9 Months of Ubuntu

Nine months ago I downloaded the Live CD of Ubuntu 6.06 (aka Dapper Drake), burnt it to a CD, popped it into my CD drive, rebooted my PC and had my first experience with Linux.

My background is in graphic design. Originally in print but in the last seven years it’s been mostly new media and in the last two years I’ve moved almost exclusively to web development. I’d spent a little over a year working heavily in Visual Studio developing web applications and used Macromedia (now Adobe) Studio 8 Suite (especially Fireworks, Dreamweaver and Flash) for all things graphical.

I’ve always preferred Fireworks over Photoshop for web graphics. I like the ability to work with vectors and the amount of control you get for rendering them as images. I know plenty of other designers who love to use Photoshop for web graphics though and they seem to get on just fine with it.

For the times that I’d occasionally take on a bit of print work I’d use either Freehand or CorelDraw. Yes, yes, I realise that Corel doesn’t hold much esteem in the print design community but in my opinion it’s the best all-rounder for the PC. In my Mac days I used Quark and then later InDesign with Illustrator and Photoshop and while they’re a brilliant groups of products they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

I became a registered Microsoft Partner a couple of years ago and benefited from the plethora of CDs with just about every Microsoft application. I used Project, Office, Visio, InfoPath, OneNote and Visual Studio on both XP and Vista. I also ran Virtual PC with various configurations of Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server.

I think what initially annoyed me about Microsoft was that I began to get into developing standards-based websites (X/HTML + CSS) and grew increasingly frustrated with Internet Explorer’s (and Visual Studio’s) blatant disregard for standards. If you’ve ever developed a website using standards-based CSS you’ll know exactly what I mean. This frustration pushed me towards the concepts of open source and before I knew it I had gone from being a strong Microsoft advocate to a rabid hater. And that was even before I discovered Slashdot!

So, back to Ubuntu.

After trying the Live CD (which I contend has got to be one of the greatest selling points – it embodies the open source ethic perfectly, you can give it a go and it won’t go messing up your entire system) I decided to install it onto a spare drive I had lying around. It was a rather steep learning curve and I came close to throwing the towel in on a number of occasions. I’ve worked with dual screens for years and there was no way I was going to even consider doing any productive work without them. I’ve got an ATI dual head card and had to quickly learn my way around gedit and vim with the xorg.conf file whilst looking for technical support on the web via my intact laptop.

On a positive note, I loved the way you could quickly download free software via the simple Add/Remove button on the menu and felt quite special when I learned to use the terminal and sudo apt-get install. I was generally impressed with the quality of much of the free software available but many of them weren’t quite as good as the applications I’d been using in Windows.

I trialled – and subsequentially purchased – VMware Workstation which I then built a nice, clean install of XP (is that an oxymoron?) plus all my favourite applications on. At least this felt safe. I could go back to the ‘old familiars’ any time I wanted and do away with my anti virus applications at the same time (that’s the beauty of snapshots!).

At first I tried to use gedit for hand-coding all my ASP.NET applications and continued to run and test them on an instance of Windows Server but after the unadulterated beauty that is Visual Studio’s Intellisense (I’m not kidding) this seemed a huge step backwards. I had had a little experience with Python and so tried a couple of frameworks like TurboGears, Django and Pylons using the excellent Wingware IDE but couldn’t find a reliable hosting company and lacked the knowledge to set up my own Python+Apache-based server. I then tried PHP and found that it was far better supported by the hosting companies. It’s an ugly, ugly language but it’s widely used and there are a ton of PHP-based apps out there. My first website in PHP was pretty horrid but it’s been reworked a couple of times now and I’m using Smarty templates and a nice MySQL class along with URL rewriting (which is a pain to get working in .NET if you’ve ever tried). Recently I’ve started using Eclipse rather than gedit for my PHP website too. Oh, and I’ve also used Texy for the family forum.

So, where am I at with Ubuntu these days? I’ve rebuilt my PC once and upgraded twice. I’ve overwritten my old XP hard drive and am using it as my work drive along with a separate partition for my home directory. I’m now only occasionally starting up my VMware instance of XP to use Macromedia Flash or Firework and I have an instance with all the versions of browsers for testing my websites. I’m occasionally using the Gimp in lieu of Photoshop but it’s still got a long way to go. I recently discovered Inkscape and used it to design a logo for a fairly substantial customer – it’s a very nice application and I look forward to the day it’s able to handle print-quality tasks and perhaps even the vector-to-bitmap tasks that I love so much in Fireworks.

I’m happy with Linux. I may try a different distribution when I’m a little more confident as well. My experience has been much better than I was anticipating but there are still a lot of areas that need improvement before I recommend it to anyone else who isn’t willing or able to edit configuration files.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the Linux community is over-represented by bad logos and stupid application names (having a K on the front of every KDE app is lame and recursive acronyms will never, ever be cool). I guess that’s the price of freedom. There’s not the same pressure from the market to enforce the survival of the fittest in the open source community.

Long live open source and all the splendid mutations it spawns!

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