Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, July 31, 2011

War of the Operating Systems (Part 1)

Back when I was young and starting to use computers on a daily basis, I read a lot of computer pundits who bashed Microsoft Windows. Naturally, I began to parrot their point of view. It seemed logical; after all, Windows 95 crashed all the time whenever I needed to use it. During my teenage years I began my search for a different operating system that would cost less than Windows, still support my hardware, avoid the annoying crashes that I saw under Windows 95, and offer up all the applications that I needed to play games, type documents, surf the internet, and all of the other things I used my computer for.

My early attempts to use Linux (particularly Red hat and Caldera) quickly ended with my frustration as they didn't support my hardware. Perhaps with a bit of tweaking I could have gotten them to work, but at that age I didn't have the time or expertise.

By the time I gave up on Linux, Microsoft was finally getting its act together. After Windows 98 cynically attempted to force Internet Explorer on everybody, Microsoft started anew with Windows 2000 and XP. They were built from the ground up as 32-bit OS'es, not a kludge of 32-bit Windows plus 16-bit DOS. And Microsoft supported them vigorously with service packs and other handy features to repair corrupted systems. So until Windows Vista was released ("defecated" might be a more appropriate term for the turd-ish Vista,) I regained a lot of respect for what Microsoft was doing. Windows might not be the most stable OS, but it installed properly 99% of the time and supported a mind-boggling number of hardware configurations. Not to mention that all of the most popular software titles were written for it.

But a lot had changed in the Linux world since the last time I tried it, too. Corporations like Novell and Oracle had invested serious money into making Linux a viable OS for desktop computers. (Not to mention the revolution called Ubuntu, launched by space tourist Mark Shuttleworth in 2004.) So I've dabbled with Linux lately and succeeded in getting OpenSUSE 11 to work on a 2006-vintage PC.

But I wasn't content to stop at Windows in my desire to tinker. I bought a used Power Mac G4 so I could try MorphOS, a lightweight OS for Power PC computers that's compatible with the old Commodore Amiga. The MorphOS team wisely chose to develop their OS for a limited set of hardware that had been mass-produced; namely, Macintosh computers with G4 processors. I have installed and used MorphOS, and it's worked reliably every time for me. And MorphOS doesn't suffer from slowdown, even on a system with only 256 MB ram and a 13 GB hard drive. (In fact, I'm typing this blog post on my MorphOS machine right now.) The biggest drawback is that very few popular software titles have been ported to MorphOS, and I'm not compelled to pay over $100 to unlock the full version of MorphOS until programs like OpenOffice and GIMP are available.

I still want this old Power Mac to run Linux in a dual-boot setup with MorphOS. I tried installing Debian Linux 6 today and it failed miserably on this machine. So plan B is to try OpenSUSE 11.1 (OpenSUSE ended Power PC support after that release.) And plan C is to try Yellow Dog Linux, a Power PC distribution that was best known for supporting Sony's PlayStation 3 (until Sony castrated its game system by removing Linux support.) My goal is to host a website on this system, to prove that old computers can still be useful.

Part 2 of "War of the Operating Systems" will cover my quest to get Linux running on this ancient Mac, as well as exciting developments on the Linux front for Intel-based PC's. Stay tuned!