The missing ingredient in commercial desktop OS options; a package management system

Having spent the better part of two days provisioning my new MacBook Pro’s OS X, Debian, and Windows XP instances, I am keenly aware of how much the Debian distribution’s package management system and its volume of packages have spoiled me. In that two days, the amount of time required to provision Debian was negligible, even though it is configured to completely match my Lifebook’s Debian Sid instance. In fact, the sum total of time to set up Debian, including every application I use, was about 45 minutes of my involvement. Those who know Debian (and Ubuntu, Linspire, Xandros, Mepis, or any other Debian derivative) are coolly nodding their heads, while others are probably thinking I am a lying, biased Linux zealot.

It’s no lie; here are the steps I had to take:

  • Run the Debian Installer business card image and perform a stock Sid installation, choosing Desktop and Standard System options in the task selection step. If you weren’t wanting to run Sid, the netinstall image would be fine as well.
  • Generate a package list on the current Debian installation via # dpkg --get-selections > dpkg-selections.txt
  • Copy the package list file to the new installation; I have copied it to my home directory in this example.
  • Set the package selections for the new installation via # dpkg --set-selections < ~/dpkg-selections.txt
  • Run aptitude or synaptic and choose the install action, then go do something else. Thousands, literally thousands of software packages are being installed for you. Everything from your email client to your office suite to your software development tools are being pulled down from package mirrors. In my case, this was over 850MB of compressed package files.
  • After the package download, answer any configuration questions aptitude (or synaptic) poses.
  • Copy your /home directory contents to the new installation.

Compare that to what it takes with either Mac OS X or Windows XP to get all of your applications installed and configured. Even if you don’t know a thing about Linux or even the more technical side of those operating systems, you can tell from the brevity of that set of steps that the Debian setup is remarkably simple.

Now, some will already be keying in their comment posts with exclamations of “Hey! There’s DarwinPorts/Fink/Cygwin!” Yeah, each of those is a nice start; however, they pale in comparison. Fink at least has the robust apt/dpkg foundation, but even it has a relatively meager package selection. I am sure I’ll be writing more on life with Fink and DarwinPorts in the near future.

I still don’t have half the stuff installed on XP that I plan to use. I get tired just thinking about the installs. 8^)

OK, so I lied…or did I? MacBook Pro in the house

I can hear the comments now; the next AJUG meeting I show up at with my MacBook Pro (MBP, the short acronym for “those in the know”…sigh, I must admit it is easier to type, even if it comes off as pretentious) will probably include a few comments along the lines of “Heeeyyyy…what happened to the Linux thing?” I have been pretty public about my distaste for Apple’s switching to Intel, mostly because of the amount of PowerPC-based Mac hardware I owned at the time. Shortly after that I pretty much shelved my PowerBooks and ordered my first ThinkPad. The Lenovo ThinkPad T42 has been a great machine, and since about mid-July I have been running Debian on a Fujitsu Lifebook P7120, an amazing 2.5-lb. ultra-portable. So, why plunk down the cabbage for a new Apple top-of-the-line MBP?

It all started with World of Warcraft, which my wife and I have been playing together for several weeks. I only have two PC laptops in the house, the ThinkPad and the Lifebook. The ThinkPad runs WoW great; the Lifebook running WoW is an exercise in tolerance. I consider my early WoW learning to be like unto those martial arts movies where the pupil must do typical tasks with large stones tied to them, so that toward the end of the training montage (it’s always a montage) they are suddenly capable to carry water and do laundry with amazing proficiency, as well as fight 25 ninjas simultaneously. My wife’s iBook and my old TiBook do a pathetic job of running WoW, making the Lifebook seem tolerable. So it’s basically a hardware problem. 8^)

When I started surveying the PC laptop market for units that are portable and have high-end graphics hardware, I was floored at the cost. Units that are 8-12 lb. behemoth start at US$ 4K. They’re also ugly. The build quality is also shite. Now consider that a decked-out 15″ MBP goes for under US$ 3.3K, and that’s with the 3-year Applecare warranty and support, and extra battery, and an extra power adapter.

When you also consider the leaps forward in virtualization and multiboot options for MBPs, it quickly becomes a no-brainer. Parallels Desktop for Mac is amazing, and their embrace of more than just Windows is welcome respite from the tragedy that was Microsoft’s acquisition of Connectix and their flagship product VirtualPC. The performance of Parallels has thus far surpassed VirtualPC, and its networking support works as expected for host-to-guest communication, which is more than I could ever say for VirtualPC.

I now have Mac OS X, Debian, and Windows XP all running well on a single machine. Oh, and WoW runs quite well, too. I have a Mac, but it’s still x86 architecture, so it’s not so much that I lied, but my wounds over Apple’s switch have had time to heal, and I too now see it as having been a great move.