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 (, 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.