posted by Charles Jennings on Wed 13th Jun 2007 10:38 UTC
IconI have so much to thank Bill Gates for: introducing me to the baffling joys of consumer computing with Windows 95; teaching me the meaning of fear and dread with Windows 98; leading me to the sunlit uplands of Windows XP; getting me out of Microsoft altogether with the arrival of Vista. I hardly know where to start. And if I hadn't flown into a high-minded anti-Microsoft, down-with-Bill-Gates fury at the start of this year, would I ever have stumbled upon ZenWalk? I doubt it.

Now, of course, I owe a debt of thanks to ZenWalk. How foolish is this? I'm just a writer who uses his PC for that fundamental trinity of word processing, emails and internet. Listening to music and minding the family photos are the two main additional functions, and after that... How important can an OS be? After all, mine is a stand-alone desktop existence of the humblest kind - once predicated on certain Microsoft assumptions about the way things would pan out in the years to come: some gains, some new inefficiencies, more of everything, especially that excruciating Microsoft paternalism, dragging the sacred material of my life into its folders, its crappy taxonomies, its relentlessly moronic understanding of what My Music or My Photos actually means. And I'd be there right now, except for the fact that Bill announced at the start of the year that he really was going to take us for a bunch of chumps by charging authentically monopolistic prices for a new and only debatably improved OS, just because he could. For this writer, the red mist descended, I got wildly pious about the iniquities of a consumer marketplace where competition has effectively been snuffed out, and vowed, if I possibly could, to live a life without Microsoft from that day forward.

But what do I know about operating systems? I can install Windows XP blindfolded by now, but the alternatives? An encounter with SuSe a few years ago affected me like a rash, but cleared up quickly enough, after which I humbly returned to the known stupidities of Windows. Software is a black art, after all. While I can cobble together the physical bits of a PC easily enough, the animating spirit, the language that makes it work, is as alien to me as Cuneiform, with GNU/Linux the Linear B of the business. Then Ubuntu - friendly, thoughtful, wholly sensible - emerges from the mist, and before you know it I have Ubuntu 6.10 working nicely on my PC. Microsoft is already becoming a shadowy memory, and then, one day, I bump into ZenWalk 4.4.1: which is, oddly enough, and even more than Ubuntu, the real revelation, the real life-changer.

Simplicity is half the reason. After a few months tinkering with OpenSuSe (better, this time), Mandriva (a failure throughout) and different manifestations of Ubuntu, I now know my KDE from my Gnome from my Xfce, and of all these Xfce is the lightest, the brightest, the most discreet, the smartest. And it's Xfce that greets you in ZenWalk. Then the Zen people give you just what you need to work with, and no more. The excellent AbiWord; a tuneplayer called Audacious, which is the ugliest little bugger I have ever seen, but which works brilliantly; a spartan but absolutely impeccable picture manager called GQview; Firefox and Thunderbird, the usual suspects; and some other things which I, candidly, don't understand. The package manager is a bit half-baked; but on the other hand, the native screen resolution and clarity are so good, I didn't even need to hunt down any of those tricksy nVidia drivers when I was installing ZenWalk. Indeed, I still cling to the insane idea that consumer electronics should make things easy rather than hard and that the less I have to do, the better. This then helps me rationalize my Linux ineptitude: the fact that I still can't get a tarball to come out right; that I'm fingers and thumbs the moment a terminal opens up; that I am never, ever going to compile a program. I am old; I am lazy. ZenWalk just worked, mercifully.

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