The Linux Pendulum

Every once in a while, my internal pendulum swings back to Linux. I don't know if it's a (fortunately well buried) masochistic streak, but I get curious as to what sort of progress has been made turning it into a minimally acceptable desktop platform.

I obviously know better (I'm on my third Mac already), but since I'm getting ready to switch laptops at work (always a traumatic experience due to the insane amount of red tape one has to go through), I've been thinking of using Fedora as my main work environment. I've pretty much given up on trying to get a Mac at work due to (understandable, but not too flexible) Borg-like purchasing policies, so the logical way for me to be more productive and still use Intel machines is to move away from Windows.

(Note: we're actually quite flexible in IT terms - and we have top-of-the-line hardware management and helpdesk staff, with whom I get along swimmingly - but trying to buy something as original as blue Post-Its takes forever and needs umpteen clearances...)

I know I'll have to forego Visio, Outlook and access to legacy intranet apps (that for some brain-dead reason use NTLM authentication, something I've yet to see "just working" in non-Windows browsers), but the prospect of having a very stable laptop that I can use to do Real Work(TM) and still churn out my usual quota of whitepapers, financial breakdowns and slideware is very appealing.

Plus, I can always use Remote Desktop to run Visio on another box if I really need to. (Note: yes, I tried CrossOver before. Like three times already. That's not the point.)

So I swung back to Linux again, and tried to build a mock-up of my prospective work environment on my home laptop, which has a (near-vanilla) Fedora Core 2 install. It has OpenOffice, Evolution, etc. - all the base stuff that I'm likely to need.

Or has it? Well, let's see what I really need. Office compatibility is a must, obviously, and I do a lot of PowerPoint, so I took the opportunity to start drafting a presentation I have to deliver in London a couple of weeks from now. Just bullets and text, zero formatting, no drawings whatsoever. When I got to the tenth slide or so, I saved it as an Office file and e-mailed it to my Mac, where PowerPoint promptly crashed upon attempting to open it.

Not good. Of course I ought to try and open it in a Windows machine, but PowerPoint is Microsoft code on any platform - so I'm not inclined to even try. I mean, it's not exactly rocket science to support Office formats by now, right? Even considering the usual whining about there being proprietary tweaks every now and then, this is something the Linux world was supposed to have licked, like... two years ago?

My point is this: I shouldn't even need to try opening the file again on a Windows machine. It should have worked, period. And I'm not going to get the latest bleeding-edge version of OpenOffice and try again - regular users won't jump through that particular hoop more than once, and for Office-like functionality, I want to be just a regular user.

To be fair, doing the opposite (opening a recent PowerPoint presentation in OpenOffice) mostly worked - taking into account differences in fonts, everything was readable, internal hyperlinks worked, and most pictures made it through - although one particular diagram was horribly mangled. Transitions and animation effects were lost, but that also happens if you open an Office 2003 or XP file on, say, Office 2000. I rate it as a tolerable nuisance (although I actually need some of those transitions and transparency effects to highlight sections of diagrams as I explain them).

Next, I tried to install the Ximian Connector for Evolution (to see if I could get it to connect to my test Exchange server). The base RPM refused to install, of course (it relies on a specific version of the Kerberos libraries). Having to install Red Carpet was bad enough (it's a bit too intrusive for my taste), but even worse was finding out that since I had upgraded to Python 2.3, the installer wouldn't run (different binary bindings, it seems). Not good, either. I don't want to bother with this kind of tomfoolery every time I need to install something, unless it's for development purposes - all bets are off in that case.

So I took the time to try to reinstall Python 2.2 (which promptly broke yum), apt-got a couple of updates, and tried again (which reminds me, it's the fourth kernel update I've done on this machine and I still don't have sound support).

Completely Off-Topic Note: In the meantime, I took some time to figure out USB ACM devices under the 2.6 kernel. Turns out that to get my Samsung/SGH-Z105 working as before, I had to create the following device node:

# mknod /dev/usb/ttyACM0 c 166 0

15 minutes later, I found I had Python 2.3 installed again. Automagically. So I apparently can't use Red Carpet and keep my machine (minimally) up to date - and I've long outgrown the bleeding-edge updates phase (after all, I don't use Debian ;)). So I simply rpm --nodeps -ivh ximian-connector* and figured I'd let it complain later (which it did - the connector wouldn't load at startup, although I was able to configure an Exchange account).

Poking around for an older version of the Kerberos libraries worked, but I then not only found that I had broken significant portions of Fedora's innards but also that OWA is apparently not enabled on my Exchange server (at least not the one I have access to).


At this point, the pendulum had just about halted its swing and was beginning to turn back.

Furthermore, Evolution, in case you haven't used it lately on real-world machines (my home laptop is a Tecra 8100 with 256MB RAM), is becoming a bit of a dog - it has a lot of trouble dealing with my massive IMAP store (it persists on walking the entire tree every time it wakes up), takes forever to update a folder, and persists on doing its own inscrutable thing where it regards SSL support. The only thing I know that is slower is OpenOffice, and in that respect they are fairly evenly matched.

So I guess I'm not going to ditch Windows at work after all. At least not while it's such a messy and convoluted procedure to even attempt to get minimally equivalent functionality on Linux. I haven't given up yet, but my lack of immediate success is worrying.

Or, of course, I could start lobbying for a Mac again.

Either way, I'm not exactly happy with the concept of Linux on the desktop - and it's going to take a while for me to consider it seriously again.

P.S: Shameless Plug of the day - go here and vote for my pictures - I'm apparently still the only Portuguese in the rankings, so it's still a matter of national pride. ;).