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Successfully making the transition to GNU/Linux

Ready for the desktop?

Some people believe that linux is not for the desktop. However, the stream of reports of people successfully deploying linux on their (home or office) desktop is more and more outweighing the number of reports of people who tried but moved back to their former platform. In other words, linux can clearly be used on the desktop, and in many cases the transition can be done fairly easily.
Unfortunately not in all cases.

If, after a lot of trouble with a setup that in the end only works partially -- and that in an unexpected or undesired way -- people turn away from GNU/linux, this is fully understandable.
After all, what is more frustrating then putting in a lot of effort only to find it was a waste of time.

I believe, to avoid a non-successful move to linux, the following aspects are of often underestimated importance:

  • motivation to move to linux
  • expectations of the transition itself and of the results
  • preparations
I will discuss these points in more detail below. Obviously, this is more oriented towards the home user, as I hope in any business there are people who know what they are doing and a so smooth transition to linux will be assured.

Motivation to move to linux

It would be impossible to give an exhaustive list of all the right and wrong reasons to move to linux. I will therefore just mention some points that, in my humble opinion, are some of the wrong and some of the right reasons to move to linux.

The major wrong reason is:

  • because it's free (as in: free beer)

Well, I have news for you: it's not. Unless your time is free. It takes effort, perseverance, time, and even money (unless your internet connection is free); you may have to buy some magazines and books to cover your needs.
Is this a bad thing? No. Your hobbies cost time. Playing a game on your computer costs time. You may regard fiddling with linux both a hobby and playing with your computer. Two for the price of one, if you like.
Of course, if you don't like to fiddle with your computer, but just want to do some simple things that are known to be simple with linux (email, webbrowsing, writing and printing a letter), you can have someone else who is in-the-know check your system out, and do the transition (installation, configuration) for you. In any case, someone with linux experience can be really helpful to have around.

Another wrong reason:

  • because you want MS or Bill Gates to go bankrupt
Apart from the fact that that is a pretty petty goal for a single person (even though a lot of single persons add up to many), it's not likely to happen anytime soon. Ok, this reason is more my opinion than anything else, but in any case, I feel it's not from something negative that loads of positive things are going to come. On the other hand, the MicroSoft monopoly is generally regarded as a bad thing, so every user that moves to the other side of the scale counts.

The right reasons to switch to linux include:

  • because it's free (as in: free speech)
  • no license hassles, no illegally copied OS to run your stuff
  • no vendor lock-in
  • no force-fed costly upgrades
  • no single source dependency
  • to support open source (yes, the interesting thing is that you are a supporter just by using it)
  • the enormous amount of FLOSS/OpenSource software that is directly available for linux
  • because you don't want to support a convicted monopolist financially or even statistically
  • you have old (but supported) hardware but still want a modern OS
  • no viruses, trojans, spyware, backdoors, autodialers
  • no fuzzy EULA's that aren't even legal in many countries but that are soon to be enforced by the implementation of so called 'security features'
  • inherent security
  • interesting selection of fileystems, including journalised ones
  • true multiuser, multitasking
  • a stable system (double meaning: normally, linux is not crash prone and it doesn't just behave differently all of a sudden)
  • because it puts you in control
  • because it's fun

- depending on the operating system you currently use, some of the above points may also apply; however, many people are still using an OS dating back to 1999 or earlier (refer to googles zeitgeist) in which case linux can bring them tangible advantages from a technical point of view
- with old hardware, you can use linux, but you will have to pass on some of the nice graphical eyecandy (don't use KDE, use icewm or so)
- about viruses, trojans and spyware: those who have more than a minimum understanding of linux / security tend to agree that viruses are possible, but that the complexity and implementation of a successful linux virus is not within reach of those who waste their and other peoples time at this moment making viruses for other more used desktop platforms. It is not impossible, proven in laboratory conditions, but not at all likely to be as effective and easily spreading as current viruses for more popular platforms.
Another point I'd like to add here is that it is commonly (wrongly) accepted that the major desktop platform is the prime target for virusmakers because it's the major platform. It is the prime target because it is the most used desktop platform AND because the alternative, to attack the major internet server platform is so much more difficult (but that would have much more effect, and is therefore actually a more attractive target). To all those who are not aware, the major internet server platform type is *nix, including *bsd and linux.

Expectations of the transition itself and of the results

What people obviously expect, is to have a more or less working system, that at least lets them do the 'normal, standard things' that they do with their computer. The secret hope of course, is that everything works perfectly, after the install and first reboot, without any fiddling.
Just as the brochure promised.
Allow me to list some things commonly expected:

  • installing GNU/linux is just as easy as installing windows
  • I don't have to know what's in my machine to install linux
  • I can always read the manual later, for now I'll just try, push some buttons
  • linux will autodetect, initialise and configure all my hardware correctly
  • people on the web (newsgroups, forums, etc) are going to help me if I tell them how much it sucks because it doesn't work how I think it should
  • linux has a graphical user interface (GUI), just like windows (or any other GUI-capable platform), so it will work the same
  • linux is Open Source and very configurable, so it can be what I want it to be
  • linux is so stable and secure, I don't have to backup anything
  • I don't need to learn how to use linux, it must come naturally, it should be like a car that drives itself
  • since linux is so stable, none of the programs that run under it should crash
  • there should be a free well-functioning equivalent of any program that I currently use (or else linux as a platform is bad)
  • the community around linux will fix all my problems
  • my old 90MHz Pentium I will run linux with all graphical eyecandy turned on as fast as a brandnew P4 2.5GHz will run the operating system that came with it

Actually, through what I know / have learned about linux, many of these points are valid for me... Before installing on any system, I go through the things mentioned below in the preparations section.

Naturally, many of these points can be false, and then who's to blame? You may read articles about very positive linux experiences, but keep in mind that other people have a different setup, different expecience, different criteria that they judge their results with, and different expectations. Follow the hints in the preparation section and get your feet on the ground and your expectations in the realm of the here and now instead of in Neverneverland. I'm not saying you can't be successful at installing, configuring and using linux even if you've never used or seen it before. I just think that if you try to do it that way you depend more on luck than anything else.


I'm not talking about preparations in the sense of: before inserting the first installation cd, I'm talking about preparations in the sense of: think this thing over, talk with some people in the know, check out how other people managed. See if you know people who have experience with installing, configuring and using linux. Remember I talked about this not being free, at least in the sense that it takes time? Well, here you go. Note that this doesn't have to take a lot of time.

So, get your needs clear in your head, get your wishes straightened out. The following things can help you to get a good picture of what to expect:

  • check what hardware you have (either by checking the settings on your current platform, or by opening your machine, or even both)
  • ask people in-the-know if they know if your hardware is well supported
  • if you are going to buy hardware, make sure it is supported; even if you are not going to switch to linux today, maybe in a year or so you may want to, so: better safe than sorry
  • do a search for hardware compatibility on the web, on linux sites, check the Mandrake database (well, that of the linux distribution maker of your choice, or any compatibility database; if there are open source drivers, you can get things to work with linux.)
  • check (and even subscribe to) a forum, for instance the forum (there they welcome all newbies; contrary to what the name may lead you to believe, everyone is welcome with any kind of linux distribution) and use the search function to find out if people are experiencing problems with your hardware. (Note that people who have the same hardware but no problems generally don't post.) If necessary, ask if anyone sees any problem with your hardware (and which software they advice for certain functions that are not so mainstream as webbrowsing).
  • read linux sites, newbie sites such as this. More links in the links section. Forums will also give you a good idea of what kind of support you may be able to get there.
  • on your current platform, use programs that you will be able to use under linux too, for instance: you can use Mozilla for web and mail, for your office needs, the GIMP for photo / image editing. This way, you can get experience with the same programs you will have at your disposal under linux.
  • check on how you can import your email, addresses and bookmarks (etc)
As for hardware support, among the most annoying things that can happen to new users are:
  • your modem / ethernet-card is not properly detected / configured, which means you can't go on the internet
  • your graphics card is not properly detected / configured, so you have no GUI
so be prepared, check that your graphics card and ethernet card / modem are supported, and if need be, make sure you have drivers handy (how are you going to download ethernet/modem drivers without a network connection? Well, you did do a dual boot, right? So this may not be such a big problem).
Also, a lack of drivers for your hardware is maybe a showstopper for you to switch to linux, but not a shortcoming of linux. It's a shortcoming of the manufacturer. So contact them and ask them to either provide a linux driver or to provide Open Source developers with the necessary information. And post your info on the web so that others who may want to use linux and are also considering to buy this hardware are informed and warned.

As for software, you did check that the things you want to do are possible with linux, right? Most mainstream things are easy, but the more eccentric, the more problematic things can get. Web, mail, wordprocessing, semi-professional image editing, dvd-watching etcetc are all possible (almost) out of the box. Professional audio editing is more of a problem, there you are going to have to look if the available programs can fulfill your needs.

Ready for linux?

So, in short: three often overlooked points to avoid a failed transition to linux are your motivation, your expectations and your preparations. Go for linux for the right reasons, make sure you are realistic in what you expect from linux and prepare your transition.
If you have thought about the challenge, if you are ready to try something new, you might just be ready for linux. So continue reading here on how and where to get it.

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