Pick a Free OS

A diary of a Linux bumpkin

I can't really claim that I saw the Linux boom coming. The truth is that I had wanted to learn Unix for a long time, mostly to impress an ex-girlfriend, the same one who wrote those country songs. After she gave up her music career, Joni became a support engineer at Silicon Graphics. I wanted to show her that I, too, could master the command line. Thus, when a friend who happens to work at Sun Microsystems dropped by my office, spotted an orphaned 486 box in the corner and offered to install Linux on the spot, I jumped at the opportunity.

We dusted off the beast, took inventory of its innards and plugged it into the corporate LAN. Then, in an act that seemed to me only slightly less miraculous than spontaneous animation, my friend conjured up a working Linux box from just a few half-remembered URLs, 7 blank floppies and a hundred megs of ftp downloading. It took about three hours.

Attempts to configure X Windows were stymied by a proprietary, unsupported Compaq Video chipset, but I was happy enough to flog my brain in console mode for a while anyway. Apache and SAMBA, at least, were a snap to configure, and that was really exciting, especially after I discovered the open port in the company firewall. But that's another story!

The next chapter of my Linux education happened around May 1998, when I discovered the CoffeeNet cafe here in San Francisco. There, I found a bunch of older Pentiums with 17-inch monitors all running a custom fvwm2/TkGoodStuff desktop. For the price of $5 worth of muffins and coffee you could get a user account, install with a single click some local preference files for any hip Linux program you cared to use--Netscape, GIMP, Xasteroids or whatever--and geek out till the caffeine wore off. You even got a public_html folder with room for 20MB of files published on the World Wide Web! How cool is that?

After just a few interactions with KDE at CoffeeNet, I knew Linux was going to meet the desktop in a big way. Here was a Linux network of superannuated old Pentiums being used successfully by members of the general public representing all skill levels. I made a half-dozen visits to the place, and never saw any maintenance being done, any of the machines having downtime, or any of the users asking the counter help for anything other than another cup of coffee or perhaps Sicilia Panini.