Monday, March 30, 2009

First Impressions: Ubuntu Linux

I took the plunge today, into the cold, dark, murky, dangerous waters of Linux.

For those of you who don't know, Linux is a family of PC operating systems based on the ubiquitous Unix operating system for servers and workstations. It's generally free of charge, though I think some distributions might cost a little something. It was developed by a Scandinavian hacker, and it quickly became a "DIY" phenomenon in the world of computing. Especially the Microsoft haters!

I tried a MUCH earlier version of it a long long time ago ... 13 years maybe? I didn't do much with it, though. There wasn't really much to do. The basic OS was all command driven, and to add the X-Windows GUI took up way more valuable hard drive space than I was prepared to give it. So, it was a fun geek toy, but I continued using DOS/Windows for everything else.

Well Linux has grown up a lot since then, and by now it has become a viable OS alternative to Windows. I've been realizing that most (if not all) of the software I use at work is non-Microsoft. I use Firefox for web, Thunderbird for email, Open Office for "Office" type stuff, and Putty for terminal connections to Unix servers for code development. 2 of the other 3 programmers in my group use Linux exclusively, so I figured why the heck not. After all, I am supposed to be a computer geek or something.

So today I did it. Our hardware guys set up a new workstation for me, and a CD with the latest "Ubuntu" distribution of Linux, and I spent the day "migrating" over to it. It wasn't quite as painless as I was hoping it would be, but considering I was learning a brand new operating system, it could have gone a whole lot worse.

Installing it was VERY easy. Put the CD in, boot up, and it walked me right through the whole thing. (Strangely, one of the first things it asked me was to pick my language. It was nice to see so many different world languages represented, including--get this--ESPERANTO. Apparently there are enough Esperanto speakers out there to warrant a whole translation of Linux. Wacky.)

Unfortunately, navigating through the "system administration" stuff was a bit of a learning curve. I had to ask my co-worker a lot about what I thought should be simple things. Like, "Okay, I just downloaded Thunderbird, how do I install it?" There was no "setup.exe" or "Install Shield" or anything I'm used to in the Windows world. Just a ".tar.gz" file. Luckily, I know what "tar" and "gz" are, so I knew it was an archive to be extracted. But when I extracted it, there was nothing to indicate what to do with it.

My co-worker pointed me to the built-in "installer" tool in the System menu which I found out is a way to get at "the" repository for Ubuntu software. I could have just found Thunderbird in the list, and that would have been it. But of course I didn't know that, and there was nothing guiding me there & telling me that's what it was.

But once I figured that out, MAN, there is a LOT of software out there! A good chunk of it seems to be of the "shareware" variety, little "labors of love" from the greater hacker-sphere. I stumbled across dozens of little games, media players and organizers, even software synthesizers. Wacky! Yes, and productivity tools as well. =)

But in general, the common "Control Panel" functions I've taken for granted aren't quite as easy to come across as they are in Windows. That might just be because I'm so familiar with Windows though, so maybe as I become more familiar with it, I'll become more proficient at tweaking it.

One thing I gotta comment on, though. The Linux activists out there have been beating their drums quite loudly, claiming that Linux (of whatever distribution) is completely interchangeable with Windows. I would have to disagree. As difficult as it can be to learn how to use a computer, Microsoft has come a LONG way in supporting the new user, with a very wide array of help files and tutorials to help one get started. Ubuntu (and Linux in general) seems to have a wide online user base, with lots of websites with FAQ's and forums, but it's online. What is the absolute newbie supposed to do, with this $500-1000 box from Dell (or whatever), who doesn't even know how to get online?

I think Linux is a Good Thing, and it has a lot of potential, but it still has a fair amount of maturing to do before it can successfully compete with Microsoft (and Mac!) over the "new user" demographic. Being a professional computer geek, it'll work well for my needs. For the casual computer user, however, whose idea of fun might not necessarily be scouring Internet forums for hours at a time trying to find instructions on how to install device drivers and debug Bash scripts, I'd say pass for now.


  1. I'm thinking that if you are going to go 100% Linux at work, that it will eventually affect your home computer, and you'll want Linux at home too, unless of course you play a lot of computer games. I've always wanted to make the 100% jump to Linux at home, but I don't have the balls to do so. Hey, I can't argue with free software, and upgrade paths yah know? But, I still feel married to some Mac OS X software that just doesn't have an equal counterpart in Linux. I made a MythTV box (DVR like Tivo) about three years ago, and I think I used a custom install of Knoppix at first, but then realized the Ubuntu is way more up my alley, and similar to what I know. I liked Ubuntu, but not enough to keep it as a main system for my other computers. I eventually sold that MythTV box at a garage sale. Maybe one day I'll revisit Ubuntu (the next release is called Jaunty Jackalope, which reminds me of Engine Kid, so maybe that one), and post my reactions to it.

  2. Ya, I feel very "married" to a lot of my Windows applications too. But like I said, I've been noticing how more and more of the stuff I use has Linux counterparts. Except FamiTracker. And games. But that's what a dual-boot system is for. :) Curious, can Macs do that? Ideally, I'd love to have a quadruple-boot system where I can freely choose between Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, and Vista (or something like that). But .. yeah, that would just be silly.

  3. It was nice to see so many different world languages represented, including--get this--ESPERANTO. Apparently there are enough Esperanto speakers out there to warrant a whole translation of Linux. Wacky.

    Actually, there are about 2,000,000 of us wacky Esperanto speakers, placing Esperanto in the 97% percentile in terms of number of speakers. Interestingly, Esperanto has been called the "the Linux of languages"; this article gives reasons why one might say that.