What I Did with my Hiatus

Every time you go on a long trip, it's always great to come back home. That's how it is with my return to Linux Magazine. After two long years, I'm back in the business of writing a column, and I'm as happy as a clam. I'm clearing off my old dusty desk, restocking its drawers with Penguin Mints and Instant Ramen, and firing up every piece of computer hardware that can run Linux that I can get my hands on.

Every time you go on a long trip, it’s always great to come back home. That’s how it is with my return to Linux Magazine. After two long years, I’m back in the business of writing a column, and I’m as happy as a clam. I’m clearing off my old dusty desk, restocking its drawers with Penguin Mints and Instant Ramen, and firing up every piece of computer hardware that can run Linux that I can get my hands on.

What’s that you say? Hardware? Weren’t you the “Desktop” columnist, you know, the dude who wrote about stuff like the “Tao of Ximian” and the “Zen of KDE?” Didn’t you write insipid crap like “How to Love Your Office Suite” and how to “Dress Up Your Desktop with a Seasonal Flair”? Yup, that was me. But now I’m getting back to my roots, coming out of the closet as a die-hard hardware freak. We’re loud, we’re proud — so get used to it.

Nothing turns me on more than the soft whir of cooling fans, the blinking of LEDs, or the high-pitched whine of a 10,000 RPM Ultra 320 SCSI drive initializing on power-up. I want everything in my house to be hooked up to my IP-based KVM switch. I have enough computer case carcasses in my basement to start my own public landfill. I get chills when I see 21-inch LCD monitors with digital inputs at Best Buy, I drool at ever-increasing Gigahertz speed ratings, and I like big honking RISC processors that make mincemeat out of floating point math. My Tivo is hacked to the max, and I marvel at the latest embedded, low-power, Linux PDAs.

Performing Community Service

Speaking of Linux PDAs, that’s what I did during 2002 — I went to work for Sharp Electronics as their Linux Developer Community Liaison and Software Manager. For twelve months, I was up to my fat rear in the nuances of Japanese corporate politics (something I knew a lot about from my years at Canon during the 1990s), ARM processors, programmable ROMs, Linux device drivers, embedded Java Virtual Machines, ever-changing GCC compiler standards, and embedded Qt libraries. I also met a lot of developers at trade shows and discovered what the embedded Linux and Java developer community was all about.

I learned that you really don’t want to buy the sandwiches at the Las Vegas Convention Center. I learned that after a hard day at work arguing with management over what proprietary source code needs to be released, you can always count on Chili’s to serve you overpriced frozen blue lemonade spiked with tequila and boneless chunks of chicken masqueraded as Buffalo Wings to drown your sorrows in. And I learned that bringing a new product to the market, building a developer community from scratch, and keeping them happy while satisfying the needs and wants of a multi-billion-dollar corporation with no experience in Linux and Open Source is tough. Really tough. Like next time, I think I’d prefer something a little less painful, like reconstructive root canal surgery without anesthesia. A pissed off software developer makes even rabid wolverines with PMS look as nonthreatening as Richard Simmons.

But most of all, after my experience with the Zaurus and getting to know the ins-and-outs of embedded systems development, I came to the realization that there’s a whole wide world of hardware that runs Linux, from the very small to the very, very big, and lots of stuff in-between.

In Praise of Software…

But that’s not to say it’s all about hardware. Sometimes, its about how the software interacts with the hardware. I still like playing with software, especially if it better enables the hardware and makes my life easier. Take for example this new Xandros 2.0 Linux distribution I’m running.

About a year or two ago, not long after I stopped doing my desktop column for Linux Magazine, I decided that Linux was a sucky replacement for Microsoft Windows. Yes, your die hard, Golden Penguin award-winning favorite columnist finally decided that he’d had it with trying to use Linux as a desktop OS. That’s not to say I’d abandoned Linux — far from it. I was using Linux PDAs every day, and I was managing several, high-volume web sites that ran Linux as a server OS, including eGullet.com, the food website that I’ve been running since 2001. (If you’re into food, wine, cooking, and dining out, I encourage you to check it out. We even have many prominent members of the Linux and Open Source community participating in it, like computer security whiz Bruce Schneier and Chris Dibona and Mandrake from VA and Enlightenment fame. Guess what: they all like to eat.) But even after messing with every single Linux distribution under the sun, and running every bleeding edge version of GNOME and KDE, I could never really achieve that warm and fuzzy feeling of my favorite desktop OS, Windows XP. Sure, I used plenty of Linux applications, but over a Windows-powered X host or a VNC connection. I liked the polish of Windows and used Linux applications when I needed them. I just couldn’t go cold turkey.

My addiction lasted up until last week when my primary Windows workstation kicked the bucket. I think the memory chips went bad, or a Athlon processor blew a gasket. The poor machine just kept blue screening and rebooting itself. I was hosed, and I needed to get a desktop machine up and running fast, especially as I had my Linux Magazine column due and my wife was unwilling to share her PC with me.

So I had this new fire-breathing HP xw4100 workstation sitting in a box, raring to go, with its 3.0 GHz Pentium chip and its NVIDIA Quadro video card calling out my name. I also had a freshly burned copy of Xandros Desktop 2, just off the plane from Canada, courtesy of the lovely Xenia Von Weidel at the Terpin Group, who always keeps me in SuSE distribution nirvana, but who is now also representing Xandros, formerly known as Corel Linux. So I figured what the hell, I’d try it. If it stunk, I’d just reformat it with Windows. Or I’d say to hell with all this PC hardware gunk and buy a Mac G5 after Christmas, because deep down in my soul of souls that’s what a nerd really wants.

Well, I am in love.

I’ve always wanted to run a Debian-based system, mainly because I’ve heard that once you get one up and running, they are a breeze to maintain and upgrade. Not to slight Red Hat Network, RPMs, and other similar network update services for Linux, but .deb packages and apt-get are the shizzle. Every single piece of software in the entire Debian library is at your fingertips with the apt-get command. Simply type apt-get install openoffice.org, and within minutes, OpenOffice. org is pulled down from the Debian package servers and installed on your machine, with all the required libraries and supplemental packages needed to support it. No more library dependency hell.

The only problem is Debian’s install program is as pleasant and about as modern as sucking gophers through rusty tailpipes. Now, I’ve heard that Red Hat’s Anaconda installer has been ported to Debian and they’ve been testing it, but I’ve learned that playing with bleeding edge advancements in Linux software is not always such a good idea.

Xandros Rocks

So I unwrapped my Xandros 2 CD, popped it in the HP’s DVD drive, and fired it up. Within 10 minutes, I had a completely workable Debian Linux desktop, and I think I only had to click the mouse three or four times. It was the smoothest Linux installation I’d ever seen. All the hardware was detected, including the built-in sound card, the DVD/CD burner, the high-end NVIDIA graphics chip, and 3D OpenGL drivers, everything. And when I popped in my 6-in-1 USB card reader for reading my digital camera photos post installation, it detected it instantly. Tres cool. No more looking for arcane web sites for obscure drivers and documentation, and no more manually editing XFree86 configuration files to correctly install Detonator drivers.

But wait, there’s more. Not only did it detect and install everything correctly on the machine, but it’s already tweaked-out to interoperate with your existing Windows network and Windows applications. Maybe some of you guys have 100 percent Linux environments and live and breathe only Linux, but I don’t. I still like Microsoft Office and so does my wife, and she hates Linux. Given the fact that she acts as my administrative assistant, does a lot of the office work, cooks my dinner and does my laundry, I have to give a little and let her use Windows. She loves her Outlook and PowerPoint, and frankly, so do I.

Xandros runs on a highly tweaked-out version of KDE 3.x. When I say tweaked, I mean they have made major usability modifications to the KDE Control Center and the Konqueror browser, and have written a whole bunch of applications and utilities to better-emulate the user experience of a Windows PC. For example, CD burning is fully integrated into the file browser, as is the navigation and detection of removable media like Compact Flash cards and Zip drives. Accessing my Windows network is as easy as clicking on the network connection in the file browser and viewing the file shares that show up. The Samba, network, and printer configuration is foolproof, every aspect of the system has a well-designed configuration GUI, and the system is very, very, stable, thanks to the system’s Debian underpinnings.

And in addition to the way-cool command-line apt-get utility, Xandros has written its own GUI front end called Xandros Networks that allows you to browse the Xandros-hosted Debian repository to install software applications over the Internet and painlessly update your system with patches. It’s probably the best implementation of an update system I have ever seen.

But the best part about Xandros is I get to keep my Windows applications and keep my marriage OS-agnostic. Xandros comes with a full version of Codeweavers’ Crossover Office fully integrated into the distro, so you can install Word, Excel, and PowerPoint right on your Linux machine just by popping in the Office XP CD. And it runs just as well as it does on a Windows box, too. I’m telling you, if you’ve given up on Linux as a desktop OS, give Xandros a serious look. It’s even good enough for your mother-in-law.

So with Debian in hand, my marriage saved, and a whole new year ahead with plenty of cool Linux hardware to play with, I’m finally back at Linux Magazine. To paraphrase a favorite Saturday morning cartoon from the 1970s: This is Jason Perlow coming at ‘cha with hardware and fun. If you’re not careful, you may learn something before we’re done!

Jason Perlow lives in Northern New Jersey, is the founder of eGullet.com, a foodies web site, and on any given day, possesses more computer horsepower than mere mortals should be allowed. Tributes can be sent to perlow@linux-mag.com.

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