Friday, February 10, 2006

Linux - Not just for Geeks But Now For Everyone

At the beginning of the week I did something momentus, and installed Linux Fedora Core 4.

It all came about because the hard disk failed in my laptop. That was replaced but I didn't have a backup of all my software (data was backed up). Over the years I had misplaced the copy of Windows that came pre-installed, although I did have the registration code still on the underside. A replacement disk was going to cost almost as much as buying it new and then there were other factors such as not knowing exactly where my disks were for other applications as well. The choice I had was whether to attempt to crack an installation or look for an alternative.

Looking around, copies of Windows are rife to download but not the version which matched my registration code. I'll admit to being tempted to knock off a copy but I soon found out that the new safety guards on Windows Pro make that impossible. I therefore decided to look for an alternative. Ive now been able to build a stable full featured system and finally able to get back to doing some proper work on the business plan.

Overall impressions are very very positive. I have a Word Processor and Spreadsheet client in Open Office although it does seem to be less stable than it was under Windows which is odd. The Word Processor has crashed on me several times although its always able to recover my document so no harm done there, just a bit annoying. The type of files I create though have been known to bring Word crashing down as well so perhaps its just me pushing the boundaries. I like OO because it can edit Word files in the native Windows format, and the same with the spreadsheet and presentation tools which edit excel and Powerpoint files natively.

There is just one thing which annoys me about the WP, which is that it doesn't seem to allow you to mix your own colours for fonts and bullet points. Given that you can do this using the Presentation tool I don't think it should be that difficult to add it in on the WP, and it is annoying when you are creating branded documents to be limited to colours which are fairly close, but not quite the same as the logos you are using. Oh and it also seems to be temperamental about how it handles images in the Header bar, which is also annoying but as long as it does so eventually and long enough to print a PDF its not the end of the world.

To counter this I've also downloaded Scribus which is a Desk Top Publisher tool. It is very powerful considering its weight (but I'm noticing that Unix apps are just generally lighter than Windows apps), and seems to give me all the layout tools I would want. My only gripe with it is that it doesn't seem to handle bullet pointed text which is a major omission. It does enable me to create a new text style which incorporates a graphic for when I use bullet points so it can kinda do it with a bit of fiddling. Its not in the same league as In Design or Quark though.

As a Photoshop clone I am very impressed with the GIMP under Linux. I had used it under Windows and found it about as stable as your average 17 year old goth chick. Under Linux however this is a completely different story with layers and some nice effects. Admittedly I don't use it in the same way a heavyweight designer would but for my needs it is perfectly fine. Ive also found a drawing package called Inkscape. Now I was never a heavy (or even regular) Illustrator user, and Its very early software (v 0.43) which probably accounts for the difficulties I am having with it. It installed apparently without a problem but is not too happy at running. For the number of times though that I used Illustrator, I can definitely wait for an update.

The RSS client I've used so far is LifeRea, which I think is short for LifeReader, and this is absolutely fine for my uses. Very much like Feed Demon under Windows which a lot of people use.

Now for the fun stuff. I have managed to find just about everything I need to establish an agency's systems and services, including Accounts Packages to help with planning and actual P&L (GNUCash). It is brilliant and already being used to refine my P&L plan forecast. There is also a tool for Time Management (GnoTime) which handles automatic billing based on time spent on a project, and Paymaster which handles actual payment and provides some very good accounting features which apparently then feed into GnuCash. Project Management is handled with an MS Project clone and in my tests it has everything I would want, nothing I don't want, and is very stable. I love it, and cannot think why MS turned their tool into the bloated creature that it is. Ad Servers, Opt In Mailing Servers, Search Bidding Tools, eCRM, all these tools are available a plenty and it is actually going to take me a while to decide on what will work best for me. Thanks to some good advice I am looking for Postgress and web based solutions to run alongside Apache, maybe even with some kind of thick client but that isn't essential (or actually desirable).

My one disappointment is not being able to find a real Contact Management tool. Most people seem to think that an address book is contact management and don''t seem to understand the relationship between a Company, its prospects within that company, individual contact numbers, and the tasks, meetings, emails, contact reports and notes associated with each prospect. Some kind of sales opportunity management is also desirable. It all comes down to a fairly complex relational database behind it which understands task lists, and apparently nobody has attempted to write one. At least not that I can find on SourceForge or Freshmeat.net.

In some ways I understand this as most places I have worked didn't understand this concept either. What I'm after is an open source clone of Act! and apparently it doesn't exist. The closest thing I've found is a project called Mozart, which was abandoned a few years ago and is actually aimed at Lawyers, but it does have the concept of Prospects/Clients, Cases/Projects, Tasks and Documents/Notes. Its not ideal but it is the closest I have found. Problem is it needs MySql to run where as everything else uses Postgress and I am wondering whether two databases running on my little laptop will be too much strain for the old girl who will be 5 at the end of this year. Of course investing a few hundred quid in some more hardware will solve this problem.

Firefox is of course taking care of my web needs and Thunderbird for Linux has imported my mail from Thunderbid for Windows without any problems. I do however love the look of Evolution and anyone who likes Outlook would be right at home as it is a complete clone (without the slow performance of large mailboxes). If I could get my existing email into it I would do so without a second thought, although there would then be the issue of getting it out of it if I needed to move to another Platform. Thunderbird at least provides a very convenient and transportable mail format. Currently I am using KORganizer as my scheduler with Thunderbird Email although this was supposedly to be used under KDA desktop and Im using Gnome so this might give me a problem. Not sure if that is or should be the case so if anyone has any ideas I'd love to hear them

A final word on the Desktop. There are two supplied desktop management packages, Gnome and KDA. I started off with Gnome and it did take a bit of configuring to get it to how I felt comfortable using it, but it does seem stable and fine, without being outstanding in any way (although I have no idea why the Firefox Icon on the background is 3 times the size of any of the others). It was also the desktop I started with and so a lot of the applications I downloaded may only run on Gnome which is why I'm sticking with it.

Having now seen KDA, I regret my Gnome decision as KDA has a much more intuitive and familiar feel to it. Instead of a Start button on the left hand corner it has a Red Fedora hat which is quite cute but after that, any Windows User would feel right at home going through the menus and launching programs. At some point I'll have a look and see if all the programs I am using will run under KDA, but I suspect that things like GnuCash and GnoTime will have problems.

All in all I am extremely impressed. I had known all along that Linux was a server system of choice for anyone Internet related, but it now looks as though it is a perfectly reasonable Desktop choice as well. For someone like me handling Account Management and dabbling a bit in Design with Presentation Graphics and such it is a perfectly reasonable system. Heavyweight designers would no doubt find the system's limits but they would be on Macs by choice, not Windows so it is a mute point.

Suddenly Linux should be cause for concern for Microsoft in terms of security (no more MS attacking virus), reliability (its Unix!), power (Its Unix!), but now also in terms of preserving your investment in older equipment, which Linux runs on quite happily but which Windows would be much too heavy for, and most importantly in terms of the available applications for it. I am running the type of applications which on Windows if I bought them on the open market would require an investment upwards of £4,000. The cost of these projects on Linux.... £0.

Per head thats a massive saving for most companies and a god send for start-ups. Support is available via the various forums and as Microsoft makes its software more and more difficult to pirate, I suspect that the choice of many will not be to try and crack it, but instead to legitimately install an alternative, and Linux now is a very real alternative.

Its interesting, that if a replacement disk had been easy to get hold of, then I would still be on Windows. As it is, Microsoft has lost a customer and Windows is minus one seat. I am wondering how common an occurrence this is and whether this policy may actually work against Microsoft. Macs are moving to Intel, and Linux has come of age. My feeling is that Linux is going to play an ever increasing role on the desktop. It definitely is no longer purely for Geeks, but for everyone.

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