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Beyond the survey: IT pros sound off on Linux desktops

John H. Terpstra responds to feedback on his article, Perceptions: Is Linux suitable for business desktops? to address an issue brought up by readers: their perception of bias in the article.

Since the presentation and publication of the article, Perceptions: Is Linux suitable for business desktops?, I have received substantial feedback. Most of this feedback comes from IT pros who are not, perhaps, as strongly biased toward Linux or Windows as those in my poll. Publishing this feedback could address an issue brought up by readers: their perception of bias in the article. (Also, at the writer's request, we reformatted the original article to make it clear when Terpstra was stating his own opinions. - Editor)

Conversion issues

Correspondents pointed out that a great number of people are still running Windows 9X on older hardware. A migration to Microsoft (MS) Windows XP will invariably result in the need to purchase new hardware. The total per system cost of such a migration is at least five times higher than migration to Linux.

Several who replied noted that they are confused as to how bad (or good) Linux really is. They added that, given the much higher cost of complete system replacement, it might be worth experimenting with Linux.

The fact that there is just no equivalent to TurboTax for Linux is find that a problem, three writers said. (Part of one of these responses is reproduced below.) Another lamented the problem of lack of interoperability of CAD/CAM between Linux and Windows.

This MS Windows user's comments are very interesting: "I've seen nothing in Windows as secure as Windows for Workgroups 3.10. While I'm running Windows95, I am dissatisfied with the Windows products. Each new version changes the names of (the) program file manager to Windows Explorer). Each new enhancement to the office suite results in changes in functionality, some of which are NOT backwards compatible, moving the functions around and sometimes renaming the function. What were once directories are now folders. Why?"

The writer continues, saying: "Microsoft, itself, is snobbish, and (it) takes too much time and money to get support. Most help desk (advice says) to continually reboot your system, which is irritating. Third-party software is often times much more pleasant to deal with and the support for their software is generally good, up to the limitations of the OS."

Then, comparing MS Windows to Linux, this user notes that he liked installing DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.11. Other "software installs (i.e. RPMs, DEBs and tar-balls) are not like anything done in Windows with the install wizard. Setting up some hardware is a pain, the sound cards are a pain, X-11 has been a nightmare from time to time. New hardware may not be able to function due to lack of support, delaying the installation of anything bleeding edge."

Let's take a closer look at this user's remarks. First of all, most of you are probably familiar with the phrase, "tar-balls." For others, here's a short definition: Tar is a Unix tool for archiving files (data). It stands for Tape ARchiving. In the MS Windows world it is a bit like a ZIP file, but without the compression. In the Unix/Linux world, one can compress a file (using tools like compress, zip, gzip, bzip2, pack, lharc, zoo and more. Then, one can archive (pack them into one file) using tar. Alternatively, one can compress a tar file using these tools.

In his response, this user is criticizing the usability of Unix/Linux and a lack of current hardware support. Mind you, this applies more to installation on white boxes than it does to OEM supplied pre-installed Linux systems. Dell, IBM and HP all sell fully pre-installed Linux systems.

I believe that the key problem today is one of user education and perceptions. To a mechanic, a microscope is a very complex tool. To a scientist, it is inherently simple in design and use. Our perceptions are based on our own level of exposure and on the task challenge that we must satisfy with the software tools we are familiar with.

Any comparison of Windows and Linux that ignores central user issues will always result in a negative feedback experience. So, in his response, this user is criticizing both Windows and Linux. He recognizes the strength of both and the users' mindset towards both.

Finally, this IT pro suggests that polling "people who do use both will give a better comparison, as we see a need for both, whether we like it or not. Personally, I'd like to drop Microsoft."

The best of both worlds

A very advanced user made several comments on the poll and the benefits of using Windows and Linux together.

First of all, he said that my statement "that neither side understands the other is too even-handed. By the realities of the market, more Linux users have far more experience (with) and understanding of Windows than vice versa. That said, I agree that the degree of the biases aren't much different on either side."

Continuing on, this user thought I'd missed the mark in my comments about NeTraverse Win4Lin. With Win4Lin, he said, he doesn't have to dual boot to use a few must-have Windows apps. Also, he believes that Windows98 is "way more stable under Win4Lin." With Win4Lin, "lockups and BSofD that averaged one-two per day" are now extremely rare.

Avoiding dual booting is a big blessing for this user, who needs some Windows tools. "I don't want to give up WordPerfect 8, and I would say that WP8 for Linux was an abomination," he said. "I don't want to give up my scanner or my digital camera, which are not well supported in Linux. Once a year I want to do my taxes using TaxCut or TurboTax. I also don't want to give up all the spectacular advantages of Linux. I think I get the best of both worlds while making what I expect to be a long-term transition.

This Win4Lin fan runs Windows side-by-side with Linux. The combination, he said, "is WAY better at multi-tasking than NT or 98 alone." He gets his images started in Windows, and then he "tweaks them with The Gimp instead of paying huge bucks for Photoshop." He runs WordPerfect to his heart's content and prints to his wife's laser printer via Windows networking.

Printing is a weak point in Linux, this respondent said. "I have never gotten Linux to print hpcl to my wife's Windows box," the user noted. "When I need to print a pretty Linux doc (all the time), I print to file, convert to pdf and print from Acrobat on the Windows machine. It sounds harder than it is. The steps are worth not buying a second laser printer and not stealing my spouse's!"

Like many Windows users, this respondent likes using Microsoft Word and sometimes needs Internet Explorer. Indeed, 95% or more of his time on the Windows side is spent word processing. Sometimes, he needs IE need IE to view a site that some administrator has made incompatible with Mozilla or Netscape. Finally, Windows media player works fine, he said. He hasn't been able to figure out how to play "Windows media stuff on Linux."

Finally, this user discusses the cost of keeping his feet in both the Linux and Windows worlds. "A copy of Win4Lin at $79," he said. "Win98 came with my box, and I had to pay much to buy NT for it when I put in a second processor. Basically I've already paid for two OSes, and I operate mostly from a third!"

Preparing for Linux

I was intrigued by the response from a commercial user, who offers an example of the undercurrents that are changing the future IT landscape.

This respondent identified himself as the chief technical guru (CTG) for a large savings and loan company. He would love to move his users to Linux on the desktop. "Unfortunately, there is still one major impediment," he said. "Our core banking systems -- deposit and loan processing, underwriting, and so on -- are all written to run on NT. Until these types of systems are ported to Linux, which I believe will eventually happen, there is no way I can move the desktop to Linux."

In the meantime, the CTG encourage everyone in his IT shop to learn about Linux. He gave each of them a boxed copy of Red Hat Linux to install on their home workstations. "When the day does come, and it will, they are ready to step up to the plate to support Linux on the desktop," he said.

Putting on his prognosticator's hat, this IT professional predicted "that sometime over the next five years, Microsoft is going to go through the same type of trauma that IBM faced in the mid 90s. The momentum for Linux is really amazing. When that day comes, questions such as you posed in your article, will seem quaint."

Plain talk from a Linux convert

Finally, I heard from a teacher who has been using Linux for two years. "I would not go back to Windows if Bill Gates paid me," the teacher said. "The main reason is that Linux is much more productive. It does not crash at the drop of a hat... and is less likely to be affected by security issues."

Despite being a Linux fan, the teacher wants improvements in ease of use, particularly in applications. Getting a database to run well with Linux (the Mandrake 9 distribution) has been impossible. Using Wine with Mandrake 9 has been a chore, too.

In conclusion, I hope that all responses have been fairly reported. May the force of happy computing cause the electrons of your bits and bytes to flow without doing either you or your machine any injury.

>> Click to read the article, Perceptions: Is Linux suitable for business desktops?

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About the author: John H. Terpstra is a well-known contributor and visionary in the open source community and has a very active commercial focus. He is co-founder of the Samba-Team and a member of the Open Source Software Institute Advisory Board. He serves as's Ask the Expert advisor on Linux interoperability and security. His company, PrimaStasys, Inc., mentors information technology companies and facilitates profitable change in practices.

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