Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Third-party drivers

Let me preface this post with: I'm technical enough to understand that this problem is with a specific third-party driver. I get that. But one of the founding reasons behind the Linux in Exile blog was "I find it interesting when long-time Windows users experiment with Linux for the first time, I thought it might be equally interesting for this long-time Linux user to blog about my first experience running Windows in over 6 or 7 years." So I think it's fair to write this post with the view that "it doesn't do this under Linux."

A few weeks ago, I upgraded my smartphone from Android 2.1, to Android 2.2. Ever since, I've encountered this problem: When I boot Windows, the phone resets, and Windows stops working.

Maybe those don't seem connected. But this really does happen.

Need some more background information to debug this problem? Here you go: I have a USB-to-microUSB cable for my phone, which can let me transfer data, or just charge the phone via USB. Sometimes when I get to the office, I'll need to charge my phone, so I just connect the cable to the phone while I get my laptop set up.

For example: this morning, I plugged in my phone, and set up the laptop. I was going to attend a videoconference later that morning (which unfortunately requires Silverlight) so I booted into Windows. While Windows was coming up, my phone suddenly made a little chime, and reset. Windows froze up, and didn't finish booting. This happens all the time.

Whenever I've booted Linux with the phone connected via USB, everything works fine. This only breaks with Windows. What gives?

Here's what I think is happening: during the upgrade to Android 2.2, I had to install the phone's third-party software to let Windows directly update the phone's firmware. I suspect that when this driver gets initialized during boot, it probes the USB-connected devices, checking for the phone, which somehow causes the phone to reboot. Why Windows then hangs, I have no idea.

Yes, this is really a problem with third-party software running on Windows, but it's a problem that doesn't happen on Linux.

Windows users (who experiment with Linux) don't care that their scanner won't work because it's a "driver issue", or because "the hardware vendor doesn't want to be open." They just complain that their scanner doesn't work under Linux. In that mindset, I don't really care if this is a Windows driver issue, I only know that Windows doesn't boot (and "breaks" my phone.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Configuring Windows updates

This morning, I had an idea to boot into Windows, to make sure all my Windows patches are up-to-date before going into the holiday break. I'll admit that it's been well over a month (or has it been 2 months?) since I've booted Windows, so I expected there to be a bunch of updates.

I wasn't wrong. There were 48 updates to apply. And they were all huge. It's interesting to note the process by which Windows installs the updates:

Run Windows Update, let it download and apply the 48 updates. This takes forever and really bogs down my machine. I tried doing some email while it was working, but there was so much going on with the updates that my Dell Latitude E6410 seemed unusable at times. I don't recommend doing this when you're trying to do anything important.

After the updates are applied, they aren't really installed. You need to reboot for the changes to take effect. Sure enough, Windows applies a few of the updates as it shuts down. But we already know about that. It's been that way since at least Windows Vista.

I guess not everything gets installed at shutdown? As I rebooted my computer, I watched as Windows was "preparing" to install updates, then "configuring" Windows updates, before finally installing them. When it got to 32%, it kind of sat there, spinning the disk, like it was hung. I had enough time to get out my phone, and snap a photo, all while Windows was at "32% complete":

After all the updates were applied, Windows finally came up, and I was able to get back to work.

I never get tired of reminding that in Linux, when you reboot or shutdown, you actually reboot or shutdown. None of this "let me install a few updates before you really get to shut down your system." Reboot means "reboot", and shutdown means "shutdown". I guess I got spoiled for how cleanly Linux systems apply updates. Microsoft sure could take a lesson from that.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gnome Shell extensions made easy

My impressions still hold on Gnome 3: it is a change, but I kind of like it. I only had to tweak it a little bit to get back my blue title bars, and I'm fine. I guess Gnome 3, and specifically the Gnome Shell, is something you either love, or something you hate. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.

If you miss the extensions and themes of Gnome 2, I thought I'd point you to where to get Gnome Shell extensions that might make you happy. We've talked about Gnome Shell extensions before, but now all those nifty extra features have been collected into a Gnome Shell extensions web site:

They have some neat extensions listed there. Here are a few to interest you:
  • Applications Menu: adds a menu that is very familiar to Gnome 2.
  • Connection Manager: puts an item in your top bar to quickly open an ssh (or other) connection.
  • gTile: lets you tile your windows in a particular way.
  • Window List: adds a window list in the top bar, similar to Gnome 2.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fedora 16 impressions

I installed Fedora 16 this week, onto my "test" USB flash drive. My first impressions: I really like what I see.

As promised, the login screen has received an overhaul to more closely match the Gnome desktop theme. Looks great.

Once you get into the desktop, things look about the same as Fedora 15. A few differences: you aren't available for chat by default (a welcome change for me.) And as always, a new default wallpaper specific to this version of Fedora:

In general, there aren't a lot of big changes from the previous Fedora. But we knew that. Applications are moved up to the latest releases (at the time Fedora 16 was assembled.) Firefox 7, Gnome 3.2, and so on.

Per my previous post, I was really excited to experiment with the integration with social contacts, and the support for online accounts. So once I was on the new version of Fedora, I played with that right away.

If you click on your name, in the upper-right corner, you now have access to online accounts:

It took only a few clicks to add my Google account:

As you can see, there's support for email, calendar, contacts, chat, and documents.

This means that you can now use Google as your default chat client. Clicking on my name again, I could go online with chat - with Gnome using Google Talk. In Evolution (Gnome's default email and calendar program) I could send and receive messages via my Gmail account, and update my Google Calendar. All through the native Evolution program. I haven't tried the "documents" integration yet.

This would be great if I actually used Evolution. But I don't. I prefer to stay in Google's web client for everything. So this desktop interaction, while cool, probably won't do much for me.

But if you're a desktop user who prefers Evolution to do your email and such, this will be a huge win. You can now do everything with one click. If you use Thunderbird for your Gmail, you may consider switching to Evolution, for this feature alone.

For those who wonder "what updates are already pushed out", there aren't that many updates for Fedora 16, which I suppose is a good indicator of its stability at release. My update was 55MB, and took only a few minutes while I did other things.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fonts in kernel mode?

I try not to comment on Microsoft's fumbles unless I've directly experienced it, like some functionality that seems totally broken to me, or behavior that seems inconsistent. However, I couldn't ignore this one.

You may have heard recently about the Duqu malware, making the rounds. It appeared in the guise of a specially crafted Word document that, when opened, would compromise your Windows PC. It was all over the news last week.

This morning, I received one of those "you're not really on our mailing list, but it's not really spam" emails from Redmond Magazine, "the independent voice of the Microsoft IT community". It linked to their full article, but the email summary said:
The Duqu zero-day exploit has had Microsoft twisting, turning and churning for a solution. Duqu exploits a hole in the Windows kernel and lets hackers remotely access and control your unfixed computer. 
That's until Microsoft came out with a workaround last week. The stopgap solution can protect the kernel with just a few lines of code and a one click-install. That's some pretty efficient code.
(Emphasis mine)

Yes, that's some pretty efficient code, wrapping a fix into a one-click install.

I guess I'd be more impressed if I didn't know what allowed the Duqu exploit in the first place: Windows parses fonts in kernel mode. That's maybe not the best practice. Kind of blows your whole "pretty efficient code" out of the water with "spectacularly stupid security."

This, from the company who claimed in 2005 to be "investing heavily in security", focusing on the security pillars of:
  • Fundamentals: provide a built-in level of safety and security, improvements to the security of software code through the Engineering Excellence initiative, and investments in technologies.
  • Threat and vulnerability mitigation: industry-leading integrated security technologies, defense-in-depth protection.
  • Identity and access control: technologies that verify user identity, control what resources users are allowed to access based on policy, allow management of users, and protect access to data.
I'd say this Duqu exploit demonstrates a failure on all three levels.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Looking ahead to Fedora 16

We are only a week or so away from Fedora 16, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to preview what's ahead in this release.

I happen to prefer Fedora as my Linux distro. While I usually install the "alpha" and "beta" releases on a USB flash drive, and test-drive it there, I haven't been able to do that with Fedora 16 yet. The installer for the test releases had a bug that prevented me from making the flash drive bootable. This has been fixed with an updated installer (which has been tweaked at least twice since) but too late for me to test it out here.

I'll see Fedora 16 when everyone else does, I guess.

There are many changes "under the hood", but I'm most interested in several key features for the desktop. The Gnome desktop is now at version 3.2, and includes these changes:

New login screen

Gnome updated the desktop in the previous version. In this release, the login screen has been given an overhaul to more closely match the Gnome desktop theme. This should give a more consistent feel to everything.

Support for online accounts

System Settings will gain an "Online Accounts" panel, which provides a central point for managing online accounts like Google, Facebook etc. For example, setting up a Google account in this panel will make Gmail, Contacts and Calendar in Evolution (the standard email/calendar desktop client) work "out of the box". The Gnome Shell Calendar (what you see when you click on the date/time at the top of the screen) will be populated from online accounts, as well. And Empathy(the standard chat client) will have Gtalk set up automatically.

As a user with several Google accounts, I'm very excited about this one! Finally, I can integrate my Google accounts into my desktop.

Integration with social contacts

We have lots of places where we can store our contact information. Many of my friends are on Facebook, or may be frequent chat contacts. Wouldn't it be great to tie into those contacts in Gnome?

Gnome Contacts uses multiple sources of contact data, linking pieces of contacts into a whole. For instance, it can get IM contacts and information about them, including presence status. It can also connect to social websites such as Facebook or Twitter.

This integrates with Empathy, Evolution and the new "Online Accounts" settings panel, pulling all your contacts into one address book.

As I said, there are lots of other changes too, but they may not be as visible. Check the feature list if you need details.

Fedora 16 is currently due on November 8.