The Year of the Penguin - Part One

Linux-Penguinby Andrew Frame

I despise disclaimers at the end of a production in small print. So, I’m going to put mine right here at the front: For however many essays this series entails, all product names mentioned are the trademarked property of their respective owners, and are used nominatively. Use does not indicate sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder. I am writing from personal experience and am in no way compensated nor benefit financially or otherwise from any products, procedures, or concepts in this series. I don’t profess to be an expert in anything. I’ve learned a few things, and I’m sharing. Your mileage may vary. Do not consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Call your doctor immediately if you experience and erection lasting more than four hours. These disclaimers really do have as much application with computers as they do with pharmaceuticals.

Now, on with the show.

Microsoft has the Flying Windows, the Paper Clip, Search Dog, and a little old guy that I’m guessing is supposed to be Einstein. Apple has their apple, a southern California hip dude, and the Happy Mac face.

And, Linux has a fat, Buddha-esque penguin named Tux. No wonder the propeller heads only have a one percent market share. How can you take an operating system seriously when the mascot is a overweight flightless waterfowl with fish breath? Once you peek under the bonnet though, you’ll find you can take that OS very seriously, and I just spent a year doing it.

I’d like to make clear on the outset, this isn’t an Us versus Them thing. The one thing that has to be kept in mind is that you use the computer system that works best for you. Period. I wanted to find out what worked for me, so a year ago I set out to do that.

Background

Outside of pocket calculators like the Texas Instruments TI40, the most advanced technology in my home as a child would have been a 19” color television from Sears. In my final year of high school we had a few days with a Burroughs digital trainer, essentially a big box with components permanently mounted to spring clips that could be configured into digital circuits.

I managed to build a reaction timer. A red LED would illuminate, and a counter would clock how long it too you to poke a button to turn it off.

From that beginning, I worked my way through a Timex Sinclair TS1000, Commodore PET, Texas Instruments TI44A, Tandy 1000HX, Atari 600XL and 800XL, Eagle CP/M desktop, Tandy Business workstation, a store bought ‘286 based machine, secondhand ‘386 machine, hand built Pentium, store bought Pentium4, hand built Celeron, and finally an Apple iBook G4.

Along the way, I’ve used early proprietary DOS’s, flavors of CP/M, MSDOS, along with Windows (from 3.11 through XP), various Linux distributions, and coming in relatively new to the game, Apple OSX. I even got to poke a VAXmini one time, but I was on a dumb terminal writing a short story, so I don’t think it really counts.

I’ve gone from no internet connection, to 300baud (Compuserve in the 80’s), to 14.4k (local BBS systems), to 56k (AOL when it was brand new), to 128k, to ADSL.

Foreground

Presently, I still have the above mentioned store bought Pentium 4 running Windows XP (eight years old), the hand built Celeron running Ubuntu Linux 9.04 (two years old), and the iBook with OSX (four years old) all jacked into a wired LAN hooked to the outside via a 768k/6Mb ADSL.

All are in daily use. Heavy daily use.

In my opinion, Windows XP leveled the field with Apple’s products. It was stable, attractive, and friendly for users, power users, and techs. Then, Apple’s OSX raised the bar. Under the bonnet of the GUI resides a modified, UNIX based kernel. This point was exploited to give a level of security and stability Windows could only dream about. My iBook, for example hasn’t had to have the operating system reloaded since I pulled it out of the box, new, in 2005. It is behind a firewall, but has no antivirus/spam or any kind of security systems installed. I run Applejack maintenance from time to time, and the little machine just keeps slugging along. It’s my road machine, accompanying me any time I’m out of the house, and it’s the machine that gets the most use with both my wife’s housekeeping paperwork and my daughters homeschooling.

The Windows machine does, in all fairness, get harder use as my audio editing workstation, but even if all things were equal, I still have to reboot at least once a day, and reload the operating system once every 12 to 18 months. Windows is like an 18-wheeler on a cross country trip. It collects a lot of junk on the windscreen and has to be periodically cleaned up, or it becomes prone to running off the road and crashing. Even though I have the Windows machine pretty well locked out of internet access, I still, as a precaution, run antivirus/spam, and a software firewall.

So, why not just jettison the Windows systems and go all Apple?

Cost.

I am not, have never been, and will never be, a wealthy individual. I do what I do for a living because I enjoy it, not because it’s highly profitable. Apple hardware is more expensive. But, inside the magnesium and aluminum and white polycarbonate casings, the guts of an Apple machine are pretty much the same of a Windows machine, particularly now that Apple is using the Intel chipsets.

When you buy Apple, you buy into the culture. The advertising. The superiority elitism that so many Mac users have. And that black long sleeve turtleneck mentality comes at a price. The same hardware costing twice as much (or more) packaged all pretty and stylish.

When you buy into Windows, you buy… Windows. Big deal. It’s Windows. The problem with being ubiquitous is just that. You’re common. There’s no elite mentality. You’re a hardtop four door Chevy or Toyota, while the Mac folk fancy themselves as a ragtop Euro car. No matter how much any of the other manufacturers have tried, none of them have managed to create the visual “gotta have it” that the Cupertino crowd does. Yes, there are a lot of Apple users that don’t behave this way, but c’mon, when you go into the Apple Store, and they themselves call some of their own customers MacWeenies, you know you have a mindset that isn’t an isolated incident.

So, if Windows is cheaper and everywhere, and OSX is solid but expensive, how can a person or business combine cost control, with stable and secure?

You turn to a fat, little penguin named Tux.

Next time: Open Source

SIDEBAR: Myth: “Linux is too complicated to use”

Demythtified: Linux, Windows and OSX all make use of the command-line. But, how often do you use the command line with Windows or Mac? If you’re a tech, fairly often. If you’re a user, probably never. Most Linux distributions come with Gnome and KDE desktop GUI’s. With a few clicks, you can select the one that you like best, and the ability for detailed configuration is huge. Like the others, Linux also has an auto-updater to keep things current. It has software add/remove capabilities that allow you to install programs with a couple mouse clicks. It even has many applications you are already familiar with like Firefox, Thunderbird, Opera, Skype, Audacity, etc. So, it’s not complicated at all. It’s just different.

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