July 10, 2003

A Microsoft guy tackles Linux

- by Nissan Dookeran -
I am not especially a Linux advocate. I go with whatever software works best for
me in terms of usefulness and feasibility. I'm Microsoft-certified, so persons
meeting me classify me as The Microsoft Guy. However, thanks to the people I met
at last month's Free, Libre and Open Source Conference,
and guidance from the Trinidad and Tobago Linux
Users' Group (TTLUG) mailing list, I have learned that free and open source
applications are ready for mainstream use. Armed with my newfound knowledge, not only
was it unbelievably easy to move from Windows XP to Red
Hat Linux 9
, I had fun doing it!

With my first Linux experience installing Slackware back in 1996 or 1997,
I had to do lots of homework. There were things you needed to know including stuff
most computer users would not want to bother with, such as the correct vertical
and horizontal refresh rates of your specific brand of monitor. You had to set
these correctly (manually -- there was no auto-detect feature then) or else
you would literally fry your monitor. This instantly discouraged mere mortals
from trying Linux.

Since that time I have learned Windows 9x/2000/XP desktop and server variants and
various applications for them because they're what most people were using and
where most people needed support. I kept tabs on Linux, trusting that the open
source community would keep improving Linux to the point where I could confidently
advise people about using Linux as a viable alternative.

Now, with the release of Red Hat 9 and the existence of bootable Linux variants
like Knoppix and dyne:bolic, I believed I could start
talking about Linux without being branded Microsoft heretic or Linux advocate,
but simply as someone using common sense.

To evaluate the feasibility of a permanent crossover to Red Hat 9 I listed the
software I use so that when I started using Linux I could weigh whether I had
all the tools I needed. I created a table listing my
tasks and the applications I found to satisfy them in both Windows and Linux.

Let me take a moment to have a heart-to-heart with anyone who thinks he cannot
live without a particular application. Applications only aid tasks. Before Windows
Notepad there was the physical notepad. Before the word processor, there was
the typewriter, before the typwriter a pencil. The key for one looking to get
out of the neverending cycle of paying for upgrades to proprietary software
is to distinguish between the application and the tasks the application assists
with. When you approach things from this angle, finding applications to fulfill
tasks in Linux becomes tons easier.

The initial "application I could not get rid of even though I wanted to" was
Windows Media Player 9. But once I realized my system was just too slow when
running Media Player's processor-intensive super-graphics I realized Linux offered
an alternative I just didn't have under Windows.

After a clean, error-free installation of Red Hat 9 I had a nice interface
running, pointing and clicking just like Windows. As the interface changes between
DOS and Windows 3.1 and 3.1 and Windows 95 demonstrate, interface changes
happen even with Windows. Using the need to learn a new interface as an excuse
to not consider Linux is just an uninformed opinion. Looking at Red Hat's GUI,
aside from the lack of a Program Files menu, I could imagine I was running an
upgrade of Windows XP (and I am sure my friends in TTLUG would argue I am).

However, I now hit a snag. I couldn't get online, because Red Hat's Internet
setup wizard couldn't find my Conexant Winmodem.

Winmodems are cheap, controllerless "software modems" that come supplied with
drivers for Windows only. I believe the majority of computer users who purchase
generic non-brand-name machines do so because they're more affordable. I know
I'll probably buy a new computer within a year or two anyway, so the less I
invest now, the less it hurts in two years time when I want a new system. Then
I'll look at the specifications from several brand-name manufacturers, do my
homework on what parts I really need and what I can reuse from my old system,
and build my own system using wholesaled parts available at low cost. When I
was buying my current system I didn't expect to be moving from Windows to any
other operating system.

I was lost for a time. TTLUG to the rescue! I asked for help on TTLUG's mailing
list and I got my answer. It was like having a free helpdesk. Not only that,
but I'm sure at least one other person on the list saw my question and the answer
and was able to either use it himself or share the answer with someone who came
along with a similar question.

Without getting into too much of the nitty gritty technical detail, I got the
modem working, and I was on my way with the next steps towards Linux migration.
I've hit more snags along the way, but I had the Internet and my mailing list
buddies to guide me where I got stuck.

Look at all this free stuff! What is it?

Many first-time Linux users get lost simply because they do not know what software
does the job they want to do. That's another power of the Linux users group
mailing list. If I didn't at first know what program I was looking for to do
the job I wanted, there was a good chance at least one of the hundred-odd persons
on my LUG's mailing list would.

Another wonderful thing about FOSS is that upgrades are consistent and free,
so if I have a problem, I can fix it, or if I can't fix it, chances are someone
else who has my problem can fix it. Now that I've done it a few times, I can
install and uninstall software easily.

I have now migrated 90% of my tasks to Linux. I boot Windows XP just to play
a game or two that I haven't been able to figure out how to migrate to Linux,
or to download images from my digital camera, since I haven't figured out how
to get the driver to work yet. (Anyone own a Polaroid Fun Flash 640SE and have
it working under Linux ?)

I'll end this article with the table of Linux application alternatives
that I have found to satisfy my tasks. Please e-mail me or leave a comment below if you want to
add any information or comments about the tasks I have not yet migrated to Linux,
or better yet, if you've found a better way for me to accomplish my tasks.

Task Fulfilled Application Under Windows Application Under Linux Comments on Quality of Replacement
Browse and view files on my local machine Windows Explorer Nautilus Nautilus much more configurable. I still need to figure out how
to change the default application associated with file extensions.
View images (single images or a series of images sequentially) Windows Fax and Image viewer Nautilus Nautilus previews the pictures as I browse the folder and opens
them if I want to, so I don't have to browse and open individual images to
find what I want. However, I do miss the slide show feature Windows
Fax and Image viewer offered.
Dial-up to the Internet Dial-Up Networking/Network and Dial-Up Connections Modem Lights 2.2.0 Wonderfully light. I parked it in my tray. It doesn't disappear when I
disconnect from the net, meaning I can log on with fewer clicks. Took a
little effort to install, but nothing a 12-year-old couldn't do. WinModem
support is limited though; you have to install drivers manually.
Browse Web pages Internet Explorer 6, Mozilla Galeon, Mozilla I haven't had a crash of Mozilla
yet, and if I ever do, I'm sure it won't take my taskbar with it.

Check email

Microsoft Outlook

Ximian Evolution

Loads faster than Outlook

Write documents with spell checking and formating

Microsoft Word

OpenOffice.org Writer

Similar menus and features. Autosuggestion of
completion of my words as I type is also a cool feature that I
wish Word had; wish I could make it autocomplete by tabbing
rather than pressing Enter though. Haven't investigated how well-
supported fonts are.

I noticed something
like a 50% reduction in file size without quality loss when I saved
documents in native OO format, and this document had images to boot.
However, I did also notice about a 50% increase in file size when I took a
native Word XP document, and saved it back in Office XP format using OO.

Schedule appointments

Microsoft Outlook

Ximian Evolution

Could practically be called Outlook for Linux,
that's how similar they are

Play DVDs

Windows Media Player 9

Ogle DVD Player/Xine

Some manual configuration needed setting up ogle
and xine, because of package dependency issues.

Play music CDs

Windows Media Player 9

Xine/Gnome CD Player

Gnome CD Player is better, since I don't have to
wait for the monstrous Media Player UI to load.

Play Divx, AVI, WMV, MPG movies

Windows Media Player 9

Xine Library, XineUI and/or Totem front end.

I prefer the XineUI front end. One
interesting note: Windows Media Player 9 had a tendency to crash or
refuse continued play on "damaged" AVIs or other movie and sound files.
These same files continued to play in Xine, although there was a slight
distortion of the image as it read over the damaged bits.

Play QuickTime movies


Investigating, although I have found plugins for Xine to
support QuickTime, I have not installed or tested them yet

Play RealPlayer files


Investigating. I think there is a RealOne for Linux but have
not investigated this yet.

Instant messenging

ICQ/MSN/Yahoo Messenger/AOL IM


Better than XP. Shows all instant message programs under one window,
reducing clutter. It supports a wide range of IMs (some I've never
heard of).

Play MP3s

Winamp/ Windows Media Player 9


Nautilus browser didn't automatically associate my
MP3s with Xine though, and the XMMS Winamp-like program it did
associate my MP3s with couldn't play them because of "IP
issues with the MP3 decoder"

Play MP3 playlists

Winamp/ Windows Media Player 9


Xine has playlists, like Winamp.


Microsoft Excel

OpenOffice.org Calc

As good as Excel.

Download pictures from digital camera

Polaroid Drivers

Camera Tool (gtkam) Red Hat is not picking up my camera when i activate it. Have to investigate
more why it fails. Large listing of different camera types though.
Edit pictures Photoshop/Paint/Paint Shop Pro The Gimp/XPaint Works for me, but I'm no graphic artist.
Create Web sites Microsoft FrontPage 2000 Mozilla Editor FrontPage has better site management and templates, but Mozilla is
good for a quick Web page design. Currently on the lookout for a
more suitable alternative for large site management.
File sharing Kazaalite Investigating, but it looks like BitTorrent or Kazaalite
running through WinE (Windows Emulator for Linux)
Need to learn how to set up WinE.
Project management Microsoft Project MrProject 0.9 Untested, not doing much project management
Drawing data flow diagrams Microsoft Visio Dia Diagram Editor 0.9 Untested, but I wish I had had this in Form 4/5 to assist with my
O-level project. Dia loads faster than Visio.
View PDF documents Adobe Acrobat Reader xpdf Xpdf loads PDF files faster. Need to figure out
how to make the default association of PDFs with xpdf rather than
ggv. This is a Nautilis issue, rather than an xpdf problem,
since Nautilus is the file manager.
Avoid nasty macro viruses and other viruses AVG Anti Virus None Linux doesn't have viruses! Still, I've been told I need a tool to
make sure I don't propogate viruses.

Junk spam




Host Web sites on my local machine for testing

Internet Information Server

Apache Web Server

Not tested yet

Updating and patching system bugs/security holes

Windows Update

Red Hat Update Agent

Because of nature of open source, bugs fixes are more
frequent and more stable

Share office documents

Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint


90% compatible. Some things display slightly different in OO,
but print preview is the same. Robin "Roblimo" Miller made an
interesting point when I heard him speak on this issue, saying that
if it's formatted to the point where it didn't translate properly,
it was probably badly or overly formatted anyway.

Optimize desktop use


Workspaces pane

Wonderful tool! I wish Windows had it naturally, can't tell
you how much this reduces my desktop clutter.

Fast desktop switching Windows XP feature for
non-networked computers
Ctrl+Alt+F1, login as new user at command-line
interface, start GUI by entering command startx -- :1. Switch between
screens using Ctrl+Alt+F7 or F8 depending on user. Can log on to
six users concurrently this way.
XP wins here. Even when I switch to a new
console so my brother can use the computer while I am still logged on, I didn't
want him to have to restart X through a command prompt. I just wanted him to be
presented with a GUI automatically and log on just as he does with
Windows. However, if I had my full network up, I wouldn't be able to log
on as two users at once with XP, and I'd lose my desktop switching tool
the moment I joined the domain. This doesn't matter in Red Hat since it
treats security and user logons a bit differently.

Nissan Reddi Dookeran is an IT professional/consultant in Trinidad, West
Indies. He is an active member of the Trinidad and Tobago Computer Society (TTCS)
and Trinidad and Tobago Linux Users' Group (TTLUG), and holds a B.Sc. Computer
Science and Management from the University of the West Indies. He is MCSA (Win2K)
and MCDBA (SQL2K) certified.


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