Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “February, 2007”

Ubuntu reaching the Australian Outback

Soon at least. One of my online friends, Claire, is an English and IT teacher in the Australian Outback. She has embarked on a course that will teach her kids a bit about the history of computer gaming with key games from various period. The course outline looks great to begin with and it does put gaming into a broader context. Claire likes hands on teaching and she decided she wanted a live CD with some games. That is where I could play my little part. Ubuntu and Reconstructor of course.  Installing Uuntu on her computer proved to be a bit of a challenge. It appeared that burning the ISO on a RW disk was the culprit. Yesterday that hurdle was taken and Claire is on her way to writing a piece of Ubuntu history in the outback.

To be updated.

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Another chapter for virtualization

Xen, VMware, Virtual PC, Parallel, Qemu. There is enough going on in the virtualization market. It made me a very happy guy when VMware decided to make VMware Server available for free. The VMware Player is nice, but lacks the ability to create new virtual machines. The server edition is great material and I use it almost constantly.

Recently I ran into another free player on the market, VirtualBox. VirtualBox might be more to the liking of the true open source evangelists than VMware. VMware is not open source, “just”free. VirtualBox is available in binary format under a Personal Use and Evaluation License and an open source edition. Besides these two there is also a full edition with extra features like USB suport, RDP, USB over RDP and shared folders. This puts VirtualBox a bit behind VMware Server that is shipped with USB support and shared folders. For most of the work I do I need the shared folders. For test driving Feisty Fawn that is not really an issue and that is what I used it for on my laptop. VirtualBox leans heavily on Qemu.

Anyway, with the available features VirtualBox holds it’s position between the bare VMware Player and the more feature rich VMware Server. Installing it was very easy. There are some distro-specific binaries available

VirtualBox 1.3.6 for Windows Hosts

You will need to install some additional libraries on your Linux system in order to run VirtualBox – in particular, you will need libxalan-c, libxerces-c and version 5 of libstdc++. How to install these will depend on the Linux distribution you are using.

I used the Edgy Eft version and it was a matter of double-clicking the .deb file. After that you need to reboot the system, because it doesn’t accept the new users in the vboxuser group on the fly. Maybe I missed something, but the reboot took care of the issue.  There is no need for a license key or registration (like with VMware Server).

Installing Feisty Fawn took about 50% more time than under a regular install. There were no issues with the virtual hardware, which was a big plus. VirtualBox supports 2.4 and 2.6 kernel based distributions as well as Windows up to Vista. Once it was installed I was online as well through NAT and downloaded a whole batch of updates (the improvements keep on coming, because this was Herd 4 already). Compared to the same processes on the regular Edgy Eft there was little loss of performance. Actually hardiron Edgy Eft was only slightly ahead of virtual Feisty.

I would say this is great, because VMware Server really shows a performance hit, both on the host machine and the guest machine. On the laptop both have to share my 512 Mb RAM, which is a bit on the low side for this kind of thing, but I could continue working with both of them without serious problems.

As far as first impressions go this one was a very good one. It gave me a laptop with two Ubuntu releases to work on at the same time. If you are looking for some free virtualization, VirtualBox is one to keep an eye on and at least give it a try.

So what?

Linus Torvalds doesn’t like Gnome! So what? He recommends Linux users to use KDE instead. Fine. He is entitled to his own opinion. He might have used somewhat more polite language, but even in that sense he is no different from many other Linuxists. But since he is Linus Torvalds the rest of the digital realm tends to pay more attention. And it is a nice topic for a blog.

For one, I am not biased to any desktop interface. In fact, I use them interchangeable throughout the day when I switch from my home Ubuntu Gnome desktop, to my Windows Mobile 2003 on PDA 1 and Windows CE3 on PDA 2, and from then on to Windows XP at work, alternating KDE, Xfce and Gnome on my laptop and dabble around under Mac OS X on the old iMac. Using them all in this way doesn’t give me any better insight in which desktop is really the best. When you reach a certain level of experience it doesn’t take a long time time to acquaint yourself with the basic functions and all the stuf you need on a day to day basis. Interoperabilty is way more important for me.

I also like tinkering with my desktops, changing at least the wall paper on a very regular basis, but having no qualms about changing the complete theme of the desktop, making it look completely different. I used to run Flyakite in order to make Windows XP look like Mac OS X. I used a theme package from KDElooks to change my KDE interface into an XP interface. Usually this kind of exercise renders my desktop unusable after a while or making it too dynamic. At that point I revert back to more austere, simple, uncluttered desktops.

With any desktop I know there are tons of options under the hood. One thing I have learned from most computer users is that they don’t give a damn thing about all those options. Not even after using the computer for years their level of expertise ever reaches that point. They are users and content at that. Those are not the types to start thinkering in the Windows registry or start delving in all the desktop options, Gnome, KDE or otherwise. Hence, there is a lot to say for the decisions made by the Gnome developers. Ever since the human interface guidelines were accepted the Gnome desktop has developed into a simple, uncluttered desktop. The KDE desktop has developed along different lines, with a different philosophy in mind. Is one better than the other? Who cares?

Linus tried to prove his point by submitting a patch or two. Great. I don’t have his coding skills (nor any skills in that area I would even want to mention), but what does it prove? Nothing, just that he has coding skills. As far as I understand it he wrote some code that would add KDE like configurations in the Gnome desktop. Well, no doubt the Gnome afficionados would be able to write a patch to simplify the KDE desktop as well. The problem is that this isn’t the point. Linus likes to tinker more with his desktop than maybe the whole new batch of Linux users that appreciate the simplicity and accesibility of Ubuntu Linux. Linus also doesn’t like GPL 3 and doesn’t mind DRM. Isn’t is great to have opinions?

Beta testing Microsoft

I don’t mind using Microsoft software. Really, I don’t. I prefer Linux nowadays and I am looking forward to adding Ubuntu Linux to my toolkit at work (using the free VMware server and the good working relationship with the sysadmin to provide the necessary administrator password 😉 ). But you can’t blame Microsoft for being a succesful software company that actually creates/makes/copies software that people can and will use. Like their Accounting software. I have a friend with a small company who is looking for software toolkit with which he can write quotes, workorders, send bills etc, all in the same workflow. We tried several packages on the market, but most are too cumbersome for someone with his level of IT skills and specific needs. In the end we only found Microsoft Accounting and Accounting Express to be up to that task. It is still not an easy program but each main function has it’s own workflow diagram you can click on and it helps you to create all the necessary documents. You can tailor all those documents to your needs. One problem: it is not available for the Netherlands.

Yes, the people in Redmond know how to create a good user experience. Okay, now I will be blasted by the Mac OS X crowd, but I have nothing against Mac OS X. Microsoft is doing fine, even if they have to copy it from other sources. Or buy it. Or steal it. Whatever. Anyway, for this reason I keep a close eye on the new developments by participating in beta programs and pick up all the goodies I can get my hands on. For one, this resulted in a two month free trial of Technet Plus with complete and unlimited download access. I have Vista, Office 2007, Small Business Suite R2, Sharepoint and Longhorn. Test driving this whole set and writing about it will take up most of the year. A few days ago I found another good. The Microsoft Connect site. Technet was already nice, but with Connect you have the chance to get access to beta’s in various stages. I applied and was approved for the new Home Server.

There is one program that piqued my interest immediately: Grava.

What is “Grava”?

“Grava” is the code name for a new set of tools from Microsoft’s Education Products Group that is designed to allow the education community to create and assemble materials that will increase discovery and allow learners to go at their own pace and learning style. “Grava” tools are scheduled for release in fall 2007.

“Grava” Player—The “Grava” player enables users to view the rich interactive content created in “Grava” Authoring.

Developer Tools—The “Grava” SDK is built on Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and provides a programming model and tools for building rich educational experiences.

Authoring—“Grava” Authoring allows users to create interactive and stimulating non-linear projects to view in the “Grava” player.

Services—“Grava” provides an array of services which complement the authoring, SDK and player components. These services include the ability to do assessments, log results, and create intelligent learning solutions.

Having worked in education for a long time and still wishing to fire up the OpenSource eLearning project I am definitely curious about how Microsoft will help to create rich content elearning materials. I know there are already some fine tools on the market and I can only hope that the open source community can develop the same quality tools, but those tools require a certain level of IT experience that most teachers and educators don’t have. The more open beta of Grava is planned for Spring 2007 and needless to say I applied for it.

And, since it can not all be work without play, I also enlisted as a beta tester for Microsoft Games ;-).

Becoming part of the Ubuntu Herd

With two months to go for the final release of Ubuntu Feisty Fawn it became time to become part to the Herd. Herd 3 to be precise. This morning I started to install Herd 3, while at the same time downloading Herd 4. All out of curiosity of course.

A few days ago Linux.com featured an article about two major decisions concerning Feisty Fawn. Downgrading the importance of the PowerPC port of Ubuntu is a bit sad, since I was looking forward to installing it on my iMac. Dapper and Edgy were no real winners on the old iMac and I expected some fixes, especially with the ATI card. I understand the decision though. Ubuntu is leaning on the developments with Debian and there are problems with PowerPC port of Debian. Patience is a good thing here.

The decision to leave proprietary drivers out of the default install is a bummer.

However, the board decided that some of the software required for deploying Composite support, which was the impetus driving consideration of closed source video drivers, is not mature enough for inclusion by default in the next Ubuntu release.

I can understand the stability issues, but it would have been nice to have a release with some serious eye candy. Now we will have to rely on Automatix2, Automatix 2 Bleeder and EasyUbuntu. With this the most significant change in Feisty will be the inclusion of Linspire’s CNR. Is this a good thing? Personally I don’t think so, but plenty of people think it is a good idea. I couldn’t find it yet in Herd 3, but I did notice that Synaptic has been moved in the menu. There are a few changes in the Gnome desktop, but overall it is very, very recognizable.

Well, I shouldn’t complain too much. This will only make my task easier in the final stages of the book. Besides, Feisty comes only 8 months after Dapper Drake. Microsoft took five years to get from Windows XP to Vista. If you compare the progress Linux has made in the same time with that, we shouldn’t complain when there is another delay to get the eyecandy in the main stream.

Ubuntu teaming up with Linspire's CNR

Should I be surprised by the announcement that Ubuntu will be the first distribution to use the new and improved Click And Run Warehouse of Linspire? DesktopLinux has an interesting article about it. Well, at least the picture looks nice and the move is being presented as a good thing. But is it?

I have never been a real fan of CNR. First, because it was a paid service. The business model to sell access to free and open source software is not my kind of thing. It would make sense if the enduser experience was great, a real improvement over the then existing ways of software management.

I compared Xandros Networks and Linspire’s CNR a few years ago. It seemed a fair comparison with both being commercial distributions and both using custom software management setups where you had access to both paid and free software. Xandros Networks was far superior to CNR, not in the least because you had the ability to add the Debian repositories in one click. Not supported, of course, but it gave the novice Linux user (who else would start with a paid Linux distro) a clear ability to increase his/her knowledge and skills. CNR was unimpressive and lacking a lot of software. Last year I checked again and CNR was still unimpressive, slow and cumbersome.

Ubuntu has been doing a great job in designing an easy to use Linux distribution with a greatly reduced learning curve. Installing and removing software has become as simple as selecting which package you want. For more complex tasks and access to far more software Synaptic is available as an advanced option.

According to the article Ubuntu has two reasons for teaming up with CNR:

In the future, Canonical plans to integrate aspects of the CNR technology so the purchase of commercial software is straightforward for desktop users.
Today, to add proprietary programs to Ubuntu, users must use third-party script programs like Automatix2. As a result of the partnership with Linspire, Canonical will be able to “provide commercial software products and services such as legally licensed DVD and media players to users who want them,” according to Steve George, Canonical’s director of support and services.

Commercial software. Proprietary programs. Okay, I can live with that. Maybe, just maybe, with a distribution channel like this game developers will start porting their portfolio to Linux, making Linux a decent gaming platform. And maybe, just maybe, all hardware developers will create high-class proprietary drivers and distribute them through CNR. Well, let’s just say I am glad CNR will not become the main channel for that.

Linspire also decided to start building it’s distro on Ubuntu, just like SimplyMepis. I wonder whether the Debian team is starting to get the sign of the times. Extremely slow release cycles and a bad ass attitude towards users might have been okay years ago, but when the trend continues oblivion seems likely.

Laptop maintenance

Before I can continue with the book I need to reinstall Ubuntu on my laptop. Dapper Drake has been very faithful, but even Dapper buckled under my attempt to change the look and feel of KDE into something more Windows XP like. LOL, even the XP skin is enough to crash your OS.

Anyway, this gives me the opportunity to install Edgy Eft and -at the same time- make room for Sabayon Linux. I have the new Windows Vista lying around as well (thank you Technet Plus 😉 ), but I am not willing to install that one yet. It already feels slow on my desktop computer, but the rumour is that Vista has some improved for laptop use.

Once the update is done I can start the last stage of writing the book on Ubuntu. May 1st is the deadline and I will be glad when it is all over.

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