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Linux Made Easy

A Q&A with Rickford Grant

I recently had a chance to sit down with Rickford Grant, author of Linux for Non-Geeks, and talk with him about his new book Linux Made Easy (No Starch Press).

LWM: First of all, why, after writing Linux for Non-Geeks, did you decide to write Linux Made Easy.

Rickford Grant: The whole idea behind both books is to get regular folks into what is often considered a domain for geeks. That said, I am always looking for distributions that are easy to use and thus less intimidating for people who have been weaned on a diet of Windows all their lives.

Linux for Non-Geeks is based on Fedora Core, which I felt (and still do) is a very straightforward and well-supported distro that really provides users with a real Linux experience, albeit without much of the the pain that you might encounter with some distros. Still, it seemed that some people, especially those who just wanted a low-cost out from Windows and were not necessarily particularly interested in Linux per se, still found things a bit more complex than what they were looking for. When I finally got around to trying Xandros, I felt I had found what those people were looking for, and so I wrote Linux Made Easy. The two books, although seemingly similar in nature, are thus really written with slightly different audiences in mind.

Another point I tried to address with Linux Made Easy was the area of applications. When I read through some of the reader reviews of Linux for Non-Geeks, I noticed there were a number of comments expressing a desire for more coverage of applications. The train of thought seemed to be along the lines of, "Okay, so you say Linux comes with all these great applications. So the GIMP is great, but what can I do with it? OpenOffice Draw is good for what? Drawing circles?" That sort of thing, you know. To address those rather valid points, especially in a book that is targeted for people who just want to get down to the doing rather than the fiddling, I also added numerous projects that would give readers some hands-on experience with some of the major Linux applications.

LWM: Do you think that after installing Xandros, people will use it more and more, and Windows less and less? What about when great, new-for-Windows-only software comes out?

RG: It certainly was the case for me. I can't help but feel that when users get cracking with Xandros, they will be pleased by the fact that they are spending most of their time working or playing or whatever, rather than tracking down viruses and trying to rid their system of trojan horses. The fact that they will more than likely have more usable applications on their Xandros side will no doubt make their Windows world less and less atttractive.

As for great new Windows-only software...well, what can you do? In a sense, a Linux user with a dual-boot setup has a better setup for such things than a Mac user, who often suffers the same problem. A Mac user, after all, would have to have a whole different machine in order to deal with the situation.

When it comes down to it, the number of killer, must-have Windows apps you are talking about is usually quite small for a given user. As I mention every chance I get, I only resort to Windows on my own accord in order to play the Austrian card game Schnapsen, the three different versions of which are Windows-only apps. But for now, it's no big deal - just switch over to the Windows side, stay off the Internet, and then play or do whatever it is you do with that app until you need to get back down to business. Then just switch back. You can just think of it like rooms in a house: dinner in the dining room, billiards in the family room, workbench in the garage. Not that I've ever had a billiards table in my house...

LWM: Why Xandros, as opposed to other similar distros like Ubuntu?

RG: I was inspired to write Linux Made Easy by Xandros, not the other way around. It's just so easy. The installation is a no-brainer, and it will even repartition your Windows disk for you so that you can create a dual-boot system without any hassles. I know that a few other distros, Madriva for example, can do that, but my experience with Xandros' partitioning capability has been the best.

It also has excellent package handling, a well set-up and stocked repository, and a well-organized interface. Having CD and DVD burning capabilities built into the file manager, as it is in GNOME, is much, much better and more convenient than having to resort to an outside app, such as K3B, which most KDE-based distros seem to favor. It also seemed more accomodating in terms of hardware, working on every piece of junk I tried to install, and the fact that Skype is bundled with the system is just that much more icing on the cake. (See Figure 1)

As for Ubuntu (and Kubuntu), I just don't seem to get all the hoopla. Yes, it is a very nice, well-organized distro with unusually slick promotional graphics and a pleasant touchy-feely name. But other than that, it's not really all that different than Fedora Core... other than the fact that it is Debian based (as is Xandros) rather than RPM based. It just seems to me that it's not particularly unique in any way I can figure, so why all the hype? I might consider using it instead of Fedora, but for a real newbie who wants as smooth a transition as possible, I would stick with Xandros.

LWM: What role do you feel distros like Xandros will play in the public sector, e.g., schools and government, where an easy stable alternative to Windows could save taxpayers millions?

RG: You said it right there: saving the taxpayers millions of dollars!

It is no surprise that countries such as China are making the Linux switch a national project for just that reason. The French government too, for that matter. For government, there is really no reason not to switch over since there are not really any killer apps that users need in order to work. The number of applications in the educational field are more limited at the present time, but if school systems were to make the commitment, the software would flow.

Of course, government being what it is, there will always be opponents out to protect their benefactors...oh, I mean constituents. It's interesting to hear the arguments such people make as they work to protect us from free software, though.

LWM: Where do you see Linux on the desktop two years from now? Or five years from now?

RG: There is no doubt in my mind that Linux will be more of a player in the desktop arena as years go by. How much of a player depends on the entities that package the various distros out there today. By this I mean that a major obstacle that could hinder the progress of Linux on the desktop is the actual philosopy that lays behind the Linux movement. The open source idea is the core of what makes Linux Linux, and thus stands as a major attraction. At the same time, most distros take a purist approach to the bundling of their distros in order to keep things totally open and not, for example, including any software that requires any sort of licensing. Red Hat/Fedora's no MP3 support is a good example. While this is fine in terms of keeping distros free and legal, it also stands as a hindrance to wider acceptance by present Windows users.

Companies such as Xandros that have a variety of versions, some both free and for sale, have a unique opportunity to fill the gaps. They could do this quite easily by keeping their free versions free, while including licensed items, such as Windows-compatible codecs, encrypted DVD playback support, and MP3 playback and encoding support, in their for-sale versions. TurboLinux, for example, already includes some of these seemingly taboo (in the Linux world, anyway) features. Open source purists might balk at the seemingly heretical notion, but the open source concept in its strictest form is lost on a casual Windows user, for example, who just wants to be able to play a DVD (no doubt, when he or she should be working) without any fuss or philosophical abstractions getting in the way. Fair enough, I say. If they are willing to pay for those added conveniences, why not let them?

Of course, there are always going to be some folks who are never going to make the switch. Some people just like to go to the computer shop, stroll up and down the aisles looking at row after row of shrink-wrapped software boxes, and then walk out after having bought something. It's just that simple consumer gene in each of us. Some of us love to shop for clothes, others for cars, others for leeks and cauliflower, but for others it's software. Such folks are not likely to become Linux users any time in the near future.

The progress Linux will make during the next few years, however, is sure to entice others. After all, it was only a few years that, cute penguin aside, getting Linux up and running on your machine could be a rather frustrating endeavor. Now, however, the installation process for just about any distro out there is much, much easier than that for a Windows installation, which most people seldom have the misfortune of enduring since they usually get Windows prebundled on their machines. Desktop and file manager features have also become greatly improved, and the future is sure to hold more in store. It thus becomes a matter of time before all but the diehard I-want-my-shrink-wrap types want to at last have a crack at Linux.

More Stories By Matt Frye

Matt Frye is the Review Editor at Linux.SYS-CON.com, and Engineer in New Product Introduction and Emerging Network Solutions at Tekelec.

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