For the past decade or so, the battle of the desktop computers has focused on two combatants: Microsoft's Windows and Apple's Macintosh operating systems. To be sure, the Windows operating system has overpowered Macintosh on the desktop at about a twenty-to-one ratio. However, a third contender has entered the scene in recent years and has been gaining ground. By some measurements, Linux has already surpassed Macintosh and is now the second most popular operating system.
Linux has been very successful in the server marketplace. In fact, Linux is already more popular as a web server than is Windows. Sixty-one percent of all web servers run Linux, according to Netcraft's June 2006 Web server survey at http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2006/06/04/june_2006_web_server_survey.html.
While very popular, Microsoft Windows has several major weaknesses. For many years, Microsoft's desktop products were plagued with crashes and system lockups. The latest version, Windows XP, is far more reliable although still not perfect. Even XP systems will occasionally freeze at the most inopportune times.
Probably the worst part of Microsoft's products is the large number of security holes. The operating system as well as Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser and Outlook e-mail programs have been exploited time and again by virus writers and other hackers. In fact, evil-doers have been able to steal data from Windows PCs connected to the Internet. All Windows users need to obtain anti-virus programs as well as anti-adware programs and personal firewalls in order to keep their systems and private information safe. Such additional security software typically adds $50 to $100 or more to the initial purchase price of a Windows computer. Conversely, Macintosh and Linux have experienced a much smaller number of security problems. Modern Macintosh and Linux systems have built-in firewall software at no additional charge and may be operated safely without anti-virus software, due to the increased security of those operating systems.
NOTE: Windows XP does include a built-in firewall, but it is not considered to be as secure as those provided by third parties or those built into the latest Macintosh and Linux systems. Earlier versions of Windows do not have any firewall capability at all.
Many people also question the pricing of Windows XP. The lowest price is $99.00 for an upgrade edition to convert an existing copy of Windows 98 or ME to the newer Windows XP Home Edition. Prices then go up to $299.00 for a complete copy of the Windows XP Professional version to be installed on a new computer that does not have a previous version of Windows on it.
The most cost-effective method of obtaining Windows XP is to purchase a new computer with Windows already installed. Microsoft sells licenses to manufacturers at prices far below retail. You will also find that Windows XP requires much more memory and disk space than the earlier versions; you may need to purchase more hardware power. That increases your expenses still further. Purchasing an entire new system may be cheaper than buying and installing the required software and hardware components separately to upgrade an older computer.
When you add the cost of required anti-virus software and the recommended firewall software, plus the high prices being charged for Windows XP, you may be encouraged to look for alternatives to Microsoft's operating systems. The leading alternative these days is Linux, a "grass roots" upstart that began as a clone of UNIX but now has evolved into a very stable and rather mature operating system. Best of all, Linux is free. Yes, you can legally obtain a copy of the Linux operating system from a friend and install it on your PC. You can even make additional copies of Linux CD-ROMs and pass them on to others, all without worrying about copyright violations. In fact, the producers of Linux encourage you to do so.
NOTE: Several companies use the free "core" of Linux in their products and then add commercial software that they have written to add extra functionality. Those products do claim copyright on their added software and may require payment for their complete "package," even though the included Linux base operating system is free. For the remainder of this article, I will only discuss Linux versions that are completely free for all and contain no extra-cost software.
Linux first appeared in 1991 when Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, created the very first version of a new operating system for his own needs. This very rudimentary program was intended to run on the 80386 PC of the age. Torvalds was very familiar with UNIX, so he created his new operating system as a clone of the expensive UNIX systems of the day. The name Linux evolved from Mr. Torvalds' first name, Linus, and the operating system he was emulating, UNIX. In other words, it was to be "Linus' UNIX." Torvalds also had the good idea of making the operating system available to others at no charge as he wanted to collaborate with others to improve it. Thanks to the support of the emerging Internet network and the newborn community of developers, Linux went on to become a full operating system. Today its power is unrivalled, and its stability is now legendary. Software developers around the world are still improving Linux for the fun of it, not for monetary gain. The basic Linux operating system remains free of charge for everyone.
Linux is stable, much more so than Windows XP. A properly installed Linux system never crashes or locks up. Also, installing new software on Linux normally does not require a reboot of the operating system. Many Linux systems have been left up and running for a year or more without difficulties, a claim that is matched by very few Windows systems! Next, Linux is less demanding of the hardware. The latest version of Windows suggests you need at least 128 megabytes of RAM memory and a rather high-speed CPU to run even one of today's applications. Even 128 megabytes will result in slow operation of Windows XP, and running two or more programs simultaneously is difficult with Windows using 128 megabytes of RAM memory. Most people purchase even more memory. Linux runs happily on 128 megabytes of memory or less and an inexpensive Pentium processor. In fact, a minimal Linux installation without the graphical user interface will be quite happy on a Pentium 1 processor and 32 megabytes of RAM memory. Adding in the fancy graphics user interface and some more powerful programs will require more memory and CPU power, but still less than that required for Windows XP. Linux is both faster and more powerful than Windows XP, assuming both are running on equivalent hardware.
Another unique feature of Linux is its resistance to viruses. Unlike Windows, very few viruses have ever attacked Linux desktop systems. This is probably due to two factors: (1.) Linux is less popular, so the virus writers don't pay much attention to Linux; and (2.) Linux is inherently much more secure than Windows. There are fewer "holes" in Linux for virus writing scoundrels to take advantage of. If you have ever dealt with a virus in your Windows system, you may appreciate the relative safety that Linux users enjoy!
Linux runs well on most PCs, as well as on some other hardware. There are versions of Linux available for Macintosh, Amiga, DEC systems, Sun workstations, and more. There is even a mini-Linux available for the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ shirt-pocket-sized computer. The most popular hardware platform is the PC. If your PC can run Windows, it can also run Linux. Your eight-year old Windows 98 computer may not have enough horsepower for the latest version of Windows XP, but it will probably be quite happy running a full version of Linux. However, as with almost all operating systems, more memory and higher-speed processors will always improve the performance.
Unlike Windows, Linux is available from a variety of companies and organizations. Therefore, you will find less standardization in Linux than in Windows. Whenever you buy Windows XP, you know that it will look the same as every other version of Windows XP that you find on friends' computers. In contrast, each distributor of Linux is free to modify the "look and feel" and to bundle or unbundled things differently. As a result, there are many different "distributions" of Linux, a variety that may be confusing to the newcomer.
My personal favorite is Ubuntu Linux, which is available at no charge at http://www.ubuntu.com. Even better, a specialized version of Ubuntu has been developed for genealogists. The Linux Genealogy Desktop CD is reviewed in a separate article this week. Other excellent versions of Linux for newcomers (in my opinion) would include Red Hat, Fedora, Xandros, and Novell. You can download any of theses at no cost from the producers' Web sites. However, these are huge downloads that may not be practical on dial-up connections.
If you have a high-speed Internet connection at home or at the office, you can legally download the latest version of Linux from a number of online sites. Typical Linux "distributions" these days require a download of 500 to 1,800 megabytes: enough bytes to fill two or three CD-ROM disks. If you do not have a high-speed Internet connection and cannot find a copy of Linux to borrow, you can purchase a copy at a local bookstore or computer store. In-store prices for a barebones Linux installation run about $5 to $30. Some companies will include extra application software and charge a higher price. Twenty bucks may seem high for an operating system that is supposed to be free, but the in-store packages normally include a printed user's manual of a few hundred pages. The same book without the Linux CD-ROM disks probably sells for nearly the same price, typically $15 to $25. If you download or borrow a free copy of the operating system, you probably will want to buy such a book anyway. In short, $20 or $30 seems to be a bargain for an operating system on CD-ROM plus a good reference manual.
At an even lower price, you can purchase CD-ROM versions without printed manuals for modest prices from a number of disk replication houses, such as Linux Central at http://linuxcentral.com/catalog/?cat=lccd&id=C1CIbScuSsACP. Prices run from $3.00 to $15.00, depending upon the number of CD disks required for each Linux version.
If you would like to take Linux on a "test drive" on your PC without having to first install it, try either the Linux Genealogy Desktop CD or else use Knoppix. Both contain Linux versions that fit onto one CD-ROM disk that is booted directly. You do not need to install anything on your computer. Simply insert the Linux Genealogy Desktop CD or the Knoppix CD into the CD-ROM drive and re-boot your computer. It will load a very full-functioned version of Linux into memory and not write anything to your hard drive. Details about the Linux Genealogy Desktop CD are given in a separate article in this newsletter. You can download Knoppix from http://www.knoppix.com or purchase it for $3.95 plus shipping from http://linuxcentral.com/catalog/index.php3?prod_code=L000-489&id=C1Cr5iFAMSoCy.
Keep in mind that Linux was developed by techies for use by techies. Early versions of Linux were difficult to install and use. The newer distributions, especially Ubuntu, have become much more user-friendly. Unlike earlier versions of Linux, I found the Ubuntu release to be very easy to install. In fact, it asks fewer questions during installation than does Windows XP. Unlike XP, Ubuntu automatically detected my wireless in-home network on the laptop computer and configured the network settings appropriately without asking any technical questions. Conversely, installing Windows XP on the same computer required the user to answer a number of technical questions about the network's configuration.
Installing new programs and operating system upgrades is easier on Ubuntu than on Windows XP. However, some other versions of Linux may be exactly the opposite: Linux traditionally has been a difficult system to update. Only the latest versions of Linux have new software that makes the installation of updates an easy project for the casual user. Ubuntu, Xandros, and other versions of Linux based on the Debian platform include especially easy software installation processes.
When considering the switch from Windows, keep in mind the fact that Linux will not run programs written for Windows unless an emulator is used. When you first install Linux, you will only be able to run programs written for Linux. However, many Linux programs can open and read files that were created with Windows programs.
The biggest drawback of Linux, in my mind, is the reduced number of application packages available. However, that is changing daily. You can now obtain free Linux word processor, spreadsheet, e-mail, web browsers, instant messaging, and other programs that are equally as good as their (sometimes expensive) Windows equivalents.
Not only is Linux a free operating system, but most of the applications programs are free as well. You can find high-quality, user-friendly software for many purposes available at no charge. Most of these free applications can be downloaded online. I have installed a state-of-the-art e-mail program, a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a graphics presentation program on my Linux system, all of which cost nothing and are as high quality as the leading equivalent programs for Windows. In some cases, the Linux programs are better than their Microsoft equivalents.
OpenOffice.org for Linux has approximately the same capabilities as Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook) and yet is free of charge. By contrast, Microsoft Office for Windows sells for about $500, depending upon which version is obtained. For a Windows system you need to add in $199 for Windows XP Home Edition or $299 for Windows XP Professional operating system. Anti-virus software will cost another $30 or so, and firewall programs vary from free to $50. Now you can quickly see the difference: a Microsoft operating system plus an office productivity suite will cost you $700 to $800 total versus zero cost for the same functionality on Linux. Much of this week's newsletter was written with OpenOffice.org. You can find more information about OpenOffice.org at http://www.openoffice.org.
I should point out that OpenOffice.org isn't the only free office productivity program; it simply is the one that I use. You can find others as well.
So, what is available for Linux genealogy programs? The quick answer is, "Not as many programs are available." You can only find one full-powered Linux genealogy program for Linux.
GRAMPS (Genealogical Research and Analysis Management Programming System) is the leading genealogy program for Linux as well as for BSD and UNIX systems. GRAMPS has numerous advanced features, including the ability to generate HTML files suitable for uploading to a Web site. GRAMPS is very easy to use, as easy as any of the Windows genealogy programs. However, GRAMPS does not yet approach power of the "for pay" Windows programs. You can find more information about GRAMPS at: http://gramps.sourceforge.net. I also will be writing a review of the latest version of GRAMPS soon.
In summation, Linux is a great operating system for many experienced computer users. This free operating system features rock-solid stability and a lot of good, free software to meet common needs. However, it is somewhat hobbled by limited availability of software for specialty applications.
Is Linux suitable for everyone? Probably not. Computer novices should avoid Linux unless they have a Linux guru available on short notice to help on "support questions." However, if you are an intermediate level computer user, Linux may be a good fit for you if you are looking for a new challenge and want to learn more about operating systems. Here is a suggestion: if you recently upgraded to a new computer for Windows and still have the old system lying around gathering dust, you might want to load Linux on the older system and experiment a bit.
There is a wealth of information about Linux available online. One place to start is at LinuxNovice.org at: http://www.linuxnovice.org.
At home, I have a Linux system alongside my Windows systems and an iMac. I find myself using Linux more than Windows these days. Depending on your feedback and feedback from other readers of this newsletter, you may find more information about using Linux for genealogy in future editions of this newsletter.
If you have experience with Linux, and especially if you have experience with genealogy recordkeeping on Linux systems, you might post a message at the end of this article at http://www.eogn.com and describe your experiences there. Reports of bad experiences and good experiences alike are welcome. Other newsletter readers can benefit from your experiences.