Sunday, February 01, 2009

While you weren't looking, Linux got great.

I had an older Windows box that needed to be re-installed. (It's an HP Optiplex). Now, this isn't a crap machine. It's a 2.2GHz processor with a very decent video card. But it didn't come to me with a restore disk, so I called Dell to get one. Sadly, they couldn't hep me out because it originally shipped with Windows 2000. The restore disks are no longer being manufactured. They couldn't send a WinXP disk because that's not what it shipped with. So, it was either buy a new copy of Vista or put Linux on the box.

Kubuntu to the rescue. Not a big deal, really. Accelerated graphics is the only thing I generally have an issue with. Since the video card is Nvidia, there's superb support for it.

The thing that makes this post-worthy is that once I got Kubuntu installed it was time to install the apps. First, the Linux apps; here are my preferences:
  • OpenOffice.org (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, database, drawing, math)
  • FireFox (web browser)
  • The GIMP (raster graphics, like Photoshop)
  • Inkscape (excellent SVG vector graphics editor)
  • Scribus (publishing)
  • Filezilla (FTP client)
  • GNUCash (finance)
  • KompoZer (web page authoring)
  • VNC (remote support)
  • Pidgin (multi-service instant messaging... not really necessary, but I like it better than Kopete, which is installed by default)
All of these were as easy as going to "Add/Remove Programs" and checking the boxes next to each program. Linux's "Add/Remove Programs" feature differs from Windows' in that Linux's actually adds programs. I didn't have to go searching, downloading, or running setup wizards for any of them. And actually, VNC wasn't necessary at all... the krdc (Remote Desktop) client that ships with Kubuntu also connects to vnc servers). The other thing you'll see missing from the list is email and calendaring. These are aptly provided by KDE, so Outlook need not apply. Installing, configuring, and updating Vista is not nearly as easy to use for the casual user; and that's saying a lot, because the Vista install is by far Microsoft's best effort to date.

I also installed the updated Nvidia drivers and the Nvidia X server (which is the foundation for the desktop) to improve performance. Again, this was done by checking boxes in "Add/Remove Programs". The video driver updates required me to reload the X server. This can be done without rebooting.

I also have a Palm TX. No worries, Add/Remove Programs provides kPilot for hotsyncing.

Now here's the one thing that's a little sketchy... YouTube videos require Flash/Shockwave, and the Linux Flash plugin from Adobe is really, REALLY bad. I mean, they didn't even give it more than the most superfluous stab. It's jerky, it's slow, it's not worth the effort. Fortunately Mplayer does a superior job of playing YouTube videos, and it's got a Mozilla plug-in that works just fine with Firefox on Linux. I installed that instead.

OK, so that's fine. Now I'd normally stop here, but I program, and need Lotus Notes. That's fine, there's a Linux client for that. But my customers are on Windows, and I need to make sure that my development environment is similar to their production environment. So another checkbox in Add/Remove Programs, and I've got WINE. This allows me to run Windows programs, including Notes. So I test out Wine with Everest (which thinks I'm running Windows XP Professional), and restore my Notes from backup.

So I've got a bunch of Linux programs and one Windows copy of Notes that could really be replaced with a Linux program if I weren't doing work for other people. So now it's time to do an inventory of the Windows-only programs I'm missing, and I find that there are... none.

Really. There's nothing I need. Even the games I play (and I'm not a big gamer) are available on Linux. Here are the games I regularly played on Windows.
  • Frets on Fire
  • SuperTuxKart
  • BZFlag
  • kNetwalk (I love this)
  • Frozen Bubble
  • Battle for Wesnoth
  • various games on ScummVM
  • various MAME games
  • OpenArena
  • FreeCiv
  • Risk (Domination)
ALL of these run on Linux, and most of the others that I play. the only game I play that doesn't run on Linux is Luxor, and there's a similar game that comes with the KDE desktop. And for the occasional Windows-only program that I might run across, there's WINE. They've made WINE nearly too easy... you install it, and simply run your Windows programs as if you were running on Windows. there's a folder on Linux that your Windows programs will think is the C: drive. That's it. When your Windows program looks for a default browser, it's your Linux browser that will start. You also have access to all of your Linux filesystem, so there's none of this being stuck in the emulated drive nonsense. You install Windows programs with their own Setup.exe programs, as normal, and they install themselves, complete with links in your application menu (under the WINE folder, of course).

So here's the deal... I don't need Windows. In my private usage I've weaned myself off of all Microsoft apps ages ago, and the OS is irrelevant when the apps are cross-platform. You probably don't need Windows, either. People keep arguing over whether this or that year is "the year of Linux on the desktop", and the fact of the matter is that it quietly came. Like Christmas in Whoville it came just the same. This isn't to say that it's going to immediately grab major marketshare... but you would never argue that Apple isn't "ready for the desktop" simply because few people use it or because not every Windows program runs on it. It's ready and it's great, and exactly the same is true of Linux.

For price, functionality, and stability, the arguments run 100% in favor of Linux. The only issue left for Windows fanatics is gaming. If you're a hardcore Windows gamer, more power to you, but you'd get a better gaming experience if you simply bought an Xbox. Consoles are for games, and the only issue in favor of Windows is dead.

Keep in mind here that I'm not saying that if you want Windows you should buy it. Buy whatever you like. What I'm saying is that there is no need for Windows... a very different thing entirely. I expect that people will go on offering long-obsolete arguments about Linux's unsuitability for home use because it doesn't have drivers for the device that prints witty sayings on their toilet paper, or some other such improbable thing... what they're doing is rationalizing the irrational. And to put that in perspective, I'll leave you with this lovely quote from Andy Rooney:
Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done.

Andy Rooney (1919 - )

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