Most of us who are familiar with Linux are familiar with the advantages of running Linux as a desktop OS. We frequently bemoan the fact that others don’t know what we do about the reality of Linux on the desktop, and we seem to be hampered by difficulties in spreading the word outside our own circles. Recently, I was able to get outside the circle of Linux users and perform a live demonstration of Linux (and LXDE) to a group of professionals in a conference setting. Here’s my story.
I spent most of the past week at the Innovative Users Group’s annual meeting. The IUG is an organization of libraries that uses a proprietary integrated library system (ILS) put out by Innovative Interfaces, Inc.. If you work in the technical services or systems department of a library, you may have heard of them. If not, you probably haven’t. What’s important is that this is a conference of librarians with above-average technical knowledge and skills: most are librarians with stronger technical skills, a few (like me) are geeks who have found a niche in the library world.
For this conference, I put together a poster session and a 10-minute “lightning” presentation on the topic of getting the proprietary client software working on older hardware. The vendor (Innovative) sets fairly high system requirements for their software, although they acknowledge that it will run on sub-par computers, if not quite as quickly. One advantage Innovative has over some other companies is that they’ve made the decision to make their client platform-agnostic (as opposed to Windows-only.) Therefore, it was only logical that I turn my renovated laptop into a presentation.
The short and sweet version of my presentation was this: using Linux and a lightweight window manager/desktop environment, an old computer could still run the proprietary client reasonably well. Libraries are common targets for budget squeezes, and many libraries have to make older hardware last longer, so this seemed a logical fit. I explained the basics of all this while doing a live demo with Linux Mint 8 LXDE Community Edition with the proprietary client installed.
The live demo was a rousing success, one in which even the early mishap worked to my advantage. The other presenters (save one) were using Powerpoint presentations, and one other also wanted to do a live demo. Unfortunately for the other live presenter, the Windows 7 laptop they were using had permissions problems when trying to access the network. They ended up having to use another Windows XP laptop for her live demo. When it was my turn (I went last), my laptop wouldn’t recognize the projector since I had booted up without having anything plugged into the VGA port. I ended up simply rebooting and beginning my mini-presentation while the computer started up.
One thing about Mint 8 LXDE: it boots fast. And a room full of tech people saw it boot fast. That same room saw the desktop come up in a hurry (full disclosure: I had set SLiM on this laptop to auto-login.) They saw me login to the VPN with no issues. They saw me fire up the client. There was a bit of a delay – I had warned them that speed was going to be something of an issue – but it came up and I was able to do simple tasks demonstrating I was live. Then the questions started:
“Can you run a browser at the same time?” I opened up Firefox. “Can you go to a more involved site than Google? I open up Facebook. The crowd is surprised and delighted as a former IUG colleague’s status update graces the screen (this was completely unplanned, by the way), and shocked as I switch back to the proprietary client and am able to use it while Facebook runs in the background. “How much memory do you have in that laptop?” 256 MB. The person asking that goes slack-jawed. I promise I’ll have full instructions and a couple of scripts available for them next week. At the end, people were coming up to me and talking about how useful and fascinating this whole presentation was, and that they were looking forward to seeing the full writeup. They, too, have older equipment, and maybe my work on the laptop will help them extend the life of their equipment – and stretch their budgets further. I must say, though, the most surreal question I was asked was this one: “Have you ever considered doing this under Fluxbox?”
All in all, my lightning round presentation appears to have been very well received. I was getting comments on it throughout the conference, even attracting a little bit of attention from Innovative’s CEO. Most importantly, I got the distinct impression that people saw this project as something they could go back to their libraries and do: giving an older workstation new life with Linux seems easy and worthwhile. Many of the people there had heard of Linux, but very few had used it. Now I am optimistic that I’ve given a few of them the motivation and (forthcoming) guidance to make that leap for themselves. And that’s what makes all of this worth it.