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Debian - My First Serious Flirt with Linux

For quite I while, I wanted to try out GNUstep. However, GNUstep right now requires the GNU Objective C library and chokes on Apple's variant. I tried, with the kind help of the GNUstep community, and Carl Eugen Hoyos in particular, to compile my own GCC, but sadly we didn't succeed. What is "Foundation" on the Mac seemed to build just fine, but the GUI stuff (which I wanted to use with Apple's X11) refused to cooperate.

So, when I recently read about GNUstep having made it into Debian's package repository, I saw a new venue: Having heard praise about that Linux distribution's packaging system, I downloaded a Net-Install CD Image for PowerPC Macs and installed it.

As suggested, I had set apart a partition I didn't need anymore (a little over 2 GBs). The beginning of the installation (after booting from the CD image) takes part in a pseudo-GUI made up of ASCII characters. The mac-fdisk command-line tool is used to delete the old partition, and then create an 800k "Apple Boot Loader" partition and a Linux partition instead.

This involved jotting down the partition's "offset" and "length", and doing a little maths to find out how large the remaining partition would be. Why they couldn't just have added a command to "replace" a partition, and to "insert" a boot loader at the cost of some other partition, I have no idea. (Yes, I've filed a bug report suggesting that)

Apart from that, it was fairly easy, once I had figured out that even though I didn't want to have it boot into Debian by default, I'd have to create that boot loader partition and then later use Apple's "Startup Volume" to "un-bless" the partition (luckily I knew that holding down the option key at startup let me "temporarily" boot back into OS X).

The installer has a very nice GUI for a program with text-based output, and even let me use the arrow keys to move back and forth between the different pages to retroactively change settings. After that, the Debian core was installed, and I could boot into my new OS.

An "assistant" not unlike the installer led me through the further setup. Here I found out that I needed to be more careful. Once I had made a choice, there was no way back, and no obvious way of cancelling or resetting the assistant. It showed that this assistant was less polished than the installer:

A couple of times I was given nice advice that was worth Zilch. For example, when selecting the mouse driver to use (ADB, USB, PS/2 or whatever) it offered these designations as examples. However, among the choices were only Unix device names, and none of them sounded like USB. Through trial and error (and thus repeated installations) I found out that /dev/mice/ was the right choice. However, I didn't find out about that until X11 had failed to launch with an error.

During configuration, I was also dropped into dselect to choose the packages I wanted to download and install (stuff like GNUstep, KDE, GNOME or whatever wasn't already covered by the default "task" you had selected on the preceding page). While dselect is a powerful tool that automatically resolves dependencies on packages and takes care of conflicts between packages, it still has a rather rough GUI:

dselect feels as if someone had implemented it according to the Emacs GUI guidelines, or maybe to vi's. To get rid of help screens, you type the space bar, and the list of selected items doesn't use "[x]"-style ASCII checkboxes as the installer and setup assistant had, but rather has a weird assortment of dashes and asterisks to the left of each item, which change in not quite obvious patterns when you hit "+" or "-" to check/uncheck them.

And just like vi, dselect suffers from the one ailment that makes me hit everyone who teaches newbies to Unix vi instead of pico or nano: There's no obviously visible way to quit the application. Once you're three levels deep in the on-line help, you'll find out that you use "x", but would it have hurt anybody to set apart the bottom row of the screen for a couple of "buttons" like the installer has them? Or at least a list of the most important shortcuts like in Pico and Nano?

It also doesn't help to get the same full-page help text every time a conflict arises, instead of a short "dialog panel" with a "resolve conflict", "adjust manually" and "help" button. Especially the third time around...

That having been said, the installation process is still fairly painless and if you're a little computer literate it is manageable without having to know how to recompile a Kernel. But if you're looking for Desktop Linux, you will still want to make this easier. I don't expect this to be as easy as MacOS X, which uses a graphical installer and only needs to support a few hardware configurations, but the consistency of the "GUI" needs work, and although there is a lot of information present, in a few vital spots (like mouse setup) there is still too little.

Created: 2004-09-29 @962 Last change: 2004-09-29 @027 | Home | Admin | Edit
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