09 September 2008

SkinnyDebbie and the Macintosh PowerPC

I tried loading SkinnyDebbie onto an old Macintosh Cube.

"Linux on PowerPC?" you ask? And at 450 MHz? Debian is one of the few distributions that officially supports the PowerPC architecture. And SkinnyDebbie on i386 at 500Mhz works just fine. So it seemed natural to try.

It worked. In fact, I am really happy not just that it works but also with how well it works. So far I have found only four gotchas--two having to do with SkinnyDebbie and two having to do with Larger Issues. The SkinnyDebbie ones are easy to fix. The Larger Issues are not.

First the SkinnyDebbie stuff:

IceWM's network traffic monitor doesn't work. This is caused by the fact that (at least on my Cube), eth0 gets assigned to FireWire networking and eth1 to Ethernet. The fix is easy: open ~/.icewm/preferences and add eth1 to the list of monitored network devices in the NetworkStatusDevice field. When you restart IceWM, you should now see the network traffic monitor. (Make the same change as root to the corresponding file in /etc/skel to make the change happen for new users as well.)

The volume control is batty. The Cube uses a USB sound card and SkinnyDebbie is currently using ALSA. It turns out that Debian Etch doesn't play perfectly with this combination--on either PowerPC or i386 platforms. I'll say more about this in a later post, but the fix is again simple: use gnome-alsamixer or aumix-gtk instead of alsamixergui and comment out the volume changing hotkeys in ~/.icewm/keys.

And now for the Larger Issues:

Flash is very limited. Adobe doesn't make a version of Flash for Linux on the PowerPC. Why would they? There are a couple open source alternatives--Gnash and Swfdec--but neither will do Flash video. So, no YouTube on PowerPC Linux for you. It's just not possible in any PowerPC Linux at the moment. The best workaround is to download videos with any of the million YouTube download services and then watch them in VLC.

Java is at best a PITA. Sun doesn't make a version of the Java Runtime Environment for Linux on the PowerPC. If you want/need Java, the best workaround seems to be GCJ and its bundled GIJ interpreter. I have had success in compiling command-line apps from scratch in GCJ, but I have not had success with GUI apps using GIJ. This definitely needs more research to see just how viable a solution it is.

I am hoping Lenny (the next Debian release, due later this month) works as well as Etch on this hardware. Should it be enough to make you abandon Mac OS? Given that the next OS X release may not support PowerPC, you might think so. But this isn't really a good enough reason since maintenance support for older OS X releases will likely continue for quite a while. The decision to switch in this case needs to be made based on what you want from the OS and operating environment. OS X is certainly more polished and easier to use than SkinnyDebbie. But it costs more and doesn't let you run at least one thing that makes Linux really attractive.

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