By Eric Pettifor
I am much more enamoured of my Acer Aspire One netbook since I put the Xubuntu Linux distribution on it (instructions here). The original Linux interface strongly suggested that its developers thought people would like the netbook to be a simple internet appliance. An interesting idea. However, it looks like a laptop, albeit a diminutive one, and I was disappointed initially by its limited application selector. (I can’t call it a desktop environment; it’s so limited, it doesn’t really have a desktop.) Fortunately, as long as it responded as expected to alt+F2, I could get useful work done while bypassing the interface. That ended when a software update caused it to freeze cursor and keyboard on boot.
Something like the Xubuntu’s XFCE desktop environment fulfils expectations better. It has what we all expect: a desktop with user settable wallpaper, user litterable with all kinds of shortcuts, and, of course, a bar with a button which you click when you want to go hunting for things. It provides all this in a much less resource intensive way than the main Linux desktop environments, KDE and Gnome (used by its sister Linux distributions, Kubuntu and Ubuntu), making it suitable for not only netbooks, but for any computer past its prime and no longer capable of running the latest desktop environments or Windows operating systems.
I also upgraded my desktop distribution, Kubuntu, in order to have easier access to more recent versions of applications. In Linuxland, all the applications are free — you just say some magic words and they fly into your computer from a magic cloud. However, each distribution, and each version of each distribution, has its own magic cloud. My cloud no longer had the latest versions.
For me a sure sign that Linux is ready for the desktop is the fact that I no longer look forward to upgrading. Why bother when everything works fine? And I’m a little annoyed that the applications in my magic cloud (or software repositories) are only being updated for bug fixes. It’s like they’re deliberately goading me to upgrade.
I anticipated that I would ultimately wind up doing a clean install of the latest version of Ubuntu, and then “Kubuntuizing” it as outlined in this earlier post where I observed that direct Kubuntu installs are not advised. There is an option to upgrade the version from within the existing version, but I have never, ever seen that work. Until now.
I used the upgrade version option in the package manager to go from version 8.04 to version 9.04, totally skipping inbetween version 8.10. It took some time downloading and installing stuff, but damned if it didn’t actually work. The only major glitch was a variation on the old “no sound from the sound card even though the hardware is recognized” problem. (Hint, from the mixer config set all sliders to visible and try pushing up ones that are all the way down until you hear sound.)
This is a joy Windows users will likely never know. Imagine an XP user seeing a dialogue that says “Would you like to upgrade to Windows 7 for free? Just click here.” Upon clicking, XP replaces itself with the latest version of Windows. Then another dialogue pops which says “Now, would you like to upgrade Office for free as well?” There are days when I really, really wonder why people keep using Windows. As opposed to those other days when I only really wonder why people keep using Windows.
Aside from a repository cloud with more recent versions of all those lovely, free, applications, there really isn’t much reason to upgrade. The KDE4 desktop environment is much cooler looking than KDE3, with all the useless visual eye candy of a Vista or OS/X. Some of the configuration options are arranged in ways which border on actually intuitive, while others have gotten worse. (Trying to get it to use a static ip today, I soon found myself back on the command line.) However, I can confirm that it is usable. Many thought the first version of KDE4 was released too early, but if that was so, then it has had enough time to mature into something which is really lacking only one thing from KDE3 that I can see — it won’t allow me to put different wallpaper on each of my eight virtual desktops.
I did run into a major application incompatibility. My version of VMware Server wouldn’t run as it couldn’t compile the modules it needed. It was already getting long in the tooth, but again, if it works well, why upgrade? Since it wasn’t working, I downloaded and installed the latest version from VMware’s site.
VMware Server has become quite a horrible application if all you want to do is run Windows on Linux. It is clearly aimed at the “Enterprise” market where companies might want to maintain a bunch of servers running a bunch of virtual servers, all in a data centre but controlled from the company IT offices. To that end it now sports a web interface. I think one is supposed to see the operating system in a tab, but apparently that requires a plugin which wouldn’t install. I could hear the XP start up sound, but couldn’t see anything in that fricken java-based web app.
I was motivated to see what the competition had to offer, and not the competition explored in an earlier post with a company called Parallels. I wanted to see how open source was doing in this area.
I discovered a wonderful little application called VirtualBox. There’s very little to write about it. It creates a virtual machine, you install Windows in it, Windows boots connected to the internet, and off you go. So nice, so simple. About the only negative was that, although it claims to be able to open VMware created virtual machines, it failed in the case of mine, so I’m starting from scratch with a new XP install.
So the state of the penguin is that things are good and getting better, whether you’ve got a machine that can do all the KDE4 eye candy effects without breaking a sweat, or one that has been given new life by Xubuntu. And there is no need to abandon Windows completely, since whatever app it is you can’t do without can likely be run in Windows in VirtualBox on Linux. And all of this, with the exception of Windows, falling freely into one’s computer from the magic application clouds. Some days I really, really, really do wonder why anyone uses Windows.