30 July 2008

Because No Man Is Truly Happy With Just One Unix

I've been trying out VirtualBox on my MacBook, more for fun and exercise than any real need. VirtualBox is a virtualization application that allows one to run another operating system on top of the original in a virtual machine.

I started out with Debian 4.0 (the current "stable" release). The installation process went surprisingly smoothly, but I soon remembered why I've always used the testing or unstable versions. I fully appreciate the need for a well tested stable release for many users, but there should be some kind of limit! "Antique" would be a better title than stable (it's still got Emacs 21, for crying out loud). So I proceeded to install another virtual machine with the testing release, and, once satisfied it worked OK, removed the first machine.

It runs reasonably well on my Mac. Of course it hogs some resources, but not as bad as I might have expected. Not something I'd want to have running constantly, but good enough to use occasionally if I need some app available for GNU/Linux but not for OS X. Of course the installation eats up a few gigs of disk space, but I'm not running out just yet. The Mac keyboard is always an issue. In Gnome I got it to work quite well, but I'm not sure how to configure it to work with other WMs or in a console. (The trouble is the special symbols usually typed with the ALT key on Macs.)

Then I proceeded to other experiments, mostly for the fun of it, and because, for some reason, I find myself very interested in the Unix scene in its entirety. I tried installing FreeBSD, without success. After a couple of attempts and various errors I gave up. Then I tested OpenSolaris. This installed quite painlessly. It's a bigger resource hog than Debian, though. I'm also not sure about its available software. I took a quick glance at the graphical package manager, and the packages listed there were very sparse. Of course I don't know if I was using it correctly. I won't be keeping it on my Mac, as Debian runs better and surely has a better software selection.

If I had another machine, I might seriously consider trying another Unix-like OS on it, such as a BSD variant. Mac OS X is a great OS in many ways, but it has its cons as well. It is a Unix system of course. I'd never have bought a Mac if it wasn't. It's a commercial product, however, even if its core is Open Source. Also, the integration of the Unix core and the top-level graphical interface (what most people think of as Mac OS) could be much better. App packages are inconvenient to run from a command prompt, and don't by default see many parts of the Unix system, such as hidden files and certain system folders that Unix users are used to tampering with. Also, software installed in a more Unix-like fashion, from source or via tools like MacPorts, usually need the additional X-server to run (when graphical), which (in my experience) has a tendency to be unstable in some cases. (This was true at least for the MacPorts version of Scribus, which seemed to suffer from frequent crashes. I've never had trouble with it on other platforms, so the only cause that comes to mind is OS X's version of X.)

On the other hand I like all the convenience and eye candy of the OS X interface. If only I could make it work better with and more like the *nix tradition I'm used to...

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