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Can you install Linux? I think I can

September 28, 1999
Web posted at: 4:12 p.m. EDT (2012 GMT)

In this story:

A three-hour tour

Saturday, 11:10 a.m.

Autoprobing in your spare time

Don't do this

'And you're installing Linux?'

'Congratulations! Your Linux system is now installed'


By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Linux may be leading the open-source movement but is it the software for the people?

It depends. Would you recognize a video card if it jumped off a motherboard?


My daylong effort to install Caldera's Linux 1.3 on a PC gave me chilling flashbacks to my bewilderment in certain physics classes. I was told I had succeeded but I wasn't sure at what.

For now, I'm glad I have my "real" PC with Windows to rely on rather than the Linux PC.

Our HTML editors warned me beforehand. They had trouble installing Linux and their friends are hackers with AT&T. I did some minor programming as a software troubleshooter in the 1980s before I turned to teaching statistics and then technology journalism.

Now in the 1990s, I'm dual platform and can read some HTML -- in other words, I know nothing about the innards of contemporary PCs.

My advice is if you've just barely mastered Windows, extremely literal and never touched a computer in the DOS/UNIX era, stick with Windows or go with a more user-friendly Linux distributor like Red Hat.

If you've opened up a box and know all about UNIX, perhaps you'll even find this fun.

A three-hour tour

In truth, interruptions made the task last all day. Net installation time was about three hours and that factors in my slow pace, guessing and default responses.

In the end, I had no graphic interface and felt about as chummy with the operating system as I was with my high school trig teacher -- the one who made sure the jocks passed and left those of us with zits on our own.

Saturday, 11:10 a.m.

This is when most computer savvy people get to work, right?

I open the Caldera OpenLinux box and remove the contents. That worked fine.

I try to sign on to Caldera customer support via the Web as instructed by an errata message taped to my Linux source code CD. That failed.

This is the message I receive on my browser: "The requested URL /support/registration was not found on this server."

Not a good omen.

11:20 a.m. I turn to the "Installing Open Linux" page in the manual. I go to page 55 to read a licensing agreement, as instructed. It is in German. I opt not to read it.

The next page asks me for hardware and network specs. I'm baffled because I didn't buy or build this computer, on loan from CNN Interactive.

I open the computer case to look for brand names and memory sizes. I don't even know for sure if I have a graphics card.

I see the word 3COM on a card that attaches to the phone line. I enter that on the chart for Modem and sally forth.

I insert the installation CD. I turn on the computer again to override DOS, which the computer was running. The CD loads and flashes a cavalcade of screens of information. Some of them are called kernels. I don't know what a kernel is.

A screen flashes me all the hardware the installer has detected. That goes away. Another screen asks if all the hardware I have has been detected. I have no idea, but I lie and select "yes."

I try to go back to the previous screen to verify that information. I press Alt-F8. Uh oh. This really screwed everything up.

Many lines of code go by, for instance, "Sat sept 4 14:05:29, 1999 debug: insmod st succeeded." I try various ways out and I'm stuck. But when in doubt, read the manual. It says to press Alt-F1 to return to installation. That works.

Autoprobing in your spare time

12:15 p.m. I'm asked if I want to undertake a "dangerous" autoprobe of my hardware. It's been a long time for me, but I choose not to. Somehow the software gets the wrong idea. It's autoprobing. It could take several minutes, I'm warned.

12:25 p.m. I survive the autoprobe. I take notes on what the installer thinks it has found. This may be useful for an intelligence trade later.

I vote to finish kernel management and slog through partitioning via a utility that is suggestively called 'fdisk.' Indeed. I get some error messages and ignore them and try again.

The autoprobe notes come in handy during this process.

12:50 p.m. I get a big warning: changing the hard drive partition table affects partitions and the data they contain. Only use 'fdisk' when you are familiar with its uses and the way it works.

Of course, I am not.

But the screen kindly directs me to the Getting Started Guide. And it's true, there is helpful information there on p. 14.

I take notes on heads and sectors and cylinders and units.

Don't do this

12:38 p.m. I feel electromagnetic radiation coming at me from the box that I've uncased. The hair on my arms is tingling so I try to put the case back around the box and accidentally flip the computer off.


I put the cover on and restart the computer. Happily, it boots off the floppy at least and restarts installation. It takes me about two minutes to recreate everything I did in the past hour.

I create native and swap partitions without any trouble, save the changes and exit the utility.

I take a half-hour break to surf and read e-mail.

1:20 p.m. I reboot as directed. Many lines of instructions roll along the screen and finish more partitioning tasks. I subvert one error message by opening and closing the CD door.

The computer checks for defective sectors and apparently finds none after 10 minutes.

'And you're installing Linux?'

1:40 p.m. The installer asks me to select which software I want to install. I go for the standard package. Then it wants to know the appropriate X server for my graphics card. I have no idea. That means one thing: it's time for lunch.

2:20 p.m. I ate soup, did some surfing for an answer to video card question and read e-mail.

I call my editor. He says to turn the machine on and off to see if the video card name flashes on the monitor at boot-up. No flash.

A video editor walks by. I chuck my pride and ask him for help identifying my video card.

He eyes the box. I tell him it's open. I tell him I'd look myself but I don't know what a video card looks like. He mocks me: "And you're installing Linux?"

I knew I shouldn't have asked for help.

He shows me the card and I'm able to guess at a correct response. 2:55 p.m. The files have finished loading. I'm about to enter a domain name, but I don't know our domain name. But then problems creep up related to another story. I drop this project for a couple hours to check it out.

'Congratulations! Your Linux system is now installed'

5 p.m. I'm back from putting out the fire.

At this point, I'm burnt out. I start wildly guessing answers to questions and taking the default response when offered.

I can figure out the mouse question: I look on the bottom of the mouse. Microsoft Serial.

I choose a username and password.

Within 15 minutes or so, I get the supposed payoff: Congratulations! Your Linux system is now installed. Please remove any diskettes from your floppy drive.

I reboot and sure enough, I sign in and a really ugly text prompt comes up. I enter a few commands that work. That's good enough for me.

Then I head home, bleary-eyed. My superficial knowledge of computer architecture made this project frustrating. It would have helped if I were a software engineer.

On the other hand, I'm surprised I got as far as I did, just like physics. It was mildly fulfilling in a mysterious way. I may have no idea how to use this OS but I won the video game.
Feds can no longer ignore Linux -
September 24, 1999
Company reportedly withdraws Linux trademark claim
September 23, 1999
German IT firm defends claim to Linux trademark
September 20, 1999
Can Linux break Intel's hold on the market?
September 3, 1999
Linus Torvalds: Is that real silicon?
September 1, 1999

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