Monday, December 28, 2009

Making Linux look like Windows

A great thing about the Linux desktop is that it's so easy to apply different themes to it. You can make Linux look like anything, so it suits your particular needs.

Taken to an extreme, a group of users in China have applied a theme to Ubuntu Linux that makes it look almost identical to Windows XP. Why? Because apparently this group was previously responsible for releasing a pirated version of Windows XP, which is now being cracked down on by Microsoft.

But themes that make Linux look just like Windows are not all that new. For example, check out this how-to video showing a theme kit that makes a GNOME desktop look just like Windows XP.

(Note: re-using the Microsoft Windows logo and icon set is still copyright infringement. I do not endorse these themes.)

I wonder how many Windows users will be fooled? But more to the point, how many of these Windows users will realize that Linux is just as easy to use as Windows? Perhaps some good will come out of this.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Switching to Linux

Photographer Scott Rowed has penned an excellent essay on his experience in switching to Linux, and has posted it at ScienceBlogs. You should read it.

It's an interesting read. Scott acknowledges that "Changing operating systems is not a task to be taken lightly." But after experiencing a crippling Windows virus, he decided to give Linux a try. Scott expected some complaints from the rest of the family, got some, but looks like things settled down fairly quickly.

I think this sums up Scott's experience pretty well:
Yes, there were complaints. "It looks different." "My teacher can't open the report I wrote in Open Office". But after a couple of weeks the issues faded when everybody got used to the different style and realized that you could "save as" to Microsoft Word format.

I anticipated problems connecting other hardware, so it was a pleasant surprise when our printers, scanners, MP3 players and digital cameras (from the kids' Coolpixes to my pro Nikon D3) were recognized and functioned normally.

Then I was asked to present a slide show with a rented projector. I booted into Windows XP and connected the projector. Nothing. For over two frustrating hours I tried everything I could think of to make XP talk to the projector. The rental shop was closed so there was no tech support. Desperate, I booted into Ubuntu and to my shock the image instantly projected onto the screen. No keys to push, no drivers to install - it just worked.
So basically, Scott had heard that "Linux won't work" as the standard Microsoft mantra, and assumed he'd experience hardware incompatibilities. But when it came down to it, Linux worked fine with his peripheral devices. And everyone was happy with it.

What is Windows doing?

Under Linux, if you launch an application, a helpful item appears in in your program list (what you might call the "Start bar" in Windows) that says "starting Firefox web browser.." You get the same thing if you double-click on a Word document, and get "starting OpenOffice Writer.." But with Windows, you get nothing. I've mentioned this problem before, but it's an issue that keeps coming back to bother me. There's just no feedback that I've started an application under Windows.

For example: this morning, I came into the office, booted my laptop. When the Windows Vista desktop appeared, I clicked on the quick-launch icon to start the Firefox web browser. Nothing happened. After a few seconds, I realized I must have clicked an edge or something, didn't really click the Firefox icon, so I clicked it again.

Again, nothing happened. My hard drive light was indicating a lot of activity, but Windows clearly wasn't launching Firefox. Maybe the quick-launch bar isn't working, for some reason? I tried double-clicking the desktop icon for Firefox, to launch the program that way. Still, nothing happened. In an act of desperation, I used the Start menu to launch Firefox that way.

When Firefox still hadn't appeared, I decided Firefox must be aborting when it tries to start. Fortunately, my laptop also has Google Chrome installed on it, so I clicked on that to start Chrome.

About 10 seconds later, 4 Firefox windows suddenly appeared, quickly followed by a Google Chrome window. WTF!?

Windows really did launch Firefox that first time I clicked on it, but because there was no feedback to let me know Windows had done something, I didn't know that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What every Linux user should know

ScienceBlogs is running an item about using Linux. In his post, Greg Laden talks about "topics that a savvy non-techie yet still geekie desktop/laptop Linux user should know", including:
  1. Introduction
  2. OS, Distribution, Kernel, Windows Manager, Desktop
  3. The file system, with a focus on home, but including useful information like dot-files.
  4. The Gnome Desktop
  5. What is on the hard drive?
  6. Backing Up
  7. Users, permissions, sudo.
  8. Packages
  9. Making WiFi work and the problems of freedom and drivers
  10. Firefox, Flash, DVD's and ISOs
  11. Upgrading/updating.
  12. Linux/OSS equivalents to commonly used apps (OpenOffice, The Gimp, Xara Xtreme, and Gnumeric)
  13. File based and command line processing of photos/graphics.
  14. Old fashioned text processing: Gedit
  15. Old fashioned text processing: Emacs outline mode, LaTeX, RegEx, and Sed
I agree with most things, but these days I don't know that a non-technical user needs to know the command line to do anything with Linux. Those days are long gone. While the command line is definitely useful (and I cut my budding admin teeth on the command line) I prefer to recommend new users explore the more-familiar GUI.

So, allow me to make my own list of things a non-technical user should probably see:
  1. Introduction to Linux
  2. How to install Linux
  3. The GNOME desktop
  4. Navigating folders
  5. Backing up & restoring files
  6. How to install extra software
  7. Wireless networking
  8. Linux equivalents to commonly used apps (OpenOffice.org, GIMP, etc)
It's a shorter list, to be sure. And to be honest, the first 4 items are pretty basic stuff. Those last 4 topics can be more advanced, depending on the user.

On a related topic: My wife and I recently discussed upgrading her laptop to Fedora 12 over this coming weekend (she's still running Fedora 11.) She is not a technical user at all, but is comfortable installing Linux on her laptop all by herself. The bit where she gets a little worried is backing up all her data, then putting it back after re-installing her laptop.

While my wife has run the install process previously, I've always done the backup beforehand, and restored her data afterwards. Her data won't fit on a USB thumb drive, so I create a compressed tar file ("tar.bz2") of her home directory, copy it over our home network to another computer - then back again after she re-installs. It's easy to do, but kind of hard to explain to someone who doesn't know "tar" and "ssh".

Monday, December 14, 2009

When DRM breaks

This isn't standard fare for Linux in Exile, but it falls under the general category of "closed source is bad."

Microsoft has a technology used in their Office products called "Rights Management Services" (RMS). With it, you can encrypt Office files, and (hopefully) limit what and end-user can do with the file - such as printing, copying, editing, and forwarding.

Basically, RMS is a form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) applied to documents. I suppose this is targeted at people in the publication business, sharing a Word document with someone, and want to limit the chances information will get leaked. (But really, once you share a document with anyone else, it is out of your control.)

It's dangerous to rely on a third party to protect your information for you. Imagine what might happen if RMS stops working. You may suddenly find that Word has locked you out of your own documents. That's exactly what has happened.

Office 2003 users get "Unexpected error occurred, please try again later or contact your system administrator" when they attempt to open (or save) protected documents. The bug affects Office 2003 products including Excel 2003, Outlook 2003, PowerPoint 2003, and Word 2003.

That's gotta suck if you're trying to get work done. Imagine all those people realizing their own work has been locked away from them.

Microsoft released a hotfix a few days ago, but I'm amused by this note in the hotfix:
This hotfix might receive additional testing. Therefore, if you are not severely affected by this problem, we recommend that you wait for the next software update that contains this hotfix.
So basically, it's not fully tested. And I wonder what "severely affected" means if you can't even access your own documents?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Same boot time

I promised to talk about the boot time in Fedora 12. It's still very fast, but I hadn't recorded how long it really took to come up. So I ran that test this weekend.

I used a digital stopwatch to record my timings. While this is not exactly scientific, I repeated the tests over several boots and got similar numbers. To remove the question of how long it took the laptop to check memory (POST at boot) I always started the timer from the BIOS "select my boot device" menu, starting the stopwatch at the same time I hit Enter on the boot device I wanted. I'm most interested in how long it takes to boot the system (from BIOS), login, bring up Firefox, and display a web page (Google).

To compare, Fedora 11 took about 1 minute 7 seconds from a USB thumb drive. Vista still takes 2 minutes 4 seconds on the same laptop, but from the internal hard drive.

Things are the same after moving to Fedora 12. I timed my Fedora 12 system at the same 1 minute 7 seconds to boot, login, bring up Firefox, and display the Google front page.

If you're keeping score: There's a slight difference between how Fedora 11 and Fedora 12 were installed on this USB thumb drive. In Fedora 11, I encrypted the whole volume. But when I installed Fedora 12, I only encrypted the "/home" filesystem.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fedora 12 mini-review

I've actually been running Fedora 12 for a week now. It's a nice update - but to be clear, this is mostly an updated version of Fedora 11. No "must have" tools in this release, at least for how I use Linux.

First, the install process:

The installer is very easy to use, and has gotten a few improvements that help streamline the process. For example, in previous versions, you had a separate step at the end to specify how to boot your system (MBR, or some other method.) In Fedora 12, you do that at the same step where you tell the installer what disk(s) to use to set up your system.

I always reinstall my system from scratch, rather than upgrade. I did that again this time, which was important since I wanted to manually re-do my partitions. When I installed Linux on a USB thumb drive last time, I set it up as a single filesystem - almost like how the installer would have done it. (The difference was that I didn't use volume management, since I don't expect to extend the filesystem on a thumb drive.) The entire filesystem was encrypted, in case my thumb drive was ever lost or stolen.

This is a USB thumb drive, so reads data at up to 30 MB/s, and writes at about half that. Updates take a long time. But I figured part of that slowness might also come from encrpytion - so for this install of Fedora 12, I manually set up my partitions so my "/home" was a separate filesystem, and only "/home" was encrypted. (Yes, all filesystems use "noatime" and I back up my stuff regularly.)

So all my personal info is still safe. Updates don't seem to bog down the system so much, although it definitely takes longer to run system updates - compared to my wife's Linux laptop, which boots from a hard drive.

The entire install process was quick and painless. It took about 15-20 minutes to boot the LiveUSB and install everything. After that, I was up and running in Fedora 12.

And, the changes:

In the comments on my previous post, "some guy" pointed out:
F12 changed how users can install packages. In F11 and earlier releases, users needed the root passwd to install packages. In F11 for example, PackageKit prompted you for root's password (as a GUI).

But in F12, they've changed it. Still not clear why this was a good idea to someone - but in the desktop version only general users can install any signed package without root's password.

If you don't like this behavior, it's a simple [conf file] fix to change it back [...]
You don't need to edit any conf files to change this behavior. As I mentioned in the other comments, the Fedora guys listened to the feedback, and updated the system to require the root password to install any package, signed or not. All you need to do is let the system update process automatically update your system - that's it. After that, when I installed a package using "System - Administration - Add/Remove Software" (which uses packages from the [signed] Fedora software repository) I was prompted for the root password before it would actually install anything.

Aside from that, no major changes to report in Fedora 12. The default window controls have changed a little, and the default desktop background, but that's about it. The Linux desktop still looks like it has in previous releases, where the top bar shows things you can do, while the bottom bar shows things you are doing.

I am a typical "general user", so I can't comment on the software development environment. I spend most of my time in Firefox or writing docs, and that is still very familiar.

In my next post, I'll talk about the boot time in Fedora 12. It's still very fast, but I haven't run a stopwatch against it. To compare, Fedora 11 booted in 1 minute 7 seconds from the same USB thumb drive, about a minute faster than Vista on the same laptop.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fedora 12 is out

Fedora 12 is now available!! Get it here.

There are some new features in this release, but mostly it's improvements like better graphics support, performance, NetworkManager, OpenBroadcom. For details, see the documentation, or just read the 1-page overview. Also check the list of known bugs if you think you've found a problem - but these should be weird "edge" cases.

I figure I'll probably wait until next week to install Fedora 12 (while I'm away for Thanksgiving) so expect a mini-review then.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Linux on USB

When I installed Fedora 11 on my wife's laptop back in June, I really grew tired of not being able to run Linux anymore at work. I still can't run Linux at work, but I figured out I can run Linux at home. I realized that if I can boot a LiveUSB on this laptop, I can certainly boot a USB drive with Linux installed on it.

And that is what I have done. I am using an 8GB USB flash drive, about the same capacity as you'd find in a netbook, for example. (I boot into Linux on weekends, on my own time.) Works great!

It occurs to me that this may not have been an obvious solution to everyone, so I'd like to talk about it.

Maybe you're in a similar situation as me, where you want to boot Linux but aren't able (or allowed) to install another operating system on your computer. Or maybe you just want to install Linux on a PC you own, but don't want to mess about with the sometimes-scary task of resizing a Windows hard drive so you can dual-boot. Or perhaps you just want to be able to bring your own Linux installation with you, so you can boot it anywhere (in an Internet cafe, friend's house, etc.)

One obvious way to do this is to convert a LiveCD version of Linux into a "LiveUSB". That's how I originally did it, and it worked well.

I wanted to have a full install of Linux, something that was just the same as installing on a hard drive. But without actually installing to the hard drive. So I picked up an 8GB USB drive (to compare, same capacity as many netbooks) and installed Linux on that.

Was it easy? Yes, it definitely was! Just booted my laptop using the LiveUSB that I'd used to install Fedora 11 for my wife, and told the installer to install Linux on the USB drive. It's exactly the same as installing on the hard drive, but you do need to pay attention at two points in the installation process:
  1. When you let the installer create the partitions, make sure to specify the USB drive. Check the capacity of the drives it presents to you, and that should be an obvious clue which one is the USB drive. (The hard drive on my laptop is 80GB.)
  2. When the boot info is installed, make sure to select the USB drive, not the hard drive. Again, check the capacity of the drives it shows you, and you'll be sure to pick the right one.

I manually created my partitions, but you can let the installer do it for you. It's your choice.

In case I ever lose the flash drive, I made sure to encrypt my data. Just as in previous releases, the Fedora 11 installer makes encrypting your system very easy. During setup, just check the box to encrypt your hard drive, type in your passphrase, and the installer does the rest!

That was it. It took about 20 minutes to install everything - and it doesn't touch the hard drive, so Windows remains completely unaffected. Now, when I'm at home and want to run Linux, I just boot from the USB drive. When I'm at the office, I boot from the hard drive and run Windows.

To be honest, there is a side effect from running Linux from a flash drive: Typical flash drives read at up to 30 MB/s, and write at about half that. On the other hand, because all my data lives on the USB drive, the hard drive never spins up. The trade off is longer battery life (the hard drive can spin down if it's never used) but writing files is slower. It's unnoticeable when doing "everyday" activities (writing docs, browsing the web) but it definitely takes longer to run system updates - compared to my wife's Linux laptop, which boots from a hard drive.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Move your family to Linux

In a future post, I'll talk more specifically about how to be a good "Linux at work" advocate, but for now let me talk about how to move your family to Linux.

I've been a Linux user since 1993. But it was a few years before my wife decided that Linux was something she could use for herself. I helped my wife migrate to Linux (from Windows) after she finished her Master's thesis. Before, on Windows, she experienced regular crashes and lock-ups, and other weird behavior. Now, on Linux, everything runs fine. My wife uses her laptop to do email, write docs, browse the web, that's it. Not very complicated, so for her it was an easy move.

I did the same for my mom several years ago. My step-dad thought himself a great PC technician, despite knowing nothing about computers other than "point and click". So the PC was often hosed, usually through some malware problem. They used the computer just to browse the web, check email, write docs, do spreadsheets (home finance), play solitaire and freecell, play Flash games, watch Youtube. It was an easy move for them to migrate to Linux, and they've been problem-free on Linux.

The key in making the transition easy is for you to understand their computer use, what they use the computer for. In my experience, people who are "casual" PC users aren't doing anything that couldn't be done on Linux. Note "casual" ... with the people I support, that means no World of Warcraft, no Half Life 2. Just basic computer use, and simple "diversion" games. (PC gamers find it more difficult to move off Windows, because the hot games aren't available for Linux.)

The next step is for you to show your audience that Linux is okay, that it will meet their needs. My wife was an easy convert because she saw me use Linux every day, to do the same things she did. My mom was a little more difficult because I wasn't over there all the time. But if you can sit down with the family and show them how Linux is really just the same as Windows, then you may be in luck. If you have a Linux laptop, bring it with you when you visit for Thanksgiving. If not, consider running a "'live CD" version of a popular distribution, such as Fedora or Ubuntu.

Don't push it too hard, and don't expect to change minds right away. May take several visits, with casual demonstrations of what Linux can do.

When you demo Linux, don't tweak out your desktop. Let it be pretty much default. No odd themes, no cute backgrounds, no desktop effects turned on. That "geek stuff" kind of freaks out your potential audience. You'll note that the screenshot I used to talk about the Linux desktop used default settings.

Show that the same applications exist under Linux, but with a different name. OpenOffice versus "Microsoft Office". Firefox (same). Or Firefox vs IE. Make sure to install the Flash plugin ahead of time, so visiting Youtube is the same experience. I'd turn off Flashblock or not install it, so it's as close to the Windows experience.

If you do this, you might be able to make your family tech support easier. I find Linux harder to break, and certainly it isn't vulnerable to the Windows malware that's out there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Linux desktop

I'd like to switch gears for a little bit here, and talk about the Linux desktop. This is a topic I'd like to return to on this blog, from time to time.

I've been a Linux user since 1993. While the Linux desktop was very immature at this point, I was drawn immediately to the concept of virtual desktops. This allowed me to keep my work separate and organized - rather than cluttering up a single desktop with lots of application windows, I could put related programs on their own virtual desktop.

If you followed the "virtual desktop" link above, you can see a tour of some older Linux desktop environments. Many people who dismiss Linux on the desktop may have had their first experience on TWM or FVWM. I'll be honest - looking back, those were not great window managers. They were good for the era, but they don't age well compared to modern desktops.

So I'd like to introduce you to the Linux desktop today. I've been using Fedora 11 since June (but Fedora 12 is due soon.) Here is what my desktop looks like: (click to see larger version)


I created a "demo" user to take this screenshot, so that all the settings are at their default values. This is what a fresh install of Fedora 11 would look like.

Looks kind of like Windows, right? It's not too far off, although there are some differences:

The "Start" menu is at the top of the screen (Windows puts this at the bottom.) The Fedora logo is that blue-circle "F", so you click that (labelled "Applications") to launch programs. That top bar also has menus with bookmarks to folders, or to run system tools (like, to add a user or change your password.)

At the bottom of the screen, you have a window list (shown empty in my screenshot, because I'm not running any applications) and the workspace switcher (virtual desktops!) By default, Fedora 11 gives you 4 virtual desktops.

I usually explain the two "task bars" as: the top bar shows things you can do, while the bottom bar shows things you are doing.

By the way, making that screenshot was dead simple. Press the Print Screen key (may be labelled "PrtScr" on some keyboards) and Linux saves a screenshot of your desktop to a file: (click to see larger version)


If you don't want to save a file, you can choose to copy the screenshot to the clipboard, and paste it into a document later. Or to grab just the active window, use Alt-PrtScr.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Not what they get

Recently, I had a discussion with someone where I related how a single Word doc printed differently across different versions of Microsoft Word. The person I was talking to responded (quite seriously) that WYSIWYG means "What You See Is What You Get", not "What They Get", that Word actually renders the document on screen based on the capabilities of the default printer on that computer, so that you should expect the same document to print differently on different computer+printer configurations.

Whoa, it is really sad that it's not only accepted, but expected behavior for a word processing document to look vastly different (note my example: wrapping text around a table, page breaks, etc.) depending on the printer Windows was using. I might understand if the text were rendered a little different due to fonts (installed on the printer) being slightly different from the fonts Windows is using. But I find it hard to believe that text flowing around a table should be any different on one computer+printer vs another computer+printer. If that's really how Windows works, I think I'm even less of a fan.

And yet, Microsoft makes a big deal that if you run Microsoft Office, you will be able to share your documents with others running Office. Apple makes a point of that too in some of their ads. The Microsoft ad copy on Apple's Online Store says:
The latest version of the industry standard for productivity software on the Macintosh platform. Microsoft® Office 2008 for Mac is more powerful and easier to use. Office 2008 combines Microsoft Word for Mac, Microsoft Power-Point® for Mac, Microsoft Excel® for Mac, Microsoft Entourage® for Mac, and Microsoft Messenger for Mac and lets you easily create high-impact documents and seamlessly share your ideas with others, whether they are on the Mac or Windows® platform.
(Emphasis mine.)

And yet, if you cannot guarantee that your document on a Mac (in my example, at least one person printed their copy of the doc on a Mac) will look the same as on Windows, how is that seamless???

On the other hand, Linux/Unix systems expects the application to generate a Postscript document, which is then sent to the print driver, and it's the driver's job to turn that into a printed page on the specific printer. A document should look the same printed on a laser printer vs an inkjet printer. Isn't that the whole point of a printer driver? I think the Linux/Unix method makes more sense.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

5 things to know

Windows 7 has only been out for a few days now, so maybe now is a good time to start looking at what the press is writing.

The Washington Post has an article today about 5 things you should know about upgrading from XP to Windows 7. It's a great topic, since so many people opted to skip Vista entirely, and are (were?) still running Windows XP. The WP's article is not that long, but the slant struck me, so let me put it in plainer terms:
  1. Microsoft didn't make an XP to 7 upgrade tool, despite the fact that so many people avoided Vista and stuck with XP, so you need to blow away your system and re-install.
  2. Or, upgrade from XP to Vista, then upgrade from Vista to 7. Says the article: "It doesn't even have to be licensed since you won't be activating it and won't have it loaded for more than a few hours". Yes, I think the Washington Post just recommended software piracy to make the Windows upgrade easier.
  3. If you have older hardware, you will have a tough time finding drivers in 7. But Microsoft has software to help you find software.
  4. You may lose settings when you upgrade to 7, but Microsoft has more software for that.
  5. Your Windows security software won't work in 7, so you'll have to buy new versions. Yay! More software to make the software you already own work better.
The WP article concludes by recommending you just toss out your existing system, and buy a new one with Windows 7 already pre-loaded. Shocking advice, considering you could buy XP until very recently, and even a few weeks ago Windows XP still had better adoption than Windows Vista.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fedora 12 Beta

In case you don't follow the "Beta" releases, I thought I'd let you know that Fedora 12 Beta was just announced. Compared to Fedora 11, this release contains mostly hardware compatibility and virtualization. Check out the Feature List for full details.

I'm pretty excited about Multi-Pointer X. This extension provides a new client API for handling input devices and also Multi-Pointer X (MPX) functionality. MPX functionality allows X to cope with many inputs of arbitrary types simultaneously, a prerequisite for (among others) multitouch-based desktops and multi-user interaction on a single screen.

I am also looking to try out GNOME Shell "preview". Fedora 12 includes an early version of GNOME Shell, which will be the new way to launch applications, access documents, and organize windows in GNOME 3.0 (expected "sometime" in 2010.) I'm interested in GNOME Shell because it seems like a great way to separate the idea of "this is my desktop" from an application launcher. You may, at first, think it's an odd way to launch programs, but check out the Screencasts and you may agree that it makes things a lot easier.

GNOME Shell is still "preview", so not installed by default yet. Install the gnome-shell package, and use the Desktop Effects configuration tool to enable it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What are the reviews saying?

Windows 7 comes out tomorrow, and I thought this would be an excellent time to look back at the Windows Vista launch.

As we know now, Vista made a poor showing for itself when it was released, and performance issues and other problems dogged it for the last 3 years. But how was Vista reviews on the eve of its release? Tech writer Harry McCracken gives us a recap of the very positive reviews of the then-upcoming Windows Vista.

The reviews for tomorrow's Windows 7 launch are looking great. People are saying that Windows 7 runs better and is more stable than Windows Vista. Lots of people are waxing poetic about Windows 7.

But the reviews for Windows Vista were similarly awesome, yet the OS was a huge disappointment. What to think about Windows 7? Color me skeptical; I'll wait to see proof.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Microsoft attacks Linux at the retail level

I meant to post this a month ago when it first came out, but when the site was slashdotted I put it on hold and forgot to come back to it.

Overclock has a series of screencaps from someone who works at Best Buy. This person was going through the Microsoft ExpertZone training, and was presented with a section on "Windows 7 vs Linux". I immediately spotted many "untruths" in Microsoft's "Linux Compare" slides.

The Microsoft anti-Linux slides mention several things that were blatantly untrue. Allow me to chime in:

iPods
I haven't used Windows at home since 1998, and even then I only used it for games. When I bought my first iPod several years ago, I didn't have a problem using GTKpod to connect my iPod, and transfer my MP3 collection to it. I managed all my songs and playlists using GTKpod, and it was easy! (Since then, I bought a Mac and reformatted the iPod to work with that - call me a sellout, but iTunes has a ton of audiobooks I like.)

Cameras
I have never had problems connecting my digital camera to my Linux PC. Everything just works for me. But if I did have a problem, I'd probably just solve it by taking out the memory card, and using a USB adapter. Then it's just USB storage.

Printers
Whether at work or at home, my printing experience under Linux has been "plug and go". Especially in recent years, just plug in the USB printer (I've used Epson, Canon, HP, ...) and Linux identifies it, configures the print driver, and you're done. When I used to run Linux at work, and got a new desktop printer, I didn't even think about it - just plugged it in, and got back to work. Printing to network printers requires knowing the IP address for the printer, but the Linux print configuration tool does the rest.

WindowsLive Essentials
The "Essentials" includes a bunch of stuff that is already included in most Linux distributions by default: email, chat, blogging, photo gallery, etc.

Support
It's all about vendor support. I work at a large organization, and my teams support over 1,100 servers (over half run Unix, most of which is Linux.) We don't go for "community support" here, although I know some smaller organizations that do. Instead, we purchase and run Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This provides access to an online support center (basically, a knowledge base) and call-in phone support. That's the only way I'd run our servers at work.

Support may be different on the desktop, of course. There's Red Hat Enterprise Linux Desktop, and you can certainly run that. I run Fedora on my laptop. For Fedora, there's no one to call if things break, and I would have to rely on "community support" for any problems. If this scares you, ask yourself: how many times have you called Microsoft for help on your Windows PC? No one really calls Microsoft for home desktops; there's a reason people like Geek Squad are in business. (BTW, I just called Geek Squad to confirm, and they do support Linux on the desktop.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Open Source vs Commercial

Not my usual fare for Linux in Exile, but wanted to share anyway. A friend pointed me to the most awkward article I've seen in a long time, comparing "Open Source" vs "Commercial" software. I'm not convinced the author at ITSM Watch really understands what he's writing about.

The article is very short on specifics, mentioning only Nagios (monitoring system) by name. As a result, the author casts about for a target, and comes across as waffling and lost. From the article:
  • How is the company that uses open source software within their internal IT environment going to update and maintain the solution in their environment?
  • How "mature" is the open source solution?
  • What mission critical applications will be supported by this open source solution?
If the answers are less than satisfactory, then a commercial application would probably be the better choice.
These should be the same questions you ask of every software package you implement in business, not just open source software. I work for a large enterprise, and my teams support over 1,100 servers. No matter what the software or who is the vendor, we ask these same questions for everything we support.

Doesn't matter if the software was written in-house at HP or IBM, or by an OSS developer on his/her free time, the questions will be the same.

When you dig into it (although it's a very short piece) the author seems most concerned about support. From the article:
“I could program an ITIL solution in one week and provide it for open source download and it would be worthless,” said Chris Drake, founder and CEO of FireHost, a hosting company. The problem lies in the lack of a large community base to support the solution. To gain any advantage from open source, IT needs to learn the solution on its own, find a service firm to help, or rely on the community for support, making up-time requirements a prime consideration.
I call bullsh*t. Your 3 options to using open source are not 1. learn it on your own, 2. find someone to help, 3. rely on community support. You can purchase actual support for most open source software systems, just like any software package. Even Nagios has support plans.

At the end, the article asks about open source software: "Where do you go for support if the software breaks?" That's easy. You buy the support before putting that software in place in the enterprise, which is what the article is about. We do this where I work, and that's why we buy RHEL - to get support if we need it.

It's the same no matter if you run "open source" software or "commercial" software.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Microsoft leaks: the Halloween documents

October 31 is coming up soon, so now is a good time to remind everyone of the Halloween Documents, hosted by Eric S. Raymond.

If you don't know what this refers to, you may want to read the Wikipedia entry on the Microsoft Halloween documents leaks. Yes. Microsoft has acknowledged the authenticity of these documents. Furthermore, they have surfaced as an exhibit in the Comes v Microsoft antitrust litigation. Bill Gates himself had them distributed internally.

I think the Halloween documents are substantive proof that Microsoft really views Linux as a threat, and will go to great lengths to protect its monopoly standing.

Not all the Halloween documents listed on Eric's site are leaked memos. Some are simply Eric's commentary. Interested in reading just the leaked Microsoft documents? Here's a summary:

Document 1
An internal report written by Vinod Valloppillil, who was a Program Manager at Microsoft at the time. It looks at Free / Open Source software, including its strengths and weaknesses, and the possible impact to Microsoft's products and services. Importantly, Valloppillil acknowledges that Free / Open Source software "is long-term credible" and "FUD tactics can not be used to combat it." Instead, the document proposes fighting Free / Open Source software by "extending these [commonly-used] protocols and developing new protocols" and "de-commoditize protocols & applications." Thus, the consumer is locked-in to Microsoft's solutions.

Document 2
Another report by Vinod Valloppillil, with Josh Cohen. This gives an overview of the Linux system.

Document 3
Aurelia van den Berg, the Press and Public Relations manager of Microsoft Netherlands does a standard job of explaining away documents 1 & 2, saying that while real, they are not official - intended as internal case studies. Laugh with me at the last line: "Unless Linux violates IP rights, it will fail to deliver innovation over the long run." Does Microsoft mean to say that you can only innovate if you stomp on the rights of others?

Document 7
Presentation from a Microsoft internal Linux Strategic Review, held at the Microsoft offices in Berlin, Septemter 2002. Interestingly, it admits that anti-Linux FUD doesn't work ("Messages that criticize OSS, Linux, & the GPL are NOT effective.")

Document 8
Leaked memo by Orlando Ayala, Group Vice President of Worldwide Sales, about how to deal with competition from Linux in government. Mentions Linux and StarOffice (StarOffice is the "commercial" fork of OpenOffice.)

Document 10
An e-mail from consultant Mike Anderer to SCO's Chris Sontag, referring to Microsoft channeling $86M (possibly more) to SCO through Baystar, to assist in SCO's anti-Linux court cases.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More stable?

With all the hype coming out about how Windows 7 will "run better" and be "more stable" than Windows Vista, I have to ask: Why couldn't Windows Vista run well and be stable? I mean, when did "stable" and "runs well" come off the collective list of expectations?

People are getting very excited that Windows 7 is "stable" and "runs great". Why is this even an issue? Because Windows Vista hasn't been that great. It had a terrible launch, and 3 years later companies like Dell still get enough demand for an XP "downgrade" that they still ship systems with the older version of Windows instead of Vista. So now we're all excited about how great Windows 7 runs, not realizing this as a symptom of Stockholm Syndrome.

Or any version of Windows, for that matter? I've done IT for almost 15 years and it's been a long, long time since I've seen Windows be really stable. To get Windows stable, you have to not touch the thing, no installing apps. God help you if you install any third party applications or drivers. We just expect that Windows will crash or hang up.

I've rarely experienced stability problems on Linux, and I've been using it at various levels since 1993. Opposite my experience with Windows, it's been a long, long time since I've crashed a Linux desktop. With Linux, if an application crashes or hangs, it's just the application - the system stays running.You don't have to reboot to fix anything. Just close the application window, re-open, and keep working.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wait for Windows 8 (or 9)

With Windows 7 not due for a few weeks yet, Microsoft has (inadvertently?) leaked information about the upcoming Windows 8 and Windows 9. In case you aren't able to view the page at Google's cache, a LinkedIn profile for a Microsoft senior research developer says:

Working in high security department for research and development involving strategic planning for medium and longterm projects. Research & Development projects including 128bit architecture compatibility with the Windows 8 kernel and Windows 9 project plan. Forming relationships with major partners: Intel, AMD, HP and IBM.

So now we know, Windows 8 will include 128bit support. Or will it? We've seen this kind of thing from Microsoft before: leak, announce, hype, delay. WinFS, anyone? That was announced as far back as 2003, intended for Windows Vista. But that got pushed to Windows 7. Then, it got delayed to Windows 8. Or possibly later. (If memory serves, I think Microsoft has been hyping a database-driven filesystem since the initial discussion about "Windows NT".)

So while the data center guy in me is interested in 128bit Windows support, at a technical level, I'm just not hopeful we'll see it in 8 or 9.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Linux takes to the air

You've probably already heard about this, but I wanted to share in case you haven't. The nice guys over at Helios have posted a voice track by a professional voiceover artist, pitching Linux as a product. It's already running on the air on KLBJ AM.

The best part? The raw tracks are available for download and released under the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike 3.0 license. No attribution is necessary. You can find it in mp3 or ogg format, whichever you prefer. Cut, splice, hack, lay tracks under it as you wish.

It's great that Linux will get on-air time as a "product" to help promote itself as a great PC platform. It shouldn't all be about Windows, guys. I'm really excited to see what the Linux community makes of this. Should be interesting!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Avoid Windows 7

Microsoft is launching Windows 7 in a few weeks, so I wanted to get ahead of the marketing. But the Microsoft PR engine has been working overtime, so maybe I'm too late ... but some are pushing back against the PR, which is great.

Lest we forget: Windows 7 is just like Vista, folks. "Windows 7" is Microsoft's attempt to re-brand the damaged "Windows" name after the extremely poor "Windows Vista" release. I love that you can still buy systems with Windows XP "downgrade" because Windows Vista still isn't trusted 3 years after it was released.

According to Wikipedia: A number of capabilities and certain programs that were a part of Windows Vista are no longer present or have changed, resulting in the removal of certain functionality.*

Also note that various Windows Vista features and components have been removed in Windows 7, including the classic Start Menu, Windows Ultimate Extras, InkBall, and Windows Calendar. And Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Movie Maker, and Windows Mail (previously bundled in Windows Vista) aren't even in Windows 7 - you need to add them manually from the separate Windows Live Essentials package.

Let me go back to that again - the Start Menu won't even be in Windows 7. The user interface changes again under Windows 7. I guess that raises the question: if you have to re-learn the interface for Windows 7, isn't it just as easy to pick up another operating system ... like Linux?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why "We're a Microsoft shop" is bad

Not really related to Windows on the desktop, but interesting to point out anyway. There was a great article last month about server virtualization, which I think also exemplifies why being a "Microsoft shop" is a bad idea. To summarize the article:

Nissan North America Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization last year, reducing their physical server count from 159 to 28, eight of which run Hyper-V. A year later, the team still uses Hyper-V's "Quick Migration" feature to move virtual machines off a Hyper-V host, a process which takes the system down for about 30 seconds while it gets rebooted on another host.

30 seconds doesn't sound like a big deal, right? Well, it is a huge deal if that server is part of a system that moves cars through the plant. You don't just turn those servers back on without testing. Reboot the server for 30 seconds to migrate it to a new Hyper-V host, and you actually have 10-15 minutes where the plant effectively is shut down.

Nissan is actively testing the next version of Hyper-V, which supports seamless "Live Migration" but hadn't deployed it by the time the article was written a month ago.

If you happen to work in IT, you may recognize "live migration" as VMWare's "VMotion", or [Citrix] XenServer's XenMotion. You guessed it - both can already migrate a virtual machine from one VM physical server to another server while the virtual machine is running. This is a problem that's already been solved, folks, and long before Microsoft's Hyper-V came onto the market.

But if other products already support this feature, why use Microsoft's Hyper-V, which clearly wasn't up to the task?

According to Phil D'Antonio, Nissan's manager of conveyors and controls engineering: "We're a Microsoft shop, and they were the first ones that we looked at ... We have a good relationship with Microsoft that we leverage and utilize."

And that is why "We're a Microsoft shop" is bad.

When you are a "Microsoft shop", there's a certain tendency to run with other Microsoft products. I've seen it before: go with Microsoft "Product B" because it should work with Microsoft "Product A" that we already have. Integration should be easy, right? And I'm sure that Nissan N.A. found it easy to integrate Microsoft's Hyper-V into their Microsoft Windows Server environment. Until they needed to do basic tasks like migrate workload from one VM physical server to another, and not completely halt their business.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sorting files is confusing

I really am confused about how Windows Explorer sorts files and directories. Is it supposed to be this hard?

Let me show you a good example from my "Documents" folder:


I've blurred out the rest of the filenames. As you can see, the list is arranged: M, D, p, A, D, m, N, w. Note that 3 folders are mixed with 5 files, but are still not listed alphabetically!

And what's with the (unused) columns for "Date modified", "Type", "Size", "Tags"? These should have data in them!

Clicking the "Views" drop-down menu doesn't present me with any options to re-sort the view. And call me stupid, but I don't remember how I did this very basic task a few weeks ago. All I can remember is I managed to put Windows Explorer into a properly sorted view, and that it took me a while to figure out how to change the view.

Under Linux, it's very simple. Folders normally display their contents in "Icons" mode, so it looks like you'd expect to find on Windows or a Mac. If you want to see more, you can click the "View" menu, and select "List" mode to show extra details such as "Size", "Type", "Date Modified". Click on any of the list headers to sort the view according to a new criteria.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Windows Update stinks

I know I've complained about Windows Update before, but I stumbled upon another great example today. Wanted to share.

I saw that Windows had some updates it wanted to apply. I had just finished going through my email, and my next "to do" was to read a report someone had dropped off for me. Might as well let Windows install updates while I read offline.

My first problem: there was no indication how many patches Windows Update wanted to install. Under Linux, I can always see how many patches are ready to be installed - but Windows just says that patches are "available." I have to guess how many that might be. I'm usually wrong.

Turns out, there were 11 patches. Annoyingly, Windows didn't tell me how many updates it had to install before I committed to doing it, nor how long it would take to install 11 updates. I'm sitting there, thinking how fortunate I was to have time in the middle of my workday to do this. 11 updates could take hours to install, or it could take minutes. Since you can only install these updates at "shutdown", you're committed to doing them. If they take an hour, you're stuck for an hour until Windows Update is finished.

Fortunately, these only took 15 minutes, and the system rebooted. I had finished reading the document by this time, and was ready to get back to work.

But wait! Windows Update wasn't done there! Some of patches (apparently) needed to make registry changes, so I had to wait for Windows to do that on reboot.

Then, other updates required doing their thing after boot, but before login, so I waited some more.

When my system was finally ready for me again, 30 minutes had gone by.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about the time required to install all these patches. I know installing updates takes time, I get that. But I'm taking the viewpoint of someone who had used Linux for years, now trying Windows for the first time in 7 years. And compared to Linux, the Windows Update process stinks.

With Linux, I know how many patches will be installed, and I can keep using my computer while Linux installs them. Not so on Windows. At the least, it would really help if Windows Update let me know how many patches it had to install before I committed to installing them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bing Fail

I needed to look up some anti-Linux comments (specifically, about Linux's user interface) as a reference for a new Linux in Exile post. I went to the best search engine for pro-Microsoft anti-Linux stuff - Microsoft's Bing. Because you can google with Bing.

Unfortunately, I got completely distracted by a Bing Fail, so I never wrote the post. Next week, I promise.

I don't know if you've used Bing, but they like to load a random image as a background, then highlight certain areas as clickable notes that reveal themselves when you mouse over each one (think "comments" in Flickr.) Today, I got a panda: (click to see larger version)


Why they highlighted the eye in reference to the panda's wrist bone continues to baffle me. Note to Microsoft: the panda's wrist is that thing below his head in the photo, the one with the paw attached to it. Had to share.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vista fonts suck

I know I've complained about this before, but it's been really getting to me. The font rendering under Windows is killing me. Or making me go blind. Possibly both.

Under Linux, I had 4 methods of font rendering to choose from: "Monochrome", "Best Shape", "Best Contrast", "Subpixel smoothing (LCDs)". I think I used subpixel smoothing, which gave me great-looking fonts that were very readable on my flat-panel display. I had installed Microsoft's core fonts, and usually wrote documents using Times New Roman and Arial.

Now, on Windows Vista with the same Dell 1905FP flat-panel display, those same fonts are giving me a headache.

Why is Microsoft so limited with fonts? Under Windows, there are only two methods to smooth fonts: Standard (not smoothed, hard to read) and ClearType (blurry but smooth, and hard to read.) But note that this is not obvious to change under Windows Vista.

After writing a Word document, or browsing the web for any amount of time, I get a headache from squinting at the screen. Sure, I've increased my zoom level in Word, and increased the minimum font size in Firefox, but the fonts look out of focus and are just plain hard to work with. Not so under Linux.

Any tips for what I can do about fonts under Windows Vista? How do I get smooth easy-to-read fonts, like happens "out of the box" in Linux?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Linux Update does not own my machine

In an earlier post, I compared boot times between Windows Vista and Fedora 11 (Linux) on the same laptop, a Dell D430. In that post, Linux was booting from a Live USB.

Since then, I've realized that if I can boot a Live USB on this laptop, I can certainly boot a USB drive with Linux installed on it. And that is what I have done. I am using an 8GB USB flash drive, about the same capacity as you'd find in a netbook, for example. (I boot into Linux on weekends, on my own time.) Works great! So I hope to use this as a way to directly show the differences between Linux and Windows.

Here's an example: remember a few weeks ago when I discussed how Windows Update isn't finished installing updates even after it's installed the updates? At the end of my post, I wrote:
In stark contrast, when I ran Linux at work, I could install updates while using the system. If the system update tool wanted to reboot afterward, it was usually because I'd received a kernel update, and you do need to reboot for the new kernel to take effect. But on Linux, you can keep using the old kernel until you're ready to shutdown/reboot. And I always had the option to shutdown or reboot later, when I was ready to.

And 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.
I'd like to demonstrate this in action: This morning, I booted my laptop using the Linux USB drive. Not long after I'd booted, I was greeted with a message that I needed to install updates. (This is not surprising, since I only get to boot Linux on weekends, so there's a week or more of patches to install.) As usual, I let the system install updates while I was working.

After the updates were installed, I got another message saying that some of the updates would take effect after I logged out and logged back in:

It's rare to have to do anything in Linux after installing updates. Usually it's only when I install kernel updates, which always needs a reboot unless you use something like Ksplice.* But there were several gvfs updates in there (gvfs allows you to access a network resource as a virtual file system) and I suspect gvfs needed to be reloaded for the changes to be visible. gvfs runs at the user level, so the system only needed to log out / log in for the changes to take effect.

I wasn't really finished working, so I could have clicked "Close" and continued my work. But I realized that this was an excellent opportunity to directly compare the difference between installing updates in Linux, versus in Windows. So I opted to log out and shut down, just like in Windows.

And when I clicked "Log Out", I got the usual dialog:

Care to guess what happened after I clicked "Shut Down"? My Linux system actually let me shut down. Like, right then. None of this "let me install a few updates before you really get to shut down your system", like in Windows. I wasn't held hostage by an update process that insisted on owning my machine for another hour. The system just shut down, normally.

Linux "System Update" was done when it said it was done. That is how modern systems are supposed to work!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More problems with Word

You may hear from "Microsofties" who claim that OpenOffice just doesn't render Microsoft Word documents properly. In my 6-7 years running Linux at work, I used OpenOffice exclusively to write and edit documents, and to create and modify spreadsheets. I never had a problem exchanging documents with others. Of course, I was careful to save documents in the Microsoft Word "DOC" format, and spreadsheets in the Microsoft Excel "XLS" format.

It's true that sometimes Word will fail to render a document properly. But it's not the fault of OpenOffice - sometimes, Microsoft Word fails to properly display other Microsoft Word files. Just this morning, I saw an example in action in a meeting:

Last night, one of the attendees sent out some notes for us to read before the meeting. We all dutifully printed out our copy of the document, and brought it with us to the meeting.

Despite the fact that the document was created with Microsoft Office, and that we all run Microsoft Office, there were 3 different versions of the printed document at the meeting. You could tell by looking around the table that one version of the notes (printed from Microsoft Office for Macintosh) arranged the text around a table in a weird way. Another version (printed by Microsoft Office 2007) put a page break in a different place and put an extra blank line between a table and its caption. The original version (Microsoft Office 2003) was formatted as intended.

This was a simple 3-page document in "DOC" format, with an enumerated list of paragraphs, so it didn't take long for us to realize our copies printed out differently, and to figure out the correlation between versions of Word and how the document printed out.

I think it just goes to show: if you have a document that absolutely must preserve formatting, send it as a PDF.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Windows Update owns my machine

The other day, my Windows Vista system got messed up. Really messed up. Let me tell you how:

During the day, I got one of those little "system tray" messages from Windows, telling me that updates were available for my system. Normally, I apply Windows updates only when I'll be away from my office for several hours, like for those mid-afternoon strategy meetings. That way, Windows can apply the update, and I don't have to wait for it. But since others have reassured me that I can install updates while using the Windows system, this time I went ahead and let Windows Update do its thing. I happily continued working.

After Windows Update was done, I got another message advising me to reboot so the changes could take effect. I figured this was just Windows covering for itself, especially since Evan claimed that "patches you'll get from Windows update don't require rebooting". So I dismissed the alert, and went back to work.

The day rolls by, and eventually it's 6:00 PM. My wife was there to pick me up so we could go out to dinner. As usual, I worked right up until it was time to go, then shut down my laptop.

I was dismayed to see that Windows meant it, and really did need to reboot for those changes to take effect. Except Windows wanted to install a bunch more updates before it would let me shut down. No option to skip this step, no option to do it later. Windows Update wanted to install these patches right then, so it effectively owned my machine.

The patches installed at a rate of about 2% per minute. I thought, "I can't wait for this - my wife is downstairs right now, it's time to go, I can't wait almost an hour for this thing to finish." And I didn't have an option to close my office and leave it, since we've had thefts inside the building. So I did the unthinkable, and unplugged the power. (I rarely keep the battery in the laptop when it's plugged into the dock - otherwise, the system gets really hot.)

The next morning, my laptop won't reboot. Got to the graphical boot screen, then powered off.

Our desktop support folks couldn't do anything with it. When I told them my story about what happened (at least I'm honest) they realized it would be easier to re-install the machine with a fresh image of Windows Vista.

So thank you, Microsoft. Your "awesome" Windows Update process needs some work. Why is System Update not really done installing patches until you shut down? This doesn't make sense to me. It should have installed those other patches while the system was up, then let them take effect after reboot. I'm most shocked that System Update had to "own" my machine when I was trying to shut down.

And that claim that Windows doesn't need to reboot for changes to take effect? Total lie.

In stark contrast, when I ran Linux at work, I could install updates while using the system. If the system update tool wanted to reboot afterward, it was usually because I'd received a kernel update, and you do need to reboot for the new kernel to take effect. But on Linux, you can keep using the old kernel until you're ready to shutdown/reboot. And I always had the option to shutdown or reboot later, when I was ready to.

And 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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I love Microsoft Word

The Microsoft Office 2007 suite in general, and Microsoft Word in particular, is the subject of a long-standing love/hate relationship of mine.

Case in point: I had opened a few Word documents, to catch up on some technical design plans our IT staff had submitted to me. I had 3 files open, plus an extra window with an empty document. When I was done reading the documents, I clicked the Office logo, then "Exit Word".

Imagine my amusement when I got an error message that "Microsoft Word has quit unexpectedly". Then Word let me know it was trying to find a "solution" to my "problem". The "problem" was that I tried to exit Word. So it should be of little surprise that Word has quit. That's what I was trying to do.

Monday, July 6, 2009

I'll just reboot, thanks

Ever since the invention of APM (Advanced Power Management) in 1992, then ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) in 1996, modern computers have had the ability to enter a low power mode typically referred to as "Sleep Mode", "Stand By", or "Suspend". Usually, this is done by cutting all power to the system, except that required to keep memory "alive".

You see this a lot with laptops, as it is a great way to save battery when you aren't going to use the laptop for a while. I used to do this all the time when I ran Linux on my laptop at work - worked great. If I needed to take my laptop with me to a meeting, I wouldn't shut down. I'd just put the laptop to sleep, bring it with me to the meeting - and if I needed the laptop, it took only a few seconds to resume.

But I probably used this feature the most when traveling. At a conference, I'd regularly check email during "down time". When it was time to attend a session, I'd put the computer to sleep, then during the next break I'd wake up the system and see if anyone had replied to my messages. It doesn't take long for Linux to do a hard boot, but it certainly took much less time to suspend the laptop, and resume later when I needed to use it.

Now that I'm forced to run Windows at work, I've tried to use the "Sleep" feature in the same way. I'll tell you, I'm not sure why Microsoft even bothers with this option. Under Windows Vista, there's a button that claims "Saves your session and puts the computer into a low-power state so you can quickly resume working." Technically, this is Hibernate, where the contents of RAM is written to non-volatile storage, such as the hard disk. Later, when you bring the system back up, the memory is read back from disk and things should be back where you left them.

However, I've never seen the point in how Vista goes into hibernation, and gets woken up again later. Things take forever to come back up. And if you changed anything while the computer was asleep, forget about it.

Example: Last night I was doing some work from home, finished, then put the computer to sleep. Never went back to it. This morning, I'm back in the office, put my laptop in the dock, and woke it up again. Everything was messed up, even to the point that basic USB devices like my keyboard and mouse weren't working. I ended up rebooting.

I pretty much just reboot Windows by default, rather than bother putting the laptop to sleep and waking it up again. It's too much bother to get Windows working again after things wake up. Really, it's not a useful feature if it takes me twice as long to get back to work by using Sleep Mode than if I'd just shut down the system and rebooted when I needed it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hidden cost of running Windows

You've probably seen this item mentioned elsewhere, but it bears repeating on "Linux in Exile":

Switching an office to Linux or other free / open source software comes with its own hidden costs - training, conversion, new software, etc. But Microsoft fans often gloss over the costs to run third party tools and anti-virus software, to fill in the gaps in functionality and security missing from Windows.

Those costs only go up when security fails in Windows. As David Ottewell writes in the Manchester Evening News, taxpayers in Manchester £1.5 million to clean up a Cornficker worm that infested Manchester town hall. And the best part? £600,000 of that went towards consultants to help fix the problem, including experts from Microsoft.

Do me a favor: the next time someone tries to sell you the line that "Microsoft has a lower TCO than Linux", please remind them of failures like this one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

But I didn't do anything

As part of my job, I often receive Word documents or Excel spreadsheets for me to review. These could be timesheets from staff, or drafts of project plans, whatever. Since I use a webmail client at work to do all my mail, clicking on an email attachment automatically downloads the document and opens Word, Excel, or whatever appropriate application. Since it's essentially a document downloaded from the web, Office opens the document in "read only "mode. Office even shows "(Read-Only)" in the title of the window, to remind me that the document cannot be changed.

That part works fine, and it's the same behavior under Linux and Windows. But that's to be expected, since that's how a webmail client works.

The confusing part is when I close the document. Since the document is in "read only" mode, I obviously haven't made any edits to it. Yet every time I close one of these "downloaded from the web" documents, Microsoft Office prompts me if I want to save my changes.

But I haven't made any changes. Because it was in "read only" mode.

That doesn't make any sense to me. Maybe it's that I'm too used to the way Linux and OpenOffice managed files like this. If the document is opened in "read only" mode, then I can view the document, and can even copy a selection (to paste into another document.) When I exit OpenOffice, the window just closes with no complaints.

Why can't Microsoft understand that that's the behavior users expect from programs?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

About me

I thought it would be a good idea to describe my technical background a little, in case it helps answer questions about why I'm keeping this blog, and why I keep pointing out these little problems in Windows. In short, I'm not complaining about the broken behavior of Windows because I lack any kind of technical knowledge.

Here's my story.

Like many Linux users, I first "discovered" Linux when I was a student at university, in 1993. Linux was a bit pokey and unstable then, but great for doing certain lab analysis. However, I wasn't an exclusive Linux user yet. I still ran DOS/Windows for certain things, and maintained a Windows system for gaming until sometime in 1998 - replaced by a PlayStation. I've been 100% Linux at home ever since.

My first job (1995) was working as a UNIX systems administrator. Since we were a small company, I also doubled as the PC support tech for the office, often rebuilding broken PCs and troubleshooting DOS/Windows. We had a Novell LAN, so I was a part-time Novell administrator too. I put a few Linux servers on the network to support remote access, but it wasn't a very big deal.

A few years later, I moved on to another small company. Again, I was primarily a UNIX systems administrator, but also did all the Windows support on desktops (W/NT) and laptops (W/95). It was around this time that my employer sent me through A+. Even though most of the UNIX servers ran on IBM or HP, I installed a few "edge" Linux servers, such as an NIS master to help manage the UNIX environment.

In 1998, I joined my current employer. While my role was now "IT Manager", the reality was that I often acted as a backup UNIX/Linux systems administrator. The organization used a distributed desktop support model back then, and I became the go-to PC support guy for our group. My claim to fame: in 1999, I made a compelling case convincing senior management to adopt Linux in the enterprise, running Red Hat Linux. Before that, we only used IBM and Sun UNIX systems to run the major business applications.

Because we ran so many Linux systems, my employer put the team through RHCE. I passed with high scores on my first attempt (RHCE exams are tough.) I re-upped my certification a few years ago.

Having convinced management that Linux could support enterprise servers, I've been fortunate enough to be able to run Linux on my desktop at work since about 2002. My bosses knew about this, and supported it. The important thing was that Linux let me do everything I needed as a manager, and it was an environment I enjoyed.

But a few years ago, we got a new boss who didn't see things exactly that way. So I've moved back to Windows, at least for work. End of story.

The difference between Windows and Linux has been shocking, to say the least. Since 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. When I blog about something being "broken" in Windows, or something in Windows that is confusing, it's because that feature really is broken or confusing in Windows. At least, compared to Linux.

Every few months, you'll see a staff writer for some tech magazine claim he's going to try Linux exclusively for a month or so. When the "experiment" is over, the writer usually has lots to say about how this or that thing doesn't work "right" in Linux, because it doesn't work just like Windows does. If tech writers can do this with Windows-Linux, I think it's fair to do the same with Linux-Windows. I'll post a new blog item about once a week.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Still a minute faster

Back in March, I compared the load times for Windows XP and Fedora 10 on different hardware, and found that Linux booted about a minute faster. The fact that I had to run the test on different hardware was because I have to run Windows on my work laptop, but my wife happily runs Linux on her laptop at home. But it was still interesting that Linux booted faster on much older hardware (2005: IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T43, Intel Centrino CPU @ 1.86 GHz, 512MB memory) compared to the newer laptop running Windows (2008: Dell Latitude D430, Intel Core2 CPU @ 1.20GHz, 2GB memory).

Over the weekend, I installed Fedora 11 on my wife's laptop. As part of the install process, I created a "Fedora 11 Desktop Edition" Live USB - meaning I could now boot a laptop using Fedora 11. So I thought it was important to repeat the head-to-head boot comparison on the same laptop, using both Windows and Linux.

Since my previous test, our desktop support folks upgraded my laptop to Windows Vista. After the initial problems of getting everything installed, I noticed that Vista booted a bit faster than XP. So good on Microsoft for that. But how does it compare to Linux?

Before we begin, a note on the boot media: Windows is installed on the hard drive, but Linux is booting from a Live USB. According to Dell, my Latitude D430 laptop has a 5400 rpm hard drive, typical for most "mobile" hard drives. Tom's Hardware suggests a "maximum sequential read transfer rate of 48 MB/s is an excellent result for a 5400 rpm drive." Wikipedia says that "typical fast USB drives claim to read at up to 30 MB/s." So Windows will have a slight performance advantage here, since its boot media can read data about 18 MB/s faster.

I used a digital stopwatch (on an iPod) to record timings. While this is not exactly scientific, I repeated the tests over several boots and got similar numbers. To remove the question of how long it took the laptop to check memory (POST at boot) I always started the timer when I was inside the BIOS menu that selected my boot device. I'm most interested in how long it takes to boot the system (from BIOS), login, bring up Firefox, and display a web page (Google).

Here are the major milestones for Windows:
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 36 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +42 seconds
  • Desktop to web page (Firefox): +46 seconds
Total: 2 minutes, 4 seconds

And to compare, the same for Linux:
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 40 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +15 seconds
  • Desktop to web page (Firefox): +12 seconds
Total: 1 minute, 7 seconds

Surprisingly, both laptops also prompted for login at about the same time (36-40 seconds.) Yet it takes much less time to present the desktop on Linux, and launching Firefox is much faster.

I have to give Microsoft some credit, here. Remember that Windows XP booted on the same laptop (and displayed a web page) in 3 minutes, 7 seconds. But Windows Vista does it in 2 minutes, 4 seconds - clearly, Microsoft made boot time a priority for the Windows Vista team, and it shows. Good for them!

But a minute faster on slower boot media (USB, versus hard drive) is very impressive. This represents the time spent waiting for Windows to load, when you could be getting to task right away under Linux. In the comparison from March, I commented I was able login to our webmail system at work, read an email, and delete it in that extra minute. That's real work. Linux wins hands-down on this test.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fedora 11 mini-review

As promised, here is my mini-review of Fedora 11:

I'm glad to say that my wife is a huge Linux fan. Originally, my wife was like most PC users, and had been using Windows exclusively - mostly to write her thesis and check email. But by 2000, she had finally become fed up with Microsoft and continual problems with Windows (I spent many sleepless nights doing "tech support" to recover Windows after it crashed, while my wife was writing her Master's thesis.) So decided to give Linux a try. Her first Linux distro was Red Hat 7, and we've upgraded her as each new release has come out. She's been a Linux devotee ever since!

In fact, this is my wife's second Linux laptop. It's a Lenovo ThinkPad T43:
  • Intel Centrino / Intel Pentium M 750 1.86 GHz CPU
  • 512 MB memory
  • 60 GB - 5400 rpm hard drive
  • CD-RW / DVD-ROM combo drive
  • 14.1" TFT active matrix XGA (1024 x 768) - 24-bit (16.7 million colors)
  • Intel GMA 900 graphics
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG network
Usually, I prefer to install using a DVD image that I download and burn to media. But this time, I figured I'd try something different - I turned the "Fedora 11 Desktop Edition" Live CD into a Live USB. There's even a Windows version of the tool that does this for you. With a Live CD (or Live USB) you can boot your system and run programs just like you were in an installed environment, then (if you like what you see) you can install Linux to your hard drive.

Live USB made installation a snap! Simply boot the laptop from USB, and open the "Install to Hard Drive" icon. The install process was easy, and fast!

Once installed, Fedora 11 takes less than a minute to boot on this older Thinkpad. And everything just worked, with no tweaking, including wireless networking and the graphics.

The user environment is great. The web browser is Firefox 3.5 beta4. Yes, it's a beta version, but it seems to be very solid. We hit all the web sites my wife usually visits, and no problems. Actually, it seems a bit faster with the new Firefox, but it's hard to tell.

Thunderbird (email client) isn't installed by default, but I think that's been the base for the last few versions of Fedora. They give you Evolution by default. While I prefer using a webmail interface to access my email, but my wife really likes Thunderbird. A few clicks under "Administration" - "Add/Remove Software" and we were up and running with Thunderbird, no reboots required.

Since this is the "Live CD" edition (key phrase being "CD", about 700MB) you don't have OpenOffice installed by default. Instead, they give you AbiWord, which is a much smaller Word-like program. I asked my wife if she wanted me to install OpenOffice for her, but she had already opened up her old thesis documents (as a test) and said that was working fine, and more than enough for her. She is not a "power user" so I doubt my wife notices the difference between AbiWord and OpenOffice Writer.

All in all, Fedora 11 is a great upgrade. There are lots of changes "under the hood" for those (like me) who are interested in such things. General users will notice a few cosmetic changes going from Fedora 10 to Fedora 11, especially when booting. For example: Under Fedora 10, graphical boot had just been re-written and didn't work everywhere, so most systems booted in a sort of text-mode interface. But with Fedora 11, graphical boot now supports almost all video cards, so looks much better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's called multitasking, people

Multitasking means running multiple tasks at the same time. Or at least, that should be the standard definition. But I'm starting to think Windows Vista doesn't believe in that.

I'm a manager, and I write a lot of documents. Often, I'll need to print a copy of a document so I can make edits, or bring a copy to a meeting. It's not hard - click on the MS Office icon, then click Print. I usually send documents to the laser printer right outside my office. Since I don't want to watch Office print, I immediately Alt-Tab back to another application (usually Firefox) and work on something else until the document has been printed.

But Windows doesn't always print. At least, not unattended.

Imagine my surprise when I try to print a document, and nothing comes out of the printer. The printer isn't claiming it's processing the document - and in one instance, while waiting for my document, I saw the printer fire up and spit out someone else's document. On these occasions, if I go back to my desk and flip back to the Office application that was trying to print, only then does the document print. In fact, I can see Word finally display the status message "Printing page 1 of ..." at the bottom of the window.

If this had happened only once, then I'd be willing to think it was an anomaly, and forget about it. Likewise, I'd assume it was "workload" if the problem only occurred when printing long documents with lots of diagrams. But I've experienced this at least 8 times in the last 2 weeks, and almost all have been fairly short, simple documents: no diagrams, only bold/italics/indenting, less than 10 pages long, the only image is a banner graphic we use at work.

So there's definitely something going on. I don't think I'm taxing my system. If I'm referring to other materials while writing a document (typical for me) I may have a dozen Word and Excel documents open at one time. I usually also have a Firefox window open to check webmail and browse the web.

I think it's a design problem. Under Linux (and any UNIX-based system, even Mac OS X), programs rarely manage printing by themselves; instead, print data is sent to a "spooler" which actually manages the print queue (that's what "lpd" does, by the way.) Maybe that's how Windows manages printing, I don't know. But if Windows does this, then why does printing from MS Office take a back seat the instant I switch to another application?

This "Windows" thing doesn't seem like it's ready for prime time in an office environment.

Fedora 11 is out

For those of you who didn't see the announcement, Fedora 11 was released yesterday. Since my wife runs Linux on her laptop at home, I'll probably install it for her this weekend. Expect a mini-review around that time.

I may also compare Fedora 11 with features in Windows Vista, so look for that in future posts.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Bookmarks and favorites

The file managers in Linux and Windows Vista both understand the concept of "bookmarks" - saving a reference to a particular folder. This is a very useful feature, so you can come back to an often-used folder later without having to navigate to find it again. Here are some screenshots to demonstrate, courtesy of Wikipedia: (click to view full-size)


"Shared", "Documents", "Music", "Pictures" and "Videos" are bookmarked locations under Linux*


bookmarks are called "Favorite Links" under Windows Vista*

At work, we store our files on a LAN drive, like most offices. Since part of my job requires managing projects, I have a lot of project plans, design documents, and other files that I need to access frequently. I organize everything into its own folder, so I can find my files more easily. But it was always a hassle to have to navigate down the same directory tree every time I needed to open a project file.

After our desktop support folks installed Vista on my laptop, I was happy to see that the file Explorer supported bookmarks (called "Favorite Links.") So I set up a bookmark to my project folder, making it easier to access my project stuff.

But there is a tradeoff: it seems that whenever I log in to Windows, Vista checks that my bookmarks are accessible. That's okay when I'm at work and logged into the network. But if I'm working from home, or doing work remotely, it takes approximately another 2 minutes for me to log in.

I assume that Windows is checking the bookmarks for a reason. I have no idea why it does this, however, as the behavior of the operating system doesn't change. My bookmarks are still there when I'm working remotely; I just can't use them.

To compare: under Linux, the bookmarks are not checked until you try to use them. When I ran Linux at work, I had to map my network locations by myself. Since this was protected by a separate authentication system (AD), I wasn't prompted for a password until I tried to access the folder on the network. That seems like the right way to do things. It's not necessary to check the network bookmarks until I try to access them. Heck, on certain days I may not access the LAN at all.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who can explain the Windows Vista behavior. I have exactly one bookmark to a location on our LAN - specifically, a folder nested on my H: ("home") drive. We use Active Directory for authentication. The H: drive is mapped for me through AD, by our central Windows network administrators.

Why does Windows insist on checking if the bookmarks are valid before letting me login? This seems like broken behavior to me.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Better with Windows?

I got burned this week; I actually believed the story that ASUS and Microsoft teamed up, and that an Asus.co.uk page was linking to a It's Better With Windows site.

But looking at it again, I'm convinced it's a hoax. And you should be, too. Here are a few obvious telltales:

Typos and grammatical errors
Companies put a lot of effort into their online presence, and any sufficiently large organization (like ASUS) has a change control process for any web pages that get posted. One obvious step in that process is spell-checking and proofreading. Yet the "Asus.co.uk" web page is littered with typos and grammatical errors:
  • With the Eee PC™ 1008HA, you don't have to put up with a cramped, uncomfortable keys — its keyboard is 92% full-size with wide, well-spaced keys. The large Backspace, Enter and right Shift keys help reduce finger fatigue to a minimum, too.
  • Enjoy superb video conferencing experience on the move with bright 10” display, built‐in 1.3 megapixel webcam and Digital Array MIC, which enhances speech‐centric applications like Skype and even your podcast recording.
  • With its 160GB hard disk drive, the Eee PC™ 1008HA provides ample storage for all of your documents, images and multimedia files; 10GB of free online storage wiath 5GB of downloads per day means you can keep your data within easy reach from any computer.
  • Super Hybrid Engine (SHE) enhances energy efficiency and reducespower usage by up to 15%*, delivering up to 6 hours*of unplugged usage.
  • ASUSTek (UK) Ltd. © 2009 All rights Reserves
Inconsistent use of trademarks
If a company is going to use ® or ™ in their copy, they will be consistent about it. But check the "Asus.co.uk" page again, and you'll see that sometimes "Eee PC™" is written "Eee PC" (without the ™ mark.) Check the top paragraph, and the date reminder.

Look closely at the "It's better with Windows" paragraph, and you'll see more examples of this:
The Eee PC™ 1008HA comes pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows XP Home and Microsoft Works. With Windows® XP, you can be sure that your Eee PC™ will be compatible with your existing Windows applications and devices. Windows® XP is also easy to use and delivers a dependable experience that Microsoft and a worldwide community of partners stand behind. Visit www.ItsBetterwithWindows.com » to find out more.
Incorrect copyright
The "Asus.co.uk" page says "ASUSTek (UK) Ltd. © 2009 All rights Reserves". But check the actual ASUS UK page, and you'll see consistent use of "© ASUSTek Computer Inc. All Rights Reserved."

Missing branding and links
Take a quick look at the "It's Better With Windows" page. Where are the links to Microsoft.com? Where are the other references to Microsoft? For that matter, there are no references at all to Microsoft. Trust me, if marketers at Microsoft had been involved in this campaign, the name "Microsoft" would show up dozens of times, and there would be plenty of links back to Microsoft.com.

Poor web design
Microsoft may turn out a shitty desktop experience, but at least their web folks know something about web design. For example, they know enough to put together a web site that doesn't consist solely of a single JPEG background image, and an embedded video. All that text on the page? It's all part of a single image.

Microsoft doesn't own the page
This should have been the first and easiest way to tell that the "It's Better With Windows" site is a fake. Open up the page, and view the html source code. You don't have to understand html to see a few imporant clues:
  • The video file links to collaborationpeople.cdnetworks.us instead of Microsoft.com. CD Networks is a content delivery company, so that's why the file is hosted at their domain. Clearly, "collaborationpeople" is the account name that owns the actual video file. But Microsoft also does lots of content delivery. It's guaranteed that if Microsoft put this together, the video asset would be hosted by Microsoft.
  • Web statistics are being gathered by google-analytics.com. But Microsoft views Google as one of its biggest competitors in web search engines and marketing. Microsoft would never allow a key competitor to track the web hits of an "important" marketing site such as this.

I'll stop there. The spoofed "Asus.co.uk" page and the fake "It's Better With Windows" site were good attempts at a hoax, and I have to give them credit for putting something together that fooled so many people at first glance. But no, this is a hoax. Nothing to see here, move along.

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