Breaking the silence

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This was the year of Linux on the desktop, at least for my family. I’ve been using a succession of free systems for years, switching at a whim between FreeBSD, Gentoo, and Debian; I’m the household geek though, so that doesn’t mean much. However, the real turning point came when we decided to build a little computer out of spare parts as a Christmas present for my in-laws. Rather than giving them an old licensed version of Windows, or shelling out much more than the value of the computer for a new copy of XP, I decided to install Ubuntu.

Since they were upgrading from a WebTV and would be starting from scratch anyway, this seemed like an ideal time to try something different.

And I was right.

It took a little tweaking, but their shiny new Ubuntu system is humming along and they love it. It’s easy to use, does everything they want, looks great, and didn’t cost a penny. As a bonus, I can easily SSH in and then repair or upgrade it from 1,100 miles away.

I guess I don’t really see what’s left to be done before widespread adoption, other than convincing OEMs to save some money and make their customers happy at the same time. I mean, there’s no way my in-laws could’ve installed the system on their own, but they wouldn’t have been able to do a thing with Windows either. On the other hand, their new digital camera worked right from the beginning, and both of their printers (including a multifunction printer/scanner/fax) were up and running in minutes.

The upside is that their new machine comes with just about every piece of software they’d ever want. The downside is that they can’t install random software off the internet—if you actually consider that as a problem. Since they’ve never touched a Windows system before, they have no idea that Firefox isn’t what “everyone" else uses, or that OpenOffice Writer isn’t exactly the same as Word. I won’t say that they’ll never have any problems, but it seems clear to me that Linux is ready for the average user, given proper vendor support.

So, if you’ve been thinking about taking the leap of faith, I say go for it! Sure, it’s probably different than what you’re used to, but that passes quickly. Come on in—the party’s just getting started!



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Comment from: Robert Pogson [Visitor] ·

01/03/06 @ 16:58
Your article poses a neat way for a young person to start a career in the PC business. Make custome PCs and servers or refurbish machines and give online service.The capital costs are small and avoiding the Microsoft tax is good for everybody, except Microsoft.

Comment from: Kirk Strauser [Member] ·

01/03/06 @ 18:09
Absolutely! Anybody with more motivation than money could jump right in with minimal investment.

Some people still believe that free software costs jobs. Those people are not very creative.

Comment from: bob dagit [Visitor]

01/04/06 @ 03:41
i have tried to help recycle some old computers and can hardly give them away. they are not junk at all, and really impressive, squeezing alot of performance out of otherwise abandoned boxes.
it is still a part of mass psychology that you shouldn't have to try a new desktop or application, or read and work through a tutorial, help system or online forum. then the non-self-starters moan when their new computer isn't just like the old one. don't spoil them if they won't invest enough time or money.
linux will mostly be for the adventurous few, and microsoft for the barely adventurous. but the flighty majority can't even be bothered to program their tv to automatically scan for cable channels.

Comment from: Daniel McCarthy [Visitor] ·

01/04/06 @ 04:44
This same principle can really take off if instead of just telling people that an older PC can be recycled and rejuvinated with Linux, we simply install Linux on the old hardware and educate the users. Show them how to use Evolution/Thunderbird, show them how to use OpenOffice, etc.

Education is the key. The average user doesn't want to read a tutorial, or look at a help file. If we are proactive and educate the users from the beginning we're a step ahead. So install linux on some old hardware, give it to a friend or loved one and educate them on their new system's usage.

Daniel McCarthy
A lust for linux.

Comment from: Danny [Visitor] ·

01/04/06 @ 05:14
Windows Vista may be the cause of a mass migration to Mac and Linux systems. Vista has high requirements. Even some slightly new systems will have to be upgraded for Vista to work normal.

This will open a door for Linux, unless Mac decides to sell a PC version of MacOS. Even so, the Mac OS may need more requirements than Linux. Kids will mod old computers as a hobby, some even seeing how many free machines they can put together.

I think the Linux distros will respond to any problems. For me, this biggest hassle is software installation. Yum Extender helps, a lot, but the average user needs a much easier experience. I think Fedora and Ubuntu become popular names.

Comment from: toyotadesigner [Visitor] ·

01/04/06 @ 08:06
Unfortunately, as an Industrial Designer, I have to use Windows to run my CAD apps. But on my laptop I have a second installation with SuSE 9.3 (and in a few days OpenSuSE 10.0).

I am a German living in Spain, where we have a relatively large German community. Most of them are 55+ or retired and have computers to 'keep contact' to their families, sending back and forth pictures. And most of them run an MS OS and 'enjoy' rebooting their machines.

As a side line I'm offering a PC service, and I promote Linux. Of course the people are a bit reluctant at first, but when they see my system they can't believe what a 'free' system can do. Some of them let me install SuSE on their machines, and they are happy. No more reboots, no more freezing of weird apps, just having fun with the system. OK, this is bad for me, because once a Linux OS has been set up and configured, I'll never again get a call from that customer :-).

Speaking of Vista: my monster laptop is 2 years young but - according to the published specs - won't be able to run Vista. I consider this a destruction of values...

Did you know that Vista doesn't support OpenGL anymore? I mean they abandon the global standard for CAD display...

But luckily times are changing. Just recently Xara Ltd, a British company developing vector illustration software, decided to develop a Linux version (

I'm convinced other vendors will follow, especially some CAD and 3D software vendors. Maxon already released a version for Linux (

OK, to cut the story short: I think there will be a massive shift in the consumer decisions in the future, and many companies will switch as well, because in times of tight budgets they will implement the better OS

Comment from: Richard Corfield [Visitor]

01/04/06 @ 12:59
You'll probably find, as I did, that they get used to how Linux works. Windows for them will never have the advantage of familiarity. In fact, it will be the opposite way round. Linux will be familliar, nice, "user friendly" and Windows will be strange, different and "user unfriendly".

Comment from: Kirk Strauser [Member] ·

01/04/06 @ 14:02
Thanks for the response, everyone.

I think and hope that you're right. When Linux is "good enough" for 95% percent of people, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify spending money on a Microsoft desktop. I personally think we're already to that point.

Windows is only user friendly if you define it as "operates just like Windows", which seems to be the standard definition these days.

Comment from: Gabriel [Visitor]

01/04/06 @ 15:01
Something similar happened with my mother, who's 63. She wanted to use the computer... just that. She doesn't know the difference between Linux and any other OS, so I've installed Ubuntu on her box, and that was the end of all troubles, no more virus, no more hangings, no more reinstalls...
And she is happier than ever with that machine, as she told me, now thing are 'in order', meaning that programs are easy to find, and 'easier to understand', since we're spanish spoken and l10n in linux is a really great thing that maybe english spoken people are missing.
Another story about localization... Since 2003, when I erased the last windows install on my laptop, I've only used windows at work, and just a particular program. A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a hand to a friend with some DB stuff.. in MS SQL. It was really funny to see that her WinXP laptop was a kind of babel tower... The base system was in english (as many laptops), the mssql server was in spanish, some other programs in portuguese... and office refusing to work because of language problems... jajaja.. that was really 'userfriendly' ;)

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Kirk Strauser's picture


Kirk Strauser has a BSc in Computer Science from Missouri State University. He works as a network application developer for The Day Companies, and runs a small consulting firm that specializes in network monitoring and email filtering for a wide array of clients. He has released several programs under free software licenses, and is active on several free software support mailing lists and community websites.