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Linux as an Alternative to Windows 8

Next week will see the release of the latest version of Windows, Microsoft’s popular operating system, in the form of Windows 8. This release will see some major changes to the operating system. The biggest and most obvious change will be the default user interface, which has moved away from the traditional desktop interface to one which is more suited for touch devices.

This change has been a cause of concern to some PC traditionalists. If a company as large and influential as Microsoft starts moving their attention away from the traditional desktop PC to the currently more profitable tablet market, it is a good indication that more companies will start to follow suit. This is not the most desirable situation for the fanatical desktop users among us, as we can start to expect less new products, updates and innovations for the environment which we love.

Fortunately the ugly duckling known as Linux is starting to look a little less abandoned these days and is in fact starting to show signs of spreading its wings. References to childhood tales aside, Linux is still very much a desktop focused operating system and might provide an alternative to Windows. This article will briefly investigate the possibility of Linux as an alternative operating system for the average user on the desktop PC. The article will attempt to be as objective as possible, describing the good, the bad and the unfortunately ugly aspects of this operating system.

The Good

Having used Linux on a daily basis for only the past year, I can say with certainty that I am converted to the Linux way. This is not just because of all the great aspects of the OS, of which a few will be mentioned in this section, but also because of the rewarding feeling which only comes from having figured something out on your own after hours of struggling (discussed in The Bad).

The open source nature of Linux is arguably its most defining feature from a technical perspective. It allows for an operating system which is completely customisable and can be used to target specific needs and problems as the user sees fit. This is evidenced by the large number of different distributions available for the operating system, each with their own target goals. These distributions range from the user friendly Ubuntu to the more technically inclined Arch Linux. Popular distributions such as Ubuntu also have their own variations, such as Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Linux Mint. The user is thus presented with a large choice, being able to choose the distribution which most suit their needs. The rest of this article will focus on Ubuntu and its variations, it is one of the better known and more user friendly distributions.

The past few years have seen an increased focus on user friendliness for the Linux operating system. Most people are not technically inclined and want to be able to use their desktop PCs with as little fuss as possible. Many Linux distributions have improved their graphical user interfaces to the point that they are as easy and intuitive to use as any of Microsoft’s offerings, while also providing some improvements and innovations.

Three innovations that stand out are Ubuntu’s Dash and Heads Up Display (HUD) for their Unity interface and Virtual Workspaces found in most distributions. Unity’s Dash provides a means of quickly finding and previewing various types of data on your computer through using search phrases. The HUD can be used in a similar way to quickly search for application specific commands using a search phrase without the need to physically search through the application’s menu bar. The use of Virtual Workspaces, which simulates multiple desktops on one machine, makes organizing and switching between opened applications easier than the traditional application switcher (alt+tab).

The Unity Dash which can be used to quickly find files and applications.

One of the biggest factors keeping potential users away from Linux is the inability to use their favorite Windows software on Linux. Fortunately the availability of Linux alternatives to commonly used Windows only software has increased dramatically over the last few years. Examples of such applications include Libre Office (a suite of office applications similar to Microsoft Office) and Gimp (an image manipulation application similar to Adobe Photoshop). Both of these applications currently provide intuitive user interfaces with similar basic functionality to their Windows counter parts. It is even possible for the (slightly) more advanced user to run Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop in Linux under Wine, with little to no problems.

Security is also a big advantage of using Linux. The system is virtually immune to viruses because of the multiple levels of user privileges. The use of repositories for distributions such as Ubuntu and Arch Linux also provide software which is known to be safe.

The power of multiple priviledge levels. (Source: xkcd.com)

The Bad

Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Mint have done some exceptional work on making Linux more accessible for the normal user who does not have an extensive technical background and simply wants to finish their computer related tasks as quickly and simply as possible. There are however still some problems that needs to be addressed.

The Ubuntu Software Center contains many common applications, but there will always be times that the application or version you are looking for is not in the Software Center. This can lead to some serious head aches for the average user. Consider user X. X has grown quite fond of a media player he has found in the Ubuntu Software Center called Audacious. Upon visiting the Audacious website he notices that there is an updated version available which is not present in the Software Center. Since he really must have the latest version, he decides to quickly download the installer directly from the website.

He goes to the Download section of the website and is immediately hit with the following words: Source Code. He then encounters the phrases

“… further instructions for compiling …”

and

“These instructions are not very helpful at the moment but will be improved as we have time.”

As discussed previously, compiling the software from source could lead to that rewarding feeling only attainable through hard work, but user X would rather use that time to reinstall Windows.

Installing the latest version of software on Linux can be intimidating.

Another problem that still exists for the average user is the need to occasionally use the terminal for certain tasks. The terminal is arguably the most powerful tool of the Linux operating system, but its cold and empty stare can be terrifying when first viewed. It can take quite a while to learn to efficiently use it, which again is not appreciated by the average user.

Lets consider user X again, who has learned that he may still be able to install the latest version of Audacious without actually compiling any source code. He visits the website www.webupd8.org which shows how you can install Audacious on Ubuntu 12.04 through the use of external repositories. After listing all the great features of the latest version, it tells user X to open a terminal and type in the commands as follows:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:nilarimogard/webupd8
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install audacious

There is no explanation as to what these commands do and what the user should expect from them. After finally typing in the first line correctly (user X does not know about the copy-paste functionality of the terminal), he is suddenly asked for a password and then presented with some text asking if he is sure he wants to add the PPA to the local repositories. This is simply too intimidating for a user who might already be tip-toeing around the operating system. It is also especially frustrating when the user has a real problem and all the Linux forums he consults start with the line “In the terminal…”

Dual wielding terminals is a great way of impressing your friends.

The Ugly

Forget about playing the latest Windows only game on release day.

Running the original Half-Life under Wine.

Conclusion

The previous section, while short, is unfortunately one of the main reasons why many potential users avoid Linux. This could change in the future, as Valve is currently working on releasing a Steam client for Linux and has a version of Left 4 Dead 2 working natively in Linux. Hopefully other large game publishers and developers will follow suit.

The question remains whether Linux is a good alternative to Windows 8 for the average user. This can unfortunately only be answered on a per user basis. If the average user only uses his computer for common tasks like browsing the web, listening to music and writing the occasional document or presentation, then yes. There is always the chance that he might come across a few trouble spots, but if he uses one of the popular distributions such as Ubuntu, help is always a forum post away.

If the average user is easily frustrated by the occasional terminal adventure or wants to use his computer solely to play games, he should probably keep hold of his copy of Windows 7. This will hopeful not be the case in a few years.

2 Comments

  1. 1
    Barend Lutz on Wednesday 24 October, 10:13 AM #

    Awesome post Stefan. Will definitely consider switching over to Linux, or install it on a dual boot.

  2. 2
    Steve Kroon on Wednesday 24 October, 12:10 PM #

    “The terminal is arguably the most powerful tool of the Linux operating system, but its cold and empty stare can be terrifying when first viewed.” Nicely put!

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