Linux Superstitions Exposed

Linux Superstitions Exposed

Robbert Haarman

2010-12-11


Introduction

The Internet is rife with discussions about the merits and flaws of Linux, comparisons of Linux with other operating systems, and discussions about whether Linux is “ready for the desktop” or not. During those discussions, a number of clichés often pop up, and not all of these are valid. This article is an attempt to clear up some of the more stubborn misconceptions about Linux, particularly the ones that undeservedly put Linux in a negative light.

Although discussions tend to focus on Linux, it is worth noting that there are other systems to which many arguments apply equally well. Linux is a Unix-like operating system, and many of the arguments here generalize to other Unix-like operating systems1.


Important Notes

Before addressing the actual myths, a few things need to be made absolutely clear. The first and most important thing to understand about Linux is that there is no single thing called Linux. Linux is very flexible, and works on computers from simple wrist watches to the worlds most powerful supercomputers. Even for desktop systems you probably use at home or at work, there is a myriad of different distributions2, each tailored to someone's or some groups tastes. As a result of this, every statement you hear or read about Linux is likely to be true for some distribution, and false for another. If the distribution that someone recommends to you isn't good enough for you, that doesn't mean there isn't another distribution that is!

Secondly, although it may sound like it at times, this article is not meant to convince anyone to stop using whatever software they are using and switch to Linux. The only aim of this article is to disprove some of the more stubborn myths about Linux by providing evidence to the contrary. Knowledge never hurts, and you would probably do yourself a favor by trying Linux, but that's your decission to make.


Linux is hard to use

There is a widespread sentiment that Linux is intended for technical users, and therefore hard to use for non-technical users. Indeed, Linux users are often developers, and the software they write is usually for themselves and perhaps a few like-minded souls. It's also true that many Linux users prefer to use their computers in ways that are nigh on incomprehensible to people used to other systems. However, this is only one side of the story.

A large number of people feel that Linux should be usable by anyone. Efforts have been made for over a decade to make Linux more user-friendly, and the results are certainly visible. A good example of a very user-friendly distribution is Ubuntu. It offers a complete desktop system with web browser, mail client, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, printer and scanner support, music player, a few games, and more, all neatly categorized into simple to use menus. Tools for the more technically inclined are still available, but there is certainly no need to use them if you don't want to.

Also worth noting is that in Ubuntu, all software on the system is automatically kept up to date through the Ubuntu Update Manager. Contrast this with Windows or Mac OS X, where only the software that came with the system is automatically updated by the supplied update facility. This makes keeping a Linux system up to date and secure very easy and time efficient. It also reduces the threat of viruses and other malware, reducing the time and knowledge necessary to clean the system of these.


Not much software is available for Linux

At the time of this writing, about 20,000 packages were available for Ubuntu. These are ready to install and run on a system running the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. Besides these packages, there are probably thousands of software projects that could be installed with a little effort.

The range of software available for Linux is very varied. Many programs are simple tools that perform a single task, such as copying files. Others are completely integrated suites, covering a range of needs. Yet others provide alternative interfaces for using the system (recall that Linux runs on watches and supercomputers alike). Depending on the software you install, Linux can be used for heavy-duty web or mail servers, for office workstations, for home entertainment systems, for network routers, for telephony, for controlling robots, for complex calculations, etc. The possibilities are endless.

People often assert that Linux lacks the ability to handle the proprietary formats used by Microsoft Office. It is true that, although software like OpenOffice.org can handle most documents without problems, there are Microsoft Office documents that aren't handled perfectly by native Linux software. However, for those cases where you need to use a Windows program for ultimate compatibility, Linux can often run the Windows program through an compatibility layer. In particular, CrossOver Office can be used to run many Windows applications that businesses may need on Windows. CrossOver Office is a commercial project, based on the free WINE, which also allows running a growing number Windows applications on Linux.

Another area in which people often feel Linux is lacking software is games. It's undeniably true that many of the high-end commercial games are developed only for Windows, and that many games that are developed for Linux don't have the splendor of popular Windows games. However, some of the big titles have been released for Linux as well, and others can be run through compatibility layers such as WINE or Cedega (a commercial offshoot of WINE by Transgaming Technologies).


Linux software is hard to install

This is a complaint often heard from people using Linux. It usually stems from people going about software installation the wrong way, or using a distribution that doesn't make software installation easy. If you're using a distribution for which packaged software is readily available, and you're using a convenient tool for package management, there's nothing to it.

For example, in Ubuntu, software installation is a matter of starting the Synaptic Package Manager from the menu, picking the package you want to install, and clicking the Apply button. This downloads and installs the package and any additional software it might need (dependencies), and adds entries to the menus as appropriate. Removing software can also be done with Synaptic. If you don't know exactly what your package is called, you can use Synaptic to search the package database.


Linux is unsupported

Linux and most of the software that works with it are developed by volunteers. Many people are afraid that these volunteers do not have the same sense of responsibility for their software that a company would have. Also, since the software comes from so many different projects, it's often not clear whom you should turn to when you have a problem.

Traditionally, Linux users with questions seek help in online communities, or by emailing the developers. For many, this is a good resource, but there are also many people who have bad experiences with this form of support. The people answering questions in these communities often don't have the patience to answer questions they consider trivial, or questions that have been answered before, or whose answers can be found in the manual. This leads to questions getting ignored, or users being told to RTFM (Read The Fine Manual), or worse. Still, with adequate searching skills and a bit of persistance, answers can usually be found in a matter of minutes using a web browser.

The growing adoption of Linux has also sparked commercial interest, and those who want support on par with what's available for popular commercial software can get it. Commercial Linux distributors usually offer support, and there are also independent companies that provide support for Linux users.


Closing Remarks

Hopefully, this article has cleared up some of the misconceptions that surround Linux. If you have any questions, comments, objections or additions, feel free to contact me or post a comment in the forum.


1 The family of Unix-like operating systems is very large, including GNU/Linux, the free BSDs (FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD), Darwin/Mac OS X, more traditional Unix systems such as Solaris, and more radical systems such as QNX Realtime Operating System.

2 A distribution is a collection of Linux and (usually a lot of) additional software, packaged and distributed as a single unit. Distributions are usually available for free download from the web, or can be bought on CD. For an extensive list of Linux distributions, see distrowatch.com.