Linux has merit, but it isn

The Linux fan base has been increasing lately, but concerns over the complexity of the open source OS are still being voiced. And with good cause. Despite improvements in the areas of installation and use, Linux is still not very user friendly.

Like a lot of those looking to get their feet wet in the Linux pool, we grabbed a retired 486 as our test machine. The box came with 24MB of RAM and a half gig SCSI hard drive. We then spent two days trying to get Red Hat Linux 5.2 to run on the thing. And this was the full, packaged version of Red Hat – the one with the CD-ROM and the manuals, the distribution that is supposedly the easiest to install.

The process choked on basic hardware issues.

First, the video card, a Trident 8900D, did not display any colours, making the buttons on the set-up screens unreadable. Swapping the 8900D for a Trident 8900CL solved that problem, although it is unclear why.

Also, later in the process, we found that one Microsoft serial mouse didn’t work but a different model Microsoft serial mouse worked just fine.

The more significant glitch was the hard drive. Red Hat didn’t like the SCSI adapter, although it was listed as supported by the OS. After seeing a whole lot of “Device connected but not ready” errors and then trying another adapter, we gave up. But then, someone realized we had a copy of Red Hat Linux Secrets lying around the office. Published by IDG Books, it provides a decent overview of Linux and includes Red Hat 5.1 on a CD. Not bad for $70.

Even better, this version installed. It is a point release older than the 5.2 tried originally, so this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but why argue with success?

However, the book is not perfect. On creating a Linux boot disk, it instructs the reader to, at a DOS prompt, switch to the DOSUTILS directory on the Red Hat CD, execute rawrite.exe, and then type: \images\boot.img. This failed completely. It turned out – after a number of frustrating minutes – that the correct command is: rawrite -f\images\boot.img -d a:.

After this step, the rest of the install went smoothly. The commands and options were fairly clear and understandable.

Then the real fun began – the chance to actually use Linux. This too is not easy for anyone uninitiated into the world of Unix, and the best advice is to buy a good book, as the documentation that comes in the Red Hat box is fairly bare-bones.

In fairness to Linux, it was not designed to be warm and fuzzy. It was designed to be full-featured, reliable and freely available. If those attributes are attractive, get Linux; if you’re into intuitive computer systems, stick with Windows or the Mac OS.