Monday, August 13, 2012

Life in Geek Heaven, Part I: Software

I don't usually get all geeked out here, but indulge me for once ...

In the Beginning

Way back around 1996 I first tried installing Red Hat Linux on my home computer. At that time Windows 95 had recently replaced Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 while Microsoft server functions, such as they were, were still being addressed by Windows NT 3.51. The ever more bewildering mishmash of versions yet to come (Windows NT 4.0, 98, 2000, Me, 2003, XP, Vista, and 7) were still pipe dreams in the head of Bill Gates and his numerically challenged marketing staff.

 After years of watching DOS boot on my screens and then various versions of the Windows GUI, it was unbelievably cool to see a totally alien set of status messages scrolling across my 12" CRT monitor and terminating in a cryptic command prompt. I felt as if in the middle of the Cold War I'd been given a computer from the Soviet Union, something with an entirely different heritage. From reading the documentation I knew enough to type "startx" to launch a graphical desktop. Unlike Windows, I learned that you had a choice of such environments in Linux. One of them, called FVWM, bore a resemblance to Windows 95 with its flat teal background and bottom task bar. It was a new project, a bit half baked, but seemed like a way for the programmers to say, "You want something that looks like this? We can do that."

In the years since then Linux has grown by leaps and bounds. FVWM never really went anywhere, but soon enough there were not one but two premier user environments to choose from -- KDE and Gnome -- with still more to try if you cared to. On the server side, Linux and the related open source software that ran on it, like the Apache web server and MySQL database, were largely responsible for the explosive growth of the Internet. Now, 15 years later, it powers the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Skype, not to mention everything from Android phones to wireless routers to more than 95% of the fastest supercomputers in the world -- even the Large Hadron Collider. Don't you want some of that?


In those early days it was often a struggle to get Linux running with your particular brand of hardware -- especially on laptops with their custom touchpads, graphics, and network interfaces. Linux user groups would hold "install fests" to help people over the technical hurdles, just for the fun of it. But once you were up and running, there wasn't a lot of software available for the desktop user. Unless of course you wanted to built a web or file or database server, in which case your tool set was second only to the big commercial versions of Unix. That too has changed. So much free software now comes along with most Linux distributions that someone has claimed, "If Microsoft put all this stuff on one disk the Department of Justice would be all over them for monopolistic practices."

Over the years I've installed various flavors of Linux on a succession of ever more powerful hardware. Starting with an old 486 processor with 16 megabytes of RAM and a 10 gig hard drive, and ending up with a dual core beast with 8 gigabytes of RAM and a full terabyte drive. This thing has enough horsepower to run one or more extra operating systems in their own virtual machine windows while hardly breaking a sweat. (Of course, dual core processors are now so last year. Any self respecting video gamer is running an i7 with 8 cores.)

The Challenge

Until recently, though, I have only tried installing Linux on one laptop. This was a reconditioned machine purchased by a friend that was delivered for cheap without an operating system. Rather than blowing over a hundred bucks to add Windows, it turned out to be a simple matter to get a free Linux installation working on it. There was only one challenge. The friend wanted to use a cellular data card to access the Internet, and the system refused to recognize it as a valid network connection. Finally I realized that it worked like a dialup modem -- it was basically making a cell phone call to get online, like in the old AOL days. Naturally, Linux has had dialup support for years, so all I had to do was configure PPPD (for Point to Point Protocol Daemon) to make the connection, then write a simple script to connect, and another to disconnect. Voila, le Google.

This was not a task that an average user could be expected to perform. But luckily things have progressed even further now, to the point where I can pretty much recommend that installing my favorite operating system on your laptop -- even the most basic netbook -- is a thing you should really try. I know because I just did it myself.

[Next time -- my own netbook experience.]

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