Bob and Joy
     By Bob and Joy Schwabach

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September 2005, Week 3 -- A Window of Opportunity?

   Linux has moved to the point where it is considered a legitimate alternative to the Windows operating system. Several large corporations -- Ebay, Amazon, Google and IBM -- use it, and you can find it in new personal computers at large retailers like Wal-Mart.

   The creation of Linux as an alternative operating system is credited to Linus Torvalds, a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, in 1991. It is based on the old mainframe operating system UNIX, and it's free.
     There are a dozen slight variations of Linux, all of which basically look and feel like Windows. That's a big part of the appeal, of course: You can use a modern, sophisticated operating system without having to pay licensing fees to Microsoft. Recently, the Massachusetts state government switched to using Linux.
    While many commercial programs (including most games) are not compatible with Linux, the Linux user now has more than 2,000 programs to choose from. The basic ones, such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, PDF creation, photo editing and Web browsing are included in whatever "flavor" of Linux you choose.
  Why Do It?
     Reason one is Linux is cheap; prices for flavors run from $2 to $50. Low cost is what attracts both large companies and the makers of mass-market PCs. Cut the cost of the operating system and you automatically cut the cost of building and running the computer.
     Reason two is security. Peter van der Linden, in his "Guide to Linux," points out that "users can be confident they will reduce their virus, spyware and malware vulnerability to essentially zero."


   The vulnerability of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) has been a major impetus for the popularity of other browsers, like Opera, Firefox, Mozilla, AOL, Netscape, etc. We sometimes use IE for Web transfers, and the last time we did, just a few days ago, we got a spyware attack within three seconds.




   Microsoft's Service Pack 2 (SP-2) is supposed to correct vulnerabilities discovered in IE and other Windows operations, but a recent study found that only 24 percent of business users had downloaded this fix, and it is believed that even fewer home users have it. You can get SP-2 at
   Some books on Linux come with the operating system on a disk inside the back cover. Here are a few titles we've been going through:

  "Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux," $40 from Prentice Hall ( This well-written book includes a copy of Linspire, which the author chose because it was current and the company ( provides tech support. (Hobbyists experimenting with Linux typically rely on user forums for support, and while these are very good, they are not suited to a large consumer audience.)

     Linspire is a breeze to use, and we liked its clean, quick action. It found and displayed photos from our camera with no problem, for example.
     You can run Linspire off the disk, and everything can be saved or moved to another drive, just as if it were the main operating system. We opened an MS Word attachment from an e-mail in Linspire's Open Office program, which came on the disk, and the document looked exactly like the original.
Linux Made Easy

  "Linux Made Easy" by Rickford Grant is $35 from No Starch Press ( and comes with Xandros. It didn't run off the disk alone, so we installed it. Xandros then automatically created a drive partition.

   It's a good book and a good flavor of Linux. When we inserted the CD, we got a message asking if we wanted to keep Windows. We clicked yes, and it then proceeded to create a dual-boot system that allows us to choose either Windows or Xandros at start-up. If we choose Windows, all of our programs are there.
     The Xandros disk also includes Open Office, a program that lets you use and create files recognized by Microsoft Office, even if you don't have Windows or Office on your machine. You can get the full version of Xandros for $10. Click on "downloads" at .


   The Linux Enterprise Cluster" by Karl Kopper, $50 from No Starch Press (, deals with the cutting edge of business computing. A large group of low-cost computers can be linked and made to act like a very large computer that might cost half a million dollars. The author describes such a cluster built in 2003 for United Natural Foods, one of the largest suppliers to the health and natural foods industry.


And Now, Just for Fun...

  CrazyTalk 4


  Crazy Talk Media Studio 4.0 lets you animate a photo, turning it into a talking head with your own voice.

  There are three steps: You click to import a photo and then use the mouse to place four guide points at the corners of the person's mouth and eyes. You use a microphone to record a message or use one of the prerecorded voices. After inspecting the result, you click to send it off as an e-mail packaged as a birthday card or other greeting, or make a talking head for your Web site. The program is $150 from



NOTE: Readers can search several years of columns at the "On Computers" Web site: You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at and Joy Schwabach at