The Switch to Linux Begins?

A couple of high-profile bloggers (via Dion) make the switch from Apple to Linux and O’Reilly Radar wonders if it’s the starty of a trend. While I prefer working with Apple, I’m nonetheless an Ubuntu fan so I certainly hope this trend picks up. However, I wonder if people know what they’re getting into. In both of the Switch articles by Cory Doctorow and Mark Pilgrim, the authors focus on the reasons for moving away (more hardware bang for your buck, using mostly open-source anyway, various misgivings with Apple softtware), but neither actually explains what sort of experience they’ve had with Ubuntu and how they’ll cope with the issues that inevitably arise. Okay, so these are both insanely smart guys and can deal with it, but if others follow, they might be sorry.

The fact is, Ubuntu takes Linux a step closer to the user-friendly desktop it should be, BUT it’s still a far cry from the ease you can expect from an Apple. I’ve been using Linux for 13 years, and if there’s one golden rule that’s always applied, it’s this: At least one thing will always fail. It could be wifi, it could be X, it will probably be power management on a laptop, it could be running Skype at the same time as ITunes. Whatever it is, it will require a decision: Do I spend 2+ hours trawling for solutions and ultimately recompiling the kernel on the dubious assumption that it will resolve the issue and not break anything else in the process, or do I just live with the pain. As a student, the answer was often the former; in the real world, it’s inevitably the latter. Even with a modern, fairly Linux-friendly laptop (Toshiba Satellite Pro), Ubuntu ?5.05 still led to the aforementioned audio and power management issues, and most Ubuntu switchers are likely to come across similar issues.

Furthermore, though Mark Pilgrim complains about ITunes (as have I) and uses mostly open-source stuff available on Linux, there’s still a lot of software missing from the modern Linux desktop. You will suffer with inferior, incompatible, versions of Real and Flash, household apps like Skype will trail even further behind than on Apple, and you will end up with clumsy – if well-intentioned – impersonations of the finely polished apps you use every day (yep, such as ITunes. I’m not even going to mention the Gimp.) In addition, more specialised software will be much harder to come by. For instance, I recently needed some screencasting software, and, while options on the Mac aren’t great, they’re certainly more appealing than under Linux, where there are so many possible hardware combinations it may not work anyway. If there is useful Linux software that fits a niche, there’s a very good chance it runs under Apple too.

I love working on OSX due to the underlying command line, but I’m no Cult Of Mac guy. There’s a lot of silly things about the Mac, like hanging on to one-button touchpads, resizing windows from one corner, etc. Some might see them as cute eccentricities, some may say I don’t get the zen of Apple, whatever. All I can see is that these “features” are pretty much a 22-year old joke, though nothing I can’t live with. In addition, DarwinPorts and Fink aren’t perfect; I’ve never got gnome-terminal working with fonts that I can actually see. Furthermore, Apple support sucks in my experience. I recently suffered from a pathetic support incident involving around five prolonged calls to an offshore call centre, no resolution, and will now require some correspondence with the legal department. So I’m all for a ?revival of Linux among the uber-geeks. I’m just saying: I hope you know what you’re getting into. Cory says he’ll be blogging the experience, which will be interesting to watch.

Installing Linux? Some Tips For Switching From Apple To Linux

Here are some tips if you’re thinking of switching to Linux:

  • Go with Ubuntu. Sorry, no choice here if you’re new to Linux. Ubuntu right now is the clear choice for a standard Linux desktop setup. Best hardware compatibility, good support wiki, excellent hardware compatibility apparently due to its networked feedback facility, the power of apt-get (which beats RPM hands-down) and the most important thing: a Live distro (next point).
  • Try the Live distro first (The killer app of Ubuntu is that it supports both live and installed Linux.) Run the live distro, see how it handles your hardware, kick the tyres a bit to pinpoint the things that don’t work (see above – there will always be at least one thing that doesn’t work), and decide whether you can live with that.
  • Go for an Express installation When you proceed to install, it’s easy to go control-freak and spend hours setting things up. The problem with that is you often have to do a reinstall for one reason or another. Modern Linux systems make it easy enough to change settings later on, as well as install new software, so there’s no need to do it upfront.
  • Buy the right hardware So many people encounter problems with Linux because they’re using the wrong hardware, often hardware that is notoriously bad on Linux. Whenever you buy a laptop, a card, etc that you intend to run Linux on, do your homework first and note that manufacturers hardly ever advertise they are Linux-compatible (as they’re probably worried they’ll be obliged to support it). Google is your friend. Your friend running Linux is your friend. If you’re willing to pay for it, Macbooks are an appealing choice for for running Linux on. They’re reasonably priced, since Apple is now aiming for the mass market, and they are very standardised, which is a huge benefit when it comes to Linux. Isn’t it ironic?

Rhythmbox – Usability Lessons Learned

Currently trying to delete about 50 playlists on Rhythmbox. (Rhythmbox doesn’t yet have podcast-friendly features like sorting by date, so I end up creating a daily playlist via a bashpodder hack, leading to numerous playlists).

The program’s nice overall, but deleting the playlists is a bit slow. I’m manually navigating to each item, right-clicking to open the menu, clicking delete, and confirming. Lessons learned here:

  • Keyboard shortcuts are good. Like “Del” for delete.
  • Multiple selection is good. Even for things you didn’t think anyone would need to do in bulk. You can’t anticipate everything users will do, so as a general rule of thumb … assume that if a user can do something to one thing, they will probably want to do it to many things.
  • Expose the configuration files so I can work out where all this stuff is stored, and manually delete them on the command line. I wish more Linux GUI apps would make it more obvious how the config maps to the filesystem – knowing that should be one of the main benefits of working in Linux.