A voice crying in the wilderness

Posts tagged ‘Windows’

Think different – Actually, just try thinking all at

I made a decision a few weeks ago to reformat my Mac Mini and, later, my Time Capsule and sell them.

It probably seems strange that eight months ago I was in in full Apple/Steve Jobs fanaticism mode, watching documentaries about Jobs and reading his biography with great enthusiasm. I had my Mac set up more or less the way I wanted it and, following a hernia repair surgery, I had two weeks off work and an abundance of energy due to a bad reaction to the pain management medication I was prescribed.

I took the time to review some of the documentaries I had accumulated in recent months, including three about Steve Jobs. One portrayed him as a genius, a visionary, one who computer enthusiasts owe a great deal to. The other painted him as an unbalanced, obsessive control freak who stole unashamedly from everyone else. The third took sections from each and came to no clear conclusion.

My reading of Jobs’ biography was mostly honest, frequently unflattering and still slightly unhinged; I began to see why so many Christians seem to favour Apple products – there seems an almost religious awe to the way they market their products. There seems to be an appeal to those who aren’t seeking God as such, but someone to tell them how they should live their lives. The public face of Jobs was a most charismatic pastor to the Apple faithful.

When I was still working at The Unnamed Computer Shop, they had finally gained an Apple dealership after several years of unsuccessful applications, though the reasons given for declining were apparently always vague and inconclusive. We had a training session with a representative from our main wholesaler – the session took some time and demonstrated some of the amazing things that the Mac and its software was capable of, but also a clear indication that the Mac was no longer the tool of the free thinking, counter culture artists but now a fashion accessory that you could not live without.

I remember being both impressed and horrified by what I saw. I walked out of the training session and back to my desk suddenly sporting a Van Dyke, beret and a placard proclaiming “Linux power!” At least, that’s how it felt. My inner Socialist was enraged.

It became clear that Apple made use of some very persuasive people – even knowing that Apple was promoted as a lifestyle choice, I managed to get caught up in the hype. I purchased a second hand Mac Mini through the local classified adverts, upgraded the memory to 4GB and spent some time tooling it up until it became my main system for everyday use. My Windows notebook, my primary system for the last six years was relegated to the machine I took with me to LAN parties, programming meetings and when travelling. And yet I was left with a continuous niggling doubt…

One things that struck about Apple is how closed they are – they provide the hardware, the operating system and many of the applications we use. Everything worked together in an impressively seamless and consistent fashion. When comparing with Windows, the latter offers much the same functionality (after a fashion) but everything seemed cobbled together – a collective product by people who had a particular goal in mind but who made no effort to communicate with each other during development. Or sometimes software purchased or licensed from third parties and just dropped into place.

The closed nature of Apple has its benefits but once you try thinking outside of that glass box, you start to run into trouble – like Microsoft, Apple like to keep external developers at arm’s length. Its not that they prevent third party developers, but you will be frowned upon in you don’t follow very specific guidelines. Whilst I found a lot of useful, free tools for everyday general use, some of the software I needed for specific tasks (such as writing DVDs with verification) required some quite expensive software – having purchased this software for Windows, I didn’t want to have to buy it again for the Mac at twice the price.

Whilst I was recovering from surgery in late September and early October, I took some time to tinker again with Linux – my notebook has a rather obscure video controller and few operating systems seem to recognise or support it properly. Various flavours of Linux would operate but I would encounter odd problems like being unable to play streaming video at full screen or the audio stalling, crackling and popping like someone burping underwater. Previously, I had worked with Ubuntu 9.04 which worked pretty well for the most part, improving somewhat under 9.10 but when I upgraded to 10.04, the whole system went to pieces. Fresh installations of successive editions never seemed to work satisfactorily.

Having acquired a three year old Hewlett Packard desktop from a friend, I thought to try again – the same issue of not having the video controller supported properly reoccured, but the issue wasn’t as bad as before; streaming video would sometimes struggle but media systems like VLC could play full screen 720p video without any trouble.

Tweaking, refining and a little bit of research allowed me to get the system up and running to my satisfaction, even to the point of taking over from the Mac as my regular day to day machine. With more memory and something like 12 times the hard disk space, I could keep all my music and photos on the same machine. Features like Ubuntu One cloud storage and the built in backup software make sure that nothing goes astray. WINE had improved enough that Windows specific tools like Irfanview operated perfectly well but if I needed to run some software that demanded something more, I could run a virtual machine loaded with Windows XP for software like iTunes (more for purchasing music than configuring my archaic iPod).

In a way, both my inner Socialist and my outer Christian selves were satisfied with the arrangement. When my brother acquired an old PC from his local technical college, I put Ubuntu 12.04 LTS on it as I felt it would be easier for him to use and safer in his inexperience). Eventually, I want to install it on my parent’s PC as well – I just need to figure out remote desktop access for them should they get into any trouble.

You can’t be a Linux user, you haven’t got a beard!

I have taken a step along the road to enlightenment. That is to say I have started experimenting with Linux. Again.

Not that one is obligated to look like Richard Stallman in order to use Linux or open source software but it appears to help – if most of the Linux users I’ve met are anything to go by. I grant you that the rebellious part of my nature has sprouted a goatee beard and a beret and has taken to carrying a placard and waving its philosophical fist in the air.

I’ve been using Windows as my primary operating system since May 1997 though I have trialled various alternatives over the years – FreeDOS, BeOS, early incarnations of Linux and OS/2, all with mixed success. Outside of SCO or BSD Unix at TAFE, my first proper taste of a Linux-like operating system was playing with Red Hat 5.0 way back in 1999. Though it looked impressive, getting anything useful done required much delving around in the Land of the Big Scary Command Line and editing scripts. It all seemed like too much hard work. More recent attempts tried to make use of some older hardware that I had lying around – mainly my Celeron 600 – and conservative installations such as Xubuntu. The software would install nicely but refuse to talk to my internet connection. I could use the operating system but couldn’t update or hunt for new software.

On my current system, I use Vista Home Premium on my notebook (and primary workstation) and XP Pro on my file and print server – Home Server being far from suitable for my requirements due to the strange “may corrupt your really important information without warning or apology” bug that I believe still hasn’t been fixed as I write this (at least, when I started writing back in July 2008).

Microsoft has received a great deal of criticism regarding their rather restrictive licensing schemes, questionable security and debatable stability – I’ve always seen it as “You don’t have to buy it, you know – you can always use an alternative system.” Other people have taken the attitude of “We want to use it, we just don’t want to have to pay for it. Repeatedly.” What really irritated me recently was Service Pack 1 for Vista was released earlier this year and the update manager has been nagging me for weeks to install it. I’d heard whispers that the upgrade often failed and ended up corrupting people’s installations so I made a point of doing a complete backup first. This was a very wise move as two thirds of the way through the upgrade, the system balked and refused to boot again. Six hours of frustration and restoration later and I’m back to where I was previously. And the update manager is still bugging me to upgrade.

So out of sheer irritation, I thought I’d have another go at Linux – this time on reasonably up to date hardware. I’d recently built myself a new server and so I had a spare system lying around looking for something useful to do. I’d been getting regular copies of Kubuntu since June 2006 and version 8.04 seemed to be mature enough to warrant a second look. Friend Style has been using Linux in various forms for as long as I can recall, dedicated enough to even have had Tux the Penguin tattooed on his arm, and has been an advocate for Ubuntu for some time.

Kubuntu seemed the logical choice since it came with a comprehensive install base (the only distribution of the primary three that came on DVD) and a familiar user environment. So where to start? I took the install DVD, started up my decommissioned server and waited for the system to start installing.

Since I started investigating Linux again, one thing has come to cause me a great detail of annoyance – the Linux Evangelist. Such people will talk endlessly about how much better Linux is than Windows at absolutely everything, often with such fanaticism that even seasoned Linux enthusiasts shudder at the mention of their name. Most people just walk away – this doesn’t seem to bother the Evangelist as they will quite happily continue talking, with or without an audience. If you can bring yourself to endure their incessant waffling, you will note that they often contradict themselves several times and bring their knowledge of their subject matter into doubt.

So after several practice installations and configuration sessions, I started to become familiar with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Gnome and KDE, and their associated foundations – to the point of migrating a number of my daily tasks over the Linux system, and even to the point of installing Windows versions of some of the applications on my Vista notebook (notably OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird since I had being using Lotus Smart Suite for over ten years and Opera web browser for the last eight).

Out of the box or – more accurately – from the base installation, Ubuntu does around 80% of the tasks I need. With around an hour’s tweaking, downloading and configuring, it can do about 95%. I figure that the remaining 5% has mostly to do with my inexperience or simply not having found an application that will do the task I require.

The environment reminds me rather a lot of the days spent working on my Amiga 500 and later the A1200. Much of the software is a little unpolished, a little rough around the edges, but include most of the features needed. As I continue to become familiarised with Gnome, I’ll likely find better programs, or new ones that do old things in a better way.

So where to from here? Whilst it nice to not have to spend money buying applications to perform the tasks I require, I now find myself pondering upgrading my hardware again. Having wasted yet another morning attempting to configure my Vista notebook for dual booting with Ubuntu – and failing miserably – I ponder upgrading my spare notebook with additional memory to improve performance. For some odd reason, 512MB doesn’t quite seem to be enough and the older video controller doesn’t want to recognise an external monitor (which may or may not be related to the limited memory). And you can understand my reluctance to spend $135 on upgrade parts for a six year old notebook that might die tomorrow.

Playing with Fedora Core 10 on another system implies that that would be a better solution, up until the point of not being able to access my Windows network. Does everything nicely until that point – though I have yet to test it accessing another Linux system on the same network.

As I write, I’m testing an installation of Xubuntu 8.10 downloaded this morning (Xubuntu tends to be a later release than Ubuntu or Kubuntu) – I’ll let you know how that goes.

It would be nice to be free of Windows though – maybe I ought to upgrade the hard disk of the Vista notebook just for a test…