Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like kicking a puppy

It's getting harder to write for Linux in Exile these days. Not because I am running out of topics - in fact, it's quite the opposite. But as Linux Foundation chief Jim Zemlin says, writing these posts almost feels like kicking a puppy.

Linux has "won", in pretty much every category except the desktop. Microsoft relies on desktop PC sales too much to let it go.

But the desktop is becoming less important anyway. The platform matters less when the next generation of computing focuses on the handheld device. And Android (built on Linux) captured the lead in market share for the mobile device platform, even over iPhone. The future is looking bright for Linux.

And on a personal level, I haven't been (technically) "in exile" for a while now. I'm at a new organization, the senior-most IT officer, and Linux on the desktop is part of the culture here.

So I don't know if Linux in Exile is needed anymore. What do you think? Is this blog helpful to you, to the Linux community? Or is it too much like kicking Microsoft when they're down? Leave your comments below.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Preview of Fedora 15

Updated: I've added more screenshots of the default desktop.

I'm closely watching the Fedora Project for the next release of Fedora Linux. Fedora 14 has been great, but what does the upcoming Fedora 15 have to offer? I downloaded the Fedora 15 Beta to find out.

As usual for testing a new Linux release, I installed this on a USB flash drive. While it's a little slow in running updates (that's due to the nature of flash) this is a great way to experiment with the Beta version without installing over my existing system. The install took about 20 minutes, from start to finish, using the Live CD. For those who are curious about the technical details, I manually partitioned the flash drive with a very plain layout, and let the installer encrypt my filesystem automatically.

The biggest difference is that Fedora 15 has upgraded to Gnome 3, which uses the new Gnome Shell interface. It's a change, for sure. But I quickly got over it, and after a few minutes it felt quite natural.

To compare: Gnome 2 (basically, what you see in Fedora 14 and earlier releases) used a menu "panel" at top with a "Start" menu and other shortcuts, and a different Gnome "panel" at bottom that shows your running applications and available virtual desktops. I usually describe this as "things you can do" (top panel) and "things you are doing" (bottom panel). This isn't too different from the interface used by Windows - which was probably intentional - but at the cost of having two panels taking up "screen real estate" - not a problem on typical desktops, but can get cramped on small netbook displays.

Gnome 3 takes a different view on the desktop, based on user experience and feedback. The default Gnome Shell has a single menu bar, which lets you launch programs and quickly access settings. Here's my default desktop on Fedora 15 Beta, using the Gnome Shell:

(That screenshot is extra wide because I have a second monitor attached to my laptop - the desktop at right - and I wanted the screenshot to show everything.)

The "Activities" menu helps organize everything. To start an application, click "Activities" and you can select from a "Favorites" list, or a full list of installed programs. Applications are sorted by category, or you can scroll through "All":


Instead of a separate panel to show your available applications, you click "Activities" to see what's going on, even if you have programs running on a virtual desktop. I suppose Mac users will find this "Activities" view similar to that of Exposé.

And a view of the file manager:


Other differences:

Firefox is now version 4. This is an obvious update. I also installed Google Chrome separately.

LibreOffice replaces OpenOffice. You may remember that some of the OpenOffice folks split off when Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems (the "sponsor" of OpenOffice.) Since OpenOffice is open source, the developers "forked" the project and created a new office suite based on OpenOffice, plus some updates. LibreOffice is the result of that new community. While I haven't used it yet (I prefer Google Docs) I understand LibreOffice has folded in some new features that make it easier to use.

And of course, Rhythmbox (music player) and Shotwell (photo manager) are still there. I love these applications.

And while I can't find mention of it in the Release Notes, I'm positive Fedora 15 updated the font rendering. Everything looks so smooth and easy to read. Even Google Chrome, which uses an outdated font method, now looks great!

I haven't had time to poke around with all the new features yet. I've only been running the Beta for a few hours. I don't have any complaints so far.

Fedora 15 is due out at the end of May.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

No unified software update?

I promised I would come back to this topic, so here it is. Fortunately, I don't have much installed on my Windows system. It's basically a platform that I use when I attend an online meeting that requires Silverlight or some similar Windows-only plugin. (These are rare, but they do happen...) As a result, essentially, I only have web browsers installed.

When I check for updates on Windows, I have to do so in a number of places:
  1. Windows Update
  2. Mozilla Firefox
  3. Google Chrome
  4. Adobe Reader (PDF)
  5. Adobe Flash
It's a problem that I have to check each software package individually to see if there are updates. Why a manual process? What if I forgot to check one of these applications for new versions? My system would be left vulnerable.

Yes, a few Windows applications are "well behaved" and look for updates on their own. But that's just a "band-aid" fix to a larger problem. What a hassle.

I know these are third-party applications, and I know it's odd to suggest that these get folded into some kind of "system-wide" patch process. But that's what Windows really needs.

Linux has a unified software update. On Linux, software packages can include an instruction that adds itself to the software update list. In technical terms, it adds an entry for the "software repository" so that the system-wide software update knows to check that location for new versions.

For example, when I installed Google Chrome on Linux, I did so by downloading the "RPM" file - the software "package" file. Installing the RPM was as simple as clicking on it, entering my password, and letting the software installer do the rest. Automatically, this process created an entry under /etc/yum.repos.d for Google Chrome's software repository.

Now, when Linux checks for patches, the unified software update also looks for new versions of Google Chrome, and downloads and installs them with everything else. It's easy!

Why can't it be that easy on Windows?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Windows Update still owns my machine

Ok, I mentioned that I rarely boot Windows these days. Pretty much, it's just to watch a webinar that requires some silly Windows-only software like Silverlight. But when I do boot into Windows, I always take the opportunity to install updates.

I attended 2 webinars yesterday. During the first meeting, I got that little pop-up that there were updates available for Windows. So I started Windows Update, and let it do its thing while I finished my meeting.

That was a huge mistake. But I didn't realize this until much later.

You see, Microsoft has this concept called "Patch Tuesday" where they dump a whole bunch of patches together and release them on the second Tuesday of each month. Apparently, this was a really big "Patch Tuesday".

The first meeting ended about 10 minutes early, and Windows Update said it was finished - I figured "hey, I'll reboot and let those changes take effect." I rebooted Windows, and got the message that Windows was finally going to install those patches. As I watched the progress indicator slowly count its way up I got that sinking feeling. This was going to take forever.

About 10 minutes roll by, and Windows had worked its way to about 30% complete. Then, it rebooted.

But Windows wasn't done installing updates. Again, I watched the progress indicator slowly count up from 30%.

Keep in mind that my second meeting was starting about now. But I couldn't join, because I foolishly assumed Windows "only" needed to reboot for changes to take effect.

Another 10 minutes went by, and and Windows had reached about 75% complete. Then it rebooted again.

I thought, "How many times does Windows need to reboot just to install some patches?" But fortunately, that was the last reboot, and the progress indicator eventually reached 100%, and I could finally login to Windows.

So 15 minutes late, I joined my second online meeting. For those keeping track at home, that's 25 minutes and 2 reboots (3 if you count the first reboot that started this) for Windows to install updates.

Again, I'm reminded how Windows Update owns my machine. This was true in Windows Vista, and it's still true in Windows 7. Microsoft needs to fix this bug! And I do consider it a "bug" because other operating systems don't require this kind of nonsense to install patches.

On Linux, most patches don't require you to reboot your computer. Sure, some patches may not take effect until you logout, and login again. A kernel update won't take effect until you reboot. But most patches just get installed, and you don't notice anything.

And in Linux, when you reboot or shutdown, you actually reboot or shutdown. None of this "let me install a few updates before you really get to shut down your system." Reboot means "reboot", and shutdown means "shutdown".

I guess I got spoiled for how cleanly Linux systems apply updates. Microsoft sure could take a lesson from that.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Comments are broken

I tweaked the blog's XML theme a few weeks ago. In the process, I wiped something that was needed for comments. So comments are broken now. My bad!

I'll try to get this fixed very soon. I might have to roll the blog theme back to some "vanilla/plain" style in the meantime.

Where's my window?

I don't often boot my laptop into Windows, preferring to run Linux pretty much all of the time. These days, I only boot Windows when I watch a "webinar" that requires Microsoft's Silverlight plugin. And that's rare enough, thankfully. But on the few occasions that I boot Windows, I always make sure to check for updates.

Last week, I booted into Windows while sitting in our conference room. And I immediately fired up Chrome, Firefox, Adobe Reader, etc to check for updates.

(Yes, it's a problem that these common third-party applications aren't included in some kind of system-wide update process, like they are in Linux. But I'll leave that for another time.)

My problem was when I clicked on the system tray icon for my anti-virus program. The program window didn't appear. So I clicked it again, nothing happened. I clicked the icon a third time, and paid very close attention.

You know how Windows (and Linux, by the way) will show the outline of the window as a program is launched, or reduced to the task bar? I could see the outline of my anti-virus program window as it moved off my screen.

I usually keep my laptop docked, with a second display. The last time I'd booted into Windows, I must have moved the anti-virus window onto the second display - probably to keep it out of the way while I did something else, but where I could keep an eye on it. And I guess Windows remembered that. I mean, really remembered it.

Normally I'd say that automatically remembering your last-used preferences would be a good thing. Except for the obvious exception when I don't have the second display plugged in. I wasn't docked! I wasn't even in my office - I was on another floor, in a conference room. My only display was my laptop screen. So I couldn't use the program, because I couldn't see it.

Why Windows does this, I have no idea. Eventually, I booted into Windows when the laptop was connected my second display, and updated the anti-virus program then.

In Linux, windows and multiple displays make much more sense. When I boot without the second display, Linux doesn't try to launch my windows in a non-existent display. Program windows appear in the only display that I have - my laptop display.

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