Smoke and Mirrors

Apparently Lenovo has put a lot of work in making Windows 7 boot “unbelievably fast.” When you go on to read the article, you see that you’ll get a boot time possibly as “quickly” as 30 seconds, which is a significant improvement for Windows. Of course to explain how they get that, you get a bunch of vague double-speak. They push back loading drivers and various Windows services until after booting “finishes.” They also make some claims about preventing “Windows rot” by doing some work with drivers. Not quite sure what they’re doing there. Sounds like they need to take some tips from the pros: 10 seconds on a mid-level machine to a logged in idle computer without delaying any background services. Your computer is ready to use in 10 seconds. That’s the goal for Ubuntu 10.04, due out in April 2010. Ubuntu 9.10, due out in a few weeks, already has Lenovo’s Windows 7 numbers beat, so 10.04 will just be some sweet icing on the cake. And then of course, there’s reason to believe boot speed will actually be closer to 5 seconds when it’s all said and done… Maybe some day Windows will catch Ubuntu.

Linux for Clinics

I ran across a new linux distro today that I thought was pretty cool. It’s called Linux for Clinics. It’s an Ubuntu-based linux distribution geared toward running an entire medical office. It utilizes a few project I’ve heard of before, like GNUmed, but this is pushing to be a full-fledged medical clinic OS. Development seems slow, but I’m hopeful that it continues because it could be a strong contender for clinics, especially ones with little funding. One critique I have in the development (which I of course know nothing about) is that they seem to be a vanilla Ubuntu install with a few different/altered packages. I wonder if this might be better accomplished using a Launchpad PPA as opposed to a full re-spin. It seems like this would make upkeep much more efficient between major Ubuntu releases every 6 months. I just don’t know if that’s feasible… If I have more time in the future, I may try to get involved in this.

Breathing Life Into An Old Machine

Sadie’s family has an old Gateway desktop in their basement. Up until last Spring, it was the only computer their family had besides Sadie’s college laptop, which was starting to show its age. The desktop was probably purchased before the turn of the century, and it came with the lovely Windows ME operating system. By most accounts, Windows ME was an incredibly botched product that was introduced after the more stable Windows 98 and before Windows XP (2001).

Despite her uncle having reformatted it and fixed it up a few years ago, the computer was in pretty dire circumstances. When it actually booted successfully, the boot process would take over 2 and a half minutes to get to a working desktop. You’d get a BSOD every time you shut down, and the thing generally ran as slow as molasses.

Her dad had mentioned wanting to learn to type, but he didn’t want to risk messing up their new laptop. I thought this would be a perfect job for their old desktop, but I had trouble deciding how to set things up. Things obviously couldn’t stay in their current state. I could get them a copy of Windows XP to put on it, but the machine only had 128 MB of RAM and either a Pentium II or III processor. This also ruled out putting Ubuntu on it, since I doubt that would run any faster or better than Windows ME or XP. I needed something extraordinarily lightweight. As long as it was capable of the basics, we’d be good to go. I even knew of a decent free Linux typing program, Klavaro Touch Typing Tutor.

I had heard of Puppy Linux at various websites around the Internet. I never knew much about it besides that people often mentioned Puppy as a good, lightweight Linux distro. I decided to investigate further only to find that it was exactly what I was looking for. In fact, it’s so lightweight that you can run it completely from RAM if you have more than 256 MB installed, making things incredibly snappy. I downloaded the latest Puppy Linux iso, and burned a copy. I booted from the CD, and after answering a few questions, I was taken to a nice linux desktop. Once I had assured myself that everything was working correctly, I went ahead and installed Puppy, erasing Windows. Puppy’s install wasn’t quite as user-friendly as Ubuntu’s, but I was able to install it without any problems. Linux novices might prefer a more helpful install process. Luckily, there is a decent online manual that should help with pretty much everything.

The real test came when the installation was finished: boot time. Puppy Linux cold-booted in less than 30 seconds on this machine. That was incredible! The desktop is fully functional. It contains a web browser (SeaMonkey), desktop email client (SeaMonkey Mail), word processor (Abiword), spreadsheet editor (Gnumeric), and a lot of other basic applitions pre-installed. They do have a repository for additional applications, but one frustrating thing is that Puppy Linux uses its own package type, the PETget. Using your own package type means that there’s going to be less software available for your system. Fortunately, it looks like there is a compatibility library so that Debian packages can also be installed, which means you can get pretty much any application on Puppy. I was lucky enough to come across someone who had made a PETget for Klavaro, so installing that was a piece of cake.

Puppy Linux uses the JWM window manager, which I had never used before. It’s popular in distros like Puppy because it’s so lightweight and very customizable. I’ll admit that JWM is not much to look at, but it does its job and uses very few resources. The panel along the bottom of the screen has a “(Puppy) Menu” button at the left, a list of windows and virtual desktops in the middle, and a system tray and RAM usage graph on the right. Puppy also comes with many icons on the desktop for popular applications. A nice feature of JWM is that the “Main Menu” (“Puppy Menu”) is actually available from anywhere on the desktop just by right-clicking. One thing that threw me off is that JWM defaults to a single-click destop interface, which was very disorienting for me. I was able to change it to double-click without much trouble.

I will say that the default look of the desktop on Puppy leaves something to be desired. I’m not talking about the window manager either. While it’s nice to have some icons on the desktop, Puppy goes a bit overboard. Plus, some of their descriptions of the applications are not entirely intuitive. Since when is “browse” a good title for your Internet browser icon? There is also a rather stark mountain lake scene as the default wallpaper, which I found terribly distracting.

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Puppy Linux 4.1.2 after I fixed it up a bit

Since Sadie’s dad isn’t exactly comfortable with computers, I wanted to make things as easy to use as possible. I cleared off most of the unnecessary icons and only left ones that he’d possibly use. I also made sure they had proper descriptions, like “Internet.” Even navigating the “Puppy Menu” would probably be too much for him. I really wanted to fix things so he’d be able to do everything right from the desktop icons. After organizing and cleaning up the icons and giving the desktop a new wallpaper, things started to look much better. I even looked up how to write a quick “shutdown script” so that I could put a “Shutdown” icon on the desktop. This actually took the most work of anything because I kept doing it wrong, and it would freeze the computer. All-in-all though, I think it turned out very nice.

This just demonstrates one of the great powers of Linux on the desktop. You can use it on everything, from powerful servers and supercomputers to hardware that’s close to 10 years old. You can use it breathe life back into a machine that you stopped using long ago because it wouldn’t work with the next version of Windows. Plus, it’s free! Do you have an old machine lying around that you could use for something? If it’s somewhat modern hardware, try Ubuntu. It’s the best Linux distro out there. If it’s older hardware, I can now recommend Puppy Linux as long as you’re somewhat familiar with Linux. Either way, why not give Linux a try on it, and let that hardware achieve its full potential!

Ubuntu Review: One Year In

After a somewhat belated New Year’s resolution last year, I did manage to complete my goal much more easily than I previously thought possible. In the last 9 months, I can probably count on my two hands then number of times I’ve booted into Vista or XP. I’ve been using Ubuntu on a regular basis since at least February. Now you may ask why I made the switch to Linux. I intend to answer that by giving a summary, including the ups and downs, of my first year with Linux.

I had heard of Linux in the past, but it always seemed like something that was beyond my ability to comprehend. I had become a huge fan of WordPress and Firefox, and I love the ideals of free software. As I sat there and thought about it, I couldn’t believe that I was still using a proprietary system like Windows when a free operating system like Linux was out there. I did some research on Linux and found Ubuntu to be exactly what I was looking for. It’s self-proclaimed as “Linux for Human Beings.” It’s got the best support for hardware of any Linux distribution and a very welcoming community for newcomers. Since I was a new medical student, the last thing I wanted was something I had to pore over for hours and hours in the command line just to use it.

Ubuntu is everything a person could want being new to Linux. You can download it for free and burn it to CD to install it. It’s a LiveCD, so you can run the entire operating system from the CD to test it out without changing anything on your current system. Just restart your computer with the CD in your CD-ROM drive, and you will boot into Ubuntu. In order to install it, you just run through the installer on the LiveCD, which asks a few fairly easy questions, and after installing for about 45 minutes, you’ll be booting into Ubuntu. If you’re not ready to completely ditch your current system just yet, you can shrink your installation of Windows. If you’d rather not mess with Windows at all (just in case you don’t like Linux), you can install Ubuntu just like a program right inside of Windows using the wubi installer. Using the wubi installer is a great idea for someone who just wants to try Linux, since it is a little bit tougher to uninstall Linux after installing via the LiveCD, which changes the partitions on your computer.

My first few weeks with Ubuntu were great. I couldn’t believe how much this free operating system could do. Nearly any type of application you could think of was either built-in or easily installed right from inside Ubuntu. It came with Firefox, the OpenOffice.org office suite, Evolution Email, Pidgin (for multi-protocol instant messaging), and the GIMP Image editor. Plus the “eye candy” was easily enabled to check out Compiz-Fusion’s desktop effects and the Avant Window Navigator, a dock similar to that found in Mac OS X.

My friend Usama and my dad were both interested enough to try it out for themselves. They played with Ubuntu for a few weeks, but neither of them took to using it full-time. They’re both “power users” on Windows, and getting used to new applications and setting up a completely different type of system might have been too much trouble for them. I don’t think either of them have given up on it completely, but I think they probably needed a little bit of direction in setting things up effectively. I couldn’t see what the problem was since I had very little trouble with my hardware and I didn’t have any pressing software needs. One of the things that helped ease my transition to Ubuntu was that I forced myself to use the system every day and only boot into Windows if I couldn’t do something in Ubuntu that I absolutely needed to. I quickly realized that there was almost nothing that I couldn’t do in Ubuntu. My new webcam worked after an upgrade to Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron) and Amazon MP3 released a Linux client so I could buy full DRM-free mp3 albums.

With the release of Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron), GNU/Linux seemed better than ever to me. I began to wonder how there could be so few people using it. I mean, sure it’s not for everyone (notably computer gamers, since few computer games were released on Linux). Around this time, I heard about the Linux Hater’s blog, which was causing somewhat of a ruckus in the Linux community. This is mainly because his rants, though crude, were strikingly poignant. He obviously had an in-depth knowledge of the various Linux communities and software, and he loved to point out their flaws. After a few months, he threw in the towel, but not before opening my eyes to some of the shortcomings of GNU/Linux. I think reading this blog was important for me. Although it often depressed me, it helped me see where Linux is strong and where it needs improvement. I knew all the software wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was just a matter of time before this was fixed. The blog helped me see some of the discordance and problems in the communities themselves that are, in some instances, preventing their own success. Yet as I continue to read about the progress that’s being made in all of these areas, I am hopeful that this problems will solve themselves. There are a lot of developers doing great work who understand the problems, and with the rise of netbooks more companies are contributing resources and manpower to solve some of these issues.

With the release of Ubuntu 8.10 (the Intrepid Ibex), some of Ubuntu’s warts began to show. My webcam no longer worked. One of my favorite new productivity applications, Gnome-Do, started showing some significant bugs that make it unusable at times. My wireless card, which was already a little bit buggy, started causing some more issues. My desktop’s CD/DVD-ROM drives no longer functioned correctly. All-in-all the release brought some great new features, but broke some of my confidence in Ubuntu’s stability. Some of these issues have been resolved and some have not. Some of these issues are specific to Ubuntu and some are not. My problem was that these issues were known prior to release time. I know releases can’t be held up for just anything, but when all CD/DVD drives fail to function properly, it seems like a show-stopper. Unfortunately, Canonical seems to value their time-based release schedule a bit too highly over quality, which is really, really going to hurt them in getting people to try and stick with Linux. I would much rather have had them do what Automattic did with WordPress 2.7 and delay the release date for a month so that all the bugs could be ironed out.

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m growing weary of Linux. Despite some flaws, I’m confident that things will be resolved in future releases, and I have no intention of giving up on an operating system that I love using. It’s just that flaws like these (along with some usability issues and a lack of centralized documentation) make me understand why adopting Linux might be harder than I first envisioned. I do hope that some of the higher-ups understand these issues, since it’s a major barrier to adoption. Ubuntu tends to do a better job at handling these sorts of issues, but as they continue to push for more users, I hope they continually readdress how to keep their current users happy while still progressing their system.

One of the things I like best about using GNU/Linux is how much I learn while doing using it. I’ve learned a lot about security and operating systems in general, and I’ve done it all using free software. I’ve discovered a number of free software applications that I probably never would’ve even heard of. By using free software, I began paying attention to its development to find out about great ideas and features in upcoming versions. I’ve also been keen on helping to test new software and report bugs. I’ve installed both new versions of Ubuntu while they were still in beta to help with bug reporting.

Since one of the cornerstones of Linux is its variety of distributions, or “distros,” I’ve also started using VirtualBox to test some of them in virtual machines inside Ubuntu. One of the things about Linux that really interests me is its versatility to run on a wide variety of hardware and using a variety of software. It’s used to run super-computers at big companies and to resurrect ancient hardware that’s not capable of running any modern version of Windows. Linux can also be used as a “green” operating system both in its own right and through the LTSP. LTSP can be used to connect many low-power, lightweight computers to a single workhorse machine, so an entire computer lab can be run on minimal power. Linux can be used to power your home media center and your cell phone. The versatility of Linux allows it to underlie many great technologies of today and tomorrow.

So how would I summarize my first year with Ubuntu? I think it’s exactly what I needed. It has helped me plan for the future in medicine and my life and better understand some technology along the way. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I do think Ubuntu and Linux is a viable operating system for a majority of users who have never given it a chance. Besides addressing some of the underlying issues in development (as highlighted by The Linux Hater’s blog) and preventing regressions, the Ubuntu community could use a effort to implement or improve a centralized, up-to-date set of documentation for new users. Far too many problems and issues are only addressed in random blog posts or on online forums, both of which tend to be outdated or doing things in an overly complicated manner. Ubuntu would be greatly improved by including some significant “Getting Started” documentation for new adopters and finding a way to point directly toward an up-to-date official wiki with more complicated tasks. The Linux community is continuing to lower the barriers to adoption, and addressing some key usability issues might be just the thing they need to attract the swarms of users leaving Windows and even catch a fed-up Apple user or two. Great strides have been made already and more are planned for the coming months and years. I’m excited to keep participating and to see what’s in store in my free software world. If you’re interested, try out Ubuntu. It’s simple to burn and try. The risks are pretty minimal, and you’ve got a lot to gain. You’ll never have to pay for any computer software again, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ensuring the future of your digital life. Just don’t forget that Linux is different and for the most part you should try to enjoy it.

(Also, this is my sort-of convoluted thoughts on Jono Bacon’s meme)

Of Freedom and Trademarks

I read an article this past weekend that brought up some interesting issues that I tend to forget about concerning free software. Most people these days are familiar with Firefox. While Firefox is open-source and “essentially” free software, the key area that makes it non-free is in its trademark and copyright. The brand name “Firefox” is a trademark of the Mozilla Foundation, as is the Firefox logo. Since the logo is artwork, it also falls under copyright restrictions.

Trademarks are a funny business. Unlike copyright, which is inherent from the minute that pen touches paper, a quotation is voiced, or a blog post is published, a trademark is not inherent. As such, copyright is enforceable in general. If you find a person violating that copyright, you are empowered to make them stop, but if you choose to ignore it, that’s your decision. Trademarks on the other hand are a “branding” and are not inherent. If you find someone in violation of your trademark, you must act to stop them (or help them to comply). Otherwise, you are forfeiting your right to the trademark.

In general, this is thought to be a good thing because trademarks are “branding” used to ensure quality. I probably don’t want to install just any piece of software on my computer, but if it’s “Mozilla Firefox” then I will. This is especially important when discussing open-source software. With proprietary software, it would be difficult to distribute a “fake” copy without people noticing a difference. But with open-source software, everyone has access to the application’s source code. This means that anyone could build it, modify it, and tell it to collect all of your private information for them. If they can convince you to install “their version” of your favorite program, that’s a major security threat. Sharing code is also the hallmark of free and open-source software, and users are encouraged to modify it. But it doesn’t mean that after doing that, they deserve to still call it “Firefox”. Of course, Firefox should be credited as the basis for the work. It’s good to know when something has been stamped “Mozilla Firefox” because it tells you that it’s endorsed by the Mozilla Foundation and you can trust it.

Now you might be sitting there, scratching your head, and asking, “What’s the big deal? Can’t I just assume that anything I get from mozilla.com is what I want?” For many people, the answer to that is “Yes, you can.” But according to its license, Firefox is free to distribute under its brand name as long as any changes to it have been approved by the developers. This is something that many GNU/Linux distributions take advantage of so that they can package “Firefox” as the official web browser of their operating system. This helps user-friendly distributions like Ubuntu because potential users instantly recognize the brand Firefox and are comfortable with it. This works well for just about everyone involved.

Debian is another GNU/Linux distribution. It has roots as one of the first GNU/Linux distributions, and it defines itself by its commitment to being free. You may have developed a great program that a lot of people like, but if it’s not free software, it’s not good enough to be called “Debian” and included in their operating systems. They would like to be able to use Firefox as their default web browser like other, less “freedom-oriented” distributions do. If it were just a trademark issue, there would be no problem. Debian could easily show Mozilla exactly what changes (if any) are in their version of Firefox. Since the Firefox logo is also under restrictive copyright protection, however, Debian can’t include it. They also can’t just exchange the logo for a non-copyrighted one because the Firefox logo is part of the trademark. This copyright could be changed to a more permissive license by Mozilla, but it looks like their theory is that Debian could just as easily bend their rules. This is where Debian has taken a stand. Since they’re committed to providing a completely free operating system, they do not include Firefox as their browser.

Firefox is a good browser, and Debian doesn’t want to try to code another browser or use a less popular alternative. Since the only real problem they have is with the trademark and artwork, they’d much rather keep the rest of the Firefox code intact. Plus, with the number of Firefox plug-ins available, a lot of users want to use it. So what does Debian do? Since Firefox is open-source, they just strip out the copyrighted logo and come up with their own. This means that they lose the “Firefox” branding, so they chose the name IceWeasel (and a free logo) to replace it.

Now it may seem like kind of a moot point in the long run, but it makes me proud to see that a distribution like Debian will stick to their guns in a situation like this. It may not be for everyone (I’m still using Firefox on Ubuntu), but they chose not to back down on the ideals of their organization and their users when it would have been very easy to do so. So kudos to Debian and IceWeasel.