"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

The Answer Guy

By James T. Dennis, tag@lists.linuxgazette.net
Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

(?)Why Linux?

From Grey on 07 May 1998

Answer Guy,

I am trying to understand why there is so much interest in Linux. What does it offer, in this world of Macs and Win95 PCs, that makes it ....attractive and useful?

(!) My first stunned impression on reading this question was:
Is this a shill? How did this guy manage to find my column in LG without knowing a variety of answers to this question?

But that was a quick uncharitable moment.

(?) Are there any good 'What is Linux?' type articles I can look at. I am always tempted to purchase the Linux packages to try and determine what it is but I would not mind knowing before.


(!) The fact that you are "tempted" (curious) is why you should play with Linux. It's your computer, and you should be able to "play" with it --- and you should have choices about how it operates. You computer should work in a way that suits your preferences and style --- you shouldn't have to adopt the style that's dictated by the trade press, the mass media, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Xerox PARC, or anyone else.

(I'm presuming you are a home user in this case --- but my argument applies equally to whole institutions --- they should have the choice to use and run software that suits their needs and preferences --- even such preferences as they dictate to their employees or userbase).

So, what is great about Linux? Choice.

You asked for some URL's to read testimonials about this: here's one that I'm reading right now:
John Kirch's "NT 4.0 vs. Unix"

(This isn't Linux specific --- but it does go into great detail and mentions Linux frequently in its analysis).

I found the link to that site from one of the LDP (Linux Documentation Project) mirrors. These LDP mirrors are the definitive place to get info about Linux. The "master" site is at:
Sunsite (U. of North Carolina):

... which is also the master repository for Linux software (just as ftp://prep.ai.mit.edu/ is the master repository for FSF GNUware). The LDP mirror I usually visit is at:
SSC's Linux Resources Pages:

A couple of other great sources of Linux information are:
Linux Weekly News:
Slashdot (Daily) News for Nerds:

... and, of course Linux Gazette (http://www.linuxgazette.net/) which was the first "webazine" to cover the topic and is still 100% volunteer.

Now, before I babble a bit about some of the other advantages to Linux let me digress to make two observations:
I can talk about features of Linux, Win '95, NT, MacOS, BeOS and many other operating systems and packages until my fingers are worn to nubs and you justifiably have no reason to care what I've said.

In order to discuss the possible benefits of Linux to you I'd have to know more about you --- your requirements, preferences, and constraints. I'd have to engage in a process of requirements analysis --- and the first step of that is to identify the involved parties (particularly the customer).

Modern mass marketing and advertising does not meet this need. It focuses on features rather than benefits because features can be touted with no understanding of a specific user's needs. For any given feature it may be of benefit to a given user, or it may be irrelevant or even detrimental to them.
That said, the other observation is that Linux is not quite yet appropriate for just anyone. To paraphrase a popular signature from USENET: "Linux is 'user-friendly'; it's just particular about who its friends are"

At the moment Linux is not the system I would provide to my mother for her first computer. She was interested in two things --- playing Mah Jongg and surfing the 'net. I got her a Mac Performa.

By the end of this year I might have a different view --- the KDE, Gnome, and GNUStep projects, among others, along with incremental improvements to the package management and management of products like Debian, Red Hat, and S.u.S.E. (among many others) may get us (the Linux community) to the point where shipping Linux systems to complete novices will make good business sense.
(Note: a number one priority advance that would help with this would be a multi-media "Welcome to Linux" interactive video system --- that would be run off a CD or (if they're supported by then) DVD disc).
I think it is already to the point that "normal" users can productively use Linux. Customers can go to VAResearch, Telenet, Apache Digital, PromoX, SWT, and other hardware vendors to get a system with Linux pre-installed. They can use these systems as easily as they could a similarly configured Win '95 box (and somewhat more easily than using an NT system).

We are now past due for Dell, Gateway, HP, Compaq, Zeos, IBM or some other upper tier hardware vendor to offer Linux pre-installed on their "BTO" (Build to Order) price lists. Soon I also hope to see Apple and UMAX offer mkLinux and LinuxPPC options on their PowerMac clones. I think this will happen before the end of this year (for at least one of them).

I hope that either this will happen, or one of the Linux hardware vendors will move into the same volume of sales and production currently enjoyed by one of these. Every reader of Linux Gazette, Linux Weekly News, Slashdot, Linux Journal, and all of the comp.os.linux.* and linux-* newsgroups and mailing lists can help make that happen by calling their vendor and just saying: "NO! I will not pay for a copy of Win '95 or NT that I plan to immediately and permanently replace with Linux!" (and taking their business elsewhere).

Now, "Grey", back to your question.

What is "great" about Linux?

The first thing I like about Linux is that I don't have to use any GUI. I don't like graphical screens. I often spend twelve hours at a stretch in front of my monitor and my eyes just can take any GUI for that long. My supporting a full range of applications from it's multiple text consoles Linux allows me to focus on one task at a time, giving it my full screen. At the same time I can be logged into a dozen or more session, as one or more users, to have all the benefits of multi-tasking. In addition I have options to use keyboard or mouse driven "cut and paste" between my applications.

I can use this same suite of applications on my old 386 and my Pentium 166 and on my Pentium II. I can use any application on any system on my network regardless of which machine is sitting in front of me (using telnet, ssh, or rlogin for text mode apps, and the communications protocols that are native to the X Windows System when I need a GUI).

I can sit in a coffee house a few miles away, dial into one of my machines (the 386 is the one with the modem) and use everything from my Ricochet equipped laptop that I could use if I was sitting at home in front of the machine myself.

That same modem (the one on the 386) is used to get all my mail and netnews (uucp) and was used as the dial-on-demand PPP link for my entire LAN for months (before I got the ISDN router that I currently use). When the ISDN goes out, I can switch back to using the 386 gateway in a couple of minutes.

That same modem is also used for dial out BBS and shell mode access by any system on my LAN (given that the user has the appropriate level of access).

That same modem is also use as the outgoing and incoming fax gateway.

So, I can use one modem for dial and out shell, networking, and fax for an entire network of systems --- and none of these functions "trip" over the others or conflict with any of the others.

Meanwhile one of my house guests might be using that same 386 to read mail or news, from a serial terminal line I keep in the living room, and my wife might be at the console (as she is now).

That 386, Antares, is over ten years old now. It has 32Mb of RAM, a 2Mb video card (yes, it can run X --- though it is a bit slow --- almost as slow as MS Windows used to be on it) about 6 Gig of disk space, a tape drive, a magneto optical drive and a few other toys. It ran Linux just fine with 16Mb of RAM and a 200Mb IDE disk drive (and still would, though I'd never fit my personal mail archives on that tiny drive).

(Incidentally, the the Caviar 200Mb drive in question is sitting in Canopus --- where it's not even in use. I have some purely archival files on it).

While MS Windows users were essentially forced to upgrade their systems to 486's and Pentiums in order to keep upgraded one their OS and major, critical software, I've been able to continue using my old system.

It wasn't until mid last year that I finally moved my home directory over to one of the Pentiums (Gnus, a newsreader for Emacs, just got to be too slow when I wanted to read a few thousand messages in a mailing list archive --- it would take two hours threading through them in the background before I could read them --- that same process take about 2 minutes on Canopus, the P166).

So, one advantage of Linux is its support for older equipment and unfashionable modes of use. Text mode is still widely used --- but every time I hear an "old-timer" say so it's amazing the looks it generates among "hip, savvy, modern users."

A byproduct of this support is that Linux is very friendly to blind and other physically challenged users. A friend of mine was hit with a stroke a couple of years ago. He has yet to regain significant use of one of his arms. Linux and MacOS are the easiest environments for him to use. It is trivial to enable "sticky" shift (Ctrl, Alt, and Shift) keys --- so that the user never has to co-ordinate the operation of two keys simultaneously (an action which the vast majority of us take completely for granted).

Once you reconfigure you keyboard under Linux all of the console applications use the new bindings. I've never seen a conflict. You can also configure similar features in X Windows (XFree86). Thus you can, with changes to the configuration of two subsystems, make every application on the system behave in a way that's compatible with a user's needs.

(It is also simple to associate these changes with a particular user -- so that other users of that system will not normally be affected by them).

I could go on and on. However, it would make sense for you to look at some of the other sites on the web that talk about Linux. Obviously you'll be completely overwhelmed if you do a Yahoo! search on just "Linux" (they are up to 13 categories and almost 600 sites --- compared to 17/1900 for "Unix" and about 19/660 for "Microsoft Windows" and 2/16 for MacOS)
My point is that there are too many of these to explore in a reasonable amount of time (I supposed you could surf the Yahoo! listed Linux sites in about 10 hours if you averaged only one minute per page --- and didn't follow any of them to anywhere else).

Obviously the Linux Gazette is one place to find out more, and the Linux Weekly News (http://www.lwn.net/) (formerly at http://www.eklektix.com/lwn/ is pretty good too (and comes out four times as often). If you start at SSC's Linux Resources Page (http://www.linux.resources.com/) and follow all links there you should get your fill of unabashed Linux advocacy.

Copyright © 1998, James T. Dennis
Published in Linux Gazette Issue 29 June 1998

[ Answer Guy Index ]
versions lilo virtdom kernel winmodem basicmail betterbak
shadow dell dumbterm whylinux redhat netcard macrovir
newlook tacacs sendmail dialdppp ppp233 msmail procmail

[ Table Of Contents ] [ Front Page ] [ Previous Section ] [ Next Section ]