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Flipping the Linux switch: My OS is okay, your OS is okay

I dids researches for this. Observashional.Today we're committing blasphemy.

Okay, technically we're not. We're not saying that any one system or way of doing things is the only right way. Face it, the only place there was only one right answer to a question was eighth grade math class.

So while it may seem like it's blasphemy for us to suggest that Linux may not be for you (or your girlfriend, or your boyfriend, or your uncle), it might be true. You might be better suited to a Mac way of life, or a Windows sort of environment at the moment. It doesn't mean it'll always be that way. It doesn't mean, if it is always that way, that you (or Linux) are not up to the task. You're just not right for each other.

All right, let's quit the touchy-feely psycho-babble talk. There is a lot written about choosing distributions, desktops, and other fun stuff that comes with Linux. But how do you really know if it's something you want to invest time in trying at all?

There are liveCDs that allow you try to out a number of different distributions, and they can give you a pretty good feel of how Linux looks, and feels, and to some degree, how it works. You can see how your hardware is supported, and experiment a bit with alternative applications. That's great, but the truth is, it doesn't always give the whole picture of what you might encounter using Linux.

We hate making generalizations, but sometimes we just gotta do it. We've found, for the most part (and yes, there are always exceptions) that two types of people do really well with Linux: those who have no computer experience, and those who have enough experience with a different operating system to be fairly comfortable with it, but not overly confident with it. This second group often has a different way of thinking about and approaching computers (not to be confused, ahem, with the ability to "Think Different").

So how do you know if Linux is something you should try? How do you know if you even fall into those two categories?

People with absolutely no computer experience are hard to come by. When we say "no experience" we don't mean people who pick up the mouse and try to use it like a TV remote. We are thinking along the lines of elementary school aged kids (seriously!) or more adventurous adults who haven't really become "familiar" with the computer much beyond what a keyboard or mouse does.

The uniting factor in this group seems to be that they don't have a lot of preconceptions of what an operating system "should look like." If they can't figure out how to fire up the internet on a computer, it's not because the "IE" icon is not on the desktop, but it's because "IE" and "web browser" really don't mean much to them. They're not interchangeable terms. They're barely even English terms.

We don't really advise, if you should fall into this category, that you do this whole Linux thing alone. There are a lot of great starter distributions out there that will not feel any more foreign to a new computer user than the first time one uses a Windows or Mac system. If the hardware suits your needs sufficiently, go ahead and get yourself (or your kid) an Eee PC (or any of the lower-cost systems that run Linux natively). They're extremely friendly to newer users, and most can be fiddled with as confidence grows. The software is pre-configured for the hardware as well, so there's less confusion than setting up a computer with an installed proprietary OS.

The idea we'd want most readers to walk away with: just because little Johnnie or Aunt Matilda have never really used or owned a computer before doesn't mean that Linux is out of the question. Basic computing skills learned here are transferable to a Windows or Mac environment, if they want (or need) to use those environments one day.

That brings us to our second group. The "I'm comfortable enough with my present operating system to handle most problems, but I have no formal training." It's a hard group to assess, and personality comes into play a lot here.

Please note we're not saying someone who is an MSCE can't or doesn't want to use Linux. It might be harder haul, though, because there are (sometimes very subtle) differences between the two systems that can cause frustration. We've lost count of the times we've been on a Windows Server machine and wished for a clean Linux script to perform a task. And yes, we've lost count of the times we've been on a Linux machine, and wondered why there wasn't a more obvious way to get from point A to point B.

We're thinking that most people reading Download Squad who are considering using Linux fall into this category. We fell into this category when we started out. On our Windows machines, we were relatively comfortable troubleshooting slightly more advanced problems. For instance, if you're someone who has little or no emotional scarring from following a Knowledge Base article on a support site about editing your registry, you're probably in this category.

If you have the general ability, then, it really comes down to what you want and need out of an operating system.

Linux takes patience. If you're not someone who wants (or is able) to search out an answer to an issue beyond going to the software/hardware producer's site and digging around their FAQs and Knowledge Base to find a solution, Linux might not be for you. The information to fix most issues is out there, but whether you can spare the time to find it is a personal decision.

We waver between being extremely patient with technology, to having a totally pig-headed obstinance that we are not going to be beaten by a bunch of 0s and 1s. We call that last condition "patience with expletives." It's not just that, it's also a desire to solve problems. If you're the type of person who likes to see a project completed and likes to understand, even in a limited way, why something works the way it does, Linux is very rewarding.

Most important, though, is the fact that any operating system needs to perform the tasks you need. There are many people who can be totally productive with an office suite, an internet connection, and a basic photo editor. Pretty much any operating system out there can do that. We also know from experience that doing any vaguely complicated video editing on Linux or Windows, while not impossible, is extremely annoying. There are some things Macs do better. If you need a particular application for your job, and it only runs on Windows, your hands are tied.

Linux does many things well. It's secure. It is great for public terminals. It is great for households with lots of people using a limited number of machines. It does everything an average computer user could ask of it. And yes, it is traditionally a server operating system.

We love Linux, and we love people to try it. It doesn't mean that just because it's for us, it's for everybody. A lot depends on what we require from our computers. It depends on our background with technology. If it isn't your cup of tea, does it mean the operating system has failed? Does it mean you have? No. Of course not. The idea that any one operating system (or car, or laundry detergent) is right for everyone is ridiculous, but alive and well.

Tags: analysis, choice, choosing, linux, linux-switch, MCSE, opensource