Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Open Source Replacements

A friend shared this link with me: 56 Open Source Replacements for Popular Web Development and Design Tools by Datamation. It's an interesting read. Geared for the web developer, there's some neat stuff in there for general users, too.

And best of all, the list breaks down the platforms supported by each tool. So you don't have to be a Linux fan to benefit from the open source goodness.

Some of the picks are pretty obvious, ones you could guess would be there. Let me share a few:
  • Wordpress and Movable Type for blogging
  • Firefox and Chromium for web browsers
  • Media Wiki for collaboration
  • MySQL and PostgreSQL for databases
  • GIMP and Inkscape for graphics
  • Apache/Tomcat for web servers
  • Eclipse for web development
If you've been around an open source environment for very long, these should be very recognizable names. Some may argue the feature-for-feature comparisons between, say, GIMP and Photoshop don't really stack up. But these are all very powerful tools that have certainly made their mark.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Using Rhythmbox

I haven't done much with digital music on Linux, at least in recent years. I also have a Mac Mini at home, and I own an iPod - so figured my music options were already covered. But I thought I'd give it a try under Linux.

I mentioned in my Fedora 14 mini-review that I'm really enjoying Rhythmbox, the default music management application for GNOME. The other day, I decided to install the MP3 libraries for Rhythmbox. This is one of those unfortunate areas, where MP3 music is not supported "out of the box" on most Linux distributions, including Fedora. That's because MP3 is patent-encumbered, so technically Linux distributors can't include it without paying a license.

But you can add MP3 support easily enough from a number of other places. You'll have to use your own judgment and preferences here. RPM Fusion has packages available for Fedora 14. Their Configuration page has instructions to get set up with their repository, then it's a matter of installing a few packages. On the whole, it's about as "difficult" to add MP3 support on Linux as it is for a Windows user to download and install iTunes; it's easy!

Now, when I plug in my iPod, Rhythmbox comes up, showing my iPod and all my songs. I get cover art, playlists, the whole deal. I can even play music I purchased from iTunes using my Mac! Right now, I'm listening to some of my favorite tunes, played directly off my 32GB iPod Touch.

Here's a screenshot of Rhythmbox, also showing part of my desktop. I have Rhythmbox running in a smaller window than usual, so I could grab the screenshot without covering the whole desktop.

What's really nice is that Rhythmbox adds itself automatically to the top panel. Click the icon to hide Rhythmbox, but keep the music playing. Click it again to bring up the window, maybe select a different song or playlist.

So where does that leave me? Our Mac Mini is well over 5 years old now. It's hooked up to our TV, and sometimes we use the Mac to watch videos from the Internet. But to be honest, mostly it's just there to act as a "gateway" to my iPod. And here's another secret: I haven't bought much from Apple's iTunes Store in the last year. I've switched to Amazon's MP3 Music Store. By volume, the vast majority of the content on my iPod is MP3, either purchased on CD and ripped, or purchased online through Amazon's MP3 Music Store.

My wife and I have been debating whether we really need to buy another Mac Mini when this one dies. Since Rhythmbox works so well, we're now thinking about just ditching the Mac altogether, and running all of our digital music through Linux instead.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fedora 14 mini-review

As you know, Fedora 14 released this week. I prefer Fedora as my Linux distro, so I downloaded the new version right away. Here is my mini-review.

I freaking love it.

Here is my slightly longer mini-review:

When I do an upgrade, no matter the operating system, I prefer to blow everything away and install the new version from scratch. I've done straight upgrades, and they run fine, but I find every upgrade leaves some "cruft" from the old system. So I always reformat and reinstall.

Backing up my data was pretty straightforward, just saved it to a USB hard drive. I had burned a Fedora 14 install LiveCD, but also created a LiveUSB version of the CD using LiveUSB Creator onto a spare USB flash drive. I installed from the LiveUSB, the default (GNOME) version. Your timings may vary if you use the LiveCD, or a different "spin" (for example, KDE).

Installation took 15 minutes, including reformatting my Linux partitions and answering the pre-install questions. Encrypting my hard drive was as simple as ticking a checkbox and typing in a password. Once you answer the pre-install questions, then click the button, the rest of it is entirely automated.

When the install is done, I rebooted, copied back my data, and I was back to work. From the moment I booted into the LiveUSB installer, to when I finished restoring my data, was probably 30-40 minutes.

From there, it was a simple matter to let the system install a few updates that came out in the days following the Fedora 14 release. But with Linux, you can continue to use your system even while it installs updates.

Graphics support
I mentioned in my Fedora 14 preview post that I'd been running the beta for a little while (via my USB flash drive) and noted that Nouveau now supports my nVidia GT218 / NVS 3100M graphics card. I get full features, too, including dual-monitor support. All without having to install the nVidia proprietary driver.

I'm still in love with this upgrade. The nVidia proprietary driver got the job done, but since it didn't install itself into the pre-boot environment (there's some technical info for you, there) my laptop never booted with the graphical screen. Instead, I always watched Fedora boot using a text-mode interface, blue progress bar at the bottom of the screen before the nVidia driver could take effect and the screen would flip into full graphics mode.

But now that Nouveau has better support for my Nvidia card, I get the graphical "F" logo during the boot. It's very nice. By itself, that was enough reason for me to upgrade.

GMail integration
Now, GNOME can integrate with GMail using Gnome GMail. It allows GMail to be selected as the default mail application for the desktop. Unlike other solutions on the net, Gnome GMail supports "To:", "Subject:", "body", "CC:", and "BCC: fields.

You have to install it (not provided as part of the default install?) but once there, it's easy to select GMail as my default mail handler under "System - Preferences - Preferred Applications". Click on an email address (say, in a web page, or in GNOME) and it brings up my web browser with a GMail "compose" window. There's a process to configure it for a Google Apps account, but I prefer to use my default GMail account for this.

Music player
I haven't used the new Clementine music player yet. I went into "Applications - Sound & Video" and got distracted playing with Rhythmbox, the default music management application for GNOME. I've known about this app from previous versions, but hadn't used it much. Right now, I'm writing my blog post while listening to great 80s music, streamed from Absolute Radio. So maybe I'll get to Clementine later. Maybe.

Other stuff
One other neat feature I noticed was when I started OpenOffice (now at version 3.3) it added a "Quickstarter" into my top system tray. So when I quit OpenOffice, the next time I need to open an office document, things start up almost immediately. If you don't want the Quickstarter there, you can disable it, or right-click and select "Exit".

Also, the GNOME file browser reverted from a spatial interface back to a browser navigational model by default. So when you open a folder, you don't get a new window, it just opens in the current file browser. This reduces desktop clutter, which I very much appreciate. You can always open up another file browser if you want to click & drag files to copy or move them.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fedora 14 preview

You may have noticed that Fedora 14 makes its release next week. Curious to see what was going to be in the new version, and on a suggestion from pyxie, I grabbed a copy of the beta and installed it on my USB flash drive.

I have been booting into this, off and on, for a few days now. And it runs great! One thing I noticed right away (aside from the new desktop artwork, typical for a new release) is that Nouveau now supports my nVidia graphics card (GT218 / NVS 3100M). I get full features, too, including dual-monitor support. All without having to install the nVidia proprietary driver.

That alone is enough for me to upgrade to Fedora 14 next week.

But there are other new features, too. A quick list of some features that interest me:

Faster JPEG handling
These days, I have a huge collection of personal digital photos. I post some of them to share with friends and family, but I keep the original versions as a sort of digital portfolio. Flipping through the photo albums should be noticeably faster in Fedora 14, with the replacement of libjpeg with libjpeg-turbo. You should get about 25% increased performance when dealing with JPEG photos. And since many applications rely upon libjpeg, this should be a global improvement.

Remote desktops
In my role, I may not manage servers anymore. But whenever I see a new remote desktop tool, I have to see what's up. Remmina is a remote desktop client written for GNOME, aiming to be useful for system administrators and travelers, who need to work with lots of remote computers in front of either large monitors or tiny netbooks. Remmina supports multiple network protocols in an integrated and consistant user interface. Currently RDP, VNC, NX, XDMCP and SSH are supported.

Integration with GMail
I've commented previously that I no longer use a desktop email program, such as Thunderbird or Evolution. Both of those applications are great and all, but I've grown very fond of checking my email via a web browser, using GMail. All my email lives on the server, so if I go on vacation, or visit some remote office, I can just hop on a web browser to read my email. And it's all in once place. Now, GNOME can integrate with GMail using Gnome GMail. It allows GMail to be selected as the default mail application for the desktop. Unlike other solutions on the net, Gnome GMail supports "To:", "Subject:", "body", "CC:", and "BCC: fields

Support for Amazon's MP3 Music Store
I'll admit it, I have a Mac Mini at home. It's hooked up to our TV, and we use it to watch videos from the Internet. But mostly it's there to act as a gateway to my iPod, which I also own. And here's another secret: I haven't bought much from Apple's iTunes Store in the last year. I've kind of switched to Amazon's MP3 Music Store. By volume, the vast majority of the content on my iPod is MP3, purchased on CD and ripped, or purchased online through Amazon's Music Store. So I'm excited to see Clamz in Fedora 14, a little command-line program supporting Amazon's Music Store. It is intended to serve as a substitute for Amazon's official MP3 Downloader, which is not free software (and therefore is only available in binary form for a limited set of platforms.) Clamz can be used to download either individual songs or complete albums that you have purchased from Amazon.

Music player
Sure, Fedora has had music players for a while: Amarok, Audacity, etc. But I am interested in the new Clementine music player. It is a multi-platform music player. It is inspired by Amarok 1.4, focusing on a fast and easy-to-use interface for searching and playing your music. You can copy songs to your iPod, iPhone, MTP, or USB mass storage device. If it works as advertised, I wonder if I'll need that Mac Mini anymore as an iPod music manager appliance.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Windows 7 is still slower

I've run this comparison before, Windows v Linux boot times. The deciding factor is: how long does it take to boot, login, get a desktop, launch Firefox, and view my first web page (www.google.com)? And every time, Windows boots slower than Linux: two minutes slower (Win 7), a minute slower (Vista), about a minute slower (XP). But there's always been that small, but important, difference in how they boot up. Does Linux have an advantage by booting from a USB flash drive, with lower latency on reads?

Now that I've moved to a new organization where running Linux on the desktop is not just okay, but common, I'm running Windows and Linux on the same laptop. This seems like an excellent opportunity to re-compare the boot times for each operating system, on the same hardware, both booting from the hard drive.

First, let's talk about the system. This is a Dell Latitude E6410 laptop, our standard model for laptops at this organization. It has these specs:
  • Intel Core i5 CPU
  • 4GB memory
  • 160GB hard drive
  • nVidia graphics card GT218 [NVS 3100M]
  • Intel 82577LM Gigabit ethernet
  • Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200 wireless

Not a bad system, as laptops go. I mentioned in my last post that the only thing I don't like about this laptop is the nVidia graphics card, since I have to use nVidia's proprietary driver for graphics to work reliably. Windows is also running nVidia's driver, so both operating systems are running with the same configuration.

My last post covered the installation details pretty well: over 6 hours to get Windows working from a fresh install (not including applications such as Office), about 20 minutes to install Linux (including bundled applications, like OpenOffice.) What I failed to note in that post, and it's important here, is that the Windows side is not encrypted, but the Linux side is (you can select that at install-time.)

So for the purposes of this test, Windows will have a slight advantage in that none of its operating system files are encrypted. Windows can just read the data from disk, and go. But Linux will have an extra step to decrypt each bit of data. Finally for you Windows fans, if there's any question of one side having an advantage over the other, it's Windows that gets the benefit of the doubt.

Since I'm running a dual-boot configuration, it's easy to be consistent about when to start the timer, when booting the system. After the laptop is powered on, it goes through a Power On Self Test cycle. The time to complete the POST may vary slightly. After the POST, the multi-boot screen comes up. I select the operating system to boot, press Return, and simultaneously start my stopwatch. I keep the stopwatch running while the system boots, until the www.google.com front page comes up in Firefox.

Let's get to the numbers:

I booted each system twice, to make sure my timings were consistent.

Windows 7
Total: 1 minute, 55 seconds (115 seconds). And 1 minute, 52 seconds (112 seconds).

Linux (Fedora 13)
Total: 48 seconds, and 44 seconds.

It's hard to argue with numbers, people.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Windows v Linux on a new laptop

So I've moved on to a different organization. Once at the new office, I received a new laptop: a Dell Latitude E6410. This is a pretty nice machine. A bit heavy and bulky for my tastes, but more than enough power for the things I need to do (write documents, edit spreadsheets, read e-mail, browse the web, etc.)

It came from the factory with Windows Vista Basic pre-installed, but of course I wanted to put Linux on it. Our standard here is Windows 7, so it needed to be re-installed anyway.

What a perfect opportunity to compare the ease of installing Windows on a new laptop, versus installing Linux!

Knowing that Windows would try to clobber any pre-existing Linux installation, I let my tech support team install Windows first. I'd install Linux afterwards. All I asked was that they leave about half the hard drive space unallocated, so I could install Linux later.


We haven't ordered very many laptops before this (most of our users have desktop PCs) so our tech support team didn't have a Windows 7 image to lay down. Instead, our tech person had to install from scratch - and experienced a nightmare in getting Windows to run on this laptop.

First, the Windows 7 installer refused to recognize the nVidia GT218 [NVS 3100M] graphics card, and would only drive the system in standard VGA mode. Not exactly easy to use. The solution should be simple, though - right? Just download a new driver from nVidia's web site, and you're up and running. Except that the Windows installer also failed to recognize the Intel 82577LM Gigabit network adapter.

So he had to use another machine to download the network driver from Intel's support site, copy to my new laptop via a USB flash drive, and install it. A few reboots later, he was finally on the network.

Only then was he finally able to download the nVidia driver, to get video working on my new laptop.

From start to finish, installing Windows 7 (from scratch) on this laptop took over 6 hours. And that was just for Windows 7. I still don't have Microsoft Office installed, but since I rarely boot into Windows (and use Google Docs for most everything anyway) I doubt I'll bother.


Installing Linux was pretty straightforward for me. First, I used my bootable USB flash drive to boot the laptop into Fedora 13, to verify that everything worked. I immediately got on the network, and had access to full resolution via the Nouveau driver (an experimental open source software driver for nVidia cards.)

Satisfied that everything was compatible, I rebooted the laptop using a bootable USB live installer (thanks to LiveUSB Creator) and immediately proceeded to install Fedora 13.

Installation took about 20 minutes from start to finish. And that includes all the bundled applications, such as OpenOffice suite, too.


Easily, I'd say Linux "won" this one. But it would be dishonest of me to ignore that I've had some issues.

To be honest, I'm not all that impressed with the graphics on this system. I have the nVidia graphics card. The free Nouveau driver gives me video, and it drives my second just monitor fine. But very occasionally it has problems initiazing itself during boot. My temporary solution has been to reboot, and that seems to work. I sort of blame nVidia for that; the error message indicates the card wasn't ready for use by the time Nouveau loaded itself.

Eventually, I installed nVidia's proprietary driver. Actually, that was painless, but I did need to install the C compiler. Reboot your system into text mode, then run nVidia's install script. It does everything for you, and sets up the configuration for graphics to display properly.

The only thing you'll need to do is disable the Nouveau driver. The easiest way to do that is by passing these options at boot time:

rdblacklist=nouveau nomodeset

Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of disabling the graphical boot. Rather than seeing the nifty Fedora "F" logo at boot time, you'll see a text-mode multi-coloured progress bar at the bottom of the screen. It's a decent compromise for working video.

You may need to re-install the nVidia driver whenever you update your kernel package, but that's pretty rare. Aside from that, it's worked out pretty well.

I'll add that all this would be completely unnecessary if nVidia would wake up and support open source software. Release the specs, and let the Linux developer community write their own free driver. The Nouveau driver is a great effort, but they'll never be able to support all the features of the hardware without knowing how to program for them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Chrome on Linux, and fonts

I really like Chrome as a browser, but I just haven't been able to use the thing on Linux because the fonts never looked right. I set my system for one font rendering, to make my Linux (GNOME) fonts beautiful and easy to read. But Chrome never picked up the new preferences.

I googled it today, and found a discussion from earlier in 2010 (sorry, lost the link) that mentions the problem, and the solution.

The problem: Chrome uses a different method to get font preferences. It uses a method that no other Linux (really, GNOME) apps use. So changing your font preferences in GNOME do nothing for Chrome.

The solution: Edit your ~/.fonts.conf file (this is probably a new file for you.) Add these lines:

<match target="font">
<edit mode="assign" name="antialias"><bool>true</bool></edit>
<edit mode="assign" name="hinting"><bool>false</bool></edit>
<edit mode="assign" name="hintstyle"><const>hintnone</const></edit>

You may need to edit the settings manually to match how your GNOME preferences. But after I did this, things looked a lot better for me.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Windows v Ubuntu

PC Pro ran an article recently that I found very interesting: Windows 7 vs Ubuntu 10.04. It's a good comparison of two desktop operating systems. I happen to prefer Fedora, but Ubuntu is a very nice distro as well.

I'll give PC Pro this: they give credit where credit is due. From the intro:
However, something rather extraordinary is happening in the Linux world. Amid all the distros that have come and gone over the years, one finally has the potential, the momentum and the commercial backing to at least challenge the Windows hegemony.

Ubuntu 10.04 is the most mature, user-friendly and feature-packed Linux desktop OS to date. From the Wubi installer – which installs the operating system with the ease of a regular Windows app – to the built-in music store, online backup service and comprehensive driver support, Ubuntu 10.04 has the unmistakable demeanour of a mainstream OS. It even looks nice.

The review compares entertainment and bundled apps, performance and mobility, drivers and compatibility, and suitability for business.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, I'll spoil the ending:
  • Linux: 38/50

  • Windows: 41/50

Windows just barely squeaks ahead, only 3 points ahead. The tone of the article's conclusion is very encouraging, as well:
Our overall scores show a narrow victory for Windows 7. Does that mean we urge you to remain firmly entrenched in the Windows camp? Most certainly not.

[..] And with a new version of Ubuntu never more than six months away, more new features are just around the corner.

Ubuntu is clearly an operating system on the rise. If we repeat this feature in a year’s time, will it have closed the gap? We wouldn’t bet against it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Microsoft hates "open"?

You may recall from 2001 when Microsoft CEO referred to Linux (and open source in general) was a "cancer". Remember a few weeks ago, when Microsoft reversed this position and declared they love open source. Microsoft had finally come to its senses in regards to Linux.

In an interview with Network World, Microsoft's general manager of their interoperability strategy team said: "We love open source [...] We have worked with open source for a long time now."

That was quickly reversed.

Brazil's Folha.com ran an article last week in which president of Microsoft Latin America, Hernán Rincón, was quoted saying:
"When you can not compete, you are declaring open. This masks incompetence. [...] When convenient, the companies say they are open. They use it for their own benefit." [translation]

Oops. Seems like this guy didn't get the memo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Linux in Exile is not dead

My last post on Linux in Exile was 2 months ago. You may have wondered if the blog died out, maybe I stopped writing new entries. It hasn't, and I haven't. However, my activity was necessarily "paused" while some important events happened

I have moved on to a new organization.

What with interviewing, transitioning my old role to someone else, moving out of the old house, relocating the family to a new city, settling into the new home, and starting my new role at a new organization - Linux in Exile dropped in priority a bit. But I'm back.

However, things have changed slightly.

What would you call the senior-most IT officer at a "satellite" location, with lines of authority back to (but not reporting to) the Chief Information Officer? Different organizations refer to this position in different terms: "CTO", "Assistant CIO", "IT Director", etc. However you'd refer to that position title, that's me in this organization. I manage my own IT staff, and direct the IT strategy for this organization.

I also set IT policy for this location. We're a fairly independent branch, effectively our own shop. The "lines of authority" to the CIO basically are there to effect organization-wide IT decisions, but otherwise the IT strategy here is my responsibility.

People running Linux on the desktop is part of the culture, here. Looking across the organization, Linux is definitely part of the desktop IT ecosystem. So it's no surprise that as soon as I arrived, I installed Linux on my laptop - dual-boot with Windows 7. Finally, I'm running Linux at work again, rarely booting into Windows. So I guess you could say that I'm no longer "Linux in Exile", the original reason for starting this blog.

However, I do plan to keep writing new blog entries. I'm dual-boot with Windows 7, so I still notice lots of things in Windows that just seem out of place from Linux. And I intend to keep writing about them.

Expect more updates from me very soon. Please be patient if new posts aren't exactly timely. I'll try to get back on a schedule, but blogging may be erratic until I'm truly settled in.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why platform matters less, part 2

There once was a time when computers were available only to a select few. Often working in specialized offices, operators used a terminal at their desk to access a central time-share system. Computers were big and expensive, not generally thought of as a general-purpose tool.

In January 1977, Commodore released the PET - and the world was introduced to the first widely-sold personal computer. This was soon followed by the highly successful Apple ][ which quickly became the most popular computer for the home. IBM responded with the IBM-PC, running Microsoft's DOS.

In the span of a few years, not only had the computer market been turned on its head, but the race was on for bringing users to the personal computer.

We're seeing a new turning point now in computing. Things are about to change.

Since about 2000, technologists have talked about "Web 2.0", where the Web transformed from simple pages and forms, to more of an application platform. Broadband was certainly a player in "Web 2.0", but really it was the feasibility of technologies like AJAX that made "Web 2.0" possible. The browser was powerful enough to become a competing platform in its own right. I talked about the Web platform in my "Part 1" post.

I believe the next generation of the Web, or "Web 3.0", will be focused on the handheld device. We've seen a build up to this over the last year or so. Actually, I've been riding this wave for a few years now. I used to bring my PSP everywhere I went - not (so much) to play video games during idle time, but to browse the web using open wifi. The web browser on the PSP is serviceable for that, and many tech-oriented web sites have had a mobile-enabled version of their site (if not mobile browser detection) for a while now.

But today, if I want to browse the web (IMDB, GMail, etc.) and I'm not at my computer, I'll just use the browser on my smartphone. Welcome to the future!

I think Steve Jobs sees that mobile/handheld computing will be the next Big Thing, so it's not a coincidence that he's betting so much of Apple on the success of the iPad. And given the success of the iPhone and iPod Touch, it shouldn't be a surprise (from an engineering standpoint) that that iPad is basically an iPhone with a larger screen.

The future of computing will focus less on the desktop and laptop - and the operating system - and will emphasize handheld "appliances".

And yes, other IT players are trying to break into the non-phone handheld device market. Microsoft has been touting their "Microsoft Courier" mobile platform for a while now - and just recently killed it. But doubtless we'll see other large-format mobile devices hit the market soon. The Kindle was there first, but they targeted only the book market - I'll be interested to see what device comes next.

If iPad devices are successful (and I think it's safe to say they will be) personal computing will look a lot different in another 5 years. How do you think computing will change?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Young developers do not like Microsoft

There's a great article on the New York Times about how Microsoft is losing touch with the younger market. And that's going to cause problems down the road for the software giant.

My favorite bit from the article:
Part of its problem may be that its ability to intrigue and attract software developers is also waning, which threatens its ability to steer markets over the long term. When it comes to electronic devices, people writing software have turned their attention to platforms from Apple and Google.

Meanwhile, young technology companies today rely on free, open-source business software rather than Microsoft’s products, so young students, soon to be looking for jobs, have embraced open-source software as well.

[Update: removed quote by Tim O'Reilly, since he says he was misquoted.]
Here's the problem, as I see it: the general idea for Microsoft is to get access to university students, indoctrinate the computer science majors with cheap developer tools, and get mindshare with the other students through inexpensive software. We've seen this with other companies before (why do you think Apple gives discounts to students?) so this is nothing new.

The concept is that these students will eventually enter the workforce, and will advocate for the tools they find most familiar - the software they used at university. In theory, the computer science graduates will want to develop software for Microsoft Windows, using Microsoft developer environments. The other students will want to use the other Microsoft suite software. Thus, Microsoft can expect to draw in huge corporate sales later, by offering discounts to universities and colleges. Usually, this works.

But in the last generation of students, Microsoft was not successful in getting access to university students. And we're now seeing the effects of that.

Where did that mindshare go, if it didn't go to Microsoft? It went right where Microsoft didn't want it to be: to Free and Open Source Software. In short, the Linux market.

This is a very real example why it's important to have a Free Software option. The students who graduate today are more inclined to use Linux and other open source software. Those who become developers will tend to use an open source software base. And that's only a good thing. I can't wait to watch the current generation of students graduate, and see how this further changes the market in a few more years.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why platform matters less, part 1

Recently, I discussed web applications as one way to simplify an environment in preparation for moving an organization to Linux. People sometimes forget this option. Do you have applications that can run via the web? Maybe you have a group calendar system that also has a "web client". This can be an easy way to remove an obstacle to your Linux migration. If you have any applications that are "Windows only", check if there is a web option available to you.

This raises an issue that Microsoft feared back in the late 1990's. It's why Microsoft fought so aggressively to get into the web browser market after first ignoring it. The operating system platform matters a lot less if people consume applications via the web rather than through the desktop. It's awfully hard to lock users to Windows when they don't run any Windows apps per se.

In one example, when I first ran Linux at work in my current organization, our groupware application was advertised as "Windows-only". But I found the web version worked perfectly on Linux using Firefox, so I got along fine and had no problems interacting with my co-workers via the groupware.

A glaring example today is Google Docs. Available via the web to any capable browser (including some mobile platforms), you can edit documents, work on spreadsheets, and create presentations. It has the look and feel of previous versions of Office, without that Ribbon interface.

Sure, your very advanced users will find certain "power features" missing from Google Docs. But it does the job well enough for today's office environments. My work adopted Google early this year. After experimenting these last few months, I found myself gravitating to Google Docs for all my work. I'm a manager, so most of my office work is writing strategy documents or managing budget spreadsheets, with an occasional presentation. Surprise! I can do all that from within Google Docs. And it doesn't matter if I'm running Windows or Linux.

As an added bonus, many of us at work now collaborate remotely when working on documents and spreadsheets. The other person might be in another building or another state, but we can still have the same document open to add our changes, and use a text chat system to ask questions. It was a little odd when I first did this, but now it's become the new norm.

This scares Microsoft to death. I'm sure there are lots of meetings in Redmond that ask the question, "If people can use all these apps from a web browser, why do they need Windows?"

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Newspaper tries free software for a day

The Saratogian tried an experiment for Independence Day - run free software for a day, to produce the July 4 2010 issue of their (web and print) newspaper. They called it the Ben Franklin Edition *. The free software experiment is part of the Ben Franklin Project of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Saratogian.

The Ben Franklin Project’s one-shot deal is the preparation of all daily newspapers in the Journal Register Company using free software for publication on the Fourth of July, a symbolic declaration of independence from proprietary software.

Their conclusions at the end of this one-day experiment?
It was hard work. The proprietary software is designed to be efficient, reliable and relative fast for the task of producing a daily newspaper. The free substitutes, not so much.
So, staff at The Saratogian have used Windows software for years and years and years. They moved to Linux for a day and found that things were different, and "different" was hard to learn. Why am I not surprised?

To make it happen, staff had to change behaviors, and learn software that replaced the proprietary systems they had used for every other edition. An example of their work:
News Editor Paul Tackett has been working days and nights, on top of his usual job, to set up most of the day's pages in a layout program called Scribus. [...] For today's print edition, Tackett has duplicated the familiar components of The Saratogian from scratch, with the goal being that you won't know the difference between the look of today's paper and tomorrow's.
To be sure, that was a major effort. Tackett had to spend days to reproduce templates and layouts that have been built up over years in another program. But doing that kind of work would be hard for anyone. It doesn't matter if you move to free software or just another proprietary software package, changing everything is going to be hard. I give this guy huge credit for accomplishing it on time. But I also give kudos out to Scribus for being able to support what he was doing.

You know, moving from one environment that you know really well to one that you don't - it's always hard. We Linux users have trouble, too, moving from Linux to Windows. After all, that's what this blog is about. I did it for my work, and I'm constantly finding things in Windows that just don't work right or work stupidly. Or where features are missing entirely.

Linux is just easier for me. But I've been using Linux at home since 1993, and running Linux at work since 2002. Until 2009, that is, when I was "asked" to move to Windows for work.

This whole "try free software for a day" thing is a neat "publicity stunt within the journalism industry" (their words) but migrating in that short a time is very very hard to do. If you're going to move an organization to free software (or to Linux), there are ways to do it so you won't stress your users too much.

Overall, I'm very glad the editors gave a forum to demonstrate how free software is just as capable as proprietary software in publishing a newspaper. Hopefully, enough of their readers will see through the difficulties in pulling off the "stunt" to recognize that if free software can work for a newspaper, it can work for me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The post I almost wrote

I found my old 5th generation 30GB iPod yesterday. It still worked, so the geek in me thought, "I could probably make this into a 'combo' iPod/drive, an iPod that also boots Linux". Basically, repartition the device to be a (smaller) iPod, with a partition where I could install Linux. Maybe someone out there would find that useful and interesting, worth a blog post.

I tried a couple of experiments. First, if you delete all the partitions on the iPod and repartition it for Linux, there's some basic firmware on the device that displays an error message. But it's easy enough to use iTunes to restore the iPod to factory default. So that's one test down.

I found a web page about how to put a different partition on an iPod, like to use for Linux. The guy even showed the commands to run, to create a separate partition for Linux, and still leave a usable iPod data partition. He claims it worked on his device. It didn't work on mine. Now, my iPod just boots, shows an Apple logo, clicks, reboots, shows an Apple logo, clicks, reboots ... Or it did, until the battery died a few hours later.

I bought this iPod in 2005, about a month after its debut. It's 5 years old, definitely outside the service period. Apple says they will charge me $25 just to look at it. (It's safe to assume they'd charge me a lot more to fix/replace it.)

And no, it doesn't present itself to a computer, like for me to restore it using iTunes. It's too busy rebooting. It's a dead device. End of experiment, and end of blog post idea.

But why would you want to go through the trouble to make a "combo" iPod/drive anyway, when you can just buy a new drive? So let's take a quick look at the market:
  • The iPod was 30GB. You can get a new 32GB flash drive for about $60. I'm already running Linux from a flash drive (8GB "Pico" drive, about $25) and it works fine, but it's a little slow when running a bunch of updates.
  • Or you can buy an external USB hard drive that's 10 times the size, for the same cost. I actually have one of these for keeping backups, and it's great. (For comparison, that's a slightly better deal than at Best Buy.)
Unless you happen to have an old 5th generation 30GB iPod. Then you could just repartition the iPod for Linux, and accept that it will show an error message - like I should have done. Ah well.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Office 2010 not worth the upgrade

Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post wrote a great item about Microsoft's Office 2010. His conclusion: Office 2010 is not worth the upgrade. Sure, there may be some neat stuff in there (as is always the case in an upgrade) but mostly it's just window dressing for the same old, tired back-end.

From the article:
Unfortunately, Outlook 2010 -- like Office 2007 and, for that matter, much of Windows 7 -- reveals the same old cluttered, confusing dialogs and menus once you dig a layer or two into its interface. This is a generic, maybe genetic defect with Microsoft: The company changes the facade of a program enough to confuse veterans and then fails to fix problems underneath that continue to stymie beginners.
And he ends with:
When Microsoft can bring OneNote's desktop-to-Web continuity to the rest of Office 2010 -- better yet, with mobile access too -- this could be a worthwhile upgrade. Until then, most home users can leave this one on the shelf.

Trying to get back on a schedule

It's been a hectic couple of weeks here. Sorry some of the posts have been a little late. I'm trying to get back on a schedule so I can write more regular updates.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Moving to Linux

Several organizations have been successful in moving to Linux. I'd like to discuss this topic again.

How do you move an organization to Linux? What's the process? It's not as simple as coming in over the weekend, re-installing everyone's desktops with the latest Linux distro, and hoping things go for the best. You need a real transition plan, a strategy to move the organization.

Here's what I would do to ease a transition to Linux:

1. Take an inventory

The first step in any transition is to understand what you're working with, and what your obstacles might be. The key here is to be brutally honest. Why is the organization running Windows? Are there applications that are only available for Windows? Do any of your "power users" require obscure features in, say, Microsoft Office to do their job? Maybe your users need to work with an outside web application (perhaps a vendor web site) that requires IE.

Is your hardware Linux-compatible? In my experience, wireless network cards and high-end video cards are the areas that tend to cause problems. You should also check your printers to make sure that Linux can drive them (typically, HP laser printers and any Postscript printers work fine, but many Canon desktop inkjet printers will not work.) If you find anything that's not 100% compatible, look for workarounds. For example, you may consider the Nouveau driver for NVIDIA cards.

Also understand your budget. Will you need to purchase new software for Linux that replicates features and functionality from the Microsoft platform? And how much budget is available to you to cover migration costs?

Most importantly, understand why you are moving to Linux. For many organizations, cost is the #1 driver. It's expensive to run a Windows environment, moreso if you also run Microsoft applications on the back-office (think MS Exchange and MS SQL Server.) Why are you making the move? If you don't have a good answer to this, you're going to have an uphill struggle the rest of the way.

2. File formats

If everyone in your organization creates Word documents in DOC format, and Excel spreadsheets in XLS, then consider yourself lucky. But Microsoft has since introduced DOCX and XLSX as their "Office OpenXML" format. Your organization will likely have a mix of these file extensions floating around. Note that OpenOffice can read and write all of these formats.

Look at what other files your organization produces and consumes. Can Linux work with them all? What applications read and write them? This may have been covered in step #1, but match them up anyway.

Where possible, define a standard for your users that happens to work well with Linux. The obvious choice is ODF: the OpenDocument Format. Microsoft Office 2010 or Office 2007 SP2 can read/write ODF files, as can OpenOffice.

But, as is the case when making any change, you should be sure to test a reasonable sample of real files from your organization to ensure that nothing is lost (for example, special formatting?) if you save the document in ODF format.

3. Web applications

People sometimes forget this option. Do you have applications that can run via the web? Maybe you have a group calendar system that also has a "web client". This can be an easy way to remove an obstacle to your Linux migration. If you have any applications that are "Windows only", check if there is a web option available to you.

In my case, when I first ran Linux at work in my current organization, our groupware application was advertised as "Windows-only". But I found the web version worked perfectly on Linux using Firefox, so I got along fine.

As in #2, be sure to test that the web application does everything that the desktop version can do - or at least, that it covers all the functionality that your users will need. I'll assume you'll test again at each of the steps below.

4. Desktop applications

Your users haven't moved to Linux yet, so everyone is still running Windows. To help with the future migration, start moving your desktop applications to versions that also run on Linux. For example, replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice for Windows. Make sure Firefox is installed on everyone's PC, and that your users know to use it.

Moving your applications now means your users have time to become familiar with the new environment - while having that "buffer" of still running on Windows. And it reduces the anxiety that may develop when you eventually migrate your users to Linux.

5. Protocols

Do you have any Microsoft-specific protocols running on your network? Are you running Active Directory? Microsoft Exchange or Novell GroupWise? The thing to look for at this stage is that Linux can talk to all your back-office applications.

Note that GNOME Evolution includes support for Exchange 2000/2003 and GroupWise. And Linux can talk to an Active Directory network, but you may be unable to manage profiles on Linux through AD.

6. Early adopters

Once you have set up your users to use web applications and open desktop applications, it's finally time to start migrating users to the Linux platform. But don't expect to move everyone at once.

In making a major transition like this, I have found it easier to move groups of people at a time. There's no sense in migrating everyone at once. After all, they're all using the same applications now, so you don't have to worry about cross-compatibility. Your biggest worry at this point should be adoption and acceptance.

Pick a smallish group of users, but one that's self-contained. Ideally, the people in this group should already be excited to make the switch - these are your early adopters, and who (if you do things right) will soon become your allies. Maybe this is your server support team, or your database administrators, or some other "technical" team.

Do training with your users, and set expectations appropriately. Show lots of screenshots of the Linux desktop, give a live demo of running Linux on your own system. This takes the "fear" out of doing a move, by seeing that Linux looks and works just like Windows. Be careful about showing off too many "geeky" things - stick to the functionality that your users will find familiar, and introduce only a few new features like virtual desktops. In particular, avoid showing off the desktop effects - your users may not find "wobbly windows" or "workspaces on a cube" as impressive as you do.

Agree to a migration schedule with these users, and make sure their migration is flawless. You don't want any hiccups with your very first migration, so make sure all your bases are covered.

Plan ahead for problems and workarounds. You might dual-boot their laptops or workstations, so they have a quick and easy way to boot back to Windows if they run into problems on Linux.

Stay visible to your early adopters, and respond to questions or concerns right away. There is no such thing as "too much communication" at this stage. Hang around their offices, if you can, so you are immediately available if people have issues.

If all goes well, this group of early adopters will become your allies in future migrations. When things have settled down, meet with the next group you want to move, and repeat. Encourage your early adopters to share their experiences, good and bad. As you continue to have success with each group, your momentum will increase, and you will find much less resistance from the rest of your organization in migrating to Linux.

Finally, in doing your migration, you can't forget your desktop support. Previous to this, all your support staff have been trained in managing Windows desktops. Supporting a Linux environment will be different for them. Train your desktop support staff to run Linux. If you deploy new systems by installing an image, make sure you have a Linux image available to use.

Above all, be realistic with expectations. Not just managing what your users will think of using Linux, but in how quickly you can move people to a new platform. My advice is to take the time you need in preparing, so steps #1-5 should take the longest. And give your early adopters in #6 time to adjust, as well. Don't give users an excuse to complain that you are forcing this migration; let each step take the time it needs.

That's my experience, anyway. How would you manage a Linux migration?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Command line Google

I've you've ever wanted to run scripted actions to update your web photo album, or post a blog entry, or do any number of other things, you may be interested to know that Google has released a command line client, only for Linux. Some examples from the article:

$ google picasa create --title "My album" ~/Photos/vacation/*.jpg

$ google blogger post --blog "My blog" --tags "python, googlecl, development" my_post.html

$ google calendar add "Lunch with Jason tomorrow at noon"

$ google docs edit --title "Shopping list" --editor vim

This has great potential to "power Linux" users. Personally, I'm interested in that last example, where you can run a command to edit a Google Docs document using offline tools. That has potential to extend how I use Google Docs.

But I also want to play around with that first example - uploading a bunch of photos to Picasa Web Albums. I mentioned before about how I've switched to Shotwell for managing and publishing digital photos. But sometimes you might have a bunch of digital photos that aren't managed by Shotwell (for example, I have old family photos, archived on CD) that you might want to push to a web photo album. This tool should make doing so a lot easier.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why open source makes sense

A friend at work shared this link to me. It's an interesting video/animation that fills in a presentation about what motivates workers. While the video is fairly short (about 10 minutes) it feels much longer because there's so much content there.

I saw something very similar in the Harvard Business Review a few months ago, drawing pretty much the same conclusion: if the work is strictly mechanical, money is a motivator. If the work requires any cognitive skill, money is no longer the motivator.

This is exactly what we see in the IT industry today. Linux and Apache are huge forces, yet in most cases, the people who develop Linux and Apache aren't doing it for the money. But look at Microsoft - I wonder, is it really so surprising that Microsoft seems sluggish?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fedora 13 is out

If you have been following my recent posts about Fedora 13 beta, you may be interested to know that Fedora 13 is out now!

Looking through the list of changes for desktop users in Fedora 13, everything I've talked about in my other posts is there. I'm planning to install it on my laptop (really, my USB flash drive) later this week.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's called sudo

Sometimes, I get email spam that is too interesting to delete immediately. Here's one that arrived at my work account, advertising a free "webinar" about a security product:
Organizations can no longer tolerate the security risks posed by intentional, accidental or indirect misuse of privileges. However, organizations need to provide the extended enterprise with necessary privileges within specified guidelines to do their job safely.

You will learn how to securely delegate privileges and authorization without disclosing the root password, including [...]
Maybe I wasn't aware that people didn't know how to do this already, so I'll explain it here. In Unix and Linux systems, this is managed using the "sudo" command.

With sudo, a systems administrator can delegate the ability to run certain commands as though the user were root. (In Unix, root is the administrator of the system.) Only certain commands are allowed, as designated by the real systems administrator. You can even specify which command line options are permitted.

For example, in a corporate environment, a systems administrator often just manages the operating system, and a separate web server administrator is in charge of managing the technical components of a web site. We do this where I work. So root can set up sudo so the web server administrator can start, stop, and restart the "httpd" service. That's all the web server administrator can do - they can't do anything else as root.

Most importantly, sudo allows you to share access to specific users. So users ben and mike can restart a web server, because they're the only people on the web server administrator team - but not users fred or sharon.

The ben user would type this at the "$" command line prompt:
$ sudo service httpd restart
Or maybe the systems administrator set up a single command to restart the web server. In that case, the command might be:
$ sudo web-restart
On my personal Linux system, I never login as root anymore, so I use sudo for those (rare) times that I need to do something "administrative" at the command line. (I don't often work at the command line these days, but sometimes I like to exercise my "sysadmin" background.)

In my case, I configured the sudo command (/etc/sudoers) to allow my general user login to run any command as root, but only if I provide my password. It's easy! You can also set up sudo to not require a password for certain users or for certain commands, but I prefer to require a password - if only to remind me that I'm about to become the root user.

For when you're working in the GUI, Linux uses PolicyKit to do something similar. That's why you can change the date and time on a Linux desktop without having to login as root.

Note that Windows has something similar to sudo, called runas ("Run As"). In Windows Vista and Windows 7, this is User Account Control, or "UAC". But runas (or UAC) is actually less secure than sudo. When you want to run an "administrative" command using runas, you will be prompted to provide the password for Administrator. So to delegate authority and privilege to your users, everyone needs to have shared access to the Administrator password.

I guess that's another way in which Linux does things a bit better.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

About openness

While I've been away these last 2 weeks, I've watched the Apple/Adobe fight very closely. At issue: Apple doesn't support Flash on the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Adobe, the parent company behind Flash, isn't at all happy with Apple's decision. So they fight it out in the press. In the latest move, Adobe ran "We ♥ Apple" ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, pressing their side of the argument.

If you want to read Apple and Adobe's opinions directly: Steve Jobs posted his thoughts on Flash, and Adobe shared their thoughts as well.

I find it very interesting to note what both sides claim is the core issue: Openness.

Steve Jobs leads with this issue, saying:
First, there’s “Open”.

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.

Apple has many proprietary products too. Though the operating system for the iPhone, iPod and iPad is proprietary, we strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open. [...]
John Warnock and Chuck Geschke (Adobe) directly address Openness too:
If the web fragments into closed systems, if companies put content and applications behind walls, some indeed may thrive — but their success will come at the expense of the very creativity and innovation that has made the Internet a revolutionary force.

We believe that consumers should be able to freely access their favorite content and applications, regardless of what computer they have, what browser they like, or what device suits their needs. No company — no matter how big or how creative — should dictate what you can create, how you create it, or what you can experience on the web.
Both companies are being one-sided here, but Apple's response annoys me. Steve starts out by talking about how proprietary/closed products are bad, then in the next paragraph twists his case into a web context.

But isn't it interesting that these two companies can talk so baldly about Openness, without addressing the question: "Can it really be 'open' if the source code remains closed?"

Actually, Adobe did briefly address this in another post, but it didn't get much press. Here's what they say about it:
The core engine of Flash Player (AVM+) is open source and was donated to the Mozilla Foundation, where it is actively maintained. The file formats supported by Flash Player, SWF and FLV/F4V, as well as the RTMP and AMF protocols are freely available and openly published. Anyone can use the specifications without requiring permission from Adobe. Third parties can and do build audio, video, and data services that compete with those from Adobe.

There are no restrictions on the development of SWF authoring tools, and anyone can build their own SWF or FLV/F4V player.

Flex, the primary application framework for the Adobe Flash Platform, is also open source and is actively maintained and developed by Adobe and the community.

Finally, the Flash Platform has a rich developer ecosystem of both open and proprietary tools and technologies, including developer IDEs and environments such as FDT, IntelliJ, and haXe; open source runtimes such as Gnash; and open source video servers such as Red5.
So Adobe can get some credit, here, for their claim of Openness. It's not a full pass from me, but the "core engine" and an open spec are notable steps.

If we're going to make serious arguments about Openness, we really need to talk about "Free / Open Source Software." It's not just about choosing between option A and option B, where you can't really modify either to suit your needs.

The basic definition of Free / Open Source Software is that the source code must be made available for others to see it. A necessary side-effect of this condition is that anyone who uses the program has an opportunity to make improvements. A well-managed project will accept any improvements in the form of patches, which modifies the program to solve someone else’s slightly different (but similar) problem. Releasing new versions of the software with the new features ensures that everyone benefits from these changes.

That's why I prefer to use Free / Open Source operating systems such as Linux. The user community has total freedom; the software can never turn against you. It only takes one person with enough vision and motivation to deliver another option that benefits everyone. And since the source code remains open, it continues to benefit the community after that person is done.

In a prettier-but-closed system, à la Apple's "walled garden", you are subject to the whims of whoever brings you the software. Mac users and developers who may be unhappy with Apple's decision not to support Flash will just have to wait for Apple to change their minds. But they may not want to hold their breath.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

GNOME Shell preview

I mentioned earlier that GNOME 2.30 includes a preview of the upcoming GNOME Shell. To get this working under Fedora 13beta is very simple: you just select the GNOME Shell package via the standard "Add/Remove Software".

Since it's intended as a preview, not as a standard desktop replacement, you need to run this manually from GNOME (via a terminal window, for example.) I've experimented with it, and I like what I have seen, so far.

The GNOME project has screenshots, and a few videos, showing the new GNOME Shell in action. The version that I have is pretty close to these; the screenshots and videos are up to a year old now.

The GNOME Shell will be part of the standard desktop when GNOME 3 is eventually released, currently scheduled for September 2010.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fedora 13 coming soon!

If you have been following my recent posts about Fedora 13beta, you may be interested to know that Fedora 13 is coming soon! The final release is currently due on Tuesday, May 18 2010.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A peek into Fedora 13beta

It's been about a week since I wrote my Fedora 13beta mini-review. A user asked for screenshots of Shotwell and Déjà Dup, so I thought I'd oblige with this post.

First, a few notes:

I reported in my mini-review that the beta is using GNOME 2.29. The day after I wrote that, I installed a bunch of updates to my system, and GNOME 2.30 was among them.

Color profile support still requires a calibration device to generate a profile for you. One that has been recommended to me is the Datacolor Spyder, to create a color profile of your monitor. The Spyder 3 Express costs around $90. It is useful to calibrate your monitor at least every 6 months or so, since the cold cathode backlight on your LCD changes color as it ages.

Managing digital photos:

In previous releases, I'd used GIMP to edit all my digital photos (remove red-eye, etc.) Now, I'm switching to Shotwell. It's that good. Here's a sample album, showing some photos of my cat:

Someone posted a comment earlier, expressing concern that Shotwell requires importing your photos before you can edit them. This is not the case. You can right-click on any photo in GNOME, and "Open with Shotwell Photo Viewer". From there, you have access to all the photo editing tools, and I used this feature to crop a photo a friend had taken of me.

It's easy! You can choose the crop to be unconstrained, or you can use a pre-set aspect ratio and resize the range appropriately.

Note there is no "resize" function in Shotwell. That's a function of the "export". When you publish your photos online (Shotwell supports Facebook, Flickr, Picasa) you can choose a size for your photos.

Backing up your data:

I was really excited to try out Déjà Dup. It's a new backup tool that should make life a lot easier. With it, you can backup to any storage that GNOME can use (local disk, external hard drive, SSH/SFTP, FTP, Windows share, WebDAV, etc.) or directly to Amazon's S3 cloud storage. Everything is encrypted and compressed, and backups are such that you can restore from any particular snapshot.

Déjà Dup has an interface that's simple to use:

Once you have made a successful backup, Déjà Dup asks you if you want to schedule this backup for another time. I have my backups set for "weekly", to an SSH/SFTP host on my home network. It just runs on its own, and GNOME gives me a small warning beforehand so I can opt to cancel the backup if I'd prefer.

Restoring files is very straightforward, although it lacks the really cool interface from Apple's Time Machine. You can choose to overwrite your existing files with the backup copy, or restore to a new location:

There's even an option in GNOME to right-click on a file and revert to a previous version (via Déjà Dup.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Making Linux act like Windows

It's as easy as a cron job.

Although to be honest, Windows hasn't randomly rebooted on me in a very long time. I don't recall seeing this behaviour in Windows 7. But it still happened a few times in Windows Vista, and of course in Windows XP.

These days, to get Linux to better mimic Windows behaviour, you'd need to write a mod to the software update tool - so that between downloading the patches and actually installing them, you were forced to shut down and reboot.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fedora 13beta mini-review

Fedora 13beta was released a few days ago, and since I'm on vacation this week, I grabbed it right away and installed it on my USB flash drive that boots Linux. I thought I'd post my first impressions:

First, the install process:

The installer has gotten some major improvements, which now give you more options for how to install on a hard drive with another operating system. This should make it easier for current Windows users to try out Linux.

In previous releases, you only had the option to use the space from a previous Linux install, use just the free space on the drive, or blow away everything and use the whole disk. Now, you can also opt to shrink an existing operating system and use the space that's left over. Basically, this uses an NTFS tool to non-destructively resize a Windows filesystem, [hopefully] leaving enough room to install Linux.

But in my case, I already had Linux installed to my USB flash drive, so I just re-used the space on that. Actually, I did a "Custom" install, and told it to re-use my existing partitions (but not to reformat my encrypted /home partition, but to use it as-is.)

The install process is very fast, even though the Fedora 13beta LiveCD is a bit bigger than will fit on a CDROM (this will be fixed by the time Fedora 13 is officially released, in May.) From start to finish, it took about 15-20 minutes to install Linux.

And the changes:

The user interface has gotten an update, as well. One thing that became immediately obvious is the resizeable mouse pointer. I recall that, with previous releases, you could choose between a "normal size" mouse pointer, or a larger one (for example, if you had poor vision.) Now, the mouse pointer is customizable as part of the theme (under "Appearance - Customize - Pointer") and you can scale it to the size you want. I prefer the smallest pointer size, in white. The default is a sort of dark grey.

The desktop icons have also been refreshed. The icons are similar to the previous releases, but have a more modern look to them. I like it a lot:

(Click to enlarge)

Note that I haven't created a "Demo User" account for taking screenshots, so this is using my own desktop. I've hidden my username, but otherwise this is the standard Fedora 13beta desktop. I'm using all the defaults.

The beta is using GNOME 2.29, not GNOME 2.30, but it's been very stable so far.

New features:

There's a new color profile tool available, where you can install an ICC file to set the color profile for your display, scanner, or digital camera. My laptop screen seems to do okay, so I haven't installed an ICC file, but I did experiment a bit with the provided presets, just to see what it did. Sure enough, it adjusts the color displayed on my screen. This will probably be very useful to people with displays whose colors tend to drift, or for those who do professional work with digital media (photos, video, etc.)

If you use an NVIDIA card, there's experimental 3D support via the Nouveau driver. But I have a different video card, so I'm just commenting on that for you.

For me, one of the most interesting features is the new photo manager. GThumb has been replaced by Shotwell. To test, I took some pictures of my cat, and easily imported them from the camera into Shotwell with a single click. From there, I could edit the photos, crop, resize, etc. Here's the feature list:
  • import photos from any digital camera supported by gPhoto
  • automatically organize events containing photos taken at the same time
  • use tags to organize your photo collection
  • edit non-destructively when altering photos, without ruining originals or using disk space for each copy
  • publish photos to Facebook, Flickr or Picasa
  • one-click auto-enhancement
  • rotate, mirror, and crop photos
  • reduce red-eye and adjust the exposure, saturation, tint, and temperature of your photos
  • edit any photo, even if it's not imported to the Shotwell library
Most impressively, after editing a few photos, I was still able to go back to a photo I'd worked on earlier, and undo some of the changes I'd made without undoing any of the work on the other photos. When I was done, Shotwell let me automatically publish my photos to my Facebook and Google Picasa web albums.

In previous releases, I'd used GIMP to edit all my digital photos (remove red-eye, etc.) Now, I'm switching to Shotwell. It's that good.

But looking through the list of changes in Fedora 13, I'm really excited to try out Déjà Dup. It's a new backup tool that should make life a lot easier. With it, you can do local or remote backups, including to Amazon's S3 cloud storage. Everything is encrypted and compressed, and backups are such that you can restore from any particular snapshot.

If Déjà Dup sounds familiar to you Mac users, it should. I have a Mac at home, too, and Time Machine has helped save me from myself more than once. "I really need that file from 6 months ago." It's there. I'm curious to see how Déjà Dup fares.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops can help reduce desktop clutter, where you have too many windows open to keep track of them all. Each virtual desktop becomes a separate workspace, to help you organize your work tasks more effectively.

When I ran Linux at work, I used to open my email client on one virtual desktop, my web browser in another, and my OpenOffice documents in a third desktop. This was especially useful when writing a document that required referring to other Word or Excel files. I could open all the files at once, and keep them open on the same virtual desktop, making it much easier to switch between them.

Even Mac OS X supports virtual desktops natively, through Spaces. This is basically the same thing as on Linux, except you have to press a hotkey to select a different virtual desktop.

So why is it that Windows still does not have a virtual desktop manager? I'm currently running Windows 7, and this very useful feature is missing. I've been using virtual desktops under Linux since 1993/1994, and Apple has supported them since Mac OS 10.5. But Microsoft hasn't gotten there yet, I guess. It's 2010, but still no virtual desktops in Windows?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Windows 7 won't power off

Maybe I'm bitching about a bug, but this one happens often enough that I don't think it's intermittent behavior, so it's fair game. Most times (read: not all the time, but a lot of the time) I try to "Shutdown" my Windows 7 laptop, Windows goes through the motions - but doesn't actually power off. I have reached the point where I watch for when Windows should have powered off, then just pull the plug.

Note that I don't usually leave the battery in the laptop when I am at work. This is a Dell D430 laptop, and it's connected via a mini-dock when I'm at the office. There's not much ventilation in the dock, so when the battery is left in, the system gets really hot. Easy solution: I take out the battery when I put the laptop into the dock.

But Windows only fails to power off since I moved to Windows 7. This wasn't a problem with Windows XP or Windows Vista. And it is never an issue when I run Linux (from a USB flash drive) on the same hardware.

People sometimes complain that Linux doesn't support this or that hardware feature on their computer, so that's why they don't use Linux. But why does the latest version of Windows not work with this basic feature of laptops?

So I'll ask you guys: What is going on here? Any suggestions for what Windows is (or is not) doing, that I can fix?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Restart to finish installing updates

I got one of those "Click here to install important updates" in Windows today, and since it said I could continue using Windows while it installed the patches, I went ahead and clicked on it. I've mentioned before that I'm confused about how Windows installs updates, because sometimes it can install updates with me using the system - and sometimes it lies to you and isn't able to install updates because you are still using Windows.

Now I'm confused again. If Windows Update said I can keep using Windows while it installs updates for me, then why does it tell me I need to "Restart now to finish installing updates"?

This doesn't make any sense. I have complained in other posts that there should be a "flag" in the updates to say you can only install such-and-such updates when you shutdown. Now I think there needs to be a "flag" that says you will need to reboot to install an update.

Linux has a neat feature in the update program that flags which patches will require you to reboot afterward (like, for a kernel update) and which will require you to logout before the change will take effect (some GNOME updates, for example.) This is very basic functionality, and has helped me decide maybe to delay installing an update until I'm ready to shut down.

But on Windows, I guess I'm supposed to reboot. Maybe it's been long enough that I should take this as a given with Windows.

You know, I'm only trying to get work done here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

GNOME 2.30

For those of you following GNOME, the new GNOME 2.30 is now available. I'm looking forward to trying out some of these new features: the file manager has new improvements, including a new split view mode; the updated Epiphany browser; remote connections; and iPod device support, via the libimobiledevice library ... and of course the preview for GNOME Shell.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Microsoft fails the standards test

There's an interesting post over at Alex Brown's blog: Microsoft Fails the Standards Test. Alex discusses the Microsoft Office Open XML ("OOXML") file format in the forthcoming Office 2010 suite. In brief, Microsoft promised that Office 2010 would implement the ISO-approved standard for Open XML - that is the "Strict" version. Alex responds:

On this count Microsoft seems set for failure. In its pre-release form Office 2010 supports not the approved Strict variant of OOXML, but the very format the global community rejected in September 2007, and subsequently marked as not for use in new documents – the Transitional variant. Microsoft are behaving as if the JTC 1 standardisation process never happened, and using technologies (like VML) in a new product which even the text of the Standard itself describes as “deprecated” and “included […] for legacy reasons only” (see ISO/IEC 29500-1:2008, clause M.5.1).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ctrl-backspace still inconsistent

I know this is mostly a repost from something I wrote long ago, but it's still happening in Windows 7. Apparently no one at Microsoft noticed the Ctrl-backspace behavior in Windows is very annoying.

Under Linux, Ctrl-backspace always deletes the previous word. It always does that, no matter what application I am using. For example: I have a long passphrase (about 10-12 characters long.) When typing my passphrase under Linux, if I get 8 or 9 characters in, then mis-type a key, I just hit Ctrl-backspace and start over.

Under Windows, this doesn't work! At login (or when unlocking the screen, etc.) Ctrl-backspace inserts a Ctrl-backspace character.

Yet in other Microsoft apps, Ctrl-backspace works "properly", and deletes the previous word. It works that way in Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint (but not Microsoft Excel), and Microsoft Internet Explorer. In Notepad, Ctrl-backspace inserts a Ctrl-backspace character - but Wordpad works "properly".

These are all Microsoft apps, but they don't act the same. Why the inconsistent behavior!? How confusing!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Opening files still broken

Last year, I wrote about broken behavior in Windows Vista when trying to open multiple Excel files: if you selected a group of Excel files, sometimes you could right-click and "Open" then. But sometimes you couldn't.

The problem was that Vista would only let you "Open" multiple files at once if all the files had the same extension. For example, if you selected just a group of "DOC" (Word 97-2003) files, Vista would let you right-click and "Open" then. But if you selected a few "DOC" files and some "DOCX" (Word 2007) files, Vista panicked and wouldn't let you "Open" them.

I can report that this broken behavior is fixed in Windows 7. Sort of. I can now select several different file types (say, DOC and DOCX) and if I right-click, Windows 7 gives me an option to "Open" them. Just like you'd expect. Also works for DOC, DOCX, and ODT (probably because they are all handled through Word 2007.)

But it's still kind of broken in Windows 7. And in a fairly major, obvious way. Let's say I select a bunch of files that I need to review, like to write a single strategy document. I might highlight 3 DOC files, a DOCX file, and a PDF file. (This isn't an imaginary example - I'm trying to do this now.) I can't "Open" them - when I right-click, there's no menu option to "Open" them.

Oh wait, Windows Explorer put a little "Open" button in the toolbar when I selected those 5 files. Let's click that. Only the first file opens.

To me, this is very broken behavior. Doesn't anyone else need to open multiple files at once? How am I the first to find this bug?

To compare: in Linux, you can always select multiple files of different types (DOC, XLS, PDF, ...) and "Open" them. Linux is smart enough to understand that each file type has a different associated application, and calls each program to open the files. It's easy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Liquid Rescale

For those of you who use Adobe Photoshop on Windows, you may be looking forward to the new feature in the forthcoming CS5: Content-aware Fill. When I saw this announcement, it reminded me of a similar feature already present in GIMP on Linux: Liquid Rescale.

Not sure what this does? Take a look at some of the Examples. Liquid Rescale is very impressive, and has been around since about 2007. And it's dead simple to install on Linux. From the command line, as root, just type: yum install gimp-lqr-plugin. Or, you can install via the "Add/Remove Software" menu dialog.

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and is a graphics program very similar to Photoshop. Most Linux distributions include GIMP.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Updates with yum-presto

I have known about this for a long time, but I realized I haven't shared it here. In typical Linux distributions, each feature of the operating system is provided via a "package". (Of course, you can always install programs on your own, if a package is not available) I use Fedora Linux, so packages are distributed as "rpm" files, and the package manager is "yum".

Packages make software installs and updates a lot easier. With packages, everything you install is atomic. If you have something like Abiword, that's in a package. When an update is available, you install the package for the new version. No "updates", no "patches". Just a whole new version.

That may seem like it could eat up a lot of bandwidth, right? But Linux distributions now use a system to reduce the update size. On Fedora Linux, that's done via yum-presto.

From the description:
Yum-presto is a plugin for yum that looks for deltarpms rather than rpms whenever they are available. This has the potential of saving a lot of bandwidth when downloading updates.

A deltarpm is the difference between two rpms. If you already have foo-1.0 installed and foo-1.1 is available, yum-presto will download the deltarpm for foo-1.0 1.1 rather than the full foo-1.1 rpm, and then build the full foo-1.1 package from your installed foo-1.0 and the downloaded deltarpm.
But the key thing to remember is that you're still installing an rpm package. All that's changed is that you download a "diff" between one version and the next, and your system creates the rpm from the "diff". And you don't have to know anything about it to use yum-presto; it just there by default whenever you do an update.

Here's an example: I installed updates for my system yesterday, and (demonstrating the process for someone) happened to run the update from the command line. So I saw this message:

Presto reduced the update size by 77% (from 48 M to 12 M).

Rather than have to download 48 MB of packages to update, I only downloaded 12 MB. That saved me quite a bit of bandwidth - which is important, since I'm on vacation and the Internet connection here is very slow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A minute slower

In my last post, I asked if Windows 7 boots slower than Windows Vista. It seems slow to me. So this weekend, I tried a few experiments with booting Windows 7.

First, a comment: I learned something when doing these boot tests. The more you boot Windows 7, the faster it boots. For example, in my tests, Windows prompted me for "control-alt-delete" to login after about 2 minutes. After a few tests of "boot, login, shut down, power on, boot, login, ..." Windows took less than a minute to prompt me to login. That's very interesting.

It's odd, but I suspect it's marking something as recently-used and is effectively able to "cache" stuff even though it's coming up from a cold boot every time. A neat trick - but if my suspicion is correct and Windows is relying on some flag to indicate something can be loaded without processing (or whatever it's doing) I wonder if this could be used to hijack a Windows system.

But let's get down to business - how long does it take Windows 7 to boot?

My method: Our desktop support folks at work installed my laptop with a "standard" image of Windows 7. It's the same config that just about everyone in our office uses for Windows 7. But I'm doing these boot tests when I'm at home, over the weekend. The system has previously been booted, so if there are any one-time scripts that the system needs to run, I suppose Windows has already done so.

I used a digital stopwatch to record my timings. 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).

Here are the major milestones for Windows 7 (Dell D430, booting from the hard drive):
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 2 minutes, 3 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +53 seconds
  • Desktop to web page: +15 seconds
Total: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

That means Windows 7 takes about a minute longer to boot, login, and get to work than Windows Vista - say, for the first time you login each morning.

From an earlier post, here are the times for Windows Vista (same hardware, same hard drive):
  • 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 (same hardware, booting from a USB flash drive):
  • From BIOS to login prompt: 40 seconds
  • Login prompt to desktop: +15 seconds
  • Desktop to web page: +12 seconds
Total: 1 minute, 7 seconds

To answer my question from the previous post: Is Windows 7 slow? The answer is definitely yes.