Last week my daughter had to take a day off school because she was unwell and it fell to me to babysit during the day. She slept a lot of the time and behaved well for the rest so although it wasn’t quite the most productive day of the week, I don’t think my output suffered too much. This is one of the great benefits of working from home. With a bit of understanding on both sides, minor changes of plan like this can be worked around. But even so, with a sick child propped up on the sofa, normal shedworking activities had to relocate to the house and that meant using the family PC, which runs Ubuntu Linux.
My usual shed-based computer arrangement involves a Macbook with external keyboard and mouse and a second screen. I use a notebook computer so that I don’t have to leave valuable equipment in the shed and I love the two-screen setup which, as many people seem to agree, boosts productivity no end. Having said that though, most of the computing around here is set up to maximise working cross-platform and I find a combination of Mac OS X and Linux, with Windows relegated to a virtual machine for occasional website testing in IE7, is the best combination.
I am not new to Linux. I first began using it to get work done in 2002 after a series of grim experiences with Windows ME while working in Berkeley, California. That sounds more glamorous than it was. While my wife researched her book at the Bancroft Library I carried on with an editing job I started back home. By about half way through the trip Windows ME was locking up on me roughly every hour so in order to keep from losing work I was saving everything and rebooting the laptop every 50 minutes. Back home in Lancashire that autumn I installed a paid-for version of SUSE Linux. I had never used Linux before and it didn’t go entirely without a hitch, but six months later I was using Linux full-time.
Back in 2003, to be fair, I didn’t make great demands on my computers. I used email, a web browser, and a word processor, so even on a laptop, once I’d persuaded Linux to connect to the (dial-up) Internet I had everything I needed and it never crashed. Not crashing was a benefit for which I was prepared to go without proper suspend and sleep capability, though neither of those worked reliably with Windows anyway, and for which I was prepared to buy a separate Hayes modem. I later bought a wireless networking card that was more expensive than it might have been had I been able to pick the cheapest Windows-only model on the shelf.
By the time that old HP laptop began to show its age, in 2004, there was no way I was going back to Windows and no way I was paying for a copy of Windows XP that I would never use. Since I had to have a laptop, that meant buying a Mac, which I did in 2005. The home PC though, which is mostly used for kids’ games in Childsplay and GCompris, watching DVDs, managing photos, and listening to music and podcasts, runs Linux.
And that brings me to my day last week with Ubuntu 8.10. You know what? There’s nothing much to say about it; it just let me get on with what I wanted to do with no drama and no trouble. I worked on an article I’ve been writing for a forthcoming Blackwell anthology, I wrote a blog post or two and tweaked a little css, I made some plans for future articles and replied to a whole bunch of emails. And when I needed to scan and edit an image I just stuck it in the networked HP all-in-one, opened Gimp and captured the image. I could then print the edited image back to the same device. All of this, I should add, just installed right from the disk the week before and worked straight away.
In essence of course, what I have is a computer pre-installed with Ubuntu. It happens that I pre-installed it myself, but it is set up so I could sit down in front of it and go to work. But in fact the amount of setup was minimal and required no command line work at all. Linux has certainly come a long way since 2002. What I found most pleasing is just how usable and straightforward Ubuntu is. Everything is in a logical place and the workflows–scan image, edit image, print/upload image for example–are clear and simple. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ubuntu offers a credible alternative to Windows and Mac OS X and is more than capable of co-existing with both of them.