days recently I took off my professional computer-consultant hat and gave Linux
a try for my everyday office needs. Based on that experience, I feel safe in cautioning
others to not abandon their Windows or Macintosh systems yet. Linux is moving in the right
direction, but it is not ready for nontechnical users.
I tried to be impartial in reaching this conclusion by first creating a scorecard. I
wanted to rate four qualities important to users in a small office or home office
environment: ease of installation and initial setup, reliability, ease of everyday use,
and availability of essential applications. Each category was worth up to 10 points, with
a maximum score of 40.
Ease of installation: I began by installing Red Hat Linux 6.1 on a Dell
400 MHz computer, and found the process much easier than I had feared. Red Hat's procedure
automatically adjusted Linux to match my hardware and helped me to create a standard
Installation still is not for the feint-of-heart, however. First, I had to manually change
the disk partitioning, a task that is fraught with peril. Linux did not recognize some of
my common hardware components, such as the mouse and the Zip drive. Manual intervention
was required again, and I had to try three standard mice before I found one that Linux
Purchasing a new computer with Linux preinstalled might eliminate a lot of these
headaches. But even when a computer comes equipped with Linux, you probably will install
or modify some options of your own, which also is hard to do.
Score: 2 points to install Linux yourself; 6 points if you buy it preinstalled.
Reliability: This is one area where Linux shines, and it is a major
reason for its popularity. Linux users often report their computers run for months at a
time without crashing. While I have not used mine for this long, I'll take their word for
Score: 9 points. Note, however, that this reliability rating applies only to the operating
system. Application software that you run on Linux may or may not be as reliable.
Ease of use: Red Hat ships Linux with a Windows-like graphical user
interface (GUI), which makes many common tasks fairly simple. I used the GUI to launch
applications, copy and move files, and arrange icons on my desktop -- all in a familiar
manner. Unfortunately, the Linux GIU does not cover many tasks. I had to leave the GUI and
enter a world of complex commands to read files on a Windows diskette and attempt to
resize my monitor display. The latter task was so complex that I gave up.
Score: 5 points.
Applications: My office, like many small office or home office
environments, needs at least the following software: e-mail, Web browsing, word
processing, spreadsheet, and accounting. Linux will not run Windows or Macintosh versions
of these applications, so I was forced to find new programs written for Linux. This was
fairly easy, and much of this software is available free. But you must learn how to use
these applications along with the new operating system. And you must perform file
conversions to share work with your non-Linux friends.
Score: 6 points if you are ready to learn new applications; 0 points if you want to stay
with software you already have.
Giving Linux the benefit of any doubts I had, its best-case score in this experiment was
26 out of 40. That's a .650 batting average, but still far from what a nontechnical user
would want. And it assumes you buy a new computer with Linux preinstalled, don't mind some
technical challenges, and are willing to learn new office software.
If you fit the best-case profile, you might want to consider Linux for your next computer.
On the other hand, if you want to continue using your current applications, or are not
comfortable with technical complexity, hold off. Lack of a Windows emulator (so it can run
any Windows application) and a less-than-complete GUI are major roadblocks for many
potential users. But I'd be glad to reconsider if Linux can remedy these shortcomings.
(Note: This is the text of my article, as submitted to the Boston Globe. The
published version was edited slightly.)