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.

Kevin Shockey - Thu, 2006-06-22 11:55.

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I'm also using Puppy on a

I'm also using Puppy on a computer, which you would normally think is slow (400 Mhz) - at least if you are an windows user. But with puppy the speed is really amazing. I'm so glad that I changed my operating system.

Peter Venture (not verified) - Fri, 2007-01-19 07:54.

Linux choices?

Kevin

Firstly could I say I love your articles but I do feel that we sometimes talk at too high a level. To put things in a car scenario, we all might like Lamborghinis but most people buy Ford (or Toyota).

Perhaps I'm being silly here but, I believe that there are different classes of computer users.

To start with we have the 'Personal Power Users'... We (yes, I include myself in this group) have the experience to know exactly what we want and how to get that software and set it up just right. We are going to be running Linux (or Free BSD). We probably gave up on 95/98 when NT came out.

Next, there are the corporate users - they need (or rather, their support teams need) an operating system that is reliable, easy to support, easy to recruit knowledgeable staff who know how to support the environment and, above all, not a barrier to their real work (do you really want your financial advisor spending time learning a new operating system when he/she should be looking after your investments?). These guys will, unfortunately, stay with MurkySoft - they won't have a choice - that choice will have been made for them by their CIO.

Finally, we have the home users - I'm talking here about my friends who use their home PCs to send and receive email, to browse the web, do a bit of word-processing and, well - that's about all. These people don't understand that 95/98 is a flawed technology - they don't care - they just want to be able to do the things that I've detailed above. When they give up on Microsoft, where will they turn? Certainly not to FreeBSD, nor Gentoo - they might try LinSpire or Ubuntu but I think that would be a shame as there is one operating system out there that blows all the others away (for casual users, anyway) - and that system is... Puppy Linux!

I'm currently running Puppy on an old 600MHz machine with 256MB of RAM (it cost me all of 70 euros - £48 - 100 dollars) - that machine is functionally the fastest machine that I have ever used (after 16 years in corporate IT), or seen. When I say functionally, I mean if I click on the WebBrowser icon, the app is launched immediately, before my finger has left the mouse button - just as a point of reference here, I have been using Linux since 1994 when my Linux system consisted of 2 floppy disks - one to boot from and another to log in with. I could do really usefull things then, like delete files, copy files etc. In other words, only what I could do with DOS. Since then, I have tried most Linux distributions and have ended up using Ubuntu on my main machine - I love Ubuntu - it's allowed me to create the best desktop experience that I've ever had but, for the casual user - surely Puppy is the way to go?

My one wish for 2007 is that someone will create an installable Puppy distribution that will include OpenOffice, FireFox and Thunderbird. I also hope that they put a more professional front end on it - the standard one is just too 'Puppyish' for me (I like Gnome and XFCE) - with that, Puppy could fill the void that will be created when owners of older machines (who don't want to buy new technology just to do the same old stuff) find that they are un-supported by the company that got us all into computers in the first place.

A freely available CD (just like Ubuntu), some evangalists (like me) who are prepared to show others that there is another way, some basic changes to the software (I don't like being logged in as ROOT), with the core apps that we all need... well, with that, surely those millions of people who don't care about where their software comes from (as long as it works, and does what they want it to do) - won't they be tempted to change?

Here's hoping, anyway

All the best

Keith (http://www.kmeckstein.com)

P.S. Puppy is the only Linux distribution that I have ever used that handles all my multimedia requirements - that sets up my network without grief, that works too fast for my fingers to keep up with it! My 600MHx machine took 1hr20m to set up with Windows 98SE (all those re-boots) - it took 8 minutes to set up with Puppy - enough said!

Keith Eckstein (not verified) - Sun, 2006-12-31 08:04.

Linux on an old Computer

I tried to install Linux on a computer which was used before with Windows 98. I gave up after a few weeks, because the system was so instable and slow. I bought a very cheap new computer for 500 $ and now it works perfect.

Michael Mueller (not verified) - Wed, 2006-08-16 01:09.

You can get quality for less than $1500

I have a Gateway computer I paid $750 for that is not obsolete, and this is a year after I bought it. It has a Pentium 4, 3.0 GhZ processor, a 200 GB Hard drive, and came with 512 MB of DDR 2 Ram. Now, are there more powerful machines out there? Of course. But does the average user need one? Not really. Also, I upgraded my Ram with an additional 1 GB or DDR 2 Ram from Tiger Direct for $80. So now I have a Gig and a half of Ram.

Also, I bought an eMachines desktop for like $580 with taxes and everything, and also spent an additional $80 for ram upgrades I put in myself. (btw, if you are really a noob and have never put in Ram yourself, it's really easy - it just pops in). For this I have a AMD Athlon 64 3500+ Processor (2.2 GhZ officially but performes better than my Pentium 4), 2 GB of Ram, and a 250 GB HD.

I can't think of anything that I want to do, but can't because of hardware limitations on my computer and both cost less than $850.

In my case, my Gateway still runs Windows XP, and I tried several distros before settling on Ubuntu 6.06 for my eMachines box. Ubuntu cost me nothing, and it works great in terms of hardware detection, drivers to run the hardware, etc. I had to find a driver for my D-Link wireless card, but it was out there. Everything else "just worked".

In my opinion you can do well for less than $700 if you are a tighter budget. Sure it's not dual core processors and it won't fry my eggs (yet). But for what I need it for (Office, Internet, Email, Music, etc.) it works great.

An - ymous (not verified) - Fri, 2006-07-28 17:22.

Time machine

check into some back issues of TUX Magazine, respectively Issue 8 November 2006, Issue 9 December 2006, and

Ahem...

Emmet Brown (not verified) - Sun, 2006-07-23 04:52.