Something about Puppy Linux23 December 2007
I am just about to release the second (and hopefully stable) version of a little project I’ve been doing in Puppy Linux. It has been a complicated and fascinating project, and one that has taught me an awful lot about Puppy Linux, but it has also taught me a lot about Linux, Microsoft and computers in general. So seeing as this feels a bit of a watershed in my computing adventures it seems a good opportunity to look back and try and gather my thoughts on what Puppy has meant for me.
My father was a computer programmer and so I’ve known and used computers ever since I can remember – some 20 years. Most of that time my computing experience, and especially so as regards the ubiquitous PC, has been filtered by one commercial body, Microsoft. However, 2 years ago I needed to write a book, but I didn’t have a computer. Fortunately my friend had an old laptop and in trying to get it to work I encountered a particular problem that, as someone suggested on a forum, would be solved with Linux. I’d been hearing of Linux for ages and had always wanted to try it, but was always a little daunted, so now seemed the perfect opportunity. After a lot of Google-trawling and failed attempts, I finally came across the Puppy Linux Live CD.
I have to say I was totally gob-smacked. I’ve installed and reinstalled a lot of Windows operating systems in my time and know the process to be horrid and time consuming. So you can imagine my surprise when, after less than a minute of booting from the Live CD, I was presented with a fully-functional GUI operating system. It was one of those sudden experiences in your life where a well ingrained and unquestioned understanding of something is irretrievably shattered in an instant. And, as is the way with such experiences, I knew that the ramifications would be far broader than I could imagine and that it would be a long time before I properly assimilated and came to terms with them.
Before Puppy, my understanding was that computers were one of the most complicated things humans had ever created and that to operate them required software of an equally sophisticated nature. It was, with this understanding, that I somehow managed to rationalise (though still not admire) the Microsoft monopoly. Of course it was a shame that, of all the billions of computers, we really only had one choice, but considering the resources and experience (I imagined) you needed to develop and maintain an operating system perhaps we were lucky to have one that worked at all. After using Puppy, the fact that so many people – and educated people at that – still believe this fallacy all seems rather too convenient in Microsoft’s favour!
Windows Vista weighs in at a whopping 15,00MB, Puppy, around 100MB. Oh yeah and I haven’t mentioned that Puppy already contains the vast majority of drivers needed to run the various components and devices your PC might come with, and, is free – Vista, of course, is not comparable on either account. Extraordinary. But is it? It all reminds me of the story – I’m sure many of you have heard – about the space race. Concerned to be able to write in zero gravity, NASA invested over a million dollars in the development of a space pen – fair enough, it works in space, nice work. But the Russians just took pencils! What’s that all about? Pencils are neither extraordinary nor magical and neither is Puppy, though what is astonishing is the apparent ‘intelligence’ of so called experts.
Now crucially, what this means is that Microsoft is not a monopoly because of their technical expertise and competence, but rather because of their ability to maintain a façade. I’m not saying that Microsoft know nothing about computers, but what I am saying is that they would not be where they are today without, what can only be described as ‘political’ – or rather social – skills of distortion, or in political vocabulary – propaganda. Of course few of us need to be reminded that any successful business needs to have more than, mere technical ability in their specialist field. Most of the time we would be right to excuse a business that declines to neglect cultivation of public relations. But we’re not just talking about ‘any successful business’ here, we’re talking about the richest person on the planet and perhaps the most lucrative company of all time. Not only that but the business of this company – the Personal Computer – is one of the pillars of our modern civilisation. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, predicts that by the middle of 2008, “the install base of Windows computers […] will reach 1 billion”.
I’m not trying to rehash the old Microsoft denouncement debates here, rather, what I’m concerned with is this thing called the computer – what are they and what can they do? I love computers, for me they are beautiful, from the simplicity of the binary electrical gate we have the power of the microchip. It seems like magic, but computers are based on something no more sophisticated than the wheel, yet using our humble faculty of logic we make something as awesome as the internet from it. Fortunately, some are blessed with this love and passion for computers, it is, after all, perhaps the most significant factor in getting them to do new things (or in some cases getting them to switch on at all!). And, as the various statistics I’ve already mentioned indicate, the role of the computer specialist is an essential one. So our culture would do well to provide opportunities to educate us about them, whether at school, in a business or in universities – which of course it does. Now here’s the thing; inviting once again the space race story as analogy, should we consider a scientist qualified if they’ve never heard of, let alone used, a pencil?
Okay, so I’m squeezing as much as I can out of that astronautical comparison, but I think the point is clear enough. You might be a consultant, be considered an expert, possess Microsoft certification or even have a degree in Computer Science, but do you really understand the computer and what it is truly capable of? And if not, considering the ubiquity and significance of the computer, can you begin to understand the profound and far-reaching implications that your level of ‘expertise’ might have on the world?
Puppy Linux awoke me from a dream, which is what, I might argue, logic (the ‘spirit’ of the computer) is all about – to facilitate the distinction between what we want to see and what is really there. What we want to see is that the hard earned money we’ve just invested in a new computer and ‘advanced’ operating system was worth the expense. What we want to see is that the most influential business in history did not reach its heights by exploiting our technological reliance and obfuscating the facts.
I personally feel deeply fortunate that I came across Puppy, that in this this life I was able to actually meet this amazing thing called a computer at its best – and what is more, that I can feel, without regret or confusion, love for computers.