Don't throw away Windows yet, a test of three approaches to installing Linux suggests.

Published June 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I've always felt that one good test of a new operating system is how fast I can go from turning on a computer to playing a game of Tetris. By that criterion, VA Research's Linux PC, running Red Hat 5.1, X-Windows and the KDE desktop, is a smashing success. Once I managed to find the power button, I logged on, activated the graphical user interface by typing "startx" -- and pointed and clicked my way to Tetris in a matter of seconds.

If only all of Linux were so easy. The truth is, even a state-of-the-art Linux PC cannot begin to compare with a Windows 95/98 machine in terms of new-user approachability. Sure, the KDE desktop looks good, no question about it -- slick, stylish and sure to be comforting to a Windows refugee. As a sign of things to come, KDE is most encouraging. But as a threat to Microsoft hegemony, right here, right now? Not even close.

It's easy to get carried away with Linux enthusiasm when one starts reading the mailing lists and following the newsgroups, or checking in at Web sites like Slashdot, where Linux fans trumpet every new advance and exchange virtual high fives at the latest release from Red Hat or Caldera. But a close look at Linux -- from the viewpoint of an experienced Windows user and clueless Unix newbie -- quickly brings one back to earth.

I spent the last two weeks making a limited expedition into the, to me, terra incognita of Linux. I started my journey full of hope and optimism, buoyed by the contagious exuberance of Linux boosters. But I ended my weeks a chastened, wiser man. At present, there's no avoiding the fact that Linux is a Unix operating system -- if you want to make it work, you're going to have to learn some Unix.

I investigated three paths to getting up and running with Linux: the hard way, the most popular way and the easy way. First, I set up Debian GNU/Linux on my laptop. The Debian distribution is utterly free and totally non-commercial and eschews all but the most basic new-user hand-holding. Second, I installed the market leader, Red Hat 5.1, on my main workstation. And finally, I obtained a review copy of a VA Research Linux PC, preinstalled with all kinds of user-friendly goodies.

It was obvious from the beginning that no sane person would recommend installing Debian GNU/Linux to anyone who hadn't already evinced some serious hacker tendencies. There's a certain sick satisfaction to be derived from attempting to do something the hardest possible way, but it sure isn't a fair test of Linux's usability.

Red Hat, however, is acclaimed for its easy installation, and the newest release, 5.1, has been widely heralded as the easiest ever. Yet even so, new users attempting to make the transition from Windows are likely to be taken aback by the convoluted steps necessary to correctly partition their hard drive for use with Linux. And even if they make it past that step, what then?

Red Hat CEO Bob Young claims that the bulk of its sales is generated by non-Unix users. I'm skeptical. As the Red Hat installation manual makes clear, familiarity with basic Unix concepts is required to make any effective use of Red Hat Linux. Page 8 of the manual even recommends purchasing a book on Unix. This is good advice -- but it's not what Windows 95 users looking for an alternative to Microsoft will want to hear.

But installing any new operating system is often filled with pitfalls. How many average users, whose main interest in a computer is running a word processor and getting their e-mail, are ever going to attempt such an overhaul? Surely the best test of Linux's usability is to test-drive a brand new computer with the operating system already installed -- preferably with some kind of handy-dandy graphical user interface like KDE set to go?

I got to Tetris just fine, but my block-manipulating joy dissipated almost immediately as soon as I began my very next task -- installing WordPerfect for Linux from a Red Hat CD-ROM. It should have been simple. But it wasn't.

To access the files on a CD-ROM in a Unix system, one must first "mount" the CD-ROM. KDE offered no obvious way to do this. In the end, I had to retreat to a command prompt and type in an arcane string of commands sure to be utterly unintelligible to a Windows 95 user. I enjoyed solving the problem -- which, to a Unix aficionado, would have been quite trivial. But accessing the CD-ROM should not require typing "mount -t iso9660 /dev/cdrom /mnt."

Such problems are far from insuperable; indeed, at the rate at which things change in the Linux world, they could well be solved within months. But at this moment, it's clear to me that Linux is not yet an alternative for the average Windows user. It still has a long way to go.

Whether it will ever get there is impossible to predict. In the meantime, Linux's unfriendliness to users who demand utter point-and-click simplicity should by no means rule it out for everyone. For the computer-literate user -- the person who is not afraid of a challenge and is eager to learn -- coming to grips with Linux can be hugely enjoyable. Linux devotees regularly tout how readily help and support can be obtained on the Net, and I found that these claims are not exaggerated. Every time I posted a question, I received loads of immediate, friendly and exhaustive help.

From the manuals to the how-to documents to the software itself, Linux has a personality -- intelligent, playful, uncondescending -- that Microsoft's products don't have and never will have. And even if it doesn't win the battle for the desktop, it's not going to disappear. Already, Linux is a viable alternative for those who really want to wipe out every vestige of Microsoft from their computers and yet still remain within the world of IBM PC-compatible hardware. Choices do exist -- even if, today, they require sweating the technical details.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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