Like A Moth To A Flame

There was a time when linux was my preferred operating system – it was cheap, stable, reliable and my preferred distro’s had a steady development path. That was before it became popular and trendy.

Late in 1999, a dust-up between a well-known system protection suite and my Windows 98SE operating system resulted in a trashed computer. The protection suite upgrade, necessitated by the previous licence having expired, managed to totally scramble Win98. The purveyor of the suite knew of the problem, and quickly supplied a document containing 40-odd steps which, in 4 hours, had my Win98 machine humming again.

Silly me. The protection suite was still nagging me about an expired licence, so I tried again. Fzzzt. I stared at the pretty blue screen in disbelief, flies making weird echoing noises as they buzzed in and out of my open mouth. The phrase “And I paid for this?” ran through my mind in an endless loop. There had to be a better way.

There was. Linux. Yippee! A few weeks tinkering with Mandrake 8.1 and I was off. Having been poking about the insides of computers since the DOS days, the command line didn’t faze me, and the operating system seemed nice and secure and stable. Within a short period of time Mandrake 9.0 was my default operating system, following brief dalliances with Red Hat and a couple of other distro’s which I have forgotten.

But then Mandrake seemed to lose all reason, releasing new versions every few months in a conveyor-belt mentality that soon meant that my preferred version couldn’t even get security updates. I was time to look for a linux distribution that didn’t treat its users like turkeys. This led to another look at various linux distributions based on Debian linux, a more ornery creature to tinker with, but reputed to be very stable.

A chance comment made me try LibraNet 2.8.1 and I was sold. For its time, it was well-featured, and had the added benefit of the friendliest user forum I’ve ever joined. Even the ditziest question was answered without scorn, and the experts were very patient and super-quick to respond. When LibraNet 3.0 came along, we thought we were in heaven but, like all bliss, it doesn’t last for long. LibraNet founder Jon Danzig died shortly after the release of 3.0 and the forum limped along for over a year but the vision had gone, and the distro disappeared with something of a whimper. A great pity, as LibraNet offered a thoroughly tested distro, long development cycles (and hence fewer complete upgrades), and a cracker support forum.

Fortunately, Windows XP was at a stable state at the time and, as a hardware upgrade was due, it was time to give an MS operating system a try again, but avoiding that hideous protection suite that had given me so much grief with Win98. XP’s software removal tool gave the bundled protection suite the er, works, and things hummed along. The XP updater is one of the most polite apps. around when it comes to sharing scant Internet bandwidth via dial-up, and it happily rattles away in the background while browsing and email and other important stuff chuggs away.

But Microsoft is somewhat arrogant in wanting to control everything, and that genuine advantage option (yeah right, to whose advantage – not mine, I’ll bet!) needs to be avoided. I’m quite happy for them to be able to protect their OS from piracy, but I’m not going to let them poke about in my machines turning things on and off at whim because of some new business relationship they’ve struck up.

The release of Windows Vista raises the prospect of the OS upgrade treadmill again, just at the time that Microsoft have got Windows XP humming along nicely. Having shelled out for several OS licenses, I’m not keen to start writing out more cheques to gain an OS upgrade that I don’t need. Besides, some of the “old dungers” that I run, even though they’re only a few years old, probably won’t be supported by the new OS.

So here we go again. Time to look for a new desktop OS that will be implemented when I want to, not when some supplier decides. Mandrake has morphed into Mandriva but is still hell-bent on a six month upgrade cycle. No thanks, folks. I’m not going to completely rebuild my systems every 12 months or so just so that I can get security updates.

Ubuntu looks worth a go – it has a more user-friendly life and support cycle. But it does have some quirks. I’ve run up versions 4, 5 and 6 on a test machine in recent years and have been underwhelmed. Hardware compatability issues plagued the installs and that sudo thing really gets my goat. There are times when us geeks have to poke about the innards of these boxes of bolts as a fully authorised root user. Sure, there are patches (just a couple of entries at the command line) and, Aunty Bob, you can log in as root. Following this process with instructions from the Ubuntu 6 support forum produced entertaining results. The output generated was more prolific than during the “dependency hell” that used to bedevil early linux application installs, and I’m fairly sure that I unleashed some ghostly root entity that ran amok inside the machine pushing software levers at will while ranting and raving at me via the system logs. Spooky. Fortunately, it was a test system, and the dumb human had control of the power switch.

But, like a moth to a flame, Ubuntu is back on the test bench. This time Feisty Fawn – version 7.04 – which only cost me 10 bucks on DVD from Dick Smith. Our affair is off to a bumpy start, but we haven’t stopped dating yet. “My way or no way” should have been written on the DVD. The server install crashes and, if you try to be clever and use Gparted to carve up the hard disk the way you want it, be prepared to go bald in the space of a few hours and entertain thoughts of a computer bonfire on the front lawn.

The default desktop install works fine, slicing up the hard disk the way Feisty wants it – how appropriate the code name for this particular release was… Having got the thing going, expect a lengthy period of sensory deprivation if you’re on dial-up. The latest, greatest, most up-to-date release isn’t. It wants 160 MB of updates from the get-go and the updater is a bandwidth hog, making simultaneous browsing or sending email from another machine as exciting as watching grass grow. And when its got that lot done, it suddenly discovers another 32 MB of interesting stuff that it’d like to haul down. Who owns this machine anyway? Crikey.

This is one area where the linux distro’s shoot themselves in the foot. Having finally tarted up the user interfaces to tantalise even the hardiest of Windows users, the sheer volume of updates required by each distro makes it a no-no for dial-up users on a capped 10 or 20 hour plan, and hard to justify for dial-up users who have an “all-you-can-eat” package and the patience of a lord. Clearly, some improvement needs to be made here. Either the ftp updater needs to offer the option of packet throttling so that other machines can get a look-in at the bandwidth, or the updates should be more clearly broken up into “must-haves” and “grab these at your leisure to get pretty gew-gaws” departments.

If I can get by with the pseudo sudo thing and Synaptic Package Manager actually works properly, Ubuntu has a chance of surviving here. If not, CentOS might be worth a look, even though the last release I tried didn’t thrill me.

And so I duck and dive, singeing my wings around the linux flame again, looking for an alternative desktop OS to Windows XP (which I use, like and endorse) before Microsoft comes around rattling their upgrade cup sometime next year. POP! Several friends will lose their eyeballs when they see that endorse word!

My eye then falls upon the machine that gibbers away in the corner running all the legacy Windows apps. that I have accumulated since Adam was a pup. Crumbs. Some WINE, perhaps? Gulp.

One Response to “Like A Moth To A Flame”

  1. Chris M says:

    Go on, admit it – you know you really want to upgrade everything to Windows Vista 🙂

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