Update 2022: Neither Ubuntu nor Debian support the 32bit PowerPC architecture any longer (PPC). Most of the information in this blog post is therefore only of historical interest.
I recently installed Lubuntu 12.04 on my iBook. Lubuntu is running slightly faster than Mac OS X 10.4.11 «Tiger» on the same machine, but slower than Mac OS 9.2.2. This is the Clamshell revision B with a 6 GB 4200 rpm hard drive, 300 MHz G3 processor and I’ve maxed the RAM to 576 MB.
Why Linux on an old PowerPC Mac?
Even if Mac OS 9.2.2 runs very well with 576 MB RAM on the iBook and AirPort works fine (but not with WPA and WPA 2 networks), the problem with using an old OS is that there are no current internet browsers, there is no up-to-date JAVA and Flash and there are no security updates (wich isn’t really that important on such a small and long dead platform anyway). OS 9 is very pixel efficient on the 800 x 600 screen and I like the good old familiar GUI, but there is absolutely no future in it and going to the internet bank or watching a youtube video is impossible. As I recently got my father’s Quadra 700, I am able to use all of my legacy System 7 – 9 software on that machine, so I don’t really need OS 9 for legacy software support. (Most of it is from my old Performa 450 and thus 68k or «fat banary» programs, so they will work just as well on a 68040 Quadra as on a G3 iBook.) The Clasilla browser is the only more or less up-to-date browser that is still maintained, but the browsing experience is far from FireFox on a modern OS.
Mac OS X 10.4.11 «Tiger» is capable of running on the iBook, but it is much slower than OS 9. Mac OS X 10.3.9 «Panther» is even slower in my experience. (Tiger is oficially not supported on machines without FireWire and is delivered on DVD, but it is still installable if you hack the installer to not refuse to install on your machine, start from a volum with Tiger allready installed (since starting from USB is only possible on PowerPC Macs with Mac OS X 10.4.7 or newer) and then install from an external HD via USB 1.1 with an external power source. It is not easy, but it is possible.)
Tiger is less pixel efficient and more cluncky on the small 800 x 600 screen and suffers from the same problem as OS 9 with no security updates and no up-to-date Flash or Java. TenFourFox is a port of FireFox that is up-to-date and it works well, but since Tiger is slow on my iBook and there is no Java or Flash, it is still not the best experience on the web. TenFourFox is also not very pixel efficient on the small 800 x 600 screen, even if it much better than many other browsers.
One of the advantages of Linux on the PowerPC platform is that there is a community of people maintaning, porting and building both OSes and programs for the PowerPC platform, wich means that up-to-date software is available for old PowerPC Macs and IBM Power machines. Open Source software available as source code also means that you could port any program to any platform (or OS) if you know how to compile software from source. I don’t, but if you really want a program that is unavailable, it might be something worth learning how to do.
Linux comes in lots of distributions or distros. At http://mac.linux.be/ there are some information about Linux distros for Macs, including PowerPC Macs. Distrowatch.com has a more comprehensive list of Linux distros. It seems like Ubuntu is the most popular distro and also one of the easier to use and configure for new users (as far as I know). The advantage of using a popular distro is that there are lots of people working on development and killing bugs and getting support is easy via forums or irc chat.
The Ubuntu «family» consists of Ubuntu and distributions based on it, but with different desktop environments and/or bundled software. There are also many other Ubuntu-derived distributions that are not part of the oficial Ubuntu «family». Ubuntu uses a desktop environment called Gnome Unity. It is quite Mac OS X-like, with a dock on the left side and menu on top of the screen, with a Spotlight-like «dash» on top of the dock. Kubuntu uses another desktop environment called KDE that is more highly configurable. Both of them are modern and slick and full of visual GUI goodies like half-transparent menus and such. This also means that they are quite demanding on the hardware and will run quite slow on machines with little RAM or slow processors.
For older machines, Xubuntu and Lubuntu are often recommended. Xubuntu uses that XFCE wich is quite light and fast. The looks are modern and it is highly configurable. Lubuntu is the newest memember of the official Ubuntu family and it is even faster and smaller than Xubuntu. It uses a desktop environment called LXDE wich is made specially for being small, lightweigt, visually appealing and configurable. Lubuntu also includes some preinstalled software that is among the lightest and fastest of its type, but with the options to install any program usable in Ubuntu. I like the graphical user interface in Lubuntu. It is very uncluttered and has an elegance of simplicity. It could also be configured to be very pixel efficient for my 800 x 600 screen. It seems very intuitive to me and after having used it for a while in a virtual machine on my MacBook Pro, I felt ready to install it on my iBook.
Installing Lubuntu on a PowerPC Mac
There are at least three ways of installing Lubuntu for PowerPC: The Live CD, the alternate installer and the minimal install (mini.iso). For most people, downloading the Live CD for PowerPC Macs (https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Lubuntu/GetLubuntu), burning it to a CD, starting your Mac from the CD by holding down the C key at startup and then answering the relevant questions in the installer will work fine. And it looks good too.
It might be a good idea to read the PowerPC Known Issues (https://wiki.ubuntu.com/PowerPCKnownIssues) and the PowerPC FAQ (https://wiki.ubuntu.com/PowerPCFAQ) before installing to avoid suprises. The page (https://help.ubuntu.com/community/OSXApplicationsEquivalents) comparing OS X programs to open source alternatives might also be interesting.
Installing, even if you can’t…
Unfortunately, the CD-ROM drive in my iBook is starting to fail, wich means I got lots of I/O errors and bad sector alerts when trying to install from the Live CD. I also tried the alternate install, wich does the same as the Live CD, but with a text based installer, and it left me with the same problems. I also tried using a USB stick, but since booting from USB does not work unless Mac OS X 10.4.7 or newer is installed on a PowerPC Mac, I was unable to boot from USB. Not even an external Superdrive would work. I then tried the mini.iso (available here: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation/MinimalCD), and since the mini.iso is so much smaller (27 MB compared to 700 for the live CD), there are less sectors for the CD-ROM to read, and I had more success.
This page (https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Lubuntu/Documentation/MinimalInstall) describes how to install from the mini.iso. The method described on this page is slightly out of date, but just boot from the CD (after having burned the mini.iso to it) by holding down C and just wait. The installer will start by itself, but if it doesn’t, type install. Answer the questions and if you do not know the answer, just go with the default. At one point, the installer doesn’t show any progress bar and seems to have freezed up, but just wait and after a quite long time, a progress bar will appear and it will continue to show you that it is still alive.
Fixing a few problems after install
There are a few things in Lubuntu 12.04 that does not work properly out of the box on the PowerPC platform. First, there is a crossed out Chromium symbol in the application launcher in the lower left side of the screen. This is because Chromium, wich is the standard browser in Lubuntu, is not available for PowerPC. In stead FireFox is installed by default. (Personally, I would switch to FireFox anyway, since I don’t trust the company that earns its money by tracking peoples browsing to not track my browsing if I am using their browser. I also like the user interface in FireFox better than Chromium.) To get rid of the symbol and replacing it with FireFox, direct your cursor to the panel on the bottom of the screen (the grey line) and press the F12 key. (F12 is the same as right-click in Lubuntu and F11 equals middle-click.) This will bring up a context menu. Choose «Panel settings». In the following window, choose the tab «panel programs». Then choose the second line on the left «Program launcher» and then press the «Edit» button. Choose the strange symbol and press the «Delete» button. Then press the little triangle on the left of «Internet» and choose «FireFox» and press the «Add» button. Now you have a FireFox launch button on your bottom panel.
The other thing that does not work, at least not for me, is AbiWord. It either crashes when I start it, or after a few seconds of running. I uninstalled it with the Lubuntu Software Centre and installed LibreOffice Writer in stead. It might not be as lightweight, but it doesn’t crash. (Of course, you might want to keep AbiWord, hoping it will be less buggy after the next update, and just add LibreOffice Writer to have something that works untill it gets fixed.) To get rid of AbiWord and install LibreOffice Writer, choose Lubuntu Software Centre from the System Tools submenu of the menu on the left of the bottom panel (click the Lubuntu logo and then move to System Tools and Lubuntu Software Centre.) Click «Installed software» and click on «AbiWord» and press the «Remove from the system» button. Write your password and it will be removed. It might still be visible in the «Installed software» even after you get a message that it is uninstalled. This bug should be fixed in 12.10. Then choose «Get software» and «Office» and scroll down to LibreOffice Writer. If you want the rest of LibreOffice as well, you could choose «LibreOffice» in stead, this will install all the LibreOffice components available for PowerPC. Click «Add to app basket» and then click «App basket» on the top right and then «Install packages» and write your password and wait. If you want to open LibreOffice Writer it will now be in the «Office» submenu of the Lubuntu menu on the lower left of the screen. If you want to add it to your program launcher next to FireFox, just direct your cursor to the bottom panel, press F12 and repeat what you did to add FireFox, but go to Office and add LibreOffice Writer in stead.
You might also want to install some Extensions to FireFox. My favourites are AdBlock Plus, Facebook disconnect, Google disconnect and Twitter disconnect. These extensions will make your surfing ad-free and you will avoid Facebook, Google and Twitter collecting data about wich sites you surf. I don’t really want these companies to sell information about my websurfing to anybody. Think about enabling ads for those sites you really want to support, since ads are what makes many sites economically viable.