More About the Switching Dilemma

In last week's edition of Connected Home EXPRESS, I discussed Apple Computer's "Switch" ad campaign and the problems I believe Apple faces persuading people to drop their Windows systems and move to Mac OS X (see the URL below). Today I follow up with some reader feedback and a look at another interesting OS choice—Linux.

Most of the readers who responded to last week's newsletter agreed that Mac OS X is nice but not compelling enough to leave years of acquired skills and efficiencies, data, and applications behind. But I find it interesting that so many people have considered switching at all: Although only a handful of readers said they've bitten the bullet and switched, many people told me that they've been swayed at one time or another by Apple's gorgeous hardware and elegant software designs. Some readers described voyeuristic trips to CompUSA or the local Apple Store, at which they spent time looking at the Apple hardware or getting to know Mac OS X. But few people walked away with an Apple product.

A recent Connected Home EXPRESS reader survey mirrors their comments. According to the survey, a scant 4 percent of readers use the Macintosh (the survey doesn't break down earlier Mac OS versions versus Mac OS X). And if we can believe International Data Corporation (IDC), only 2.5 percent of the worldwide computing population owns or uses a Mac. Apple says it has 22 million active Mac users worldwide, and about 3 million of them are using Mac OS X. But that 22 million figure has remained relatively steady for years, making me wonder whether it's accurate. One undeniable truth emerges: Apple doesn't own an appreciable part of the market, meaning that third-party support is harder to come by than it is in the Windows world.

Even existing Mac users are reticent about upgrading. Beyond learning the new UI, upgrading to Mac OS X can incur additional costs. Imagine having to purchase new Mac OS X-specific versions of expensive products such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand, and Adobe Premiere, each of which costs several hundred dollars. Although Mac OS X supports a Classic environment for running older Mac applications, it's often unacceptably slow for graphics work. This reality will hit Apple's core market of design professionals right where it hurts—in the pocketbook.

For some users, none of these facts matter. As I've noted, Apple's new hardware is world-class, and the company makes wonderful software products in several categories, especially for so-called digital hubs. For other users, the safety and security of Windows just can't be beat. To each his own.

One exciting development that might have wider ramifications in the Windows world, however, is the open-source software sensation Linux. Named after its creator, Linus Torvalds, Linux is a UNIX clone that runs on the same PC hardware as Windows, as well as on other hardware platforms. In the early days, Linux offered only a command-line environment that was similar to DOS, but the emergence of free graphical interfaces based on an X Windows clone called X-Free jump-started the popularity of this OS. Today, two major graphical environments—GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME) and K Desktop Environment (KDE)—compete for the affection of Linux desktop users.

But Linux is rough around the edges and not to be undertaken lightly. As open-source advocates and technology enthusiasts will tell you, Linux is often difficult to install, almost impossible to get working with certain hardware devices, and highly frustrating to use, even in the best of conditions. I first installed Linux in October 1994—an eon ago in computing time—and have since maintained at least one Linux machine, which I regularly refresh with the latest and greatest Linux version. Although the OS has improved in leaps and bounds unparalleled in this industry's short history, Linux still has a long way to go in areas such as application support and UI consistency. But recent Linux distributions, such as the upcoming Red Hat Linux 8 release (now in beta), points the way to a more refined Linux that even mere mortals might consider.

I recently tested the third beta release of Red Hat Linux 8 (code-named Null) on a laptop computer, which is often the most demanding (and unsuccessful) type of Linux installation. But Red Hat Linux 8 installed flawlessly and recognized virtually every hardware device on the system (except for the wireless networking card, which I anticipated). The OS sports a modern Windows XP-like UI that's astonishingly friendly and beautiful. If anything, Red Hat has gone a bit too far over the ease-of-use edge: For example, the Mozilla icon is labeled "Web browser: Browse the Internet," abstracting the underlying application. I suspect the techy Linux crowd won't be amused at such UI niceties.

So how far has Linux come, you ask? When I popped in an audio CD, the GNOME CD player started up automatically and loaded the CD's artist, title, and song title information from the Internet. (Just the fact that the system's sound card worked at all is amazing, as long-time Linux users will agree.) My digital camera worked, letting me download and display pictures. I connected the bundled Ximian Evolution email client (essentially a well-done Microsoft Outlook clone) to my IMAP mail server, and it worked. My scanner worked. Networking worked. Almost everything worked without me having to do any research and tweaking, a hallmark of most of my previous Linux installations.

Could Linux be going mainstream? Not exactly, but it's getting there. Although the system fonts used in the desktop and logon screen are gorgeous, they don't carry over to end-user applications such as Mozilla, Ximian Evolution, and the bundled office productivity suite, where you need them the most. Instead, fonts in these applications are small, jagged, and hard to read. I'm sure you can fix this problem—in fact, I've done so in the past—but fonts need to work out of the box. Such a glaring error isn't even conceivable in Windows or the Mac OS.

So I'm not ready to give the green light to flawless Linux installations just yet. Although the Red Hat Linux 8 beta installation worked fine for me, I installed it only on one system, and I've had enough bad luck with previous Linux versions to know that I should test it on multiple systems. I'll test the OS on a few other systems before I get giddy about this release.

In the end, my advice about Linux is to proceed with caution. Linux is still at the stage where only true technophiles and computer hobbyists—preferably people with extra systems—need apply. (Connected Home EXPRESS readers seem to fall into that category: 28 percent of respondents to the reader survey mentioned above claim to use Linux.) From a switching standpoint, the real beauty of Linux is that it runs on the hardware you already own, and—with some help—you can make it work with your Windows data and, increasingly, even with certain Windows applications (although the latter feature is still a bit of a hack). Clearly, Linux has a bright future, and every day that goes by brings us closer to a time where typical users can step up to the plate and give Linux a shot.

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