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Monday, May 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Linux switch is becoming easier option

By Griffin Palmer
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, holds a stuffed penguin, the system's symbol, at his home office in San Jose, Calif.
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SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Linux creator Linus Torvalds first started talking about world domination in the late 1990s, he delivered the line mostly in jest.

Microsoft, the current world ruler, stopped laughing a long time ago.

It doesn't seem realistic to think Linux's free, open-source operating system will knock Microsoft Windows off its throne any time soon. Indisputably, though, Linux and the vast array of free software surrounding it have emerged as a viable desktop computing alternative — for those willing to dig into the installation instructions and tackle the odd setup puzzle.

For months now, my home machine has run nothing but Linux. After running Linux alongside Windows for years, switching back and forth between them as needed, I've pulled the plug on Windows at home.

I predict Linux will shortly become something that is comfortable even to people who aren't the type to reach under the hood and start yanking on wires.

There was a time when switching to Linux, exclusively, exacted a heavy price. Programs written for Linux were buggy. The documentation often read as if it were written by someone from a parallel universe. Getting a Linux system running required endless hours of fiddling. When one did get a Linux system up and running, the thing paled compared with Microsoft Windows or the Apple Macintosh when it came to ease of use and the number of software programs available.

These days, a reasonably astute computer user can have a fully functional Linux system, capable of handling typical home-computing needs, up and running in an afternoon or less. It's even possible to buy a competitively priced PC with Linux pre-installed.

Typical Linux packages come with at least one very Windowslike program, often with a choice of several. They usually include OpenOffice, a software suite capable of reading most Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word files, and of writing files in those formats as well. (OpenOffice is also available free in a version that runs on Microsoft Windows.)

Linux packages generally include at least a couple of full-featured Web browsers. Multimedia applications such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Macromedia Flash Reader and RealPlayer, though not technically open-source software, are available, without charge, in Linux-compatible forms from their publishers.

A variety of streaming audio and video players that do comply with open-software standards are also available for Linux. Firewall software, an absolute must, comes built-in.

My home-computing needs are simple: I surf the Web, do basic word processing and, occasionally, moderately complex spreadsheet work or database analysis. I want to be able to transfer photos from my digital camera, edit them and print them. I want to play CDs, rip and burn CDs, and download and record MP3s.
Linux handles all these chores easily. In addition, it functions as an e-mail server and Web server.

Setting this up wasn't entirely a breeze. Getting Linux to run my 3-year-old Sony CD/RW drive as a CD burner as well as a player took a good bit of research and manual editing of configuration files. I invested at least 12 hours in getting my Linux machine set up as a "print server" that would let my wife print files over our home network with her Macintosh.

One of the most significant benefits of Linux, I find, is system security.

But if Linux gains a much larger share of the consumer desktop, who's to say it won't become more of a target?

In fact, I've already been hit a couple of times by worms that exploit Linux vulnerabilities.

As with Windows, new security holes turn up in Linux all the time. A large network of Linux security experts is constantly probing for security flaws, and writing fixes as quickly as possible.

Despite its improvements over the years, Linux remains, for now, mostly a geek's choice.

I expect this to change rapidly. A large cadre of software developers is devoting a lot of time and energy to getting Linux and free/open-source software ready for "Aunt Tillie," the hypothetical user who just wants to be able to click a mouse and have computing happen — no muss, no fuss, no configuration.

Meanwhile, IBM has staked a huge measure of its fortune on supporting Linux and open-source software — not just on corporate computer servers, but on desktop computers. IBM is not alone.

Linux may not ever become the Microsoft slayer that its fiercest supporters hope it will be. It is, however, rapidly approaching a critical point at which it will be unstoppable. Even if it doesn't come to rule the world, it is definitely here to stay, and it is definitely positioned to claim a greater share of the consumer computer market.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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