(NOTE: According to readers, one of the favorite features of my column over the years has been my comments about personal computing issues. I appreciate the feedback I have received in the past, and will now post these discussions as part of the notes section on this page, leaving more room in my column for my observations about the industry, management, marketing, and media.)

Occasionally I have written about how Linux has become a viable alternative operating system for the desktop. Linux is a “free” operating system, and is the flagship offering of the open source software movement. Open source is software developed by a community of developers and offered at no charge to the public. The costs of development are underwritten by companies, foundations, universities, volunteers and entrepreneurs. The way that revenue is generated from such an effort is from service and implementation of users rather than sales from sales from software licenses. For this reason, the idea that Linux is completely free is incorrect because it ignores costs of providing your own tech support and solving your own problems. As an experienced user, this is generally not a problem since personal computing is also a hobby of mine. And also, Linux' problems in performance are, in my experience, much less in frequency and scope than in Windows.

While you can get some excellent versions of Linux that are completely free, such as the very popular Ubuntu (on my notebook), you may be better off paying for some of the other versions. On my desktop, I use a version called Xandros, which costs $80 (the "home premium" edition); you are allowed to use it on multiple computers. Ubuntu is more cutting edge, generally for geeks. Xandros is designed for the business user. Both Xandros and Ubuntu offer paid support options. Both rely on their user forums for finding support, and even though the Ubuntu community is vastly larger than the Xandros one, the latter has far better and more timely responses to questions.

Overall, the biggest savings in software costs from using Linux are not in the operating system, but in the numerous free applications that are available. Xandros, however, does not always support the latest versions of these software in an effort to offer the highest stability system. For example, it uses the 2.0 version of OpenOffice, while Ubuntu is most always pushing the latest versions of all of its applications and uses version 2.2, and often includes beta versions of some applications software in its distribution. Xandros uses an earlier version of Firefox Internet browser, while Ubuntu uses a newer one. Originally that turned me off to using Xandros, but as I work with Xandros every day now, it's not an issue.

Xandros focuses on users who have to interact with Windows environments, and therefore bundles some paid products, such as CrossOver Office, which allows running of Microsoft Office and other Windows software within Linux, and Paragon NTFS for Linux which allows reliable writing and reading to NTFS formatted hard drives, as found on most Windows systems. Ubuntu has similar capabilities, but you have to load separate open source software, such as Wine, the Windows interpreter on which CrossOver Office is based, and a plug-in for NTFS reading that at my last check could be considered an unstable beta.

My desktop and notebook computers are now dual boot, defaulted to run Linux. Windows is always available by selecting it from a menu at startup if I need it. There are some programs that don't run in Linux, such as some of my document scanning software. These annoyances are minor, since I don't use them that often, and would just reboot to Windows to use them.

The workspace in Linux is superior to Windows. Both Ubuntu and Xandros look like the familiar Windows desktop, but they allow the creation of multiple desktops. I arrange these by projects or tasks. I have all of my communications software (instant messaging and Skype) on one desktop, my Internet browser in another, a file manager in another, and then one or two for my work (such as all of my files for writing a column on one desktop, and files needed for a creating a presentation in another). This is far more convenient than having all of these programs and files open in one desktop. Anything open in one desktop is easily sent to another, but each desktop is only a mouse click away. It's a great way to work and you don't have to be constantly minimizing or maximizing applications to get work done.

Click here for images of the Xandros desktop.
Click here for images of the Ubuntu desktop.

So after months of constant frustration with Windows, I switched all of my work to Xandros. I tired of the crashes, the unintelligible error messages, the bootup message that asks me which Windows installation I want to boot to, even though there is only one installation on my computer. I especially like the one that comes up when I open Microsoft Word that tells me that macros are attempting to load are expired. That's really funny, because those macros were installed by other Microsoft software, and the error message gives no indication of their name or the program trying to load them.

I've had the Xandros software around for a while, but I gained a great appreciation for how handy it was when my Windows system crashed really hard and would no longer start. I needed to retrieve my data from its NTFS-formatted hard drive, but none of the Windows recovery software, nor did any hard drive rescue products worked. I was able to connect another hard drive to my crashed system, loaded Xandros on it, and within minutes I was reading the defective drive and backing it up to an external drive without a problem.

I run Ubuntu on my notebook because I store nothing permanently there and have no need to dig into historical work. All of that archived work ends up on my desktop. I just have current work on my notebook, a habit I developed since notebooks usually have a history of lower reliability than desktop systems. Ubuntu has the same basic applications as does Xandros, such as OpenOffice, and links to a wider range of alternative software.

Having run both systems, their stability is notable. I have crashed or locked up only once since October of last year. All of my work is getting done, without compromise.

The biggest issue with Linux systems is the playing of multimedia files. Xandros has paid for rights for certain “codecs,” which are applets that allow playing of DVDs, etc etc etc. Ubuntu recently did the same, but there are some that are not played as reliably. Internet streams are not always played reliably. This is an area that is getting better. But I have had a separate multimedia computer for a while, and that is running Windows XP. Sometime soon I will switch that over to Linux, as well, probably when the newer versions of Xandros or Ubuntu are released, which will include some of these proprietary codecs..

Xandros' inclusion of CrossOver Office is quite handy. Though I have become quite good at using OpenOffice, its charting capabilities in its Calc spreadsheet are currently inferior to Excel's. CrossOver Office is not a Windows emulator, common for many Mac users for Windows programs for which there are no Mac versions. CrossOver Office uses the actual program files and interprets them for Linux, without having to run a version of Windows in the background. If you think this is kind of strange, one of the more interesting case studies about this is how Disney animators run Photoshop for Windows in Linux using this approach.  CrossOver Office does have a trial download and does work in Ubuntu if one would like to upgrade from the free open source Wine version that Ubuntu uses.

Linux is being used by many computer owners to recover older computers that are slow by today's standards. I have a very fast computer, built by my information technology director (who starts his senior year in high school in a few weeks), and it is rather impressive how quickly programs run. It's quite a difference with the highs and lows of Windows, which sometimes can't even keep up with my slow typing depending what's going on in the background. If you have a relative who uses a computer primarily for Internet access and instant messaging, and has no emotional attachment to Microsoft Office, then Ubuntu would be an excellent choice for them.

Overall I've been quite pleased with the Xandros and Ubuntu experiences. While I recommend either of these operating systems, I suggest that they be first tried on non-critical work on an older, spare computer, first. It's better to get used to it and play around first. As with any major system change, back up all of your work onto an external drive, and then optimize your hard drive. If you plan to have a dual-boot system, both Xandros and Ubuntu will look for free space on the hard drive and set up a Linux partition before installing.

Linux comes in many flavors. Both Xandros and Ubuntu use a Debian distribution, with Ubuntu built on the latest unstable version (I have found that when Linux programmers identify something as unstable it's actually fairly reliable, unlike other software that shall remain nameless). Xandros' desktop is built on the “K” desktop, while Ubuntu is built on “Gnome.” Think of it this way: Debian is a true operating system, with just the software that the computer needs to run whatever files it needs at that moment. “K” and “Gnome” are separate software that creates the way to display and give access to that software. “K” looks a lot like Windows, while “Gnome” is a bit different, but has the same concepts. Both are very customizable. Ubuntu comes in a “K” version of its, Kubuntu, which is also free.

Both Xandros and Ubuntu have excellent update capabilities. Xandros takes a conservative approach of updates via service packs and critical updates. Ubuntu has updates at least once a week, sometimes more often. They're all easy to install. In contrast, I had to turn my Windows updates off completely because I often had updates that would not work, and in one case rendered Mrs. Webb's computer completely useless requiring a complete reinstallation of her entire system. I have not had any such incident in Linux.

There is a downside to Linux, and that is what may be some lack of support for some peripherals. This is nothing new to Windows users: I have a number of acquaintances who are dealing with that very issue with Windows Vista. In fact, Microsoft has agreed to “allow” many PC vendors to sell Windows XP for a few more months for that issue, among others. I have a Dell Axim PDA that runs Windows Mobile PC, which will not work with Linux. I fell in love with its display, and let that get the best of me. Linux appears to have much better syncing with Palm devices. Updating my Axim is done while I am running Windows. While some hackers have gotten Linux to run on a Dell Axim, I have no such desire. There are programs that will get iTunes to work with Linux (there would have to be: there isn't a computer geek who doesn't have an iPod).

It costs nothing to try Linux, as even Xandros makes a no-charge trial download available. Ubuntu is always free. Linspire, another paid version of Linux, is built on Ubuntu and uses the K desktop, and also has a free version called Freespire. There are many other versions of Linux around, with many aimed at geekdom, or targeted mainly toward managing servers. The Linux community is a growing and vibrant marketplace, with something for everybody, and that even means the graphic arts community.

Because of rampant copyright infringement around the world and especially in developing markets, open source software will become a major strategy for software companies. That is already the case for Sun Microsystems in its development of OpenOffice.org. Linux is the operating system for the One Laptop per Child initiative. This means than every company that produces software for the graphic arts will have to, at some time in the future, confront Linux, especially in Asia, Eastern Europe, and in Africa. Becoming familiar today with programs such as Scribus (desktop publishing) and The Gimp (image manipulation) may come in handy as these markets develop.

Because there is growing use of Internet-based applications, having desktops and notebooks that are “thin clients,” or, in other words, designed to have access to centrally stored applications, will become more common. A good example of this is Google Documents, a word processing application where all of a users work is done online. Therefore, having a robust (or bloated) operating system and numerous stored applications will lose importance over time, as one's browser and communications software gain yet greater dominance in the computing experience.