A new Linux landscape

 

NET RESULTS:A FEW years ago, the open-source operating system Linux was well known to techies, and barely known to the person on the street. That was for good reason - while it had enormous popularity for its reliability and flexibility running servers at the back end of organisations, it wasn't the easiest system to install or use for typical computer users. Most of us are more accustomed to Windows or Macs, where most of the stuff we need comes rolled up seamlessly in the operating system installation, or is easily bought and added on.

Linux, by contrast, required a fairly robust level of understanding how a computer actually works down under the hood. Installing it meant making sense of wiping hard drives clean, creating disk partitions (compartments of space on your computer where you can put something useful like an operating system), and working with more than one partition depending on how you want your PC to function. In other words, it was pretty scary to go there.

In addition, though many add-on features for the operating system could be found on the internet - useful things like word processing programs or drivers for modems - most people don't want to have to work that hard simply to have a functioning computer.

And documentation wasn't always the best, meaning long hours spent trawling discussion forums and websites to try to find comprehensible instructions for installing and using a particular programme. I fully recognise there are people who enjoy this type of activity, but if the average user had to spend this amount of effort in setting up a computer, the home computing revolution wouldn't have taken off two decades ago.

People want "out of the box" working computers that don't require a lot of fiddling and fidgeting and discussion-board surfing. Well, in that sense, Linux has arrived. The Linux landscape changed considerably with the advent of small, low-cost "kneetop" PCs like the Asus EEE and its many relations.

Initially targeting schoolchildren or modest markets in the developing world, these little PCs often came preloaded with Linux for the simple reason that using Linux keeps the build cost way down. Additionally, in the developing world, using free software like Linux and its associated programs means computer users don't get locked into licensing agreements they cannot afford. Nor do they need to buy many useful and productive software applications when they are available freely through open source developers.

But those kneetops, or netbooks to give them their more familiar name, have penetrated way beyond these initial markets. Everyone seems to love these little cheap and cheerful desktop systems, often seen these days as the travel laptop of choice rather than the big widescreen costly laptops of yore. And that popularity, coupled with today's family-friendly, easy-to-use versions of Linux such as Ubuntu, means Linux has truly made the transition to the home PC.

People might encounter Linux first on the little machines, but any family home machine or laptop will easily accommodate it. Try it, and you might well find you prefer the ease of use and flexibility of Linux over whatever you are using now. Or, install it alongside your Windows or Mac operating system and you can switch between them.

But you - and the family - can see for yourselves tomorrowat a software freedom day programme in Dublin. In a day-long event open to all at the Digital Exchange on Crane Street from 11am to 5pm, anyone can learn about free and open-source software, mess around with machines running Ubuntu Linux, play games, hear talks, and watch demonstrations.

There's a presentation on free software and how you can use it, a chance to install and try Ubuntu Linux yourself (bring your own laptop and I am sure the folks there will help you with this most difficult aspect of the process), and talks from Google, the Irish Free Software Association, Ubuntu Ireland and others.

I expect one of the popular talks will be the one on digital rights management and "software freedom", as the title has it.

And if you like what you see, hang around for refreshments and chat afterwards at the Long Stone pub.

There's more information on the Irish Ubuntu community's website, http://www.ubuntu-ie.org

klillington@irish-times.ie

blog: www.techno-culture.com