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Linux in 2001: as good as it ever got

SuSE Linux 8.1

So, in a bout of nostalgia, I laid hands on an old DVD containing SuSE Linux 8.1 pro and installed it in a VM, and have been using it all week. I last installed this OS in about 2001 on a Compaq Presario with 128MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive.

It's unusable in a couple of ways: websites are mostly https these days, and this OS doesn't have the certificates or the cyphers to make the modern WWW work. But other than that, it's a pretty great experience. Thinking back on the last 17 years of Linux, I'm thinking this is as good as it ever got:

  • KDE 3.0 and Gnome 2.0 were installed. Gnome 2.0 was great, as usable as any version that succeeded it and maybe better. Fully themeable, even with some crazy themes. The Metacity window manager, but you could still use it with Sawfish if you prefered. Gnome hadn't yet gone off the deep end with it's stupid, spatial nautilus file browser, which we now know was just the opening salvo in what would be decades of bat-shit insanity. KDE was still making incremental improvements to a very useable desktop and hadn't yet dreamed up "Plasma" or "Nepomuk" or any of that other shit that largely didn't work. Kmail just got and displayed your mail. This post comes from Pan 0.13.0, which looks and behaves great.
  • Linux in 2002 still was full of hope it could offer a credible alternative to Windows 98, ME, and XP. There was a lot of focus on interesting apps.
  • Cloud hadn't been invented yet, so installing an OS meant installing a hard drive full of discrete, usable utilities: KSCD for playing music CDs, K3B to burn disk images, all sorts of fun and curious utilities.
  • Windowmaker remains unchanged. I still use/love it, and it's not different than it was in 2002.
  • Lots of other "modern" tech was already around - VMWare, NoMachine, etc.
  • Emacs version is 21.2.1. Vim version is 6.1.50. Both have improved since then, but my usage would allow me to use these older versions and not notice the difference (other than the emacs widgets).
  • This OS still boots up with LiLO - and allowed some graphical niftiness modern Grub doesn't do.
  • These were the early days of It still used the .SXW binary format, but there was a decent converter. It still offered a compelling but different take on an office suite - other than the format, I think I like the old interface better with navigator and styles pane - there's no question the code has been improved a lot since then, but the interface has gravitated toward aping microsoft office, which seems like a lack of courage. A year after this OS was released I paid $70 for a version of StarOffice that got me through grad school, and it was worth it.
  • Two things that are better now than they were: anti-aliased font rendering and UTF-8, both of which I'm grateul for. But I've got to say some of these bitmapped fonts were pretty damned readable.
  • Interestingly, my modern 64-bit Linux OS is no slower but also no faster than this old OS, which ran in a fraction of the memory. If you could magically fix the cypher/security certs issue I could probably use this OS as my daily driver and not feel limited.

    That's it for now. Posting from the VM, just for fun (check out the headers!). My conclusion is: we have progressed in some ways, and in others we haven't moved an inch. In a few others we've even gone backwards. (Windows on the other hand, has gotten more user-hostile with each release, so that's something). Hello from the past!

    Red Hat Linux 8

    Having a 2001 Linux OS installed, and living here near Raleigh, NC (the home of Red Hat and the birthplace of Usenet), I got to thinking about Red Hat Linux in the pre-Fedora days and well before its acquisition by IBM. I dug around on Ebay looking for old install DVDs and had no luck.

    But thanks to I was actually able to download a three-disk CD ISO set of Red Hat 8, which was released in 2001 -- the same era as SuSE 8.1. Its software versions actually predate the SuSE OS, but I liked its Gnome 2 desktop even more than SuSE's.

    In addition to Evolution, it had a very nice, older version of Mozilla (1.0.1) that still relied on XUL for its interface, still had native gopher support, and was generally clean and sharp. The Blue Curve theme - which was so controversial - is professional and appealling. Evolution looks great. There are some jaggy fonts (in Mozilla, for example) yet somehow it doesn't seem to matter. RH 8 also installed a decent selection of FTP clients, IRC clients, and emacs 21.2.1. It's got OpenOffice 1.0.1, which finally had decent fonts and a tight, clean interface (I think I prefer the more muted icons than LibreOffice's more colorful look these days - somehow looks more professional in my opinion).

    It was, overall, a great time for software. I installed both distros in VMs; I think I'll hang onto them for a while - they're nice to use.

    I'm remembering one other "nice" thing about that time - being stuck on 56kbs dial-up internet, which I detested and which was awful. But having a rotating IP address seems advantageous in these days of tracking. And I had healthier habits then - get online, get some stuff done, disconnect. These days it's "bored" - pick up laptop, doodle around endlessly, look up and the sun has set. (Definitely wouldn't go back to dial-up though; just need some discipline).

    A perfectly usable desktop experience. Long live Linux in 2001!

    Postscript: modern hardware, on the other hand, I'd be hardpressed to give up. In 2001 I was sporting a 550 Mhz Pentium III (Coppermine) with 128MB RAM. I was able to accomplish everything I needed. But my 8MB RAM laptop with SSD disk these days is a marvel. Such a shame we squander all that extra hardware capacity these days with OSes that deliver no better value. Shame on the whole industry, and on the invisible hand of the market, which has led us on a path toward imbecility.

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