Robin Miller (best known as "Roblimo" on tech sites like slashdot.org) is an experienced technology journalist who has been writing about Linux open-source software since 1997. His new book, "Point and Click Linux" (Prentice Hall PTR), is aimed at the Linux beginner, offering a step-by-step path to installing and running the software.
Miller has written widely on technology for such publications as NewsForge, Time New Media, Online Journalism Review, Web Hosting Magazine, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He lives in Bradenton, Fla.
Robin 'Roblimo' Miller
Miller answered questions from washingtonpost.com readers on Dec. 1. A transcript of the discussion is below:
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Hello! Robin "Roblimo" Miller will be online at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his new book, "Point & Click Linux: Your Guide to Trouble-Free Computing." Submit your questions and comments now.
Good afternoon Robin. Thank you for taking questions from our readers today. To kick things off, can you tell us why you sat down to write this book on Linux?
Robin Miller: Because Linux finally got easy enough to install and use that "Point and Click Linux" was no longer a goal but had become real.
I couldn't have written this book -- or made the videos -- two years ago. I've had the idea in my head since 2001, but it wasn't until early 2004 that I felt comfortable writing a Linux book for people who aren't particularly interested in computers but just use them as tools.
Let's face it: Windows is too "geeky" for most people, with its endless viruses and worms and other problems, including expensive software. Those of us who don't want to fuss with our computers all the time need something easier to use and less expensive. Linux has become that alternative.
What role has Linux users groups (LUG's) had in the rise of Linux? If the personal computer revolution was born from a computer user group (the Homebrew Computer Club), does it not make sense to have a modest amount of federal funding to support user groups? (i.e. 25 cents added to the cost of every computer sold in the United States, to be redistributed to computer user groups around the country.)
Robin Miller: Well.... although I believe Linux User Groups are great (I belong to the Suncoast LUG myself) I'm not sure if government funding is a great idea. Not only that, it's unlikely.
Microsoft has made huge contribution to the party currently in power, you know.
And the last time I saw a photo of George W. Bush using a computer it was a an Apple laptop.
I think LUGs are fine as independent entities, myself.
Your book takes interactivity to a new level, with a CD-ROM containing a Linux version readers can install and instructional DVDs. What will readers see on those DVDs?
Robin Miller: They'll see a series of videos 3 - 6 minutes long, including an introduction, "How to install MEPIS Linux," and some specifics on how to use some of the software included in the package. You can see samples on Prentice Hall's Point and Click Linux book page. And I'll have more videos at my own Point and Click Linux page in another week or so, starting with a series that will help you convert from the Explorer Web browser to Firefox browser and the Thunderbird email program even if you feel you must stay with Windows for the moment.
Hello Mr Miller,
I'm a regular PC user like millions of others around the world. I'm used to running Windows operating system on my machine. I'm not an expert in internet security, but I can tell that Windows is pretty vulnerable when it comes to fighting different bugs getting into my computer through the Internet. They say Linux is good at network security. Could you explain in a very simple manner what exactly Linux is good at and how it can help users overcome the security problem facing Microsoft's Windows. Thanks a lot.
Robin Miller: Linux is more secure than Windows because of the way it is made. To start with, you need to be logged in as "root" instead of as a user to make system changes so that makes it harder to hack.
Second, the applications software isn't "tied in" to the operating system the way, for instance, Explorer is tied into Windows, so a piece of bad software that takes over a Linux Web browser can't hide someplace else in your computer.
In fact, since Linux is open source, which means anyone including you can look at all the code in your Linux machine, it is hard to have secret software hidden in a Linux computer at all.
As far as what Linux is good at... I use it for Internet access, email, writing, video production, bookkeeping, and game-playing. Others use it for other purposes. It all depends on what you want.
I have tried several distributions of open-source Linux and have settled with the Fedora Project. Fedora Core 2 installed all my PC hardware except my Crystal audio card and it proved to be a major pain to download, compile and install the correct driver to work with this specific audio card. I recently upgraded to Core 3 (the latest release) and it now automatically installs the audio driver but installs the wrong CD-ROM drive (installs it as a CD-R which make it inoperable). My question is when - if ever - will Linux distributions install PC hardware and drivers similar to the Windows plug'n play system? And do you think this is a reasonable request to the developers of Linux distributions of the need for simplified installations? It seems to me if Linux was a simple to install as Windows, there would be little need for expensive and security-challenged software developed by Microsoft.
Robin Miller: I think you meant to ask, "When will virtually all PC and device maker cooperate with Linux developers?"
You might also want to think about buying your hardware from vendors who *do* support Linux instead of buying random hardware and hoping. This is what I do, so I never have hardware detection problems.
Besides, Windows doesn't work on all hardware, as you seem to think. Try to put Windows on a Mac someday and see what happens. (Linux runs on Apple products just fine, BTW.)
What's the advantage of buying a Linux version from Red Hat (or another distributor) vs. downloading a free copy from one of the more trusted Linux Web sites?
Also, if I do buy a Red Hat release, how do I make sure my OS version keeps up with all the ongoing changes being made to Linux?
Robin Miller: Actually, you answered yourself. :)
The main reason to pay for a commercial Linux distribution is easy updates.
Of course, there are also non-commercial versions, notably Debian, that are as good on the update front as the commercial ones, but many people coming from the proprietary software world seem more comfortable paying for their software, so it usually takes a little experience with Linux before people are ready to accept a truly free GNU/Linux system.
What do you think of the "live-cd" versions of Linux like Knoppix? These seem to hold great promise, esp. in the area of device detection - since unlike every flavor of linux I've tried requires you to compile and install dozens of software libraries to use a new piece of hardware on your computer.
Why can't the other Linux distros learn from the work these guys have done?
Robin Miller: Ummm... SimplyMEPIS, the version of Linux included in my book, is a live CD distro. It is at least as good at hardware detection as Knoppix and a lot easier to install...
As someone who has tracked Linux for a long time, what did you make of the whole SCO patent flap? Was it/is it a genuine threat to this open-source project, or much ado about nothing?
Robin Miller: As a reporter who's been covering the SCO silliness from the start, I've now relegated it to the realm of "sick humor."
We cover it a little bit at NewsForge.com but no longer take it seriously.
Silver Spring, Md.:
So Robin, if you woke up tomorrow morning and found yourself in Bill Gates's shoes, what would you do to protect the Microsoft empire from the Linux upstart? Would you make MS code open source?
Robin Miller: If I woke up tomorrow and found myself in Bill Gates's shoes...
First I'd divorce Melinda and marry my wife, Debbie.
Then I'd put away about $10 million for myself and about the same for my family.
Third, I'd buy a large sailing catamaran and go explore the Caribbean.
And protect the Windows empire from Linux? Naaahhh... I'd be off sailing. I'd let Steve Ballmer worry about that.
Can Linux run effectively (without problems) all Microsoft applications (on computers where one replaces Windows with Linux), or is one limited only to those computers with a Linux operating system, and Linux-compatible applications? Thank you for your time.
Robin Miller: Why would you want to run overpriced Windows applications on a computer with Linux installed on it?
You *can* run most Windows applications under Linux -- my book mentions two commercial applications that help you do exactly that -- but I personally use nothing but free Linux software.
Seriously, a major reason to switch to Linux is to use Linux software. Scribus is an excellent FREE desktop publishing program for Linux, for example. Once I have Linux and Scribus, why would I want to spend big $$ for Quark? :)
Seneca Falls, NY:
You just mentioned Firefox as an alternative. Would I still be able to use AOL which my wife insists we keep using?
Robin Miller: Sure -- assuming you keep using Windows. AOL doesn't allow Linux users to use AOL even though AOL itself runs Linux internally like mad.
Las Vegas, NV:
I'm tired of the constant almost dailey XP updates. Is Linux OS any different? How secure is it?
Robin Miller: Linux is immune to all current Windows viruses, worms, and trojans. While it is theoretically possible to write Linux viruses, there have never been any successful ones.
As far as the updating... some software keeps getting better so fast that it's a good idea to keep checking for new versions, but if your Linux computer is running fine you don't *have* to do this, and no little cartoon balloons will pop up telling you that you should while you're working. :)
Grecia, Costa Rica:
Can Linux be installed in Pentium 1, 2G, 80 mem, Laptop and how many Megas is Linux.
Robin Miller: Yes, although the version of SimplyMEPIS in my Point and Click Linux book is designed for slightly newer hardware -- minimum 96 MB RAM.
You might want to check out Conectiva Linux - it's pretty good with older hardware, and its native languages are Portogesa y Espanol.
I know there's an active Linux Users Group in Costa Rica. You should get advice from them.
Come to think of it, no matter where you live, your local LUG is your best source of advice.
Being that OS X is UNIX based and therefore as robust as Linux, what can you say Linux offers a potential converter from Microsoft that OS X does not?
Robin Miller: Without getting into a long speech about software freedom and why the GNU part of GNU/Linux doesn't get as much publicity as it should...
...Apple hardware and software are great for those who can afford them.
Not having a family trust fund, I'm forced to buy the least expensive hardware I can find and to use free or very low-cost software.
Mac equivalents to the free software on the computer I'm using today would have cost well over $2000.
And this computer is an ancient 366 MHz IBM ThinkPad with 256 MB RAM - a garage-sale piece I picked up for $200...
frustrated linux newbie, virginia:
Roblimo, will linux ever be at the point where new users don't have to become programmers to make their system operate normally? I've been teaching myself linux for over 2 months now, but I can't get past how making it work properly means constantly opening up the programming shell and typing cryptic commands and understanding what can only be described as coded messages.
does anyone really think that the majority of computer users would switch if this sort of knowledge is required?
Robin Miller: Huh?
Please note the title of my book: "Point and Click Linux."
With MEPIS and some of the other modern Linux flavors, you don't need to do all that command line typing unless you're the computer equivalent of a car hot-rodder.
I probably haven't opened up a shell (command line window) for at least 6 months.
Tysons Corner, VA:
You describe Linux as trouble-free, but aren't there a host of legal issues surrounding the use of Linux? For example, the SCO lawsuit, questions about the viability of the GNU public license, Microsoft's recent assertion that Linux is covered by potentially hundreds of patents. In that environment, how can a business make the decision to change over to Linux?
Robin Miller: According to Free Software Foundation legal counsel Dan Ravicher, there are no more patent or other legal issues surrounding Linux than with any other major piece of software.
The big difference with Linux is that you have a mighty Microsoft PR machine to tell you about each and every *potential* one with Linux, while no one spends millions to tell you about the many intellectual property suits and settlements that affect proprietary software every year.
The only way to keep yourself from all software legal issues until we reform our current sick software patent process is to shut off your computer and use nothing but a pen and note pad -- except (sigh) some big company will probably patent them too before long.
Last week, Intel announced it was going to work on Linux installation tools in partnership with Asian PC makers. On the surface, this looks like a huge win for Linux, a sign that this OS might make a stronger play for the desktop market in the near future. But when I mentioned this to a colleague who knows a lot about Linux, he scoffed at it, saying Linux is still way too complicated for everyday users to install and maintain on their desktops. What do you think.
Robin Miller: Ah hah! A geek elitist rears his head!
A lot of old-line Linux users like to think they have a private club that you should only be allowed to join if you're willing to type long commands like /mnt/mount/cd/cdrom instead of just clicking on a music player to play a tune on a CD.
My stepdaughter Alicia is a black, single-mom high-school dropout in Baltimore who works in a nursing home for less than a living wage. She has no problem using Linux, and her home computer hasn't required any maintenance in nearly four years. Anyone who says they think Linux is too hard to use should switch jobs (and salaries) with Alicia, because it's not too hard for *her* to use.
In other words, your friend is trying to make something simple look harder than it really is.
I am no brilliant bulb myself, and I manage to use Linux without problems while I am frequently bollixed by "simple" Windows tasks like getting a wireless network going.
Will a hill-billy distribution like MEPIS run in the flatlands of Texas?
Robin Miller: Only if there are no miniature donkeys nearby. :)
NOTE to onlookers: I suspect that this question is a "plant" from my coworker, NewsForge editor Joe Barr -- who uses Linux and has 4 miniature donkeys on his spread S. of Austin. \
Yes, MEPIS Linux comes from W. Virginia. Warren Woodford, the genius who came up with it, returned to Morgantown after many years as a successful financial applications programmer in San Francisco.
Hillbilly jokes aside, Warren has come up with the easiest version of Linux I've ever seen for ordinary desktop users like us. That's why I chose it for the Point and Click Linux package.
Do you think Linux will be able to create a sizeable dent in the monopoly of Microsoft in the area of computing? I am a former Macintosh user who has had to go to a Windows computer just to be able to be compatible with the rest of the world. (And this is despite my liking the Macintosh computers.)
Robin Miller: Depends what you mean by "sizeable dent."
By some accounts, up to 30% of all new computes in Asian countries now ship with Linux.
Linux is the fastest-growing operating system for server computers worldwide.
But the main thing isn't whether or not Linux is "the" operating system but that we all can use open standards for file formats instead of having one company dictate how we store our data.
Once you have open standards, you can use whatever operating system you prefer.
Do you think their aren't many Linux viruses because the system is so inherently stable and clean? Or is it just that relatively few people use it so malicious programs can't spread as quickly and don't impact as many people and no one bothers?
Robin Miller: If you're being paid by Microsoft, the only reason there are no successful Linux viruses is that Linux only has (depending on whose numbers you believe) between 1% and 7% of the desktop computer market.
If you're not being paid by Microsoft and you have any background in computer security, you realize that the combination of Linux's internal structure and the fact that the code is open source instead of being hidden make it inherently more secure than "secret sauce" operating systems.
Funny question: Since Linux runs close to 30% of all Web sites, which is *certainly* a substantial share of the market, why are sites running Windows and Microsoft's IIS server software hacked so much more frequently than those running Linux and the wildly popular open source Apache server software?
Speaking of running Linux on PC hardware. If 96MB is recommended for memory, does running 512MB make things blazingly fast? How does a Linux machine generally compare with a Windows machine with comparable hardware?
Finally, how big a hard disk would you recommend for a Linux machine?
Robin Miller: More RAM = faster, period. And with GNU/Linux, I've generally found that adding RAM does more to speed up software than a faster CPU.
In general, Linux is less hardware-hungry than Windows. The only time I test the limits of my not-fancy home computing hardware is in video rendering, which is so hardware-intensive that people like Disney and Hammerhead Studios don't even *think* about using Windows to do it but stick to Linux.
As far as hard drive size... the little laptop I'm using right now has an 8 GB hard drive and I've never filled it even though I have a fair amount of (legal) music, 100s of photos, and three book manuscripts on it. My video production desktop has 2 120 GB hard drives and they're both full.
You probably fall somewhere between these two extremes.
I'm fed up with Windows crashing and corrupting all my files, and want to install Linux (RedHat version 9) on my Dell laptop. Will hardware that is "designed to work with Windows" function just as well with Linux?
Robin Miller: You'd probably find MEPIS easier to install on the laptop, and you can download it free from mepis.org instead of buying my book if you like.
But why would something that's designed to work with Windows necessarily work with Linux?
Note that IBM and HP now both sell Linux-certified laptops, but Dell does not, and make your hardware buying decisions accordingly. :)
I hear there is a revision of the GPL coming up, what forces (market, legal, Linus) do you see as the impetus for this revision?
Robin Miller: I'd say it's mainly the ASP loophole, which I helped find a few years ago (and got flamed for exposing, of course).
For those of you thinking about Linux on the desktop, spend exactly -0- time worrying about this. It's an arcane licensing point dealing with whether software running on a public Web server is the same as "redistributing" that software. You should only be interested in this if you're the sort of person who reads each and every license agreement for each piece of software you own -- and if you did that, I assure you that you would *never* use most popular proprietary software but would do as I do and stick to free (in the freedom sense) programs for all critical applications.
Check http://gnu.org for more on this...
Robin: It's 2004, and computer retailers still don't sell PCs with Linux pre-installed. What will it take for Linux to break Microsoft's stranglehold on PC retailers?
Robin Miller: I have no trouble buying computers that run Linux. My HP D220 desktop shipped from HP with Linux, not Windows.
Amnet Computers - http://amnet-comp.com/ - in Baltimore will build you a custom Linux computer at a good price and ship it anywhere. So will many other computer vendors.
You can buy a Linux computer from Walmart.com -- for an unbeatable price, of course.
As far as Dell and others who don't want to sell you a Linux computer, don't buy from them unless you want Windows. It's a free market, and you can vote with your dollars, same as I vote with mine.
(And yes, Canadian dollars count!!!)
Are free versions of Linux still available? If so, where? Thanks.
Robin Miller: All over the place. http://distrowatch.com would be a good place to start looking for them.
But I *always* suggest asking for help and advice from your local Linux Users Group before you start learning Linux -- unless you buy my book and videos, of course. :)
You can find a LUG near you by typing "Linux Users Group"' and the name of your city or town into Google -- and you'll be using Linux before you know it, because Google runs on Linux and you'll be using Google.
San Diego, California:
I've worked in Linux world for the last 18 months. Your responses so far have all been stock-standard Linux-priesthood speak. That is: Linux is easy, anyone who can't use it isn't very smart, etc., etc.
Here's the reality: the "free" software available to run on Linux is written by the Linux priesthood FOR the Linux priesthood. With a few great exceptions, each piece of software is maddeningly arcane and unique in every way. The "help" documents are written in a language I don't speak.
Without an on-staff geek to download new software, compile it, and install it, the Linux user will be stuck with either using the software that is already installed on the machine (with no changes), or becoming a Linux priest.
Sorry, pal. There's no "point and click" Linux.
Robin Miller: Thank you for clearing this up.
As soon as I have a chance I'll tell all the testers from Prentice Hall who vetted my book and videos that they were wrong. As soon as that task is complete I'll tell all the other millions of Linux users who run Linux every day without looking at a command line that they should immediately stop that silliness.
And I will tell Warren Woodford that he and I and thousands of other MEPIS Linux users who think we are downloading and installing new, free software with three clicks and a password are fooling ourselves -- that we're not really able to do that.
Thank you again for showing us the error of our ways!
Do you use Microsoft or Apple OS's for anything?
Robin Miller: Once in a while I review a piece of Windows software, but that's about it. And I'm making some training videos for Windows users converting to the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird email client, so I'm using Windows while making those videos.
For day to day work, Linux does everything I need.
Will the free Linux programs recognize & work properly with my nearly 15 yrs. of "legacy" data files, e.g., Quicken, WordPerfect, spreadsheets, etc.?
I'm no good without my data, LOL...
Robin Miller: You can convert most or all of your data.
Check Book Tracker, the little bookeeping program included free with MEPIS in my book, imports Quicken's .qif files -- and works fine with Bank of America's online banking service, too.
I use OpenOffice.org (also included free) to deal with spreadsheets and text documents created in other formats, usually Microsoft ones. OOo will save in those formats, too, although its native format takes a *lot* less hard drive space so I tend to use that instead of a proprietary one unless I'm dealing with people who haven't yet switched to open source software and/or operating systems.
What about the gamer? Are PC games widely available in Linux-compatible versions, or is the situation similar to the Mac world?
Robin Miller: I'd say there are now more games for Linux than for Mac, but Windows is still ahead for gamers.
After all, isn't Windows primarily for games? :)
Robin -- is there one Web site that serves as a directory for all or most LUGs?
Robin Miller: http://lugww.counter.li.org/ is probably the best...
Your non-answer on the "priesthood":
Come on, now. That wasn't an answer. Does the questioner have a point, even a partial one? Enlighten us!;
Robin Miller: Yes he had a point... in 1998 everything he said was true.
But in 2004 it's not. Linux usability has advanced at an amazing rate over the last five years or so. As I said at the beginning of this shebang, I couldn't have made this "Point and Click Linux" package a few years ago.
But saying Linux is not point/click easy *now* is like saying Microsoft products don't have graphical interfaces for ordinary users because I have a copy of DOS and it doesn't have one.
Get MEPIS free from mepis.org and find out for yourself. You can run it from your CD drive without installing it, so you won't have any installation hassles at all. The only piece of knowledge you may need is how to set your computer to boot from your CD drive instead of your hard drive, but you need to know this in order to reinstall Windows on a virus-ridden computer so learning how to do this won't be wasted even if you decide not to switch to Linux.
Since free seems to be one of the big draws to Linux, why not make the book free? I mean if my software development time, effort, and ideas are not worth a penny, why should a book written by someone that is their work, effort, and ideas not be free too?
Robin Miller: The software CD is free to share and download, and I'm posting all the videos for free download shortly.
The book... talk to Prentice Hall about that.
And please note that the "free" in GNU/Linux refers to freedom, not getting things at no cost. Many people seem to have trouble with the difference. Please check http://gnu.org for more on this topic.
Hi. I was a computer programmer way back in the Dark Ages. Left the field long ago. But I'm feeling nostalgic. Just out of curiosity, if I install Linux, can I still do old-style Unix things like open a command-line C shell? Are all those commands and utilities with their wonderful names and funky syntax still available (cat, more, fgrep, awk, lex, yacc, etc.)?
Ah, those were the days.
Robin Miller: Sure.
Just as you can now drive a car without knowing how to shift gears manually, change your own oil, fix flats at the side of the road or how to tweak your car's computer for maximum performance, you can now use Linux purely as a point and click user-level operating system.
If you're the sort of person who likes to make your car go faster than it did when it came from the factory, you can go "under the hood" with Linux as well by opening up that old Unix-style command line window and doing anything you like, including optimizing Linux for your hardware in a way you can *never* do with Windows.
Note to parents:
If you give Linux to your children, you risk having them learn enough about computers to get a good job without even going to college. The fact that they can see how all th programs work inside (open source) means they can learn how to write their own programs. Can't have that, can we? :)
Everything I've heard about Linux sounds great. I'm interested. I also use Firefox and like it. Thunderbird sounds good, too.
But my main computing need is a solid office suite. And I've heard more mixed reviews on what's available in that area. I would need very thorough file compatibility with Office. that is, my large, complex Excel files, for instance, would need to open and function properly with the new software. Without much tweaking. And I have to be able to send the file to my Excel-using colleagues without causing them trouble.
What is the status of this issue? I know some businesses and government types are going with Linux. What office software do they use?
Robin Miller: I've had exactly one (1) MS Office format file, ever, that I couldn't open with OpenOffice.org. It couldn't be read by most MS Office users, either. The sender did a big opps! and resent a saner version.
I exchange xls and doc files with colleagues daily, no problem, using OpenOffice.
The funniest thing about the Linux debate is when Bill Gates is quoted as saying that we should choose Microsoft Windows because of their "user support"...snort choke...
Maybe they should ship every copy of Linux with a recording of a stuttering teenager saying "Have you tried rebooting your machine?" the deluxe version would follow with "I guess you'll have to reinstall..."
How can Microsoft claim to "support" their users with a straight face. have they no shame... well I guess that one is pretty obvious...
Robin Miller: Please, my friend, be nice.
Thousands of people depend on Windows problems to earn their livings.
If everyone switched to Linux tomorrow, there would be no market for Windows anti-virus software, none of the spyware and adware people would be able to make money, and all those techs who "clean out" messed-up Windows machines at $60 or $100 or whatever a pop would be out of work.
Reliable, easy-to-use Linux computers and free or low-cost Linux software can ruin the economy.
I know this is true. Bill Gates said so, and he would never lie, would he?
So let's keep Linux as a secret instead of telling everyone about it, okay?
Especially, please don't tell anyone that if they buy my book or download MEPIS for free, they can get free support at http://mepis.org/forum -- and free support for almost any Linux distribution through local LUGs they can easily find through Google.
Robin Miller: Okay... some questions went unanswered because there were w-a-y too many for the time we had, and we went way over that time limit anyway.
Thanks to everyone for being here. I'd love to chat with each of you one-on-one, but Point & Click Linux is selling so fast and I'm getting so much fan (e)mail that I can't possibly answer everyone individually. Again, I suggest going to Google or http://lugww.counter.li.org/ and hooking up with a local Linux Users Group.
That's how I learned to use Linux, and it's the best way for you to learn, too. Not only that, you'll meet some great people. I know *I* have!