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Monday, December 10, 2007

Will they, one day, be able to replace Windows?

Editor's note: We all know how far open source software has progressed, but has it come so far to not only challenge Windows, but replace it? Can you really install Linux and open source software in place of Windows, and want for nothing?

In the first of this multi-part series we send in Ashton Mills to take on the challenge of using nothing but Linux and open source software... for absolutely everything. Will he find nirvana in the process, or lose all his hair in frustration? Follow him in and find out.

When I was first given this task I had to sit and blink a few times, if for nothing else than dramatic pause. I'm a self-confessed Linux nut, as some of you may know, but even I'm cautious to do away with Windows completely. There's a reason I have a dual-boot Windows and Linux machine. Several of them, in fact.

But have I just been conditioned into using Windows because of past experience, or applications, or file formats, or the myriad other reasons that make Windows a comfort zone because it's all so familiar?

Linux's earthy roots
Not unsurprisingly, Linux, and open source software in general, has had an image problem. It doesn't help that its inception by an uber-nerd and its subsequent adoption by bearded geeks the world over didn't lend it a certifiable authenticity.

It grew in darkened server rooms, with the toffs on lower floors using their Windows 'desktops' none the wiser. Nor for that matter were the managers, in some cases.

But slowly, surely, its popularity grew outside of the elite clique and the development of fully featured desktop environments pushed Linux into a wider world view.

Ostensibly, this was so system administators could work more efficiently while having a Matrix screen saver running behind their terminal (you know who you are). But in turn it opened Linux up to a whole new world of users -- people like me and you.

That was many years ago now. The Linux desktop has progressed so far as to provide a challenge to Microsoft. No not to its dominance, but to its pride. Arguably, there are simply some tasks a Linux desktop does better. Could it be that Microsoft might have something to learn from the open source up-start? Vista, certainly, bears the fruits of both new initiative and features we now see in both Linux and Mac OS X.

But I'm a realist, I actually don't care as long as the OS I use is easy, intuitive, and does what I want to do when I want to do it. This is the purpose of a desktop operating system, and the yard stick by which we'll measure this journey into a world without Windows.

The beginning of our journey into Linux

I'll be taking the new user perspective, seeing how our open source operating system and applications hold up for all the everyday tasks it needs to do, work and play -- be it browsing, banking, printing, playing, watching DVDs, sharing files, talking on VoIP, editing images, gaming, linking to digital cameras, backing up the system and more. But I'll also be going under the hood where necessary to explain what's different and why.

Can you really use just open source software -- with no fiddling and futzing around -- to do everything you've come to do under Windows?

This is exactly what we're going to find out. Cold turkey style.

The Ratings
In this project we're making the assumption that Windows does all that we need, and we're seeing if Linux and open source software measures up. Perhaps that's not an entirely fair place to sit, as there will be tasks open source software can do better. However, as the de-facto in operating systems for which everyone is familiar, it's our best basis for comparison. Oh geez, enough of the waffle, here's how we'll rate the experience of going Windows-free:

Optimal -- Passes with flying colours. The task could not only be completed, but better or easier than under Windows.

Pass -- No problems. The task can be completed exactly as under Windows.

Iffy -- When a task could only be partially completed, or completed but not without issue.

Flop -- Not possible to complete at all. Probably not a good thing.

Linux is like ice cream
But not a box of chocolates. Well, unless you bring virtualisation into it. Anyway, if operating systems were ice cream Windows would be vanilla, and it'd come in different serves such as cones, cups, and bath tubs full of the stuff. Linux as you know isn't quite like that -- you sort of have to bring your own containers. Some people even build their own. But it does come in a hundred flavours to suit almost every taste.

The flavour for our foray will be Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support), a Debian-based distribution and the very version bundled with APC in the August 2006 issue, but you can also download it here. For the purposes of imagery, lets call this flavour chocolate, because chocolate is nice. If you don't like chocolate, it can be strawberry, I don't mind.

Chocolate is a popular, amiable flavour and Ubuntu is no different. It's built a reputation as the easiest and most desktop-focused distribution available, and so is a good choice for this adventure.

Keeping in mind that as Vista is a DVD release, we'll be installing the DVD version as well, weighing in at just over 3GB. As 64-bit processors are the de-facto now, and Vista can be installed in a 64-bit native version (which has substantially more drivers available for it than XP 64-bit ever had), we'll also be going with the 64-bit edition of Ubuntu, running on an Athlon 64 4400+ with 2GB of memory.

As far as installation goes, it's as simple as specifying a username, timezone, and target partition, and doesn't bear a rating. Especially as there's no direct comparison with Windows, which for many comes pre-installed.

If you do want step-by-step instructions, you can get them in APC's Linux & Windows dual-booting superguide, which covers just about every permutation of Linux, XP and Vista imaginable.

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