For the past week or so, I've been testing a Lindows setup on my personal laptop. I was pretty dedicated to Windows for a long time, having cut my teeth largely on MS-DOS and Windows 3.1; my only exposure to other OSes was aging Apple ][ and Mac Classic computers in the school system, which may have been revolutionary when they were purchased, but impressed no one by the time I got to them. I assume schools bought them because of Apple's reputation as the home of all the most awesome edutainment software (so many hours bickering with my classmates over whether it was my turn to play Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? or Oregon Trail), although if any of them knew anything about computers the reason would actually have been that there has always been about 300% less having to open the case up, either metaphorically or literally, and bang on shit to make things work on a Macintosh.

Back then, of course, there were real gaps between what the various platforms could do for you. The only software that really crossed between OSes in any major way were popular games, and even then there were noticeable differences between versions. PCs were for boring office work and things full of numbers. Macs were for easy home use and artistic endeavours. People who just wanted to type things gave up and bought a word processor. My father happened to be an engineer, and an early telecommuter, and his expensive custom CAD software ran on Windows, so Windows it was.

These days, the difference is substantially less. Classic Mac OS no longer exists, and their 'enormous photogenic cats' series of operating systems is based heavily on Unix under the candy-colored skins. Since you can write for both Windows and *nix systems in languages like C -- to a certain degree of generalization, at least -- it's much easier to port software between operating systems, and even if the specific program you like on one OS doesn't have a version for the other, there is almost certainly an equivalent that works almost identically if you look around a bit. The outer shell of Windows has become almost entirely graphical, and the inner guts of Mac OS have become all pointy and technical. Convergent evolution at work, more or less.

I had to get used to working in some color of cat OS for my job, and Macs are mercifully no longer anywhere near as restrictive as I remember them. They used to strike me as rather like computers that had had all their sharp edges covered over with those rubber corner guards that particularly paranoid parents buy to child-proof their homes. Technically I could still use it, but if something didn't work or worked differently than I felt it should, there was no way to get my hands into the innards of it to investigate why or how. Admittedly it was much easier to completely foul up the working of the PC, precisely because it let you do that, but at least I understood why it was a non-functional mess.

Having now got twenty years of experience jamming my fingers into parts of the software that are marked NO USER SERVICEABLE PARTS in big neon letters, I thought perhaps it was time to try an OS that doesn't even bother with the warning labels. My roommate happens to run Ubuntu, so I figured what the hell -- it even has a Windows installer, called Wubi, which allows you to set up a dual-boot system without mucking about with formatting drives or partitions. And also means it has a Windows uninstaller just in case I hate it passionately after a few days.

Ubuntu 11.10 is... interesting. The crunchy candy shell is very Mac-y. There's a permanent menu bar on the top, and a dock on the side for both permanent buttons and whatever's currently running. I discovered that whoever wrote the docs for the touchpad on my Toshiba was a lying bastard, and it was only lack of a cooperating Windows driver that kept me from using Mac-style two-finger tap and scroll; Ubuntu uses a two-finger tap for the context menu by default, and you can enable either two-finger or edge scrolling in the settings.

Other parts are mercifully very Windows, most notably the behavior of programs with multiple windows or workspaces. Win and Mac ideas of what the OS should do when the last of a program's windows are closed by the user are annoyingly not quite the same. Customarily, in Windows, child windows are not spawned without a parent container (you can do it -- GIMP/Win does -- but it's not common, and it's frowned upon); you can close child windows individually, but closing the container window automatically closes all children and exits the program. On a Mac, the windows are spawned independently and closing all visible windows does not exit the program -- you have to officially quit the program as a separate action. This drives me bats. Ubuntu behaves as Windows does, and closes out the app when the last window goes.

I still haven't found all the bells and whistles -- I had to ask my roommate WHERE IS THE TASK MANAGER JESUS HOW DO I KILL -9 THINGS IF I CAN'T BRING UP THE CONSOLE-- but overall it's not too irritating. There's something sort of odd, wrapping back around to hilarious, about an OS whose media player requires you to download and install the MP3 codec the first time you run it, but comes with a pre-configured BitTorrent client, ready to go.


  1. I have actually used a word processor machine! My grandmother gave us her old one when she got a desktop. I used it for fanfiction and I thought it was the coolest thing ever, better than a typewriter (because the screen was all glowing green text and you could go back and edit things without having to re-type an entire page). I wondered what happened to it for the longest time, until I found out about the special electronics recycling days at the dump.

  2. Apple is doing its best get back to the days of rubberized corners. iOS, which is predominately a mobile OS, is making its way more and more onto the desktop. It'll be interesting in the next few years to see how close together or far apart Windows and MacOS get.

    In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Ubuntu. It's a very nice distribution of Linux. Friendly enough to be a desktop OS, yet stable enough to run on servers.


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