Washington Monument

The Ubuntu Project – Part 2
(Bye, bye Microsoft)

In part 1, I generally ranted about the sad state of affairs in the PC operating system world.  As a solution, I am going to try to flip a non-critical system over to Linux to see if it is ready for the Super-user desktop.

My approach is to convert a spare laptop over to Linux and migrate my applications slowly.  It is unreasonable to think that I can convert everything as my livelihood depends on Windows.  But my personal applications are not as restrictive. If I can find application that run under windows, that’s even better as I can quickly compare the results.  Especially with critical application such as Quicken.

My hardware for this foray is an HP Pavilion ZD8000 laptop.  I use the word laptop sparingly as if you were to actually operate it on your lap, it would singe the hair off your thighs.  It has an Intel Dual-core 2.8Ghz processor, 60GB Drive, Broadcom wireless adapter and ATI Radeon video adapter.  Not state of the art, but a pretty solid system by most standards.

A nice feature of Ubuntu and many other Linux distribution is that the come on a “Live-CD”.  This is a special CD that allows to actually USE the OS to get a feel for it before you install.  An incredibly nice feature especially if you’re on the fence.  You pay a speed penalty for the operation, but in many cases it’s worth it.  I wonder how many people would switch to Vista if they could try it out for a couple of weeks first.  I am jumping in with both feet feature so this feature is quickly bypassed.

One of the first things I noticed about the installation program is that it is slick and polished.  This is a far cry from distributions past.  It is something that a lot of Linux super users scoff at, but first impressions are important.  I was asked a few questions about personal information and my locality.  Something that I was astonished by was that it recognized my NTFS partition and would migrate the “My Documents” folder and my windows accounts.  Pretty impressive.  After the initial Q&A, I let it do its thing while I attended to other important business (Laundry).  When I returned I performed a reboot as instructed.  Lo and behold I had a desktop without a bunch of icons selling me something.  Installation time was about 25 minutes.

Unbuntu’s vanilla installation uses the Gnome desktop, which can be though of as the window manager.  It provides the look and feel for the desktop.  Linux provides many choices for the desktop with the other popular option being KDE.  I am led to believe that KDE is supposed to be more “Windows-like”.  However, I wanted to go with the mainstream distribution to provide for the greatest chance of success.  If the desktop became a problem, I could always install KDE at a later time.

My first impression of GNOME under Ubuntu was that the colors were reminiscent of the old Windows 95 desert theme I had installed many a year ago.  The taskbar is split into two distinct bars at the top and bottom of the screen.  The top had a three root menu for applications, places and system tools.  Not a bad idea with the clutter that most Windows systems usually get.   The bottom bar handled the window selectors.  It’s a nice arrangement, but I felt like I needed something closer to windows to start with.  Since the desktop is fully customizable, I quickly configured the layout to be similar to XP.

I popped up a file manager to see what I could see.  The Nautilus file manger was a little wonky, but I will admit, the differences were due to the look and feel of Linux vs. Windows.  I seem to remember similar difference under OpenLook./Motif when I was using Unix.  Now for the first usability test. I perused my network looking for my public drive shares.  Amazingly, it recognized the NTFS partition without a fuss.  Apparently Ubuntu supports Windows sharing through Samba, right out of the box.  I was able to link a drive with less hassle that I normally get under windows. Next, a small icon appears on the taskbar letting me know that some the software components need to be updated. 

Ubuntu now has my full attention.

This is something that I didn’t expect at all, and is sorely needed.  Finding packages for Linux can be a real mess.  Windows software has been doing this for quite some time and the Microsoft implementation leaves bad taste in my mouth.  It is a willy-nilly approach that allows any application to load anything on your system.  This is usually without regard to the interaction with other software.  I usually allow MS to download the updates and prompt me for installation.  However, it sometimes takes the initiative to do stuff on its own.  The last update I received took my desktop out and I’ve been fighting with it ever since.

However I may feel about Microsoft Update, IMHO the concept is a good one.  It is extremely difficult to keep up with patches and updates, particularly critical ones, especially if you’re non-technical. Clicking the icon provides me with a list of items that could be updated, including APPLICATIONS!  Impressive.  A single source for all your update needs.  This is something that Microsoft will eventually get to, but to the determent of the industry as a whole.  Expect something like Microsoft Certified Updates with all the costs that it implies.  Currently Norton and Intuit, among many others, all load their own proprietary update engines on your system each hogging resources.  A single update engine to rule them all. Nice.

Ubuntu installed my HP 6310 OfficeJet flawlessly.  In fact, it installed with fewer problems than Windows.  HP has been escalating the battle of the bloatware to the point that my last driver installation was several hundred MB’s.  One of the applications was crashing my system, so I removed it, which took out the printer.  I printed a test page and we were off to the races. 

My hoary old LaserJet 4 was slightly more complicated, but still less of a hassle than installation under Windows. It has a JetDirecct network adapter, so to make my life easier under XP, I normally installed the HP JetDirect Wizard, installed the printer and then uninstalled the wizard. Under Ubuntu, I selected the printer type, entered in the network address and it worked the first time.  Admittedly, this would have been a problem for a non-technical user.  But it would have been less trouble then finding an old JetDirect package (the newer ones don’t work with my old printer) and installing.  I’ll consider this a wash.

One ding I did have was installing my Broadcom wireless adapter.  Apparently, the driver contains proprietary firmware that is uploaded to the card and can’t be distributed.  Thus you have to rip the firmware from a driver.  I had to execute a couple of not-so-simple commands and download a package.  Not much more than I have done for a windows driver, however I’m more adept at Windows and I was flying blind under Linux.  I can’t really blame this in Ubuntu as it is more of an intellectual property issue than technical. However, this problem needs to be solved.  Windows is clearly the winner here.

I did have quite a fuss installing Beryl, the windows decorator.  I even had to resort to editing a couple of files in the Gnome terminal.  But to Ubuntu’s credit, this isn’t a base option and I can’t hold it against it.  Plus, I’m not convinced I did it the easy way.  Regardless, it was worth it.  The decorations are incredible.  I’ve heard a lot of about OSX and Vista’s new Aero interface, but I don’t own a Mac and there is no way I’m loading Vista.  Ubuntu solved the problem with Emerald, Beryl’s themer.  I hit a few Linux desktop theme sites, found some I liked and downloaded them.   The flexibility offered by Emerald is on the order of WindowsBlinds, but without the bloat and little fear of spyware.  I selected an Aero clone and installed with little fuss.  The result was visually stunning and completely unnecessary, but it was fun to play with.  

While playing with Beryl, I was experiencing some lockups.  The wasn’t making me happy, so after a little searching, I found out that there is a restricted drivers manager within Ubuntu that lets you load proprietary drivers in you system.  It had detected my ATI Radeon card and provided a commercial driver for installation.  It was quite painless and resolved my lockup issues.  But, I will admit, it would be very disconcerting to a rank newbie with the warning and such.  They would interpret the lawyer language to being something that could destroy your system rather than some non-GPL code.

Before I go any further, I’d like to sound off on something that I ran across researching the restricted drivers.  There appears to be a militant, extremist Linux faction that refuses to allow anything proprietary to “contaminate” Ubuntu.  They want to keep it purely open-source and not have any commercially derived applications or drivers anywhere near the system.  YOU ARE IDIOTS!!!  I cannot state more clearly how completely fricking moronic this stance is at this point.  Linux is at a fragile stage in the desktop market.  Anything that contributes to its functionality needs to be embraced.  And commercial drivers do this.  The community doesn’t need idiotic conflicts like this.  Linux needs all the resources and help it can get. Whenever it has a solid foothold, then you can start being idealistic. 

After some reading, I found out it is possible to install the KDE desktop under Ubuntu and dynamically switch between it and Gnome at login. I executed a single command, logged out, selected F10 for options, logged in and KDE displayed. Sweet!  My only gripe is that now I have about a billion applications on the menu that I am sorting through.

I have a couple of observations regarding online help.  There appear to be two Linux support camps.  Some people come from other distributions and provide great advice, but most of it requires a foray in the terminal application.  The others seem to be a little more Ubuntu savvy and provide GUI solutions.  I think the later tends to make the experience little less harrowing, although all help is appreciated.  I have concerns that some of the command line approaches have done things that were not recorded in the package manager or whatever gizmo that the update manager references.  I wonder if some of my command line installations will be registered for security updates and such.

Second, there are some great people helping out newbie’s in the Linux support area.   But, there are also some pretty nasty people mixed in as well.  Mainly the elitist “Linux should be hard” types paired in with the “Anything negative said about Linux is blasphemy” types.  To those people: you are Ubuntu’s ambassadors and quite honestly, you suck at it. Get off the support boards and get counseling.  You will be a better person for it and will the Linux community will enhanced by your absence.

We now have a fully useable, pretty OS.  Congratulations Ubuntu, you have passed the fundamental test.  With exception of the wireless LAN fiasco, I was pretty impressed by what I’d seen.  It provided me with enough confidence to continue my journey. Next up, basic applications.  We will see if I can actually be productive in this new environment. I am cautiously optimistic. Stay tuned.

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