by Christopher Lindquist

The Linux Desktop Project: Part II

Jan 18, 20065 mins

Welcome to the second part of Scott Berinato’s ongoing guest blog chronicling his Windows-to-Linux desktop migration experience.

We’re underway. Chris and I spent the better part of an afternoon burning ISO images onto CDs and then trying to install Novell Linux Desktop 9.  Unfortunately, while booting, our slimline Dell desktop test PC would recognize the install CD, but it wouldn’t proceed with an install. This was annoying and time consuming.

Novell kindly stepped in–remember we have no IT support except ourselves, and that hardly ranks as professional support. It turns out we couldn’t use the Service Pack 2 install CD for a fresh install. We had to also burn the original Release Candidate CD. The Novell folks admitted this was kludgy, but also said it was going to be remedied with the next major release (which is available as Service Pack 3).

After that was cleared up, the install went smoothly. I even got printers loaded–thanks to a built-in printer wizard. A quick battle with FTP settings on both the Linux and Windows desktops was resolved and I pulled the ever-important “My Documents” folder from my Windows machine over to the Linux desktop. I was in business.

Using the K desktop environment, the first thing I noticed was what I didn’t notice. It mimicked the interface conventions of Windows I use the most–ALT-TAB to switch windows, right click menus, and the old DOS word processing short cuts for cut-copy-paste and cursor movement–making for a relatively easy transition.

I also liked K’s desktop customization options. I got a nice gradient-colored background on my with pictures of my daughters cycling through on the desktop in no time. Don’t laugh. Users want these capabilties and they want control over them. A journalism mentor of mine once said his advice for editors was: Change a writer’s paragraphs, structure, even ideas if you want, but don’t change his words. His point was that writers are often more open to macro-level changes of their work than they are to someone fiddling with a specific word they chose in a specific sentence. I think the same applies for desktops. You can change a user’s brand of applications, even their operating system, but you had better let them have their desktop settings.

One thing that frustrated me, however, was Linux’s file naming conventions–hoary old Unix names that mystified a non-geek like me. I guess I’m a Windows Explorer bigot. I like my hierarchical view of folders and files on the C: drive and I like to move, copy paste and drag and drop things into familiar, easy-to-grasp buckets I’ve come to lean on: the Program Files bucket, the Documents and Settings bucket, so forth. As I tried to put my “My Documents” folder somewhere in my Linux filesystem, I unthinkingly looked for those same buckets, or at least their rough equivalents, and I was lost in a sea of “root” “usr” “bin” and “lib”, none of which translated well. Also, when I downloaded applications I hoped they would install themselves consistently, in an easy to find place–a “Program Files” bucket. But usually they asked me to put the files where I wanted them, a question I didn’t really know how to answer. A small thing, maybe but one which slowed me down some as I tried to make my Linux desktop as easy to maneuver as Windows has become over a decade or more.

I actually like the Linux instant messenger application that loaded with the OS better than the ones I used on Windows. It was simple and fast and–this one is one of the benefits of several Linux apps over their Windows counterparts that I find appealing–the thing wasn’t laden with marketing, cross-promotional links and icons and that level of consumer noise that seems to have infiltrated many Windows applications. Linux, as it ships, seems to have far less pre-loaded, click-here-for-a-great-deal nonsense pre-loaded than Windows. This might appeal to the productivity conscious CIO. On the other hand, much of the nonsense will be downloaded through browser or received email regardless of the OS. For me, anyway, it was a bonus not to have to swat those pests out of my face.

In future installments we’ll talk about OpenOffice as well as a failed bid to add an application–Audacity–to my system and what that meant to my productivity. We’ll talk about another feature important to many end users–playing and ripping music. We’ll talk about what I would call The Lotus Notes Conundrum, how I came to like Yast, and other topics.

But next time, we’ll talk about the application that got me started on this project in the first place: Firefox. It was the Firefox browser’s ever-expanding library of extensions and functionality that first got me thinking maybe I could do my job on a Linux desktop using mostly open-source software. First, I’d have to get it installed and get all my extensions and preferences ported over. Easy right?

Scott Berinato