Ubuntu Linux wins over Windows power user

The Windows power user (me) and Ubuntu: a (mostly) happy relationship

Late last week, with the help of Network World's resident Linux guru, Armen Brown, my ancient spare XP PC was converted into a Linux PC running the Ubuntu distro (with the Gnome desktop). Thus began this Windows power user's foray into the world of desktop Linux. In a word Linux is ... fine.

I quickly discovered that as far as an operating system and GUI, Ubuntu/Gnome is every bit as good as the Windows I know so well and it stacks up fine to the desktop Mac we have, too. The Mac is slicker, but for a home PC, I don't care. What I want is ...

1) Software, preferably free-- stuff that I need (word processor, HTML editor, etc.) and apps that I want (games, mostly). Ubuntu had all of this in droves, out of the box, though it wasn't perfect (more on that soon).

2) The ability to easily find my files and figure out how to organize apps and data.

3) Speed. (The Mac seems to have both Windows and my Linux machine beat on this, but its also got the newest, most powerful hardware)

Myths versus reality

Where's the speed? I was ready to experience Linux being much faster than Windows. It isn't. The old XP PC was a home PC. It wasn't bogged down with a lot of corporate fiddling, no resident programs, no VPN, no Outlook e-mail. It booted up in about 30 seconds. Ubuntu takes about three times as long to boot and it, too, is just a home PC with no VPN, no Outlook, no corporate custom programs. Speed of the apps seems the same as XP.

Technical know-how needed, but genius not required. I expected Linux to be harder to navigate, harder to load up with programs, requiring more technical know-how to use. That's true, but only to a limited extent. On the one hand, I faced a to-be-expected learning curve for figuring out where to click to find things. This is the same learning curve I needed for the Mac, or every time I buy a new cell phone, for that matter. I need to learn all the different terminology (what's a Launcher).

On the other, as soon as I stopped expecting it to be harder, it stopped being harder.

For instance, I had some trouble downloading the latest version of the awesome free browser/HTML editor Seamonkey,. The Ubuntu software center for some mysterious reason downloaded an ancient version of it -- with a disclaimer that it wasn't responsible for updates. When I fired it up, Seamonkey told me to upgrade and gave me a link. I downloaded.

But the new version wouldn't launch. Instead, it gave me instructions asking me to go into various configuration files. I did as instructed and it didn't work. Anyone other but a power user would be completely frustrated by now. (Then again, how many times does a Windows machine offer up some mysterious error code, with equal frustration?).

Eventually, it occured to me to stop following instructions. Ten minutes later, by clicking on all the logical spots, I deleted the old program, got the new one running, and added a "Launcher" to my Applications list. I failed at getting the Seamonkey icon to show up, but oh well ...

In a few more minutes, I had my desktop customized, my screen saver selected and a few other personal tweaks done to my desktop.

Guess what? I don't really need many apps anyway. Perhaps the biggest discovery I made was that adding too many applications is all but unnecessary. Over the past two years, I have slowly begun to rely more on browser-based cloud apps and services for my home computing.

With Firefox and an Internet connection, I have just about everything I need: write an document? Google Apps. Share files or backup files to the Web? Windows Live (I love Skydrive). Access personal e-mail? I ditched Outlook Express a year ago and now just use my ISP's E-mail Web service. Chat with friends? Facebook -- no need for an IM client to be installed. Play games? Lil' Games and a dozen others like it. Share photos? Flickr. You get the idea.

Because I am having a good experience with Linux on my home PC doesn't mean that I think Windows will be killed. Corporations won't be yanking out all the custom programs they have that depend on Microsoft technology. Nor should they if they pay a fair price and the apps work well. IT managers don't want to start over learning how to manage a fleet of Linux PCs (particularly if users of System Center OpsMgr, which doesn't support Linux).

But desktop Linux works well enough today. It is coming to your homes, schools and workplaces over the next few years. It probably won't kill Windows (only Microsoft could do that), but Windows won't kill desktop Linux, either.

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