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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 software configuration.

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 would use.

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 it.

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.)

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