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My Desktop Odyssey Update
by Michael C. Barnes

Michael C. Barnes updates his in-depth look at leading desktop operating system options on the market. In this exclusive article at, Barnes addresses reader feedback to his popular first article and evaluates current versions of leading Desktop Linux desktop options including Red Hat, ELX, Debian, LindowsOS, and Xandros and more. Barnes offers practical considerations and discusses what software can best meet your home or office needs. . . .

My Desktop Odyssey Update
by Michael C. Barnes

I received many comments regarding my previous article on desktop solutions. Many readers believe that my article was too favorable to Microsoft Windows XP compared to the available GNU/Linux desktops. Some believe that I understated the security advantages of GNU/Linux while others simply felt that I was applying a bias towards Microsoft XP over GNU/Linux.

The purpose of my comparisons is for organizations looking to adapt a solution for their enterprise. The conclusions might not be as appropriate for individuals or hobbyists. The fundamental answer that I am trying to find is whether or not there are real alternatives for the x86 desktop other than Microsoft Windows.

I tried to show that users have a choice of running Open Source applications on Microsoft Windows or they can run commercial software on GNU/Linux. The most expensive solution would be to run all commercial software on Microsoft Windows, but considerable savings could be achieved by integrating a few Open Source solutions to the desktop.

My conclusion was that most GNU/Linux distributions would be an upgrade for anyone currently using Windows Me, Windows 98, or Windows 95. In many respects, the best GNU/Linux distributions don't quite match Microsoft Windows XP. This is by no means a condemnation of GNU/Linux. Given that there are more people still running Windows 98 than are running Microsoft Windows XP, this means that moving to GNU/Linux would be an upgrade for the majority.

The case for Microsoft Windows XP is very compelling. Compared to earlier versions of Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Windows XP is a very stable operating system Font rendering on Microsoft Windows XP is superior to current GNU/Linux distributions. Microsoft Windows XP is far more familiar to many users than the GNU/Linux distribution.

There are many applications that are vital to an organization that simply are not available for GNU/Linux. This includes such powerful programs as PageMaker, AutoCAD and Photoshop. An organization considering integrating GNU/Linux will have to appreciate the fact that there are real reasons why some professionals, to accomplish their work, must use Microsoft Windows XP.

To date, most proponents of GNU/Linux have focused on GNU/Linux as a more secure, and reliable platform. To whatever degree this might be true; these two justifications have not significantly created interest in GNU/Linux as an alternative to Microsoft Windows XP. Microsoft Windows XP is reliable enough for most people and the majority of users feel comfortable enough using virus protection software, and personal firewall software.

The factor that is making people consider GNU/Linux is the potential cost savings. Even in this case, there are many factors that have to be considered beyond purchase price. There are other costs as well. Retraining users from one OS to another is a big concern. It is easier and less expensive to hire people with Microsoft expertise than with GNU/Linux expertise. Availability of needed software is another. Perhaps the biggest challenge that GNU/Linux faces on the desktop is hardware support.

A few years ago, simply getting sound to work on GNU/Linux was a challenge. Today, the chances are quite good that GNU/Linux will properly recognize your hardware, and install the appropriate drivers. GNU/Linux will support most printers, and many web cams. None-the-less, it is still a challenge to support most scanners, digital cameras, and wireless devices.

For those individuals, and organizations looking for opportunities to lower their overall computing costs, GNU/Linux can offer considerable savings. It is not required that all users be forced to shift to GNU/Linux. Some users will need access to software that locks them into Microsoft Windows; while others will be required to use hardware that is not supported by GNU/Linux.

While there are many reasons cited for adopting GNU/Linux, the most compelling reason is cost. The price of GNU/Linux can be as inexpensive as free or cost nearly as much per user as Microsoft Windows.

Many magazines have reviewed favorably some GNU/Linux distributions that I did not find outstanding. In many cases, these distributions focused on making their GNU/Linux distributions cosmetically attractive. To really determine which GNU/Linux is better than another, it requires that the distribution be tested in a real work environment.

Recently, I gave a presentation to an audience about GNU/Linux desktops. One person told me that many people had come to give presentations, but that I was the first person to give a presentation about GNU/Linux using GNU/Linux on my laptop. I believe that many of the authors writing reviews of Linux distributions never really try to use them. They boot them up and see how pretty they are.

It is very easy to dress up GNU/Linux distributions. There is a website, that has a great collection of icons, fonts, themes and backgrounds for the KDE desktop. Even if you don't like the look of the standard desktop, it is quite easy to change the look simply by downloading and installing a few files.

There are many GNU/Linux distributions that are available without any licensing restrictions. Slackware, Debian, and Peanut Linux are some examples. These distributions can be downloaded and distributed freely. Some distributions take off on where Red Hat or others have left off. In Thailand, there is a version of Red Hat called Linux TLE (Thai Language Edition). While the primary purpose of this distribution is to create a Thai language GNU/Linux desktop, Linux TLE is an excellent distribution in all respects. The distribution has many standard applications not found on Red Hat; and the overall look and feel is superior. Many countries have taken Red Hat or other distributions and adapted them for local audiences.

There are other distributions that allow the users to download the absolute latest applications and drivers. One of the most popular “do-it-yourself” GNU/Linux is Gentoo. For those users who can master the process of downloading and installing Gentoo, the reward is that you will have the absolute latest of everything.

I have been quite happy using free distributions. Free distributions are just as stable, have just as many pre-installed software, and support as much hardware as commercial distributions. When I evaluate GNU/Linux distributions, I ask myself what “value added” am I getting for the money I am spending over something for free. As the price of the distribution becomes more expensive, it becomes less clear why the user might want to adopt a GNU/Linux over Microsoft Windows XP.

The concept of Open Source is often confusing. Microsoft Windows XP is a commercial operating system. However, it is possible to use Open Source solutions such as Open Office, Win GIMP, Apache, and MySQL, which are Open Source.

GNU/Linux distributions are based on the Open Source Linux kernel. Despite the fact that the kernel is Open Source, the distribution itself might have trademarked or copyrighted features. It is also possible to run commercial applications on GNU/Linux such as Oracle, Star Office, Hancom Office, Codeweavers Crossover Office, or Win4Linux.

Microsoft releases a major new version of Microsoft Windows about every two years. In the GNU/Linux world, things are moving much faster. Many GNU/Linux distributions are upgraded every four to six months. After writing my original article on desktop alternatives, several distributions have been updated, and other new ones have been introduced. The following information updates my previous article.

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