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Living free with Linux: 2 weeks without Windows

January 21, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Installed applications

As any Windows user knows full well, Windows doesn't come with many built-in productivity applications. If you want a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program and so on, you'll generally have to buy Microsoft Office, for several hundred dollars or more -- although there are alternatives such as OpenOffice and Google Docs.

Ubuntu, though, already comes with a surprisingly full set of ready-to-use applications. You won't have to pay for them or even search for them -- they're there, waiting for you. They include:

Office applications: Four components of the OpenOffice suite come with Ubuntu: word processor, spreadsheet, drawing and presentation software. The OpenOffice database is not included.

Browser: The latest version of Firefox comes pre-installed.

Contact Manager: Yes, Windows users, there is a life beyond Outlook. Evolution Mail and Calendar is a solid-mail and calendaring program.

IM: Pidgin is a universal instant-messaging client that works with AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and others.

Graphics: Ubuntu comes with the Gimp Photo Editor, a Photoshop-like application with a surprisingly full set of features. For digital photo handling, there's the F-Spot Photo Manager.

Multimedia: Ubuntu comes with ripping and burning software and media playing software -- pretty much whatever you need. They include Audio CD Extractor, Brasero disc burner, Movie Player, Rhythmbox Music Player and Sound Recorder.

Accessories and games: There's plenty here, including a calculator, text editor, note-taker, screen-capture program and plenty of games, including classics such as chess, blackjack, mah-jongg and Sudoku.

Installing software

If Linux has an Achilles heel, from the point of view of a Windows user, it's installing new software. Be prepared to enter a new world in which Windows Update is a model of simplicity by comparison, and in which you may feel as if you need a Ph.D. in physics merely to install new applications or updates.

Let's take something as simple as installing the latest version of a Flash Player. I was visiting YouTube, but couldn't view any videos because Ubuntu doesn't install a Flash Player by default. Actually, neither does Windows, so it didn't bother me -- all I had to do was install the player.

I clicked on a Web link as directed, and came to a screen that asked me which version of the Flash Player for Linux I wanted to install: tar.gz for Linux, .rpm for Linux or YUM for Linux. This was, to say the least, confusing: The .rpm version sounded like a car specification, and the YUM version sounded like a bubble gum.

From my experience using Windows archiving software, I've heard of the .tar compression format, so I chose that one. I downloaded it, uncompressed it and ran the installation program. Nothing happened. I tried running it another time. Again, nothing. Then I tried an option that allowed me to run the installation program in a terminal window. It was a shot in the dark, but somehow I had hit the target. Why, I'm not sure, but the installation worked fine.

I experienced similar issues when updating to Version 3.0 of OpenOffice -- and in fact, finally gave up. Version 2.4 worked just fine.

People who believe that Linux will replace Windows as the main operating system on PCs should realize that the mass of consumers don't want to face these kinds of issues when upgrading or installing software.

Living with Linux
Ubuntu's Update Manager is confusing for ex-Windows users.
Click to view larger image

This use of confusing and unfamiliar terminology seemed to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to updates and installs. I found another example when I decided to update my software. Ubuntu has an Update Manager, similar to Windows Update, which is supposed to keep you informed about available updates for applications and utilities, and will then download and install them for you. It's accessed via a starburst icon at with a down arrow inside it that's located at the top of my Ubuntu screen. Hovering my mouse over the icon, I found out that 129 updates were available. This sounded like a serious problem, so I clicked on the Update Manager.

I was rewarded with a long list of recommended updates -- and what they were, or were used for, is anyone's guess. For example, the first four were:

alacarte
easy GNOME menu editing tool

anacron
cron-like program that doesn't go by time

app-install-data-commercial
Application installer (data files for commercial applications)

bind9-host
Version of "host" bundled with BIND 9.X

The Ubuntu Update Manager had me longing for Windows Update. In Ubuntu's defense, though, I did find a few updates that made sense, such as updates and plug-ins to the Evolution e-mail application. On the other hand, the Update Manager was missing some vital updates; for example, I was using Version 2.4 of OpenOffice.org and was never told that Version 3 was available. Worse yet, I was using Version 8.04 of Ubuntu, and Ubuntu 8.10 came out when I was researching this piece. Yet the Update Manager didn't tell me that either. Eventually, I found out that 8.04 is what's called a Long Term Support release, but 8.10 isn't, and by default, the Ubuntu Update Manager won't tell you about releases that are not LTS. And you thought Windows Update was confusing?

All in all, I didn't find the Update Manager to be much help. I was better off checking for software updates on my own, or allowing the applications themselves to warn me about updates. But as my experience with installing OpenOffice.org 3.0 showed me, that doesn't always help.



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