Get a Geek
If you're going to San Francisco for the first time, all you need is a good travel book and some comfortable shoes. If you're making your first trip to the uncharted wilds of Alaska, however, you'd better have an experienced guide. Moving over to Linux is like going to Alaska: You need a geek to show you the way.
I was fortunate enough to have two geek-guides, PC World Editorial Applications Development Manager Matthew Newton and Associate Editor Alexandra Krasne. (If you don't know any Linux fanatics [yet], check out "Get the Linux Help You Need" below.) Matthew and Alexandra helped me install Mandrake Linux 9.2 in a new partition alongside Windows 2000 on my work PC, a Dell Dimension 8100. Mandrake is free to download; a shrink-wrapped copy costs $39 or more. (For more information on different distributions, see "Choose Your Flavor of Linux.")
I probably didn't need a geek to get through the installation itself. Putting Mandrake Linux on my PC was no harder than installing Windows, and it took only about 25 minutes, a fair amount quicker than most Windows installs. Matthew handled my connection to our office's Windows servers through the Samba utility, but getting it to work was an adventure. The problem, it turned out, lay with the configuration of our servers.
Though I had my machine up and running, I still needed some assistance. I was suddenly facing a computer with a very different vocabulary and organization. On the surface, working in the Gnome desktop environment wasn't significantly different from working in Windows, and in a lot of ways it was better--I had much more flexibility in changing my desktop.
But beyond the interface, things got confusing. In Linux, programs aren't .exe files; in fact, they have no extensions. Programs don't live in the Program Files folder--they live in various "bin" directories. Having all my landmarks abruptly disappear left me frustrated initially.
My Linux machine acted as I expected it to--almost. The DVD-ROM/CD-ROM drive worked, I could read and write to my floppy drive, my Internet connection was fine, and I could print on our network printers after a little tweaking. But I encountered a few glitches. For instance, though my Zip drive was (we thought) successfully mounted, when I tried to access the drive it would spin incessantly--I couldn't access it. The only way to make it stop was to shut down the PC. And I couldn't spread my desktop across two monitors, as I did in Windows.
Whenever I came across such problems, Matthew would tell me he was sure there was a way to fix them; it would just take some more research and fiddling. And I believe him. However, the question for any potential Linux adopter is, how much time and patience do you have?
The Sticking Point
I set up Ximian Evolution, a Linux e-mail client, to fetch mail from my personal account. If it weren't for the different icons, I would have sworn I was in Microsoft Outlook. The two programs look and operate so similarly, it's eerie.
But at work we use Lotus Notes, not Outlook, and that presented a snag. Most people who switch from Windows to Linux will probably discover that there is at least one Windows program they need that no Linux alternative will successfully replace. In my case, that application was Notes.
Fortunately, there is Wine, a system for running Windows programs in Linux, and I found that Notes is one of the apps that runs fairly well over Wine. I used CrossOver Office, a $60 downloadable version of Wine whose creators, CodeWeavers, work on making various apps behave. When Notes crashed, I did a "simulated Windows reboot," which takes 20 seconds and does not affect any other Linux programs.
I decided to try Microsoft Office 2000 in CrossOver Office as well. It didn't take long to realize that this was a mistake. Working in Word was a bit like watching television in the 1950s. The window would flicker, and strange artifacts would appear. If I scrolled through a document, the appearance would sometimes break down, with lines repeated over and over.
The solution was easy and free: OpenOffice.org, a suite with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing programs. The OpenOffice apps were rock-solid, easy to use, and filled with a wide variety of features. OpenOffice allowed me to save files as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, so my colleagues using Microsoft Office had no problem opening and editing them.
The only features from Microsoft Office I couldn't find in OpenOffice were the ones I could never see much need for anyway. I couldn't use a Smart Tag to get a stock quote about a company whose name I'd just typed into a file, as I could in Word. But really, does anyone do that?