Examining options for Windows 98 users - Part 1
When I received a comment on my last article "An evolution of my advice for getting started with Linux" saying why virtualization was not an option for people still running Windows 98, I wasn't sure what to think. However, when I found this article on Bruce Perens' "Slashdot for Grown-Ups", Technocrat.net, while writing my editorial this month I couldn't stop thinking about the connection between the two incidents.
As I have said before in my column, one of the biggest misconceptions in the Information Technology (IT) industry is that technology is replaceable. When a company like Dell or Microsoft makes a new product, they are hoping for many existing customers to replace perfectly good products with new ones. Within corporate IT a purchasing manager will hear a constant stream of promises that this technology or that technology will make some other technology obsolete. Within software development shops there is always a lot of debate and discussion about changing tools and languages, and the primary point of discussion is that the new tool or language will provide significant improvements and ultimately replace the previous technology.
Of course, for technology, we all know that nothing could be further from the truth. When we pay for technology there is a relationship between how much we pay for it and how long we hope to use it. Who among us hasn't purchased an expensive piece of technology and not said to themselves, considering how much I paid for this, it had better last a long time. Now think for a moment about banks that in the hey days of COBOL, Common Business Oriented Language which was popular in the 1970's, spent millions of dollars creating a system to manage accounts. How motivated do you think they might be to spend perhaps ten or twenty times that to replace that system when the strategic value is perhaps only marginal.
You know, no matter when you buy a personal computer they always seem to cost somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000. I think all of the PC's I ever bought were within that range. We always try to balance buying as capable of a machine as possible to fit within our budget and then hope that it doesn't become obsolete the moment we turn it on for the first time.
So when I receive letters talking about how it might seem like we favor state-of-the art machines, I can relate. I've been there myself before. I'm probably there right now on my home computers. With personal computers, the hope that our personal computers will not become obsolete quickly is fruitless. Moore's law tells us that ever two years, personal computers will be twice as capable as before (Moore's law is the empirical observation that the complexity of integrated circuits, with respect to minimum component cost, doubles every 24 months. It is attributed to Gordon E. Moore, a co-founder of Intel). So if you purchased a computer anywhere between 1995 and 2000 and you are using Windows 98, Windows 98SE, or Windows Millenium, that means that machines available today are at least eight times more capable than your machine.
So while I feel your pain, I unfortunately won't be able to offer much help to relieve that pain. You are moving ever closer to a tough decision, do you try Linux on your existing hardware or do you break down and buy a new computer. If you do buy a new machine, do you pay the Microsoft Windows tax that makes you buy a copy of Microsoft Windows from original equipment manufacturers (regardless of whether you are going to use it or not), or do you find a machine on the secondary market and avoid paying the tax to get Linux installed directly.
In this first article, let's examine the first option. You are adamant. You believe your machine still has relevance and you want to take advantage of it while you still can. The big question I have is what are your expectations for a replacement for your current Windows? The not so subtle truth is that you have been using your existing software for many years now, and you are comfortable with it. For the tasks you need, your existing combination of operating system, applications and hardware are perfectly capable . However, perhaps even more telling, is that despite the security failures and potential instability of previous versions of Windows, millions never upgraded to Windows XP. Of course many factors I'm sure are pertinent to that decision, but the bottom line is the bottom line, you haven't upgraded.
Here is where your situation gets complicated. Perhaps one of the reasons you never upgraded to Windows XP was because your computer's hardware was not up to the resource demands of XP. Unfortunately, for the very same reason, many of the Linux distributions that rely on the K Desktop Environment (KDE) will also be out of your reach. The minimum RAM recommended is 512 Mb and the required CPU should be at least 1 Ghz. And while the GNOME desktop requirements are slightly more modest, GNOME will also probably be out of reach. After KDE and GNOME what's left? Well there is XFCE, ROX, and Fluxbox. And while KDE and GNOME do not aim to replicate the Windows user experience, they are successful in providing a similar experience. I guarantee that the remaining alternative desktop environments have quite a different user experience.
Back to the question, if your expectation with Linux is an equal experience in terms of usability and application support, XFCE, ROX, Window Maker, and FluxBox will not meet your expectation. So unless you are willing to significantly change your habits, learn many new applications for completing your primary tasks (word processing, browsing, or whatever), and assume control of the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of your computer, then perhaps it time to start saving your money. You're going to need about $1,500 to $2,000 if my memory is correct. (Seriously, you can buy a very capable machine for much less than that, especially if you're happy with your monitor. But of course it will be obsolete by the time you get it home.)
By the way, if you want to find out more information about XFCE, Window Maker, or Fluxbox, check into some back issues of TUX Magazine, respectively Issue 8 November 2006 , Issue 9 December 2006, and Issue 12 April 2006.