Mainstreaming open-source Linux

Larry Magid has a warm and fuzzy piece about Linux on the desktop on today.

I previously wrote about how my elderly mother is now running Linux on her laptop, which was unusable under Microsoft Vista.

My mother-in-law also is running Linux as a result of a hard disk failure on her PC. I stuck an Ubuntu Live CD in the disk drive and let her run from CD for a couple of weeks, then installed a new hard drive and made Linux permanent last weekend.

In terms of day-to-day usability, there's really no difference between Vista and Linux (or for that matter Mac OSX), except for Vista's habit of bombarding you with security warnings.

A web browser is a web browser. Email programs are pretty much all alike. In fact, we generally run OS-specific versions of the same software on all three platforms.

Last weekend was Middle Daughter's 15th birthday, and she got an Acer 3680 laptop. I was surprised that it took over 30 minutes to run Vista for the first time. I started grandma's Linux hard disk installation at the same time, and Linux won.

Linux came up fast and snappy on an aging desktop with 256 megs of memory. Vista came up slow and squishy, full of popups and bearing a prominent warning (probably from antivirus banditware) that the system had serious security issues.

The Acer has "only" half a gig of memory, so Vista is slow. It's not as bad as my mom's dual-core Toshiba was (which is to say: useless), but both Microsoft and Acer should be ashamed.

So I installed Linux on a second disk partition. Installation was fast, easy and automated.

Up and running. Fast and snappy. Tons of software.

Then a problem arose: wireless networking.

Linux has excellent networking software, but the Atheros wi-fi hardware comes from one of those companies that doesn't provide Linux drivers, or cooperate with Linux developers. Worse, they revise their hardware in ways that break perfectly good drivers.

So the developers have to guess. I managed to get the wi-fi working using some guessware that I tracked down using Google, but that introduced some nasty bugs that occasionally lock up the laptop. Not good.

These problems undoubtedly will be fixed soon, probably without any help from Atheros, but in the meantime Middle Daughter is stuck with slow-and-squishy Vista and its security and usability problems.

The bottom line is pretty much the same as Magid outlined in his NYT piece. Linux is ready. Grandma can use it. Kids can use it. Installation is not a problem. In many dimensions, especially performance, security and nagware-free user experience, it's superior.

If you don't collide with hardware that the manufacturer won't support on Linux, you're set.

If you do, you're stuck, at least until the Linux developers guess their way to success.


Yes, the Way of the Linux is certainly much better (and freer) than Vista.

So, good move.

But just a reminder that there is a third way. It isn't free. In fact, it costs about as much as the Vista way, but it does have that "it just works" good vibe. And zero squishiness.

It's a MacBook. The best little laptop in the land.

For anyone who doesn't want to deal with the vagaries of installing Linux onto an uncooperative PC, the out-of-the-box experience is remarkably fast and easy without having to hack your way through driver installation and other annoyances.

I saw your posting in slash dot about the lack of iTunes for Linux. I have my daughter's iPod Nano working quite well with RhythmBox, and in the past have successfully used Amarok. As a comment on Desktop Linux usability, my kids have been using Linux for years (first Mandrake, and lately Ubuntu) for all the usual teenage computer usages, e.g. browsing, chat, homework assignments (using Openoffice), scanning their artwork. Also, their friends come over and "just use it". I really don't understand the whole "Is Linux ready for the desktop?" question.

Did you check out ndiswrapper? I needed to use that for my Dell laptop that came with an unsupported Broadcom wifi card. Works great.

Daughter's laptop is now fully operational, thanks to ndiswrapper and a Trendnet 802.11G card that was $2.99 after rebate from CompUSA. I also tried a Belkin card from the local Wal-Mart but couldn't get it working.