I’m writing this entry now in Firefox. That isn’t new. However, what is new is that I’m writing this in Firefox that’s running on a flavor of the Linux operating system known as Ubuntu.
No, I haven’t abandoned Windows. I’m a gamer so that’s a bit difficult to do these days. I’m currently running this in a dual-boot scenario. Every time my PC starts up I have a menu that offers me the choice of which operating system I’d like to run. Windows XP is set to the default but Ubuntu is an option now and it’s been an interesting journey.
Understand that my days of being an operating system rebel are, I believe, most likely behind me. When everyone was running Microsoft DOS, I was checking out CPM, 4DOS and IBM DOS. When everyone moved to Windows I fought back with Desqview, Geos, GeoWorks, X and OS/2. I never wanted to be the guy who used something just because everyone else was using it. I believed these other options offered a better potential.
I’ve tried nearly every major OS the world has offered up and found them all to be interesting, compelling and, ultimately, frustrating. In the end every single one of them lacked for support, choice and basic necessity. I always ended up coming back to the mainstream—defeated and dejected.
Not this time. I’ve used Unix (the precursor to Linux) in the past—most notably professionally. I found it to be very short on creature comforts and very long on syntax complexity. Linux wasn’t much better except that various versions of it have been rumored to have addressed all of that with simplistic graphical user interfaces and features. Linux comes in a dizzying array of choices. One of the most popular ones right now is Ubuntu. I have no idea where the name comes from but it is nothing if not catchy.
My son had recently become enamored with the idea of changing operating systems and was running Vista with some difficulty. I mentioned that he should check out a flavor of Linux and find out what his Uncle Jim was always going on about. I wasn’t going to let my cynical experiences stand in his creative way.
He was curious and asked what to install. I couldn’t reach his Uncle Jim so I asked some resident Linux friends of mine and Ubuntu was universally recommended. The first thing that impressed me was the ease with which you get it and start with it. All he had to do was go to its website, download it and burn it to a CD. He then was able to boot it from his CD drive and up it came. Not just an installation but the whole thing. This is called LiveCD and it allows you to test-drive the entire OS without having to install or disturb anything. I comes with most everything you’d need to play around. Very, very nice.
He installed it fully to his hard drive and within an hour was working on a homework project entirely within Ubuntu. It already came pre-configured with everything he could need including a top-notch “office” suite. Over the next several days he continued to tweak and poke and things just improved.
I finally decided I had to see this for myself. I installed it earlier this week on a small section of an older hard drive.
The results have been rather interesting. For me, so far, I don’t think it’s a permanent fixture. I’ve done some neat things. I managed to get Firefox and Thunderbird installed and both of them work from the settings and data stored on my XP setup so I don’t lose anything regardless of the OS I’m in. I’m also impressed by how fancy the graphical interface is. Windows that you move around act like putty when dragged about. They act as if reluctant to want to leave the edges of the screen (by pulling slightly out of shape at the point you pull them). I also am impressed with how simple many things are to do.
However, there’s still much to be concerned about. As with all minority solutions there are major trade-off’s. I have a very specialized sound card. There are no drivers for it so I have no sound what-so-ever. For an audio guy that’s pretty major. My keyboard is pretty specialized and it too has no drivers. My mouse works but isn’t as fully functional as it is in Windows. While I have an instant messaging program (Pidgin) it’s not as feature-rich as Trillian (although right now it’s a lot more stable than Trillian has been of late). Video drivers are limited so it’s pretty much live with what you get and don’t complain. There’s also no way to really play top games as easily as you do in Windows and this is a major drawback for me. If I want to play my games it’s time to boot back to Windows.
What’s most annoying is that Linux fans are quick to tell everyone how simple today’s Linux is. What they don’t tell you is that just about anything you want to do that’s extra will often require a dizzying array of completely foreign, entirely unintuitive steps and commands to achieve. Most anything is possible but good luck finding it on your own. If it wasn’t for user forums this effort would be a complete loss. Thankfully the community is growing and motivated to help so answers are generally only minutes away. Even things that represent major leaps forward sometimes are crippled by terminology that only elitist coders could love. For example, there’s a wonderful tool that you can bring up and search for just about any kind of program imaginable. If you find it there you can be fairly confident that it’s fully compatible with Ubuntu and also will be seamlessly and effortlessly installed for you. What’s the name of this great tool? It’s called the “Synaptic Package Manager“. Are they kidding? I struggle to remember the name every time I need it. I had to look it up just to type it here.
The bottom line, for me at least, is that there’s nothing in Ubuntu right now that is a “must-have” item. It’s nice to be able to not have to worry so much about spyware and most viruses but that only gets you so far. Everything I can do in Ubuntu I can do just as easily, and usually with more choices, in Windows. Windows also generally will do it without the complexity. If someone were just starting out and wanted a computer for browsing and e-mail along with some online games, I’d set them up on this in a heartbeat. I suspect it would run happily without intervention for years. No matter the user type Windows seems to turn to molasses in short order requiring endless trips to various homes of my friends and family.
I’ll be keeping it around to see if things change. Perhaps something will but for now it’s just a fun experiment.