Life After XP: Hello, Ubuntu!

Life After XP: Hello, Ubuntu! by David Whelan It is entirely coincidental that the first weekend of Bill Gate’s retirement from Microsoft is the same weekend I finally decide to kick my Windows desktop habit. I’ve been suffering under Windows XP for some time, but a recent hardware upgrade did nothing to ease my pain. I knew WIndows Vista wasn’t in my future, and I have for a long time wanted to make the shift to open source on the desktop. I’ve used Debian Linux for my Web server for some time but felt that I had too much Windows specific hardware to make the change work on the desktop. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Ubuntu is now at version 8 and is a remarkable distribution of Linux. I tried out the “Live CD” which lets you boot up Ubuntu without any impact on your Windows installation. I could see and access my Windows NTFS-based file system, as well as look around the Ubuntu system. I was hooked immediately. And the hardware and other issues I anticipated? No problems. Here’s what happened.

First, the Ubuntu 8 (“Hardy Heron”) install couldn’t have gone more smoothly.  Well, I suppose it could have.  There are great instructions on how to install the CD image (ISO) file to a USB drive here and here.  I had hoped to boot up from USB rather than having to burn a CD just for the installation.  No problem, right?  Just reset your boot options in the CMOS.  My CMOS didn’t support the USB as a boot device, so I ended up going the CD route in the end. 

My first exposure to the Ubuntu community only makes my preference for the system stronger.  The Ubuntu Web site is full of useful information, and the download process couldn’t be more straightforward.  The installation instructions are clear and made the preparation easy.

Installation

There’s not really much else to say.  I rebooted from Windows XP after completing a full backup to a portable drive.  After my last blow up on Windows XP, I had moved most of my customizations off site.  All documents and original files, even software installs, were stored on a second hard drive, and backed up to a portable drive.  That way, if the XP partition needed to be blown away, I didn’t lose anything personal.  Even things like Firefox bookmarks were off-site, since I started using both del.icio.us and Google Bookmarks.

The installation went quickly – far faster than with a similar Windows install – and I was up and running without any hardware problems.  I’d been concerned that my Maxtor OneTouch II portable drive wouldn’t be seen, but Ubuntu found all of my USB-based memory sticks without a problem.  I was amazed that I didn’t have to do any of the driver tweaking to get video, etc., to work, like I’d had to with my Etch and earlier Debian installations on Dell Optiplex boxes.

Windows Applications

Other than Microsoft Office 2000, most of the applications I use are open source or free with a non-Windows version.  As I reviewed what I was going to need on Ubuntu – before installing! – I found there were only a couple of question areas.  The first was whether I was going to need to create a Windows emulation to run software like Palm Desktop, for which there isn’t a Linux version.

Firefox 3 was the first stop on the update trail.  I needed to add in the Firefox extensions that make my life easier!  All of the extensions are of course browser, not OS, dependent, so I was up and running in minutes.  The only hitch was that the Firefox 3 that was installed was not the final release, and so some of the extensions wouldn’t download.  Once I’d let Ubuntu do it’s automatic update check with the Synaptic Package Manager, I was up to the final release and all extensions were go.

Next came the Palm software.  I’m a heavy user of the contacts, audio, and portable documents functions of my Palm.  I was worried that I couldn’t sync with Ubuntu natively, so I was geared up to follow advice like this, to install VMWare or WINE.  Turns out I didn’t need it.  My Palm T|X will synchronize natively with Ubuntu, thanks to Gnome-pilot.  A caveat:  I prefer the network sync to USB sync, and this was a no brainer with a bit of help.  Of course, if you’ve got the T|X with wi-fi, you might as well use this anyway.  It may not be so helpful for non-wireless devices.

The synchronization was no problem but what about the content?  After one brief hiccup (or hiccough!), this was smooth as well.  Evolution is the default e-mail and calendar client (Personal Information Manager (PIM)) and I had not fired it up.  The Palm would not synchronize the data, even though I had configured Gnome-pilot to sync to Evolution for calendar, memos, to dos, e-mail, and contacts.  Once I started up Evolution, I was all set.  The added benefit to me of using Evolution is that it functions, for me, the same way I was using Mozilla’s Thunderbird.  I can access my POP and IMAP e-mail accounts all from a single interface, and have the added benefit (which I didn’t with Thunderbird) of having all of my Palm-based information in the same application.  I may end up going back to Thunderbird but Evolution looks good from the start.

One hurdle I had was the Adobe Flash plug-in.  I don’t care for Flash generally, and use the Firefox Flashblock extension to kill most online ads.  But my Los Angeles Times’ daily crossword is distributed in Flash so I needed to be up and running.  I downloaded the Linux package from Adobe.com but couldn’t get it to find where Firefox was installed – and I couldn’t find it either!  Yes, I’m a newbie AND
an idiot, so sue me.  In any event, I saw a similar post where the contributor suggested going to a site like Youtube, that requires Flash, and it will PROMPT you to install the plug-in.  This worked like a charm!  I visited the L.A. Times and Firefox grabbed the software and put it in the right place.

I was also concerned about iTunes, because it doesn’t have a Linux version.  It has to date been my main conduit for grabbing Marketplace and Washington Week podcasts.  Again, I figured I’d place it in whatever virtual Windows I used.  Cancel that!  The Rhythmbox music player that comes in the standard Ubuntu installation supports Podcast feeds.  I added the RSS feeds for Kai and Gwen and it immediately grabbed the outstanding files.  I was also able to configure it to grab the “My Music” folder I’d backed up from Windows, and it added in all of the covers and artist information as effectively as Windows Media Player ever had.  No iTunes, no loss.

Another app that was easy?  Truecrypt for USB and hard disk encryption.  The only hurdle I had here was how to create a launcher (Ubuntu lingo for a shortcut) to get Truecrypt to start.  (Right-click on the Application menu, select Edit Menus, and create a new item on a menu, where the command is “truecrypt” – that’s it!)

Within a matter of a few hours, interspersed with some games of chess and a ship battle with my son, I was up and running with all of the software applications and connectivity I needed.  I know I have plenty of tweaking, but the folks at the Ubuntu project deserve a huge amount of credit at pulling off such a great package.

Going Virtual with VirtualBox

I ended up installing Sun’s VirtualBox virtualization software anyway.  Apparently it used to have a price, but it’s available for free now.  I loaded Windows XP on it (and it took FOREVER to install) just to see how it worked, and to give me a backup in case I get some very weird reason to have to fall back on Windows.  I tried the VMWare Server but it aborted when it took a look at my hardware.  I’m not sure why (other than that it is a bit of no-name (or sans nom) crap) but it was an initial obstacle.  On the other hand VirtualBox installed without a hitch and I was able to create a new instance in which to place my Windows XP system without even having to refer to the manual.  As I went through the process of installing XP, slow as it was, I was able to keep working on my Ubuntu installation.  The ironic part was that Microsoft  required me to “authenticate” my copy of XP before I could finish, and I had already authenticated it too many times!  So you are penalized each time your system crashes on you and you re-install!  While I continued working on Ubuntu, and was up and running without talking to a soul or registering with anyone, I had to call a toll-free phone number and talk to an automated system (“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.  Did you say Repeat or Continue?”) to get a number to complete my Windows installation.

VirtualBox also let’s you take a snapshot of the current instance.  I’ve taken a snap immediately after installation, so that if I install anything in the future and have to back out, I’ll be able to start with a completely fresh installation and won’t have to bother with the automated clap-trap . . . so to speak.

Let the experimenting begin.  It will be interesting to see how it compares after the bloom is off the rose.  But since more and more of what I do is Web-based, if not quite Software as a Service (SaaS), there’s no reason to think that I’m going to run into any issues other than learning how to do more complicated things within Debian/Ubuntu/Unix.  I’m happy to have that challenge!

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