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Keywords: Linux, Linspire, KDE, open source software
Title: Peter Van Der Linden's Guide to Linux
Author: Peter Van Der Linden
Publisher: Prentice Hall PTR
Media: Book, CD
Verdict: A very good Linux introduction, particularly for anyone wanting to use Linspire as their Windows replacement
Peter van der Linden's Just Java is one of the better introductory Java books in a very crowded market. It has the right combination of technical content, good readability and quirkiness that places it high on our list of recommended Java titles. Having shown that he can write a great introduction to Java, can he do the same and write a great introduction to Linux?
'Guide To Linux' is an introduction to Linux that is aimed at the newbie who wants to ditch Microsoft but is afraid that this Linux-thing is way-too complicated for anyone but a technical genius. In other words it's aimed at the smart end-user rather than the geek who's comfortable talking about the innards of PCs and operating systems. What's more the book comes with a Linux Live CD so that the reader can try things out safely before making the commitment to install properly. This isn't a new approach, and there are plenty of other books that have adopted it: Moving To Linux, Moving To The Linux Business Desktop and Test Driving Linux all spring to mind. In this case Peter van der Linden's book uses the Linspire Linux distro, which is a point we'll come back to later.
While the book takes a familiar approach that isn't to say that the content is cliched or unoriginal. For starters the book does not begin with a section on installing Linux. Not only does installation scare the hell out of a new user, it's also an activity that shouldn't happen very often (like, once is enough). And with a Live CD, why focus pages and pages on installation when the whole point of the CD is that you boot from it into a fully-functional Linux system? The chapter on installation, when it finally does come, is banished to the back-end of the book.
Instead of starting with installation, the book starts with familiarisation with the KDE desktop, familiarisation with applications and just plain getting used to the new environment. Where some people choose to make a big deal of the differences between Windows and Linux, van der Linden chooses to emphasise the similarities. As he points out, all GUIs essentially work in the same way, and the minor differences between systems are nothing compared to the vast amount they have in common.
Once the introduction to the environment is done then the book looks at a series of different tasks: networking, email, web surfing, adding software, office tools, CDs and DVDs, file sharing, privacy and then finishing with installation and a set of useful appendices. As you'd expect, this scope gives plenty of opportunity to focus on some of the best known applications in the GNU/Linux world: Firefox (web browsing), Nvu (web page creation), Thunderbird (email and newsreading), OpenOffice.org (complete office suite).
Aside from the quality of the writing, mention should also be made of van der Linden's frequent asides. In these he bristles and prickles about various topics that clearly irk him, from Microsoft software and company policies or the complexities of X-Windows. Sometimes he just wants to share something that tickles him or he think is a useful snippet, like a run-down of where the names of the different Linux distributions come from. These asides add a certain quality to the book, not only are they an insight into the personality of the author, they're also highly entertaining as well as controversial at times.
The author's personal views are also reflected in the core text, including the chapter devoted to privacy and encryption, a topic not normally covered in an introductory title. Furthermore the appendices are used to provide information for the more technically minded reader. These appendices cover information on command-line tools, disk partitioning, BIOS issues and troubleshooting with strace. Taking this stuff out into appendices is a good move, and makes the book a useful resource as the reader gains confidence.
Mention was made previously that the book uses the Linspire Linux distribution, both in terms of the bundled CD and in the core of the text. This is significant in that Linspire majors on being very close to Windows in terms of look and feel, and also in the way it supplies updates and software using it's Click N' Run (CNR) system. While van der Linden doesn't neglect to show how to download and install software outside of CNR, there may be some readers who would prefer a book that used a different Linux distribution. On the other hand, for anyone thinking of going the Linspire route then this is an excellent choice of a book.
In all, a very good Linux introduction, particularly for anyone wanting to use Linspire as their Windows replacement.