Vol. XV, No. 3
CSA Newsletter Logo
Winter, 2003

Scholarly Computing Choices -- Linux, the MAC, Windows, and the Future

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

This article began its life -- several iterations ago -- as a simple review of the newest version of Linux. The new RedHat® Linux (8.0) will be discussed here, but the article grew into a longer one about scholars' choices of computers and computer software, with Linux as only a part of the whole. As such, it is very closely related to a companion article in this issue of the CSA Newsletter about file formats (see "Who cares about file formats? All scholars should," by Harrison Eiteljorg, II, at http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter03/nlw0307.html), and readers should consider both articles as parts of a larger concern, prudent use of computer technology in scholarly settings.

Computer choices for most people seem to begin with hardware, but they usually do not. Instead, they generally begin with the choice of operating systems. For individual users, the first question is almost certainly the one that begins, "Shall I buy a PC or a MAC?" That question becomes implicit as time goes by, because so many people buy either a MAC or a PC and never look again at the alternative. Others may not ask the question because someone else asked and answered it first -- the computer center director who may have determined what computers will be supported on a campus, for instance.

The question of which operating system to use does not often include Linux as one of the possibilities. That may have been appropriate a few years ago, but it is out-dated today. Linux should be one of the possibilities for any scholar. (The hardware for a Linux machine is not different from the hardware for a PC.)

Another Look at Linux

Linux runs on standard PCs, and Linux is free (via Internet download) or very inexpensive (on CDs and boxed at a store). There is also a Linux competitor to Microsoft Office® (though that competitor, OpenOffice®, has no database manager). It has lately seemed to be a viable alternate for those who are trying to avoid Windows or MACs, not only because it runs on standard PC hardware but also because it has become more and more similar to Windows and MACs in terms of ease of use.

As some readers will recall, I reacted to the enthusiasm for Linux in the computer press and tried Linux a little more than a year ago; I found it wanting. (See "The CSA Linux Workstation -- A Work in Progress," by Harrison Eiteljorg, II, in the Winter, 2002 issue of the CSA Newsletter at http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter02/nlw0207.html and "Linux as a Desktop Replacement? - Not Yet! Back to the Mac," by Harrison Eiteljorg, II, in the Spring, 2002 issue of the CSA Newsletter at http://csanet.org/newsletter/spring02/nls0202.html. I started trying to use it again this fall, and, for most purposes, I think Linux now represents a very reasonable choice for academic users of computers, faster and less expensive than a MAC or Windows-based PC and only slightly more demanding in terms of computer savvy (and courage).1

A PC may be purchased with Linux as the operating system, or the user may buy Linux separately and load it onto a computer. I have done both, purchasing a PC with Linux loaded on it last year and loading a newer version of Linux from scratch this fall on the same machine. Last fall's experiment was very enlightening; I found Linux, the operating system, to be excellent but the important application software to be wanting in some critical ways. This fall, however, the situation was very different. The new version of the operating system remains excellent, better in some ways than a year ago; now the important application software can be recommended as well.

Last fall I was unable to connect my Palm device, a Handspring Visor®, to the personal information manager called Evolution that runs under Linux despite the presence of a utility to synchronize the information on the computer with that on the Visor. I have been assured that people who are not complete techno-geeks have connected their Palm devices to Linux using the newer version of Evolution and RedHat Linux 8.0. I, however, have been unsuccessful, despite repeated attempts and -- perish the thought -- resorting to printed manuals. This problem remains a concern, and I am not happy to take the word of others that the connection between computer and palm device can be made when I cannot make the connection myself.

The software called OpenOffice2 is now a very credible competitor for Microsoft Office. I have used the word-processing module (and Word on my MAC laptop) to write this article, moving the file back and forth between the Linux computer on the desktop and the MAC laptop without a problem. I have used the spreadsheet and found it to be excellent. Susan Jones has also used the word processor and the spreadsheet, and she has tried the presentation program enough to be sure that PowerPoint® files would open. There is also a graphics program as part of OpenOffice that seems to be quite good. As noted in the last review, however, there are other graphics programs for Linux that are good, especially the one called the GIMP.

The word processing module of Open Office has some rough edges, to be sure. The spell-check-as-you-type feature seems to work when it pleases (something I also find on Word running on my MAC). In addition, the find-and-replace feature does not work as advertised, and the particular problem we found is an important one for me. 3

OpenOffice can read and write the standard Microsoft file formats; so compatibility with Microsoft documents is not a problem -- but see "Who Cares about File Formats? All Scholars Should," (http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter03/nlw0307.html) in this issue of the CSA Newsletter for a discussion of file format issues and the suggestion that proprietary formats should be avoided.

The price is definitely right. OpenOffice is free, yes, free.

In addition to OpenOffice, I have downloaded and installed a very good FTP client (software for getting files from FTP servers -- and for transferring files to and from other CSA computers) called gFTP.® It is very impressive - and free. I have also installed Mozilla,® the Web browser with included email system and HTML authoring tool that I also use on the MAC, and the GIMP image-processing software. Both were also free. A simple text editor, one that might be compared to WordPad® on a Windows machine or SimpleText® on a MAC, is part of the standard RedHat Linux package; it works as one would expect.

The printer driver for our Lexmark laser printer functions differently from the way it works under Windows but well.

We have not yet tried to add a database management system. There are several good, free database managers, but they require a programming language (also free). We have not decided to make that leap to a Linux database manager and associated programming language, but we may in the future.

At this point, then, we have a Linux PC with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program; a calendar and address book program (Evolution, which came with the RedHat Linux package and includes a good email client that I do not use); an email program/browser/HTML editor (Mozilla); image editing software; and an excellent FTP client. (I should comment that I have been able to get Evolution to accept address-book information only by chopping a file into small pieces for importing. I can imagine no explanation, but it was quite an ordeal to get all the addresses into the file.)

In addition, we have a good, easily configured graphical user interface that, as was the case a year ago, permits four virtual desktops. (I normally use a separate one for each oft-used program). The total cost of the software was about $40.

The Linux PC seems to run faster than any other machine I am currently using. Though that is a subjective appraisal, it is also the consensus in the computer press.

This is not a perfect solution. The various versions of Linux are not so similar that one can install any one supplier's version and upgrade effortlessly with another. Nevertheless, the quality is good; the features are good, and the price is unbeatable. As noted, Linux is also faster than Windows. That speed benefit may be a different kind of advantage for some users, making an older and slower machine as fast as a new one running Windows and saving the expense of buying new hardware.

It is more difficult to find software reviews for Linux offerings. Since most of the Linux applications are free, the magazines that review software cannot hope to get advertising by reviewing Linux programs. They do not review them. Word of mouth seems to be the common way to learning about Linux applications. The Web can also be a helpful place to find information about specific programs.

For CAD or an easy-to-use database manager, Linux may not be a good choice. Although the database systems for Linux are more robust than the ones most commonly used on MACs and PCs, they are certainly more difficult to use. 4

As far as CAD goes, I am not aware of any competitive CAD packages for Linux, though it is hard to prove the negative. I found two packages that appeared to be possibilities, but one of those has been so roundly condemned by past users that I would not be willing to purchase it for trial; the other cannot be used to model surfaces in isolation (that is, surfaces that are not parts of solids). There are Linux GIS packages available.

For most academic PC users the computer is for email, word processing, Web browsing, occasional image editing or Web-page building, and perhaps making presentations to accompany a lecture. Personal information may also be filed in a computer. For these jobs Linux is not only ready, it is excellent, fast, and I say again, cheap.

The downside? Installing Linux may be intimidating for some, but it wasn't particularly difficult. (I even added some things I had left out when I first installed Linux, and that was not difficult.5 Some say that adjusting the user interface is easier with Windows; I do not agree. Linux offers more adjustments, but most users will never bother with them and therefore will not notice the complexity. (There are two competing graphical user interfaces for Linux; I tried both and found little significant difference.) It may be harder to find help with Linux or programs running under Linux, but virtually any college campus will have people available to assist. In short, the time has come to consider Linux to be a serious competitor for the scholar's desktop.

What About the MAC?

If Linux is to be considered a serious alternative for the desktop, is the MAC still in the running as well? The answer to that is strongly affirmative. The new MAC operating system, called OS X, is a completely new operating system with a UNIX core (a similar core to that used for Linux). It is arguably a better operating system than Windows, on technical grounds, and its UNIX core means that programs written for Linux will often run on the MAC (though not with the MAC user interface). If Linux is an easy-to-use and inexpensive choice, the MAC is easier to use but as expensive as Windows. (MACs were once substantially more expensive than Windows machines, but the difference has dwindled to the point that it is no longer a significant factor for those considering a new computer.) I have been using a MAC as my primary machine for some time, with the new OS X operating system, and I have been very impressed with the quality and stability of the new operating system. Printer drivers remain a bit problematic as the manufacturers work to re-write them for the new operating system, but those problems are relatively minor.

There Really Are Three Viable Alternatives -- So What?

If Windows, Linux, and MACs are all defensible choices for a scholar's desktop, what implications does that have for scholarly computing practices? I think there are three critical implications. First, people should not assume that they must use Windows. That may have been true before Linux had become an alternative and when the MAC was dismissed as either old-fashioned because its operating system was long in the tooth (before the introduction of OS X) or because it was more expensive. Those MAC problems are now gone, and Linux is here as well; so the situation is very different. In addition, resistance to Windows has continued to grow.6 Second, the particular application software any individual scholar needs should be the prime consideration when choosing a computer. For most scholars, that means the choice of operating system and hardware is open. Only those in need of sophisticated database managers, CAD, or GIS programs will find much difference from one system to another, and the differences in GIS programs are not significant. (As noted above, Linux database managers are more complex, but relatively few academics use sophisticated database management systems. CSA's current preferred database management system runs on both Windows and the MAC.) Third is the hidden implication: whatever your choice today, your computer and operating system are likely to change tomorrow, precisely because the MAC and Linux are viable. The market is not -- despite Microsoft's strong position -- so dominated by Windows that a user concerned about the future of his/her data can safely assume that he/she will be using Windows ten years from now.

If the last point is accurate, and scholars are likely to be changing computers and operating systems, that has its own major implication: important computer data should not be tied into file formats that cannot be moved to another computer and operating system for use there. That issue of file formats is discussed at length in the companion article in this issue of the Newsletter ("Who cares about file formats? All scholars should," http://csanet.org/newsletter/winter03/nlw0307.html), but a concern for file formats also generates questions about application software. If a specific program uses data formats that present problems with data transfer, scholars should avoid that program to the extent possible.

In conclusion, I should make my own preferences clear, if there is any doubt. My head votes for Linux, but my heart remains with the MAC. Part of that, no doubt, is my interest in design issues, and Apple's design innovation has been impressive. There are specific things I prefer about the MAC, however. One is the ease with which multiple screens can be used. I have used two monitors for so long that I have become spoiled. I do not want to give up that feature, and the MAC makes it far easier than Windows or Linux. I also prefer the MAC interface to Windows. When I use Windows, I find the idea of one-window-per-application unnatural, but that is probably as much because I am a long-time MAC user as because it is really easier to use the MAC's one-window-per-document system. My preference for the MAC system may also result from my use of two monitors. With two monitors I can open many documents simultaneously and see all of each without the problems of overlapping windows that would occur with only a single monitor. (The window-per-document system is the norm for Linux applications as well.) Linux also retains some rough edges -- particularly the problem with Palm devices.

I use the MAC as my day-in-day-out machine, and I use the Linux machine regularly as well. Of course, I also use PCs for AutoCAD. I do not have to live with any one choice; in fact, I often have three computers running, one with each of the operating systems. If I had to live with one choice, my need for AutoCAD would probably keep me with Windows. But I would be very unhappy. Indeed, I am convinced that the software companies that produce only Windows versions of important widely-used programs will either change or be long-term losers of market share.

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

To send comments or questions to the author, please see our email contacts page.

1. One computer magazine writer, John Dvorak in his recent column ("Microsoft, Innovation, and Linux," PC Magazine, January, 2003, p. 67) reminded his readers that Linux has copied Windows which copied the MAC which copied work from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and suggested that the computer world really needs a new look at the way computers operate, a new paradigm to replace the desktop.

Despite the accuracy of those comments, there are certain differences among the three systems -- Windows, MACs, and Linux -- that should be spelled out clearly. First, Windows is a combined operating system and graphical user interface (GUI for short); so is the MAC operating system (only the latest version, OS X, is considered here). Both offer "command line" windows that permit direct interaction with the computer via typed instructions, but users will generally use the GUI for all or nearly all tasks. Linux, on the other hand, is only an operating system. There are two GUIs that can be used, but both work similarly; so I will not attempt to treat them separately. The effect for a user is similar to Windows and MACs, since a Linux user would normally have the machine configured to start the GUI at the outset. Nevertheless, Linux can be used as a command-line-only operating system.

The MAC's interface is based on the notion that every document has its own window but not its own set of menus. For the foreground application (the document being used currently) there is a set of pull-down menus at the top, left of the screen, separate from all documents. (Modern MAC programs often have free-floating tool palettes with additional menu-like functions, and those can be moved about as independent windows.) The menu functions apply to the document that is currently in the foreground. Background applications (applications waiting to be actively used) may be visible in one or more document window. Fig. 1 shows a MAC monitor with three windows, one for the foreground document (a Word document), one for the second Word document (the one not being edited at the time), and a third for a Web page shown by a browser. The menu at the top, left is the menu appropriate for Word, since Word is the foreground program. Were the user to switch, putting the browser window into the foreground, the menu would change to the browser's menu.

Fig. 1 - A MAC monitor with three windows, two for Word documents
and one for a Web page.

The Window interface works differently. Each program has a window, and within each window there may be multiple sub-windows, each with a separate document. The menus are associated with the program window so that one might compare the program window to the Macintosh monitor; the menus are at the top of the master window (not the monitor), and the document windows are inside the master window, as are any tool palettes. A snapshot of a Windows monitor in shown in Fig. 2. In this case, there is a single window for two Word documents, each of which is in its own window within the program window. Another window has a Web page displayed by the browser. The menu for the browser is within that window.

Fig. 2 - A Windows monitor with two master windows, one for two Word
documents and one for a Web page.

Linux is different from both the MAC and Windows, but individual programs also differ from one another. Programmers are less constrained by the system. Since there is no producer of the Linux operating system, in a commercial sense, so the kind of control available in the Windows and MAC software is not possible. With some programs each document appears in its own window, each with a complete set of menus. (For Windows users, this is just the way Internet Explorer works under Windows, with a totally separate window and menu system for each document.) Other programs have one set of menu palettes for many document windows, with the palettes independently movable and their actions operating on the document in the foreground. I have seen no programs that operate like Windows programs, with a master window in which everything must happen. By the same token, I have seen none with the MAC-style menus at the top of the screen. A snapshot of a typical Linux monitor is shown in Fig. 3. There are three Windows, one for each of the two OpenOffice word-processing documents and one for a Web page displayed by a browser. All the menus are at the top of the windows. Whichever window is in the foreground will have its menu in the foreground as well.

Fig. 3 - A Linux monitor with three master windows, one for each of the two OpenOffice
documents and one for a Web page.

On the MAC and Windows machines, as mentioned, many tool palettes can be moved about the screen anywhere. They exist in their own windows. On Linux machines, the tool palettes may be confined to the document windows or exist as unconfined, independent windows. All these differences are not so striking that the advantages or disadvantages of any one are crucial. On a multi-monitor system, the single set of menus used by the MAC can be less than ideal, since the menus can be quite distant from the document windows. On the other hand, the master window of Windows can be very frustrating to use. In short, the differences are not consequential; indeed, many would argue that Microsoft and the MAC provided the necessary testing information for the Linux GUIs and that Linux offers nothing that was not first developed elsewhere, a criticism that has considerable merit. Return to body of text.

2. OpenOffice is also available for Windows, and Susan Jones has been using it instead of Microsoft Office. The problems noted in the article apply to the Windows version as well; so do the benefits, again including the zero price. We expect OpenOffice to be CSA's standard software. Return to body of text.

3. I often use searches for the end-of-paragraph mark (carriage return) or the tab, especially to format text files for export or after import from a database. Unfortunately, however, neither Susan Jones nor I has learned how to find the non-printing characters reliably with the OpenOffice search routine. We have been able to search for and find empty paragraphs, which are simply two successive carriage returns, but we cannot find a single carriage return. Although this seems clearly a problem with a solution, we have been unable to find that solution and have given up. Return to body of text.

4. Some widely used database programs for Linux are also available for MACs and/or PCs running Windows, but they are not widely used in those environments. Return to body of text.

5. I used the version of Linux supplied by RedHat again this year. After the last experiment, a reader suggested that I should try the SuSe® Linux, arguing that it was easier to install and use. I did try SuSe, and it seemed fine, but when I had a question about something, I discovered that the up-to-date and available books were virtually all about RedHat's version of Linux; so I switched to RedHat. The differences are virtually nonexistent except that Evolution software is provided with RedHat at no extra charge. Return to body of text.

6. It is common to hear people argue, almost with religious zeal, that Windows or Microsoft or Bill Gates is the arch-enemy. While that is silly, there are reasons to be concerned about using Windows. Microsoft has been found - by the courts - to have monopoly power, and the company has also been found to have used its monopoly power to the detriment of others. In addition, Microsoft software tends to be more prone to harmful, Internet-related bugs. That may reflect Microsoft's market position rather than its software designs, but Outlook, the Windows email client is a clear case of software designed to provide certain features without appropriate concern for how those features might be exploited by virus producers. Windows has been relatively more prone to problems than OS X or Linux.

In preparation for this article, I looked into buying a new computer with Windows and learned that it would come with a CD "recovery disk" rather than a full version of the operating system. According to a Dell telephone-order salesman, that means that a serious problem with the computer cannot be remedied with the aid of a normal system disk; the only remedy is to use the recovery disk to return the hard drive to its original state at the time of purchase - that is, with all added software and data removed. According to the salesman, I could not even pay extra for a full version of the operating system that might make it possible to repair a problem without losing data and installed software. This is supposedly Microsoft's way of prevent piracy; it is really their way of providing a half-version of Windows.

Buying a retail copy of Windows separately and loading it onto a computer circumvents the recovery disk problem, but there are other different issues. In that case Microsoft's End User License Agreement (EULA) comes into play, since it defines the user's rights. (Of course, the EULA applies to those who purchase a computer with operating system as well.) I checked Microsoft's Web site to read the EULA, but I could not find it to determine what policies apply when one buys the software at retail, separate from the computer. In fact, it is apparently not possible to read the EULA for a retail version of Windows until a buyer has opened the package. Unfortunately, by virtue of opening the package, the buyer has already agreed to the EULA. Refusing to agree to the EULA and returning the software at that point is a Kafkaesque enterprise. A Website/newsletter is maintained at http://zork.net/refund/ to explain the refund policies -- and to poke fun at Microsoft. People in the computer press have complained about the EULA, but the complaints are mostly about the automatic update feature, and that can be turned off. (Apple has a similar feature.)

Microsoft includes one form of software update that users cannot turn off, at least with Windows XP. Apparently Microsoft is concerned about Digital Rights Management (copyright for digital material) and has built into XP a procedure for silently downloading lists of "revoked" programs that are used to play rights-restricted material. The programs will then fail to work. Thus, something that once worked on a computer may be made non-functional by Microsoft without warning or comment. (This information from Brian Livingston's column, "Window Manager," InfoWeek, August 23, 2002, now available online at http://www.infoworld.com/articles/op/xml/02/08/26/020826opwinman.xml.)

This much of the Windows XP EULA is available on Microsoft's Web site: "If you overhaul your computer by replacing a substantial number of hardware components, it may appear to be a different PC [to the operating system]. You may have to reactivate Windows XP. If this should occur, you can call the telephone number displayed on the activation screen to reactivate the software." In other words, having purchased Windows, Microsoft can decide the conditions under which the buyer may use it, making the computer useless until those conditions have been met. Imagine being out of the country with a laptop running windows when the threshold is passed.

Microsoft has also made it clear that the company intends to rent software, not sell it. Indeed, a Windows user is already deemed to have licensed Windows, not purchased it. Businesses are now finding themselves forced to agree effectively to rent Windows, not buy. At what point will Microsoft be able to rent software that simply stops working after the end of the rental period? Technically, that can be done today. Reactivation could be required by Microsoft for any reason, and consumers could only protest by not buying Windows.

To give Microsoft its due, the company has been tenacious about improving its software from version to version. While it is true that the improvements have too often been little-needed features instead of improved stability, the company has produced software offerings, particularly in the area of office tasks, that set the standards against which others must be compared. Market forces may have been used to help make Word the standard word processor, but the program is very good. In general, the remainder of the Office software is also excellent.

Taken all together, the problems suggest to many that Microsoft is not an ideal partner for the long-term, and scholars must be concerned about the long-term. Return to body of text.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities or the use of Linux on the desktop consult the Subject index.

Next Article: Who cares about file formats? All scholars should.

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