Thursday, 23 August 2007 19:12

Migrating from Windows to Linux: the gentle guide

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Linux has long been held in mystique as an operating system for hard-core techies or hackers. Yet, this is far from true for today’s distros. A modern version of Linux is as easy to setup and use as the Macintosh is legendary for. Here’s reasons why people stick to Windows and how those factors can be solved in what we like to call a ‘gentle’ approach to Linux.

Why stick with Windows?


What is an operating system anyway? It is, at heart, the piece of software that allows you to use your computer. It makes your hardware work in such a way that you can run software, see video and hear audio and take control with the keyboard and mouse. An operating system is not, in itself, productivity software or games or internet applications but the means by which you can use such programs on your computer.


In this regard, the operating system you use should be dictated by the hardware you want to use and the availability of the software you wish to run. A case in point: whether true or not, it’s generally accepted that the Macintosh has a rich suite of graphical and publishing tools. As a result, many graphic artists and publishers opt to purchase Macintosh hardware, with MacOS, so that they can run these software packages which meet their needs.


Yet, for the bulk of small business and home users the choice of operating system is rarely considered. Microsoft Windows has a massive market share so for many people they have prior familiarity with it and little else. Most all Intel/AMD style personal computers come with Windows pre-installed. And it’d be a rare laptop which doesn’t have Windows bundled. Despite this, there’s no reason to assume that Windows is the right choice for every person, or that every individual would choose to purchase it if the cost of this operating system were explicitly listed and not just factored into the total.


By contrast, Linux is a free operating system. It costs nothing to buy or to use on as many different computers as you wish. An old Windows Pentium III computer that came with Windows ’98 could be given a new lease of life and made to run Windows XP – but this costs money. The two cheapest ways to get new versions of Windows are OEM and academic versions, but OEM versions may only legitimately be purchased with new systems and academic versions may only legitimately be purchased by certain categories of students or educational faculty. For the ordinary man or woman in the street, it’s still a few hundred dollars. Couple this with the cost of Microsoft Office and you’re up for a sizeable chunk of change for every single computer, every few years.


Everyone loves to save money, and to get a bargain. So why do people stick with Windows? Here’s what we think are the top reasons.


Familiarity


As said, Windows is well-known. It comes with computers. Many people don’t know there are options. Or, if so, they think it is just Windows vs Mac.


Most people know what “My Documents” is for. Or where to find the printers’ control panel. It’s true that the problem with first impressions is you only get to make one – which means an alternate operating system can be a risky proposition. If a user can’t find how to perform some of their common tasks either immediately or quickly there is little encouragement to persevere.


Support


Everyone knows someone who uses Windows. You can’t move in a shopping centre without tripping over Windows books and magazines. Even your grandmother uses Windows Messenger and conversation at the average family gathering will inevitably venture into registry tweaks. Yet, if you are not an IT pro, experimenting with an unconventional OS can lead to a feeling of isolation.


Hardware


It’d be rare hardware which doesn’t come with drivers for some version of Windows. Most any device can be made to work on at least 32-bit Windows XP. Vista is a different story, as is 64-bit Windows, and as is Windows’ server editions. But for the moment, it’d be safe to say 99.9% of hardware will run under 32-bit XP.

By contrast, Linux has a reputation in some areas for being deviously finicky. Even though huge gains have been made, video cards and wireless network cards are still a matter of concern as are some specialised laptop components.


Windows-only software


Last but not least, sometimes the software just leaves you no choice. We could all speak about banking websites which mandate “Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher is required”. And one of Australia’s biggest applications – eTax, allowing electronic submission of the annual tax return, with a potential user base of every single Australian adult – comes in just a Windows flavour.


Countering the concerns


Linux evangelists, and the Linux-curious alike, ought to recognise these factors. Migrating to Linux is not merely a matter of persuading people it makes good financial sense alone, let alone matters of ideology. Unless potential users can appreciate how Linux will meet their needs and be sufficiently rewarding from the beginning to encourage further exploration, it is likely to be a disappointing experience.


Therefore, let us address the above issues and then propose a staged conversion to Linux.



When it comes to familiarity, a wizened Linux advocate can assist their friends and family by placing shortcut icons on the desktop for the most common needs – things like a web browser, an e-mail program, a folder for placing documents and even a shutdown icon. Seeing these from the onset will give the new Linux user an immediate sense of comfort and knowhow.

Even if you do not have the benefit of a sage Linux buddy, you can still help yourself. Make a list of your top five or ten tasks. What are the things you use your computer for most? Perhaps it is e-mail, web browsing and instant messaging, or maybe spreadsheets, word processing and playing movies. No matter what, determine your list for what will give you comfort. Then hammer the means of support, which leads us nicely into ....


... support. No Linux user is an island. There is plentiful advice available from all-to-willing enthusiasts. This includes your local Linux user group or the many Linux newsgroups or IRC chat rooms.


Ask questions. Linux people love talking about Linux. And everyone was new to Linux at some point, even Linus. And don’t forget ITWire has regular coverage and news.


Hardware is a different matter; efforts are being expended to address the matter. Popular distro Ubuntu has largely addressed the problem of graphics card support with a restricted drivers manager. Atheros and Intel wireless cards are known to be reliable. For best results, consult the Linux hardware compatibility how-to. This is an excellent resource and will provide confidence your system is fully supported or help you locate acceptable alternatives where a problem exists.


Additionally, the open source community can always be further advanced by vocal advocates. If your hardware isn’t supported, get in touch with the hardware vendor. Express your support for Linux drivers. You never know, it could be your voice that brings about positive change for both yourself and the rest of the community.

Finally, Windows-only software can be tackled with several different approaches. The first option is to find an open-source alternative. This won’t help with e-Tax (but happily the ATO have come to recognise Windows isn’t the only option), but you’ll definitely find a cornucopia of productivity apps, games, developer tools, media players and much, much more at repositories like SourceForge. Perhaps the Windows-only app isn’t such a deal-breaker if you can replicate its functionality elsewhere.


Or, you may find a measure of success in using a Windows emulator like WINE. This attempts to execute Windows programs within the native Linux environment. At worst, a genuine version of Windows can be run within a virtual PC from VMWare or XenSource as a last resort for those final pernickety apps.


With these in mind, we trust you are persuaded Linux can be for you if you take it calmly and thoughtfully, and that you have responses for your Windows-only friends. Yet, having made the decision to migrate to Linux is still not the same as actually executing that decision. Here’s where we advocate what we consider a gentle approach to Linux.


The gentle approach revealed


Firstly, don’t switch right away. This may sound counter-productive but for the best success in Linux, take it slow. You don’t have to jump all in and blow away your Windows hard drive.


Instead, try out Linux. Test drive some different distros and see which ones take your fancy. All are well recommended. Fedora has long had a good reputation. Ubuntu is making a strong name for itself as a leading contender for commencing users – and largely not just because of its design but because of the community support it offers.


There’s three ways to trial Linux. By far the simplest is through the use of so-called Live CDs. These are bootable Linux discs which require absolutely no effort on your part, or any changes to your computer, save to simply boot from the CD or DVD itself. You get a genuine Linux setup replete with applications. The only catch is because it boots from a read-only media you can’t save any configuration changes. Live CDs are freely downloadable from any Linux vendor or from BitTorrent sites like TuxDistro.com.


A second option is to dual-boot your computer. This means it still has Windows, but part of your hard disk – or a second hard disk – is devoted to Linux. At the time you start up your computer you can choose which operating system to work with. Both are separate from each other and can run any mix of applications. This gives you complete freedom to run any application you wish, and the best performance but requires careful effort to set up and may not be for everyone.


Thirdly, you might like to consider the free virtual computer emulators, VMWare or XenSource. Both of these will let you run a complete virtualised Linux within just another window. Virtual PCs are a doddle to set up and the virtualised computer acts and runs like a ‘real’ PC but without any risk of harming your Windows setup – and without any hardware compatibility concerns. ITWire has covered this in the past.


Next, try out open source apps. You won’t be using Microsoft Word under Linux, nor will you run Internet Explorer, nor Windows Messenger. It’s not just Microsoft; you also won’t run Borland Delphi or a raft of other popular programs across a wide range of vendors. This doesn’t mean you lose functionality by any means. Instead, you just lose specific applications which are one of several to achieve a desired outcome. The solution is to use new applications to perform the same tasks.

You can still write documents. You can still browse the web. However, you will use OpenOffice and Firefox instead – or possibly other programs. You might use Thunderbird for mail, Gimp for photo editing, and VLC for media playing.


What’s terrific is that the most popular open source apps don’t suffer from the same constraints as popular Windows programs; you can install and run Firefox on Windows. You can install and run OpenOffice and VLC and all the others.


This means you can stick with Windows but ease yourself into Linux by loading the very programs you will ultimately be using, but within the familiar and comfortable interface you already know. Spend some time migrating your regular tasks into open source equivalents while remaining in a Windows world. After a little while you’ll realise you don’t actually need Windows anymore and the switch to Linux will be natural – but more importantly, it will just feel like home because you are already used to all the primary applications.


As a parting note, be sure to check out your nearest Software Freedom Day stand for free software and advice.

All the best!

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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