NOTE: The following article contains almost no genealogy-related information. However, I know that a number of newsletter readers are interested in open source operating systems. I thought I would post this article here for those who might be interested in one of my recent experiences with what was expected to be a difficult Linux installation.
I had a frustrating experience recently. I was the guest speaker at a local genealogy society. I went to the meeting room well ahead of time to set up my Windows XP laptop and the overhead projector. I loaded the PowerPoint slides that I had prepared and was ready to go. At the appointed time, the program chair introduced me, and I started my talk. My first PowerPoint slide was already displayed on the screen behind me for all to see.
After speaking for a couple of minutes, I reached over and pressed the space bar on the laptop to advance to the next slide. Nothing happened. I pressed other keys. Still nothing happened. I pressed Control, Alternate, and Delete. There was still no reaction. It seems that Windows XP had locked up. In desperation, I flipped the laptop upside-down and removed the battery. That obviously aborted Windows.
I then reinserted the battery, powered on the laptop, waited for Windows XP to reload, then launched PowerPoint and loaded my slides once again. All this required time. It seemed like an eternity as the audience sat there and watched, obviously aware of my embarrassment. Windows XP had failed again, this time in front of an audience. Out of my frustration sprang my search for a better laptop operating system.
If you have been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that I am a fan of the open source operating system, Linux. This UNIX-derivative operating system is widely used on millions of web servers and is now starting to challenge Microsoft's Windows as the desktop operating system of choice. Generally speaking, any computer that is capable of running Windows is also capable of running Linux.
Best of all, Linux is reliable. It doesn't lock up the way Windows does. I run a Linux desktop system as one of my computers at home, and it has never locked up on me in several years of operation. In many ways, Linux is closer to Macintosh's OS X operating system, which is also based upon a version of UNIX.
To be sure, Linux has only a tiny fraction of the available applications as its established commercial competitor. However, Linux is free, and most of the available application programs are also free of charge. Linux also has one application that can display PowerPoint slides. That application is also free.
I have an older Windows laptop system sitting in the closet that has been unused since I bought a faster and more powerful Windows laptop several years ago. Rather than let it sit idle, I decided to load Linux on this old laptop and see if I could get some use out of it.
Experienced Linux users will tell you that laptops can be problematic for Linux. While a particular version, or distribution, of Linux may work well on a standard desktop PC, installing the same version onto a laptop computer often results in difficulties. One common problem is getting the mouse software to work with the touchpad or "joystick" mouse commonly found on laptops. Another problem may be that the laptop's video drivers may be different from those of standard desktop computers. Many people have attempted to install Linux on a laptop, only to give up in frustration.
Another item that strikes fear into an experienced Linux guru is wireless networking cards. These often are easily installed in Windows but usually are far more difficult to configure and operate in Linux.
So, what did I propose to do? Install a version of Linux on an old Hewlett-Packard laptop computer - and to do so with a wireless network card that was also sitting in the closet unused.
I'll now tell you the end story: it was so simple that I couldn't believe that it worked. When the installation routine said, "finished," I wondered if something had been skipped. However, Linux is installed, operating flawlessly, and I can check e-mail and surf the web through the high-speed 802.11 wireless network. I can now sit in my back yard while I surf the web, write newsletter articles, or answer e-mail. Not bad for all surplus equipment that was lying unused in the bottom of the closet! Best of all, the system operates faster than it used to with Windows installed. My total cost was zero as I already owned all the hardware, and all the required software is available free of charge.
The laptop I had available is rather typical of laptops built five or six years ago. It is a Hewlett-Packard system with a 500-megahertz Celeron processor, 128 megabytes of memory, a CD-ROM drive (read only) and an 8-gigabyte hard drive. It has no internal networking hardware, but it does accept plug-in PCMCIA cards that are commonly used on laptops. The system shipped from the manufacturer with Windows 98 installed.
For the operating system, I selected Ubuntu Linux, produced by Cononical Ltd. Canonical is headquartered in the Isle of Man and has employees throughout Europe, North America, South America, and Australia. This is a rather new version of Linux. The producers of Ubuntu Linux state, "Ubuntu will always be free of charge, and there is no extra fee for the 'enterprise edition.' We make our very best work available to everyone on the same free terms." On another place on the company's web page, you can find these words: "Cononical Ltd. will not charge licence fees for Ubuntu, now or at any stage in the future." In other words, you can legally copy this software and give it to others free of charge. In fact, the producers encourage you to do so.
Appropriately, "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". Ubuntu also means, "I am what I am because of who we all are."
Free technical support for Ubuntu is available online via mailing lists and IRC channels. Cononical Ltd. does make money by providing live telephone support for a fee, an option often selected by businesses that need high-level support.
Ubuntu has earned a very good reputation in the marketplace. It is easy to use and includes more than 1,000 programs at no charge, including:
- OpenOffice.org - a free replacement for Microsoft Office that includes a very powerful word processor (similar to Word), a spreadsheet program (similar to Excel) and a presentation program (similar to PowerPoint).
- Ximian - an excellent free e-mail, calendar, address book and to-do list that has most of the functionality of Microsoft Outlook.
- Firefox - the Linux version of the popular web browser that is also available for Windows and Macintosh.
- An MP3 player for music.
- GIMP - a graphics-editing program that has much (but not all) of the functionality of Photoshop for Windows.
- Numerous games.
Sadly, neither Ubuntu nor any other Linux distribution that I have seen includes a genealogy program although it is easy to add one. Other Linux programs are also easily installed.
I blew the dust off my old laptop, inserted the Ubuntu CD-ROM, plugged in an SMC wireless networking card that was also sitting unused in the closet, and turned the power on. For the first few minutes, I was asked a number of simple-to-answer questions. In fact, installing Ubuntu seems to be easier than installing Windows 2000 or XP as there are fewer questions to answer. Unlike Windows, Ubuntu asked almost no questions about the network configuration, other than requiring me to enter the encryption key for my secure wireless network. About an hour later I had a full configured and working Linux laptop.
I was pleasantly surprised at the simplicity. There was no special "fiddling" required to make the wireless network operational or to make anything else work. Upon the first system boot, everything worked as expected. I surfed the web, wrote a document with the word processor, and even loaded my PowerPoint slides. Everything was perfect.
I decided to install GRAMPS, a very good genealogy program designed for Linux systems. I used the Synaptic Package Manager that is included with Ubuntu. I told it to find, download, and install GRAMPS. About two minutes later the task was done. I now had a free and powerful genealogy program installed on the laptop.
NOTE: A discussion of Debian and how to download and install Debian software packages is beyond the scope of this article. I will say that it is really simple to use. If you are not yet familiar with Synaptic Package Manager, you can read about it at http://www.nongnu.org/synaptic.
While I already had a faster Windows laptop, installing Ubuntu Linux on my old 500-megahertz laptop has given it a new life. This older and slower laptop now appears to operate as fast as my 1.6-megahertz Windows XP laptop. It should also be more reliable although I need to use it for a few months before I know for sure.
If you have an older, unused computer, be it a laptop or desktop, and you want to learn about this powerful operating system that is becoming so popular, I will suggest that you install one of the free Linux distributions so as to learn more about. If you are not sure which Linux distribution you wish to start with, I can strongly recommend Ubuntu. It is free and always will be available free of charge. In fact, the Ubuntu creators encourage you to share the CD with others.
You can check out Ubuntu Linux at http://www.ubuntulinux.org, and you can download a Ubuntu CD-ROM image at http://www.ubuntulinux.org/wiki/Archive. Please note that the CD image is a large file. You will probably want to use a broadband Internet connection for this one. If you prefer, you can order a free Ubuntu CD-ROM disk at no charge at http://shipit.ubuntulinux.org. The Ubuntu creators will even pay the shipping charges! Donations are accepted but are not required.
Ubuntu Linux is not a perfect solution for all computer problems. However, it is reliable, powerful, and best of all, free. For me, it will alleviate the fear of future embarrassment in front of an audience.