- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

Last week’s dose of candid advice for Microsoft Corp. attracted some attention on Digg.com, an online Web site, where close to 500 people indicated reading it, and some offered comments. For the record, no, I’m not Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s love child.

But I digress.

Shannon VanWagner, a computer systems administrator in Seattle, got the ball rolling because he believes the open-source Linux operating system is our computing salvation. It’s free for individuals, more or less; enterprises will want to license a given Linux distribution, or version, in order to get technical support. Because it is open, Linux can be enhanced and refined by any number of programmers, who, in turn, share their work with others.

And there are plenty of applications for Linux, some of which I mentioned last week, such as OpenOffice.org’s productivity suite. There’s GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is a free competitor to Adobe’s Photoshop. If you need Web browsing and e-mail, Mozilla.org offer versions of the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client; other browsers and e-mail programs abound.

Indeed, Mr. VanWagner, whose Humans Enabled blog (www.humans-enabled.com) is high-octane evangelism for Linux, has links that’ll help you find dozens of alternatives to Windows and/or Mac applications, just about all of them free for the downloading.

That’s the good news: The more challenging news is that as a new Linux user, you’ll still have to get inside your computer to a degree you might not find enjoyable. To set up the operating system, you’ll need to make sure it can support the computer and graphics card you already have.

Then you’ll need to learn how to configure the applications you download to work on your system. This isn’t an impossible task, but it sometimes isn’t the plug-and-play experience many users are accustomed to finding. Thus, heartache can follow, especially if you can’t find the printer driver or other device driver you need in order to get stuff done.

To ease the burden, Mr. VanWagner suggests burning a CD with a version of the Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) free Linux system, and booting your computer from the CD. That’ll get you inside the operating system and some basic applications, such as a Web browser, without changing your computer’s main OS. Once you’re comfortable, he wrote, slap Linux on your computer and explore all the applications that are available.

It’s tempting. Call it a restructuring of your PC, if you like. Were I to do this, I’d make a solid backup of all my Windows programs and files, and have a bootable copy of the Windows OS on hand, just in case I decided to return to Microsoft territory. You don’t want Linux to become the computing equivalent of the “Hotel California,” after all.

As more new software arrives for Windows users, there’ll be more of a temptation to switch to Linux. Costs for Linux programs are lower, and the bad taste left by Windows Vista for many users might also be a factor. Microsoft’s Windows 7 looms on the horizon, but I can’t imagine a single-user copy would cost much less than $150 at retail. Even if special pricing brings the cost below $100, some users would rather switch than pay.

How can Microsoft respond? One hint is in the paragraph above: run a “loss leader” special on Windows 7 when it’s released. Another would be to loosen up the “student/home edition” pricing of Office 2007, which lists for $150 versus the $499 list price of the full edition. But beyond price wars, which Microsoft can easily fight, there’s not much else they can do. Folks will either buy Windows or not, and as we’ve seen with many other stalwarts of the U.S. economy — Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. products come to mind — the winds of change can blow quickly and hot.

What are you running? E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.