Is Linux too good to be true?

Life without Microsoft's Windows: Michael Pollitt tests the open-source option

Typing "Linux" into Google gives about 109 million results. Surprisingly, that's five million more than searching for "Microsoft". But are potential users of the alternative operating system to Windows being enticed into making a decision they may later regret?

Typing "Linux" into Google gives about 109 million results. Surprisingly, that's five million more than searching for "Microsoft". But are potential users of the alternative operating system to Windows being enticed into making a decision they may later regret?

Some Windows users are increasingly disillusioned with their computers. The internet no longer feels safe, thanks to viruses, spyware, trojans, hackers and pop-ups targeting features (and failings) in Microsoft software. Going online these days using Internet Explorer is like walking into a minefield.

But what choice does anybody have? Microsoft's monopoly of the consumer desktop is near total. While some applications can be changed - Corel WordPerfect instead of Microsoft Word perhaps - this only tinkers with the problem. Windows has your PC in a tight grip.

The word to consider here is proprietary. Windows belongs to Microsoft, lock, stock and security vulnerability. Apple computers (just over a million Google results) are proprietary too: a great choice for Windows refugees but not a radical one. For real change, there is only one answer - Linux. It's open source, generally free to use and share and is not controlled by a single company. Its penguin mascot is cute too.

In the business world, Linux is causing a stir as firms move to a new operating system. Linux is more secure, offers greater choice and already powers web servers around the world. But can it deliver on home desktops too?

The Canadian author Marcel Gagné thinks it can. He wrote an excellent book last year, Moving to Linux, sub-titled Kiss the Blue Screen of Death Goodbye. Gagné has included a bootable Linux CD-rom to turn your PC into a trial Linux system, yet leave Windows unharmed.

Try out Linux like this and soon you'll want to go all the way. Wise newbies will install it alongside Windows, giving you the choice (and a return ticket) when switching on the PC. But when I tried Suse Linux 9.1, my personal Everest challenge of surmounting the Microsoft mountain left me struggling to get out of base camp.

Linux didn't like my new flat-panel screen and insisted on unusable low resolutions. Much wasted time and online answer seeking (back in Windows) eventually saw 1280 x 1024 pixels again.

How about connecting to the internet? Plug in and go... nowhere. My modem is an internal "softmodem", driven by Windows, and Linux wouldn't play. Much browsing later (in Windows, of course) and I had the right Conexant driver software, written by helpful Canadian company Linuxant.

As you work through this early stuff, there's a nagging problem for Windows XP-ers. While Linux can (mostly) read your files, it cannot (yet) write them back into the Windows XP partition of your hard drive (which uses Microsoft's NTFS format). Windows ignores Linux and its UFS filesystem altogether, so you cannot retrieve work from there. Lateral thinking will have you reaching for a memory stick as a go-between; there are no problems burning CDs or plugging in Zip drives.

To succeed, Linux has to do your everyday tasks well. My first target for program replacement was Microsoft's Outlook Express, infamous for vulnerabilities that allow viruses to strike from the preview pane. Suse had given me Kmail - part of the KDE desktop. But I had my eye on Mozilla as it offered email, a browser and a web page composer. I easily installed Mozilla (you can get it for Windows too) and was immediately hooked by tabbed, menace-proof browsing.

Onward and upward, and another sheer face of incompatibility. Outlook Express stores its email messages in a proprietary format. Mozilla can't import them; but KDE's Kmail can. Using Kmail, I imported the messages into the Unix "mbox" format, then copied the mbox files from Kmail into the Mozilla mail store using the superb Linux file manager-cum-browser, Konqueror.

Things are still tricky for word-processing, spreadsheets and the like. If you're a Microsoft Office user, OpenOffice provides no-frills basics. Diehard Corel WordPerfect fans will discover that OpenOffice won't read their files without a hard-to-install add-on. I tried installing Kword (part of KDE Office) to find it opened WordPerfect documents with unacceptably ragged results. This left me no choice (other than Windows), but to write this feature using OpenOffice.

I could go on. And on. There's stuff that's much better than Windows, and stuff that isn't. Linux is unfinished business without the panache of Windows XP. There are compensations; open source is an embarrassment of riches. You don't need to buy an expensive application for occasional jobs anymore.

Here's what I need to do next. Find a word processor that reads my WordPerfect files properly and offers a word count on selected text. I'd like a replacement voice-dictation program too (if one exists). Learn how to use Wine - a clever way of running Windows programs under Linux - for my accounts program. See if the scanner behaves, read the manuals (again) and try out more programs.

Will I give up Windows altogether? Probably. The more I use Linux, the better I like it despite the challenges. It hasn't crashed; it's immune to Windows viruses; it won't fall victim to spyware, worms or hackers; and it feels (and looks) refreshingly different. But best of all, Linux promises greater choice at less cost. Just give it time to climb more of the Windows mountain.

'Moving to Linux' by Marcel Gagné is published by Addison-Wesley, £26.99

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