Kicking the Windows Habit

Recently,I suffered a loss that most computer users  will experience at one time oranother. My Quantex laptop, my workstation for the last 16 months or so,crashed. The hard drive has died and now I must wait endless hours on thetelephone trying to speak to a tech-support so that I can send the darn thingback to them to fix. (If you sense hostility, it’s directed at Quantex, notyou, the reader.)

In the meantime, I had only two choices to replace myworkstation so that I could remain productive at the office. One was an IndyBoxdesktop computer that has been running Red Hat Linux for the past one year andserving as the ADSL gateway for our network. The other machine was a Toshibalaptop that I recently converted to Linux Mandrake. Since I used one previously,I chose the laptop to take over as my workstation, and decided to stick withLinux and see if I couldn’t go cold turkey and kick my Windows habit.

So far, the experiment is a resounding success, and I don’tplan on going back to Windows when my Quantex laptop gets fixed–which shouldbe in a month or so.

It’s all about the apps

In a normal week, I may use about a dozen applications on aWindows machine. That might seem like a low number, but it’s true. Theseapplications include the usual suspects: Outlook, Word, Netscape/IE, FTP client,ICQ, PhotoShop, a good HTML/Text editor, SSH/Telnet client, etc.

With my trusty Toshiba laptop running Linux Mandrake 7.1, Iwas able to get configured and running all the applications I wanted in abouthalf a work day. That included downloading and installing most of them (A fastDSL line really helps). Outlook, which I currently miss the most since I have somany mail accounts and quite a full address book, is currently being replaced byNetscape mail. So far, I’m pretty satisfied. I’ve tried Helix GNOME’salpha release of Evolution and look forward to it becoming a real product. Untilthen, I’ll get along with Netscape mail just fine. If not Netscape mail, thereare plenty of choices including graphic clients like Balsa and kmail andtext-based terminal clients like pine and mutt. For an Exchange compatiblee-mail client, TradeClient from Bynari is a viable option, with version 0.3.0released last month.

Microsoft Word is the proverbial gorilla in word processing,though I don’t really consider myself a power Word user. For the most part, Irely on spelling and grammar checking in Word, just so I don’t look like afool. (Whether it works or not, you be the judge.) I’ve recently taken tousing the Windows version of AbiWord because Word is a memory hog and doesn’tplay nice with other memory hogs. This meshes nicely with my Linux installationsince Helix GNOME comes with a version of AbiWord (if you install Helix GNOMEwith everything). I’m not saying that AbiWord is an adequate replacement forMS Word. As a product, AbiWord is good looking and easy to use, but a lot offeatures are missing, and it’s still in the process of being developed. If youneed a Word-like processor with Word-like power, then download StarOffice 5.2 orWord Perfect 8. Mandrake 7.1 Deluxe comes with Star Office 5.2, so I’mcurrently using it as my Word replacement on Linux.

Browsers

The last time I checked, a lot of people use MSIE 4x and 5xto browse the Internet. In fact, the latest numbers point to an 80% marketshare. Many blame Netscape/AOL for the delays in delivering a new, substantialupgrade in the past year and a half. Others look to blame the Mozilla projectfor feature bloat and slow development. I for one, have never been thoroughlyconvinced that MSIE was better than Netscape. And I still have nightmares aboutFrontPage users creating pages without checking them in other browsers.

When considering browsers for Linux, the choices areincreasing. As Mozilla and the Gecko engine continue to improve, you will seemore and more browsers based on this technology emerge. A good example would bethe Galeon browser (http://galeon.sourceforge.net/). Even though Mozilla and itscousins are nice to work with, I still use the latest release (4.75) of NetscapeCommunicator as my browser. Mozilla’s latest release 17 is really solid so farin my testing, and for that matter, so is Galeon. And don’t forget Opera, thebrowser lauded for its lack of bloat and dedication to W3 standards.

Utilities

Utilitiesare where GNU/Linux excels and possibly overwhelms, especially when it comes tonetwork tools like FTP and Terminal clients. On Windows, I used WSFTP Pro as myFTP client and have found that gFTP is very similar, and very stable too. For aTerminal client, I use GNOME Terminal. You’ll find lots of choices forterminals, and most of them get the job done. The terminal client is where you’llrun Telnet or SSH to access remote machines. There are some GUIs for Telnet andSSH like GTelnet, but I haven’t really found them all that helpful. I onlyconnect to a couple of machines, so I installed OpenSSH and access my remotemachines via the command line in GNOME Terminal.

The terminal is an aspect of GNU/Linux that most Windowsusers will find foreign. If you’ve used Windows for a long time, you mightremember occasionally opening a DOS window to run a program. (You remember DOS,don’t you?) GNU/Linux, whose origins are in Unix, hasn’t always had adesktop component, much in the same way that DOS did not. Unlike Windowshowever, which has gradually gotten rid of all command line interfaces (Windows2000 doesn’t have a DOS window anymore) GNU/Linux still lets the user accessmany powerful programs from the command line. In fact, it’s a safe bet thatGNU/Linux will always allow command line interfaces for programs.

"Why?" you might ask.

The answer is simple. It’s the source.

GNU/Linux, because it is open source, allows you to compileprograms on your personal computer according to your configuration from sourcecode. Traditionally, compiling source is done at the command line. It’sdoubtful that the command line will ever go away for this reason. And in myopinion, it shouldn’t go away.

GNU image manipulation program

Probably the program I miss the most under Windows is AdobePhotoShop. I confess that I was a plug-in junkie and I had no fewer than twentythat I used regularly. Be that as it may, the GNU image manipulation program(GIMP) is a pretty darn good replacement. The interface appears a little strangeat first, but with a little practice, I think I can become productive with it inno time. (Now if I can only find something like the Alien Skin plug-in, I’llbe a happy camper. If you have a suggestion, please send it to me at jgowin@linuxorbit.com.)

I’m a big believer in the RTFM school of helping oneselfwhen it comes to learning new software. In that vein, I was happy to stumbleupon Grokking the GIMP at gimp-saavy.com, a complete textbook online forlearning how to use the GIMP.

Keep talking

Like many of you, I use ICQ to stay in touch with friends aswell as business associates and clients. Thankfully, there are plenty of optionsfor ICQ clients on Linux. I’ve been using GNOMEICU and it’s been workingjust fine for me. If you search Freshmeat for the term ICQ, you’ll find 45entries that include GUI and text clients as well as multiple protocol clientslike Jabber that allow you to consolidate all your instant message clients (AIM,Yahoo, ICQ, etc) under one interface.

If you’re not an instant message fan, you can always returnto IRC for chatting. I never used IRC under Windows, mainly because I hated themIRC client. However, under Linux, the variety of IRC clients is trulyastounding and they are much nicer to look at than mIRC. I’ve settled on xchatfor now and begun to enjoy IRC for some of the helpful chat rooms available forLinux users.

Conclusion

Kicking the Windows habit isn’t nearly as hard as I thoughtit would be. The application-gap isn’t nearly as wide as it once was, and thegap is closing every day. Even entertainment software on Linux is gaining fast,most notably in the sound category. Gaming is also closing fast with the help ofcompanies like Loki, that port game titles to Linux and ID, who open sourcedQuake version one.

In business, where entertainment isn’t a priority, Linux isa viable alternative to a Windows desktop if you’re moderately technical. Thatdoesn’t describe the average business user. The average business user I daresay, doesn’t understand a permissions system like the one used under *NIX. Andthere are several other aspects of Linux that might make some Windows userscringe. The command line for instance. If you’ve never used it before, you canfeel truly like a ‘stranger in a strange land’.

Now that I’ve converted to Linux at the office, myproductivity is actually better, and my work is more secure. I’ve rid myselfof Telnet clients that don’t work very well. And I seldom if ever have toreboot my system. My Windows 98-based Quantex laptop had to be rebooted at leasttwice daily, wasting a good deal of time. When the hard drive in that machinegets fixed, I’m loading Debian 2.2 on it and not going to look back.

John Gowin
is Editor-in-Chief Linux Orbit

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