The Long Road to Linux

I don’t remember the first time I installed linux. The earliest memories I can still call on are of installing a version of RedHat on the Dell laptop I used for the last year of undergrad. I was using the same physical setup I do today: a laptop plugged into an external monitor, with attendant mouse/keyboard and stereo system. I was having trouble getting it working with the external monitor, and hand-editing fstab files in root, and so on. At one point I pressed the FN-F7 combination to switch the display over from the monitor screen to the laptop screen, and heard a delicate “pop”, and the laptop screen flashed white, and stayed that way. I guess I had summoned a little too much current through the display adapter. Linux was willing to let me channel that extra power to my laptop screen, even if the screen couldn’t really handle it. Linux does what it’s told. My laptop screen never worked again, although I carried the damn laptop around for years, using it with an external monitor.

Every year or so since, I’ve checked back into the world of GNU/linux to see if the time has yet come when the evergreen promises of grandmother friendliness, or at least non-CS-student friendliness, have come true. They never have yet, although they really do get closer every year. Ironically, it was Windows XP’s inability to consistently link my laptop and monitor’s display that most recently drove me back into linux-land. These days, Ubuntu is the hotness, and it is indeed getting close to general-purpose usability. I have a list of must-haves before I switch fully over, and Ubuntu 8.10 (“Intrepid Ibex”) crosses several of those needs off the list:

A working “suspend” mode.

  • This capacity is not only present in “Intrepid”, it occasionally works, unlike previous releases. But not always.

The ability to use a laptop screen with an external monitor, preferably at the same time.

  • This is working a charm in Intrepid. And doing it better and more stably than Windows XP, in fact.

The ability to use an external soundcard.

  • Baked right in. I didn’t even have to configure it. The first time Ubuntu loaded up, it played the logon sound through my full stereo system.

So most of the hardware stuff seems to be getting ironed out. If only the same could be said for software.

Music management.

  • Not music playing, mind you. There are now plenty of open source, linux-native music players, many of them as good or better than the iTunes standard, and all of which will treat your system with more respect. I like Listen, Amarok, and Songbird very much for the playing of music files. But none of them seriously pretend to be music managers. What I need is something to replace MediaMonkey. To be fair, there is really only one software in the world that does persistent monitoring, user-controlled auto-file-organization and mass-metadata-manipulation of music files stored across disparate directories and harddrives well (i.e., MediaMonkey). But until linux has a MediaMonkey equivalent (or MediaMonkey itself), yo soy Windows-locked. Songbird, are you guys listening?

Photographic workflow.

  • Similar to the situation with music, there are good linux-based applications available to display (and edit) photos, but not to manage them. GIMP never stops improving as an image editor, although it still doesn’t seem to quite keep up with Adobe in that regard. But for workflow: cataloging, mass-editing of metadata, and so on, there just isn’t anything to replace or even touch proprietary, non-linux programs like Lightroom.

Easy software installation.

  • This is one where linux now wins, hands down, no contest. Once upon a time, installing software on linux was an overwhelming task. Lots of open source software build on bits and pieces of existing software to make something new: that’s one of the great advantages of working in open source, you can just do that. It’s encouraged. Unfortunately, if you want to install a little proggy that happens to depend on 4 other proggys, each of which depend on a few others… insanity lurks low over your poor head. But the linux-people fixed that years ago, and oh how they fixed it. The first time you try to install software in a linux environment can be confusing, because it’s so different than Windows (or Mac). But after that first time, it’s hard to go back. Trust me, try it. And you won’t have to reboot, either.

GIS tools.

  • I could be wrong about this one soon enough. I know there are many smart people working days and weekends on moving open-source GIS towards being the ESRI-killer we so desperately want and need. But for a general purpose spatial analysis workstation, you still today need ArcGIS, and that means you still need Windows.

Science and stats tools.

  • R runs in linux of course, and so if you have the R skills, statistics is covered. But if you don’t have the R skills (and who does?), you’re screwed. And for all those random sciencey applications for habitat modeling, or PCR analysis, or radio collar telemetry, or what have you, there’s only a chance that someone will have released a linux version.

For many of these complaints there exists an active project holding out hope of an eventual solution. For none of them is that solution going to arrive in the next point release. In some cases, the solutions are probably several years away from being equal to the respective Windows options.

This is not a pejorative complaint about GNU/linux. I understand that the entire ecosystem of open-source software is an extraordinary volunteer effort and an exemplar of non-profit capacitance, and it has not ceased to blow my mind that linux exists at all, never mind whether it fulfills my personal computing needs. And I think it will happen: a few years ago basic configuration and operation of linux was still an esoteric enough excercise that it wasn’t great even for basic internet and word processing, and that has since changed. But it looks like a few more years until I can freely download a full bodied multimedia processing and scientific analysis workstation. The road is longer than I had hoped a decade ago. But we’ll get there one fine day.


[…] Note: This post is the second part in a two-part “comprehensive history of computing” series, begun here. […]

[…] post is the third part in a two-part “comprehensive history of computing” series, begun here and then here. […]

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