The view from 2003: Migrating to Linux not easy for Windows users

The marketing blather promises easy upgrades, but that's not what one newbie found

Welcome Slashdot readers. We're re-running this 2003 story from an earlier incarnation of the LinuxWorld site, to help you see what's changed in Linux installs and what might have stayed the same. -- Ed.

Windows 95 works well enough for my needs, but I'm eight years behind the technology curve. While I realize there are still many who rely on Apple IIs and Tandy 100s for their daily computing chores, it's time for me to start planning a migration route.

I was mulling the possibilities when the OfficeSuperGeek (tOSG) talked me into a CPU upgrade, gave me a suitable motherboard from his bonepile, dumped some Linux distributions on my desk and said, "Here... try these." What follows is an 18-month tour of recent and now not-so-recent Linux distributions. Before we proceed, let me set your expectations about this overview. It isn't scientific. It's based on my impressions as a technical writer, Linux neophyte and curmudgeon. It's an appropriate and fair look from my humble newbie perspective. If you are a hairy-chested Linux administrator or programmer, you will undoubtedly find yourself screaming as you read the following. Save your breath.

Here's what I want: The migration destination My non-negotiable requirements for a new operating system center on simplicity for me. Spare me your "how much more enlightened, knowledgeable and confident I will be if I know the intimate details of my computer if the installation is treacherous!" speech; I want an operating system that works like a Honda Accord and not a kit-car project.

  1. It must have a GUI interface for installing and configuring the system. I'm a lousy typist, and text mode is not an efficient way for me to interface with an operating system.
  2. Existing hardware must remain usable. At a minimum, the printer, modem, and CD player/writer must work, and the new operating system must make them work without my having to tweak configuration files. If it can't get that far, it's not ready to inflict on the general public as a migration route, and I certainly will not recommend it to my friends.
  3. Existing software must remain usable unless the new operating system has equivalent features to the ones I use, there is no loss of data and data-transfer is easy. Note: Requirements 2 and 3 eliminate WindowsXP as an upgrade route. I would need to buy a new computer, probably new peripherals, and replace some eXPensive software to get the dubious benefits of product-activation codes and embedded functions I don't want and can't delete.
  4. A bit of incompatibility with legacy Microsoft Office documents is OK, but using an old Microsoft Office file with Linux should be no more of a pain in the neck than using an old Office file with a new version of Office.
  5. I must have the ability to edit documents created by clients with Windows systems and return them to the client in their preferred format. Requirements 4 and 5 can be handled by OpenOffice.org's 1.01 release. It doesn't have perfect compatibility with MS Office files, but it's as compatible as any version of MS Office is with any other version. It looks like the solution is a dual-boot system with Win95 and Linux.
  6. Because a dual-boot system is the best solution for me, the Linux distribution must make it easy to create a dual-boot system. It has to recognize and preserve the existing operating system and its data, give me access to the data on the Windows drives and be reasonably unlikely to wipe out my system.

Expectations & foreshadowing. It was supposed to "just work"

I assumed that I would partition drives to make room for Linux, set the BIOS to boot from a CD-ROM drive, reboot with an installation CD in the drive, make some on-screen selections, let the distribution know what hardware to use, twiddle my thumbs for a while as it loaded software and then have a working system. I expected the installation routine to configure whatever needed configuring after it detected the hardware or I told it what I had. That's what tOSG expected, too. My installation approach I have installed various Linux distributions on four variations of my PC over several months. If a system is not mentioned for a distribution, it's probably because the hardware was no longer available at that time. I did not test all my requirements on all the systems. If a distribution flunked a major requirement, it was pointless to continue.

Bare essentials
GUI interface for installation/configuration
Existing printer, modem and CD-R drive must remain usable
Existing software must remain usable or have a Linux-friendly equal
Compatibility with Microsoft Office documents and files
Can create a dual-boot system

Before each installation, I deleted the Linux partitions from the drives and restored them to formatted FAT32. I did this so that every test could start with the same conditions, as if a user were doing his or her first installation. This is more of an experiment to see how ready Linux is for the average Windows-user than how it stacks up for my own migration to Linux. As a technical writer, I've watched users install software. They have amazing faith in the programmers who write installation modules. A typical user follows on-screen instructions, clicks the most obvious choices, accepts the defaults and seldom resorts to reading manuals. If Linux is to become an upgrade path for ordinary Windows users, at least one distribution has to be installable the way the ordinary non-geek computer user will install it. To give the distributions a real-world test, I used only the help sources provided with the distributions. I can hear some of you now:

  • "The newsgroups are where you should go for help!"
  • "Website 'A' has the documentation you need!"
  • "You have to read the man pages!"
  • "Use 'apropos'!"
  • "It takes an expert to install and configure an operating system!"

Well, you shrieking geeks, I don't have a shelf full of Linux reference books, and I don't plan to buy them. As I mentioned, I think a computer is a tool rather than a hobby. If software is distributed in mass-market retail outlets, I expect it to work straight out of the box. To get to the man pages, I have to successfully install the distribution, the operating system has to boot and the graphics-card driver has to make them show up on the screen. To use newsgroups and Web sites, I also have to get a modem working, find a browser and newsreader, set up my Internet connection and print out the help files or Web pages as a guide for tweaking the configuration files.

The systems I have a PC from a manufacturer that went out of business. All of the hardware supposedly had Linux drivers for it. Windows 95 ran on all systems with no problems (except for the expected total catatonia when I swapped motherboards).

Internal on all systems Two CD-ROM drives — the original Toshiba and a newer Sony CD-burner (on the same IDE cable with the Toshiba as master); hardware fax-modem card; Adaptec SCSI card; Sound Blaster; SIIG CyberParallel dual expansion board; 30-gigabyte and 6-gigabyte hard drives (on the same cable, with the 6-gigabyte as master). Each drive has space for Linux: 1 gigabyte for swap on the 6-gigabyte drive and 14 gigabytes for the Linux installation on the 30-gigabyte drive.

External on all systems OKIPAGE 6e parallel-port printer; ancient SCSI UMAX S-6E scanner; SCSI HP Photo scanner; and a parallel-port Zip drive. The computer has a USB port, but I have nothing that uses it.

  • System 1: My original 1998 266-MHz Pentium-II with 128 megabytes of RAM and Rendition Verite 1000 video card. Neither distribution I tried (SuSE 7.1 and Mandrake 8.0) could produce a post-installation GUI, and Mandrake killed Win95. I got a blank, black screen or, if I was lucky, a text-only interface.
  • System 2: System 1, plus an ATI video card. I dumped the CDs and manuals in tOSG's cubicle — along with some vile comments about the ancestry of Tux — after the System 1 debacle. He had to do something to keep me from dashing back into the clutches of Microsoft, so he loaned me the ATI video card.
  • System 3: System 1 with a new video card based on the SiS300 chipset. There would be a slot shortage on my new motherboard, and I wanted to make sure the new card was working before swapping motherboards. I was surprised at the difference a change of video boards made in the Linux installation. Not all of it was for the better.
  • System 4: AMD K6-500, 256 megabytes of RAM and the cards from #3 (with a new motherboard).
  • System 4.1: I bought a new monitor for system 4. The degaussing controls on the old one failed, and it degaussed continually.

What almost always worked The modem.

All but one distribution with an operable GUI was capable of configuring a hardware modem and connecting to the Internet. There was one I didn't try to configure. One distribution thought it couldn't connect, but it was mistaken.

What almost never worked The printer.

It is a non-PostScript OKIPAGE 6e running as an HP LaserJet4 under Win95, but only some of the Linux distributions could do more than make its lights flash. Annoyingly, most of the configuration routines would correctly spot the printer at first but then fumble the information into the bit bucket as soon as I clicked "Yes." Then I would have to manually select it.

What didn't work as well as it should have The video cards.

I had well-known, mass-market video cards with chipsets that were allegedly supported, but getting a GUI to show up was never a sure thing.

The results in general

As a pre-installed operating system, nearly any Linux with a GUI would be acceptable to almost any user. As an upgrade route, however, Linux hasn't performed as well as tOSG and I expected, despite multiple installations of various releases on several permutations of my PC. It certainly has not performed well enough for me to recommend it to any non-geek I know unless they are going to hire someone to install it.

More than a year and a half later, I am still trying to find a distribution that "just works." Most annoyingly, the distributions often act as though they are doing what I want them to do. Printers configure and jobs appear and disappear in the queue, but pages never print. The CD-ROM burner gives no error messages as it creates perfect coasters that the file manager can't read.

Software installs and then never appears on the menus. Root gets locked out of files. I can see hard drives in the configuration tools, and then not configure or use them. Help files are unfindable or unhelpful. It's been a thoroughly frustrating experience. I remain hopeful that a future distribution will have the magic combination of defaults and drivers to make everything on my system "just work." I have heard of successful migrations, so perhaps it's just a matter of time before I get lucky.

However, most Windows users aren't as patient as I am; at the first sign of problems, they will migrate to a familiar operating system by buying a new computer with the operating system installed. If they have had a bad experience with Linux, they will probably avoid it in the future. Let's take a brief look at each distribution I tried. The table below summarizes my testing with regards to GUI interface, printer, modem and CD drive for each distribution.

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