If you haven’t seen it, now is the time to drop everything you are doing and watch The story of stuff. Computer scientists like myself will latch onto the scene where the old computer which looks like a washing machine is thrashed because a tiny component doesn’t fit anymore. In this spirit, I am happy to announce that after substantial challenges I was able to install Linux on a 32-bit laptop from about 15 years ago. First I tried Ubuntu, but I was saddened to learn that they dropped support for 32-bit platforms. Luckily, Debian still supports it for a number of years, and I went for it. The incidents I had during the installation include missing non-free firmware for the wifi which I had to fetch and stick in random places in the USB stick, and an inexplicable failure of the base installation which can be fixed by mounting the USB stick during it.
When you say these things, you get the familiar shrug which means “In the same time you spent doing this I can write a grant proposal and make enough money to buy two new machines.” While this is true, it does not mean it is the right thing to do. We should strive to prolong the life of computers and their components indefinitely, instead of taking pride in showing off the latest gadget purchase. I am writing this post from an Ubuntu system installed on a 2008 desktop.
Uncharacteristically, I see a bright future in this domain. We can store drivers for every hardware configuration ever assembled, and create easy-to-use installation packages. Moreover, all of this can be automated, while we still are at the stage where human intervention is required. And one thing that gives me a lot of hope and continues to impress me is the amazing network of people that are willing to help each other to get computers to work, especially when they run free software. You can have the most technical question and quickly get — for free — the most caring and expert advice, say by posting on stackexachange.