Computing's Best-kept Secrets

I've been fascinated by computers since I first got my hands on one back in 1968. I've been working with them ever since. I write code professionally and spend pretty much all my work time in front of a Microsoft Windows system. I use tools like Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, programming and image tools. But I also like to try new things.

There is this PC at home that I got sometime in the last century. It started having problems booting and sometimes it would hang. I spent lots of time working on it--replacing about everything on it including the RAM and hard drive. I finally gave up and got another computer. But the old one was still a viable machine and it bugged me that it just sat there to no good use. So I decided to put Linux on it.

I have next to nothing in the way of Linux experience. I have worked on Unix systems a little--just enough to know that the Unix shell is only for the truly-dedicated computer geek. So as a wise modern adult, I went to my kid for advice and I asked him which Linux distribution I should buy when I went down to the store. My son patiently explained to me that there was no need to buy a Linux distribution since they can be downloaded. So that's the first secret, commercial Linux distributions can be legally downloaded from the Internet. If you want support, you will have to buy the CD's (or ask on the Internet).

So I downloaded three CD-ROM's worth of Mandrake Linux software, burned then onto CDs, stuck the first CD in the old computer's tray and Linux installed itself. It auto-configured my hardware and I wasn't asked any obscure questions. That's the second secret, Linux is easy to install now. There's pretty much no difference in installation complexity between Windows XP and Linux, except that with Linux you don't have to type any code numbers and "activate" the software.

When Linux started, I was present with a fully configured graphic user interface, not so much unlike Windows. The big surprise was all the software already installed. For example, there is a package called OpenOffice that includes a word processor, spread sheet and mathematical formula type setter. It reads and writes Microsoft Word format (as well as others). It even can produce Adobe PDF files! (That's like$600 in software for Windows?) There was a C++ compiler, CD burning software, text editors, graphic editing programs, browsers, web servers, mail servers and FTP servers and over 200 other things on the applications menu. There was project management software that creates Gantt charts. There was even software to backup my computer--something you don't get with Windows XP home edition! Now I don't know how, feature for feature, OpenOffice compares with Microsoft Office, or how the project manager compares with Microsoft Project, because I haven't used the Linux software that much yet. But what I do know is that 95% of the features of Microsoft Word or Project never get used around here. So that's the third secret; Linux distributions come with software that can read and write Microsoft Office files, and software that can do things I had been conditioned to think I had to pay for.

While I haven't tried this myself, there are even Windows emulators that allow some Windows software to run under Linux.

I wanted to do some programming. I normally use Borland's Delphi for that. Borland has a compatible development environment for Linux called Kylix, and fortunately for me, my Delphi package included a complementary copy of Kylix that not only included the Pascal compiler I use, but C++ also. But I found out that I can download a (lesser) version of Kylix from Borland for free!

Finally I was reading a news article that said that 20% of small to medium businesses in the US use Linux on their desktops. You heard me right: "desktop" not "server". So the statement that "Microsoft owns the desktop" is less true than it once was. So that is my final secret: people other than computer geeks use Linux on their desktop.

The economics of Linux are hard to escape. In my company, Windows software typically costs us more than the computers we run it on--and sometimes several multiples of what the hardware costs. Even at home software costs more than hardware. I'm sure there are many important software applications that don't run under Linux, but most users don't need them. For a home user that just wants to browse the web, read their email, edit their digital photos and burn then onto a CD, write a few letters or the next great American novel, design party invitations and balance their checkbook I can't see why they need to buy Windows.

I don't want to make a big deal about this. I'm editing this web page using Microsoft FrontPage under Windows XP because I paid for it and I know how to use it. However, if I had it all to do over again, there is another road I could have taken.

Kevin (

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