Linux from the Windows web designer's point of view is a command prompt. That's all most of us are familiar with. That good ol' Putty SSH or telnet connection into our trusty (and managed for us) Red Hat 7.2 server that makes sure we leverage all of the benefits of Linux for our websites. After several weeks of research, I decided to change my view by loading Linux as one of the operating systems on my main work machine.
Am I qualified to write a review of Fedora? Absolutely not! I'll be the first to admit that I'm still not exactly sure what the benefit of the particular Linux kernel I'm using is, but I think there is one. To be quite honest, I'm not 100% sure what a kernel is. Until just recently I thought they all came in microwavable bags and in 3 minutes or less they were popped into popcorn!
So why am I writing a review that I feel I am not qualified to write? Because I've spent the last 3 years using Windows XP Pro on a daily basis - I've been using Windows almost as frequently for over a decade now and have a bit of experience in it. Most of the reviews I've read about various flavors (technically known as distributions or "distros") of Linux are written by people familiar with Linux for those who are familiar with Linux. They were informative, but didn't make much sense to me before I made the switch. Actually, some of them are still over my head.
If you're an avid Windowite who's thinking about switching, I think you'll find this informative. If you're a seasoned Linux admin, I think you'll find this amusing.
Ok, first let's get a few details out. I decided to install the Fedora Core distribution of Linux, the latest free Red Hat Linux. Fedora split off of the Red Hat product line when Red Hat decided to start offering a fully supported and "production environment stable" Red Had Enterprise Linux (RHEL) starting at $180. My thought is that Fedora would be a good preparation for any work I might do in the RHEL environment in the future. Fedora is basically the test bed for future RHEL versions, but as such you get some nifty, though supposedly buggy new software enhancements. I'm not a power Linux user by any means, but so far it has been very stable with everything I've thrown at it.
The first thing to figure out when you choose to install Fedora is where are you going to get a copy. You can download a copy for free, but it requires downloading three ISO, or CD image, files. As you might guess, they are each a little over 650 Mb. If your connection to the Internet is with a modem or a slower DSL connection, don't fret; Fedora comes packaged with several great books that you can probably find on the shelf of your local Barnes and Noble, or at a sizable discount at Amazon.com. Once you have a copy of Fedora, the installation process is pretty straight forward. Linux and Windows can not exist peacefully on the same partition of your hard drive, however, so you'll need to partition off part of your hard drive for Linux or do what I did and purchase a second drive.
Linux and the desktop environment require a rethinking of how you perceive your computer's operating system. In the days of DOS, Windows 3.1 sat on top of the DOS command prompt and made everything "look pretty". Not to trivialize what K Desktop Environment (KDE) or Gnomedo, but basically do the same thing. You have the Linux operating system on top of which either KDE or Gnome provide the visual interface. I almost hate to compare this arrangement with the early versions of Windows because anyone who has used it will recall how unstable it actually was. KDE and Gnome are great and very stable. Separating the core operating system functions from the graphical interface provides you with a great deal of flexibility. If you don't like what KDE or Gnome have to offer, you can use any of a number of other alternatives or create your own if you're so inclined and have or can learn the requisite programming skills.
So how does Linux actually stack up to XP in the "user experience" - I actually feel more at home in Linux now that I gotten used to my menus being moved around and the different approach to installing programs among a few other quirks. Customization is a big thing for me and KDE has proved a virtual playground for me. I've always liked the look of OS X, though I've never really had the chance to get comfortable with the operating system. Right now, I have my KDE themed to give all of the GUI elements (buttons, window borders, scroll bars, etc.) the OS X feel.
A few things initially threw me when I started Linux up for the first time. My big ol' "Start" button is missing and has been replaced with a little red fedora. Also, my Windows and Context Menu keys don't work, but I understand there's a way to fix that using a program called HotKeys in Gnome and KHotKeys in KDE. Initially, my Microsoft Explorer mouse didn't use all five of it's buttons, but after a few Google searches and a stop by LinuxQuestions.org, I found the program I needed to make it work and now have a nearly fully functional Explorer mouse, but I still need to get my tilt wheel working to claim full use of it.
For functionality, Linux matches Windows tool for tool in every arena except graphic design. Linux is supposedly a very popular OS in movie production houses around the country because it is faster, cheaper, and nearly all of the available editors are open source so they can be modified to fit exactly what they need. Still, Adobe Photoshop nor Macromedia Fireworks are available in a native Linux version which leaves you with the Gimp for all your graphic needs. I'm sure the Gimp is quite a program, and from the time I've spent with it I can feel that its extensibility would make it an unmatched tool in the hands of the right person, but in the hands of this user I keep finding myself hitting ghost keyboard shortcuts or wasting time looking for basic functions and thinking to myself "I know right where that's at in <insert editor name>".
The OpenOffice.org office suite comes with Fedora, as does Koffice for the KDE suite. Both are free, and both boast interoperability with their equivalent Microsoft counterpart. I actually made the switch to OpenOffice.org (OOo) on my Windows machines before the first of the year. I made the switch partially in anticipation of a move to Linux as my main OS and partially because of costs involved with upgrading to Office 2003. Though none of my Office documents are very complex, I have had no trouble importing any Word Doc files or Excel spreadsheets into Writer or Calc on either Windows or Linux.
What about development? KDE, the desktop environment I've spent the most time in comes with a native editor called Quanta Plus. It's main function is an HTML editor, but it also works quick well for quickly drafting any number of scripts with built in color coding for no less than 70 different languages. So far, it has been very useful in taking the place of HTML-Kit. It doesn't have the same extensibility, but based on what I see on their website, it is headed in that direction. I have also used Bluefish in KDE and Gnome, but I wasn't all that impressed. In addition to these two "HTML" editors, there's also many editors for specific tasks - Qt Designer for programming applications using the Qt C++ framework, Kdevelop for developing KDE applications, along with a few others that I've yet to open.
All of this is great, but how does Linux compare to Windows in the end? This is a hard one. It's as easy to setup. Getting support for my mouse involved downloading and compiling a program which wouldn't compile until I installed several other "packages". Utilizing all of my keyboard is going to take some configuring instead of just installing a keyboard handler. Installing new programs can sometimes be daunting when all you have to look at is a terminal window.
I know it sounds like I'm not particularly fond of Linux. I've only been using it for one week, but I think I'm going to stick with it. My computer runs faster - I have access to the majority of the programs that I need to run in Windows, and I always have the few Windows programs I need at my disposal with a quick reboot. In the end, my recommendation for someone to use Linux would hinge on how they plan on using their computers.
In a corporate environment where the computer is going to have everything pre-installed on it and the end-user won't be tinkering with anything more than what colors are used to display the windows, Linux would be great. For each computer, the average company will save between $300 and $400 dollars in licensing. Even if you choose to go with one of the "professional" versions of Linux that offers support and the StarOffice Suite (OpenOffice.org repackaged with support), you would still be looking at a savings of a hundred dollars or more.
For the average home user who has to maintain their own computer however, I think Linux might prove a challenge. Most home users don't even realize that Windows has a command prompt, and having to install programs through that would not only intimidate many, it would keep them from installing anything on their computers. Given the Internet's recent bout with Mydoom and Novarg, this might not be a bad thing though. For the tinkerer, or PC enthusiast however, Linux would be a great opportunity to expand their current computer knowledge and give them something fun to try out.
Hopefully, this review will help you make up your mind when trying to decide if Linux is right for you. As I said, I'm just a Windows user who has partially made the switch. Below are a few links that I've found really helpful