I recently had to provision a laptop at my client’s site for my use. Certain third-party applications that are key to managing the technology practice there are Windows-only, but I (am fortunately allowed to) refuse to have a Windows-only machine. They are cool enough to let me shrink the corporate WIndows XP image and set up a Debian sid instance for dual-booting. I took my trusty CD of a recent daily snapshot (the fact that I have been able to use daily snapshots of the Debian Installer ISO for several years with little to no trouble is in itself a huge testimony to the quality of that project’s work) and popped it into the media drive of this rather battered Dell Latitude D600. I had heard at DebConf that the graphical installer was now fully part of the daily snapshots, so on a whim I invoked it with the ‘expertgui’ directive at the boot prompt.
If you haven’t seen this, go and burn an ISO of the daily snapshot for your architecture and boot into it. (I won’t even elaborate on the fact that being able to choose from 11 different architectures is massively impressive.) What a beautiful interface, and how amazingly tasteful as far as look-and-feel. It’s very professional-looking, yet not corporate. There’s a button to capture snapshots of the install screens right there on each screen. It may take a minute or two to adjust to having the right line in the display highlighted before clicking the button to continue in more-complex screens, but the annoyance is neglible. I was thoroughly impressed, so much so that I wiped my backup laptop, a ThinkPad T42, and did a reinstall using the graphical interface. You can still pop over to the other virtual terminals just like in the character-based installer; the graphical interface seems to use the fifth virtual terminal. I just popped out of it to the second via Ctrl + Alt + 2 and was able to mount a USB drive with some firmware I needed.
I wiped the T42 so I could run the IBM recovery and get XP back on a small partition. Hey, how else am I going to play Warcraft III? (Seriously, though, if anyone has managed to get Warcraft III to run via an emulator, let’s talk.) I found it a study in contrasts, installing XP and then installing Debian immediately after. The first thing I noticed with XP is how little visibility I have into the install process compared to the Debian installer. I suppose I shouldn’t have to since all these vendors have supposedly ensured (stifling audible laughter here) a smooth installation process for me. However, when something does go wrong, I am pretty much out of luck. Second, I have come to take for granted how quickly you can fully provision an OS instance with Debian’s rich package-management system. The benefits of an awesome package management system are painfully obvious as soon as you have to reinstall Windows or OS X, especially if you are a software developer with a whole litany of tools necessary for your work.
A graphical installer was the last major impediment to me recommending Debian to my friends and relatives who are too befuddled by a character-based application or installer. This closes a significant gap in the Debian offering, and I wish to sincerely thank those who have poured so much time into the installer project as a whole and have gone the extra distance to create an interface that reaches out to the less-technically-oriented crowd.