When I started my “Is Linux Ready for Word Workers?” series, I thought I’d squeeze a pair of posts from my Ubuntu Linux installation, erase it, and dive right back into Windows Vista.

So much for expectations.

Ubuntu.com

No, I didn’t much like Vista (I’m not alone: a recent Infoworld survey suggests a startling 35% of its readers (corporate IT types) ‘de-upgraded’ their current model PCs from Vista to Windows XP).

I found Vista cloying and cluttered – a tarted-up version of XP that demanded more RAM and CPU power to run acceptably, yet managed to get in my way more than even XP.

My overall impression of Vista was of an operating system collapsing under its own weight.

But Linux was too hard, right? Too arcane? Too hard to install?

Not exactly.

Four long posts later – and despite one rough patch involving an internal modem and some media player issues – I’ve been running my business atop Ubuntu Linux for more than 60 days.

The bottom line? Ubuntu Linux is fast. It’s reliable. The interface is clean (if not a little spare). And plenty of Open Source software is freely available.

Simply put, I like it.

Is Ubuntu Linux better than XP or Vista?

That’s impossible to say; your preferences will depend on your definition of “better.”

If you live and breathe Microsoft Word – or use any of the other “industry standard” software packages – then Linux could print money and it wouldn’t be “better.”

To those of us living on a steady diet of OpenOffice, text editors, image editors, podcasts, a browser and a few utilities, it’s a compelling option.

In truth, the decision to use an open source system like Ubuntu Linux is more a philosophical question than a “logical” one.

More software is available for Windows, and it’s a safer choice.

On the other hand, no Linux operating system will ever download – largely without your knowledge – a “validator” designed to check and see if your OS is pirated.

There’s also a question of flexibility.

Don’t like your current flavor of Linux? Want to try a stripped version on an old laptop?

Feel free.

(See? That philosophical thing again.)

Real World Questions – and Answers

I think Ubuntu Linux is simply more productive (for me).

Is it better than XP? Being as Microsoft is no longer developing Windows XP (or selling licenses), then yes – it is.

Is it better than Vista?

That depends. Vista is smoother than XP. It’s also far more cluttered and dense than Linux.

A lot of the animosity directed at Vista came because users tried to upgrade XP machines. And ran into problems, often with hardware drivers.

Not surprisingly, those same issues dog Linux.

When manufacturers ship a PC with Vista or Linux already installed, those issues simply disappear. But there, of course, lies the hell of it.

Very few manufacturers ship computers with Linux installed (Dell will, but only a few models). So almost every Linux installation goes on unknown hardware.

If more manufacturers offered Linux as an option – and passed along the savings – much of the Linux reputation for difficulty would simply fade away.

And yes – market share would almost certainly grow beyond the current 2%-3% (desktops – Linux server market share is an order of magnitude higher).

The Good. And the Bad.

Here’s a story with a happy ending: I was going to re-format the hard drive on my old XP-based desktop, then give it away (I never liked that machine under XP).

On a whim, I installed Ubuntu instead of XP (again, without a hitch).

Surprise.

It runs faster. More reliably. And avoids all the machine’s formerly-quirky hardware issues.

No twice-a-day re-boots needed. No slowdowns after I opened and closed a bunch of applications. No browser lockups. No disappearing CD drives.

Suddenly, it’s a brand-new desktop.

Are all endings in Ubuntu Linux this happy?

Sadly, no. It suffers some video issues. Install it from the CD, and you need to download a special library to play commercial DVDs, and its streaming video performance can be spotty.

Drivers for a lot of hardware aren’t available for Linux, though I haven’t had any real problems.

More importantly, all those issues would go away on a PC shipped with Linux installed, and they weren’t too hard to solve anyway (though I got the impression the Linux world wants to pretend they don’t exist).

My final word?

Ubuntu Linux is everything Linux is supposed to be – except really, really hard to install or use.

The basic interface is simple, and anyone with Mac or Windows experience would find their way around pretty quickly.

It runs into trouble with some video and audio formats, and suffers from a dearth of software choices in odd areas (contact management is a little thin, as is the choice of blog editors).

That said, it also runs like a pickup truck, updates automatically (nicer than Windows), and features a “package” management system that makes installing and uninstalling software a far easier job than in XP or Vista.

It’s running on all three of my PCs (Vista is still bootable on my laptop), and I have no plans to remove it.

Test-flying Ubuntu is easy; it even installs as software within your Windows system (dual-boot), and uninstalls quickly if you don’t like it.

My clients couldn’t care less what’s running on my end. And – dare I suggest it – Microsoft Vista’s huge stumble out of the gate has given computer users a great, big, resource-hogging reason to look at alternatives.

One of them is the Mac (most are surprised to learn OSX is built atop Linux Unix). I haven’t touched on it because it’s tied to specific hardware, though Mac and Linux users might represent opposite ends of the non-Windows-using universe.

Still, the Mac is gaining market share at Microsoft’s expense, and – given my very positive experience with Ubuntu Linux – believe we could see the same thing occur on the PC side of the fence.

Can I squeeze another post out Ubuntu Linux? Maybe.

I’m developing some new work habits – and how writers get words on paper has always fascinated me – so look for a “What Linux has done to my writing process” post in a couple weeks.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler