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WND Commentary
A non-nerd leaps to Linux

By Claire Wolfe
© 1999 Claire Wolfe

Bill Gates, you've done it now. With the revelation of the latest -- and possibly worst! -- security hole secretly engineered into Windows, it's time for we who cherish our privacy to dump Microsoft. With that in mind, I present the following column. I've been working on it for several months and didn't really want to go live until I'd had more experience. But it's time, and past time, to replace those drafty Windows!

There are so many reasons to love Microsoft:

  • Bill Gates is more attractive than Janet Reno and oversees a slightly less monopolistic organization.
  • MS products make it easy to share intimate information with anyone -- even people you never knew you wanted to share with.
  • Windows seldom crashes more than once a day.
  • Developers are coming up with ever-more-clever products to take advantage of Microsoft's quaint notions of system security.

That's why -- back in December -- I promised FreeLife readers I was going to rid my computer of every trace of Microsoft. First thing, Windows had to go. And the only conceivable replacement was Linux.

Linux is an operating system well-beloved of geeks. I'm no geek (and I'm aiming this column primarily at others like me), but I've long admired this OS from afar, partly because of the amazing way it was, and continues to be, developed. You can read about that in Eric Raymond's groundbreaking essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

The anarchic way Linux grows is admirable not merely from a free-marketeer's perspective. It also results in software that's been parsed by knowledgeable, curious people around the world before it gets to your computer. So it's stable. It doesn't crash much. And most important of all, the source code is available to anybody, so you don't have to wonder what little spy devices and cracker-doors might be built into it. (Are you listening, Mr. Secrecy Gates?)

Who should use Linux? The article behind that link concludes that Linux is still mostly for those who prefer to change their own oil and tweak the fuel-injection system, not those of us who just like to get behind the wheel and drive. However within the last year it's become much more accessible to mere mortal computer users.

For instance, when I first threatened to switch, I would have had to install my own operating system. This summer, I was able to order a computer, just as most Windows users do, with software installed and ready to run.

I got my system from Penguin Computing because they had good prices and because they deal only in Linux. I figured they knew what they were doing. They have an online order form that lets you price delicious options before you buy. All they lack is an online means of checking order status. However, they were friendly when I called; and when I unpacked the computer and found both a stuffed penguin (the Linux mascot, Tux) and a cool T-shirt, I figured I was home.

You can also check out LinuxMall, the Linux superstore, for software and hardware. There are plenty of other sources for the finding. Just crank up your search engine.

Of course, you don't have to buy a whole new system. You can convert your existing Windows computer. You can even run the two operating systems side-by-side if your hard drive is big enough, and if you have the skill to create a dual-boot setup. (What, me?) But you have to be careful. Some of your hardware -- most probably your modem -- may not work with Linux. That's because a lot of hardware is designed expressly for MS products. I found it easier, and ultimately not much more expensive, to buy new from Linux specialists.

Speaking of MS products...

The next question that comes up is, "But will I have to learn to use my computer all over again?"

Yes and no. While barebones Linux looks like the old DOS -- all command line and weird codes -- most distributions of Linux also come with a graphical user interface called X Windows. It's so much like the other Windows that you'll feel relieved right away. (Within five minutes, I was customizing wallpaper and playing a game called XBill -- splat, splat, splat!) Still, you do have some learning ahead. In that places where X Windows is different from Bill's Windows, you can get yourself in trouble.

"That's just the operating system," you protest. "What about word processing, spread sheets, e-mail, browsers...?"

Some application software probably comes with the version of Linux you buy. (Linux itself is free, but different companies market their own packages, with various bells and whistles.) For instance, my Penguin computer came with Red Hat Linux. Netscape was already installed and ready to go.

Other popular Linux packages are bundled by Caldera and the Debian Project. (The latter is still kind of a nerd's version.)

Word processing? Spread sheets? That decision was just made very easy. Last week, Sun Microsystems bought the company that makes Star Office -- an office suite for Linux that operates just like -- and can seamlessly exchange files with -- Microsoft Office. They're now giving the program away free. You can download it from the Net. But since it's a 70 MB file (ack!), you might prefer to send $9.95 plus shipping for the CD.

Another friendly office package is Applixware. And don't forget the familiar, reliable Word Perfect; it's been available for Linux for a long time.

The one bit of bad news is that there isn't yet a really wonderful e-mail program. But someone's certainly working on one, you can bet. In the meantime the best contenders -- according to my Vastly Informed Sources -- may be Mutt, Postilion and Pine. (Everybody warns: Do not use the mail function on the current version of Netscape. It's buggy, leading to crashes.)

"But what about games!?" I hear someone wailing. For games and zillions of other kinds of software, check out Linuxberg, a big clearing house for software releases. They rate the best offerings "five penguins."

Information please

Another sign of the growing de-geek-ization of Linux is the fact that you can now get books like: Linux for Dummies by Jon "maddog" Hall; The Complete Idiot's Guide to Linux by Manuel Alberto Rickart; and Sams Teach Yourself Linux in 10 Minutes by John R. Ray.

Need further info? Try any of these sources: Linux Journal; Linux Gazette; (for women, mainly); Josh's Linux Guide (for new users); and the Free Software Foundation. There are some good Linux links here, too. Or you can ask any Linux user. They love to talk Linux -- and occasionally you might even understand what they say!

If you're ordering a new system, rather than converting your existing box, consider one that uses a non-Intel processor like the zippy new chips from AMD or Cyrix. Remember: Intel's Pentium III chip comes with "Big Brother Inside" -- and some of their other chips are privacy-compromised, as well. More corporate spy devices! Sheesh, who do MS and Intel think they are, anyway? And more important, who do they think their customer is -- you or some sleazeball Web snoop who wants to collect information about you without your knowledge or consent?

A pox -- or better yet, a stock crash -- on both their houses.

What next?

I feel like the only non-geek in the universe using this totally geekoid operating system. But know what? I also feel a lot more secure. And I no longer have to brace for each day's Windows crash. The darned thing just sits there and works! I'm still struggling through this switch. But Linux is a better operating system, and well worth the price of some temporary inconvenience and confusion.

Take that, you arrogant monopolist-wannabes! Take that, you heavy-handed pushers of second-rate operating systems! Take that, you casual snoops and Big Brother-enablers!

Of course this system's not invulnerable to crackers, whether freelance or federal. No computer ever is. But next time your hard drive's wiped out, your passwords are stolen, or your most private documents are read all over creation by some trojan horse program that rolls in through Microsoft security holes, think of me, typing away. Or better yet, check out Linux.

Thank you to Linux gurus Charles Curley and Glenn Stone, and "FreeBSD geek" Dan Baker for help with this column.

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