Installing, configuring and using Linux is a lot easier than it was even a year ago, and incomparable to the experience I had in 1994 when I first tested this open source phenomena, but it's still not for the meek. If you're not interested in getting down and dirty with your PC, Linux is still very much the Wild West of computing, and not necessarily an obvious alternative to Windows. But if you're a bit adventurous, have an older extra PC kicking around, and like to get your hands dirty, Linux is the Promised Land. Let's take a look.

Introducing Linux

So what is Linux? Purists will tell you that it is simply a UNIX-like operating system kernel, the core code that underlies a true OS. While this is technically true, most people think of Linux as an OS similar to Windows or the Mac OS. Linux comes in distributions, collections that include the Linux kernel as well as a host of end-user-oriented software, much of which will be familiar to users of other OSes. For example, most Linux distributions ship with graphical environments, text editors, developer tools, games, networking utilities, multimedia applications, and some even include office productivity suites.

Linux is free. That is, developers and end users alike can download the underlying source for Linux, or the compiled binaries, copy them, modify them, and give them to others. However, Linux's license requires individuals and companies that modify the Linux source code to give those modifications back to the Linux community, for free, so that others may benefit from their work. This egalitarian system may sound kind of hokey, but millions of people worldwide have adopted it and become quite defensive and protective of their technology; as a result, Linux users tend to be fiercely independent and suspicious of commercial software companies like Microsoft.

Though Linux is free, companies can still sell Linux and associated products and services to make a profit. For example, Red Hat, my preferred Linux vendor, makes a good bit of money each year by selling support for its Linux products. Other companies sell software that runs on top of Linux.

So What's It Good For?

Thus far, Linux has seen the most success with two crowds. The first is computer enthusiasts, made up largely of programmers and other technical people. The second is with so-called infrastructure servers in small business environments. That is, Linux is an excellent low-cost solution for Web servers, DNS servers, DHCP servers and even Windows-compatible file and print servers. Because it looks and acts like UNIX, Linux has found great success in markets once dominated by UNIX, and appeals to people who cut their technical teeth with UNIX. Today, Linux can be found in everything from embedded devices to set-top boxes, to notebook computers, to high-end database servers. You can even get a version for your Sony PlayStation 2 if you want. Soon, Linux will be a viable competitor to Windows in virtually every market imaginable.

Linux on the Desktop

The one market Linux has had trouble cracking is the desktop market, dominated by Microsoft and its Windows systems like Windows XP and Windows 2000. The failure of Linux to make any inroads on the desktop is a complicated subject. Part of it is the maturity of Windows: While it's relatively easy to catch up on the server-side, end users expect a system that is simple, easy-to-use, and, above all, compatible with what they're already using. Today, Windows XP is the result of over 15 years of Microsoft GUI experience, and though modern Linux distributions have matured dramatically, few offer the ease-of-use of XP, and none offer the performance and compatibility.

However, Linux offers an interesting middle ground between XP and the Mac OS X. That is, while it offers little in the way of Windows application compatibility, ala the Mac OS, Linux does offer many advantages over Mac systems. First, Linux is compatible with PC hardware and can run on the same PCs and notebooks as XP does. You can even install it in a so-called dual boot configuration, allowing you to choose between Linux and Windows when the system boots. Or you can simply repurpose an older computer for Linux, taking further advantage of your hardware investments. With the Mac, you must buy a new, more expensive, system.

Second, Linux offers a variety of user interface choices, many of which can be configured to look like Windows or any other system with which you're familiar. The highly configurable nature of Linux is desirable to many people and stands in sharp contrast to the non-configurable Mac OS X, which offers the bubbly "Aqua" UI whether you want it or not.

Third, because Linux is free, an astonishing collection of free software applications and servers has grown up to support the system. You can wonderful free office productivity suites, like OpenOffice.org and Mozilla Firebird, for Linux, many of which are unavailable on the Mac. While Apple has paid lip service to the open source movement by creating a stripped-down Mac OS X version called Darwin, Linux walks the walk, and the entire system is free and open.

Installing Linux

In the old days, horrific text-based setup routines, floppy-based installs, and almost non-existent hardware compatibility made installing Linux a nightmare. Today, modern Linux distributions like Red Hat Linux 9 are more elegant than anything supplied by Microsoft or Apple, and the hardware support is incredible. Gone are the days of manually installing device drivers: Today, virtually everything is plug-and-play, including wireless networking.

Old Problems Remain

Of course, there can be problems and, in sharp contrast to Windows, it's not usually clear where to turn when something does go wrong. When hardware isn't recognized, when applications don't supply an elegant installer or offer up a default install location, or when you want to update to the latest security patches, it pays to be a bit savvy. That is, you don't need to have all the answers, but you do need to know where to look. Linux users tend to be a lot more technical and less patient with Linux rubes--or newbies, as they're called--than Windows and Mac users. As a result, its easy to feel overwhelmed when things go bad.

My advice is to spend some time on Linux-oriented USENET newsgroups, lurking around a bit to get a feel for the types of discussions people are having. On the Web, start with obvious sites such as linux.com, which offers tutorials and documentation, and google.com, where you can search for virtually anything. But most important, don't be afraid to ask questions. Linux will no doubt be the source of some of your most embarrassing technical defeats. But if you give it time, it can also be the source of great accomplishment.