Holding your mouth right – Linux on Macintosh G3 and G4

“Personally, I liked the university, they gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector, they expect results.” Dr Ray Stanz, Ghostbusters, 1984, Ivan Reitman.

One of the major frustrations with computers is ambiguous error messages. They’re just machines, and no-one expects them to work without failing occasionally, but give us a break. The next biggest frustration is explicit error messages that give you every detail but nothing you have the remotest chance of doing anything about. Linux tends to fall into the latter category. Windows even gives you hexadecimal memory addresses. Gee thanks.

In Final Cut Pro, Apple’s professional video editor software for Mac OS X, I regularly get a message saying “General Error”. That’s no help at all, and whilst it is quite fascinating to see all the text status messages scrolling up a screen, so beloved of science fiction films, much of it is so minutely detailed, but abstracted from anything remotely helpful, that it might as well just say “FAIL!”.

I’ve worked on Macintosh computers since the early ‘90s and one of the advantages is the relatively small number of hardware configurations. However, even given identical specifications, sometimes things just don’t work for no reason you can identify. My parents would say “you’ve got to hold your mouth right while you do it”. This means that it’s achievable but not necessarily using logical or sound procedural methods, just luck.

Installing Ubuntu Linux on legacy Macintosh computers has been like that.

It was amazingly easy on my knackered and flaky first generation Macbook, running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Partially following instructions I found online, I used the included Bootcamp utility (originally intended to allow dual booting of OS X and Windows) to create a partition that I then installed Ubuntu 11.10 on the other partition from a CD boot disk.

However, this is all academic and I have a job to do. Although it’s interesting and valuable to be able to re-purpose otherwise obsolete computers, this geekery is not what the project is about. I need to keep in sight the fact that the only reason I am using the Macs is that they are free and not doing anything else, and the project has no funding. Out in the private sector, where I work, I need achieve some results and get these machine producing something.

I have four working blue-and-white G3s and a 400 MHz G4. I have managed to get two of the G3s to run Ubuntu 8.04.1 and the G4 to run Ubuntu 10.04. I am certain the problems I have had with the other two are peculiar to faults with the individual machines, rather than PowerPC Linux, but I am yet to solve them. I was hoping to get all four G3s working as I have an idea for an art installation and need three, so this would give me a spare.

Anyway, it’s time to move on.

I’m convinced that Linux (rather than MacPorts on OS X) is the way forward, and I’m not going to give up on these working machines, but I have more to achieve.

Stay tuned for performance tests..

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