More And More Linux Frustration

This is a rant born of frustration. I guess I’m looking for some sort of community consensus – not how I should solve my problem, but how the Open Source community should attack a real problem of usability.

In my heart of hearts, I so want to love Linux. But now, after months of trying, I’m wondering if I’m not ready for Linux, and more importantly, if Linux isn’t ready for me.

Some quick background. I took my last computer course in 1968 (that’s no typo). To my friends, I am tech support. My wife has watched me guide others through menu after menu, all while in bed, with my eyes closed. The computer I’m typing on was assembled by me from parts I specified. The one next to it has just received a motherboard/cpu transplant on my kitchen table.

I am not a technophobe. Still, Linux frustrates me in nearly every possible way.

Over the last week, since rebuilding my auxiliary computer, I have loaded and reloaded and reloaded again. My estimate is a dozen loads of 5 or 6 different flavors of Linux. Each of them similar. Each of them different.

I’m starting to get worried Comcast will flag me for overly taxing their system with all the iso’s I’ve scarfed up.

On some distributions my audio card is recognized. On others it’s not, or is only after some minor tweaking. On one (and I wish I could remember which one) my TV card plays. On others, it’s cryptic error messages – messages which make Microsoft’s error messages seem kind and gentle. On one distribution, the box for the TV is blank, but the rest of the screen is full of noise, which seems to be the disjointed TV video.

The only way to get the printer to work (it’s attached to an onboard print server on my router) is by first making believe it’s attached directly to this computer and then editing the file. Clever.

None of the Linux variants I’ve used knew what to do with the video system on my motherboard – though it’s far from esoteric. I am stuck with a generic VESA driver, which means my system is running slower than it should.

I have tried to fix all of these problems, but let me use the video problem as my example. Doing a Google search for the video chip (KM400 from Via) and Linux leads to some interesting suggestions. There are some that seem to be translated to English from Chinese, but not well enough that anyone speaking English could follow. Others originate in German, then English, and again something is lost in translation. Steps are missing or just hinted at. No two suggested remedies are exactly the same.

As I look through the Usenet responses, it’s tough not to pick up smart ass disdain from many of the cognoscenti! And, I expect to get some of that here.

One of the things that’s touted as a strength of Linux, and weakness of Windows, seems to be the opposite. Windows lives in a standard world. My Linux box does not. Will the Debian driver work in my Mandrake distribtution? Maybe, though probably not.

Does my 2.6 Kernel need different care and feeding than a 2.4? Seems like it. But, I don’t really know what a kernel is, much less why 2.4 and 2.6 eat different food.

My motherboard came with all the Windows drivers I’d need – none for Linux.

Will I have to compile a package? Can I? How do I do it?

I want this to work, yet I feel Linux is fighting me. The Linux community seems anxious for this to work… and at the same time it’s scared that their baby will go mainstream… afraid that someone will do to Linux what they perceive AOL did to the Internet!

I’m not going to give up. But, I am getting very frustrated – very. I can’t believe I am alone.

The End of the Hobby Era In Computing?

The lead story on Extreme Tech is all about building a computer. Build It: A Speedy PC For $800

I’m certainly not adverse to building a computer. The PC this is being typed on was assembled right here on my office floor from parts I specified. It does everything I designed it to do (though it has incredibly noisy fans to remove its internal heat, and I wish I would have designed that out). And, as a bonus, it actually worked when I plugged it in!

The question is why build… and even if you want to, how much longer will that be possible?

My computer was built to edit video. To that end, I threw in the ATI All-In-Wonder 8500DV video card (on which the DV “Firewire” connection never did work) and a Soyo motherboard with built-in RAID (two disk drives act as one for the faster service necessary for video). The on-board audio conflicts with the video card, meaning I then had to go get another audio card.

It was a great learning experience, but today you can buy machines off the shelf that do the same thing. And, increases in processor speed cover a variety of sins. So a machine not totally optimized for video will still do fine because everything else is so much faster and the disk drives are so much larger.

As I was passing by Home Shopping Network earlier today, they were selling a Gateway PC (I am not a fan of any particular brand. All major computer manufactures are just putting together other people’s parts.) with 17″ monitor and printer for under $1200. The CPU on their machine is better than twice as fast as mine! If you’re interested, here are the specs.

It’s tough to build when a speedy machine, pre-assembled, sells for a price like that.

For hobbyists, like me, there will always be the allure of building the ‘perfect’ screaming machine. But, I suspect within the next few years that won’t be possible either.

I remember in high school, a friend of mine bough a Model “A” Ford and restored it to running condition by hand. What he couldn’t get, he modified. Now, there’s hardly anything on a car you can fix or modify on your own.

Computers are going in that same direction. There are a number of reasons, but the most significant seems to be intellectual property rights. My computer is capable of copying DVDs… even copy protected DVDs. I can do all sorts of other things that upsets other rights holders too!

Just as printer manufacturers have added chips to try and thwart aftermarket ink cartridge manufacturers, PCs will be ‘smarter’ (really more restrictive) in what they let you do. The quaint concept of ‘fair use’ will go out the window, because manufacturers now understand how easily their hard work is ripped off.

Will future versions of Windows be built so it only works with ‘trusted’ hardware and software that can be more closely controlled? My opinion is, yes. Sure, a computer could be run on Linux or some yet-to-be-designed operating system, but that would deprive you of much of what’s available today.

I’m not sure where the ‘sweet spot’ is, balancing the rights of those who produce with the rights of those who use. I suspect that PC’s wouldn’t be where they are today… capable of doing what they do… if the restrictions to come had existed earlier.

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