KELLNER: Linux hits user nerve

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PORTLAND, Ore. | Maybe I’m on to something.

For a good part of last week, your reviewer’s musings about Ubuntu Linux was among the top five most-read stories on washingtontimes.com. Since the other top stories concerned health-insurance reform or the H1N1 vaccine and similar weighty topics, the presence of a geek-oriented column came as a pleasant surprise.

I suspect this may reflect a growing disenchantment among computer users with the high cost of operating systems, specifically Windows operating systems from Microsoft Corp. That company launched its newest release, Windows 7, on Thursday, and while sales signs are encouraging, we’re not seeing the mania some previous Windows launches have produced. With prices ranging from about $110 to just under $200 depending on the Windows 7 package, some users may invoke the famous Roberto Duran maxim: “No mas.”

In short, when computer hardware can cost as little as $300 for a decent setup, spending one-third to one-half of that on the operating system seems a little extravagant, if not downright crazy.

My Ubuntu column drew a number of reader comments and questions. Here are a couple of clarifications and answers to the most frequent issues raised by readers:

iTunes for the masses: I voiced the “complaint” that there isn’t a Linux version of Apple Inc.’s iTunes application for Ubuntu (or any other flavor of) Linux, and that this was a demerit. Several readers, including Stephen Ostrow of Long Island, N.Y., noted several open-source music player programs out there for Linux, including Rhythmbox, Songbird, Amarok and Banshee.

But, said I, what about buying music MP3s under Linux? Mr. Ostrow correctly replied: Go to Amazon.com and download to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content. His point is well taken.

Given my druthers, I’d still prefer a Linux-friendly version of iTunes: Apple has done very, very well, in my opinion, with its online music/video/podcast/applications store, and while Amazon.com is a very good player in the marketplace, there’s stuff Apple has that Amazon doesn’t. Bringing iTunes to Linux would be a nice step, in my opinion.

Emulation made easy: Another question was about using “virtual machine” software to emulate a Windows PC while running Linux. This can be done when there’s a Windows program you just need to run, and there’s no alternative. Toddle over to www.winehq.org and download the latest version, again, free. Follow the instructions, cross your fingers and you’ll be off to the races with most of the popular Windows applications. (I’ll confess I haven’t tried this yet, because I’m traveling. But I’ll do it soon and report back.)

The whole issue of emulation, though, portends something else: If we’re able to cross-operate all sorts of applications on different (and less-expensive) operating systems, then what’s the future of expensive upgrades? My guess: a limited one.

Now, there are advantages to having an operating system such as Microsoft Windows in the marketplace. There’s a long history behind the OS, a lot of support for older computers, displays, printers and other peripherals, and ostensibly less worry about a “plug-and-play” computing experience. And, let’s face it, users have nearly 25 years of Windows versions to play with; it’s superfamiliar and, thus, super-attractive.

But there’s that price tag. It’s still jarring, especially since Apple launched its newest OS version, dubbed “Snow Leopard” at $30 a copy, period. While what’s officially known as Macintosh OS X 10.6 is not necessarily as much of a revamp as Windows 7 has been, I believe its price tag is more in line with today’s market.

We may well be at the start of a sea change in computing: If your OS costs more than, say, 10 percent to 15 percent of your hardware’s cost, it might be viewed as costing too much.

E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com

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