Does Linux Have A Role In The Home?

With all the issues surrounding Microsoft Windows, do you think the day might come in the near future where those of us in the middle ground of technology, those home users who know enough to keep our boxes up and running and to tinker here and there, might want/be able to switch to one of the friendlier distributions of Linux?

What do you think? Is the Linux community gaining enough common ground that it one day might be a viable alternative?

Absolutely. That day is coming.

In fact, I’ve become enamored with one particular Linux distribution that’s really caused me to believe that, for exactly the crowd you describe, that day might just be today.

But as I’m also finding out, it really depends on what you do with your computer. Some things aren’t quite there yet.

I’ve become a big fan of Ubuntu Linux. It installs easily, has a broad base of support, and has a good update mechanism. In fact, I run Ubuntu on a couple of machines now – one dedicated machine (an older machine I’m trying a few geeky things on), and in a virtual machine (using Parallels Desktop) on my Dell laptop.

For basic use – email, Web browsing, word processing, and the like, it looks like a very reasonable and workable platform for “midrange” users – as you say, those who aren’t afraid to tinker a little here and there, but are still mostly interested in just getting things done.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues. For one example, it was quite a bit of exploring and “geek and tweak” to get my Ubuntu install to recognize that my laptop was capable of a larger screen size than it had detected by default. That kind of thing, while out there, could be intimidating for some users.

And local area networking and sharing, already a bit of a nightmare for Windows users at home, doesn’t get any easier when you introduce a different operating system into the mix. In my case, I’m currently stuck with my Ubuntu machine being able to see my Windows machine(s), but not the other way around.

So why haven’t I switched completely?

Well, as mentioned in my MacBook Pro investigation, Thunderbird, the cross-platform email program I want to switch to still has a couple of bugs that prevent me from migrating my inbox rules. That’s not a Linux problem, but highlights the fact that migrating is about more than operating systems – it’s about migrating everything you do. In my case email is a critical part of my day. I rely heavily on some of the features in Microsoft Outlook under Windows XP, and if I can’t migrate those features, I can’t migrate.

Similarly, I rely heavily on being able to use my Treo as a modem when I travel. That’s currently only something that’s available under Windows, and as a result has stymied my migration to either Linux or my MacBook Pro.

But I am finding a lot of things that, unexpectedly, work. For example I rely heavily on TrueCrypt, a data encryption program, and on Hamachi, a VPN utility – and to my surprise I now have both available and working on one of my Ubuntu installs. With surprisingly little effort, I might add.

Some software I use regularly is already Open Source and cross-platform, so it’s simply a mater of locating and installing the Linux versions, if they’re not already there.

After that it starts to become a matter of taste.

In many cases equivalent software is available, but it can best be described as “the same only different.” OpenOffice is a great example. For much of what folks do, it has many of the same features as Microsoft Word or Excel and family – but presents a slightly different look and feel. It can be jarring to try to switch. Other programs – the graphics program GIMP comes to mind – provide very powerful features that might match many popular Windows equivalents, but do so with such a dramatically different user interface that “jarring” doesn’t seem to capture the difference.

The other problem that I do have with most Open Source software (which is most of what you’ll find for Linux) is documentation. Not that documentation for retail products is necessarily perfect or even complete, but it typically does cover the basics for most users. Open Source documentation can best be termed “spotty.” There’s great stuff out there, and there’s… well, in some cases there’s nothing; you’re on your own.

The big mitigating factor is that for most every major piece of Open Source software, there’s typically a very active user community providing some level of support. This, too, runs the range from “arrogant and geeky” to actually helpful, but there’s a lot of it out there. My video resolution issue I mentioned earlier took just a few minutes of Googling to find the appropriate community and answer.

But in short, distributions like Ubuntu are definitely elevating Linux from the “geek” realm to those who I’d simply call “adventurous.”

While I’m not ready to make the switch myself for the reasons I mention above, I have ordered more memory for my laptop so as to be able to run Ubuntu more often, and use it for more things alongside (or rather, within) Windows XP.

Linux is definitely, albeit slowly, becoming a viable alternative for more and more people.

Ask Leo! – My Aborted Plunge into Thunderbird
Ask Leo! – My Mac is Back, and running Windows
Parallels Desktop Virtual Machine application
Ubuntu Linux