Free Agent: Life in Linux Land

Each of the past few years, I've thought to myself, "Perhaps this will be the year Linux will really take off for end users." This year, I'm not the only one thinking about it. It doesn't matter, ultimately, whether it happens in 2004. For reasons that I plan to share in future columns, it seems inevitable to me: The revolution will come. It may not be televised, but perhaps I'll chronicle it here.

In the meantime, this column will chart the goings-on in the land of Free Software. Linux will be a primary focus, but I'll also look at free and Open Source software that runs on Windows. After all, most of us are still stuck on that side of the fence.

At work, I remain firmly locked in a Windows environment. But at home, I've been computing with Linux for five years now. Getting my Linux-based PC to talk to other devices used to be one of the biggest woes of my computing life; happily, times have changed.

For example, I made the decision to be an early adopter on the Treo 600. The day it arrived, I took it home to see if it would talk to my home PC. No soap. Not immediately, anyway. But then, would Windows have spoken to this brand-spankin' new device without somehow learning about it first? Of course not. The PC platform still doesn't work that way. And yet we all forge on. It's just that I forge on in a different way than most.

In Windows, you pop in the driver disc that comes with the device. In Linux, you head straight for Google. I found out that the Linux kernel's "visor" module (which governs Palm OS devices on the USB port) had been updated to speak to Treo 600s: Paydirt. I also learned that I could teach my current version of the visor module to speak to my Treo by adding the following line to a configuration file called /etc/modules:

visor vendor=0x082d product=0x300

Wizardry? Sure. Any more so than tweaking the Windows Registry? Heck, it's less. We're dealing with a simple text file here.

JPilot syncs with any Palm OS device, putting all your mobile data in one spot.
JPilot syncs with any Palm OS device, putting all your mobile data in one spot.
So now I'm happily syncing away with J-Pilot, a fine example of Free Software and a pretty good clone of the Palm Desktop you get in Windows when you interface with a Palm OS device.

My new IRiver IHP-120, one heck of a good MP3 player, spoke to Mandrake Linux 9.2 with no tinkering whatsoever. It follows the USB Mass Storage standard, so my PC knew exactly what to do with it.

We've arrived at a point where the whole interoperability thing isn't nearly the problem for Linux that it used to be. Vendors increasingly support the Linux community; and when they don't, more often than not, the community hacks something together. Linux can talk to a surprising array of gadgets. But can it talk to you?

Linux Goes to Finishing School

Historically, Free Software and Open Source projects have sported some fairly esoteric interfaces. There are a number of reasons why this has been the case, but over the past year, things have really started to turn around. This is an important step forward: Esoteric interfaces are fine for geeks--I read my personal e-mail with Pine--but it's not good enough for all the folks who've started using PCs over the past ten years.

Gaim is elegant and powerful, and lets you talk to folks on the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and Jabber instant message networks.
Gaim is elegant and powerful, and lets you talk to folks on the AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo, and Jabber instant message networks.
Galeon is no longer the official Web browser for the Gnome desktop, but it remains a friendly and fast way to surf.
Galeon is no longer the official Web browser for the Gnome desktop, but it remains a friendly and fast way to surf.
Both Gnome and KDE, two Linux desktop environments, have come a long way. I'm especially excited by the work I see going on in the Gnome camp. The developers have built out an impressive array of accessibility and internationalization features, and have also focused strongly on usability since the launch of Gnome 2.0. The Gnome Human Interface Guidelines--modeled strongly after the Human Interface Guidelines that described the elegant user interface of the original Mac OS--has received a surprising amount of buy-in from developers. The elegance of interface you see in the current editions of apps such as Gaim (the best instant messenger I have ever used on any platform, period) and Galeon (my favorite Web browser) is really something, and impresses the pants off Linux skeptics who expect things to look like they were cobbled together by volunteers. It's not like that anymore. Again, times have changed.

Boy, have they changed. Novell, the onetime networking juggernaut that almost everyone had grown content to ignore, now owns Ximian (the company that employs core Gnome developers) as well as SuSE, a fantastic Linux distribution that has historically been KDE focused. Look for that to change, and look for Novell to begin to rise, phoenix-like, in 2004.

Red Hat has abandoned noncorporate users, but has not abandoned the idea of Linux on the desktop. Red Hatter Havoc Pennington is behind the project, which provides long-needed standards for application interaction and so forth. Lindows, Lycoris, and Xandros remain focused on putting Linux on your desk at home.

The same goes for thousands of Linux geeks. We want others to experience the rock-solid, spyware-free, virtually virus-free, unendingly customizable workhorse that we know and love. How many converts will there be in 2004? It's impossible to say, of course, but I hope that some of you will come on in and test the waters this coming year. Let me know what your apprehensions are and I'll try to address some of them here. Till then, be as Free as you can.

Free Software Gem of the Month: Mozilla

PC World called it the best browser of the year. It blocks pop-ups without ever creating JavaScript errors that need dismissing. It can handle your e-mail, too. Aside from Linux itself, Mozilla may be the best-known bit of Free Software out there. What's stopping you from giving it a shot? If you're really adventurous, try the Firebird edition. Firebird is the working version of Mozilla, The Next Generation. In Firebird, the browser is completely uncoupled from the e-mail client and other parts of Mozilla, making for a lean, mean browsing machine that can't be beat.
To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon