Starting with Linux

Dick Bowman (27 January 2004)


I really want to divorce myself from Microsoft, and it's gone quite well so far (bear in mind my goal - a personal computing desktop which doesn't have to fit in with any corporate designs or machinations).

OpenOffice is a viable alternative to MS Office for documents and spreadsheets, Mozilla Thunderbird handles email, Mozilla Firebird the net (there are one or two places where I need to fall back to Internet Explorer) and MySQL does the business for a database back end; most of the everyday other stuff is personally developed in APL or J.

Since these things are all available for Linux, and especially since MicroAPL offer APLX for free on Linux, it seemed that the time was right to investigate.

Partition Tragic

First requirement is to free up some disk space, and that means Partition Magic has to be called in (I guess there are alternatives).

Undo the NTFS compression, resize the (single - as delivered) partition, delete lots of accumulated clutter, create a new VFAT partition at the end of the disk, move stuff around, defragment, move around again, install Boot Magic and have Partition Magic create you some new Linux partitions.  These things all take some time to run, and (you knew it) some recourse to emergency repair disks.

Partition Magic refused to install itself from CD and had to be copied to disk first (I despair...).  It's also worth bearing in mind that Partition Magic is strictly a Windows/DOS application and all it knows of Linux is how to create Linux partitions (and more on that later) - it would be nice to have a dual-platform partition manipulation tool.

The Installation Process

Installing Linux is fairly straightforward (the target machine is a Dell laptop three or four years old) - I used a Fedora Core 1 CD set given away with a Linux monthly magazine.

There's some confusion about partitioning (the Linux installation doesn't want to use the Linux partitions I created with Partition Magic - this may or may not be my fault).

There's even more confusion about boot managers, because Linux comes with its own (GRUB, apparently Lilo is no longer in vogue) and it won't let me boot into Windows.  The only resort is some haphazard hacking (I have a book, "Red Hat Linux Bible" - Wiley - ISBN 0-7645-4333-4, which is some use, but there must be better).  Transpires that the GRUB loader is set up to look in the wrong place for my Windows partition - after changing I have a PC I can boot into either Linux or Windows.

The Aftermath

Windows is pretty much as-was; curiously Partition Magic now reports the whole of my hard disk as "bad" and sees nothing of its own handiwork (this is the state-of-the-art disk partitioning tool?).  Some of the disk has disappeared into some strange limbo (but all the partitions with data and programs are reachable, so things are quite workable).

Linux has found pretty much all of my hardware and runs with it.  The only exception is my USB ADSL modem which isn't on the hardware list (as you'd expect, my ISP offers no assistance to the Linux user) - there are some updates available from the modem manufacturer and I may get round to investigating some day - for now, though, my Linux does not connect to the Internet.  The only other hardware issue is that my Canon inkjet isn't on the Linux list (some drivers get some results from it) and Canon don't offer Linux drivers.

Some hunt-and-peck hacking needed before I can see my Windows VFAT partition (which holds the data I want to share across OSs).

What's Linux Like?

In a word, underwhelming...

I'm using the Gnome desktop (which is the Fedora default) and get Fisher-Price size icons.  It generally looks clunky; there are a few bits that seem better than Windows but I'm sure that my reaction is truer than just (it's different, so I don't like it).

OpenOffice comes up and works pretty much as expected (although it generally just looks that bit shabbier).

There's all the Unix stuff about folder and file permissioning to get reacquainted with.

APLX installs fine, so I have a place where I can do something useful (what's nice about APLX is that workspaces are compatible across platforms - which may also be the case with other APLs, but I haven't the experience).

It's things like the Gnome panel not doing autohide properly, and showing the wrong menus from time to time.  Or attempts to install KDE ending with "an error has occurred" with no further information.  Or the poorly-drawn buttons.  It just looks as though Linux still (after all these years) needs somebody to take a firm grip and shake it into shape (why do we need two or more desktops - just give me one that works); I get a sense that it's a playplace for people who like writing scripts to administer Linux.

And Now...

I wish I felt more positive about Linux - it's there on the PC (at the cost of some lost disk space) and I can do some stuff with APLX if I want (although I suspect that I'll migrate my APLX back to APL/W).  I may hack around to try to get the modem working, and explore some more of the Canon printer drivers.

Somewhere down the line there's a reformat brewing, and I'm not certain that Linux will make it back onto the box.  Although it's an alternative, I'm not seeing very much that I can do with it that I can't already with Windows (where I'm at 2000 and sticking).

Copyright Dogon Research Ltd. 2004