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Thanks to all who attended the Desktop Linux Showdown! Had a great time. Slides are now available.

My wife upgraded her laptop from an 8-year-old model. The new one, a Lenovo Thinkpad SL500, arrived yesterday with Vista SP1 preinstalled. I thought I’d help her get it up and running with the OS that was there, and then we could talk about migrating it to Ubuntu or Fedora after my deadlines this week.

However, even though the hardware POSTed fine, the preinstalled Windows software would not run more than about 5 minutes before crashing. I did manage to get an account set up, but after that it would BSOD randomly and usually within a minute or two of doing anything—browsing the filesystem, attempting to download software, etc. It may have been more than 5 minutes, actually, because it took Vista almost 3 minutes to boot to a login screen and another 3 or 4 minutes to load Internet Exploder. At first I thought it was a built-in reaction to visiting the Mozilla site, but no, Google made it BSOD as well. There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

So I dig out my well-worn collection of desktop Linux installation CDs and throw one in. Partitioning was an easy decision—I wiped Vista off the disk as fast as I could click the Format button. Ubuntu 9.04 gets partway through the installation procedure and hangs, must be scratches on the disk. Try Ubuntu 8.10, same thing only it fails faster, and same with Fedora and OpenSUSE… whatthe? Are they ALL scratched? Inspect.. yes, they are, and the SL500’s drive is obviously cheap enough that it can’t handle these disks that work fine on my desktop machines.

5 minutes later I have Ubuntu 9.04 ready to go on a USB key (thanks to unetbootin and a previously-downloaded ISO image), and 15 minutes later it is installed. Vista is gone forever. I proceed with setting up software and settings, but every now and then the whole thing freezes with the capslock light blinking at about 2hz. Oh nooo, don’t tell me it’s a hardware issue on this new system! We don’t want to send it back!

5 minutes after that, Ubuntuforums tells me the nature of the problem and how to fix it. The Intel network card has issues with drivers on Ubuntu. I have a sneaking suspicion that Vista had similar problems, but of course I had no way to fix it in Vista. In Jaunty the answer was to use the open-source wireless driver instead of the proprietary one, which took all of 20 seconds to implement.

The machine has not frozen or crashed since, and boots in 45 seconds (I timed it). Some judicious tweaking could cut that in half, but since the thing never crashes and seems to handle suspend/resume just fine, it probably won’t need to be booted often enough to justify the time to figure it out.

Are there things I wish were different? Sure. I wish that playing Flash and DVD media worked out of the box. On this machine, the hotkeys (volume buttons, etc) don’t work yet. I think customizing Nautilus is far, far too complex for the average person. However, it took a long, long time of struggling for me to finally realize that the preinstalled operating system would not function. Then it took about 20 minutes to get Ubuntu running and another 10 to debug. In my mind, there is no competition.

To sum up, in terms of OS vs. hardware:
Ubuntu: epic win
Vista SP1: send in the fail boat

Keir Thomas, whose body of work I greatly respect and in many was envy, published an article on Friday on PCWorld’s Business Center blog that is very pertinent to my short series on transitioning to desktop Linux: Top 7 Reasons People Quit Linux.  As a (the?) top author of books on desktop Linux, particularly Ubuntu, it is probably safe to say that there are very few people in the world who have thought as much about this particular process as Mr. Thomas, so the article is definitely worth a look if you are interested enough in the subject to be reading this blog post.

The article lists seven of the top reasons why people abandon the transition after trying it for a while, with his thoughts about each one.  I agree to a certain extent with at least three of the reasons he lists.

Lack of Applications

Mr. Thomas’ number one reason is “Linux doesn’t run a program I use”.  That has been my experience to a certain extent (see my previous post), and it also holds true with clients whom I have failed to persuade to migrate to Linux. For most users I have met, the set of applications they use are the computer.  They don’t honestly care what is under the hood unless it bites them.

I believe strongly that this is why embedded Linux, in the form of devices and cell phones, has succeeded so wildly while Linux on the desktop still struggles—every embedded device is new and unique, so people expect some adjustment and education in figuring out how to use it.  That expectation is different on the desktop.

That being said, I do not agree that it is only “specialized industrial tools” that are at issue.  Microsoft Exchange is an enterprise standard that was problematic until very recently.  Likewise, Photoshop is emphatically not an specialized tool—it is in widespread use by a large variety of people, from web designers to scrapbooking grandparents, and while Gimp retains all of Photoshop’s functionality and more, it still lacks the smooth user interface that has taken Photoshop nearly two decades to evolve.

And there are other apps as well—for example, I’ll always have to keep a Windows box handy as long as Yahoo Messenger enables me to play Java-based pool with my wife in a chat window.  When Pidgin can do that, I’ll probably migrate full-time.

Some Hardware Support Spotty

I agree 100% with the article on this point, which is that the issue is not specific to Linux.  Windows has just as many difficulties with hardware support as Linux—more, in fact, because of the willingness of Linux geeks to help scratch other people’s itches.

I particularly like the convivial, helpful last line in this section:  “Treat it as an opportunity, rather than an ordeal”.  This is a good philosophy for pretty much anything, but especially true here.

Unhelpful Community

I trust the author when he states that a large number of people have found Linux forums unhelpful.  I have found them to be enormously helpful, but I have also seen long flamewars, misinformation, and outright meanness.  I think the author missed an opportunity, though, to remind people that there is meanness everywhere.  I have seen just as much bile in Windows forums as I have in the Linux community, possibly more if considered as a percentage of the total information available.  In other words, this is a statement about the human race, not about Linux communities.

Chill out, Mr. Thomas

From an outsider’s perspective, I would have to say that items 3, 4, and 7 are all basically the same problem—a lack of familiarity on the part of the user with desktop Linux, coupled with long-time familiarity with Windows or MacOS.  I disagree with Mr. Thomas’ apparent assertion that this is not a valid concern.  In fact, I believe that this lack of familiarity will continue to hamper desktop Linux from ever reaching the mainstream.  MacOS is in the same boat.

I think it does no favors for Mr. Thomas’ position to state that “If you’re unable to adapt, it says more about you than it does about Linux”.  That is a true statement, but that does not imply that the reader deserves the contempt implied in this section.  Some of us use our experiences to learn about ourselves, and if I learn that I am unable—or unwilling—to adapt to something, I have learned something valuable about myself.  Epic win.

I just don’t like it

This is the crux 0f the issue, I think.  Some people just don’t like desktop Linux, meaning in this case that the way they have to interact with the machine does not resonate with them.  I feel the same way about OS X, and it always makes me sad because so many other propellerheads dig it.  I don’t.  I also don’t like most cell phone interfaces, and I think the UI on my washing machine is fairly non-intuitive for those of us who are not intimately familiar with laundry.  On the other hand, my truck, a 5-year-old Dodge Dakota, has a rock simple UI that I understand intimately, possibly due to 25 years of familiarity with automotive issues.

In my opinion, the “I just don’t like it” defense is possibly the most valid of the bunch, because the more complex a tool is, the more complex its interfaces must necessarily be, and this minimizes the opportunity for personal resonance.

Those interested in this subject should also read Neil McAlister’s article Has Desktop Linux Missed Its Opportunity?, also from PCWorld, particularly the paragraphs about user interface on page 3.

I’ll post another rant in the desktop Linux transition series after my first experiences with digital video this week, stay tuned.

The saga of transitioning to desktop Linux continues.

I now officially quad-boot my laptop, a trusty old Thinkpad T43. It isn’t a superhero of a laptop, but it does the job well, is virtually bulletproof, and can be found on eBay for about $300. (Or free from the IT guys at work.) I added a modern 80gb Seagate drive to the existing 40gb Toshiba drive, and the layout looks like this:

40GB Toshiba (in place of the CD-ROM):
Windows XP in its own dedicated NTFS partition

80GB Seagate (default drive in main slot):
Ubuntu 9.04 (default boot partition—grub also lives here): 60GB partition
Fedora 10: 10GB partition
OpenSUSE 11.1: 10GB partition

I chose those three Linux distributions because they are the most popular individual major desktop distros available, where “individual” indicates a choice between, say, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, a close derivative. I also chose to “centralize”, for lack of a better term, around Ubuntu, because frankly I like Ubuntu, its package management, its philosophy, its community, and its tendency to Just Work. I honestly think of the others as experiments, although I feel very comfortable with Fedora’s philosophy as well, having documented derivatives of it at various companies.

The biggest toss-up was between Fedora and CentOS. Both of these distros are derived from RedHat’s offering, I am intimately familiar with both. I actually have a stronger business reason to install CentOS, and I may yet, but to be honest I chose Fedora because I like the community.

All of the Linux distros are set up to use Firefox and Thunderbird profiles from the Windows XP disk. This means they will break if I ever pop out the XP disk in order to use the CD-ROM, which goes in the same slot. I could not think of a situation in which this really mattered. I do have ext2ifs installed in read-only mode so I can access all that data if necessary.

From untested experience, all of the Linux distros run circles around XP when running a web browser, compiling code, or doing pretty much anything else. Fedora and OpenSUSE load at about the same rate as XP (2-3 minutes). Ubuntu 9.04 goes from power-on to a login prompt in about 45 seconds, and to a usable desktop in another 15-20 seconds.

Little things that work well under XP still need help in Linux. For example, suspend and resume are fine in all distros EXCEPT when using the docking station, where XP works every time with one exception—none of the operating systems installed can reliably sense the resolution of the external monitor on the dock when resuming from suspend (which I assume is ACPI S3, suspend-to-RAM). I haven’t tried them from hibernation (ACPI S4, suspend-to-disk) yet based on a personal fear of hibernation.

Since I also use Ubuntu (8.10) on my “main” work desktop, I find that I keep the laptop booted into XP in order to access the applications that have no equivalents in Linux. You don’t need to tell me about similar programs in Linux, I already know—there are simply some apps in Windows that I can’t live without, either for work or for strong personal preference:

Regarding Photoshop—I really, really want to love Gimp, and I force myself to use it whenever possible. But my fingers know Photoshop. Perhaps I am simply getting old. As for that last one, I am trying very hard to like kdenlive and will continue to try.

More notes soon.