LinuxPPC on the Macintosh PowerBook

Graphical installation environments help Macintoshes play better than ever with Linux.

To say Linux has undergone a growth in popularity over the last few years is, of course, an understatement. One cannot read any computer-related medium today without being bombarded with news and views on the Linux operating system. Some would even have you believe that Linux has the chance to unseat Windows as the operating system of popular choice. In the Intel-based world, we can choose from several Linux packages that can be installed on our machines. Intel-based Linux is even being courted by the game publishers, with such popular titles as Quake III now available.

What some people may not realize is that Linux for the PowerPC chip, usually on a Macintosh platform, is not far behind and has experienced similar growth in the last few years since its first inception as MkLinux back in 1996. Today, PowerPC users can choose among the original MkLinux package, which still offers its Mach kernel version of Linux, or the PowerPC and Yellow Dog packages with their monolithic RPM-based distributions. New distributions on the PowerPC chip horizon include SuSE, a popular German-based package, TurboLinux, popular in Asia, and RockLinux, billed as a “power user” distribution.

This article concentrates on the LinuxPPC distribution package, its installation and use on the Macintosh PowerBook, specifically the G3 Wallstreet PowerBook. Longtime readers of Linux Journal might find that odd, since I wrote the breakthrough article on MkLinux back in 1996. As with everything connected with Apple Computer, MkLinux went through some difficulties in the late '90s. In the summer of 1998, Apple stopped its support of MkLinux and development was turned over to the MkLinux community, which caused a slowdown in support of Apple's newer machines, as MkLinux was largely still working off of the DR3 kernel release. At the same time, I became a certified “road warrior” by getting rid of my desktop machine and computing exclusively on my Wallstreet G3 PowerBook. MkLinux's support of that model was far from ready for prime time. I am happy to report, however, that the MkLinux community has been busy generating what they have called “generic kernels” that do support most of Apple's latest machines, including the PowerBooks. However, since that wasn't the case a couple of years ago, I migrated to the LinuxPPC package.

Installing LinuxPPC

LinuxPPC recently released their LinuxPPC 2000 package. This package contained, of course, various kernels in the 2.2.x range, including some specifically compiled for certain models of Macintosh PowerBooks. Also included are both the KDE and GNOME desktop environments, the Netscape browser, and a Mac-on-Linux emulator that allows you to run the Mac OS in a window from within Linux. The CD also contains the full range of Linux development tools including GNU C, C++ and Java. Nice extras include PalmPilot synchronization software for both the KDE and GNOME environments. A second CD provides all relevant source code.

If you're not willing to wait for the CDs or aren't into development or the KDE desktop environment, you can download a LinuxPPC 2000 “lite” version (see Resources). The LinuxPPC lite version includes the basic system, libraries and the GNOME desktop environment. The file is about 170MB, so even though it's not a quick download, LinuxPPC did give some thought to those of us using modem connections to the Internet.

One of the highly touted features of the LinuxPPC 2000 release is its user-friendly graphical installation environment. The installation CD is meant to boot your system and load whatever it needs onto the Macintosh in order to start installing Linux. These components will vary from system to system, depending on whether or not the “Open Firmware” of the computer involved is well-supported, or whether the system boots better using the included BootX utility that operates somewhat like LILO on Intel-based machines. Due to oddities in the Open Firmware implementation on the Wallstreet PowerBook G3, it commonly uses BootX in order to load Linux, and the installer realizes this. Once any Macintosh portion of the installation is done, the computer reboots and continues with the Linux installation process.

The graphical installation environment now comes into play. The computer will boot into Linux enough to give you a simple, restricted X Window System environment. These simple windows will guide you through disk partitioning, formatting, mounting, choosing packages for installation and allowing you to choose your root password. Upon reboot, your Linux installation is complete. If for some reason the X environment will not load, the DOS-like Red Hat installer (common with LinuxPPC in the past and familiar to anyone who has loaded Red Hat Linux on anything in the last few years) will automatically be invoked, allowing you to continue with your installation.

Simple, right? Well, anyone who has ever installed Linux onto any system knows that, try as the package companies may, installation is never quite that simple. It's worth sharing a couple of “gotchas” I experienced during my own installation. If you'll be using BootX to do your LILO-like choosing between MacOS and Linux, you must remember to reset the control panel from the RAM disk used by the system to do the initial installation to the root partition. Remember to write down which partition you use for root, since you'll need it at this point.

If you're not an old hand at Linux installation, that is, if the concept of the user-friendly installation interface is a selling point for you, accept the fact that the initial default desktop environment for the LinuxPPC installation will be GNOME. This was a little disheartening to me, since I'm a KDE fan and I wanted to set up KDE as my desktop environment. You are able to do that, but let the installation install GNOME as the default at first. Problems have been reported and experienced in getting KDE to run right after installation, because the installer apparently doesn't install the QT1x libraries that KDE needs. It's a simple matter, upon reboot, to go into GNOME, install the libraries via the RPM program if needed, then go into KDE. Once there, you can modify and customize things easily.

The good news is the installation procedure, if allowed to install the defaults, solved all the previous installation problems I'd had with Xconfig in the past.

Congratulations! You now have a portable UNIX system that would have run several colleges in the late '80s. So now, what can you do with this newfound power on a PowerPC-based Macintosh laptop?