A Linux laptop for the short attention span.

The Scenario
I’ve got a client whose home office is around 1300 miles (2080 KM) away, according to Google Maps, and I had a dilemma; This past week, we deployed a constituent management package at this clients office. I needed a computer for the work to be done in Montana, with the additional obvious abilities to check email and handle some light coding. Most importantly, I would need to be able to receive and access documents, mostly created in Microsoft Word, or other proprietary formats without having to jump through hoops. My wife needed me to leave the laptop for her so she can work. One can’t be in front of a desk and keyboard all day when little ones are afoot, so I agreed that the laptop had to stay. Now, the shop area in our office is somewhat ominous and cramped – a veritable computer cemetery, if you will – with carcases and parts from dozens of pc’s. One of the laptop carcasses would be perfect for the experiment.

The Experiment
We always here stories about an old computer given new life by Linux – it’s cliche’. In fact Linux on a new machine is a beautiful thing to see, easily surpassing the expectations of even the most fickle user. But, alas. This experiment did not use a hot, new setup. Limited by budget and time, I merely dusted off an older laptop from the shop, once again propagating the cliche’. Here’s the specs:

  • Toshiba Portege 7200
    • Pentium III 600 MHz processor
    • 128MB RAM
    • 3GB hard disk
    • 3COM PCMCIA Wireless card

I needed an operating system that would meet my use needs and still perform well enough to allow me to be productive. I knew that there were several Linux Distributions running XFCE, the feature-rich window manager for Linux that doesn’t use a ton of system resources. First, I tried xubuntu – it had too many hardware issues because of the age of the machine. The Thinkpad style mouse wasn’t auto-detected and the live cd environment was quite sluggish. I’ve had good luck in the past with Slackware linux and old hardware so I looked for a Slackware based distribution – xubuntu is an XFCE-centric ubuntu distro. Ubuntu, as you know is Debian based. I found the perfect meld between Slackware and XFCE – that meld is Zenwalk Linux. An easy to install, stable Slackware-based XCFE-centric operating system that would handle my requirements and the old hardware just fine.
The re-birth of a doorstop
Zenwalk Installed without a hitch on the old Toshiba. From first boot to first logon, letting the auto-configure scripts work their magic, we were up and running in 27 minutes, and 53 seconds. By default, Bluefish is installed so my light coding needs were met. All other functionality that I required – even the need to access proprietary file formats like Microsoft Word and Excel, without doing anything special through AbiWord and the Gnumeric Spreadsheet respectively, were available out of the box with Zenwalk. Full of nice default installation features, I was left with valuable download and installation time for programs like etherape and emacs, as well as a few other packages that I’d been wanting to check out.

Out in the Field
I left Sheboygan, Wisconsin for what was to be a three hour trip that would bring me through 3 airports to Great Falls, Montana. This trip quickly turned into 14 hours and 4 airports with nice 4 hour layovers, mainly due to an hour delay that caused me to miss my connecting flight by 10 minutes. These unplanned hours in the nations airports were a bit tedious – fortunately, I had the Toshiba in carry-on and could work on stuff all the while. I was even able to wget the civicrm documentation so I had something to read on the airplane beside pseudo travel magazines and merchandise catalogs. The best part of the trip was the leg from Seattle, WA into Great Falls on a Q400 twin engine turbo-prop. Lots of that “bottom of the roller coaster” feel – a real treat!

Once on the ground in Montana, it was time to put the machine to the test. Could I work in a “Windows World” on a Linux box that was pieced together on short notice? The time in the airport on wi-fi allowed me seamless access to email, calendar, etc. Our domain email is handled by Google, so, no mystery there that the web based gmail client would work just fine. Once on the job site, I would be interacting with other people who would want to send Word and Excel attachments for my viewing enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, AbiWord and the Gnumeric Spreadsheet performed their duties in this capacity flawlessly. I received the attachment in my email, downloaded and opened said attachments and they opened – by default – in the proper program – and displayed properly. I even had an Office 2003 version of a document that wouldn’t open on someone’s Office 2007 because of some security settings. Instead of editing the Windows registry, per the MS website to “fix” this issue, I opened the document in AbiWord, saved it as an rtf and off it went to the Office 2007 user with no further problems. It’s a good thing that I was there with my Linux box to intervene – otherwise, these users of such disparate software versions would never have been able to work together. It must be rough to dominate the market to the point that backwards compatibility becomes a major security risk. “Upgrade, or risk the compromise of your system!”, they say. I couldn’t agree more; upgrade your software to avoid security risks – might I suggest OpenOffice, or even, and entirely new operating system, oh troubled Windows user?

It’s True, It’s True!
After a week of working on the road with an unfamiliar operating system on an older laptop system, I’ve concluded that: yes, one can work in the real world with multiple cross-platform users from a Linux box with no issues what-ever. During this week, I never once had to make an excuse for my Linux laptop – everything worked just fine – which is more than I can say for the Windows Vista laptop I brought to a conference with the same client earlier in the year – but that’s another story.

Microsoft Reference License (Ms-RL)

Microsoft Reference License (Ms-RL)
Published: March 8, 2007
This license governs use of the accompanying software. If you use the software, you accept this license. If you do not accept the license, do not use the software.
1. Definitions
The terms “reproduce,” “reproduction” and “distribution” have the same meaning here as under U.S. copyright law.
“You” means the licensee of the software.
“Your company” means the company you worked for when you downloaded the software.
“Reference use” means use of the software within your company as a reference, in read only form, for the sole purposes of debugging your products, maintaining your products, or enhancing the interoperability of your products with the software, and specifically excludes the right to distribute the software outside of your company.
“Licensed patents” means any Licensor patent claims which read directly on the software as distributed by the Licensor under this license.
2. Grant of Rights
(A) Copyright Grant- Subject to the terms of this license, the Licensor grants you a non-transferable, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free copyright license to reproduce the software for reference use.
(B) Patent Grant- Subject to the terms of this license, the Licensor grants you a non-transferable, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free patent license under licensed patents for reference use.
3. Limitations
(A) No Trademark License- This license does not grant you any rights to use the Licensor’s name, logo, or trademarks.
(B) If you begin patent litigation against the Licensor over patents that you think may apply to the software (including a cross-claim or counterclaim in a lawsuit), your license to the software ends automatically.
(C) The software is licensed “as-is.” You bear the risk of using it. The Licensor gives no express warranties, guarantees or conditions. You may have additional consumer rights under your local laws which this license cannot change. To the extent permitted under your local laws, the Licensor excludes the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose and non-infringement.