My major workhorse machine at work continues to be the one on the network running Mepis 3.3. I am gradually growing more comfortable with it and growing into it. But make no mistake; there is a learning curve.
One of the most fundamental yet frustrating things in an operating system is the file structure. Linux uses a file structure that to a Windows user looks kind of goofy. There are folders and subfolders, just like windows, but they have funny names and some are just slashes or dots. The names on the folders don’t always make sense, and it takes time to find things.
Today’s task involved finding and downloading zipped .wav files for some thinks I’ll be making for students using power point. I could be in for an interesting experience, there. Of course, the school has almost every entertainment site blocked, so getting really good wav files was more difficult. But I found a place that had a few sound effects and clips that I could download for free and was not blocked.
When downloading with this version of Firefox, it does not tell me where the file went. So I had to go hunting. This is where I discovered that /home folder listed under the user name. Once I found my files, I could create a folder and name it anything I wanted and store the stuff there. Unzipping was interesting. It works sort of like Windows where you tell it where to unpack the thing that is zipped. I wanted to do a bunch of them at the same time, and it ended up opening up about 3 identical windows for each zipped file! That was just annoying. But it did get the job done.
Playing the sounds was also tricky. The default player is XMMS, but I never succeeded in getting that to play a single one. However, Mepis (3.3) comes with Audacity, which had no problems playing the clips. This is why I like this version so well, because if one application doesn’t do the job, there is another one that just might. And this version of Mepis came full of applications.
I did try Mepis 6.0 on my machine at home with the live CD. It came with the exact same KPPP program the other releases came with and so there were no improvements as far as me getting online using a modem. This lack of modem support is a big deal, in my opinion. Linux is poised to be an OS that could take P2’s and P3 PC’s and give them a new lease on life for individuals who can not afford cutting edge technology. Right now, NONE of the parents of my students have a computer. ALL of them would like to have one, but the only way they will get one is if someone gives them one. Supposing someone gives them a P2 running Win98. They can play games, but what about something as basic as email? What options do they have? They can run Win98 until it becomes clogged and crippled with malware or do…what?
In the U.S., where not everyone has access to broadband or can afford it, dial-up is still widely used. Having a computer without internet access is like having a car that can’t leave the driveway. So what happens to all these folks on the wrong side of the digital divide? They are either going to scrape up the $299 or whatever to buy a cheap Sempron machine pre-loaded with Windows or they will continue to do without one. Either way, the Linux community loses. Remember, the community wants Linux loaded on as many machines as possible, right? In order to encourage more software development, more drivers ported to Linux and more hardware development. These poorer users would be an ideal consumer base that has not been tapped into sufficiently. They would LOVE to get online, and be able to email teachers and relatives, just like their wealthier counterparts. But the obstacle is a $15 piece of hardware called a modem.
I’m under the impression that the Linux community is following along with Mac and Windows in leaving the poor folk behind by making a broadband connection almost mandatory in order to make the OS work. Downloading a mess of Windows updates gets more and more challenging. Downloading huge files is VERY painful over a dial-up connection. How would I fare downloading IE 7 over a dial-up? Or how about the Vista Beta? This is why downloading distros is such an ordeal and why there are not as many people taking advantage as could otherwise. I’ll give Ubuntu some props there, for making things easier for the average Joe until they want to do anything other than write and print documents, email and surf the web. But again, the poorer users are not going to get even that far if the modem isn’t going to work from the outset.
And that is really what I would like to find: an OS that would make these piles of P3’s sitting around useful again for this group of folks who are still not able to take advantage of the technology the rest of us enjoy. The world is changing, and not being able to get online makes life harder for certain people, especially people like the parents of my students who all have severe disabilities. Even a trip to the doctor is a major ordeal if you have to strap a child into his wheelchair, wheel him to a van with a lift, open the door, deploy the lift, put the chair on it, lift him up, secure the chair, fold the lift, drive to the store, deploy the lift again, untie the chair, get it on the lift, lower the lift, get the chair off the lift, fold the lift back in, go in the store and do business, come out, deploy the lift again, get the chair on, lift, tie it down again, fold the lift, drive home, deploy the lift….
You get the idea? That is just one simple trip, and assumes no behavioral problems or tubes or wires to manage. Yes, they would still have to go to the doctor, but could they have better sources of support in an online community? Doing things online and even being able to socialize online would be a major benefit so such parents. Finding services and accessing those services is so much easier online. But the ones who need it the most have the least access to it.
Linux could be the OS that could provide an inexpensive, stable, secure solution for such people. 90% of the technology is right there and readily accessible on the cheap or free, but it is that last bit that is making up the biggest barrier. Find me the solution to the modem problem and I’ll find you some new Linux users.