I loaded Ubuntu Linux on my test laptop a couple of weeks ago more or less on a lark, thinking I would just see for myself what the current state of the Linux world is today. When I saw how easily it loaded (and how quickly!), and how well it worked, I decided to try loading it on my main laptop to see how that would go. When I saw how well that worked, I started to wonder if it might be possible to replace Windows with Linux for an ordinary PC user, such as the ones I am often asked to help with Windows problems. After two weeks of loading a variety of different Linux distributions (but nowhere near all or even most of them!), and configuring, and experimenting, and learning, and talking with my partner and my brother, I would say the answer to that question is a qualified "Yes".
I think it is a good commentary on the state of Linux software for me to say that one of the biggest criteria in deciding if you can switch to Linux is what peripheral hardware you want to use. If you user your PC for email, web browsing, storing and minor editing of pictures from your digital camera, and other such "everyday" tasks, then you are likely to be very happy with Linux. In fact as I said to my brother yesterday evening, a typical Windows XP user could probably switch to Ubuntu or Mandriva Linux more easily today than they can switch to Vista. In a lot of critical ways the differences are not as large, and since Linux is a lot less likely to hang, crash or otherwise misbehave there would be less irritation and distraction in the switch.
Because Linux developers are not getting the support, cooperation and effort from peripheral manufacturers that Windows, and even MacOS X, are getting, the range of supported peripherals is not as wide. Some common types of peripheral devices which need to be checked when you try Linux:
- Printers: This is probably the best-supported group, part because there are a few "standards" which together cover a large part of the market. I have two; my Canon BJC-55 was recognized and configured without problem, while my Lexmark E240 laser was not reognized, but since I know it is PCL and PostScript compatible, I could manually choose either of those generic drivers, and it worked just fine.
- Scanners: These can be considerably more problematic, as there are a lot of different kinds, and the manufacturers are often tight-lipped and uncooperative with Linux driver writers. There are a fair number which are supported and work well, but mine are not among them (a Canon LIDE 600F and an HP 4670).
- Network adapters: This seems to break out several ways. Wired ethernet adapters are generally handled easily, WiFi adapters are mostly good, with a few exceptions, and other kinds of cellular adapters seem to be mostly not supported yet. I will not be able to completely replace Windows yet because I need to be able to use my laptop via cellular link during my daily commute.
- USB storage devices: USB disks just work, they are recognized automatically and most versions of Linux simply open a window on the new file hierarchy, which certainly makes a lot more sense than Windows spending potentially large amounts of time examining every file on the device, and then trying to guess what you might want to do with them. If you have a laptop with slots for digital camera flash cards, Ubuntu will recognize the card when it is inserted,put a nice self-explanatory icon for it on the desktop, and open something like the Gthumb picture viewer or the F-spot digital photography application.
I could go on, of course. But the bottom line is this. Linux has come a long way, and in a lot of cases, it is a very realistic alternative to Windows or MacOS X. I think it is also important to remember that, as was indicated by a comment to one of my previous blog posts, a large number of new Linux users these days are going to be people who are considering buying a new computer, such as an Eee PC or an OLPC, with Linux preloaded. In that case a lot of the questions about hardware are not relevant, and it really comes down to a question of the "user experience", and then I think the answer is an unqualified "Yes", Linux can not only be considered as an alternative to Windows, it is in many ways superior to Windows!