Saturday, February 23, 2008

Things are different in Linuxville

Of all the metaphors to the computer world I like "Tron" and "the Matrix" the best. In them there's the basic constructs and program loaders and then the immersion of the user into a virtual reality. To be totally immersed in a virtual environment yet still have awareness and control is akin to a sci-fi utopia. Escaping the bounds of physical limitations while still having physical sense as if it were reality. I hardly think that the present day GUI does that for anyone but we still strive to have more intuitive interfaces. You have at your disposal the six major functions, point, click, drag, drop, cut and paste, plus you can tweak and adjust the look and feel of the desktop through the various desktop settings menus. Then you have the hardware to interface your physical body to the computer: the mouse, keyboard, pen tablet, video screen, etc. What makes Linux so different than MS or Mac is the range of desktop choices. Fundamentally, they all do the same things but the subtle detail in the look and feel on the desktop is overlaid on top of what is underneath, the kernel, libraries and utilities involved. I'm not making a pitch to programmers, what do typical computer users care about internals? They just want the thing to work and look snazzy. So, it is the right and privilege of every Linux user to try out the various desktops to find ones they are comfortable with. Usually the desktop you start out with will become the most impressive in your experience. If you are prone to bragging rights and subject to new car smells, you might have problems moving on and if you are stuck on MS Windows like looks and feels you might struggle a bit. My advice is to stick with the tried and true desktop GUI's until you are a bit more knowledgeable, but don't let me limit your exploration. What are the tried and true? In Ubuntu Linux, if you decide to go that route, Gnome desktop is the basic desktop. Gnome is also the default desktop on other major distributions like Red Hat. Gnome is well put together and has a particular look and feel as opposed to KDE (in Kubuntu) which is also very popular. KDE in it's basic look resembles MS Windows but is much more tweakable. My personal opinion is that KDE is more complex, has more power and is adjustable to a wider swath of users than Gnome. Gnome is no slouch on looks and feel but the focus is on stability and simplicity. These two desktops are the big guns of the Linux desktop and will usually be what a new user will encounter first.
What I myself use is Xfce (in Xubuntu) desktop. While Xfce is slated for use on older, less endowed computers, it is also fast and efficient on well equipped computers. If you believe that less is more, you will not be disappointed with Xfce. What does fast and efficient mean? Fast means snappy, crisp response, no excessive waiting and efficient means there is less drain on resources like memory and less dependency on libraries and overhead compared with Gnome and KDE. Is Xfce the better desktop? No, but I just like to use it. Gnome and KDE are fine if you like the way they work for you. Like in cars, you drive several and get picky later after you filter out what is the same. I haven't even talked about window managers which is the next rung under full desktops. There are dozens of them and as you experience Linux you will encounter at least a couple. Window managers are not as integrated as the full desktop suites are and you can pick various Linux applications to bolster up the functionality to do what you need. Window managers tend to be lighter in resource use but differ in how they are configured and the level of user adjustment. Fluxbox, Ice, Enlightenment and Window Maker are a few names you might hear. In Linuxville, things are not made obsolete by a marketing or corporate decision. You will find both "old school" and the latest window managers being developed and upgraded and in use. This all makes Linux fitted to a vast variety of users. So, you can choose your Linux parts, piece by piece or you can get a packaged Linux (a distribution). You can run it out of the box and you can tweak it, hack it and pimp it. You can get it to resemble MS Windows, though I don't know why, and you can make it into an arcade of sights and sounds. The secret of Linuxville is that under all the scenic landscaping is the sovereign soil of the nation of Linux. The population of inhabitants include not only coders, developers and system administration folks but also average computer users like yourselves. Whether it's Gnome, KDE, Xfce or Fluxbox, Enlightenment or Window Maker, the GUI makes Linux accessible and usable to all. The GUI (graphical user interface) is the thing that avails users. Imagine Disney World without the "Magic Kingdom" look and feel. Imagine cars "any color as long as it's black" or only one model, brand and what's a world without trucks? Many demand the focus of a product and the accountability of a single company. We have yet to understand the idea of or embrace the possibilities of an outcome developed, produced, maintained and used by the same community. We have insisted on separation of company and product from the user and or customer. We have dictated terms of use and planned obsolescence to ensure product loyalty and dependency. We have believed our economic model is the only way to do things. Yet, things are different in Linuxville!

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