Seventeen years old and state of the art

Linux is the perfect catalyst for computer recycling
Written by Evan Leibovitch, Contributor
Sunday was a time for me to try things that were both old and new. It was my first time making my own sushi, and finally throwing the switch on Mutt, my old-new computer. Old, because it's made up of parts I'd collected over my travels, a product of years of taking what others would throw away. New, because it was being loaded with the freshest software releases.

At Mutt's core is an original IBM PC-AT, circa 1984. This box was the last one IBM made a PC standard that the industry adopted, since after this model IBM started its proprietary and ill-fated PS/2 product line. The original machine was equipped with a 6Mhz 80286 processor, a full-height five-inch 30MB hard disk (optional!), and a staggering nine megabytes of RAM (also optional, most of which was added on through an ISA card full of socketed DRAM chips). Backups were done on 5 ¼-inch floppies, which (new on this model) had a capacity of 1.2 MB.

Given the horsepower needed to crank up current operating systems (let alone any applications) it's reasonable to wonder if anyone was actually able to get any work done on these things. But I well recall that a good stenographer armed with WordPerfect 4.2 could crank out documents of equal quality to what today's bloated Microsoft Office can produce. The trio of WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBASE 2 on top of MS-DOS made for a pretty powerful desktop combination for a generation unaware of the talking paper clips to come.

But my goal in Mutt wasn't to run decade-old software. I wanted to see if it was possible to make, using cast-off parts of almost no value to anyone, a computer capable of running the most current software. To do so, I ended up using an old Asus motherboard, a 166MHz Pentium CPU, 96MB of RAM on SIMMs (does anyone remember SIMMs?), vintage CD-ROM and hard drives, a cast-off network card from 3Com and unaccelerated video by S3. Absolutely nothing in Mutt is less than three years old--even the cable used to attach it to the rest of my home network is good old 10Base2 coax. Just about every major computer brand is part of it somewhere.

So there I was Sunday, loading one of the most current releases of Linux onto Mutt. I got Mandrake 8.0. which includes the 2.4 Linux kernel and up-to-date versions of most open source applications, up and running with very little effort. The only casualty was an old Dell monitor which refused to show some of its scan lines, and eventually gave up in a loud pop and a puff of smoke. Its replacement, an equally old no-name SVGA monitor, did just fine.

To be certain, Mutt is no speed demon. Running some GUI applications requires patience. For all I know, I might still be waiting for Mozilla to load when you read this. But this system is capable of doing real work. Once an app is loaded, it can compose a document or surf much of the Web as fast as hardware of more current vintage. As it is, Mutt is already faster than my NFS/Samba file server and much faster than the system I use as a firewall.

This, to me, is one of the most underrated benefits of Linux and other open source operating systems. Linux is driven by users rather than vendors, and many users view software upgrades as a way to move technology forward, and not as an excuse to dump hardware.

Have a look at Windows XP or Macintosh OS X. What's the oldest hardware that can run them? Two years old? In the proprietary software world, a system of Mutt's age is a doorstop. In the open-source world, it's slower and relatively less flexible than the current stuff, but hardly ready for the dump.

The quality and flexibility of Linux and open source applications are key benefits as developing countries struggle to compete in today's heavily computerized world economy. Levels of technology that are considered commonplace here are simply out of reach for those at average income levels in many developing countries.

As I found out on my visit to Jamaica last year, used and older-generation systems are the norm for most smaller organizations in developing countries. Using Linux and open-source applications offers two substantial advantages over conventional proprietary applications. Not only does free software make computers cheaper to buy, it also means that users get the most current software technology. Support for current proprietary software on old hardware is problematic at best.

The establishment last week of an Indian chapter of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is just another indication of how well Linux is faring globally, thanks to such advantages. The press release announcing the move says that FSF leader Richard Stallman was "received as an honored state guest by government officials." Coupled with Linux's growing popularity in China and other countries, the numbers of Linux users and developers are ready to take some significant new leaps. And that helps everyone--more developers means more new applications and more participation in existing projects. More users means a larger installed base and increased interest in Linux as a platform by conventional application vendors.

In the meantime, I'll be playing around with Mutt and trying out some new software on it. And, by the way, the sushi-making was a success too.

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