It was the summer of 2008 and it was hot. Big surprise for Texas, right? I stepped in from the back porch and snagged a towel from the rack. As I wiped away the sweat, the phone rang and I hustled in to answer it.
A man on the other end of the line introduced himself and told me that he had gotten my number from a mutual friend. He asked if I was “the guy that does Linux.” I assured him that I was only one of millions and we both laughed. Getting down to business, he told me that our friend had recommended Linux for his real estate business computers. I gave him my consultation fee and told him I was free the next day if that was good for him. It was.
Upon arrival, I met the gentleman who had called, as well as his business partner. The plan had changed since we talked the day before. What they wanted was one computer test machine, dual booted with Linux. They would use that computer, rotating their employees weekly to gather their responses and opinions.
That was fine. My consultation fee was more than adequate. It was a nine computer shop with a mail server. All the computers ran Windows XP Professional and the mail server was maintained by a support company that used Zimbra. That was fine by me as I don’t have the skill for more complex server operations.
He walked me over to a computer at the back of the big room and told me that I could conduct tests on that machine. I nodded and he left me to my business at hand. In my haste I had forgotten to ask him some pertinent questions and at that moment I was staring one of those pertinent questions in the eye.
A huge Ricoh wall to wall copier, scanner, printer, make-your-coffee-and-do-your-dishes business solution.
“Well shoot,” I thought to myself. I was already planning my exit strategy and trying to figure out how I was going to get out and maintain the slightest credibility for Linux. The last thing I wanted to say was, “Sorry, Linux won’t work with your present printing system.”
I carry several live CDs with me when on service or consultation calls.
First choice was Ubuntu since Canonical had gained a huge mind share and was currently the most used distro of all. I wasn’t shocked or surprised when it didn’t see the printer device. I punched up CUPS configuration URL and fussed around in there for 30 minutes, but to no avail. Ubuntu wanted nothing to do with that printing system. The Ricoh site had absolutely no Linux support listed at all.
“One down,” I thought as I mentally called out for the next distro attempt. I was so frustrated I didn’t bother to pick out the next distro. I simply grabbed a sleeve from my kit. It was Mandriva. “Yeah, right…like that’s gonna work.”
I considered putting it back and picking another CD. No, it was best to rule them out one by one and get them out of the way. The disk booted fine and gave me the familiar landing screen for Mandriva. I turned away for a moment to get a notepad from my bag and when I turned back a new dialog bubble popped up. “New printer detected. Do you want to configure now?”
I did a quick scan of the desk and other desks around me to make sure there wasn’t a stand-alone printer around. There wasn’t. Without a single hiccup, the control center configured the printer and copier, but the scanning feature did not appear. However, a moment later I got a popup saying that additional drivers for my printer were available and did I want to download and install them.
“Uh, yeah, I do.”
To make a long story more tolerable, I didn’t have to do a friggin’ thing. The new software was indeed the scanner driver that was needed to complete the setup. I probably sent 30 different documents and pages for test printing. They worked flawlessly, even the collate feature. I played around with it a bit more, even rebooting a few of times to make sure it still worked.
When I was satisfied that it would maintain the printer function, I asked the owners to come look at what I had done. I walked them both through the easy stuff like browsers, email setup and the like. They were already OpenOffice users so that’s one hurdle I didn’t have to negotiate. They were happy and paid my fee. I was happy too. It was 2008 and it dawned upon me that Linux had indeed evolved into a business solution, albeit a relatively unknown solution.
Fast forward to the present. We were donated a beautiful Samsung multi-function printer a few months ago. I use a small Samsung laser printer in my home office and it is detected right away by most distros. So when we were offered this multi-function, I excitedly accepted our friend’s offer. I mean, my Samsung at home worked out of the box.
“Oops, not so fast there buddy…”
Even upon reboot, my Linux Mint system did not see the device. Firing up Google, I begin to untangle the multiple and distinct drivers that would be needed to get this printer working. In all, three drivers were needed, one of which was not on Samsung’s website but at Softpedia.com. Unfortunately, the all-in-one generic drivers in the repositories just plain flat didn’t work.
So as I pick and piece my way through getting this printer set up, I recalled the day some six years ago when a monster sized copy, print and scan device serving nine stations was pretty much a no hassle install…and from Mandriva nonetheless. Six years later, it takes a couple of hours to find and install the right drivers on a desktop printer.
Where’s the consistency between distros? Yeah, I know, the Linuxsphere is a tough place if you don’t know your way around, and yeah, we’ve come a long way. But not as far as some of us would like. To be honest, the nature of our environments just won’t allow that consistency. It’s just the way it is. I know.
Yeah, I did get the Samsung all-in-one to work, but I had to get filthy dirty to do so. I mean my language was filthy dirty…my hands not quite as much. Certainly, I’ll think twice before blowing that partition away for a new distro. That printer setup was like having a slap-fight with an octopus.
So my long-winded story boils down to just a couple of points. Linux distros aren’t all the same. What works on Mandriva won’t work on Mint and what works on Mint won’t work on Ubuntu. Some have licensed software from different places, others took the time to bake in stuff they know might be needed. Sometimes you have to add different repositories to get the “naughty bits” you need.
Six years ago, Mandriva had the drivers to set up a complex printing solution. Other distros not so much. And yet, one of the few faults in that Mandriva experience was that changing fonts crashed the entire system. How weird is that?
That’s why I laid down my fanboy sword and shield a long time ago. Arm yourself with the information needed before telling someone to install such and such distro because it’s great. It might be great for you, but maybe not so much with my hardware choices. It all comes down to this: know the needs before offering the solution.
In all, that’s what makes Linux so much of a headache as it is enjoyable at times. Ya just never know what’s going to work for you or someone else. So I proclaim…
The fanboy is dead…long live the wise advisor.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue