net.wars: Dumber people can run Linux

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 October 2005

For a couple of years now I've had the idea that I should migrate my mail server to Linux.

Wendy M Grossman

The mail server is Communigate, and it's running on Windows 2000. It's ultra-stable, that's not the problem. Truly. It never goes wrong except when I'm out of town. No, the reason to change is that there are some spam-filtering things called Razor and Pyzor that I could add to my installation of SpamAssassin but which don't run on Windows. Or so the documentation I have here says.

So a couple of weeks ago I acquired an old Thinkpad and took a poll among my friends as to which GNU/Linux-type operating system I should put on it. It didn't necessarily, I said, have to be the easiest to install since I really only intended to install it once; it did need to be reliable. Fedora Core, said a couple. FreeBSD, said a couple of others. Solaris, said one. Ask a question like this in a room full of geeks, and you can get them all arguing among themselves. Fun!

So I decided to be difficult and download Ubuntu instead (because the friend I consulted by email suggested it and then it turned out that all those geeks who recommended other things said, "Oh, yeah, I have one running that. I like it...").

Of course, unless I download and install, one by one, every Linux variant I'll never know which one is "best", but friends, if there's a Linux I would hand a novice to install, this is it. Yes, the text messages that scroll by at length are a little intimidating. But so what? When it comes to a point where it has to ask you something, it does so in plain English and tells you why it wants to know. After all these decades of obscure error messages and cryptic questions, here's an operating system that says something like, "From your choice of language, we guess you're in one of these countries. Which is it?" I would have kissed it, except that it isn't tangible, plus you look really silly kissing a Thinkpad that won't even turn into a talking frog.

Here's the other thing: it worked. It said, "Choose a user name and a password." It logged me in. And there was an entire computer, ready to go. It connected to the Internet. Firefox went places. Email downloaded. OpenOffice…officed. I mean, call that open source? Where's the anguish and pain? Where's the six weeks of downloading drivers and learning how to compile source code? A shocking lapse of standards, I call it. If Linux can be run by people as dumb as the people who can run Windows, it's the end of civilisation as we know it. Don't these people understand that writers need things to complain about if we're to be able to make a living?

To be fair, if this were a travelling laptop instead of a prospective mail server, there almost certainly would be more misery involved. For one thing, in its present job the Thinkpad doesn't have to care whether its PCMCIA slots are functional (the device manager says they are, but that's not the same as getting a specific card to work). It didn't care to read the compact flash card I tried, and because its wired ethernet worked I didn't have a lot of incentive to find a wireless card to fight with. Although I see there are some available for my SMC.

It was a little more complicated getting it to talk to the other Windows machines around here. The interface is of course pretty and graphical, but you do feel a bit like you've landed in Denmark or somewhere, so that although the elements of daily life are recognizable the names are all foreign. As in, "Hey! We're not in CTRL-ALT-DEL any more!" Once you know that you invoke a thing called Samba to connect to Windows machines it's easy enough to search for instructions. The difficulty is bootstrapping that first word. So that took a second try. Second. Not third.

Then you have to admire the Synaptic package manager. Now, I realise this isn't just an Ubuntu thing, but it's still an impressively well organised way of finding, installing, and keeping up to date the software you want to use. On balance, it's astonishing Microsoft hasn't built something like that into Windows so that you could click, type in a credit card, and have software arrive. Or it would be if it weren't for the antitrust suit that would inevitably follow the company's creating such a thing. Sure, it could open such a system to third parties, but in practice that is never going to happen in the commercial world. Microsoft might decide it was good business to take a sliver of millions of software purchases it currently has no share of; that part is obvious. But third parties would have to balance the increased ease of acquiring customers and sales against having to share that part of their customer database with the Borg. Not gonna happen.

So: so far, so good. Mailserver migration is next, so more excitements doubtless to follow. But if these people keep it up, next thing you know you won't even have to stuff your own penguin.


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