Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “July, 2008”

Xubuntu + BeOS like theme + Remastersys = PC/OS?

This must have been the briefest test run a Linux distribution had on my box. Frankly, when I noticed GRUB on the CD it already was out of the window. For good measure I continued until the live desktop, only to confirm the massive suspicion I had. This is yet another remaster posing as something new. The culprit: PC/OS. Or should the blame fall squarely on DesktopLinux who had the gall to present this as “BeOS-like distro focused on content creation

What is PC/OS? First, let the website lingo do it’s thing:

So whats unique regarding PC/OS. Its the first Linux based distribution that provides ease of use out of the box. It provides all multimedia codecs out of the box, an easy to use and simplified interface. Great compatibility with older hardware to help you extend your hardware and software investments…

Now, what is it really: PC/OS is a straight-forward Xubuntu with a BeOS-like slapped on it, some minor customizations to the panels and the builder used Remastersys to make a distributable copy of his own desktop. So, please, enlighten me, make me understand: what is so fracking unique about PC/OS? How can anyone with a sane mind use the phrase: “It’s the first Linux based distribution that provides ease of use out of the box.”? It’s Xubuntu first, last and in the middle. Right, it comes with “ubuntu-restricted-extras” pre-installed.

But hey, everyone is entitled to do his or her own thing, label it and redistribute it. In all fairness, PC/OS gives glory to it’s Ubuntu roots:

PC/OS roots are derived from the Ubuntu distribution. Ubuntu is created and maintained by Canonical Inc. and has a vast community support system. By basing PC/OS on this outstanding base we cover two grounds, a lot of the problems and fixes are in line with Ubuntu. Many fixes for Ubuntu and Xubuntu work on PC/OS. All software compiled for Ubuntu runs on PC/OS and should anything happen to PC/OS users can still get their fixes from Canonical and maintain their distribution and makes the migration smoother.

Wow! Am I glad that Ubuntu gives such a strong support for PC/OS….

Now, BeOS was an amazing operating system with stunning performance that made it stand out from the crowd. It wasn’t the yellow menu bar on each window that stunned people, it was the way it worked that did that. From my perspective, the following quote is nothing less of a major insult:

PC/OS does not aim to be a ground up reimplimentation of the BeOS but to be as simple to use as the BeOS was. The XFCE desktop is light,modern and powerful. It can be used to power the newest workstations as well as older hardware allowing you to get the maximum potential out of your investment.

It is an insult to BeOS and an insult to the Haiku team that is working amazingly hard to get a proper rebuild of BeOS. If you do anything less don’t even start using the name of Jean-Louis Gassée somewhere in the context of what is not even a mediocre attempt to get close.

But, again, everyone it entitled to do his/her own thing, label it and distribute it. At least the remaster creator understands the GPL:

OK, since source code availability now seems to be an issue I have decided what to do here to make my users happy and what would be feasible for myself. The GPL doesnt say I have to provide a repository, so it will be a soiurce DVD, if you want a copy of media mailed to you it will be $30.00 US, the GPL says I can charge a fee. This will be available at the end of this month.

These kind of words start ringing familiar bells about another failed remaster, the name of which I won’t mention since I don’t have time for another round of discussion about that one.

PC/OS comes in various flavors (desktop, desktop light, server, eeepc), but the naming conventions that are used make it pretty hard to decipher which you need to download. But I managed to download the desktop edition for the very, very short test run. Had it been presented as a customized version of Xubuntu, simply because it can be done and to give something of that BeOS look-and-feel, it would have been a nice experience. It would have been a tale of the freedom Linux provides do really scratch your own itch. But it wasn t presented that way.

The DesktopLinux article, which seems more of an advertisement than a proper review of a Linux distribution, just set me on the wrong track. The author, Eric Brown, should have at least have taken the time to download PC/OS and check whether the BeOS references (which he likes to show off throughout the article) were anywhere proper. It wasn’t. PC/OS has nothing in common with BeOS, Zeta or Haiku except for a custom Xubuntu theme. Not even a PowerPC version of it would bring it a step closer. If DesktopLinux has a few more of these bogus reviews or articles it will without a doubt build up some serious credibility issues.

If you like, you can buy a 500Gb harddisk with PC/OS pre-installed. Or a t-shirt with the PC/OS logo. Or the dvd via on-disk.com. Or join the community that supports PC/OS: you could be member 59.

Edit The Linux Journal referred back to the original DesktopLinux article. You can find it here with the title PC/OS resurrects BeOS for a new generation. The opening quote is a tell-tale in itself:

As many loyal readers will know, the brilliant-but-before-its-time BeOS operating system is near and dear to our hearts here at LinuxJournal.com. This being the case, we were overjoyed to learn that a new Ubuntu derivative labeled PC/OS is bringing back echoes of those bygone, halcyon days of BeOS glory.

Another news editor copy/pasting his way through life….

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Should Mandriva 2009 use the new KDE Kickoff menu or the classical menu?

Mandriva 2009.0 installs KDE4 with the classical KDE menu, a decision I can only applaud. It isn’t decided yet whether this decision will stand until the final version. The Mandriva Community seems to be running into a tie, as the votes for either the new Kickoff menu or the Classical menu are virtually equal. My vote is a solid one for the Classical menu and I don’t mind explaining why.

Whether it is the KDE4 Kickoff menu, the OpenSuse GNOME slab or even the Windows Vista menu all suffer from the same problem. In order to launch your program you have to click and click and click from panel to panel to panel, not to mention the scrolling up and down to check whether the program is really in the category you expect it to be. If you have tried a distribution or two you know that isn’t always the case. The classical menu’s (in all three) simply required clicking on the starting point and then hovering over the menu tree until you found the program. True, it is possible to set your favorite programs on the first panel, but you shouldn’t want to use more than four of five programs to benefit from it.

I still remember that day in the early 1990s when my hands locked up while writing a piece on my laptop. I couldn’t move my fingers and it took three months before I was able to use a keyboard again. It must have been one of the first cases of what was to be called Repetitive Stress Syndrome or RSI. I am aware that recent research indicates that RSI doesn’t exist, but you know the dictum: “lies, damn lies, statistics and IT related research”. That experience made me a stickler for workplace ergonomics. I will pester my employer to have a decent chair, table and setup for my computer. At home I have a Microsoft natural keyboard and a responsive mouse. I don’t like a wireless mouse: the batteries make it unnecessarily heavy and when they loose juice the mouse responds sluggish. If there is a keyboard shortcut for repetitive tasks I will find it. The programs I use often are no longer in the menu, but in the top panel (I use GNOME). Needless to say it is littered with programs.

The path of “menu innovation” goes contrary to proper workplace ergonomics and just adds more repetitive tasks in day to day use, a dramatic increase in mouse clicks and lateral mouse movements.

The discussion in the Mandriva Community seems to point to a possible alternative, a Kickoff menu that doesn’t require clicks to move from panel to panel. We will have to wait if that idea matures into something more. In the mean time I am glad the option to switch to the KDE Classical menu will be there in Mandriva 2009. Then again, with the push of KDE4 I might not use the KDE menu for the next year anyway.

The first few days on Mandriva 2009.0

With the first few days (and couple of hundred updates) under the belt I can say a little bit more about my first impressions with the Alpha 2 release of Mandriva 2009. I started last Sunday and have been using it pretty much as the default since. You can actually forget that this release is still under heavy development and that the next bunch of upgrades might break something. Mandriva 2009 is running rock solid on my laptop, where working with Mandriva 2008 Spring was like walking with a Fabergé egg through a crowd going for an iPhone sale. You knew it would break, it was simply a matter of when. But nothing of the kind with Mandriva 2009.

I tried my hand at KDE 4.1. It has plenty of shine and the plasmoids are supposed to make my life easier, more productive or whatever. I don’t think KDE 3.x will be an option for Mandriva 2009 and I wonder whether that is a wise choice at the moment. Ubuntu was criticized for exempting Kubuntu 8.04 the LTS status, because KDE 4 is such a young and immature technology. All distributions have to ask the question whether to go default on KDE 4 and whether to include the option to install KDE 3 this year and perhaps the next.
But when I see the sluggish response of the desktop, crashing widgets or widgets that don’t scale well, missing functionality (like in Dolphin) or the incomplete icon sets, I doubt the wisdom behind going KDE 4 only. Oh, I am aware that most of these issues are minor and that KDE 4 will mature into something much better and grander than KDE 3. But, not at the expense of not having the option to select KDE 3 for now.

Thus I went back to the GNOME desktop, which is just as you might expect from the GNOME desktop. Moving from Ubuntu to Mandriva does result in a couple of “how do I do…’s” and browsing through the folders to find the proper function, but that is to be expected. After that is was just like working under Ubuntu. I mean, the applications I needed are there, I can do basically everything I did under Ubuntu.

There is one big difference. Mandriva 2009 Alpha 2 isn’t only more stable as compared to Mandriva 2008 Spring, but also compared to Ubuntu 8.04 (which was way more stable than Mandriva 2008 Spring). Which only reinforces the nagging thought that Ubuntu should have opted for a 8.06 release instead of a 8.04 release, just like Dapper Drake. For Ubuntu that is now solved with the 8.04.1 point release.

Anyway, it has been a pleasant experience so far.

When 'supported' doesn't equal 'fully functional'

As your experience in Linux grows, you learn one thing: don’t buy new hardware or peripherals without checking whether it’s supported by your favorite distribution. It saves both money and disappointments. I wanted to buy a decent mediaplayer. To be honest, I am kind of cheap. I don’t feel the need to buy the latest Apple gadget at a premium price. I don’t need to buy a fashion- or geek statement, but simply want a device that does what it needs to do. And at a bargain price, of course (I’m Dutch 😉 ).

One of the players that had both positive reviews and a strong indication of Linux support was the Creative Zen Vision:M. You can use it under Amarok and Rhythmbox and Gnomad2 is your friend to load your music on the device. Once the decision was made, it became a simple bargain hunt (keywords: eBay, dollar exchange rate). I am now the proud owner of a great mediaplayer and I can assure you the positive reviews were not exaggerated.

I didn’t even think about using the Windows installation I have at hand for problematic programs, but happily plugged the device in my Ubuntu box. No problem. Rhythmbox recognized it, Amarok recognized it and Gnomad2 recognized it. I could move 20 Gb of MP3 files to the player without a problem and create new playlists.

Since the Vision:M also has video playback I wanted to put some movies on it as well. But how? Gnomad2 wouldn’t recognize them, nor would Amarok or Rhythmbox. Plus, there were some issues with the playlists. A couple of audiobooks wouldn’t appear in the proper order, even if the ID3 tags were correct.

Since I wanted to check for a firmware upgrade I rebooted into Windows and installed the programs that Creative makes available to organize your mediaplayer. What a difference! Gnomad2 wouldn’t allow files to be stored in separate folders, so I thought it was a “Vision:M thing”. It isn’t, it’s a Gnomad2 thing. I could create scores of playlists by simple right clicking a folder or selecting the files I wanted. Video- and moviefiles could be added through an easy and attractive interface. Then I noticed that the mediaplayer had some extra functions, like the ability to synchronize appointments, contacts and tasks with Outlook. And I wondered, why isn’t all this functionality available under Linux?

We should blame Creative first, I guess, for not offering a Linux native client or at least providing sufficient specifications for other developers to create such a program. But that is only part of the “blame”. Why does Gnomad2 support moving MP3 files to the device but not XVID files? Why doesn’t it allow for music files to be stored in it’s own folders? Why is it cumbersome to fine tune your playlists? The answer, no doubt, is that too few people asked for it or the developers didn’t care about it. The main function, storing MP3 files, is there and you can create custom playlists, but compared to the full Windows-based program it is Spartan at best.

I didn’t mention being able to synchronize Evolution’s appointments, contacts and tasks with the mediaplayer, because I know that would be a difficult one to implement. The whole thing did make me think. What would it take to have programs that not simply support the core functions, but provide full functionality? And I don’t mean ‘develop coding skills’. How could we encourage developers to unlock the potentials of peripheral devices via attractive, easy to use programs?

Maybe it should be a monetary incentive, specific funds filled with microcontributions from users that would directly benefit from such a program. If thousand owners of -in this case- a Vision:M mediaplayer would contribute 10 dollars, you would have a fund of $ 10.000. Would a developer or team of developers be willing to write the needed program for that money and release it under a free or open source license?

Adding a new folder in Dolphin? Not possible

There has been quite a lot of criticism surrounding Dolphin, the new file manager for KDE4. When you are used to working with the swiss army knife Konquerer, I can imagine the change is difficult. I like Konquerer, but KDE never was my default desktop for a long time, which made it just one of the tools I used. Mandriva 2009 Alpha 2 comes with KDE 4.1, thus an opportunity to check out Dolphin.

It isn’t often that the first thing I want to do with a program influences my viewpoint, but today it did. What do you want a file manager to do? Right, manage files and folders. All other stuff is simply bells and whistles. What I wanted to do, was to create some folders in my /home/user folder. Normally, that function is under the right mousebutton. Well, it isn’t right now. It also isn’t available via the menu bar, unless you specifically add the button “create folder”.

Let’s just hope this was a minor glitch that will be rectified soon. In the mean time I thought I’d go look for Konquerer in the repositories. It isn’t there. Just like I can’t seem to find a
terminal in the KDE menu, classic nor kickoff.

That’s four points for the next release:

  1. Easy access to the configuration menu via KDE classic menu;
  2. Add “create folder” to Dolphin;
  3. Add Konquerer to the repositories, and
  4. Add a terminal to the menu.

Now, let’s find out where I can leave these suggestions.

Mandriva Plunge: following the 2009 release

I believe that each Linux user should -if only once in a while- follow a complete release cycle of a new distribution from alpha to final release. It’s highly educational, it helps to hone your problem solving skills and by submitting your bug reports you actually contribute to making a better distribution. Plus, and that is the main reason, it greatly contributes to your appreciation for the hard work of the developers. Most of the people who will migrate in the coming years will be having more Windows-only experience than the previous generations of migrators and expect to see fully functional polished Linux distributions. But what is needed, is being done to make that happen? For that reason I decided to plunge into Mandriva 2009, which has been released as an Alpha 2.

Why Mandriva 2009 and not Ubuntu 8.10? For a number of reasons, one of which is that I have been working with and writing about Ubuntu extensively over the last months and I need something new to put my teeth in. Secondly, Mandriva is a major European distribution that is head to head with Ubuntu and some other distributions in order to be part of migration strategies, especially in government institutions. Hence, it deserves a closer look to see whether it is evolving in the right direction.

Installing Mandriva 2009 Alpha 2 was uneventful. I ran into a problem when I wanted to add an HTTP source to the installation, but selecting only the dvd resulted in a painless installation. I opted to install KDE and GNOME, both of which are the most recent ones available. Mandriva uses the classic KDE menu instead of the new Kickoff menu. Strange enough you won’t have access to the configuration menu this way, which you do with the kickoff menu.

As I installed Mandriva on my Acer Aspire 3681 WXMi laptop, the next problem was to get wifi up and running. It took an hour of fiddling and testing various solutions to get it done. I don’t have a clue which solution finally worked. Compared to OpenSUSE 11.0 and Ubuntu 8.04, Mandriva doesn’t do well in this area.

On the plus side, this Alpha 2 release is far more stable on this laptop than the previous stable release. It’s fast, snappy and the screen doesn’t freeze or lock on me. If this is the starting point I am more than curious to see how it pans out in the coming months.

OpenOffice 3.0 beta available, install it on Ubuntu

The development of the next OpenOffice.org is progressing nicely. You can get your hands dirty on the beta2 RC1 release. As always, it isn’t recommended for a production machine, but this is your chance to contribute to a quality release by finding and reporting bugs. Maybe the list of new features can convince you.

When you download and unpack the package you are confronted with a new folder under which you can find the folder DEBS. This has a plethora of deb packages. Do you need to click them all, one by one? Fortunately not. This is what you to:

  1. unpack the tar.gz file
  2. open a Terminal and cd to the new folder
  3. cd to the DEBS folder
  4. now use: sudo dpkg -i *.deb
  5. once finished you can launch the new OpenOffice 3.0 with /opt/openoffice.org3/program/soffice

For easy access you can create a new application launcher on your desktop or your menu panel.

An easy introducion to programming Python?

MIT Open Courseware provides “A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python“. The phrase “gentle introduction” has it’s own connotations, but then I noticed the following sentence:

This course will provide a gentle introduction to programming using Pythonâ„¢ for highly motivated students with little or no prior experience in programming computers.

“Highly motivated students”…. I read that as:

It’s really, really hard, but if you really, really want to, you should be able to do it. Gently.

Okay, enough kidding, it really is interesting. This is a course with 10 three-hour sessions to get you starting with Python. The course materials can be downloaded

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