Living (and dying) with Linux in the workplace

A Windows power user gives Linux a fair trial as her primary operating system at work. Does the open-source OS have what it takes to make her switch for good?

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On the upside


Little things crop up during my weeks working on Linux that show it's an operating system designed for serious users. For example, you can open up a terminal window from any folder, and the terminal immediately places you into the same directory you were just viewing. As far as I know, in XP there's only one way to get to the command line, and that's by going to the start menu, clicking on run and then typing in cmd. That dumps me into my C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator directory. It's a bit of a pain to then manually move to, say, my C:\Program Files\xampp\mysql\bin directory to issue a text-based MySQL command. Of course, I can (and did) write a batch script to change the directory, but I don't always know the directories in advance.

I can easily access files on my network drive from Linux, and moving them from my Windows system to the test Linux box is a snap. There's no need for typing out cp /long/filepath
if I'm not in a command-line mood. Dragging and dropping works just fine.

Playing an MP3 file is as easy as clicking on it and bringing up RealPlayer for Linux, an application that appears refreshingly spare in this incarnation. But as my Web developer colleague warned, watching a movie trailer on the Web, which I do with a click on Windows, is more complicated, since many are in Apple's QuickTime format and Apple doesn't provide a QuickTime player or a plug-in for Firefox on Linux.

One of the things I do NOT miss on Linux: Windows balloons nagging me about updates I'm not interested in installing. (IE7, anyone?)

When Linux plug-and-play works, it's a pleasant experience. I load up openSUSE, Novell's home desktop Linux operating system, from a live CD at home and pop in a USB flash drive; the contents of the drive are as simple to read on Linux as they are on Windows. When I boot back to Windows from my hard drive, the text file I created with Komodo Edit in Linux reads just fine back in NoteTab Pro.

I know people who think Microsoft Word is the best, most feature-laden, elegant and useful word processor on the market. I am not among them, and in fact rarely use it at work, since it tends to add all sorts of problematic characters to text that then wreak havoc when the text is pasted into our Web content management system. Novell's version of OpenOffice Writer works just fine for what I need, although I did laugh when a "helper" window popped up in the middle of some text cleanup, complete with lightbulb illustration. At least, it wasn't Clippy-style animation!

I am, however, a big fan of Excel. I like the interface and think it's an elegant piece of software. While I still consider Excel the best-of-category application, I'm pleasantly surprised by Novell's version of OpenOffice Calc. For example, when I scrape a report off one of our internal Web sites, it dumps into a formatted spreadsheet just as easily as when I do so with Excel. This is important, since I pull reports off that site several times a week, and don't want to have to cut and paste individual columns.


Excel (left) is my favorite spreadsheet application, but Calc (right) handled all my spreadsheet needs. (Click either image to see larger view.)

While some of my smaller apps like NoteTab are unavailable for Linux, others have cross-platform options. For example, I use an open-source Windows application called Password Safe to store various passwords. It's got close to 10 years of passwords stored in there, and I have a lot of passwords. Happily, someone wrote a Linux app that uses the same database format. Installing MyPasswordSafe turns out to be easy once the right source code gets downloaded.

Overall, I believe there are ways around most of the apps I'm missing, even NoteTab. But short of dual-boot systems or desktop virtualization, Adobe applications remain a challenge.

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