Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “December, 2006”

Windows screwup forces Ubuntu shift (The Inquirer)

An interesting account of what can go wrong with vendor delivered Windows recovery disks. I don’t know if you can blame Microsoft for this or the guys at HP.

Link to Windows screwup forces Ubuntu shift

PCLinuxOS: Super Gamer DVD 2


Link to Super Gamer

I really need to find myself some time to play with this one. This DVD is packed with Linux based games. Though I am not really into 3D shooters I want to see how Linux is holding up as a gaming platform. Another candidate for the On the Bench series, together with LinuxXP SR2.

A Fine Day

Nothing is as satisfying as a spiritual day. I made good progress on the talk I have to keep in the last weekend of January 2007. Talks are always great projects. You can dig into a single team and spend about 20 to 25 hours about it, going over scriptures, doing research and molding all the pieces in one consistent theme. I benefit greatly from it and it helps me to focus even sharper on the spiritual aspects of life.

This afternoon we had our bible study group. I have been responsible for this since early October. Most of the attendees are older than I am. Way older. The group is meant for the elderly in our congregation and the average age is around 70. With 39 I am almost the youngest. However age is not important and nobody seems to care that I could be their grandson. On the contrary, it is a lively and enthusiastic group with an almost naieve openness. Before I was given the responsibilty attendance was around 8 to 10, but the last couple of weeks we had 17 in attendance. It’s a great group with a lot of experience and personal wisdom, honest in their worship and still looking for ways to improve their relationship with God. I feel blessed with this responsibility.

Yes, I like these spiritual days. Too bad we sometimes have to work for a living.

ESR's Desktop Linux 2008 Deadline

Link to Slashdot | ESR’s Desktop Linux 2008 Deadline

Aha, the discussion continues. Eric S. Raymond released the fox in the hen house when he started promoting the inclusion of proprietary drivers and codecs in Linux distributions in order to increase the critical mass of users. Without such a critical mass companies will not be inclined to provide open source drivers and/or codecs. The entire argument with the title World Domination 201 can be found here. An interesting read but I doubt whether most of the critics at Slashdot actually read the article in it’s entirety.

As far as I understand there are two main arguments. One, in 2008 the transition to 64-bit computing will be complete (or at least reached a critical mass). Previous hardware transitions also saw a definite shift in main operating systems. If Linux can not dominate the 64-bit market this window of opportunity closes. Second, the average desktop user is spoiled with his/her multimedia experience (either under Windows or Mac OS X) and this will determine the succes or failure of Linux on the 64-bit hardware platform. The story is not all bleak though for Linux. When it comes to driver support, the strength of the developer community and legacy emulation Linux has a head start. Multimedia is a serious weak point, mostly the result of the strong root and presence in the server market.

ESR is no fool and he is certainly someone we should listen to. I don’t agree with his choice for Linspire as the flag bearer for Linux in this regard, but I do agree that the inclusion of proprietary drivers and codecs would benefit adoption on a larger scale. Larger than now that is. I also feel that far more is needed to reach the large scale adoption that ESR wants to achieve. The inclusion of proprietary elements would improve the first impressions of W2L migrators and make life easier. But will this alone convince Auntie Agatha or Joe Smith to install Linux on the box? Nope, it removes but one obstacle. ESR treats the issue of desktop domination as a technical issue, but he fails to take into account a much larger ecosystem perspective. Yes, the technological side is important, as is user exeprience. But without childhood adoption, without teaching and educational aids for schools, companies and individual, without ubiquity of Linux in all facets of life, without decent promotion or marketing only a small niche of new W2L migrators can be reached. Mac OS X is a great operating system with all the nice things ESR wants in Linux and even that never led to mass adoption. Yes, the iMac and the iPod are icons, but most people use the iPod in conjunction with their Windows PC’s. They are not buying iMacs in droves. So far -and this for a long time already- desktop computing equals Windows, both in the 16 bit as in the 32 bit world.

No, forget about the 2008 deadline. Forget about the hardware issue. Focus on ubiquity. Create digital playgrounds and internet café’s in the neighborhoods, in pubs, in libraries, in schools, supported and maintained by local Linux user groups. This costs money, so set up an international infrastructure for funding, for buying used hardware and redeploying them as Linux boxes. Companies like HP, Sun and IBM will have to be convinced to put their weight behind it as part of a long-term strategy. Realizing a paradigm shift takes time and effort.

Has the Desktop Linux Bubble Burst?

Link to Slashdot | Has the Desktop Linux Bubble Burst?

An interesting argument at the end of 2006, the year that had me using Ubuntu Linux as my default desktop and that had me applauding the development of Sabayon Linux. Steven Vaughan-Nichols also disagrees with this statement.

The discussion at Slashdot is interesting though. What does it take to bring a major acceptance of the Linux desktop? Is the Linux desktop already on a par with Windows? Do we need to dumb down Linux to make it more accessible?

There are already some easy to use Linux distributions. Hardware detection has seen some massive improvements over the years. What things are still lacking? In my opinion a few things.

First, Linux is a fine OS and set of applications for desktop use provided nothing goes wrong. In my experience something will go wrong and then you need the tools and some training to fix it. Windows has a an interesting feature called “system restore” which you can use to roll back your system to a previous date. There is a safe mode you can boot into when the regular boot fails. The recovery mode in Linux gives you a command line interface! Yes, we W2L migrators need our graphical tools to fix problems and we would appreciate them greatly.

Secondly, I can imagine it being far more fun to contribute your development skills to adding new features etc. I admire the enormous speed of development, but that kind of speed also comes with a price. Less stability, less maturity. The majority of desktop users are interested in solid functionality. Ubuntu 6.06 LTS is a great step forward, but it would help if all top ten distributions commit themselves to have desktop oriented distribution that are stable, solid and supported for a number of years. Why? Because we need the time to train all those new users in problem-solving, maintenance and security of a completely new operating system. The six month release cycles are great for the Linux afficionados who want the latest of the latest, but for W2L migration it only gives the impression of a never-ending rollercoaster. They come from a world where alpa or beta means: use at your own risk. From their perspective Linux development seems to be in a constant state of flux. Not very comforting, especially when there is already so much to grasp.

Writing a book: Stage 2 – day 2

Today I wasn’t in the mood to write anything. Escapism was the magic word, so I cleaned the complete first floor (including the bath room), made sure my desk looked more like a desk than a pile of paperwork and junk and decided to watch a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica. This usually works because I have learned a thing or two about how my brains work. In the background -let’s call it a cron job- I am working on a new chapter two which is supposed to be a combination of the current draft of chapters two and nine. Nothing to worry about then. It just shouldn’t take days.

Writing a book: Stage 2 – day 1

Time to get the book writing on the road again. I spend most of this day going over the notes, checking out the parts that are already written and drawing up a list of what I still need to do. It’s plenty, but that was to be expected. At the same time I have to prepare a public talk which requires research, pondering and writing. Ah well, it is all interesting enough and food for the brain. I just need to plan some physical exercise, because all that sitting down isn’t good for my health.

Writing a book: Preparing the next stage

Just a few days from now the next writing month starts. The three weeks in October were quite eventful with my dad’s heart attack, but I still managed to achieve my writing goals.

November wasn’t an easy month for our small band of writers. The organization that ordered the book withdrew itself from the project, leaving us and the publisher out to dry. Since we are also members of that organization we were extremely disappointed and up to this day we never received an official notification nor an apology. I can understand when an organization which finds itself with various failing commercial endeavors needs to make tough decisions. But that same organization is build on the backs of dozens and dozens of volunteers, active computer users that contribute in many ways. At least they could have had the decency to speak with us personally, explain their viewpoint and apologize. They didn’t and I’ll leave it at that.

Another problem arose between the publisher and one member of our writing team. It makes no sense to get into that right now, but the result is that our friend decided he could not continue with the project. I regret that deeply. He is the most knowledgeable on Ubuntu. Fortunately he allows us to use the work he already has done and he will remain on the team in an advisory capacity. For that I am grateful since it can only contribute to achieving the quality we aim for.

Coming friday we meet with the publisher again to discuss the new situation and how to progress from here. The publisher already decided that the book will be published, albeit in another series. The deadline will change somewhat and the two remaining writers have some extra work to do.

As far as my planning is concerned I decided to stick with the original timetable and finish my part in mid January. At least, that is my intention. This week I spend my time warming up a bit. I wrote some online reviews on other Linux distributions and an article about Sabayon Linux for a small magazine. I forced myself to write “one shot” pieces. Write in one attempt. Of course the quality is more variable that way, but considering the response I got it is still high enough. This helped me to overcome any tendency for a writer’s block. Right now, I am on a writer’s roll and prepared to write the next 100 pages for the book. If I could do this for a living…

On the bench: Xandros Professional 4.1

A few years ago there were two noticeable distributions in the western realm that wanted to cater to W2L migrators: Xandros and Lindows, later Linspire. Both were commercial version based on Debian, both had there own commercial frontend as a package manager (Xandros Networks and CnR). Linspire released Freespire in 2006 and -shortly after that- made access to CnR free. This leaves Xandros as one of the few commercial desktop distributions. Fortunately, we are able to test Xandros Professional 4.1 for free in a 30-day trial. As distribution that explicitly tries to easy and promote W2L migration it is interesting to see how this release contributes to that goal. And, specific for Xandros, is it worth the money?


The installation routine is the almost ubiquitous six step process. You can either choose the express or custom install route as far as package selection is concerned. I chose the express route to see what results that would bring. The next 14 minutes Xandros was busy installing it’s 1.4 Gb footprint with a slide show that already revealed that under normal circumstance buyers of Professional or Premium would have an extra applications CD. On that CD would have been applications like Adobe Reader, and TheGIMP. That made me wonder what applications were installed by default?

First Impressions

As it turned out the default install is seriously low on applications for day to day use. Firefox is there, as well as Kopete, Evolution and KMail. But no office applications whatsoever. Not even KOffice which would have been expected on the KDE desktop. I could find the CrossOver Office demo. That’s nice if I wanted to install Word or Excel, but it also means that after the trial I have to shell out some more cash ($25 for a premium member).

Let’s take a little step back. The KDE first run wizard is a bit enhanced by Xandros. First, when you choose to have the desktop behave like Windows the whole desktop will look like a Windows95 desktop. Not really an improvement, but maybe the XP desktop is too copyrighted to include that. Another is extra is the add printer wizard, both for a local or a networked printer. Unfortunately Xandros did not recognize our networked printer, but it is not the only distribution that has that problem (or it could be my network setup 😉 ).

Digging deeper

Xandros has really made an effort to cater to the needs and desires of W2L migrators. Three building blocks are available to ease the migration: Xandros File Manager, Xandros Networks and Xandros Security Suite. The Xandros Security Suite (XSS) looks almost exactly like the Windows Security Center including the warning shield and layout. XSS is an interface to the antivirus package, the firewall, intrusion detection and the update server (Xandros Networks). On the downside, it looks like the antivirus package is a 30-day trial as well after which you have to subscribe (at least that is what it says in Xandros Networks). I don’t know about you, but I hate these kind of things. I have seen too many Windows boxes that came with Norton pre-installed. Nice, since you are protected from day 1 but after x days it is either pay up or remove the software. I do hope that Xandros Professional includes the subscription.

The Xandros File Manager looks just like your regular Windows XP Explorer. It completely hides the Linux File Hierarchy System and allows for easy access to network shares. This might not be to the liking of the Linux purists, but I do believe that this is the way a file manager should look like for W2L migrators.

Xandros Networks is the online frontend to the Xandros repositories and it contains a mixture of free and non-free applications. Where the default desktop is barren Xandros Networks should be your easy access to rectify that. It does, kind of, in a limited way. Under Office Suite I could find along with only three language packs. TheGIMP was there, but no KOffice. KMyMoney was only available for Premium subscribers. Same thing for Scribus. GNUCash wasn’t even in the Xandros repositories.

Fortunately it is easy to extend the range of packages when you go to Edit -> Set application sources and tick the box for Debian Unsupported. Also go to Settings -> Expert View and then you have a wide access to the Debian repositories (main, non-free and contrib). However, at that point Xandros Networks becomes the graphical frontend for apt-get and not really a good one compared to Synaptic. Only if you know what you are doing and know which packages you would like to install Xandros Networks will be of help. But when you know what you are doing, would you actually buy this distribution?

First conclusions

Xandros Professional 4.1 is a great looking distribution with three major contributions to ease W2L migration (Xandros Networks, Xandros File Manager and Xandros Security Suite). The inclusion of Paragon NTFS for Linux 5.0 Personal Edition shows that it wants to play nice on the same box in a multiboot environment. I did not have the second applications CD so I could not test that one. However, the default install is extremely bare. Of course, there is only so much you can cram into one ISO, but other distributions like Ubuntu are able to include GIMP and OpenOffice on one ISO along with basic security packages.

Xandros Home Edition is priced at $39,99 and the Home Premium Edition at $79,99. The Professional Edition is going to cost $20,– above that. Is it worth the money? Mind you, this is still way, way cheaper than a similar Windows setup. I believe that 2007 will see a major push for Linux on the desktop. Between competition of Freespire and Ubuntu (free distributions) on the home user market and from Novell’s implementation of SUSE Linux (commercial distribution) on the business market Xandros is finding itself in a tight spot. There are better free and commercial distributions out there and I sincerely doubt whether this 4.1 release can take away market share from either of those.

Xandros Professional 4.1 screenshots can be found here.

On the Bench: Ulteo Sirius Alpha

The open source movement has it’s share of heroes. Individuals that can motivate groups of individuals and rally them behind a certain part of the development process. People like Gaël Duval, who created the Mandrake (now Mandriva) distribution, one of the most accessible and user-friendly distributions for W2L migrators. Enough has been said about him being fired from the company he helped to found. Today is today and Gaël Duval is putting himself behind a new project, a new distribution, a new way of using open source software.

The concept -as I understand it- is not just to build a new distribution. The concept is closer to the Web 2.0 buzz: to create an always accessible desktop environment, no matter where you are. Ulteo is aiming to be one of the most userfriendly and most easy to main Linux distribution. The concept encompasses an upgrade function that always and automatically checks whether updates and upgrades are available and implements them seamlessly.

I will look at the alpha release of the Ulteo distribution later, but I have a few words to say about the concept as well. It is good to have a vision. Visions can motivate, can gather resources, can provide direction for creative talent. In this case the vision is not novel, but we may finally have achieved the technological level and access to it at reasonable enough prices to make it happen. The Google Desktop which comprises of more and more webbased productivity tools or the Windows Live environment are other nascent signs of things to come. One of the key arguments in the development of always accessible desktops and documents is the issue of privacy, of integrity of your documents since they are/will be stored on someone else’s server. It will be interesting to see how that part of mr. Duval’s vision pans out. Web 2.0 is a buzz word, but you can see a definite trend to provide server-based applications accessible through thin-client like setups.

Secondly, do I need a new Linux distribution to make that happen? Today I carry along a 10 Gb USB harddrive filled with about 1 Gb of portable applications ranging from, Abiword, Thunderbird, Firefox to more esoteric network tools. That leaves me 9 Gb for my documents and I only need a USB socket to plug it in. With so many computers using Windows I hardly have a problem to use it. There isn’t even a need to reboot. What can the new Ulteo provide in functionality that wasn’t provided already by Mandrake Move in the past or by the many live distributions today? In the November 2006 issue of Linux Format there were some screenshots of Ulteo running inside a webbrowser and it would be interesting to see how this is implemented on a larger scale as well.

Well, that was a lengthy introduction for a review of a new distribution, but I do believe that in this case it is warranted. Ulteo is not just the new distribution. The alpha release is the first step for the whole concept. And since it is an alpha release there is a need to be careful with the review. You can’t judge the quality of a house based on the truck with concrete that just entered the construction site.

First boot and installation

Ulteo is based on Ubuntu and hence it boots up as a live CD. From then on it is as easy as double-clicking the install button. The usual six step process appears where you can set the language, the keyboard, the time zone, your name and password and the partition table. In step 6 you commit the whole thing. While the install continues there is some time to look at the KDE desktop. For now Ulteo only comes with KDE, but other desktops are part of the roadmap. It does make sense for W2L migration to look at KDE first. (release notes here

Like Ubuntu, Ulteo is not covering you with tons of application but with a decent selection. Hence, no KOffice, but, Amarok and VLC, Kopete, Thunderbird and Firefox, Scribus and KMyMoney. Overall it is a small selection and this results in a very, very, very fast install. From the commit instruction tot the message “Installation complete” it took only 4 minutes on the virtual box. This is amazingly fast. So fast that I wondered whether anything had gone wrong. But no, everything was working fine.

First impressions

For W2L migrators this KDE desktop should be extremely easy to work with. The default KDE icon for the KDE menu is replaced by a “Start” button. There is only one virtual desktop by default and the minimal selection of packages makes the menu easily browseable and accessible.

The System -> Install function is not meant for you to install new software. Actually, either I missed it completely or it isn’t there, but at the moment there is no option to install new packages through a GUI interface. Within the concept of Ulteo this makes sense. You only get a small set of applications which cover most of the daily needed functionalities, both offline and online. This greatly simplifies management on the server side as the repositories can be kept very small.

First conclusions

The question is whether this alpha release is on it’s way to attract the W2L migrators? If Ulteo were purely another Linux distribution it would not get any high marks. For the Linux user it is too barren and lacking in all those nifty tools. The fact that there is no easy way to install new software prohibits it from being attractive. But… this is no distribution for the Linux user, this is the first step in delivering a new way of computing for the Windows user. Ulteo is going head to head with the likes of Xandros and Linspire and for an alpha release it is doing a good job. Ulteo has provided a solid first building block for it’s vision.

However, I don’t think this distribution will satisfy W2L migrators. Those are the users who are adventurers, who are used to thinkering and playing with their operating system. I don’t think they will be satisfied with this kiosk-style operating system. There have been experiments with simplified, easy-access, basic functionality computing before, targeted for instance at the more elderly among us with little or no prior experience. Without a lot of success.

Maybe Ulteo is more suitable for the W2L migrators who use their computer as a tool for day to day tasks, but even for that group I do believe the concept has to mature. Is that the target audience that really needs access to data and applications anywhere in the world? The business user maybe. But for Joe Smith or Aunt Agatha I doubt that.

Screenshots can be found here

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