Vol. XIV, No. 2
CSA Newsletter Logo
Fall, 2001

Linux on the Desktop?

For many in the computer world, the need to rely upon Microsoft software is a serious problem. Microsoft has shown itself to be unscrupulous in ways that concern some computer users, and the company is now planning to require that users rent software, complete with automatic updating procedures and Web-based certification. Although the plan will not affect individual purchasers at the moment, it does not bode well for the future.

One trade magazine columnist, Ed Foster, who writes a column entitled "Gripe Line" in InfoWorld, titled his September 17, 2001, column (p. 70) "A punitive puppeteer?" and, among other things, pointed out that the license for Microsoft's program, FrontPage 2002, states that "'You may not use the Software in connection with any site that disparages Microsoft, MSN, MSNBC, Expedia, or their products or services. . . .'"1

As many readers have seen, one response to Microsoft's monopolistic ways has been the growth in the use of the Linux operating system. More and more computer users have turned to Linux --- and the available applications, most of which are available at no charge -- to escape Microsoft.

Escaping Microsoft has not been the only impetus to those considering Linux. An organization called the Business Software Alliance has been formed by a group of software companies including Apple, Autodesk, Bentley, and Microsoft. Letters are sent from this organization to companies in various areas to suggest that those companies audit their software use -- or else. CSA just received such a letter. It said in part, ". . . the Business Software Alliance (BSA) is giving businesses like yours a break. We're asking all businesses in the Bryn Mawr area to check their software licenses. If your company finds that it's using unlicensed software, now is the time to get legal and protect your business from the consequences of using unlicensed software. . . . By participating in the 32-day Software Grace Period that we're offering, you can catch up. If, after you have participated in the Grace period, your organization becomes the focus of a BSA investigation, BSA will not seek to impose pepenaltiesor any unauthorized copying that occurred prior to November 15, 2001 . . ."

Business are expected to audit their use of software to prove that they are operating legally. CSA has nothing to hide, but we do not have the time to waste proving that to someone who has no evidence of anything to the contrary. Businesses are generally unwilling to walk away from Microsoft or Apple or the other companies that are part of the BSA when confronted with these tactics, but we had already made the decision to consider Linux. Now we are even more likely to continue down the Linux road.

CSA had already decided to undertake a simple experiment to see if Linux is a reasonable alternative to our PCs and MAMacs and to yours. (Even users of Macintosh computers often find themselves dependent on Microsoft applications, though the operating system is not a Microsoft product. In fact, we are trying to divorce ourselves from Microsoft applications on the Macintosh as well.) We have ordered a computer loaded with the Linux operating system and the standard suite of office software. We will use the computer, install new programs to perform the same tasks we currently perform with our MAMacsnd PCs, and report to readers about the results.

Although Linux has gained popularity mostly in the server world, we will be using a Linux workstation, and we will report candidly on our findings.

To begin, we can only report on the purchase price; the machine will be delivered after the Newsletter has been completed. We bought an Athlon-powered PC (1.4 GHz) with 512 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a floppy disk drive, a CD drive, an Ethernet card, speakers, and a trackball (instead of a mouse). No keyboard was purchased, since we had a spare. The computer was loaded with RedHat Linux 7.1 and StarOffice software. Although it was tempting to save money by installing the software ourselves, we think most buyers would have the basic software installed by the vendor. The same hardware configuration, with Windows 2000 and MS Office (small business version) would have cost $269 more, $305 more if purchased with an upgrade coupon for Windows XP, from the same vendor.

Price is not the real issue. Over the life of a computer, the difference in cost, at least with the basic software included, is not that significant (less than a third of the price of the hardware). The capabilities of the various packages will be more important, and they will be the subjects of future articles. We will be adding -- or hoping to add -- a database manager, various graphics programs (for vector graphics and raster images), email and other utilities, a CAD program, and other software to see if the Linux computer can be our principle desktop computer.

We will not be adamant about using free software, as some Linux users are. In general, that will be our preference, but it is likely that we will purchase software for some tasks. In the final analysis, we want to know if a Linux computer will work for us and if it seems to be a reasonable alternative for a broad range of scholars or only those willing to spend a great deal of time getting the computer ready to work.

1. A follow-up article, "Control with fine print," in the October 1, 2001, issue of InfoWorld, p. 66, has additional information about Microsoft's licensing terms and their meanings.Return to body of text.

For other Newsletter articles concerning Linux operating systems or the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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