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Linux, My experience with.

(note: since the only relavent pictures I would have would be screen shots of a black screen with a white command prompt, I decided to show pictures of real life Linux users)

About two weeks ago, I destroyed my windows-based system. Again. This time, though, I didnt see it coming. I triend installing new drivers on my video card and in the process decided to disable windows back-up video driver because it seemed to be causing problems with my card. In doing that, of course, I managed to completely fuck up my computer to the point that, even going through the recovery console and restoring the settings, it would not work properly. Fortunately, experience has taught me well, and I alwasy leave a few gigabytes unpartitioned so I have the option of a quick install without having to erase anything. After the usual scurry for working copies of the CD, and some elaborate methods of, errr... recovering my serial number. I had a new clean version of windows up and running.

But the experience changed me.

I typically ruin my computer every couple months, and end up reformatting or reinstalling once or twice a year. This time, however, I had just been perusing various open source options, and figured that since I was finally living alone, I could give linux a shot without having to explain multiple boot partitions or why I was even bothering to anyone.

There was one fatal flaw with my plan: I dont have internet access at home. While I didnt think this would be too much of a problem initially, I was schooled by linux.

After digging through reviews of a few of the several hundred variations of linux. I settled on the Debian Version, downloaded and burned the ISOs (7 freakin CDs worth!). I primed myself on the startups, and got ready to run on through.

I am not, by most stretches of the imagination, a casual computer user. My introduction to the internet was through prompt driven unix systems over 10 years ago, and I have been a regular user of a linux shell account for the last 6 years. But it wasnt until the early stages of the installation process that I truly realized the magnitude of linux.

The basis is the kernel, the part programmed by Linus Torvalds about 10 years ago as a college student. At the time, no one knew that it would spread and become what it is today. The freely distributable kernel adopted the GNU Public License and inspired a flurry of implementations and expansions. Today there are over 100 operating systems based on the kernel and thoudands of packages, most of them freely distributable under the same license. While long considered a fledgling operating system compared to Microsoft and Apples more polished offerings, Linux has the advanatage of being open source, and the stability of being developed under the standard of a rock-solid operating system that was responsible for the development and implementation of internet technologies. Where the mainstream competition was built around a single computer and has been struggling to incorporate networking and internet advances in techonology, Linux is centered on connectivity, and its very development grew out of a worldwide internet community. Where the high-priced systems wait years between releases and have long cycles of bug-reporting and fixing, Linux undergoes constant development and refinement, continuously being improved with each user being able taking part in the shape and function of the overall system. In addition to all this, Linux looks poised to be the official operating system of China, and is spreading throughout asia. Infinitely customizable and built to avoid the mistakes made through the operating system wars, Linux's extensibility gives it the potential to become the dominant operating system.

But there is one major drawback: It totally fucking sucks.

I used Debian Linux, a freely distributable version, 7 CDs long with over 8000 packages. I picked it because it was the recommended package used in the tutorial at linux.org.

I have installed many an operating system in my days, so I did not have much trouble with the early steps. However, the included utilities are not especially user friendly. The CDs are bootable and have a guide with points of advice, but the first program, cfdisk, there are at least two separate partitions that have to be made, each having a different filesystem type. The catch is that cfdisk supports about 80 different filetypes, and you have to be familiar awith the type of program and know what the hell a filesystem is to figure it out.After passing that hurdle, the automated system plugged along, asking a few questions to customize the low level of the OS, and then got me to the second level of assistance: DPKG. DPKG presents you with a long, vivid, MSDOS style list of all 8000-something packages asking you which one to install. I figured for the time being I could just skip through it and continue with my installation.

So I tried.

Eventually, I finished the installation and got the glorious login prompt, and an error that X-Windows couldnt be started. X-Windows is linuxs Graphical User Interface. After a good deal of searching, I figured out that it was a driver problem, and that my hardware was newer than the OS release I was using. A driver problem, naturally, is usually worked out by digging up the disk that came with whatever hardware you are trying to use. OF course, since I buy cheap hardware and never gave a shit about linux compatibility before, I didnt have any drivers. Without the internet, I was pretty much screwed for that night, so I took a look around my new system.

After digging through the various folders, I realized that a command line only operating system with no internet access is almost completely useless. The only real potentail would be writing plain text files, but the only editors availble was the geek-ware shitheap of VI and equally incomprehensible emacs. If you dont know what those are, dont bother, you never will, and there is no reason to use them unless you somehow derive self-esteem from knowing the key combination to press that lets you type rather than beeping and printing "ERROR UNKNOWN COMBINATION".

Remembering one of the many questions asked while installing was "do you want to install games?" I decided to see what the best minds could offer with ascii options.

#1 Nethack: The game for people who arent very interesting. Nethack is a game where you are a guy with a sword who goes through a dungeon fighting monsters and getting treasure. What makes nethack unique is that it has really shitty graphics and a wide array of actions that make a cursory semantic difference. I started it, and I was a little guy, actually I was an '@' and I moved around a little room made up of symbols found on the keyboard. I quit playing when I noticed that there were different keys for eating, drinking, using, wearing, and equipping. That, and I was wasting my time.

#2 Punch: The program that turns strings of letters into block characters made to look like one of those obsolete punch cards. I have no idea why they call this a game.

#3 Boggle: All the fun of playing boggle alone. This game blanks the screen, and shows you a three by three grid of letters and three minutes to type in all the words you see. I stared dumbly for 20 seconds and quit.

#4 Adventure: A Choose-your-own-adventure for shut-ins. I would comment more on this, but it has mostly been covered elsewhere (under MUDS). Alas, an exasperating token-parser text adventure game. I actually hoped for a minute that 20 years could have worked out the kinks in the original zork design. If they did, than zork was just a bad idea.

Over the next few days, I tried to work out my driver issues. I got every version of linux drivers for every piece of hardware I was using, and updates for (what I thought was) the relevant software. Still, nothing but trouble. To make matters worse, each driver had to be compiled, and most of the drivers had dependencies on things I hadnt installed which had dependencies on things I hadnt installed. So after several runs through, I was back where I started: playiang boggle and crying myself to sleep.

And this, is ultimately the problem with linux. The fanatical supporters are so accustomed to linux that this type of install would probably be no hassle, but installations that assume you already are completely familiar with the finished product will never curry the favor of new users.

The entire process itself is reminiscient of the stone age days of computing that most average users have left in the past. The people I know would never get around to buying and formatting a new hard drive with Microsofts by-the-numbers procedure, let alone be able to manage the first step of this OS. While I had troubles with the limitations of my system, I found my knowledge of UNIX and programming indispensible, which is exactly the problem. A modern day Mac or Windows user doesnt want to go back to something that just resembles a more complicated dos prompt, or wait around for third party software to catch up to the industry standard programs.

I did see potential with Linux, and I believe I will eventually switch. But if there is not an easy to install, free distribution that can breeze a completely incompetant user through the entire process, without overwhelming lists of irrelevant packages and prior knowledge of the operating system, Linux will remain a server side, geek-only OS and never reach mainstream user acceptance or extensive commercial support.

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