May 17, 2001

Linux needs your help to take over the desktop

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I've heard lots less buzz lately about Linux for desktop users than I did a year or two ago. At the same time, Linux has gotten easier to use than ever. It's time for a new advocacy push, especially with Windows XP right around the corner.
According to Microsoft, Windows XP requires a minimum of 128 MB RAM to be fully functional. Most home and small office computers sold in the last three or four years have only 32 or 64 MB, which is plenty for Linux -- unless you install StarOffice, which barely works with less than 128 MB. But the one time I saw Windows 2000 and Microsoft Office running on a PC with 128 MB RAM, it was even more painful; it seems that big office suites need a minimum of 192 MB RAM to operate decently in either Windows or Linux, and that's that.

But most home users don't need the big suites; Windows people can use Microsoft Works and Linux people can use KOffice and be perfectly happy. Except, of course, that Windows users who want to upgrade to XP are going to need 128 MB RAM and a *lot* of hard disk space, while Linux users running KOffice will be happy with as little as 32 MB, which will save them the trouble of a hardware upgrade.

The old bugaboo about Linux being hard to install and use is just about buried. I recently got a new laptop that came with Windows ME pre-installed. Naturally, I immediately installed and configured Linux-Mandrake on it. Then I went back and tried to configure Windows ME. It took longer to configure ME than to install and configure Mandrake!

I've tested the latest Red Hat, Progeny, SuSE, Mandrake, and Caldera Linux distributions on both desktop and laptop machines. Except for Caldera, which had trouble auto-detecting the video card in my new laptop (a Hewlett-Packard model so cutting-edge it doesn't even show on HP's own Web site yet), they all installed with point/click ease in well under an hour. "Boxed set" commercial Linux distributions have gotten so easy to install that the local Linux Users Group that originally helped me get going with Linux three years ago has almost disbanded except for maintaining an email list and IRC channel. The leadership felt, rightly, that the club's original mission -- helping new users get Linux installed and running -- was obsolete, and that advice could be given more efficiently online than by holding physical meetings.

But despite recent Linux usability advances, I hear less and less about Linux on the desktop. This is sad, especially now that Microsoft is coming out with a version of Windows so different from the product's "traditional" look and feel that it will be at least as hard for many users to learn as it would be for them to become familiar with a KDE or Gnome desktop.

I have worried for several years now that as volunteer-based Gnu/Linux became corporatized just-plain-Linux, the community would get in the habit of letting the companies trying to earn money from Linux do all the evangelizing. This seems to be happening. The only problem is that most of the "pure" Linux companies are broke or close to it, and IBM got busted for spraying pro-Linux graffiti on city sidewalks and seems to have stopped promoting Linux for the time being.

So guess what? It's right back to the good 'ol Linux community (remember us?) when it comes to spreading The Word. We need to make copies of Red Hat, Mandrake or [your favorite distro here] complete CD sets, with all the goodie-type software they contain, and help our Windows-using friends install them on their computers. We must help them learn that GnuCash is a nice "checkbook" program, that Gimp is the graphics program they'll probably use most, and generally show them all the little tricks anyone needs to learn when they first use an unfamiliar computer operating system, even one as simple as Linux has become these days.

We run around reminding ourselves that "Linux" is a community of developer and users, not a corporate buzzword. Fine. Now let's prove it. Microsoft is giving us a perfect opportunity to dust off our old "Gnu/Linux Evangelist" uniforms* and march down the street, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, hup, hup, hup, to show the world that Linux is a movement at least as much as an operating system.

*Okay, for most of us the "uniform" is a T-shirt and some old pants, and the chance of any group of Gnu/Linux advocates marching in step is somewhere between slim and none, but you get the idea....


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