Loving the Linux Desktop

By Drew Robb
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Linux has earned a mostly deserved reputation for being overly technical. While the IT guys may think Linux is all easy to install, it's not unusual for the average SMB owner to go blank after reading the first few lines of the set-up-and-install instructions.

In order to gain broad support in the consumer and small business markets, Linux must be plug and play. Fortunately, it's becoming more accessible to non-technical people, especially in the area of desktop operating systems.

If you want to try a Linux-based operating system, you'll find over two hundred versions listed at DistroWatch. Which one should you choose for your business desktop?

Linspire, one of the easiest version to use, comes in both desktop and laptop versions. You can download it from the Linspire Web site for $49.95 or order a disk for $59.95.

Formerly known as Lindows, the company was forced to change its name due to legal pressure from hyper-vigilant Microsoft over its "Windows" trademark. Designed for the masses, the Linspire software loads itself.

It automatically deals with almost all the configuration details that can be so frustrating for small business owners. It also comes pre-loaded with a series of commonly used applications so you can just perform one install and then get to work.

One of the great things about Linspire is that it doesn't just simplify the technology; it avoids confusing jargon, too.

A person fluent in geek-speak would describe Linspire thusly: an implementation of Debian Linux with the KDE desktop (Debian is just a common version of Linux; KDE is short for "K Desktop Environment," a user interface often used with Linux).

Linspire totally avoids such jargon. The basic desktop icons come with descriptive, functional names rather than techie terms. Instead of "Mozilla 1.7", the desktop icon reads "e-mail." (Mozilla is an open-source Web browser and e-mail program).

The developers have also gone all-out to make folder and application organization a snap. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a big "L," the equivalent to Microsoft's "Start" button on the Windows desktop.

Click on the L to bring up all your software applications listed in folders labeled &#151 Audio & MP3, Business & Finance, Games, Home & Education, Internet, Multimedia & Design and Utilities. It's an easier way easier way to find a program than compared to Microsoft's by-vendor listing.

Basic Small Business Applications
Although you'll find tons of software online that runs on Linux, most sites don't provide enough easy-to-understand guidance on which tool does what. Linspire takes a different approach. It comes preloaded with only the most basic applications on its installation disk or on the download. The good news is that these programs are enough for most users to get down to business. The applications include:

  • OpenOffice Productivity Suite &#151The Linux alternative to Microsoft Office. This gives you a decent word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing program.
  • Google Search Engine &#151 another basic tool for finding information on the Internet.
  • CD Creator &#151 While it would be nice to afford backup software, the reality is that most small businesses don't backup their data. This CD creator makes it a piece of cake to burn CD's so you have your most important data available in case your computer dies.
  • An Instant Messaging Tool &#151 Don't be put off by instant messaging's reputation as a teenage toy. Many large corporations use it as a quick way to stay in touch on business matters.
  • MySIPphone &#151 This software lets two or more people make Internet phone calls to each other. The calls don't cost anything if you call someone using the same (or a similar) application, and calls to regular phones are inexpensive with no taxes or monthly fees.

The Linspire Desktop
The Linux-based Linspire operating system is inexpensive, simple and straightforward.

Linspire also includes a spam/pop-up blocker, a firewall, RealPlayer media player, an MP3 player, a few games, Micromedia Flash Player and a video player.

If you want more applications, just click on the desktop icon labeled CNR to go to Linspire's Click-n-Run Warehouse.

It offers about 2000 additional applications for free download. Like Linspire, CNR organizes applications into categories such as Audio & MP3, Business & Finance, etc.

For instance, if you like PhotoShop but don't like the price, click on CNR's Multimedia & Design category and then select Image Editing. There you'll find a great freebie called Gimp. Clicking on the Gimp button both downloads and installs the software on your desktop.

Alternatively, if you click on Business & Finance, you get a choice of nearly 100 free goodies to choose from:

  • Desktop Publishing: Scribus &#151 a page layout program similar to Adobe PageMaker, QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign.
  • Accounting: Budget &#151 a budgeting and money management program, and Linux General Ledger does a great job on business accounting and bookkeeping for personal, small business and client write-up.
  • Project Management: Planner &#151 a project management program that can help build project plans and track the progress of a project. It supports various charts and includes a calendar module.

Use your computer to make free, Internet phone calls with Linspire's MySIPphone software.

You'll also find your choice of calculators, spreadsheets, word processors, presentation programs, personal finance software, charting, databases, barcode generators and time management tools.

Most of these resources are free though a few, such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Star Office, will cost you.

Here's the catch you've no doubt been waiting for. CNR costs $49.95 per year for unlimited downloads.

For SMBs on a tight budget, SourceForgeoffers hundreds of free Linux operating systems and thousands of free applications. Pretty much everything you can find in the CNR warehouse, in fact.

But for small businesses that don't have the tech savvy or the time to tinker with configurations and want to keep their tech really basic, Linspire will pay for itself in the amount of time it saves you. Fast downloads and easy to find-and-install applications &#151 what more could you ask for?

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on August 23, 2004
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