As people make the transition from Windows to the increasingly popular Linux operating system and open source applications, many questions arise. Software consultant Peter van der Linden aims to answer those questions with his new book Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux. In this SearchOpenSource.com interview, Van der Linden explains why users should make the jump to Linux for reasons such as cost, security and convenience.
Some people say that Linux desktop distributions like SuSE and Fedora are getting too fat, requiring too many resources. Do you agree?
Peter van der Linden: I don't agree with that proposition. It's been clear for the last five years that memory continues to outperform the predictions of Moore's Law by growing in capacity and dropping in price even faster than expected. You can buy a gigabyte of DRAM for around $100 today. We should not be optimizing our desktop application and system software for low memory footprint. Instead, we should seek intelligent ways to take advantage of the expanded resources. This is what Apple is doing with their new file system meta data search. You can (even) look through hidden data on your system, like the EXIF information in image files. The search is fast because the data are indexed offline when you aren't using the system.
Does this "fattening" apply more to Gnome than KDE?
Van der Linden: I don't think there are any interesting differences between Gnome and KDE. I don't think there are any interesting differences between any desktop environments, except Apple's Aqua environment and everything else. Apple is so far ahead of everyone else in desktop environments that it's not even funny.
Microsoft's Vista release (the replacement for Windows XP) has been delayed by several years from Microsoft's original timetable. And key new features, such as the searchable filesystem copy of Apple's work, have been removed from Vista. The most important new feature of Vista is now merely a slightly different appearance to the desktop.
What are the top two reasons that a business should transition to a Linux desktop?
Van der Linden: That's easy - security and cost. Coinciding with the huge increase in Internet use, the Microsoft Windows world has been prey to a massive number of viruses, spyware, Trojan horses and malware-of-the-week. And the problem is becoming worse, not better. Do you receive less spam or phishing attempts now, when compared with twelve months ago? Most people would say they get ever increasing numbers of spam with viral payloads. This malware specifically targets Windows and Windows users. On the day you switch to Linux, all those headaches go away, like an obnoxious loudspeaker being turned off. Your IT staff can focus on productive tasks instead of reactive virus cleanup.
The second reason is cost. A single user license for Microsoft Office Professional 2003 costs $499. A single user license for OpenOffice, which can read and write Microsoft Office file formats, is free. By switching to Linux, you become able to use the great pool of open source software which is freely available for Linux. Some of this software, like OpenOffice, has also been ported to Windows.
What are other benefits of moving to the Linux desktop?
Van der Linden: The other big benefit is that companies can control their own destinies more finely by using Linux. When you use Windows, you get whatever version of Windows was shipping when you bought the PC.
Often, most of a company is using an older version of Office. Then someone gets a new PC with the latest Office, and starts sending around Word documents. People with the older versions of Office can't read those, and pressure quickly rises to upgrade everyone to the latest Office. Microsoft could easily make the old and new file formats compatible, but they deliberately do the opposite to force unnecessary upgrades on the market.
The correct approach when your company stumbles into this situation is to take the opportunity to introduce OpenOffice into your company. Microsoft makes a big song and dance about "supporting what customers want," but they really don't support what customers want. Microsoft acts to protect its monopoly, rather than supporting what customers want.
Most recently, the State of Massachusetts adopted a document format approved by an international standards organization for all state documents. Massachusetts indicated that Microsoft and other vendors were welcome to bid for the state's business, providing the software supported the OpenDocument format. Microsoft complained about the Open Document format, and said it would not support it. Meanwhile other government agencies are expected to follow the example of Massachusetts.
Some admins tell me that they've run into application compatibility problems when trying to move some departments from Windows to Linux desktops. Could you offer some updates on the status of Linux desktop interoperability today?
Van der Linden: When I demonstrate Linux to PC User Groups, I finish the demo by downloading a Word or PowerPoint file directly from Microsoft's website, and opening and editing it in OpenOffice. The audience often gasps, because they did not know that compatibility is that good.
However, it's true that some more complicated formatting (like, say, a two column footnote to a table within a table) may be lost. Excel macros will need to be re-written. Some pages may break at a different place. Interoperability is very good, but it is not perfect and it is wrong to expect it to be, given how hard Microsoft works to frustrate it.
What are the differences between KDE and packaged desktops like Xandros and Linspire?
Van der Linden: Linspire and Xandros both use KDE as the default desktop. These two distros don't make any significant changes to KDE. They make trivial and worthless customizations like themes with sound effects, and different graphics for the start button. My view is that any branding benefit is not worth the effort to create a non-functional (i.e. looks only) differentiator and I wish they'd stop it.
Could you pinpoint two or three of the biggest differences between the Microsoft desktop and KDE?
Van der Linden: The real difference between desktops is in the set of applications that are bundled. Properly designed applications work well under both KDE and Gnome environments. This is why it's such a good strategy for users to start using secure open source applications right now, and switch seamlessly away from Windows when they want to capture the rest of the cost savings. I'm talking about applications such as Thunderbird for email, Firefox for a browser, GIMP for image editing, and NVU for Web page creation.
Could you offer an example of a handy shortcut that can be done with the Konqueror browser?
Van der Linden: I like the way that you can read manpages in Konqueror, by typing a URL consisting of 'man:' followed by the name of the command, e.g. 'man:mount' or 'man:ls.' For this to work you need the manpage database installed on your system. This is a quick way to get a reminder on the options a command takes, without cluttering up your terminal window. Other people like the combined browser/file explorer paradigm. It means you can set bookmarks to refer to folders. Click on the bookmark, and you go to the folder.