Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kubuntu Installation

The Wife laughs at my obsession with Linux Distributions. As I'm changing out my desktop wallpaper or re-arranging my applets for the hundredth time, she'll say, "Linux is like home decorating for boys." Why not get some real work done instead of making the screen look pretty? But then again I could ask her the same thing about the furniture in the living room.

Came home for my middle of the day break from work (They call it a "split shift" but I call it "Two days for the wages of one.") and ended up spending hours--hours!--in putting Kubuntu on the desktop, configuring applications, getting the layout just the way I like it. I should have taken a nap, and now I'm facing the ordeal of a six-hour closing shift with very little sleep. Not entirely sure how I'll be getting through it, but I suppose we'll find a way. Adrenaline and coffee, most likely.

Oh, but the Kubuntu. It looks amazing, like it just brought the old computer into the "latest generation" of computer technology. Transparent, window effects, shiny, glowing, fresh, and surprisingly intuitive. Like Windows Vista could have been, if it didn't bog much newer machines down into a tub of molasses.

For such a flashy and attractive Desktop Environment, Kubuntu actually runs rather well on an old P4 with no dedicated graphics card. There's a little hesitation on opening applications, but once they're up, they're up. And I much prefer the overall feel of this desktop environment to the Gnome I was running before. Text displays crisper and smaller, which satisfies me on some strange control-freak level, and I can actually make use of this vast monitor's screen space with various windows, etc.

Strangely enough, the whole package downloaded and installed right from the standard Gnome desktop in about ten minutes. One quick re-boot and I was there. The joy of messing about with all these operating systems and desktop environments is it feels like getting to use a new computer every few days, without spending a penny. (The rest of those lost hours went to the "home decorating" phase.)

I have now spent some time with all the major Ubuntu flavors (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and the small and strikingly efficient newcomer Lubuntu) as well as a lot of lesser-known alternatives (Slitaz, Puppy, Damn Small Linux, the craptacular Xandros that came with the Asus Eee). Ubuntu, in it's incarnations, seems to have most of the bases covered, at this point. Every one I try, I like better than the last. Except for esoteric applications (extremely old hardware, custom built solutions to uncommon problems, etc.) it's various flavors seem to do what your "average" hobbyist/user with a little patience and a willingness to experiment would expect it to do, usually with delightful style.

All this distro-hopping has made me start to wonder a bit just what Ubuntu is. Before I started sailing Linux waters, I always assumed an operating system was a whole shiny package. It was, you know, the part of the computer that wasn't made of plastic and microchips but wasn't consumer software from a shrink-wrapped box, either. I assumed that the desktop environment was an integral part of an operating system, since it gave you handles to drag your windows around and icons to click to launch your video games.

But here comes Ubuntu, which is an operating system, I think, but it's not really, it's just a "distribution" of Linux. And you can have a text-only install of Ubuntu (just like DOS before the Windows came along) or you can load it up with your choice of window manager (Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LCXD) to turn it into one of it's derivatives (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu). Or you can go a whole 'nother route, skip the Ubuntu piece, and build Linux into something completely different like Red Hat, Slitaz or Slackware.

Oh yeah, and the Ubuntu code was all built up by some company called Canonical which is controlled by a man named Mark Shuttleworth, who was one of the first people to pay Russians to go to space as a tourist. (I thought his name was a joke but was apparently, mistaken.) His team built the Ubuntu distribution on top of another distribution called Debian. I'm not sure if Debian's still another layer in the cake or just something that's to the side, at this point. It becomes rather confusing. And just what this Canonical company gets from developing all this software is also unclear to me.

But I am inclined to like them, since it all seems to work despite my not-understanding. It's a tribute to the engineers at every level, that they make it simple enough for a dilettante like me to have so much fun and get so much done with their efforts.

What does become clear from all this messing around is how modular all these operating system pieces are. The different window managers all look remarkably different, but all it takes to change them up is switching out a few packages from the Ubuntu Software Center. If you're clever, or you read the right on-line tutorial, you can do this with a few keystrokes at the command line. There are even tools out there for grabbing all the bits you like from the various distributions, pre-loading it with the open-source applications you prefer, stamping your own name on it, burning it to a CD and calling it your own. The Creative Commons license will even let you charge money for it, which is a nice touch, since it gives you the incentive to add a bit of value in the form of installation and training. (Maybe this is what Canonical is after?) The only thing you can't do is tell the person who buys it from you that they can't turn around and do the same thing.

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Hmm... If I spend more time procrastinating than I do writing, perhaps I should reconsider where my priorities lie. Then again, these are all just hobbies, so it's not like I have to worry about making a living from either of them. That's the freedom that comes from working a full-time job. Then again, if somebody did want to offer me some money...

Which would you rather pay me for? Turning your old computer into a fantastic new Linux machine, or telling you a story?

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