The Price of Upgrading

In which The Author explores the Land That Wifi Forgot

The new version of Ubuntu Linux was released to general users today, after several weeks of beta testing. Now, I’ve never been one for the ‘early adoption’ of technology as a rule. Many of my friends regularly go through the rigmarole of upgrading their computers or phones to run the latest software, only for it to fall down around their ears. I’ve seen countless cries for help posted on Facebook and Twitter, usually by people who’ve tried to kept up with the CyberJoneses and failed miserably. It’s not what I do.
My PC at home won’t run anything more sophisticated than Windows XP – and that suits me just fine. The fact that the operating system is a decade old doesn’t make any difference, especially considering that I don’t have a home phone line any more. It would take a pretty determined hacker to access my home PC.
I remember when Vista came out and all the IT book publishers jumped on the bandwagon, bringing out dozens of titles apiece on what was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread. I think I’ve yet to speak to anyone who actually thought Vista was any good. Olly told me that, when Bill Gates himself was showcasing ‘Longhorn’ to a conference of IT industry insiders, he got the Blue Screen of Death. Everybody who jumped on the Vista bandwagon, it seems, has lived to regret it. (I once met a guy who worked for Hewlett-Packard, and he described Vista as ‘a pile of pants.’ Let’s face it, Mr Gates wouldn’t pay him handsomely for that particular non-endorsement.)
I can’t comment on it, personally. To my knowledge, I’ve never used it. Like mine at home, the old PCs in Aberdare Library weren’t up to running anything higher than Windows XP. Of course, they were connected to the Internet; the ever-widening security holes in XP (and Microsoft’s announcement that they were going to discontinue the security updates) forced Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s hand when it came to upgrading. Needless to say, they took so long to get around to it that by the time they did, Windows 7 was on the scene.
That’s about the point where I re-enter the picture, when I became Tech Support for Rhian, Kath M., Martin H., and several other friends who were running fairly up-to-date systems. The University of Glamorgan was also running Windows 7 on its PCs in the Learning Resources Centre. I didn’t find anything revolutionary about 7, personally. You still had the Start menu, the taskbar, and all the familiar Windows features. After I’d used Rhian’s laptop a few times, I wondered what all the fuss had been about.
The first time Rhian tried connecting the laptop to the Internet, it wouldn’t play. Her father (a reluctant Lotek at best) had done something to the settings, and Rhian couldn’t figure it out. After I’d listened to her moaning for nine months or so, I decided to do something about it. We took it to my house and I connected it via the Ethernet cable. Then I set the updates in motion – all 178 of them – and we went for a couple of pints in the Llwyncelyn while it was on autopilot. Once all the updates were on, and we’d installed the updates for the updates, and the updates for the updates for the updates, it worked a treat.
By now, not surprisingly, I’d got sick of Windows. There were too many unnecessary hassles involved with doing the simplest of tasks. Even installing a printer took twenty minutes or so. In the meantime, Ed L., Rob C., Paul P. and a few other techie mates had tried to get me to road-test Linux. Eventually I decided to give Ubuntu a try. I took my Netbook to the university on a Saturday morning, with the source code on a USB drive, and installed Ubuntu in about an hour or so. It was an absolute revelation. I took it home, connected my printer, and in less than a minute Ubuntu had found and installed the best compatible drivers. I didn’t even need to reboot the system – it was true plug-and-play technology.
I kept Windows on the Netbook only because I needed it to connect to the Library’s useless wifi setup. When Leon, the RCTCBC tech guy, finally tweaked the system so that I could connect through Ubuntu, I ditched Windows entirely. It’s still on the PC at home, but I use it solely for processing photos with Olympus Master 2.
Meanwhile, some of my friends have upgraded again, this time to Windows 8, and they all hate it with a passion. Unless you’ve got a tablet, or you’re using a touch-screen, it’s completely useless. Huw F. had only had his new laptop for a couple of weeks before he got sick of 8. A few days later, the How-to Geek newsletter pinged into my inbox. The lead article was ‘How to turn your system back to Windows 7.’ It was hardly a ringing endorsement of Microsoft’s new flagship product, was it?
In the four years since I first explored Linux, I’ve taken my various Netbooks right the way from Lucid Lynx, through Maverick Meerkat, Natty Narwhal, Oneiric Ocelot, Precise Pangolin and Quantal Quetzal, to Raring Ringtail. The newest version, 13.10, is called Saucy Salamander. (I don’t think of these names, don’t blame me!) Every new release is smoother, more efficient, and better-looking than its predecessors. Bugs are ironed out within hours. Security holes are patched as soon as they appear. That’s the beauty of the Open Source project – the software is written by users, for users. It’s not written by committee and sold to people with more money than sense.
Even so, everywhere you look, the default assumption is that Windows is the be-all and end-all of computing. The Consumers’ Association are advertising a free guide to ‘Your new laptop’ on TV at the moment, and it’s taken as read that your new laptop will be running Windows. It’s the same mentality which assumes that every car in the UK has a manual transmission and a right-hand drive. The problem is that Windows is, quite literally, everywhere: it’s in almost every new PC, laptop or Netbook in the shops.
Microsoft must pay the manufacturers handsomely for the privilege of having their software pre-installed on every device sold. It certainly isn’t there because of its ease of use or value for money. Windows is the software that runs cashpoints and CHIP & PIN machines; consequently, it’s at the very heart of our financial system. It’s in the computers that the NHS and the DWP use. Your tax records and payroll details are probably on a Windows system somewhere. It’s even in the big TV screens that broadcast the BBC news 24/7 to shoppers in our city centres. (Shanara and I were walking up Queen Street in Cardiff one day, and the screen more or less opposite Dorothy Perkins was displaying a Windows error message.) Never mind Skynet – all we need is for a serious virus to hit Windows, and we’ll be really fucked!
The very idea that there are better, easier alternatives, and (best of all) that they don’t cost a penny, is never mentioned. When I tell people I don’t use Windows, they seem to think I’m talking complete nonsense. And then they see it for themselves. Martin’s laptop died (or, to be more exact, his Windows died), and I installed Ubuntu on it. It took me about an hour and a half to do a complete install and restore access to all his data. He loves it. He can’t get over how intuitive it is. It’s perfect for Lo-to-Middle-teks, who aren’t interested in doing anything ambitious, but who just want a nice clean operating system with the essential features built in.
Assuming you’re already running Ubuntu, the upgrade process is simplicity itself. You type a few lines of code into the Terminal, click a couple of radio buttons, and sit back while the system does all the hard work. In fact, the upgrade is in progress at this very moment. I can still use my Netbook while it’s going on. In Windows, everything would have been disabled about an hour and a half ago.
The problem, though, is that you need a fast, reliable Internet connection while the upgrade’s going on. That ruled the Library out completely. Even at its fastest, you’re lucky to get more than about 150 kbs download speed. I was looking at downloading several hundred megabytes. I’d have been there until Xmas (at least.) In the event, I managed to get online for about quarter of an hour this morning before the connection fell down again. That’s been the story for the last two weeks. So I had a problem. I was in Aberdare – otherwise known as the Land That Wifi Forgot.
If you look in on this blog regularly, you’ll already know about the ongoing situation in the town’s Wetherspoon pub (see W.W.W.W.W.W. (Part 1)) I did manage to get a shaky connection in there about three weeks ago. It didn’t last, but it marked a considerable improvement on the usual situation. Even so, it wouldn’t do for today’s mission. I needed speed and reliability, remember.
I’d already ruled out the rest of the town centre pubs. The wifi in The Glosters is hit-and-miss, I don’t go into The Whitcombe, and none of the others offer wifi, even to their regulars. I took a chance on the weather and walked to the Rock in Aberaman. It’s always had a reputation for being expensive by Valleys standards, but I was shocked by the price of a can of Coke – £1.20! For fuck’s sake, I know we’re nearer Cardiff here, but only by a mile or so.
The upgrade’s proceeding quite nicely, though, and I should be done in another half hour or so. I’m wondering whether I can hang this second can out for now, or whether I’ll have to go for a third. On the other hand, if I’d had to go to another pub with a fast, reliable wifi connection, the nearest ones are in Merthyr and Pontypridd. It would have cost me £3.50 to get there on the train, as well as the cost of drinks while the upgrade was running. I suppose it’s a small price to pay every six months or so, when you know there’s a good-looking, user-friendly system waiting for you at the other end.