Sunday, March 23, 2008

Linux distributions, file formats, and the future

I've been using Linux (or more properly GNU/Linux), both on my computer at home and at work, since August of 2002. Now, in 2008, I've settled on two distributions: PCLinuxOS at home, and Ubuntu at work.

"Distributions" are confusing to some people. There's only one flavor of Windows (well, not really, if you count 2000, XP, Vista versions, and so on). There's only one flavor of the Macintosh's OSX (well, not really, since 10.3, 10.4, 10.5 are all out there). But the point is that those operating systems are corporate properties. They are owned, and supported, by a single entity. They are families of operating system, usually along an upgrade path.

Because open source software can be tweaked by programmers, quite legally, a single individual can patch together various pieces of software -- the Linux kernel, various choices among the GNU software repositories, a host of other background and icon themes -- and put his or her own name on it. And hundreds of people have done just that.

PCLinuxOS (usually abbreviated as PCLOS) got its start as a variant of a corporate Linux: Mandrake (now Mandriva). Ubuntu is sponsored by Mark Shuttleworth and his company, Canonical. Both distributions are free, although in the case of Ubuntu, formal support can be purchased.

There are a lot of other distributions, however. The definitive source is Distrowatch. These days, most distributions can be downloaded and installed on a CD; then you can boot (restart) your computer from that CD, and play around with it with no effect on your current operating system. If you like it, another click installs it on your computer -- either taking over the whole hard drive, or living alongside Windows or OSX, a process called "dual booting."

Mostly, I use the same software at home and at work. But I find that staying current with two distributions not only keeps my mind flexible, it also helps me to understand better the issues behind maintaining a distribution, and see the various approaches taken to solve common computer problems.

Let me be clear about this: I can do almost everything on Linux that anyone can do on another system. Both of my systems are modern, graphically based, and very capable. Sometimes, of course, I run across a proprietary software application that I can't use; but I can usually find something like it in the free software world. Linux has proven to be immune from viruses, extraordinarily stable, and quite fast. I watch my tech people, and they have to do way more work on the PCs around me than they ever have to do on mine.

But in the past couple of days, I found one major incompatibility. I was trying to do a PowerPoint outline for an upcoming presentation at PLA. Using Openoffice (2.3), it was easy enough to put it together, but then I exported it to the PowerPoint format, and tried to hand it over to someone running Windows. And it looked awful -- not at all like what I saw on my screen.

And there's the good and bad about using Openoffice (which runs not only on Linux, but Windows and OSX as well) instead of Microsoft Office. Good: Openoffice matches most of the functionality of Microsoft Office, and reads and writes most MS Office file formats very well. Also good: Openoffice is free, and saves files in a native format that has all the information, and does NOT depend on an otherwise unnecessary and pricey software upgrade to read them.

Here's the digital archive dilemma: most library files have been saved in a proprietary format. Getting the content back might depend upon the business plan of Microsoft.

But here's the bad about Openoffice: when you do encounter a file format incompatibility -- and of course, most of the rest of the world uses Microsoft -- it can be significantly annoying and time-wasting.

There are two solutions: (1) the development of better descriptions (by Microsoft) of their secret formats. Don't hold your breath. (2) A movement away from Microsoft Office. If we all share open formats, file compatibilities disappear, and the public record is no longer held hostage to private interests.

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