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Linux for Dummies, 6th Edition

Introducing Linux to the masses

Dee-Ann LeBlanc's classic Linux for Dummies takes the new user from the basics of the operating system through installing and using it. Now in its sixth edition, I talked to Dee-Ann about the book, her thoughts on the direction of Linux and how she manages to fit all of the work that she does into her busy schedule.

A sixth edition of a book on a relatively "new" technology is quite an achievement. Are things really changing that quickly in the Linux market?

As technology goes, they're changing quite rapidly, especially in the desktop space. As of the fourth edition I made an "executive decision" (with the support of my editors) to focus the book entirely on the desktop. In barely over 300 pages you just can't do justice to both desktop and server. As it is, it's difficult to do justice to the desktop!

When people tell me they tried Linux on the desktop a year or two ago and that it wasn't sufficient, I tell them that you can't compare Linux on the desktop as recently as a year ago with what it is today. Desktop Linux is growing in leaps and bounds, it's a wild and fun ride.

Without going into too much detail, how much has changed since last year's edition?

Fedora's look has changed significantly. It's gone for more of a "traditional" Gnome and "traditional" KDE, which I really like. The tools some distributions prefer have changed, which has meant that what I cover in detail has changed, and I've added three more distributions to the mix to try to cover a wider range of what people are using. In the previous edition I covered Fedora and added some Mandrake and SuSE in there. In the sixth edition I've added Linspire, Xandros and Knoppix.

Even cooler, in this edition the DVD can boot into either the Fedora installer or into the Knoppix no-installation desktop. We've also got ISOs for the other distributions so people won't have to download them. Some are full versions (Fedora, Knoppix, Mandrake and Linspire) and some are evaluation versions (SuSE and Xandros). Since even DVDs fill up we were really pushing the boundaries of what would fit.

Obviously, in such limited page space I can only cover one distribution in huge detail, and that's Fedora. However, I cover installations for each of these in as much detail as I can, and I cover how to update the systems and add software for each of them as well again in as much detail as possible.

Your opening chapter helps to dispel many of the myths of Linux. Is it true to say that many people, including IT professionals, still have misconceptions about Linux?

It's not as bad as it used to be but it's still pretty confusing out there. I talk to a lot of people because I travel so much and I teach online, and I'm constantly debunking myths. I had a student try to tell my other online students that Microsoft bought a major Linux company and was going to be the biggest producer of Linux software. I was glad it was online so I could keep a "straight face" with my response.

What I do find is that many more people have a vague notion of Linux' existence. If a cab driver or my seatmate on a plane ask me what I do, and I mention Linux, five years ago I would have gotten a glazed, blank look. Now people nod and even if they don't really understand what Linux is, they know it's out there. That I find very cool.

The Fedora Core is used throughout the book, although you also cover many of the other distributions. How do you choose a Linux distribution suitable for your needs?

Choosing a distribution is a very personal choice in a lot of ways.

Some of the distros are designed specifically for newcomers (think Linspire and Xandros). If you don't want to install anything, then something like Knoppix is great. Others are what I consider more "general purpose" that have nice desktop offerings (among those I cover, those are Fedora, Mandrake and SuSE). If you're really into technical stuff and server stuff and want to really work at a low level, then something like Debian or Slackware might be your preferred distribution.

I also like to point out to people that sometimes your best choice revolves around what your Linux-using friends know. If your friends all use Debian, and you find it too techie, you can choose Linspire, Xandros or one of the many other beginner distributions that are built on top of Debian. That way, your friends can help you with the lower-level stuff like adding apt repositories. If you don't know anyone who uses Linux, then you want a distribution that has decent support and/or a good online community. What you consider good here is more personal. Developers might like something more like Gentoo, along with those folks who are nuts about eking out the very most performance possible and are willing to wait out (nicely automated) compiling software?and figure out their not so automated installation process.

Sometimes you'll find that a distribution just does NOT get along with your particular hardware. People rave to me about Mandrake and yet it has given me problems through the 10 years I've been using Linux, so while I cover it because so many people have a good experience with it, it's not my favorite.

So, all in all, it's hard to give a cut-and-dried answer. One thing I tried to do in this edition is to let people see what's in each of them and give them a feel for what each is like to help them make that choice.

A lot of attention in the Linux arena is given to "emulating" the look-and-feel of Windows and/or Mac OS X to help adoption. Is this a good strategy?

I have mixed feelings on this topic. Xandros in particular specializes in being set up for Windows users. That's great. However, I also feel that Linux is Linux, not Windows and not the Mac. It's great to have options for people who want to set their machine up to look and work like another OS. I feel that Linux is all about choice after all, but I'm not personally interested in making my machine work exactly like some other operating system does. I suppose the end goal is a happy medium for now.

Are you a command-line or window person?

I'm command-line when it comes to dealing with moving, copying and otherwise working with files. If I have to read a text file I'll often use the command-line as well. Otherwise, I've come to use the GUI a lot on my desktop. I'm comfortable in both environments...I have to be since I teach both.

Do the top 10 lists of tools and resources in your book reflect your favorites?

Not always. They often include some of my favorites and things that I think beginners will find pretty cool and useful.

Is there any tool, web site or other resource that didn't make it into the book that you would like to have covered?

 Don't even get me started! I could easily make Linux for Dummies twice the size and still need more room.

You have a fairly hectic schedule, how do you manage to fit everything in?

Stress and chaos. In some ways I'm having to relearn scheduling, since I started doing onsite training in a big way in 2004. I have to schedule books and articles often before I know when I'll be out of town for training, so it's getting pretty "interesting" in the Chinese curse sense of the word. At the same time, some have suggested that I thrive on stress and deadlines, so maybe that's not a bad thing. I keep telling myself I'm going to slow down. Hah.

The cool thing is that I really try to do things that reinforce each other. The training I do really helps me get a feel for what people need help with when I do books and articles, not to mention what people find cool and interesting. The research for the books and articles gives me examples and experience to carry into a classroom for training. I try to always keep this in mind when choosing any project.

It's a bit dangerous as a writer not to get "out there" to a certain extent. I write so much that I don't have much time for consulting, so I have to constantly be finding out what people are doing out there in the real world. I keep a mailing list for my readers to join (see www.Dee-AnnLeBlanc.com), and use it to announce new things coming out and to ask questions. I can also poll my students and as a journalist I've always got companies wanting to tell me what they're up to, so in a way it's easier today for me to keep up than it used to be when I just wrote books. Ignoring legal battles, what do you consider the next big step will be for Linux?

That's a really good question, and not an easy one to answer. I tend to think that solidifying the desktop offerings is going to continue, and there are some gaps that need to be filled and some programs that need to be fleshed out. On the server side there are some offerings missing as well, but I understand that the big leaps in kernel development are actually slowing down, the general feel is that most of the big features are now there. This has some interesting implications to me, since if there's no 2.7 kernel tree (and there isn't right now), there's no need for developers and distributions to run on the treadmill of having to keep up with that. Those energies are going to go somewhere else. Will the software evolve faster? I don't know.

With all the work you do, how do you find time to relax, and what do you do to make the most of that free time?

Relax? What's that? I was never very good at it! It's a family problem; really, my whole family is way too wound up. I'd like to get back to doing yoga. I work on various fiction projects on the side (fantasy novels, SF/F short stories, that kind of thing), and one day will manage to get published there. I used to do a lot of stained glass work, even sold some pieces. Now I do some mosaics. I love to listen to music and have a very eclectic collection, everything from Middle Eastern to Classic Rock to Pop to Spanish Guitar.

Even in my relaxation, I'm scattered all over.

More Stories By Martin C. Brown

Martin C. Brown is a former IT director with experience in cross-platform integration. A keen developer, he has produced dynamic sites for blue-chip customers, including HP and Oracle, and is the technical director of Foodware.net. Now a freelance writer and consultant, MC, as he is better known, works closely with Microsoft as an SME; has a regular column on both ServerWatch.com and IBM's DeveloperWorks Grid Computing site; is a core member of the AnswerSquad.com team; and has written books such as XML Processing with Perl, Python and PHP, and the Microsoft IIS 6 Delta Guide.

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