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October 30th, 2009:

Am I Blue?

In a word, no. And yet looking at recent operating system UIs, you’d think blue was the only color there is. Everywhere I look, I see GUIs that look like they were carved from a block of sea ice. (I guess that’s why modern GUI designs are so…cool.)

I’ll be doing an immersion experiment with Kubuntu 9.10 once it’s out and has had a few weeks to yield up its birth booboos, since KDE deserves a second chance. (I tried version 4.0 last year and it gave me no end of trouble.) But…KDE is so damned blue. Ditto Windows 7, which I haven’t seen a lot of yet but will probably be using sooner or later. And Mac OS/X as well. Now, don’t tell me that these OSes can be themed in any color you want. I know that. But why is blue so pervasive in every big-time OS except Ubuntu?

Well, there’s another blue distro out there, which I finally burned onto a livecd and played around with yesterday afternoon. It’s Puppy Linux, which I tried in its first release years back wasn’t impressed with. Puppy is now four, and much improved. It probed the SX270 graphics system and monitor here, and set itself up to use the default 1600 X 900 resolution with nary a whimper.

Puppy is unique in several ways. It’s not derived from any other distro, but was created from scratch by Australian Barry Kauler and is maintained by its own community. It’s a “lightweight” distro and was designed deliberately to make use of the fact that mermory is much cheaper now than it used to be: It loads into memory and mostly stays there. This is true even if you install it on a disk partition (as opposed to running it “without a trace” from the livecd) and includes the major apps as well as the OS itself. When installed on the hard drive it still plays from memory, writing changes to a disk file but avoiding disk access whenever possible. This makes it feel snappy in the extreme: Click on the Abiword icon and pop! Abiword is there in front of you. Other preinstalled apps include the Gnumeric spreadsheet, the Seamonkey email client, paint and draw programs, and a lightweight browser created for Puppy Linux. (There are more; those are the major ones.)

There are some additional FOSS packages available for download from the Puppy respositories, but in truth not nearly as much as you can get for Ubuntu and other major distros. There’s no apt-get; the Puppy installer format (PET) is unique, and if nobody put a FOSS package into Puppy’s PET format, you have to fool with tarballs etc. and do the install manually from the console.

There is also a mechanism (which I didn’t try) for repackaging changes to the Puppy system into distributable derivatives called puplets. Many of these can be had, always free. One makes Puppy look a great deal like Mac OS/X; others are tweaks to look/work well on hardware like the EeePC. Some come with a specific emphasis and preinstalled apps, like composing music or bioinformatics, of all things. In a sense, you’re creating an app installer that includes the OS along with the apps, which is an interesting idea. This can be done with other distros, but the Puppy remastering mechanism makes it trivial. Puppy or its puplets can be installed on a thumbdrive and will thus run on any machine that can boot from a USB device, with configuration changes written to the thumb drive. (Ditto a rewriteable optical drive, if the session wasn’t closed and there’s room on the optical disk for a change file.)

On the downside, certain simple configuation items hid well: I have not yet found the way to run apps from icons with a double click instead of the default single click. Nor did I find the way to add an app shortcut icon to the desktop for newly installed apps. I admit that I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with Puppy and probably won’t, but such simple things should be easily findable and obvious how to use.

So on Puppy I’m lukewarm. I don’t really need it for the sake of old slow hardware, but the idea of a lightweight RAM-based Linux on a bootable keychain thumb drive is fascinating, and I might download one of the puplets and try them in just that way. However, if you’re just looking for an easy-to-use Windows alternative, I think Ubuntu is a much better bet.