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Desktop Linux Computing Solutions for the Home
by Michael C. Barnes

Michael C. Barnes examines Linux options for home users in his latest article for If you have more than one computer in your house, as many of us do these days, it is considerably less expensive to put GNU/Linux on multiple systems. Barnes explores licensing issues home users face and offers a practical guide to selecting Linux-based desktop software that will perform those everyday tasks . . .

Desktop Linux Computing Solutions for the Home
by Michael C. Barnes

My wife and I have one daughter. Not counting PDAs, we have five computers in our house. No, we did not buy computers for our pets. My wife, daughter and I each have our own computers. My wife has a laptop and I have one.

According the US Department of Census, as of August 2001, 51% of all Americans had at least one computer in the home. While it is amazing that over half of Americans have a computer, it is almost equally amazing that almost half do not. The US Census Department reports:
A ratio of 9-in-10 school-age children (6-to-17 years old) had access to a computer in 2000, with 4-in-5 using a computer at school and 2-in-3 with one at home, according to a report released today by the Commerce Department's Census Bureau.

The report showed that 54 million households, or 51 percent, had one or more computers in the home in August 2000, up from 42 percent in December 1998.

"Since 1984, the country has experienced more than a five-fold increase in the proportion of households with computers," said Census Bureau analyst Eric Newburger, author of Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States: August 2000 [pdf]. "In addition, Internet use is rapidly becoming synonymous with computer availability."

In 2000, more than 4-in-5 households with computers had at least one member using the Internet at home (44 million households). When the Census Bureau first collected data on Internet use in 1997, fewer than half of the households with computers had someone who was able to go online.

Considering that everyone in our family simply could not be as efficient or informed if we did not have a computer, it is hard for me to imagine a home without a computer.

Computers are becoming less and less expensive. My daughter wanted me to buy her a disk drive for her birthday. I got her an 80GB drive for $100.00 USD. My daughter likes to store downloaded videos on her computer. She burns her own VCDs but 20 Gigs was just not enough for her.

For years, our house has had a 100BaseT network. We have a 802.11b network for our laptops. I also use an infra red extender so that I can synch my palm from the bedroom. This allows me to update my stock prices and news via my laptop.

As each of us have computers, each of us are required to purchase licenses separately for each computer. Most software companies do not grant a site license for the home. I honestly believe that Microsoft would be very smart to consider this option. I believe that they could improve sales and gain a lot of good will if they had a business license and a home license. The home license would cover all computers that were used more than 75% in the home. They would probably want to classify laptops used primarily for business purposes separately.

Microsoft has a special version of their software that is designed for home use. The home version and the professional version are nearly identical. If your home computers are not part of a network, then the home edition is certainly appropriate. If you use a network that is a workgroup style network, the home edition is perfectly adequate. Microsoft's home edition is actually quite a bargain at about $100.00 USD as an upgrade. Many computers are bundled with Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition.

There is an option to Microsoft XP that many people are taking advantage of, namely GNU/Linux. Many people like to claim that GNU/Linux is free. Saying the GNU/Linux is free is really an oversimplification. GNU/Linux is OpenSource. This means that the source code can be used freely to develop solutions. Many companies create distributions. Some of the distributions are distributed free with no restrictions. Some are sold in packages with unlimited rights to distribute and other versions are sold on a per user basis just as Microsoft Windows is.

A GNU/Linux distribution is a collection of software that includes the Linux kernel. Each distribution is created for a specific target audience. Generally speaking, most GNU/Linux distributions have been targeting the server and business market. Only recently have GNU/Linux distributions been created that would be appropriate for the home user.

I recently wrote a white paper that compared several Linux distributions to Microsoft Windows XP. The evaluation compared what features and tools come with the package. Generally speaking, I found that almost all Linux distributions equaled or bettered Microsoft Windows 98, only the very best GNU/Linux distributions could match Microsoft Windows XP.

Having said that, why not just use Microsoft Windows XP in the home. For some people, using Microsoft Windows XP might be the solution. For others, it is not. The first reason why it might no be is that the computer might not be sufficient to provide a good platform for GNU/Linux.

For home computers with 16 Mb to 32 Mb RAM, Windows 98 is the best solution. For computers with 64 to 128 Mb of RAM, GNU/Linux (with all the bells and whistles) becomes and option. Microsoft Windows XP needs 128 Mb or more.

If your computer originally came with a different OS, such as Windows 98 or Windows Me, you must purchase upgrades for each computer. One license is only good for one computer. If I ran Microsoft Windows Home Edition on all five of my home computers, the cost for just the upgrades would be about $500.00 USD. This does not get me the application software I need.

Recently, some Linux distributions have offered memberships where customers can download software from a central site. One such distribution is from sold at Walmart stores.

According to the website, the price for the membership is $199.95 for two years. For that period of time, you can download software from the Lindows site for free.

Is this a good plan? Many Linux distributions come with all the software you need already installed. Any user can download and install Linux software for no charge if they simply understand a little about how Linux works. Most Linux distributions make installing software a simple process.

Personally, I believe that a GNU/Linux distribution that costs as much as Microsoft Windows XP is somewhat of an enigma. Almost every software package that is available for GNU/Linux is also available for Microsoft Windows XP. OpenOffice, GIMP, Mozilla, MySQL, and Apache all run on Microsoft Windows XP.

Buying an Operating System can be compared to buying a new car. The dealer has options they want to sell along with the new car. As a buyer, you can choose to buy the options the dealer has, choose lower priced options or buy the car and upgrade the options outside the dealer.

Microsoft offers a software package called Works that sells for a very modest $50.00. The software is far more appropriate for the home user than the far more expensive Microsoft Office. For those power home users, they can download OpenOffice for free or buy StarOffice. Another free solution is Software602, which is more powerful than Microsoft Works and less powerful (and less intimidating) than Microsoft Office or OpenOffice. Software602's PC Suite is available for free download for home users.

There are some GNU/Linux distributions that make using a computer even easier than Microsoft Windows XP. For people who use their computer for e-mail, keeping addresses, maintaining a calendar, writing letters and browsing the web, I do not know of an easier package to use than Oeone HomeBase. Oeone HomeBase is not a complete distribution. It is a desktop that runs on top or Red Hat 7x. A version will soon be available to run on top of Mandrake.

Oeone's HomeBase

Oeone distributes their desktop at no charge or on CD ROM for a minimal charge. They offer a service to store your files remotely on their servers for a very reasonable $20.00 per year. This allows the user to synchronize their data between several different computers. Oeone combined with OpenOffice or StarOffice is a complete desktop solution.

Computers in the home are not just for work. There is more to life than just browsing the web, sending e-mail, and writing. Today, home users want to download music and videos from the web, burn CD ROMs, watch DVDs, use messengers, and even video teleconference.

Microsoft Windows XP provides the facilities to do all of these things. In order for GNU/Linux to be an alternative to all of these things, then they have to provide this same functionality.

Of all the GNU/Linux distributions that I have looked at, two stand out. These are ELX Linux and Alt Linux Junior. Alt Linux Junior is based on Mandrake which happens to be one of the best desktop distributions available. Alt Linux has done a lot of preconfigure Linux to make it easy to use. Samba is preconfigured. Samba is a facility that makes GNU/Linux look like another Windows based PC to other computers on the network. They have included LinNeighborhood. This application provides the same functionality of My Network Neighborhood.

ELX Linux is the most complete desktop Linux distribution that I have encountered. ELX Linux logically integrates software using launchpads. Applications are grouped together under themes called launchpads. This is a much easier way to locate software than searching through sliding menus.

ELX and Alt Linux go beyond just replacing the Operating System. They also provide the most popular software ready to use. ELX goes farther than anyone else because they include more applications which are more tightly integrated and preconfigured.

ELX is the only distribution that I have tested that has Gnome Meeting, a Microsoft Meeting work-a-like, installed and preconfigured. ELX comes ready to play DVDs, listen to MP3s, and burn CDROMs.

ELX groups applications into groups called launchpads

ELX costs $79.95 which is somewhat high for a GNU/Linux distribution. ELX is free for home use and for educational purposes. This means you can buy one package and make copies for the home but not for the office.

While putting Microsoft Home Edition on all my computers at home would cost $500.00, it would only cost me $79.95 to use ELX on all computers at home.

Codeweavers has two software packages that are quite interesting. The first is Crossover Office. This package will install Microsoft Office 97 or Microsoft Office 2000 onto GNU/Linux. Given that OpenOffice or StarOffice are complete replacements to Microsoft Office, this function might not be necessary. However, Codeweavers Crossover Office also supports Quicken and Visio running on Linux.

Codeweavers also has a product called Crossover Plugins. Codeweavers Plugins the one commercial product that every GNU/Linux home user should purchase. Codeweavers Plugin is $24.95. It allows GNU/Linux users to use the most popular browser plugins on Linux. These include:
  • Quick Time
  • ShockWave Director
  • Windows Media Player 6.4
  • Word Viewer
  • Excel Viewer
  • PowerPoint Viewer

Codeweavers products are based on the Open Source Wine Project. Wine is included with most GNU/Linux distributions. Wine is evolving to allow Microsoft Windows programs to run on GNU/Linux without installing Microsoft Office. Some commercial software companies have used Wine to create GNU/Linux versions of their software. Corel Office is an example. I have surprised many people by showing them Internet Explorer and Microsoft Media Player running on GNU/Linux.

Microsoft Office running on top of ELX Linux with assistance of Crossover Office

Neither Microsoft or the GNU/Linux community is standing still. Both camps are improving their software and adding functionality. Today, not considering price, Microsoft Windows XP remains the best general purpose operating system for the x86. None-the-less, as the cost of computer hardware decreases and families purchase more computers and start adding networks, GNU/Linux is an attractive alternative.

Not all GNU/Linux distributions offer the same level of features or functionality. If I had to get a GNU/Linux for my grandmother, I would use Oeone desktop. This is clearly the easiest to use and most logical arrangement of tools I have ever seen on any computer.

For the power user who demands the same level of functionality they might expect from a fully configured Microsoft Windows XP system, ELX Linux is the best choice. For someone who wants to explore GNU/Linux and create their own custom configuration but would like to do it in such a way as it not become a research project, Alt Linux Junior would be my recommendation.

If you have more than one computer in your house, it might be fun and less expensive to put GNU/Linux on one more of the systems. There can be a lot of personal satisfaction knowing that you are able to do everything you need to do but that you are running your computer without illegal software.

Also by Michael C. Barnes:

About the author: Michael C. Barnes is currently president of NorhTec. Mr. Barnes has over 20 years experience with computers and another 10 years experience with more primitive networks, to include paper tape and morse code. Mr. Barnes has 18 years of experience with various Unix systems and spent 13 years with Sun Microsystems.

Mr. Barnes became fascinated with GNU/Linux turned the common PC into a Unix like workstation. By 1998, GNU/Linux surpassed the desktop environments offered on traditional Unix workstations.

When GNU/Linux is combined with low-cost x86 platforms, organizations now have the power to create enterprise computing for the small organization.

Mr. Barnes, born in Kentucky, now lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife, Linda Kubota-Barnes and his daughter Karen Barnes.

Copyright 2003 by Michael C. Barnes. Reproduced by with permission.

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