Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “June, 2008”

OpenSUSE 11.0 – The Kobayashi Maru angle

The Kobayashi Maru scenario figures in various Star Trek novels. It’s a no-win scenario that only a few are able to beat. One of those is Mackenzie Calhoun, the main character in the New Frontier books, who simply blew the Kobayashi Maru and it’s crew to smithereens. Writing about Linux distributions is like that, a no-win scenario. Yesterday I decided to follow Calhoun’s lead and smashed the reviewing process.

What is surprising is that I didn’t actually hide the fact it was a bogus review. Still, some were offended to enough to start defending their own little distributions against this unwarranted onslaught. But why has reviewing Linux distributions become a Kobayashi Maru scenario?

In essence, what set’s one distribution apart from the other? Is it the software collection? The choice of graphical interface? Hardly. Within a certain timeframe all distributions have similar collections with slight third-digit differences in version numbers. All major distributions have to juggle between providing a userfriendly distribution while at the same time wondering about licensing and other rights. Smaller distributions can get away with adding default support for this, but the larger ones can’t. Hence the necessity for creative solutions, either by providing easy access to repositories or simply paying for the fees themselves. The quality of the creative solution is one way to set itself apart.

One can distinguish oneself in but a few areas. Installation routine? Yes, somewhat, though it limited to the amount of questions you would want to ask your user. You can add some shine to it, but the essence of the routine is virtually the same.

The next area is that of management tools. Managing users, groups, hardware, various settings and software, but to name a few that are of interest to end-users. It’s here that we see the differences creeping in. SUSE/OpenSUSE users will point to YasT, Mandriva users to the various *drakes, Fedora users will see what is the current flavour of the month and proclaim that and Ubuntu users start looking for the generic names that describe the main functions of the tool.

Now, the issue is that working with these tools is an acquired art or taste. When migrating from Windows to Linux you will have to learn to work with these and once you are used to them -with all their quirks and idiosyncracies- it becomes harder to move to another distribution that provides “yet another graphical innovative frontend for basically the same function”, shortened to YAGIF. Every YAGIF requires getting used to. You might like your YAGIF but that is in itself insufficient proof that it is better than the other YAGIF.

Sadly, some participants in online discussions fail to see this. They simply see an all out attack on their favorite distribution, claiming that the other distribution didn’t work on their machine. Right… What they are actually saying is they didn’t understand the other distribution enough to make it work for them. Why can I say this? Well, because tons of others will yell that they didn’t have any problems getting hardware X running with distribution Y. And vice versa of course.

The development of Linux distributions is an evolutionary process. Packages are developed constantly and a distribution is a snapshot of that process. In each distribution release innovative new features are heralded that finally solve whatever problem is the fad of the day. 2007 was the year of Compiz and 2008 seems to become the year of PulseAudio, “yet another tool to solve a problem that was to be solved by the previous yet another tool”. I’m not arguing that PulseAudio is good or bad, I’m simply saying that previous solutions were heralded as well without actually solving all problems. The development should continue, but it shouldn’t be something to bicker about in the comments.

So, what are my real impressions of OpenSUSE 11.0? For one, it is a decent release. In fact it is better than the 10.x releases or SLED 10. It is way faster and snappier and more polished in various areas.

The solution for the multimedia issue is elegant and easy to use for novice users. Adding the collection of other repositories isn’t what I call elegant. Plus, if you enable them all (something a novice user might do) you run into problems with dependencies that can’t be solved. I would rate the software management tool between that of Ubuntu (easier to use) and Fedora 9 (who ever came up with that idea).

I don’t like the menupanel in GNOME or KDE. It looks nice, seems elegant, but it requires way too many clicks to get to the program I want. The ‘older’ program trees requires two clicks (menu and the program) instead of clicking from panel to panel. Yes, I can change that without a problem.

I have been working with OpenSUSE 11.0 for a couple of days now and will continue to do so for some time to come. However, not a day went by with at least a few program crashes or error messages. Simply launching the file manager is enough to get another crash report. Of the tested spring releases (Ubuntu, Fedora and Mandriva are the other ones) OpenSUSE is the only one that shows this behavior. To answer your question: no, I didn’t file bug reports. No doubt all problems will be fixed and the fixes be made available through the update channels. That is one of the things you can count on with open source software.

Is OpenSUSE 11.0 better than Vista, Leopard, Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, SabayonLinux, Fedora or whatever other distribution you can think of? Well, better than Vista perhaps, but that’s easy. In comparison to all other distributions it is safe to say that OpenSUSE 11.0 is keeping pace with them, satisfying their own userbase the most, but hardly bringing something so innovative that it would lure users away from them.

“Computer. End program.”

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OpenSUSE 11.0 beats Vista, Leopard and Ubuntu hands down

The battle of operating systems is over. The dust clouds of the Linux distributions wars can finally settle down. The victor is known to all and we simply have to bow our heads in gratitude. After working intensely with OpenSUSE 11.0 for at least a full day there is not a shadow of doubt that this is the release everyone has been waiting for.

Granted, the 200 improvements in OpenSUSE fall short of Mac OS X Leopard’s 300, but who is counting. It’s the result that counts. The shiny and polished interface with applications a couple of clicks (and then some more) away simply obliterates the murky Mac OS X screen.

Yes, Ubuntu, you had your moments. You had your time in the limelight, but you are so gone. Just look at the software repositories. Come on, do you really think you can master the Linux universe with main, restricted, universe and multiverse? Take your cue from OpenSUSE. Once you have added the multimedia related repositories you already have 7 or 8 in the list. And by clicking “Add” there are at least ten more to add. The brilliance of structure and organization this proves. Of course, the package manager is par to none in order to keep software management working flawlessly without so much as a hick up.

Beating Vista hands down is like stealing the milk bottle from an infant, but since all other Linux distibutions fall short of doing that, it is a marvel how OpenSUSE achieved it. It truly is.

Yes, this mother of all Linux distributions will be responsible for the utter demise of Microsoft, Apple and will create an immensity of spare time for all maintainers of other distributions. By all means an achievement worthy of it’s own wikipedia entry.

Disclaimer: this article was written at the speed of typing. I didn’t actually think about it. Of course, I can not be held responsible for the truthfulness of the statements.This isn’t a review, I simply wondered how much superlatives it needs to satisfy the ones who become angry at an article that more realistically describes their favorite Linux distribution. But, truly, OpenSUSE is worth a look.

OpenSUSE – searching for programs and packages

I had some writing to do and this provided a good opportunity to actually spend a few hours on OpenSUSE 11.0. When trying to work with OpenSUSE the way I am used to work I quickly needed to install some new programs. I use Abiword often, since it is light and fast. Under Ubuntu I need to install both Abiword and a plugin pack in order to have proper support for various document formats. Now it was but one package to take care of it all.

Bluefish was next on my list. I wasn’t surprised not to find it in the repositories. Basically all RPM-based distributions I tested in the last six months didn’t have it in the repositories. Downloading and installing the RPM-package from the website was the simple solution.

Installing my Bible study tool via Wine was a necessity. I am preparing a new talk and access to the reference materials is paramount. I have no problems installing the tool under Wine with Ubuntu, but with OpenSUSE the install routine crashed repeatedly without leaving an error message that I could interpret.

Later today I wanted to install Prism, the new toy that brings webbased applications to the desktop.It isn’t in the repository and so I added it as an extension to Firefox. I also downloaded the latest version from the website.

Looking for software that isn’t there is a nuisance, though you can’t expect the repositories to contain everything you like. What really got on my nerve was the menu panel. I switch from app to app and to click on Computer, then on More programs and then have to wait in order to see the list and then find the application is cumbersome and requires more mouse clicks than I want. Okay, I didn’t dump it immediately. I added a new panel and a menubar.

What a relief! With this it was no problem to enable the 3D effects on my laptop. I finally found the menu entry to do that. :p

Banshee 1.0 received a cursory glance today. I noticed my Last.FM stream now previews the next three songs. It made me forget Rhythmbox.

OpenSUSE 11.0 on Acer Aspire 3681 WXMi

While the Dutch soccer team got kicked out of the European Championship tournament I was watching the Earthquake 10.5 miniseries on the other channel and installing OpenSUSE 11.0 on my laptop. The series was fun with the usual list of plot elements. Intelligent scientist with ludicrous idea which proves to be the only correct idea, but isn’t accepted at first for lack of social skills? Check. Disaster can only be averted if the nation comes together and we do something that has never been done before (like fusing a vault line with five nukes)? Check. S.O.B. with family issues turns hero, sacrifices himself for the cause? Check. Happy end? Euh… well, not really. See, the plan didn’t work 100% and so a large chunk of California did wash into the ocean. Some morality to top it of? Check.

What does this have to do with installing OpenSUSE 11.0 on my Acer Aspire 3681 WXMi laptop? Nothing, of course, though it does indicate that installing it was pretty painless. The laptop has been multibooting between Ubuntu 7.10 and Ubuntu 8.04 for the last two months. The bad thing about writing two books on Ubuntu Linux at the same time is that you are looking at the default human theme quite extensively. Now that I am wrapping up the work on the manuscripts I can replace Ubuntu 8.04 with something new.

‘Pretty painless’ doesn’t equal ‘without quirks’. For one, I like to keep the GRUB for the ‘toy distribution’ away from MBR and put it on it’s own partition. OpenSUSE apparently decided not to go along with that. At least, I couldn’t find an easy way (tick box, anyone?) to install it anywhere else but MBR.

The second issue was getting wifi up and running. The solution was found and after following the suggestions I could go online without an ethernet cable attached to my laptop.

The issues I had with the software repositories and the ugly fonts were gone with this regular install. I could add the multimedia support almost without a problem (it had to be repeated twice to get everything).

Good, time to get some work done.

What are Red Hat's plan for the Linux desktop?

An interesting article about Red Hat’s strategic view on the Linux desktop market. Some highlights:

  1. the Linux desktop market is about small pennies, whereas the Linux server market is about big bucks,
  2. Red Hat focuses on making it’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux business desktop friendly, channeling the novelties to the free Fedora desktop;
  3. Fortune 500 companies want to move 25% of their desktops to Linux to replace Windows XP Pro, because of better TCO, the ability to take your virtual machine on a USB stick and to manage it via Red Hat’s management tools;
  4. Red Hat focuses on subscription licenses for a complete offering from server to desktop, the demand driven from the server end.

Practical Technology » Red Hat and the Linux Desktop 2008

OpenSUSE 11.0: Shine and annoyance

OpenSUSE 11.0 is another major Linux spring release. Ubuntu 8.04, Mandriva 2008 Spring and Fedora 9 preceded it. SUSE was the first (and only) distribution I bought. This new release will become the basis for the commercial offering SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11, which Novell will bring to market in 2009. The first buzz on the net about OpenSUSE 11.0 is clouded by negative feelings about Novell’s involvement.

Maybe I became a bit blasé over the last few years. I don’t really expect revolutionary changes from one release to the other. The rapid evolutionary pace of the development of free and open source software seems to preclude that as well. Let’s face even the multiyear pauses between releases of Windows or Mac OSX don’t bring revolutionary new concepts in the way I use my computer. Hence, I expected the logical incremental improvements in OpenSUSE 11.0 that were noticeable in the other distributions as well. The collection of packages has been updated to the state-of-the-art. OpenSUSE has put it’s own mark on the GNOME desktop and sticks with it in this release. Even if it isn’t my preference (yet), I think it’s a good thing to stand out from the crowd and have something unique.

The install wizard had a complete makeover. It does look much better. There are two settings for the configuration option, the default being for less-experienced users. As a user you have quite some control over partitioning, for instance being offered to choose between standard partitioning or LVM and being able to encrypt the drive. By default /home get’s it’s own partition, something not all distributions offer.

OpenSUSE and SUSE used to be the slowest in term of the time it took to install them. OpenSUSE 11.0 does seem to have improved that. It’s still not as fast as -for instance- Ubuntu, but it isn’t dragging it’s feet as well. There have been some comments about the questions and settings you are confronted with during installation. Personally I appreciate to have the opportunity to fine tune the configuration at this stage.

I would have to spend some more time on OpenSUSE 11.0 to write a review about it, time that I don’t have at the moment, but two annoyances I need to mention here. OpenSUSE has been and still is the only distribution that turns out with ugly grainy fonts at first run. I install tons of distributions in virtual machines and they simply show off their beauty without a problem. Not so with OpenSUSE (or SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop for that matter). Of course, this can be fixed, but as the saying goes: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”.

The second annoyance were the software repositories. Yast is the tool of choice to manage the software and updates the lists from the repositories is one of the first things to do. I was met with error messages that package lists couldn’t be found. The option “ignore” didn’t really ring a bell, since it would try it again, and again, and again. That made adding the necessary multimedia support more painful than it should have been.

Anyway, the first buzz from the digital realm is that OpenSUSE 11.0 is one of OpenSUSE’s better releases. The biggest criticism comes from – not completely a surprise- Roy Schestowitz from Boycott Novell. The issue isn’t the quality of the release, but the fact that Novell is working in tandem with Microsoft. I must say that their interoperability campaign site ruffled my feathers as well. Schestowitz position is mirrored by others in the digital realm.

As much as I understand the criticism, I do feel saddened by it. SUSE used to be a solid and stalwart promotor of free and open source software. The commercial boxsets had the best and most extensive collection of manuals and tutorials in the field, showing it understood the need of new W2L migrators. For Novell it was good thinking to buy SUSE and use it to salvage it’s declining Netware business. Corporations are driven by other sentiments than the communities of developers, as the recent remarks of Nokia’s VP show. Corporations will enter into strategic partnerships to protect or expand their market share and thus the partnership between Microsoft and Novell does make sense. But I am also raising my eyebrows at the attempts spearheaded by Novell to port Microsoft-based technology (.Net and Silverlight) to Linux (Mono and Moonlight).

Well, the market will have it’s own say about it. OpenSUSE 11.0 is ready for download for 32-bits and 64-bits machines, as well as for the PowerPC architecture. If you like, you can buy a boxset for 60 euro with the dvd, a manual and 90-day support.

Edit Wiki pages with a Firefox button

ReadWriteWeb pointed my attention to a new extension for Firefox. Now, there is no shortage of extensions, but this one is developed by various wiki providers and allows you to edit wiki pages with the click of a simple button. A nice one for the wiki warriors out there.
clipped from universaleditbutton.org
The Universal Edit Button is currently a green pencil icon wiki.png in the URL bar that indicates a web page is editable. It is similar to the orange “broadcast” RSS icon ExampleRSS.png that indicates there is an RSS feed available.
To see the universal edit button in your browser, you will need to download this Firefox extension, (installation notes). In time, we hope that browsers will support the Universal Edit Button directly, as they have done for RSS feeds.

UWEBinaction.png

Universal Edit Button
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Sourceforge 2008 Community Awards: Nominate PortableApps

I like to work with free and open source software, both at home and at the workplace. And I’d like to have my personal e-mail accounts and fattened browsers close at hand to roam the digital realm from whatever computer there is at hand. John Haller’s Portable Applications have been the package of choice for quite some time now. The Portable Apps Suite is a great way to start off new people on free and open source software. Just give them a USB stick (hardly cost anything nowadays) with the suite and they have a painless way of trying out the new toys.

One of the great things about Portable Apps is that there is a continuous streams of all software, new applications are only allowed after testing and only if they are under an open source license. The new portable Firefox 3 is ready for download on the same day as the regular one.

So, I added my vote to nominate PortableApps as the best project for the Sourceforge 2008 Community Awards. It’s one of the projects that definitely helps reducing the barriers to adoption of free and open source software.

Firefox 3 Download Day

Amazing! The counter for first-day download is already over 3,4 million. And while I am typing these few lines another 50.000 where added.

Download Day 2008

Have you been Groklawed?

Tony Mobily, the editor in chief of Free Software Magazine, has coined a new term for use in the blogosphere: Groklawed. The Groklaw Effect is what will happen to you if you play dirty against a well established internet community. A mention of suspected foul play will focus the attention of thousands upon your organization that start digging for the smoking gun, the illicit payments, the odd e-mail from a lowly representative of whatever organization that seems to benefit from your less-than-savory decisions.

If anything it would force organizations to be as honest and transparant as possible:
Unlike the Slashdot effect, the Groklaw effect is much more dooming for the company receiving it. While the Slashdot effect eventually lessens, and your servers can finally stop working overtime, the Groklaw effect are longer-lasting, and in order to get it to stop you can either straightened your actions, or pay the dearest price for any illegal or unethical action you carried out.

Hence, the Groklaw Effect is the virtual version of a lynch mob. But then again, if you simply play by the rules of the free and open source community when dealing with free and open source community (Nokia, anybody?), you don’t have to experience what SCO, OOXML and Becta have experienced. You don’t have to be Groklawed!

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