Installing desktop Linux

Does it pass, or should I?

Comment It's funny how you can find yourself transported back, when faced with a set of stimuli. Pick up an old book, listen to a piece of music, or put on a jacket, and sometimes a wealth of memories and feelings can come rushing back. It can be slightly disorienting and it's not always pleasant, but for me at least, it never ceases to marvel.

And so it was as I was testing out the installations of a few desktop Linux products a few days ago.

Before I go on, please note that this isn't a feeble attempt to ingratiate myself with the Linux community – I was never that good a Linux hacker. I was around, however, for the first release of the Linux Journal and, as an indication of how sad I am, it is perhaps of note that I still have it filed somewhere.

Where the "memory thing" is relevant is that I found myself transported from the relatively cushy pastures of Windows, back to the frontier lands of Linux. The software has clearly come a long way in terms of functionality, usability, ease of configuration, and so on, and it is a different world to 10 years ago (when beta really meant beta!). The cultural vestiges remain, though, and so does the fix-it mindset I found myself using.

By way of example, allow me to work through my own experiences - first with Gentoo, and then with PCLinuxOS. I confess the time spent with Gentoo didn't last long - I installed it first as I knew it was the one Stephen O'Grady used the most. I was also swayed by its claims of "extreme performance and configurability". What was there not to like?

Sadly, I stumbled almost as soon as the installation started to kick up a fuss. The Gentoo installation disks provided on this particular magazine (Linux Format) offered a number of pre-built configurations, none of which wanted to install cleanly - that is, to go straight through to the graphically enhanced front end without a fuss.

Like an untrained, flaccid muscle, a small part of my brain was quietly mumbling, "that's OK, just install a cut down kernel, look at the configuration tables and compile something that's good enough for now, so you can build it up from there, benefitting from the extreme performance without compromising on features."

At least I think that's what it was saying, but I had spent too long in end-user-land to listen. After a few attempts, I canned it and went for PCLinuxOS.

This was more successful, unsurprisingly as it is designed more for the novice (did I really once hack Xconfig files?), but it wasn't without issues. There were a couple of problems that were fortunately within my "novice" reach - first, that the "wizard" that was used to set up disk partitions would quite jovially continue on its way, even if no disk had been selected. As would the entire installation in fact, and it was only following the final reboot at the end of the process, that the system confessed that no operating system had been installed. For any Linux newbie, this would be a complete showstopper.

Having worked past this hurdle (and feeling justly proud, dare I say), the entire installation was pretty seamless. I could set up a user, configure and run programs, and generally compute what needed to be computed. As a comment, from the novice perspective there were perhaps too many things that I could do - I was interested but a little surprised to find that the OS came with a complete set of developer tools, for example.

To me, the conundrum is this: if I were a developer, the chances are I would already be in a position to install a more clever Linux distribution than this one; if I was not, such capabilities only serve to distract and would make me wonder what purpose they serve.

The only thing not present was an internet connection. I rather foolishly (so I thought) assumed that, while I might try to get my Belkin PCI wireless card installed, the chances are I wouldn't be able to find a Linux driver for it. I was both right, and wrong: a "wrapper" driver was supplied, within which I could install the Windows driver for the card. A bit of tweaking and I could see the network; a bit more time spent playing with routing tables, and I could access the internet.

This last point is not a trivial one, and again it goes to the heart of the difference of approach between the two mindsets, Windows and Linux. In the Windows world, internet connectivity should just work - if it doesn't, the user has every reason to feel a bit miffed and call in the heavy guns. In the Linux world, however, there seems to be an assumption that whoever is in front of the computer will have both the desire and the wherewithall to open the bonnet, run up the command line and have a bit of a tinker. For me it was both a delight and a challenge - the former as I already knew the right commands, and the latter as I had absolutely no idea what the command line switches should be. However, all of this assumed that I even "got" certain principles like routing tables, default gateways and so on.

There is no right or wrong in all of this, but even as I browsed, impressed, through the available programs, I was left with the feeling that desktop Linux still displayed its heart just a little too clearly on its sleeve. I know, this is only one distribution among many - but this is also part of the problem, as a first-time user stands as much chance of being turned off from the whole desktop Linux concept, as being turned on to it.

I'm not talking about wholesale adoption strategies by enterprise IT shops: as I understand it, the growth of Linux acceptance in particular, and open source software in general, is equally dependent on a viral adoption approach - in other words, through "novices" like me trying things out and making a decision, yay or nay.

I'm in no way downhearted - I remain impressed by the comprehensive set of facilities I now have on the computer sitting beside me. I shall continue to explore and test things out, for a start I want to have a go with a couple of other distributions (I have a SuSe DVD on my desk, for example; Ubuntu is the obvious other), and see what additional facilities Linux offers over and above what my office worker mindset is used to. Just for now I shall stick with running Windows on my main PC, but never say never!

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