An increasing number of computer users in Kenya are switching over to the Linux operating system, as Microsoft demands hefty licence fees for its Windows software.
The popularity of Linux is largely due to the fact that its licence is free of charge, meaning you only pay for installation costs. And if you have a reasonably fast internet connection, you can download any Linux operating system for free. As a result, cybercafes, small offices and some large organizations are switching from Windows to Linux largely as a cost cutting measure.
“When Microsoft officials came here, they told me to pay licence fees for Windows,” says David Kiarie, a cybercafe owner in Nairobi. Mr Kiarie’s cybercafe has about 20 computers. “The total cost of Windows licences would have come to Kshs200,000. After that, I would have paid extra fees for having Microsoft Office in each computer and another fee for the Windows Server.”
Kiarie could not afford these costs and his technician advised him to try Linux. “I have installed Ubuntu in all my machines and its working out quite well,” says Kiarie. “I also use Linux for my server.”
As with many other Linux users, Kiarie has discovered another benefit to this operating system: “Linux is not affected by computer viruses. When I was using Windows, I had to format a machine every week. Now, my maintenance costs have reduced.” Indeed, with disruptions caused by the Kibaki, Raila and Kalonzo viruses, many large corporations in Kenya are finding it easier to install Linux than suffer losses arising from time wasted in removing virus infections from their systems.
But what really is Linux? And how many different types of Linux exist out there? What is the difference between Ubuntu, Suse Linux or Red Hat?
Linux is a Unix like operating system developed in 1989 by Linus Torvalds, a university student in Finland. According to his biography, Torvalds was developing an operating system that could be used in desktop computers. At the time, Unix was the main computing software for mainframe computers, those giant machines that took up an entire room. The fact that Linux evolved from Unix means that they have a lot in common.
By the early 1990s, the Free Software Foundation – based in the United States – decided to adopt Linux as a licence-free and royalty-free operating system. The growth of the internet played a great role in spreading Linux. People from all over the world could download Linux, examine it, modify it and present their own versions.
“Science and technology exploded 500 years ago thanks to the sharing of knowledge. Our science and technology work owing to the free availability of information, peer review, and the capabilities to pick up ideas and modify or extend. Open Software is an implementation of the scientific method into the field of software development. The freedom to pick-up, modify and extend, that comes with the Linux licence, offers a promise that the software development under Linux licence will continue in the way that science does.” This explanation is contained in a Linux brochure written by Peter and Stan Klimas.
Because any software developer can customize it, there have emerged several branches of Linux. The main branches in the Linux evolutionary tree are Slackware, Debian, Redhat and Gentoo. Each of these represent a different way of packaging and managing Linux programs.
Unlike Windows, Linux does not use “.exe” files. Linux versions on the Debian standard use programs packaged as “.deb”, while those in the Redhat standard use the Red Hat management system (“.rpm).
Within the main branches of Linux, you will find hundreds of brands developed in countries such as the USA, Britain, Brazil, China, India among others. The most popular brands are Ubuntu and Suse Linux. Ubuntu is a brainchild of entrepreneur, Mark Shuttleworth of South Africa while Suse Linux is a product of Novell. Ubuntu falls in the Debian branch of Linux while Suse uses the Redhat standard.
In the Linux world, each brand is called a, “distribution.” Linux fans have gone further to shorten the word, distribution, into “distro.” So you’ll get a question like, “which Linux distro do you want to use?” Other distros of Linux are: PC Linux, Fedora, Mandriva, and Xandros.
In spite of the fact that Linux is cheaper to install and operate than Windows, it does suffer some significant drawbacks. As cybercafe operator, Kiarie, points out, Linux is not easy for people accustomed to Windows. “A lot of people expect Linux to work like Windows but its a completely different operating system. There is no drive ”C” in Linux for instance. Another thing is that Open Office is not the same as Microsoft Office and people complain a lot about it.”
One of the reasons Microsoft Windows is easier to use is because most computer users were trained with it. At the moment, few colleges in Kenya offer introductory lessons on Linux. Apart from that, Microsoft Windows is designed as a user friendly operating system while sacrificing security against hackers and viruses. Linux is built from its shell as a secure system but this enhancement makes it slightly more difficult to use than Windows.
The development of the Linux Window system – or the X-Window system – means that Linux is getting better with each release. While it takes 3 – 5 years for Microsoft to upgrade Windows, there is a new release of Linux virtually every week. Big Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, release new versions twice a year. Though Windows had a head start over Linux, especially in desktop design, the fact that Linux has more regular releases means that the X-Window system has greatly caught up with Windows. In some cases, X has surpassed Microsoft Windows in terms of desktop stability and with screen resolution capabilities.
Another disadvantage with Linux is that its not easy for the average user to install new programs. With Windows, all you have to do is download a set-up installation file and double-click on it. The Linux installation procedure requires technical knowledge of the operating system. The bright side to this is that companies and cybercafes do not need to worry about people installing unauthorized software such as games, pornographic programs or chat applications.
Besides, with hundreds of Linux distributions out there, you will find several that fit your pattern of use. There are Linux distributions that have only basic programs in text editing. Most Linux distributions have office programs, an internet browser and multi-media programs. Others come pre-installed with graphic design software for photo editing and desktop publishing. Advanced Linux distributions come pre-installed with video and audio editing software. Therefore, while Linux does not offer the flexibility to install programs on the fly, you only need to shop around before you find a Linux distribution that fits your needs.
Due to difficulties in installing new software, Linux is not popular with video game addicts. Infact, one Linux forum goes ahead and advises “extreme gamers” to just stick with Windows. “Your life will be much easier that way,” the website says.
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