Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Empathy

Ubuntu’s built-in messaging application is called Empathy. Messaging in Ubuntu is great for a lot of reasons. In fact, I could write a whole post on it. I know that because I almost just did. Then, I remembered that the point of this series isn’t to evangelize an application. It’s about my computer making me feel an emotion.

I’ll be the first to admit that web-based messaging like Google Chat and Facebook Chat are extremely convenient. It allows instant communcation no matter what computer you’re on. It facilitates context-based conversations (“Hey, let’s chat about this email”). But do you know what annoys me? It’s when I’m in the middle of writing a blog post and I hear the “ding” of an instant message. Now, I have to go figure out where it came from. It’s not just that it interrupts my work. Often I want to chat. The problem is that I’m usually in the middle of something else, in this case writing a blog post. Now I have to switch tabs every few seconds to keep up with the conversation. And if I get a Google Chat and a Facebook Chat going at the same time? Oh, save me now!

Despite the convenience of web-based messaging, their chats are constrained. You’re stuck with a little box on a website. Am I in prison? If I switch contexts, I constantly have to come back to that site to continue the conversation. Are we playing telephone? I want direct communication with people, and I want my chat to have its own window.

Ubuntu can empathize. It has messaging built right into it. I’ve already mentioned its slick notifications. It also lets me chat on a bunch of different networks (Google, Facebook, AIM, Yahoo!, etc.) with one application. Messaging is nicely integrated into Ubuntu, much like music. Empathy nestles itself quietly into the “Messaging menu” (envelope icon), where it waits until I need it (or until someone needs me!). It’s easy to change my chat status to “Busy” or “Away” across multilple networks with the “Me menu,” whose icon looks like a speech bubble. In other words, when people chat with me on Ubuntu, it feels like a natural part of my computer, not just some website I have open.

All of the little details are great, but today Ubuntu made me happy because it lets people chat with me on my computer, not on a website.

Ubuntu has Empathy

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Wallpapers

Ubuntu is built by a large number of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. A company called Canonical funds a significant portion of Ubuntu’s development, but a large community of volunteers also contribute to it. These groups of people with varying interests and skill sets come together to create something great. The community of Ubuntu users and developers is vast, and despite some misconceptions you may have, you don’t really need to know anything about programming (or even computers!) to contribute to Ubuntu.

As an example, community photographers contribute their work. For each new release, which come every six months, the design team asks for photograph submissions on Flickr. They sort through a plethora of excellent candidates and include 17 new photo wallpapers with each Ubuntu release. For people like me who always love them all, they also have a “wallpaper slide show” that changes the wallpaper photo a few times per day. This way I can experience all of the photos without having to choose, and I constantly have a fresh new wallpaper to see.

When I first start my computer or when I get everything else out of my way, I want to have something sleek and refreshing to look at. Ubuntu made me a happy because it gives me beautiful photographs for my desktop wallpaper. [Larger individual photos]

Wallpapers for Ubuntu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Notifications

Ubuntu is good at staying out of my way. The last thing I need when I’m writing an important email is something popping up and breaking my concentration by saying “You should install this update (or tell me you’ll do it later).” When I’m working, I want to work. I don’t want my computer creating distractions for me. For this reason, when it’s time to install some updates Ubuntu’s Update Manager always starts behind all of your running applications. It’s there to remind you to update, but it never steals your focus. While software updates are important, they never require immediate attention, so I like that Ubuntu doesn’t nag me to install them.

Sometimes notifications are time-sensitive, and they require an interruption. Since it’s often difficult to tell which notifications are important to me, Ubuntu notifies me without completely interrupting me. A shaded box appears at the top right corner of my screen with a message. It’s there if I have time to look at it, but it quickly disappears and does not nag me if I don’t. If I need to click on something behind the box, it nearly disappears and stays out of my way.

As an example, Empathy, Ubuntu’s instant messaging application, shows me the contents of a new instant message without disrupting my work. In addition to notifying me, it also turns the Messaging Menu icon (grey envelope at the top right of the screen) a bright blue so that if I temporarily ignore a message I don’t forget to reply to it later when I have some free time. Also, I like that the notification shows me who is messaging and what they want. This means that I don’t have to switch over to a different browser tab or open an application to figure out whether it’s something I can ignore. Ubuntu made me happy because its notifications do not intrude on my work.

Ubuntu Notifications

Ubuntu Made Me Happy: Sound Menu

Ubuntu’s music player is called Banshee. It’s really great. It caught my attention because it feels like an integral part of Ubuntu, not just another music player like iTunes or Winamp. When I click on the volume button at the top right part of my screen, of course I can change the volume. However, I also see a picture of what music is playing in Banshee. I can pause, skip songs, or choose a new playlist. And I can do it without having to fully open Banshee. Banshee itself may get mentioned later in this series, but for today Ubuntu made me happy because my music player feels like it was built right into it.

Ubuntu Sound Menu

Ubuntu Made Me Happy Because…

During the development of Firefox 4, Mozilla added a button so that users testing it could easily share their thoughts about Firefox’s design. You could either click on “Firefox made me happy because…” or “Firefox made me sad because…” and share your feedback with Mozilla. This is a really user-friendly way to gather feedback about software. I liked its simplicity and the way it addressed an emotional response to using a computer. Humans are emotional beings, and let’s face it: computers can be frustrating. It taught me to pay attention when a computer makes me feel an emotion.

As you may be aware, Ubuntu 11.04 was released a few weeks ago.  It received a completely revamped user-interface. While using it, I’ve begun to notice the thoughtfulness that Ubuntu developers put into its design, and I would like to share some of the things that caught my attention. Not all of them are new in Ubuntu 11.04, but they all deserve acknowledging. This is an introduction to a new series of short, non-technical blog posts, usually accompanied by a screenshot. I hope you enjoy them!

Learning Ubuntu with Unity

Ubuntu 11.04 will be released on April 28th, 2011. It contains a significant visual redesign called Unity, which is a shell over the more traditional desktop environment found in previous Ubuntu releases (called GNOME). There will likely be a lot of critique of Unity over the next few days and weeks, but by most testing and user reviews, Unity is a significant step forward in usability for both computer novices and experts alike. I have compiled a set of links demonstrating some of Ubuntu’s new features in 11.04.

I am excited to make the switch. I’ve been trying Unity out at various points of development via “live cd,” and it’s really nice to work with. I’m looking forward to doing a complete reinstall this week to check out the new installation procedure as well. Let me know what you think in the comments!

eMusic Review

When I bought my new portable audio player, it came with a bunch of free songs from eMusic. I have gotten these offers before, but in the past I did not bother cashing them in because the eMusic selection was pretty limited. Since I wanted to grab some new music to fill my new toy, I decided to give eMusic another chance. I was pleased to find that their selection is much better than it was a few years ago. They are no longer limited to music from independent labels, and they actually offer a decent amount of music from mainstream artists. Much to my delight, they also offer a nice selection of classic rock albums.

As you might be able to guess, another stipulation that I had for eMusic was its ability to work in Ubuntu. They can offer me all the free credits they want, but if they require a PC/Mac-only downloader, it doesn’t do me any good. I was pleasantly surprised to find that eMusic actually offers a Linux downloader, and it actually works fairly well. As a bonus, Banshee offers an integrated eMusic Importer extension in its latest release.

I received an offer from eMusic for 50 free credits. One credit equates to a single song, but many albums are sold as “deals” that cost less than buying all of the songs individually. In order to get the free credits, I had to “subscribe” to eMusic. This means I had to sign up with a credit card and choose a subscription plan, with their most popular being $11.99/month for 24 credits/month. The pricing is pretty reasonable at $0.50/song. Of course, this is contingent upon being able to find 24 songs per month to download and spending $12 every month on music. The first 50 songs are still free, and you are not charged for the subscription until your free credits are used up. As soon as your free credits are gone, your credit card is charged and your subscription starts, but if you’re satisfied with 49 freebies, you can cancel your account without charge and keep the music. They offer a nice bonus too: if you’re close to finishing off your free credits, they’ll offer a few extra freebies to entice you into starting your subscription. For example, if you have 8 free credits left and you’re browsing an album that costs 12 credits, eMusic will probably display a message that says something like “We’ll give you 4 more free credits to start your subscription today.” Unfortunately, the free credits can’t be used to buy certain songs and albums on eMusic. It was pretty frustrating because a few popular albums that I wanted to pick up were unable to be purchased with free credits. Free credits are also only good for 30 days. I would recommend not starting your account until you have about 4 new albums to buy.

I was able to find quite a bit of new music. I made a list long enough to use all of my free credits and my first month’s subscription. All-in-all, I picked up 6 new albums and 5 singles for $11.99. That includes 56 free credits and $11.99 for 24 credits.

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle: 20 Greatest Hits
  • Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits
  • Matt and Kim – Grand
  • Metric – Fantasies
  • The Submarines – Declare a New State!
  • The Temper Trap – Conditions
  • Some Singles:
    • America – Lonely People
    • Jim Croce – I Got A Name
    • Neil Young – Long May You Run
    • The Yardbirds – You’re A Better Man Than I
    • The Yardbirds – For Your Love

Unfortunately, I couldn’t justify renewing my subscription for any longer than one month. During my search for new music, I came across a few new albums that I wanted to pick up, only to find that eMusic did not carry the artist or album. I also could not see myself consistently spending $12/month on music, even if I could find stuff that I liked. Plus, eMusic does not allow unused credits to roll over from month-to-month, so if I had unused credits at the end of a month, I would be forced to use them or lose them. Overall, I was impressed with their collection though. I was just not impressed enough to keep up a monthly subscription. However, they do offer a variety of subscription plans including a “lite” version that costs $6.49/month for 12 credits/month. If you’re willing to subscribe for a year, they’ll also throw in 100 additional free credits. As an interesting side note, when I attempted to cancel my account, I was offered a free extra month (24 songs) with no strings attached. After canceling, I also received an email offer for 75 more free credits to restart my subscription. I may consider renewing in the future if I can come up with enough music.

For now, look forward to some reviews of the aforementioned albums. And if you’re the music-buying type, head over to eMusic and give them a look. You can get a really nice deal on the stuff they offer, and while their selection isn’t as good as iTunes or AmazonMP3, it’s pretty darn good.

Ubuntu Artwork Pool

I created a Flickr account so that I could submit some of my more “artsy” photos to the Ubuntu Artwork pool. In order to qualify for the pool, all photos must be licensed as CC-BY-SA or CC-BY, and all my photos are licensed CC-BY. Ubuntu developers will be choosing photos from the pool to be included with the default Ubuntu 10.04 operating system, due for release in April 2010. This is a chance for my work to be seen by millions of people around the world. Here are my submissions:

It was slightly annoying to have to register for a Flickr account because I’m a Picasa user, and I would rather just use them to host my photos. However, developers wanted to limit barriers for photographers to submit their work, and Flickr was the easiest way to to accomplish that.

If you’d like to get your work seen by millions of people, submit it to the Ubuntu Artwork pool under a CC-BY-SA or CC-BY license. Maybe your wallpaper will be distributed with the best free operating system available, Ubuntu.

Amazon MP3 on Ubuntu 9.10 64-bit

I recently reinstalled Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic) on both my desktop and laptop. When I went to buy an album on Amazon MP3, I remembered that Amazon only offers a 32-bit version of their MP3 downloader. Unfortunately, there’s not a very intuitive way to install the Amazon downloader on a 64-bit system, and you need it to have this application installed in order to buy more than a single MP3 from Amazon. If you want, you can try out the command-line tool Clamz. Otherwise, I’ll walk you through the moderately painful steps to installing the real program on your 64-bit version of Ubuntu. Note that this guide pertains to the Amazon MP3 downloader version for Ubuntu 9.04. I’m installing it on Ubuntu 9.10 (although this should work for any version of Ubuntu 9.04 and above). Adapted from Cappy.

  1. Save the 32-bit AmazonMP3 installer for Ubuntu 9.04 to your computer (Don’t attempt to ‘Open’ it). By default on Ubuntu 9.10, it’s saved in your Downloads folder. I will assume that’s where the file is from now on.
  2. Install getlibs. (You can just ‘Open’ this one. If that link doesn’t work, look here.)
  3. Open Terminal (Applications -> Accessories -> Terminal) and run the following (one bullet point at a time, pressing Enter after each blurb of code) [Tip: press Ctrl+Shift+V to paste in Terminal]:
    • sudo apt-get install libboost-signals1.34.1 libboost-date-time1.34.1 libglademm-2.4-1c2a libboost-iostreams1.34.1 libboost-thread1.34.1 libboost-regex1.34.1 libboost-filesystem1.34.1
    • [Type your password and hit enter when prompted]
    • sudo dpkg --force-architecture -i ~/Downloads/amazonmp3.deb
    • getlibs /usr/bin/amazonmp3
    • [Press 'y' and hit enter when prompted by getlibs]

  4. Close the terminal when it’s finished.
  5. Open AmazonMP3 via Applications -> Internet -> Amazon MP3 Downloader. This should open the program and the Amazon MP3 website in Firefox. Follow the directions on Amazon.com to finish the installation and download your free song.

Too bad Amazon won’t release a 64-bit version of their program or open source it. These hoops are a huge pain to jump through, and it makes our system appear overly complex to new users. If I’ve made this guide more complicated than it needs to be, feel free to let me know.

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.