My historical Linux desktop experience

Valve Software, a popular gave developer and distribution company have recently released a beta version of their own Linux distribution named SteamOS. Whilst SteamOS is designed to be a gaming-only OS, it will no doubt encourage gave developers to release games with Linux support. The release of SteamOS got me thinking about my past experiences with using Linux on the desktop and I decided to write them up.

Part I – The Miracle of Birth (2001-2003)

At some point in 2001 I installed Linux for the first time, my school had a copy of SuSE Linux Professional 7.3 that I was allowed to borrow for the night. From memory it was perhaps as many as 7 CD’s. Even back then the installer would happily partition your disk and setup LiLo (Grub became more popular later on). Dual booting Linux and Windows 2000 was straightforward, even for someone who had no prior Linux experience.

SuSE 7.3 Discs
Compared to other popular distributions at the time (RedHat, Slackware and Mandrake) SuSE came with a handy configuration tool in the form of YaST. For someone without any Linux experience this meant I could configure X (using SaX2) and some other bits. Reminiscent of the Windows control panel, it made getting things up and running very straightforward.

The first hurdle I had to overcome was getting internet access. At the time I was an AOL subscriber for dial-up internet access. AOL provided freephone numbers for a fixed monthly fee compared to other ISP’s who would charge by the minute. Unfortunately AOL implemented their logon process using a proprietary protocol, making getting internet access without their Windows only software near impossible. Thankfully software was available from the community in the form of PengAOL, getting it to work was something I never accomplished.

My internet access was made even more difficult by the fact the PCI modem I had was what was referred to as a WinModem, this was essentially a device that relied on the operating system to do much of the legwork. They were not supported under Linux at the time and probably aren’t today. I persisted with Linux, but relied on Windows for all internet access.

At the time I was using KDE 2 for my desktop environment which provided a friendly experience comparable to that of Windows, if not superior. When KDE 3 RPMs’s became available for SuSE I downloaded them in Windows and copied them across for installation. I would spend far too long customising the appearance of the desktop to my liking.

KDE2 running on SuSE

Part II – Growth and Learning (2004-2008)

In 2004 I signed up for broadband, I had a whopping 0.25Mbps connection. I had a Speedtouch 330 USB modem which Linux drivers were available for. For the first time, I was connected to the internet under Linux. I spent a lot of time trying out different window managers (KDE, Gnome, Blackbox, e16 etc) and even some different distributions. A UK based company would burn a disto to CD and post it to you for a few pounds, ideal. I tried Mandrake, Fedora Core and others I’ve since forgotten.

As a teenager I loved playing games, initially relying on Wine before using a combination of Wine, Crossover Office and WineX (Later to become Cedega). Of all the game companies, id Software were brilliant at releasing Linux versions of their games shortly after mainstream release for Windows. As such, I spent lot of time playing Return to Castle Wolfenstien, Doom III and others. In 2004 I was involved in the beta testing of “Cold War”, a Spintercell esque game for Windows, Mac and Linux developed by Dreamcatcher Games. I was starting to believe that gaming on Linux was really picking up, and the year of the Linux desktop couldn’t be far away.

XFCE Desktop (2004)

When not playing games I would try and teach myself 3D modelling using Blender, post-processing using GIMP and programming in PHP. If it weren’t for Linux I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked up a handful of programming languages before finishing school.

64 Bit Linux was taking off, which brought with it a new round of challenges. Getting 64bit flash to work was difficult due to binary only release from Adobe. The same was true of some proprietary video codecs used by MPLayer for video playback.

In 2005 I finished full time education and started work for a software house managing their Windows network. I ran Gentoo at home and deployed a few Linux servers at work (mostly firewalls and proxy servers running Debian).

To begin with I attempted to rely on Linux as a desktop at work, however at the time Evolution (Gnome’s e-mail client) was somewhat clunky compared to Outlook and many of the tools I needed simply wouldn’t run under Linux. Reluctantly I would end up using Windows at work.

Still interested in Linux I attended FOSDEM in 2006 with the Hampshire LUG and became even more attached, the talks on Asterix and Compiz were mind blowing. I came home with ideas for great projects. And a hangover.

Gnome Desktop (2006)

Between 2007 and 2009, I used Linux as my desktop OS running Gentoo and XFCE as my desktop environment of choice. I’d stopped playing games and spent a lot of time developing applications as a learning exercise, mostly in PHP but also Java, C++ and C# (Mono).

Part III – Fighting Each Other (2009)

In early 2009 I began working on a C++ application to recover license keys from Windows computers. Born about because of a requirement at work, it began to consume a great deal of my free time. To begin with GCC and MinGW was fine, but manually creating resources for winforms and the fact some APIs were missing meant I needed a Windows development environment for the application I was writing.

Reluctantly I switched to Visual Studio for my development. Within a few months I’d left Linux behind and was once more a Windows user. I would continue to run Linux on a personal webserver, and for a home-theater PC. But it was lost as a desktop operating system.

The Middle of the Film

I’m out of touch with desktop Linux. XFCE looks to have matured well since 4.2.0 and I’m sure many of the applications I was used to have also matured. I just hope Flash support has come along way. Due to spilling coffee over my laptop it’s time to invest in a new computer and I plan on giving desktop Linux another try. Over the next few weeks I plan to blog about my experiences, watch this space.

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Dave Hope

Dave is a Principal Software Analyst for a UK based retirement developer, in his spare time he enjoys digital photography and rock climbing.

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