Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Living with Linux Part 2--The Advantages

This is the second part of my "Living with Linux" series of posts dealing with...what else, living and loving la vida Linux. This post will deal with some of the advantages of running Linux. Despite what the Windows and Mac pundits say, there are advantages to running Linux on your computer. Like all operating systems, Linux does have a learning curve and at times it can be a steep one, but for those users who are willing to learn and put up with the quirks and vagaries of Linux, they may find that Linux can be a decent alternative to Windows and Mac OS.

I'm not a Linux fanboy. I'm not one of the open-source crazies that insist that my computer be running 100% free/open source software and insists on recording my music files in Ogg Vorbis, or recording videos in Ogg Theora which are the open-source alternatives to the mp3 audio standard and mp4 video standard, respectively simply because neither the Ogg Vorbis or Theora standards are not widely supported. There are media players that support that format, but you have to look for them. I'm lazy, I like my iPods just fine, thank you.

One of the great things about the current Linux distros is that the companies that maintain them have also done licensing deals with those companies that license the most popular technologies used in todays electronic equipment. Linux users can rip CDs to the mp3 file format and play them. They can use and view Flash movies on Linux boxes. They can create and read .pdf files. There are Linux music players that actually will work with iPods. Amarok is one of them. The open source purists may howl, but I believe that Linux has to be able to embrace those proprietary standards if it wants to be more than a bit player in the PC operating systems market. There are Linux distros that are 100% free, open source software available for those who are true open source believers, and want to completely cut the chain to Microsoft and Apple, and I have no problem with that. Go with my blessing. To go that route requires a level of dedication to free and open source that I and many other Linux users are not willing to take. And a lot of the hard core open source types need to learn that if they want the world to embrace Linux, it's a lot better to meet users halfway and teach them the rest than to expect them to come all the way into the geekiverse and seek wisdom from the Linux gurus. I'm off my soapbox now.

One of the advantages of Linux is that it is free. No charge, zip, nada, zilch, gratis. If you have a computer with a CD/DVD burner, a good broadband internet connection and an hour or so, you can get a copy of the latest Linux distro of your choice for only the time it takes to download an image and burn it to a CD. Some of the companies that maintain Linux distros may charge for tech support, or for versions to be used in business settings, but the average individual can get a copy of Linux for free. Have you ever seen the system that Microsoft has in place for the pricing of Windows 7? Starter, Home Premium, Professional, Ultimate?? Upgrade editions? All-in-one upgrade disks? Student Editions? Some will allow you to upgrade directly from Vista in-line, but not from XP. You can upgrade from Starter to Home Premium to Professional to Ultimate, but you can't downgrade or sidegrade. Too complicated. Too many exceptions and confusing details and prices. Even most Windows gurus have a hard time trying to figure out all the various permutations. And if you think Windows 7's SKU structure is confusing, it's a great improvement from the Vista setup which made people want to beat their heads against the closest wall. Linux distros are simple. In all cases, there's a version that is 100% free/open source, with no proprietary software included and there's a version with code for the most popular proprietary software available. And its free. Just pick your poison, download and burn, and you're ready to go. And even if you don't have a computer with a burner (and who doesn't?), you can get a copy of your fav Linux distro sent to you through the regular postal mail.

Also, the current Linux distros have all the software you need to get online and productive right out of the box. The major distros have at least two web browsers, one of them being Firefox. They also include an excellent free open-source office suite called Open Office, media players, IM clients, photo managers, graphics programs, and even some games. Need to burn discs, check. Need to read email and check your calendar, check. Need to organize photos and send them to Grandma? check.

What about security? Is Linux susceptible to viruses, malware and all of the other crud that is clogging teh interwebs?? For the most part, the answer is no. One of the advantages of having the small market share that Linux has is that most malicious hackers and bad guys won't attack it because it's not a big enough target. Not when you have Microsoft Windows which is being run on over 90% of the world's computers. Also remember, most hackers black hat or white hat run Linux as their main operating system. As soon as the bad guys come up with an exploit to penetrate the Linux system, the open source community has a patch up and available in short order. Also unlike Windows which allows users to run in Administrator mode (never a good idea), Linux will not allow this. All Linux users run in a limited- access mode that shuts off the ability to alter crucial files in the operating system unless they consciously submit the root password. Root access is to Linux what an administrator account is to Windows. In either case, you are God on your computer. You can change any setting in the operating system, install software, alter important files, add, subtract and change user accounts, and totally control how your computer operates. And as God can create, he can also destroy. That saying, you can completely render your computer inoperable if you monkey around with the wrong files. Linux will only allow you root access to the whole operating system if you give the root password and will only allow you access for as long as it takes to do what you have to do, and once you're done, the systems sends you back to your regular level of system access. Any nasties that are infesting the Internet are written mostly for Windows, and won't run on a Linux system, and if they did land on your system, they'd need root access in order to get to the important bits of the OS. The average user will only need root access very sparingly. Linux works pretty well right out of the box, and unless you're installing software updates or new software, you won't need to go to root all that often. There are Linux viruses, but they are very few and very far between. However, it's always good to practice secure computing techniques, no matter what OS you run. Strong passwords, don't open attachments in emails, watch which websites you go to, and generally being aware of your surroundings.

Linux is also a very stable operating system. Accounts of Linux machines going months without rebooting are commonplace. Most software upgrades and OS upgrades can be done without rebooting. The majority of web servers that power the Internet run on some version of Linux.

I have laid out some of the advantages of Linux. Cost, security, stability, the wide range of software available immdiately before even going online. Part 3 will go into some of the disadvantages of Linux. And there are more than a few.