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Linux v Windows - what's best on the desktop?

You may have heard about Linux being an alternative to Microsoft Windows but what do you really know about it? Our Q&A; should answer most of your questions.

What is Linux?

Linux is an ‘open ‘source’ adaptation of the Unix operating system that has been used for many years on the large multi-user computers that are often used by big companies to run important applications. Linux has been adapted to run on ordinary desktops and as it is ‘open source’ this means it is freely available from a number of different places. Some of the best know suppliers are Red Hat and Novell, which bought the SUSE version of Linux a few years ago.

What does ‘open source’ mean exactly?

Quite simply that the original source code – the actual programs (lines of instructions) that form the operating system software – has been made openly available to developers. This means that they can take the original Linux code and adapt it to run on just about any computer system and add new and different features if they want to.

Are the different versions of Linux the same or different then?

They are all based on the same source code and broadly speaking, they are all compatible with each other. But they also have different attributes and ways of managing certain tasks such as the way they look after files and printers, and slightly different ways of handing security.

Who owns and is in control of Linux?

No-one really owns it. It was created by a chap called Linus Torvalds but no-one really owns it – that’s the whole idea of it being ‘open source’. There are various industry bodies and the ‘Linux community’ is very united and co-operative. But this is one of the arguments against Linux – it is open source so the different developers can go their own ways. This is almost certainly what will happen in the long run and, when it does, the most popular version will become the ‘standard’.

But isn’t the problem with Windows that Microsoft won’t let anyone see its source code?

This has been the source of much controversy and legal argument over the years; it also confused the hell out of everyone. There are two key points to grasp here – first off all, the dispute is not about who owns Windows – Microsoft does and the fact that it does and has not chosen (and is never likely to) release it as ‘open source’ means that it can maintain a solid standard – there are not different versions of Windows from different companies, it only comes from Microsoft. There is no real argument over this point.

What there is an argument over is how much of the Windows source code Microsoft will let other software developers see and use. Some companies claim that Microsoft is preventing them from seeing the inner workings so that it can give its own applications (such as Office) an advantage. If Microsoft did not publish its own applications (or perhaps if they weren’t so popular), there probably would not be an issue here. This has nothing to do directly with Linux.

What about the argument that Microsoft is controlling everyone too much and making it difficult to run other operating systems?

Well apart from the Apple Macintosh and it’s proprietary operating system and Linux there really isn’t anything else that you can run on your desktop or laptop and you can run most applications under both these systems. There may be an argument about whether they could run better under Windows but the fact is you can run most things under Linux now.

As it is ‘open source’ and essentially free, isn’t Linux is going to be a lot cheaper than Windows?

Yes and no. Yes, you will pay less when you actually buy the original operating system but you may also have to pay for manuals and support, without which, you might not be able to work out what you are doing. Staff may need to be trained as well. You still have to pay for all this with Microsoft Windows but a lot of the time, Windows comes bundled with systems and support is much more widely available. If you look at the long-term running costs there isn’t much to choose between them.

Is it difficult to use Linux?

No, there are graphical user interfaces, similar to what you’d experience on many web browsers and it is no harder to use than Windows – just different. If you are a techie, you can get under the bonnet much more easily with Linux and change things around - Windows is designed to stop anyone without real expertise tinkering with the engine.

Can I run Microsoft and other applications under Linux?

Yes, but check before you make any investment that you definitely can. If the software is not available in a Linux version, you may be able to run applications under Windows emulation in Linux. Or, if you use Linux on the network server, you may be able to run Windows clients on individual user screens.

Mb>When should I use Linux then?

Most of the time, Linux is used when someone wants an efficient operating system to run a central application. Linux makes good use of the resources available i.e. it needs less space to run in and can, in certain situations, give you better performance. But you need to be specific about your needs and listen carefully to the advice of your supplier.

Do major hardware producers support Linux?

You will find that most manufacturers of servers in particular will openly support and supply major adaptations of Linux, but it is not as prominent on desktops and laptops. Indeed a recent survey in the US by research company IDC, said that only 1.7% of consumer respondents chose to run Linux on their branded notebook PC.