Death by 100 Papercuts

The newly formed, Canonical-sponsored, User-Experience Team is already hard at work on their major campaign to improve the default Ubuntu experience with the Ayatana project. One of their big goals for Ubuntu 9.10 is dubbed “One Hundred Papercuts.” Canonical seems to be taking the constant criticism of the default Ubuntu experience to heart, and they’re doing their best to fix all the little quirks that should “just work” but don’t (for any number of reasons). They’ve hired a killer team of developers including David Siegel, creator of the fantastic Swiss-Army knife that is Gnome Do, and Mirco Muller, a graphics guru. The future of Ubuntu is looking pretty bright to me!

Windows 7: Netbook killer

The following is a prediction of things to come in the next year.

I get the feeling that Microsoft is trying to kill the netbook market with Windows 7. In case you haven’t heard, Microsoft announced a new edition of Windows 7: Starter Edition. The Starter Edition is only capable of running 3 applications at once. Their purpose for this “Starter Edition” is two-fold. First, it is meant to be a sufficiently crippled version of Windows 7 so that they can sell it dirt cheap for use in netbooks. Many people will not buy it because it can only run 3 programs at a time. (Update: MS changed their minds on this after significant blacklash from the community, but Starter continues to have other strict limitations) They’ll pay a significant premium to buy a netbook containing a “normal” version of Windows 7 (Basic or Home) because it will be Microsoft’s flagship operating system. That’s different from today’s market. Microsoft can afford to give away Windows XP for dirt cheap on current iterations of netbooks because it’s already really old, and they’re busy trying to sell Vista. Buying a netbook with Windows 7 Basic or Home will increase the total cost so much that the devices will no longer be “worth it” to people unless they really want that small form-factor ultra-ultra-portable.

Second, most of the people silly enough to purchase the Starter Edition will find it so incredibly annoying to use that they will either have to pay to upgrade to a non-crippled version of Windows (again significantly increasing overall cost of the device) or they will discount their netbook as “a toy” of little value. This attempt by Microsoft to upsell the netbook market is probably going to kill it. Any way you slice it, Microsoft-based consumer interest in the market will wane.

Then, of course, we have Linux-based netbooks. By October, Ubuntu 9.10 will be available. It will likely boot on your netbook in 15 seconds or less if it has an SSD. It will come fully featured with an office suite, IM client, email client, web browser, media player, image editor, and much, much more. Oh, and you’ll be able to run every single application at once if you want to. Graphics will be performing fantastically, and the user interface will be strikingly refreshing. And of course you’ll get all of this for the low, low price of $0. Let’s just hope that Canonical can get it installed on a number of prominent netbooks whose manufacturers won’t hide it behind a curtain so that consumers will realize that they’re no longer subject to Microsoft’s crippleware. They can have an extraordinarily functional, free system on any machine they want. Ubuntu needs to capitalize on Microsoft’s idiotic move here, and I think they will.

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.

Proliferation

I was going to get coffee at ABP at school last week, and I overheard a random guy with his laptop in the hospital lobby chatting with the guy sitting next to him and saying that he uses Linux. As I walked past, I glanced over my shoulder to see Ubuntu 8.10 loaded.

Last weekend, Sadie and I were at her aunt and uncle’s house for her Grandma’s birthday. Her uncle is a programmer for a garage door company (I think) in Geneva. I noticed they had a new computer on the counter in their kitchen. When I asked about it, he said it was an old family computer that he had reformatted with Linux. It was Ubuntu.

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)

Windows 7 finally catching Ubuntu?

There’s been a lot of talk since Microsoft’s PDC about what to expect from Windows 7. It’s due out in late 2009 or 2010, but MS gave a taste of what’s to come at their PDC. Gina Trapani over at Lifehacker posted a good list of the new features they’re working on for Windows 7. Usama and I have talked a little bit about some of the new stuff since he’s very excited about the next product out of Redmond. I’m not trying to be cynical, but as I read through the list of their “latest and greatest” improvements for Windows, I kept thinking to myself, “Sounds like they’re playing catch-up with Ubuntu and Linux.”

10. Ding-dong, the Sidebar is dead.
Windows is losing Vista’s “sidebar” in favor of a desktop-wide “Gadgets“. Doesn’t this sound strikingly similar to Screenlets? I mean there’s no optional hidden “widget layer” in Aero, but at least they’re trying.

9. Calculator, WordPad, and Paint got overhauled.
They stripped out “useless” built-in programs like a photo gallery, movie maker, and calendar. I guess if you can’t make worthwhile programs, you should probably just quit trying. Oh, but they added “useful” features to the Calculator and added their famous “Ribbon” view to many of their built-in programs. Many people love this “Ribbon” view that debuted in Office 2007, which explains its further incorporation into Windows programs. I can’t say much about it because I haven’t used it. Maybe it’s great. I just don’t think many average users appreciate them trimming down their built-in software when adding interesting new features.

8. Windows 7 will run longer on your notebook’s battery power.
Improved battery life. Apparently Windows 7 is making it easier to control the power usage for your laptop. Hmm, I bet something like powertop would really help you pinpoint what’s eating your power. Of course, if Windows was fully customizable, I’d be able to do things like disable my dvd drive, bluetooth, USB ports, and PCMCIA port whenever I’m on battery like I do in Linux.

7. You can switch between Wi-Fi networks in one click from the system tray.
Clicking on the “wireless icon” brings up a list of available wireless networks. Wow, I can’t believe they didn’t already have something like this. This has been available in every version of Ubuntu I’ve used, and now with NetworkManager 0.7 they’ve even added things like Mobile Broadband and VPN connections to the “wireless icon.” Maybe Windows will get there some day. While we’re on the subject of networking, shouldn’t you have proper Zero-Configuration Networking for all types of devices like Linux has with Avahi and Apple has with Bonjour?

6. You can decide what you do and don’t want to see in the system tray.
This one cracks me up. When I first read it, I thought, “Well that’s not such a bad idea.” Of course, I’m able to customize panels in Gnome and tell it what stuff I want on there and where I want it. Yet, if I’ve got the “Notification Area” applet displayed on my Gnome Panel, I can’t pick and choose what programs I want it to display. I don’t ever normally have more than 3 or 4 things on there at once. Then I started wondering why I’d want to hide the 2 programs I currently have running that show up in the Notification Area. Isn’t that its whole purpose? That’s when I remembered the Windows system tray and all the crap-tastic applications that put icons in there that you can’t get rid of, and this all seemed much more reasonable. I guess I just got used to programs that actually gave me an option on whether I’d like an icon in my tray (like gnome-do) and an OS that let me easily customize what applications start when I boot into my system. Of course, there’s also no need to have 50 different icons telling me I have updates for my PDF viewer, printer, and antivirus. I just get the 1 icon from Update Manager telling me that all these things need to be upgraded. But the real kicker here is that Windows isn’t actually disabling these programs from running. It’s just hiding them. That sounds like a great way to fool people into clogging up system resources with a bunch of applications running in the background so they never see them.

5. You get more control of User Account Control.
Let’s admit the UAC was just a really bad implementation of sudo/gksudo that incessantly nagged people trying to do even some simple tasks. Well it looks like Windows 7 has “fixed” that issue. Of course, instead of implementing a proper sudo knock-off and opting to make users understand the importance security, they let you customize how much UAC nags you. Many people will say, “Don’t ever bug me” instead of giving proper credence to the warnings. It doesn’t matter how many security features you add if people just disable them all.

4. Libraries group similar content; Homegroups to make sharing libraries easier.
I see now that Windows has given some thought to networking. If I’m understanding “Libraries” correctly, they will be able to dynamically scan multiple folders for certain types of files (like music), which can then be shared on a network. I’m not able to tell whether this dynamic scanning would have to be manually set up (I would assume) or if it would automatically scan your entire User directory for music files. That’s actually a pretty good idea (assuming it’s manually configured). Of course, none of that does you any good if you can’t easily connect to other computers on your network, which is where Windows drop the ball. Instead of implementing a proper Zero Configuration Network utility, it looks like “Homegroups” replaces the useless “Workgroups” with “Zero Config Windows 7 only networking.” So that sucks if you have other devices, Mac or Linux systems, a network printer, or even an “old school” Vista computer on your network. Networking will still be a pain in the ass. I guess you’d better be ready to shell out some cash to upgrade everything you own to Windows 7 so your networking works better.

3. You can instantly snap your windows to size, and clear the desktop in one motion.
This one kind of leaves me at a loss. Clear the desktop by shaking a window? So does that mean that every time I start moving a Window around, Windows will think I’m “shaking” and minimize everything? Sounds great… Why not just implement something like Compiz’s ADD Helper, where I can press Win+p to activate it? That way I don’t have to worry that every time I move my window I’m going to minimize everything behind it. Then, there’s the “instantly snap your windows to size” feature. It’s actually not a bad idea if you’ve got a big enough screen where having multiple tiled windows open at the same time might be beneficial. I don’t think I’d use this feature much on my laptop, but if I ever get that 24″ HD monitor I’ve been after, maybe this would come in handy. I’d also worry that someone just meaning to drag a window would accidentally have it’s size and position changed without meaning too. Talk about something to confuse novice users. With more and more users on laptops whose screen sizes are shrinking, I wonder how much use it will get. I think a much better idea would be to implement multiple virtual workspaces, but I’ll touch on that more in a minute.

2. Windows 7 starts up faster.
Whoa, faster boot time? Sounds an awful lot like what I’m going to be getting in 6 months. “Let’s see if we can make booting or resuming Ubuntu blindingly quick.” And as a recent proof of concept demonstrates, I think Linux will be winning the “boot time” battle in a few months.

1. You can do MUCH more from the Windows 7 taskbar.
We finally come to the Windows 7 topic of the week: a reworked taskbar. This definitely has been the hottest topic in news about Windows 7. There are at least 2 big features under this heading. First, they’ve made the task bar much more “Dock-like” by combining the quicklaunch icons with a traditional window list. It’s obvious that Windows needs a feature to compete with the Mac OS X Dock, which is beautifully emulated in Avant Window Navigator for Linux. It’s also obvious that they want something of their own, not just a Dock for Windows. The new task bar shows “live previews” of windows, like can be achieved with Compiz and even using Aero with Vista. One nice feature is that you can close windows using the live preview. It’s also interesting that when having multiple windows open for the same application, they get condensed down into one icon that has multiple “live previews” when you hover over it. Both of those seem like worthwhile ideas.

The second big feature is called Peek. Basically whenever you hover the mouse over an application in the new task bar, all other windows will turn temporarily transparent. It’s meant to be non-interactive, just if you need to glance at another window. There is also a built-in Desktop button so that you can peek at the desktop with all your Gadgets on it. This also seems like an interesting feature. I’m not convinced it could replace the quickness of Alt+Tab for me, but for the point-and-click crowd, this could be a time-saver.

It looks like the new Windows 7 task bar is adding some interesting new features to the Windows desktop. My question is, “Is it enough for Windows to save face?” They’re working on making more efficient use of desktop space. Linux and Mac OS X are already doing an OK job of that with their Dock applications, but they’re also giving the option to have multiple virtual desktops for people who want to separate their applications. On my Ubuntu installation, I can have up to 32 virtual desktops. Of course, I normally have only have 4. This makes it easy for me to keep a word processor open on one desktop and my instant messaging client and web browser open on another.

If it makes the Windows fans happy, though, I’ll give them that the new taskbar design in Windows 7 has some potential to be a good new feature. The rest of its new features still make me feel like the folks at Microsoft are trying to catch up with some of the innovation taking place in Linux and Mac OS. With the rapid progression of Linux in the past 2 years, how will the comparison look when Window 7 is released (theoretically) in late 2009? By that point, Gnome should be well on its way to the transition to version 3.0. That will mean a significant change to the user experience by attempting to rework the idea of the desktop, including making the desktop more task-based and less application-specific. For example, imagine having desktop-wide “contacts” that you could email, instant message, chat via video, follow on RSS feeds, and more. With that information built into the desktop, it wouldn’t matter what application you used for a feed reader or email client. Plus, there are other ideas floating around, like Long Term Vision. With the amount of development and innovation going on with Linux, Gnome, and Ubuntu combined with an aggressive 6 month release schedule, I think it’s going to be hard for Windows to keep up!

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.