April 19, 2019

.comment: So You Think You Want to Use Linux - page 4

What Does It Take?

  • January 10, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

As I said above, I don't think that Linux is any more difficult to learn and use than DOS used to be. But there are some aspects that would cause a new user to believe otherwise.

The first is that DOS and its derivatives, such as Windows, are far more limited than Linux is. There is a lot more fine tuning that you can do with Linux. There are a lot more commands available. You may never have to use any of these, but they're there, and they're discussed on mailing lists and elsewhere, leading to the erroneous idea that you cannot gain any benefits from Linux without them.

The second derives from the first, because Linux users tend to be addicted to tinkering. We like to be the first on our block to try some nifty new feature that hasn't made it into the mainstream yet. A new user will see a lot of mailing list and newsgroup traffic on this, and presume it's necessary. It isn't.

(I can think of a couple of examples. I recently wrote a piece on trying to get font anti-aliasing to work in KDE2. There is nothing about the lack of font anti-aliasing that makes the use of Linux and KDE2 any more difficult -- but I wanted to have it because it was said that it could be done. Then there is the business of direct rendering and OpenGL three-dimensional graphics. Having purchased a nice new video card with lots of memory aboard, and having heard that stunning 3-d graphics were available, last July I switched to a developmental Linux kernel, a new version of XFree86, a multitude of other new things [some in alpha or beta form], and spent most of a week tinkering, not because there was any reason that I needed any of this, but because it bothered me that somebody had it working and I didn't. Try as I might, I couldn't make it work. But for the tinkerer -- a hacker who hasn't earned his stripes yet -- a certain zen sets in and the likelihood of some wild and seemingly senseless guess being correct increases. So I cannot tell you why it was that on Sunday I copied the files from -- take a deep breath -- my XFree86-402's source directory's /xc/programs/Xserver/hw/xfree86/os-support/linux/drm/kernel subdirectory to replace the older ones of the same names in my Linux-2.4.0 kernel source tree's /drivers/char/drm subdirectory, and then built a new kernel, and somehow achieved the OpenGL performance I'd sought for six months. This is neat to be able to do, but it's certainly not required. The fact that this kind of thing is just not possible in Windows, and is possible in Linux, leads many people to believe that Windows is easier. Which is true only to the extent that life in a jail cell is easier than life out in the world, where the choices are vast.)

There's a good variety of application software available for Linux, and a great deal of it is included in most distributions. You'll get Netscape Communicator, which for all its shortcomings is familiar, and StarOffice, which can be figured out, mostly, despite its miserable help files. Setting up stuff like modem connections has become far easier, generally, than it used to be. If you are among those who like WordPerfect, you're home free, because the Linux version (which you do have to buy separately, sorry, but it's not free for Windows either, is it?) works the same way that the Windows version does, which is to say obscurely. If you're interested enough in Linux to give it a try, you're probably interested enough to go to a place like LinuxApps.com to look for other software, much of which is free and much of which is pretty easy to install.

(Yes, you typically need to be logged in as root to install software. Big deal. The distinction between root and a mere user is slightly more complicated but a great deal safer. Learn to log in as root, or to su root in a console. This takes no more than five minutes. And the second that you're done, log out of the root session and back in as you the user. I know that a lot of Windows refugees think they can spend their entire lives as roots. There are several technical terms for such persons, but they're all derived from the mental health field and therefore are beyond the scope of this column.)

No, there's nothing inherently difficult about Linux. There's nothing particularly difficult about driving a car, either -- but a lifetime of riding the bus does not give one the skills necessary to drive the thing. The desktop developers have made Linux far easier than it used to be (I remember that first morning, years ago, when I looked at a prompt that said [localhost.localdomain dep]$ and had no idea where I was or what I was supposed to do next). In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, Don't Panic! It's not that tough.

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