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Saturday, October 1, 2011

An Ongoing Affair with Tux

What is common among  Tux,  Penguins, Lizards, Fawns, Gibbons, Herons and Lynx ? They all represent some version  /distro of Linux in general and Ubuntu in particular.

The affair started sometime in circa 2000, when I first read about linux , probably in PCQuest. It was all very romantic for a computer buff; a student finds a commercial software too costly for him and he decides to write his own. He shoots of a mail into cyberspace asking for assistance and is overwhelmed by the number of netizens taken in by the idea. The day when another mail was sent around the world announcing the birth of a workable kernel is observed as Linux's B'day. Geeks of the world unite, and you have nothing to lose but the chain imposed by propriety software. Till today, software developers, graphics designers and technical writers  from all over the world are finding  some self- fulfilment in working for the Open Source Software . Software should be free as in  'Mukt' if not free as in  'Muft'.

I was then posted at Mhow. The idea so caught my fancy that, I had to try it out, at the earliest. As a first step, I visted the kajuri bazaar, the popular market for new and second hand books at Indore. It was not easy to find a book on Linux. After an hour or so of rummaging through some old stock, I found a book on installing and configuring Linux. The  book  came with two free CDs of Slackware Linux !

The book started with a Disclaimer in bold letters. The developers of the software promised full refund of any amount paid for purchase of the product but would not be responsible for any harm done to your hardware by following their instructions! Mind you those were the times a computer costed my four month's pay, and a hard disk costed at least a month's pay.So,  the first two days were spent in reading through 200 odd pages of technical writing. Then more time was spent in understanding the hardware, since if you don't know what was the model and make of the components in your system, you can't expect a dumb CD to figure it out.

The most scary thing was partitioning the hard disk. But armed with a Jonathan Saches book on Dos 2.0, (Idiot series and Dummy series books wouldn't touch such issues with a barge pole) I soon became an expert on manual partitioning  of a hard disk. I could say, "just do a fdisk, specify the starting cylinder and sector and ending cylinder and sector , make it bootable and save it !"

Since then every comp at my home or ofice has had atleast one dedicated partition for linux and most often a PC had three partitions for the tux, for different flavours of Linux, you see.

It was a great day when I had written the root image on one floppy and the kernel image on another floppy  and loaded a linux OS on my Pentium machine. Linux booting is always pretty, a series of informative, sometime funny messages scrolling up the screen before a nice little hash prompt is displayed for your next command. The better part was selecting and and installing apps using a primitive package tool.

JOE (Joe's Own Editor) was my favourite word processor. For someone who has seen vi editor Joe was 22nd century
app. Then there was the text based spread sheet called SC (Spreadsheet calculator), its GUI version was xspread  and xv was a great image viewer. All these were 'Wow' apps for me. In the linux world , either the app was named after its developer like Joe or it splashed the developers name like John Brodly's xv

Linux has X - Windows System to cater for GUI  apps. It was fairly easy to set up. All you had to do was a short research on monitors and display cards and it was done! , But what a range of Window managers 

2-3 days later, the internet was through. Oh, you just had to study how Point to Point Protocol (PPP) worked and had to write out a few configuration files using., ya you guessed it right, Joe (joe's own editor). It was followed by email client called elm and a great improvement on elm ie Pine (Pine Is Not Elm)

It was pure bliss when I had configured the network interfaces and the aliases. Typing  'd' (for dial) would connect me to the net in precisely 22 seconds (a dial up handshake sounded so sweet ) and typing 'dak' would fire up the fetchmail program      to display the incoming mails. (My firends using ms windows and yahoomail spent half an hour on retrieving mails, on a dial up connection.)

The next six months passed in trying out various flavours of linux. Bought a book on caldera Linux as well, It had a GUI installation and actually you could play tetris while installation was going on in the background. A  great find was linux on floppy or Mu-Linux. We used it in our lab to teach unix commands. The  developer of Mu-Linux, M Andreoli calls it a cardware; you are expected to send a post-card to him after installation. The entire functional OS fits in a floppy.

Then from Mhow we moved to the Kumaon hills; There was a two year period of lull or should I say "Null", leave alone internet , even a telephone connection was erratic at Pithoragarh.

Then in 2003 we moved to Coimbatore and my affair with tux resumed. This time it was Red Hat -6 followed by 7.1. By then X- windows system had come of age and even the text consoles in Linux started looking colourful. (True Linux lovers cannot live without a text console and the # prompt which lets you do anything from command line). For the first time , Linux ie Red Hat posed a serious competition to MS windows. It was around this time Red Hat itself started behaving windowish, whatwith enterprise edition and all. The hat later  became a 'Fedora' . By "windowish" I mean, getting too snotty, taking decisions on user's behalf on how you should use your comp,  laying down too many Do's and Don'ts, just as Microsoft Windows does.

It looked as if the growth of Linux had plateaued out and competition with windows on Microsoft's own terms meant losing the personality of free thinking geeks.

 A good Open Source Software lets the user, explore, discover, learn and enjoy the process of living with a system, being with a system. The system is user friendly for one to explore freely, customize the environment, and enjoy the whole process of learning even while  working. It also lets free sharing of code among developers to modify, customize and improve. In short, it was collaboration rather than competition, just caring and sharing and helping.

Quoting the Free Software Foundation's'What is Free Software,' the freedoms at the core of free software are defined as:

  • The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.  
  • The freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public, so that everyone benefits.
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
Then came Ubuntu in 2004 and it  was indeed a game changer, in every way. Ubuntu is different from the commercial Linux offerings that preceded it because it doesn't divide its efforts between a high-quality commercial version and a free, 'community' version. The commercial and community teams collaborate to produce a single, high-quality release, which receives ongoing maintenance for a defined period. Both the release and ongoing updates are freely available to all users. 

It was also the time I moved to Murshidabad (North Bengal) leaving my family behind at Coimbatore. My son , Sid ,was still a MS Windows user, as direct X and action games were available only in the MS World.

Linux was still not good enough for serious work as support for hardware, formatting and printing was not good enough for desktop  users . It was only an exercise cycle and not a machine to take you places, but then an exercise cycle is what built your muscles.

I came across a nice article in PCQuest on MIgration from MS windows to linux. The article was aptly called seven steps to Software Samadhi.  It is still a viable howto , with some changes here and there, for attaining Software Nirwana.

 Sometime in 2006, I got hold of some Ubuntu CDs from Canonical , first ubuntu 5.10 and then 6.06 (those days you could ask for 5 or 10 copies of the software and it was shipped free of cost.  One big difference between Ubuntu and other distros is that It is single CD installation and once you connect to the internet you have a whole universe of software appliactions, in well organized repositories. Infact the repositories are called 'universe' and 'multiverse'

You just have to type "apt-get intall 'this' or apt-get install 'that' and there you are. Within a month of installing ubuntu I realized  my own software nirvana.  I could say bye-bye to Microsoft and the blue screen of death.
What is nirvana if you can't share your joy with everybody ? I started distributing the CDs I had got from canonical and also burnt additional copies for friends. I sent a  CD of PCLOS by snail mail to Sid. Within an hour of receiving it his PC was up and running on Linux complete with all bells and whistles. he was thrilled, "Appa , Amarok rocks !, the best music player I have seen !" he was hooked and there was no going back. It was only the question of which distro to use.  He is  partial to KDE (K desktop Environment) , he says, because it has oodles of apps, which is true .
 But I suspect it was more so as he shares his birthday with  Matthias Ettrich, the founder of KDE.  Today, he is a Linux Guru  in the Indian Navy.

The kind of customization linux permits is phenominal and we used to exchange screenshots of our PCs through email.

Now I am content with Ubuntu, upgrading just once in two years to the LTS (Long term Support)  version, while Sid keeps experimenting with different flavours. 

Of Course, still there are some important apps, for which there are no linux version available. Till lately,  We had dinosaur like organizations like BSNL which insisted that only IE be used for checking broadband data usage.  Then you have apps like Nokia PC suite which does not have a linux version. And there is just one great application MS Access which does not have an equivelent LInux counterpart as yet. 

For all these, we still have one small partition for MS Windows , the ' just in case ' option. Wine (Window Emulator) takes care of many apps developed for windows platform, it has some limitations Recently I tried Virtual Box. This is one great option for running any number or any type of virtual machine all under a host OS , in my case Ubuntu Linux. I sign off with one screen shot of nokia running in a VM, under ubunt 10.04. Lucid Lynx.

It all sounds like a lot of tech-talk, but to me it is all , to use one of the untranslatable urdu words just 'jazbaat' (may be loosely translated as 'feeling towards anything or any person).

I convey my heartfelt thanks to Linus Torwalds, the founder of Linux, Richard Stallman, The founder of Free Software Foundation, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu Project, and millions of programmers, designers, technical writers and Translators from all over the world, for whom Open Source Software is a religion, in the true spirit of Ubuntu.  


g said...

A good piece with an easy flowing style.

colmurali said...

Thanks gautam. I notice that 90% of visitors to my site are microsoft users and about 50 % of them use Internet explorer as well, is ok, as long as they do it out of choice.. but mostly it is not so... I only hope my write up motivates people to try out ubuntu atleast once and make a considered choice.. these days , it is safe and simple to try out unlike 10 years back

Venky said...

You should try SLED 11.. too.. Ubuntu doesnt have that many features that are available in SLED..

colmurali said...

ok , shall check it out, let a hundred flowers blossom ! I think my son will like it. our experience with suse, so far, has been that it is excellent for initial 6 months or so ,after which it gets slower, much like any version of microsoft windows.

balutagi said...

I went through your blog as promised. Most of it went over head ofcourse.Seeing other comments which were technical and made sense, i wanted to abstain from commenting .I appreciate your involvement in the whole journey with this software.I can visuvalise how much you enjoyed in the whole process.Sorry i cant give any worthwhile suggestion . But, you will require dummies like me to increase your blog hits!!! Have a nice Day.

colmurali said...

@balutagi thanks for going throgh the post.
I have had a long journey, with challenges, frustrations, and of course the pleasure of exploring and learning. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Today, if you are shopping for a PC, you can ask for linux, you have nothing to lose; on the contrary, you will gain atleast Rs 2000/-. If you choose ubuntu, all you have to do to add some software, is open a terminal and type, 'sudo apt-get install xxxxx'

What happens if you are stuck with some problem ? What do Microsoft windows users do when faced with problems, too technical for them to resolve ? They yell for help. A friendly neighbourhood, 10th pass (or may be 11th fail) ', 'software engineer ' arrives on the scene with a cd pouch full of pirated software and a bagfull of 'bluff'. He comes, he sees, he formats your hard disk and reinstalls whatever software you ask for. Is it what one calls 'technical' support ?

A linux user does face problems. He googles for a solution . The net is full of HOWTOs on how people had solved common or not so common problems with a specific application or a specific device.( a sample link )For example, when micromax modem came to the market without support for linux, someone from the community, found a solution and posted it on the net and people like me are using the device today. I can go on and on but that would be a post by itself.

Regarding blog hits, I would willingly barter a million hits for one PC user trying out linux after reading this post. I am not looking for convertees, (Open source movement stands for freedom to choose) it is just that people need to realise that they have a genuine, workable, and may be better, choice. I am sure trying out ubuntu is not rocket science.

Anu said...

Wow didn't know you were such a computer geek. Being a Luddite I learnt a fair bit through this post.

colmurali said...

anu, I prefer bicycle over motorcycle, khadi over synthetic stuff, and even writing over typing, (keyboard or typewriter), but how do you communicate without technology ? I wish Mahathma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy had chatted over the net and I could see the transcript.

Anu said...

Agree, maybe the pen is better but one has to be with the times and know a bit about the technologies we use.

prabhu said...

Murali Sir/Man,

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. It is an eye-opener to many in IT field, the true potential of OSS is untapped yet. Wish you continue your journey with LAMP products.

Prabhu Andrews

colmurali said...


I am just nibbling the surface, and it is a great feeling to share the experience.

may the LAMP keep glowing


Sushant Dawar said...

Great one sir... Truly inspiring..... Nice to years of dedication and hardwork.....

colmurali said...

Thanks Sushant, the affair is going as strong as ever, with Trusty Tahr.long live Ubuntu ! Long live open source, and the tribe of believers in open source !