When XP Expires does Desktop Linux Shine?

Tuesday May 6th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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With Windows XP fading into the sunset, a new option is slowly making its way into the market. But new users of desktop Linux will face a variety of challenges.

Windows XP, oh how we hate to see you go. For many Windows users, this release provided an alternative to the endless frustrations seen with Windows 98 and Windows Me. Built with Windows 2000 Pro stability in mind, XP has won over more than just a few fans.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has elected to put this release to bed sooner than many of its users might have liked. Not because they enjoy using an older operating system, rather because its replacement is still “a work in progress,” as some Microsoft experts have explained. This translates into many XP users exploring options outside of the Windows universe. Thanks to the lackluster benefits of Windows Vista, options such as desktop Linux have been added to the queue of alternative OSes to choose from.

Unfortunately for many of those who decide to take the open source plunge into desktop Linux, the shift will require someone who is not afraid to learn to do some things a little differently. And to be honest, it takes a rare breed of user to weather these winds of change.

Change is never easy.

Every year, we hear about how it is now the “year of the Linux desktop”. The reality is much more complex than this and potential users often find themselves falling into a lulled sense of security because of slick grassroots marketing campaigns and a lot of hot air from people who are only telling these individuals half the story.

Understanding that there’s more to it than simply installing any random Linux distribution, what challenges will users migrating from XP end up discovering should they opt to make the Big Switch?

• Software: Many potential Linux users put more stock into visual effects and other unimportant features than ensuring they fully understand which open source Linux-ready applications can be used to make the switch as simple as possible. This often leads to such well thought out commentary as 'Linux applications are just too difficult to use” or something else equally misinformed. The smart money is on the user who stops by the Open Source Alternative website before trying to take the leap into a Linux desktop.

• Hardware: Challenges such as installing Linux onto PCs designed for Windows have caused plenty of headaches, in my opinion. For example, I own two very different notebook computers. The first is generally a crapshoot with each new Linux distribution I install as what may have worked previously; the next install may very well be incompatible due to a compatibility bug.

By the same token, my other notebook, which uses Intel Dual Core technology to its fullest, is always compatible with 64bit Linux distributions. Anytime I’m getting ready to make an upgrade to the latest desktop Linux release, I check with the vendor ahead of time to ensure that a set of their patches are ready to make up for any of the distribution's shortcomings. This ensures that things run smoothly at all times and I’m not stopped by serious surprises when trying to upgrade my existing Linux installation.

• Peripherals: One of the biggest new user frustrations comes when they discover that their wireless card doesn’t work as expected or their all-in-one printer/scanner isn’t providing the same level of functionality that they found with Windows XP. Thanks to very little reliable consistency from distributions such as Ubuntu, what may work with one release might not work at all with another. Despite the efforts of projects such as SANE for scanners and CUPS for printers, maintaining a consistent level of support seems to be an issue with Linux distributions such as Ubuntu. The device often will still be detected as it once was, but because of some unchecked bug, the new release (in many cases) creates new problems using the peripheral that was not an issue previously.

Keep in mind that I’m picking on Ubuntu only because they are an affected distribution and one of the most popular out there today. This means the responsibility lies with their developers.

Ditching old habits.

Another problem I see is the belief that if something worked a certain way or provided a relatively easy solution on Windows, then it ought to do the same on Linux as well. In a perfect world, this would be great. But these are two very different operating systems. Some Linux purists might even argue that these XP users have had it too easy. That the XP user is unwilling to learn anything new to better understand the Linux way of doing things, should the user wish to adopt a specific distribution. Often, the mindset that purists point to is referred to as a set of really bad Windows habits.

So what sort of poor habits have we become complacent with as Windows users that, frankly, are not going to fly nearly as well on the Linux desktop? Well, to name a few:

• Know thy hardware. Without a doubt, the single biggest problem users have is trying to install or configure Linux on hardware built for Windows. It's a tired argument that is as applicable as whining about OS X not installing with a heavy configuration on a PC. The difference is, most Linux distros will install just fine on most common PCs. It is generally on Windows notebooks where users run into trouble with video/audio/wireless, although there are often work-arounds available despite this.

• Accept that the software will look different from what you are used to. Because Linux software is often related to either the GNOME or KDE desktop environments that they operate in, often Linux applications will mirror the overall feel of these environments. Problems tend to arise when past XP users become frustrated to discover they’ve lost some of the familiarity they once had with Windows after using Linux for any extended period of time.

• Package managers are not the same as the old Install-Shield software installation you were once used to. And when trying to install software outside of official software repositories, it’s not totally unheard of to run into a dependency issue. And more often than not, this leads to frustration as it visually appears that the software installation is at fault based on this problem.

Overcoming potential problems and staying ahead of the curve.

Anyone who considers themselves a power user on the Windows front should not really find migrating all that difficult. The trick is accepting what I like to call 'Linux reality'. Once the user first understands and expects the challenges listed above, they begin the process of learning what works and what doesn’t based on their needs, while the rest takes care of itself.

To get the end user started off right, I would recommend the following:

• Learn where the provided documentation for your selected distribution is – study it before asking for help.

• Make yourself known in the forums for your selected distribution after following through above. Also reciprocate with help whenever possible to keep the flow moving forward for everyone.

• Remember these two brands – ATI and Broadcom. Both can work, but often these two brands will create more problems than they’re worth. Whenever possible, leave them both in the Windows world. Better yet, just avoid them altogether.

• Buy preinstalled. If users are confident that they are ready to make the switch, then have the level of commitment to actually invest in your choice – buy a notebook PC with your preferred distribution preinstalled. Distributions worth their weight will provide you with a list of qualified Linux preinstall vendors on their corresponding Web sites.

Considering the Linux market share as XP users move on.

Should new Linux users migrating away from XP utilize most of what I have suggested above, Microsoft may eventually begin to see the migration needle move at a pace that gets their attention. Despite what we might like to believe, the desktop Linux market share remains small.

Even considering the amazing inaccuracy of Linux usage estimates, as they are clearly unable to count each user on the Linux desktop out there, the fact remains that the overall share on the desktop is barely even noticeable in the mainstream world today. So does this mean that desktop Linux is not a threat to Microsoft? Not at all, just not in the way we might like to think it is.

Modern Linux distributions are a threat as they have opened up the eyes of the masses in seeing that you do not have to buy Apple or Microsoft to run a computer. And as adoption continues to trickle down slowly through installation-festivals, Linux-Festivals and even by your kids as they opt to run a LiveCD of a distro that was given to them at school – eyes are being opened up to a whole new way of looking at desktop computing.

Each of these individuals are touched in some fashion that often gets them thinking. They slowly begin to realize that there is a revolution going on in the software industry and yet most people have never even heard about. And some of these individuals may very well decide that this is something they will wish to pursue.

Adopting Linux means using it on your terms while also understanding that there will be compromises to be made along the way. These compromises are small, however, when you consider the overall savings on licensing costs, freedom from having to purchase new PC hardware with every operating system release, and freedom from proprietary software hassles that come up with older file formats no longer being supported.

With Windows XP dipping down into the sunset, a new option is slowly making its way into the hands of those willing to commit to it. Desktop Linux, provided in a variety of different distributions, is just waiting to be discovered.

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