Linux on the desktop, ten years later

Posted on Wed 09 September 2009 in misc

It's a running joke at the Linux Weekly News at the start of each year to predict that "this will be the year of Linux on the desktop". In our household, it's been Linux on the desktop for over ten years now.

A week or so ago, I received an email from the Linux Counter asking me to update the status of my account. I was a bit surprised to see that I had registered an account stating that I had a machine running Linux back in May 1999 - more than ten years ago! Then yesterday, while pawing through a box of miscellaneous computer crap (doesn't every geek have a few boxes of those?), I came across the receipt from CheapBytes for two CDs: Red Hat Linux 5.2, and Linux Mandrake 5.3 (Venus) dated February 23, 1999. It was a direct result of having run into Linux in 1998 at IBM when I was testing a port of DB2 to this previously relatively obscure (to me) operating system. Having cut my UNIX teeth earlier that year on AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, and SCO OpenServer, I was surprised at how capable it was on our relatively cheap testing hardware, and something in my brain clicked and sent me over the edge to learn more, more, more about this Linux thing. Shortly thereafter, I was submitting an order to CheapBytes from my work address.

I distinctly remember trying to get Red Hat 5.2 running on my IBM Aptiva at home, with no success, but the slightly more bleeding-edge Linux Mandrake handled my hardware without too much pain and actually produced a working XWindows interface. Glorious! I even managed to get Lilo to support dual-booting of Windows and Linux, so that I could geek out and then later Lynn could reboot and get some real work done. Or, I could play some serious games. Let's not get our priorities too screwed up. Somehow I managed not to fry our computer, despite rapidly entering the land of custom-compiled kernels and experimenting with different packages and RPMs from different distributions.

I ran Linux at work, as well, dealing with horrible things like Token Ring drivers in the early days (lots of custom kernels compiled there). I wrote manuals in gvim and built a documentation management system on a LADP (Linux, Apache, DB2, and PHP/Perl) platform. Figuring out solutions built on Linux often opened up much faster, cleaner ways of getting work done, and I never had a complaint about my productivity. A few days ago, I was listening to a Hacker Public Radio podcast in which many of the round table contributors mentioned that they couldn't run Linux or BSD at work because their machines were locked down, and I thought "How sad!"; these are clearly smart people and they should be able to select their own tools to get their jobs done. Imagine the fun that would follow if you hired a crew to renovate your house and then required them to use the set of tools that you had purchased at a discount store!

By 2001, whatever the current version of Linux Mandrake was was just running all the time on our home machine (I was a silver member of the Mandrake Club, oh yeah!). I wasn't playing many games anymore, although I did buy and play the Linux versions of Heroes of Might and Magic III and Soldier of Fortune and Alpha Centauri. I was even deeper into geekdom, doing some editing and writing for The Linux Documentation Project and minor hacking on projects like Wine (necessary for running Lotus Notes for work at IBM, you see) and PHP here and there. And when I wasn't monopolizing the machine, Lynn got tired of waiting for the system to reboot and she just jumped into Linux (using either Gnome or KDE, and cursing me only slightly when I switched the default desktop or upgraded and things moved around). So, we've been a primarily Linux-based family since 2001 I guess.

In 2004 or thereabouts we switched to Gentoo to try and avoid the upgrade "who moved my cheese?" hassles. The desktop layout stayed more stable, but the pain of having to recover after major configuration changes or blocking dependencies got tiresome and in 2007 we switched to Ubuntu and have been pretty happy with that ever since. Lynn had to jump back to Windows every once in a while when she started writing her thesis (curse those MS Office 2007 .docx files and layout changes between and MS Office) but otherwise, for us, Linux on the desktop has been part of our reality in some capacity for over ten years now - and almost a full-time reality for 8 years.

If you want to give it a shot, I would recommend Ubuntu as a good starting point for a general introduction to Linux. If you're one of my friends working in the film or audio industry (hello Ian!), Ubuntu Studio is a version of Ubuntu specialized for your needs.