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a blog by ken pardue

Linux for human beings (discriminately)

I got my new notebook yesterday, and within the evening had installed a Windows/Linux dual boot setup. The notebook gives me something that is not as “mission critical” (i.e., no priceless personal photos, genealogy research, or music files to lose) as the desktop. Open source is something that I’ve always been an advocate of, and I’ve always wanted to try making the switch and trying to live off of Linux for a while.

It hasn’t taken long in the past to get frustrated and go back to Windows, and so far it seems to be taking place again this time. I can’t help but realize that Linux just isn’t ready for the desktop yet. That’s not necessarily true of open source. I wouldn’t browse the web or read email with anything other than a Firefox/Thunderbird combination, and in wanting to write this blog entry in a word processor first, I immediately found myself downloading OpenOffice.org. Clearly, Open Source produces quality software.

However, let’s take a look at Linux. In my case, I’m working with Ubuntu Linux. Ubuntu has been praised for it’s “ease of use” approach to Linux, and compared with what I’ve dealt with in the past with Linux, it does a good job. However, it’s still way too complicated to configure things. Either by licensing issues or by sheer philosophy alone, many hardware applications just don’t work in Linux.

Especially in the case of video card drivers. Now, I’d love to go to ATI and download an executable, but it’s not as simple as double click the file and run. In my case, trying to do something as basic as configure 3D graphics somehow led to an invalid xorg.conf file and Ubuntu refusing to boot (even by following the instructions on the Ubuntu forum). I’d love to be able to rollback my driver/settings to a previous time, but all I get is gobbledygook error reporting and encouragement to fix it. I can’t help it, I was raised on Windows and I fear the command line. When I consistently break things, it doesn’t help my fear.

The best encouragement I’ve gotten from Linux people is to not do anything as root/sudo, because “any Linux vet would tell you its never a good idea to stay logged in as root. You usually end up causing more problems than not.” Immediately followed by “The password prompt can act as a reminder. Hopefully you know what you’re doing after that point.” Well, how the heck am I supposed to get my video card installed if this isn’t for novices to do? I mean, it’s not like there are very many companies that sell Linux computers, and I’m not aware of any doing this with Ubuntu. Even if they did, Ubuntu’s strict no-proprietary policy would keep them from distributing the ATI driver.

Then there’s the whole software issue. Maybe it’s not as difficult as it used to be to program cross platform applications these days, but in the end most people just develop for Windows. I do genealogical research, but Family Tree Maker doesn’t work in Linux. I have diabetes and need to manage my blood sugar numbers, but there’s no software to connect to my glucometer. I am a huge flight simulator fan, but the only real alternative, Flightgear, looks about 10 years behind the competition. I subscribe to the wonderful Napster service to have access to their 1,000,000+ tracks every month, but their client is Windows/Windows Media Player 10 only. Honestly, why would anyone want to switch from Windows when it’s so difficult migrating to a platform that doesn’t have matured software as yet?

The biggest answer I’d have is that there is no vendor lock in, and the philosophy behind keeping the software world ‘Free’ as well as ‘free’ is something that appeals to me. That being said, those people who are that passionate about programming don’t need a GUI to install a video card driver. I still do.

I’m still going to tweak around with Linux, maybe trying a different distribution. But in the mean time, I’ve got good quality open source software for Windows that does work right. In half an hour I had installed the EasyPHP combo package with Apache/PHP/MySQL in one, and had my new notebook set up as a mobile testing server for my projects. I shudder to think about how long it would have taken me to do that in Linux.

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