A few posts ago, I complained about how much fun it was to try Solaris for the first time, especially with VMWare (here and here). In the mean time, I had time to try a complete Solaris installation and I must say it is not all that bad, except that it has this very distinctive “Linux from 5 years ago” feel. The feel I had when I first tried to switch to Linux for my primary OS, the feel I had using Red Hat 3 and (the then) Mandrake 10 distributions. The feel that there was something to be done with this environment, but also that there is much that remains to be done before it becomes really fun to use.
By fun, I don’t mean an all-you-can-click eye-candy user interface. I mean that all major components—networking, firewall, user interface, remote shells, etc.—work right out of the box with sensible configurations and without the need for the user to thinker with the configuration files hidden in /etc/service/ or /var/this-or-that/. Clearly, at that time, five years ago, Linux failed badly. People that tried Linux five years ago are still convinced it’s really hard to use, and hardly functional. Then, of course, they were mostly right. But since then, there were a lot of changes.
Take Ubuntu, for example. When I first tried it (the 5.04 version, if I recall correctly), it was already a lot better than the other distro I was using back then, Mandrake 10.0. In fact, I came to Ubuntu because of Windows XP. I just bought a state-of-the-art AMD64 box with the brand new NForce 4 chip set, a NVIDIA 6600GT video card, a truly nice machine at the time. XP 64 bits supported my hardware in a basic compatibility mode and crashed the machine every hour or so. This was a big let down because I have been using NT for years—XP being NT 5.1—without the slightest stability problem. My other boxes were running XP (32 bits) for tens of days without the need to reboot, and never BSODed on me. The XP 64 bits version crashed my new machine every hour or so, often even during boot itself, did not support any of the fancy new hardware, and therefore basically made the computer unusable.
So I started looking at 64 bits Linux distributions, you know, just to compare. I have been using Linux part time since 1995 in university and for odd jobs, so I figured that would be a possible alternative. Red Hat and Mandrake failed right at boot. Debian worked, but was kind of too bare-boned, and I wasn’t much into spending a lot of time—especially that I knew too little about Linux back then—so I kept trying other distros. Until Ubuntu.
Not only Ubuntu booted just right, it also supported my chip set quite satisfactorily: my Gbit Ethernet adapter was running in Gbit mode, not some crummy 10 Mbits compatibility mode as with XP. Even my NVIDIA 6600GT dual head video card was supported correctly after a small tweak to the xorg.conf file. So I started using Ubuntu instead of XP on that box. I kept using XP on the 32 bits boxen, but that was the start of a major shift for me because I went from an essentially windows-centric work environment to a Linux-centric one. The first six months were rather rough, but I eventually dumped XP as my primary operating system; a move I never regretted.
But it’s not like Ubuntu 5.04 was incredible back then. It was usable, the interface was simple and clear enough for me to find stuff, but it had this very distinctive crude feel about it. Nautilus was ugly, clunky, and obtrusive. I missed Windows Explorer very much. I have been using Emacs for a few years already, but emacs, make, gdb hardly replaced Visual Studio. But I upgraded Ubuntu with each release, or so—I tend to stay at LTS distros for a longer time as I don’t suffer from compulsive upgraditis—and it’s now my primary environment. I still use Windows if I really have (for PowerPoint, for example) and then again, only in a VMWare virtual machine.
Had I kept my opinions about my first impression about Linux, I would have remained on the idea that Linux may be good for servers, but is basically unusable as a workstation, and I would have missed on something. I would have raged against Windows XP 64 bits, would have waited until last year or so for Vista to upgrade to 64 bits. I would still be worrying about stupid things like managing licence numbers, whether WGA would condescend to let me get updates, and be spending a lot of money on each new install.
Sometimes, first impressions need some second thoughts.