Playing with old free software

I have to admit, I used to really struggle to install GNU/Linux…

Screenshot-QEMU-1.pngMany years ago, before I had any experience of my own Unix-like machine, I had played a little with NeXTSTEP, and was hoping that one day I would buy my own computer. For some reason, I was always quietly confident that it would run some form of Unix. At that point, I was facing a potential career as a Windows developer, as it was what I knew. The idea of having a machine running something different always appealed to me, even to this day. I remember a review of something called ‘Red Hat’ in an old issue of Computer Shopper. Computer Shopper was always a wonderful read for me; part catalogue, part PC magazine, but with little sections for Unix, Atari ST and the Mac tucked away in the back there. In these days, I used an Amstrad CPC 464, and the idea of having a Mac or ST was somewhat repugnant to me. They were the reason people were leaving the CPC — luring them away with their flashier graphics and their mice… Unix, however, looked awful. Ugly windows full of ugly widgets and blocky text, but to me there was something cool about all that. At some point, I got hold a copy of Red Hat 5 via a magazine though I suspect I bought a copy as well, as I went through a period of buying lots of distributions and books of GNU/Linux, because naively, I thought each version was different and I’d need all the manuals. I didn’t even try to install most of them, I just kept them on a shelf and sat back and read the manuals. When I finally got around to installing something, I was amazed at the sheer volume of software available. I remember thinking if I tried a package per day, it would still take me years to ever run out of software to play with. Many, many attempts at producing a working machine later, I found the ‘startx’ command, and well, here we are.

Amazingly, I managed to find the old distribution online!

I’ve made a bunch of screenshots, linked below, but here are some of the more interesting elements of the installation.

  • It was surprisingly easy, compared to how I remembered it. I suspect this is in part due to the fact I’m installing it on a clean hard disk, and not a machine with an existing operating system, which was OS/2 Warp at the time, and later Windows 95.
  • The amount of GNU software in the ‘workstation’ installation, which was the one I used then, and now is extremely high. Of the 300Mb or so of packages I installed, I’d wager that over 200Mb of that was GNU stuff.
  • It even found my video card and set up X for me. I literally just had to type ‘startx’ and I was away.
  • I did have a problem with screen corruption on this Cirrus Logic card, but upon digging into the XF86Config to fix it, there was a comment that told me to add ‘Option “no_bltbit”‘, which fixed it.
  • The only proprietary software installed by default was Netscape 4.
  • It boots in about 15 seconds.
  • There’s a real lack of any software. For a workstation, there is nothing other than GNU Emacs or vim for writing any text, but there is LaTeX if you’re feel adventurous.
  • The whole thing feels very very usable, and considering I used to run this on a Pentium 60 with 16mb of RAM at 800×600, I wonder how it would perform on an EEE PC or similar.