Monday, March 05, 2007

Linux Truths, Half-Truths, and Myths

When people find out I run Linux on my computer instead of Windows or even Mac OS X they sometimes have funny ideas about what it must be like. Some of it is historical; Linux used to be quite difficult to administer in its younger days. Some of it is misinformation, or no information at all. I hope to dispell some of the misconceptions.

Linux is difficult to install - Myth. For the most part. Depending on the distribution, Linux is much faster and easier to install than Windows is. A smooth install of Linux takes me about an hour including installing updates, and even less sometimes. This includes installs of Red Hat (before it was Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Fedora (after it was Red Hat), Mandrake (now Mandriva), and Ubuntu (still Ubuntu). Of course, there are some distributions aimed at more experienced users that seem to go out of their way to make the whole installation process a little more, shall we say, complex. I'm looking at you, Gentoo.

I just recently re-installed Windows on a friend's computer that had become so infected with god-knows-what that it was completely unusable. I didn't keep track of how long the install took, but it was hours and hours, not even including when I had to go to bed and continue the install in the morning. Downloading and installing updates, rebooting, downloading and installing more updates, rebooting again. On and on it went.

Of course, after the install all he had was Windows with some minor applications like Notepad and Wordpad, and some games like Solitaire and Minesweeper. Don't get me wrong, I've wasted plenty of time on both of those, but it's a pretty sparse selection.

When I install a Linux distro I get a complete, usable desktop. An office suite, CD and DVD burning software, image manipulation software, full featured email suites, and lots of games. All for no cost. And lots more easily available. Which brings me to my next point...

Programs are difficult to install in Linux - Half-truth. Most distibutions give you on-line access to repositories, large collections of programs picked and packaged by your distribution maintainers for easy installation. Installation this way is actually easier than in Windows. On my Ubuntu box I open up Synaptic, type in a search for the kind of program I want, select it, and it installs. And again, for no cost.

Compare this to Windows where I have to search the web for the program I want, check forums and review sites to see if anyone has been infected with spyware with it, download it, scan it with my anti-virus program, install it, and then find out it's a crippled trial version of what I want.

Where it can be more difficult to install software in Linux is when the software you want isn't available in your repositories, or you need a more recent version. Sometimes the writers of the program have made a package available for your distribution, in which case installation is still pretty easy. Sometimes you have to compile the program from the source code, though, which can be tricky.

There are very few games for Linux - Truth. Compared to Windows, there aren't many commercial games available. Games such as World of Warcraft can be run under Wine, a program that allows Linux to run some Windows programs, but if you are a hard core gamer you'll either have to dual-boot with Windows or use a game console to get your fix.

That's not to say there are no good games available. PlaneShift, Alteria, America's Army, Sauerbraten, Battle for Wesnoth, and Frozen Bubble are just a few of the great games you can get for free.

I need an anti-virus program for Linux - Myth. One of the most common questions from Linux newcomers is which anti-virus program to use. They simply can't believe that one isn't needed. That's not to say viruses don't exist for Linux, there must be dozens and dozens of them. Very few exist in the wild, and those that do fizzle out very quickly.

One of the common arguments against this is that Linux has such a small share of the desktop that not many are written for it; if there were more Linux desktops there would more Linux viruses. This argument ignores the fact that Linux is fundamentally structured so that you have to work very hard to allow a virus to thrive. If you're interested, this guy goes into a lot of detail as to why that is.

The one time you may want to run an anti-virus is if you're running a Linux server that has Windows clients, for example an email server. This is not to protect the server, but rather to protect the Windows boxes from email borne viruses.

The people you find recommending Linux anti-virus software are usually working for the anti-virus software companies. I'm sure they have your best interests at heart, and aren't only interested in selling more product.

Linux is hacker proof - Myth. Just like any piece of complicated software, vulnerabilities appear and need to be fixed. You must keep your operating system updated, and if you're running servers you must understand how to configure them securely.

Having said that, when vulnerabilities are reported they tend to get fixed very quickly. And keeping your system updated is actually very easy.

Linux users are a bunch of commies and hippies - Truth. I needed to get one more truth in this list.

Getting hardware to run on Linux is difficult - Half-truth. Linux actually supports more hardware than Windows does. There can be problems with some newer hardware when the manufacturer hasn't released Linux drivers, but usually there are Linux gurus working hard to get it working. You may have to wait.

There are also devices that are designed to use Windows to do some of their work. Cheap modems (called winmodems by Linux users) are particularly infamous for this. It is possible with some work to get some of them working, but you are probably better off getting a real hardware modem.

Linux is difficult to use - Myth. There are those who say free (that is, open source) software is hard to use. If you're used to doing things a certain way there may be an adjustment to learning a new way of doing things, but that doesn't make the new way more difficult, just different.

One small example is the difference between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office. In OpenOffice if you want to insert a header or a footer into a document you go to the "Insert" menu, then select "Header" or "Footer". In Microsoft Office if you want to do the same thing you have to go to the "View" menu. One isn't necessarily more difficult than the other, but to me the OpenOffice way makes more sense. If you were used to the Microsoft Office way, though, you may find that hard to get used to.

My programs won't run in Linux - Half-truth. No, your Windows programs probably won't run (although they might under Wine or Crossover Linux) but chances are there exist replacement programs in Linux.

The Gimp will replace Photoshop for 95% of people, although it does take getting used to. I've already mentioned OpenOffice as a replacement for Microsoft Office. There are dozens of different media players, many different web browsers and email clients, peer to peer file sharing programs, DVD and CD burning programs, and so on. All of them are free, and many of them actually better than the ones you've already paid for in Windows.

What are your experiences with Linux like? Do you disagree with me? What else do people get wrong about Linux? Let me know in the comments, or by email.


John Telthorst said...

Everything you wrote is consistent with my own experience.

Steve said...

Thanks John. Obviously not everyone will agree with everything I wrote, but I'm trying to dispel the notion that Linux is a difficult, arcane, geek's OS.