Linux – saviour of the universe or right royal pain?

I have had a self-imposed blogging holiday.  After a while you start to get a tic in your left eye and go around wearing an Vulcan-shaped alfoil earmuffs.  Or perhaps that is just me – I’m not sure.

Actually, I just had four weeks holiday travelling as far as exotic North Ipswich (with two small children, a trip to the shops is less of an excursion and really has more in common with the Bataan death march).  One of the things I did do though was resurrect an old PC.

The reason for my attempt at resurrecting a 1998 Hewlett Packard8210 Pavilion – that’s the one with 266 Mhz of raw pentium power, which is kind of like describing a Ford Anglia as Michael Schumacher’s likely new motor – is that my three-year old is under instruction to ‘get better hand-eye coordination – he can’t even use a mouse’ (or words to that effect).  My son is already showing nerdish tendencies, which is perhaps the risk you take when casting the DNA dice of an accountant and a lawyer. 

At any rate, I decided I would resurrect the old PC – mainly so that he would stop stealing my new PC.  My first attempt was to load it with Linux.  And that’s when the fun began.  Firstly, I found that the BIOS had corrupted somewhere along the way so the keyboard was no longer recognised – result chaos.  After much searching I found the sophisticated solution – take the battery out (d’oh).  Keyboard working, I was then able to install Linux.  Installing Linux – admittedly Mandrake Linux 9, which is a bit old by now – was quite straightforward.  Unfortunately, if I was going to use anything other than the out-of-the-box setup, I would need to install new software. 

If you’ve never done it, installing software on Linux is a right-royal PITA.  No simple double-click installs-and-follow-the-bouncing balls here.  It’s all tarballs, gcc, and package managers.  And try as I might, I still couldn’t find the instructions for the installation of Firefox on Linux, despite the numerous sarcastic put-downs in forums to ‘go to the Firefox website’.  I did that, and if the instructions are there to be seen one seems to need to be equipped with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.  As a result, after probably a day of mucking about with Linux, I was yet to install anything new without a total reinstallation of the box – a less than satisfactory result.

So I then decided to install Windows 98 back onto the PC – which is when the second act of the fun and games began.  Installation of Lilo had blown away the master boot record with the result that the PC would not boot, full stop.  It was very easy to find that the problem was that the master boot record had been blown away; it was a little more difficult to find the solution to the problem.  Eventually I found that it is necessary to use debug and reinitialise the mbr manually with hex codes (ouch!).  Once that was done, though, the installation of Windows 98 was a breeze, and on the positive side of the ledger my son can now run ‘Grandma and Me’ quite well.  The only issue was installing internet explorer onto the machine – by default it came with ie4, and ie7 (the latest release) is far too heavy a load for my 9-year-old PC.  So I wanted ie5.  Unfortunately the world has turned since ie4, and it doesn’t work with a lot of websites that have a high demand for javascript (result: sadness, particularly since the ie5 and ie6 Microsoft download sites are incompatible with ie4).  Firefox – usually my browser of choice – also gave some bizarre errors that I couldn’t be bothered hunting down (recalling that by now I had spent a fair chunk of my holidays mucking around with the darn thing). 

So in the end I downloaded the latest version of Opera, which has reasonable performance if you’re a patient person.

So as a conclusion, and to round out my thoughts on this topic, my heart wants Linux to be good and great, it wants Linux to be useful and do everything I want.  Unfortunately I have several degrees by now (one of which is in IS), plus years of experience and experimenting with many different technologies, and a fair chunk of exposure to Linux, including a rather handy brother-in-law who is a guru in these things (the words ‘recompile my kernel’ pass regularly through his lips), and I still can’t install software with any form of reliability.  I can’t help thinking that Linux doesn’t really scale all that well for the home user by its very nature.  If software installation could ever be made much easier – and there is probably a distro that does this I suppose – I would be more easily convinced.  This might be a bonus for a site that wants to lock down software – after all, a big problem with Windows is that it’s very easy to install software! – but for now my head tells me that Linux, even after all this time, is still a curiosity best left to the hard core technical people who like to recompile their kernel (whatever that means).  For those of us who want to ‘do stuff’, Linux, despite the hyperbole and my wish for it to succeed, remains the tech-head’s choice and not ours.  I would love to be convinced otherwise, but if I have to take a course to get training in installing the software in my home pc, it kind of misses the point, doesn’t it.

1 thought on “Linux – saviour of the universe or right royal pain?”

  1. Installing Linux these days has never been easier. If you downloaded and installed any modern distro, such as Ubuntu (or Edubuntu, Kubuntu, etc) for instance, you would find that it already comes with Firefox 2.0. The installer is fairly straight forward and makes it easier to install than most Windows machines.

    Once your Ubuntu is set up, installing additional software in Linux is now in some ways easier than installing software in Windows. The modern software package managers allow you to click on one button to download and install software automatically.

    There are also hundreds of Linux distributions out there with live boot CDs. Typically many of the install CDs for Linux these days are just that. You can load the OS from CD, try it out and if you like it you can follow a link to install the OS on the Hard disk. Its like an unlimited trial version. In fact, with a USB stick, you wouldn’t even need a hard disk to use a fully functional operating system.

    Granted, there is still some configuration needed through the command line (like installing media codecs) but the Ubuntu forums is probably the most helpful Linux forum on the planet. An FAQ will guide you through all the common questions first, but after that they are happy to help out any newbie.

    Your story is a Linux experience is from 1998. You may as well review Windows Vista, while using Windows 98.


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