New boots for Linux

Almost by stealth, the Linux desktop is here - and at last it knows how to make itself at home

One of my dirty little secrets is that I have never successfully installed Linux on anything. I've tried many times over the years, because I bought into the idea that it could revitalise old computers. I'd cobble together a 486 processor, some no-name disk controller, a clonky old hard disk, a VGA card from the Boer War, and off we'd go. My Linux experience terminated shortly thereafter with an incomprehensible error message concerning IRQ 9, lost interrupts or goblins in the bidirectional bus buffers. Fair enough. I didn't get where I am today by not courting gratuitous hardware problems through trying to do things on the cheap.

What put me off, though, was my inability to fix them. I normally laugh at IRQ conflicts, and giggle like a girl in the face of IO address clashes. In these cases, I was stumped. The errors had few clues for their rectification, and browsing online forums only revealed other people piteously reporting the same. Each time I tried to get Linux running, I seemed to end up at the point of going through the source code before remembering that I gave up writing operating systems some years ago. It didn't help that the friendly Linux experts I drafted in to help also ended up stumped: "It does that with that chipset sometimes" is not a song to lift the spirits.

There was always the feeling that with a bit more work, a little more fiddling and card-swapping, a few more midnight stints, I could have got things humming -- but with age comes impatience. Faffing with hardware for its own sake is less fun at thirty-something than eighteen, likewise learning fifteen incomprehensible command syntaxes before breakfast: besides, there's a whole Internet of good things to play with once you've got your browser going. Why wait? No matter how you cut it, Linux at home meant an anorak in the wardrobe.

But now there's Knoppix. The promise, as always, was tempting: download the disk image, burn it onto a CD-ROM and reboot. It will sniff your hardware, configure itself and just run. Instant Linux. Nah, I thought. I've been caught that way before. Still, I've always been good at letting faith triumph over experience.

The only remotely technical things involved were finding a way to persuade Windows XP to burn a bootable CD-ROM -- a tiny utility called ISO Recorder did the trick -- and setting the BIOS to make my computer check the CD-ROM first before booting from hard disk. Those done, the disk was burned, the computer restarted and three minutes later I was running a Linux desktop. You know, that mythical beast wot don't exist.

By any standards, this is an impressive achievement. Knoppix does everything you want from a live CD: it doesn't tamper with your existing computer in any way, it doesn't ask difficult questions -- in fact, it doesn't ask any questions. It is fantastically well endowed with utilities, games, applications and, well, stuff: rather too much, if anything. Does anyone need eight text editors? On the other hand, everyone needs -- and there it is. All wrapped up on the KDE desktop, running as sweetly as you like on top of Debian GNU/Linux.

I slipped the CD into another PC. Up popped the penguin and a little flashing cursor, and there it stayed. You don't need to know what happened next, nor that it involved commands like "sudo mii-tool -r" and -- yes! -- IRQ issues. Much the same thing happened on a third PC, but this time I was ready. Shame it was a completely different problem.

After much faffery, it became clear that Knoppix is a wonder, just no miracle worker. The more your PC diverges from the mainstream, the less likely it is that the Knoppix autoconfiguration magic will work unaided. It doesn't need much help, and the online support is fast and apt, but those of us with peculiarities will have just a little work to do.

How are people using Knoppix? It's a perfect recovery disk: if your hard disk goes down, you can boot up in Knoppix and fix the problem. It makes a fantastic test disk for high street PCs -- "Does this run Linux, my good man?" "Errr…. ". "Let's find out!" And it's a superlative taster for those who like the idea of Linux but are still chary of the reality. Make as many copies as you like and give them away -- a perfect demonstration of the forces at work that are building Linux' momentum.

It also demonstrates where Linux needs to go next before there really is a granny distro you can shove on a PC and give to your elderly relatives. Printing support, application installation, documentation about how the various software components fit together, sugar-coated diagnostics: these are all things that made me swear by their absence.

But they will be fixed. Knoppix isn't the only live-CD option: there are others, and competition to be the best is hot. Across the board, from big corporates through to your desktop, the time is coming when ditching the Microsoft licence is going to be a serious option. At the beginning of 2004, that time looks closer than ever.