Review: Linux for Macintosh
Do you know Linus Torvalds? No? Well, you don’t really need to. Although I’d be happy to introduce him to you. Linus is a man with a vision. He wants powerful computing to be free to anybody, applications open to modification. The operating system’s code should move, flow like a river and adapt to the latest technological needs and advancements.
Linus’ vision came true, and he called it Linux. This is a free flavor of UNIX running on regular household PCs. But how can you profit from that? Well, Linux is here, Linux is now and Linux is on PowerPC. What would be a better platform for the fastest OS than the one with the fastest processors?
Linux, and UNIX in general, have come a long way. From the operating system only geeks and nerds understood to a powerful tool anyone can handle. As an example, only a few years ago you would have had to type the following to copy a folder to a different location:
cp -r stuff/ /home/me/things/
Today you can just drag and drop a folder, the same way you did for years on your Mac. This being said, Linux might not be the operating system you thought it is. No full-screen DOS-like command line interface (CLI), no cryptic commands, no complicated setup.
If you have heard about Linux I’m sure you know RedHat Linux. Probably you know Debian, SuSE and Slackware too. You might be confused by all the different flavors of Linux out there but, be convinced, the variety is something good, something useful. The more Linuces there are the higher the chances that one of them will turn “home user” and include all sorts of things that make life easier for Joe and Jill Average. Since Linux is free, anyone—even you and I—could release a so-called Linux distribution. We’d include the programs and extensions we like most
boost. That’s exactly what SuSE did and what RedHat is doing right now. Simplifying Linux.
The PowerPC version of Linux is a derivate of RedHat. One, if not the most popular distribution in the world.
Just to make things even more confusing the LinuxPPC team is developing two strands of Linux for PowerPC. linux-ppc is the one that runs on “non-Mac” PPC systems like the BeBox, linux-pmac will work on your standard PowerMac. I will only look at linux-pmac in this review, but linux-ppc is not all too different as I heard.
Not exactly one team. When it comes to Linux, everyone is invited to help. There are thousands of programmers worldwide dedicating much of their spare time to improving Linux. This might be the reason for its stability, power and success. You are free to modify almost every part of the operating system and even release your work so others can profit. Something that would be unthinkable on MacOS or Windows.
The most important part of Linux, for a Mac user at least, is its graphical user interface (GUI). The nice thing about X is that it’s not only fast but it’s just as modular and expandable as the building blocks you played with as a child. An integral part of X Window is the windowmanager (wm). It defines how things look and act, and with a bit more Linux knowledge you can even modify it to do exactly what you want or need it to do. Let’s take a look at the two latest and greatest window managers out there.
Bundled with linux-pmac comes a wm called KDE, which stands for K Desktop Environment. It includes a browser that does today what Bill Gates wants Windows to do in a few years. It’s completely transparent. Whether you are looking at the files and folders on your hard drive or an FTP directory thousands of miles away doesn’t matter, it all looks the same. Just drag and drop, point and click. You can even view Web pages or the built-in help system with it. Every window in KDE offers this “universal” feel. And if that’s not enough you even get a myriad of utilities. There’s a scientific calculator, virtual Post-It notes for your screen, a notepad, user manager, image viewer (even though the built-in browser can handle that too), paint program, games—everything you’ll ever need. Some parts of KDE are still in development though, but since almost everything on and about Linux is constantly being refined and enhanced this is just something you need to get used to. Not that it’s not stable—some alpha-level programs on Linux are more stable than finished MacOS software.
I haven’t had the chance to try Gnome on linux-pmac, but I’ve seen and tried it on a PC Linux. At first it feels just like KDE, but there is more to it. A much larger team is working on it, which will ensure that the currently low version numbers of the Gnome packages will increment quickly and probably make Gnome the wm of choice for easy computing. There is another difference, but this one’s a bit more subtle and probably only interesting for real geeks. KDE, unlike Gnome, relies on the commercial Qt library, not to be confused with QuickTime. And commercial software is something that simply should not exist in an otherwise free windowmanager. The G in Gnome stands for GNU by the way, something you will read often in Linux context. But more on that later.
Linux installation is relatively easy. There are a few well-documented steps you need to take before running the installer though, one of which is partitioning your hard drive. If you want to install any operating system, this includes Linux and the MacOS, please back up your data! There is nothing worse than sudden data loss, especially because it always happens when you least expect it. Let’s carry on with installing the holy grail of operating systems—Linux.
- Make a Mac OS partition of about 1.2 GB size. You can use standard Mac OS software for this, I personally prefer FWB Hard Disk Toolkit. If you have an EIDE or ATA hard drive try to get a hold of a SCSI one. ATA support is still a bit buggy.
- Use the included Boot Variables application to configure your Mac so it boots from the installer floppy instead of the hard drive.
- Restart and insert the installer floppy (Note: if the G3 installer doesn’t work right on your G3 try using the regular installer. Worked for me).
- You are greeted by a regular RedHat setup screen. Here you help the installer find the files it wants to install, partition your disks using pdisk and install a bootstrap using Quik. As a final step you install the whole OS to your freshly made partitions. If these steps sounds terribly complicated and outlandish to you, don’t worry. As I said, the LinuxPPC user guide will help you.
- Set your boot variables by hand in the installer or use Boot Variables under MacOS to boot from hard drive, but don’t use auto-boot since you want some sort of control over what operating system to boot at startup. This also makes sure that you don’t have to zap your PRAM if things go terribly wrong, since you can always boot to MacOS.
- Welcome to Linux!
What might seem strange to you is that your fully booted system wants you to log in. Isn’t that only necessary on servers? Logging in on Linux has a different purpose. Since it’s a multiuser system it is the only way for your OS to know who you are, and how to act and look once you logged in. If you have ever used Windows NT it must be clear where Microsoft stole the “Profiles” idea now. Most of the time, at least on a home or single user system, you will work as root, which is the user with the most privileges. As root you can delete, move and run any file—if you set up a different user with different privileges you could restrict access to certain files and programs, much like At Ease did on the MacOS.
After successfully logging in I was amazed to see KDE start extremely quickly. A colorful desktop background, four workspaces (see Evan Trent’s wonderful review of BeOS in ATPM 4.09 to find out more about workspaces), even a few folders that are just begging to be clicked. So I went on to exlore them. KDE not only knows how to display files as icons, it also knows what kind of file it is displaying. Now don’t laugh, this is a hard task. Images can be viewed almost like on your Mac, just click them. Single-clicking things to open them, like when opening a link on a webpage, may seem strange in the beginning, but by now I like this “feature”.
I noticed there were a few things I would have liked to do, like make a new folder, which just didn’t seem to have their respective commands. There must have been something special to it. And I was right. Since Linux works with three or at least two button mice, I was pretty lost until I found out how the other two buttons are simulated. Alt-2 is the middle and Alt-3 the right mouse button. This is a problem under X, since Alt-2 is “@” and Alt-3 is “#” on my Swiss keyboard. And because these two characters are often used I had to remap them to 4 and 5, but that’s not such a big problem. Right-clicking brought up a contextual menu which helped a lot. I could now create folders, get info on items, change privileges and preferences and a lot more. Great!
This day was wholly devoted to exploring all the powerful Linux applications I have heard about. First of all, The Gimp. Gimp stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program”. The concept of GNU is a little hard to explain in this short time, so let’s just say GNU software is always free but also protected by certain copyright laws and licenses. So I clicked the K menu, then “Applications” then “The GIMP”. I would have achieved the same result—starting Gimp—by simply typing “gimp” in the shell, which is a type of CLI for Linux. This is just to show you how far Linux has come in the last few years. Windowmanagers didn’t always include such point and click functionality, not until specialized (and separate) utilities were developed.
With only minutes of studying Gimp’s interface I had made wonderful logos, added great effects to photos and designed nice user interfaces for web pages. It IS better than Photoshop! Sadly, it’s not better than 5.0, but it’s definitely worth a 4.5. If you are a die-hard Photoshop user you might be confused by the strange naming in Gimp’s interface. This probably stems from the programmers’ trying to avoid accusations of theft of intellectual property by Adobe. Having to
live with a “Dialogs” menu instead of a “Window” one is a small price to pay for Gimp’s functionality. A host of included scripts for marvellous effects and all the filters you know from Photoshop make life seem so sweet, you wouldn’t even notice that you are working on a Linux machine if it weren’t for the un-intuitiveness of a single-button mouse on a three-button OS.
I was almost afraid of trying Netscape on Linux. I am one of those bad, bad Mac users who need to work with both browsers but prefer MSIE, just because it is much more stable and it even renders the HTML code more accurately than Netscape.
Netscape on Linux is different though. It is stable as the Matterhorn and does a quite nice job at rendering HTML. Even the most complicated sites display very quickly and downloads tend to be a lot faster compared to using a MacOS browser on the same machine. All in all it was a positive surprise, the only thing I had to adjust was the font size. A twelve point Times on X is simply too small to read comfortably.
The best games pack ever included with an operating system. Microsoft has Minesweeper and Solitaire, KDE has just that and much more. Mahjongg, Reversi, Snake Race and Poker are just a few of the included games, the right stuff for corporate offices. More ambitious gamers should get the Quake 2 engine for Linux if it is ever released for Linux-pmac, Maelstrom, Doom or Unreal once these are ported.
KDE offers everything from configuring PPP for your dial-up connection to setting up application calls during boot time in so-called “runlevels” in a graphical way. Keyboard a bit exotic? Mouse too slow? No problem, there are graphical control panels for everything. Before KDE you would have had to find the right file to edit and insert strange numbers in even stranger locations just to make your mouse pointer move faster.
Yes, your honor. From the user’s perspective (Mac user in this case), Linux might be just a bit too “geeky” to use on a daily basis. The myriad of possibilities it offers also makes it one beast of an OS to set up. The new windowmanagers and configuration tools make life easier, but they still can’t compare to the Mac way of userfriendliness. Imagine, just for a second, that you were a Windows user. Working on Windows means seeing only one app at a time. In fact, most Windows applications fill the screen entirely and even cover other programs’ windows with gray opaqueness just so the poor Windows user doesn’t get confused. Windows is application centered.
Mac OS, on the other hand, is document centered. The application itself is almost invisible, only to be noticed by a few palettes, brushes, settings dialogs and the menubar. The main window is always the document. This is, at least in my opinion, the way it should be. Your work is the center of your attention. Linux works just the same way, making it easier for Mac users to familiarize with.
So, if you made it through successfully installing and booting Linux on your machine you are halfway there. Just start X, click around for a few and enjoy life on your new bulletproof OS.
Just one more proof or the Linux’ unbeatable stability: our Webserver has been up and running for 238 days non-stop now, and this is not a high number for a UNIX system. Try that on Mac OS.