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Sci-tech: Smooth operator

Where do we drop it, and why are we dragging it anyway? CAIRO: Whether you will die for your Macintosh, or can’t wait to get a new dual-core processor for your PC; we must all give a bow to the software that makes trillions of electrons all stand to attention at the stroke of a …

Where do we drop it, and why are we dragging it anyway?

CAIRO: Whether you will die for your Macintosh, or can’t wait to get a new dual-core processor for your PC; we must all give a bow to the software that makes trillions of electrons all stand to attention at the stroke of a key.

Specifically, I’m referring to the software that manages to operate the entire computer: the operating system.

Interaction with operating systems kicked off with the graphic user interface (GUI), which was begun primarily by Apple in the early ’80s for their first Macintosh computers. It was a relief to many. This was a reaction to the steep learning curve of the earlier text-based user interface: You had to memorize the commands, and then each had to be typed in. They were numerous and often incomprehensibly abbreviated. Remember DOS and Unix? It’s better if you don’t.

Microsoft gave chase to Apple, because unlike those nasty text commands where being one character off meant it simply didn’t work, it too saw that the intuitive interface was a winner. Mac OS and Windows are now strikingly similar and bear few unshared options.

Microsoft’s upcoming operating system, Windows Vista, first announced in 2001 and first rumored for release in the summer of 2005, is still being withheld and may be released later this year. Not only are these large commercial operating systems lengthy to release to the public, but they can be pricey – even the defunct Windows 98 costs $50, Vista possibly $400.

And guarding the source code from users just means we can’t fix problems when we find them. This combined with anti-Microsoft sentiment and an anti-monopolistic sentiment, means that Windows has considerably more bugs that last longer and are attacked much more heavily than other operating systems.

Thus, looking for the freeware alternative could have fruitful results whether Vista is launched tomorrow or in the next decade.

Produced under the GNU General Public License (meaning many people contributed exhaustive hours of know-how for nothing), the Linux operating system is optimized for networking and multi-user applications. In addition, it is open source, meaning it is coded and improved by many different programmers – some just hobbyists – and is free. With the ease of installation, maintenance, and functionality of recent versions, some are left wondering why Linux still isn t more widespread.

I blame work.

People at home generally want to use an OS compatible with what they use for work. Linux isn t at work (because of not only the corporate entrenchment of Microsoft, but also due to lingering business skepticism about the formerly-hobbyist-only open source movement maturing into something credible) – and so it isn t at home. Additionally, many off-the-shelf applications and games aren’t made for Linux users, meaning further compatibility issues.

Another key reason that more home users aren t on Linux is that those who’ve tried it find out quickly enough that the user interface is rather inconsistent. It is part graphic, part text-driven; the ‘VI Editor’ window used to give text commands to the operating system may be a computer science graduate’s dream, but text-driven commands are not going to bring Linux to the mainstream.

But how can you give Linux a go?

It fits on one CD, and you can install it on the same PC as Windows, so that you choose which one to run when you switch on your computer.

If you’re skittish, perhaps the best way to try out Linux is to run it from a CD. You can go to websites like Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/) or Fedora (http://fedora.redhat.com/) to download Linux onto your hard drive, burn it onto a CD, then put the CD in your CD drive and it’ll launch automatically for you. It auto-installs – without affecting Windows, software applications, or data that you already have on your computer – and two minutes later you’re using Linux. It won t touch what you have on your hard drive (unless you tell it to) because it s running only in RAM, which wipes itself every time you reboot. Because of this it is safe and hassle-free. It may run more slowly than if you had it installed on your hard drive, but it’s a good way to test it out.

If you are hooked, it is not guaranteed that you stay faithful; Microsoft has purportedly allocated $100 million just for marketing Vista, and with that they could even convince a Linux user to try it. But Microsoft’s monopoly isn’t all bad news. Vista will be better than XP, which has easily been Microsoft s best desktop operating system to date. Bill Gates has never been allowed to forget the Blue Screen of Death, the all too frequent freezing of Windows that was given this grim name even in official Microsoft troubleshooting documentation. Gates wanted desperately to overcome that mess, and it shows.

If people come to use Vista in large numbers, it will be because of the natural migration from previous platforms that have so dominated the land of the operating system. The potential hours saved by using the streamlined Linux may never be maximized by the mainstream, until the control interface is reliable, intuitive and friendly.

In the meantime, sit back and dream of Vista.

Topics: Coalition

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