I think the first unix system I installed on a laptop was release 0.8 or thereabouts of Knoppix. You could take an innocuous -looking CD, stick it into a crusty old PC, tweak its bios to boot from CD, and bingo, you were running a real linux without having touched the Windows hard disk itself. How cool is that? OK, it took the best part of a day to load Knoppix from the CD into memory, so I pretty soon found the button for copying Linux itself onto the hard disk of my elderly laptop, but the “Live CD” concept had much to recommend it. You didn’t have to drop the Windows security blanket, and you could go on using your Windows filestore. That must have been around the year 2001 or so : at OUCS we started using Knoppix as the basis for a series of TEI give-aways at workshops and conferences – at first on CD, then on USB sticks, as the technology improved.
And then came Ubuntu. I think my first real Linux laptop was a Thinkpad on which I installed the first of an entire menagerie, from Warthog in 2004, to the Quetzal I installed yesterday. Yesterday also, I switched allegiance from Lenovo to Samsung, and installed the Quetzal on a series 9. It looks a bit like a Mac Airbook, but it’s not evil.
To get a new laptop in 2004, I had to write a one page justification for the boss, fill in numerous forms, send them off to the University’s approved supplier, and wait a few weeks for the machine to arrive. Then it would take a few minutes to unpack the machine, and at least 3 days to get Linux installed on it, much of it involving me pestering smarter people with better things to do.
In 2012, it took me just a few minutes to click on a button and order a new laptop, which was delivered to my house in about 24 hours. It took rather more than a few minutes to get it out of the packaging, but installing Linux took a couple of hours max. I downloaded an ISO image from the Ubuntu website. I made it into a bootable USB key using some software recommended by some other website. I stuck the key into the side of my new laptop. I tweaked its BIOS (just like the old days) to boot from the USB drive. And everything Just Worked. OK, I had to make difficult decisions like what language I use, what is my name, what graphic did I want to represent me, and did I want to wipe out the Windows 78 partition on this machine, so maybe a little more than an hour or two later, and that’s it. Wifi works, sound and graphics work, wireless mouse works (good, as my fingers don’t understand trackpads) … I can even imagine getting used to the Unity interface (which seems to be a bit more stable than it was under Pangolin).
And that, dear reader, is when I realise that the real price of a new laptop is yet to be paid. OK, I expect to have to install some favourite bits of software to get my familiar working environment back (digikam, subversion, emacs, oxygen, chrome, dropbox …) : that doesn’t take long. I can remember how to re-configure thunderbird to collect my mail: what I’d forgotten is just how long it takes to get nice new fresh copies of all the old mail which was sitting gathering dust on the IMAP server. I know how to check out all the stuff that actually matters from the Sourceforge and Googlecode TEI repositories : don’t underestimate how long that takes either. It took me over an hour just to remember how to re-set my password on the OUCS subversion repository.
My goal for today was to be able to rebuild TEI P5 from source, and crank out nice PDF slides from TEI source. (that’s the sort of thing I do every day, to be honest). On top of what I already had, I needed to download and install Oxygen XML editor, Chrome, and Dropbox. I needed to install nice new packaged 64-bit versions of jing, trang, onvdl, rnv, tei-emacs, openjdk-jdk, latex-beamer, texlive-xetex, and texlive. That all went smoothly, except that the packaged version of rnv was a 32 bit one, and so I had to rebuild it from source. Same problem with Acrobat Reader, but there is, of course, no option to rebuild that from source, so I will probably have to live without Mr Adobe’s fine products for a while.
Conclusion? Nothing surprising I suppose: installing your own system is still a good feeling, seductive enough for enough people that other people put lots of effort into making it much simpler to achieve. Hats off to the unsung labourers in the Canonical salt mines, and the open source community generally, who just go on doing what they have always promised they would, keeping the faith. It’s a relief that manufacturers like Samsung let them get away with it.
And now, it is the evening of my first full day with psammead and I think another glass of wine is in order. If I could only learn how to use this wretched trackpad…