Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ubuntu Linux Update: Two Weeks Later ... (Or what Linux still needs)

OK ... I've been running the Ubuntu "distro" of Linux for about two weeks now. How happy am I? Well, probably the best indication comes in the fact that I now usually prefer to do most of my computer work from the computer running Ubuntu. Many, many things "just make sense" with the way that Ubuntu handles your "work path" and work environment. But then I've found some things that just don't make sense, given the nature of the OS ... that is, being open source and all the folks out there writing applications for the various Linux distributions.

  • Wireless Networking: Admittedly, part of the problem for this lies with the manufacturers of the wireless network adapters - particularly the USB variety (which are the ones I have). One thing that MS Windows has gotten people used to is the friendly "Plug-N-Play" environment that it offers with USB peripherals. And most USB peripherals work just fine under Linux - except wireless network adapters. In fact, my new Lacie 500 GB external hard drive was immediately recognized and usable from the moment I plugged it in. But it seems that the issue surrounding the USB wireless network adapters is that the manufacturers of these devices get them working via proprietary methods, and do so without a real standard in place -- and they refuse to release the information on those proprietary methods to the Linux community. Nonetheless, with the vast numbers of people working on open source solutions, there are surprisingly few choices for getting USB wireless network adapters working with Ubuntu Linux. And perhaps part of this problem lies in the widely different configurations that are the result of 1) all the different hardware configurations that are possible given the LARGE numbers of different pieces of PC hardware (sound cards, video cards, network adapters, mother boards, CD/DVD drives, etc.), and 2) that users are FREE to configure their systems however they want, installing/uninstalling "services" they either don't want or need. Couple this with the number of different Linux distributions available, each slightly (or significantly) different from the other, and you end up with USB network adapters that work on some Linux distributions and not others. Simply put, there needs to be better support for "Plug-N-Play" wireless network adapters before more of the mainstream computer users will be willing to make the jump from Windows to Ubuntu Linux. For me, I gave up on getting the wireless network adapters up and running, and opted for a hardwired LAN connection -- and gained all the benefits that a hardwired LAN network gives you (primarily, a more dependable, faster LAN connection).

  • Multimedia: Granted, there is quite a bit of multimedia support built into Ubuntu Linux. I can play audio CDs, MP3 files, and even watch TV through my old, "built for Windows" tv tuner card. DVD playback wasn't available to me at first, but I was able to get that running after only an hour of tinkering. But what is sorely lacking are any viable, simple PVR applications. It doesn't seem that it would be all that difficult to write an application to capture the video stream that is being sent to the screen through my TV viewing application, TV Time. And since the source code for TV Time is open source, and since the format specifications are well established for MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and the AVI file container, how difficult would/could it be to use TV Time as the basis for a simple PVR? But the PVR applications that exist for Linux first of all rely on proper setup of an SQL database. WTF? I just want to record video ... not set up a freaking SQL database!!! Sure, there is MythTV, Mythbuntu (a distro of Ubuntu Linux built around MythTV), and Freevo. But I am unable to use either of these, because somehow and some way, my SQL database has become corrupt. The hell if I know what happened to it! I'm completely in the dark when it comes to SQL-type stuff. I've never worked with it before, and in fact, have gone to lengths to avoid it due to it's perceived complexity.

    Also lacking is a good, easy to use video editing package. This, of course, would go hand-in-hand with a good PVR package that really worked. Users of the PVR package will/would/should/could expect to be able to use a frame-based editing package (like VideoReDo in Windows) to edit out commercials and other unwanted data before burning them to Video CD or DVD. The Linux community must address this serious oversight and pale application support area before more users migrate to any version or distro of Linux -- including Ubuntu.

  • Application Removal: In MS Windows, it is fairly easy to remove unwanted or unneeded programs/applications with the "Software Removal Tools." Not so in Linux. I can't begin to count how many times I've installed or attempted to install programs that either didn't install completely or that didn't work on my copy of Ubuntu. There is the program called "KleanSweep," but you use it at your own risk -- and with the warning that if you delete the wrong libraries, your entire installation of Ubuntu could be rendered maimed, crippled, or even DEAD. Great news, I thought to myself, as quickly exited that program to never return. I would love to reclaim the wasted disk space from all the failed installations and all the installations that would never "run as advertised," but NOT at the expense of rendering my entire Ubuntu installation useless. I spent considerable time getting things running like I wanted, and don't want to have to re-invest that time again. In MS Windows, it's relatively easy to "uninstall" programs and reclaim the lost HD space for better, more relevant uses. MS Windows users looking to migrate to Ubuntu are going to expect this behavior, just as I do, as a long-time Windows user. Until then, Linux will not attract mainstream Windows users.
Of course, there are some features of Ubuntu Linux that I use that I definitely wonder how I ever did without. First on that list are the multiple desktop work spaces. Currently, I'm running TV Time in one desktop workspace, and Mozilla Firefox in another, with a third one empty and available for other use. And what is so wonderful about the desktop work spaces is that you can configure how many work spaces you want. Initially, Ubuntu gives you two. But you can specify how many you want Ubuntu to manage. Three works out well for me, but I also have the option, on the fly, to set up additional work spaces as I need.

There are other features of Ubuntu Linux that I also love ... but I'll talk about the later, in another post. Do I still think that Ubuntu Linux is a viable alternative to MS Windows? ABSOLUTELY! And I believe that it will only get better, as it continues to evolve and more and more mainstream computer users make the jump from MS Windows to Ubuntu Linux. The more users that make the jump, the larger the Linux user-base will become, and they will bring with them their particular skills (and demands), which will keep Ubuntu Linux a fresh and exciting platform.

- Paul Arnote

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Goodbye, Microsoft Monopoly???

I've been a "die-hard" Microsoft Windows user for many, many years, starting with Windows 3.1. I "graduated" to Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Windows 95 (beta tester), Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, then Windows XP (Home & Professional, original, SP1, and SP2). In fact, I "got into" teaching by teaching a Windows 3.1 class for a local school district's Adult Continuing Education program. For me, nothing else was much of an option since nothing else had achieved the market penetration of Microsoft Windows in it's various incarnations.

Now, that is starting to change (are you listening in Redmond?). Faced with the eternal and never-ending updates, "planned obsolescence," security issues, viruses (and increasing costs of defending against them), and shelling out $300 every four - five - six years for a new operating system -- and perhaps even a new computer to handle the new operating system with it's ever-increasing hardware requirements -- I decided it was time to look around and see if something else might exist that I was possibly missing on the landscape. I'm not about to pour another wad of money into Bill Gates pockets. I've done enough of that over the years.

As I started looking around, one possibility kept being mentioned ... Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon, a Debian-based Linux operating system. I had tried Linux (specifically, Red Hat Linux, purchased from the evil-empire of Best Buy for $59) several years ago on an old 486-DX100 with an 800 MB HD, 256 MB of memory, and a CD-ROM drive. It just wouldn't run "as advertised," and I decided then that Linux just wasn't "ready for prime time," even though the Red Hat box stated that I had more than met the hardware requirements. So now, almost 8 years later, I thought perhaps it was time to give it a second look.

Guess what? I've been way more than satisfied with Linux this time around. I've been literally blown away! Here's a run down of what I've discovered in the little-more-than-a-week use of Ubuntu.

  • Live CD: you can download a "Live CD" version of Ubuntu. Simply download the 695 MB disc image and burn it to a CD. Pop it in and start it up from right inside Windows. Within a very short time, you can run Ubuntu straight from the CD to see how you like it. I actually like this idea. If you don't like it, there is no commitment, and no having to uninstall one OS to try another, then having to undo it all if you don't like it.

  • Stability: This thing is STABLE. Granted, over the years, Microsoft has greatly improved the stability of the Windows OS's, but is constantly plagued by security holes and issues, and is the target of an endless stream of viruses and other malicious software ... so much so, that they have come out with a "Malicious Software Removal Tool" that gets installed with the IE7 update. And I have to admit that my computers running Microsoft Windows XP are the most stable Windows releases that I've ever seen. But my copy of Ubuntu never flinches, never falters, never blinks. Security is one of the cornerstones that Linux is built around. The worry about viruses and other malicious software attacks on your computer virtually disappear. WOW! What a nice peace-of-mind! And no more shelling out annual "renewal" fees to the likes of Norton or McAfee for virus protection. Ahhh ... I see the price of personal computing falling already.

  • It runs ... well! After all, the OS of a computer should run reliably and run well. Without it, you aren't able to do anything else ... period. Without it, your computer is just a heavy paper weight of metal, silicon, and wires. The OS allows your computer to run all your favorite programs, allowing you to be as productive (or unproductive) as you wish. Ubuntu satisfies the requirements on all fronts. And it runs well on OLDER computers with modest hardware that you just very well may have laying around. I've seen "posts" of people describing their experience running Ubuntu with hardware as modest as a Pentium II processor and 256 MB of memory. I'm currently running it on a refurbished computer I purchased from an online auction site for under $150. It's a Pentium 4, 2.8 GHz processor with 512 MB of memory, and a 40 GB HD. I took out the CD-ROM drive that came with it and replaced it with a DVD +/- R/RW Dual Layer drive from an old computer that was having power supply, hard drive, and motherboard problems. Although I have an assortment of unused computer monitors scattered throughout the house, I also found a 19" flat panel monitor on another auction site for $150. I added an old Tandy MMS-10 computer speaker system I had laying around in the basement to supply sound. I also put in my older ATI TV Wonder Pro tuner card, in the hopes that I could get Ubuntu to recognize and use it (since ATI ONLY makes Windows drivers for that particular tuner card).

  • Price: The price for Ubuntu is EXTREMELY attractive. IT'S FREE! Yes, you heard me right. All you have to do is track on over to their website and download it. Of course, you can buy copies on CD or DVD for a modest price (most under $60 ... far less than the $300+ it will cost you to buy Windows Vista). And here's something else to consider. Every two to four years, Microsoft comes out with a new, "improved" version of Windows. And every release of Windows ups the ante on the minimum hardware requirements to run it. With Ubuntu, you get updates every day (if you desire) as they become available, very similar to Microsoft's Update Manager. So if you are connected to the internet with an "always on" connection, this occurs very unobtrusively. But here's the real kicker ... you can also upgrade to the latest release of Ubuntu when it becomes available ... also FOR FREE! The Ubuntu folks plan a new upgrade every 6 months, to keep the latest version of the OS in their users hands (if they so choose). Of course, you are not obligated to update if you don't want to.

  • Ease of use: If you can run Microsoft Windows (any version), you can run Ubuntu. All the familiar items are there ... windows, title bars, wallpaper, sounds, etc. You name it, it's there.

  • Software GALORE: There are more software choices than you can shake a stick at. And the nice thing is ... they are free, too! Well, most of them. Yes, there are commercially available programs for Linux that you can buy, but most of the software offerings for Linux are free (probably over 95% of the software titles are free). That's right ... free for the download. Out of the box, Ubuntu comes with Mozilla Firefox web browser, Open Office 2.3 (a MS-Office clone that is free -- and it will even read and write MS Word, Excel, Access, and Power Point files), an email client called Evolution Mail (very similar in functionality to MS Outlook), music players, CD players, video players, and a good assortment of games (Mahjongg, Solitaire-type card games, and a Tetris clone to name a few). If you want more, simply select "Add/Remove" from the "Applications" menu (similar to the "Start" button in Windows), and select the programs you want to install. It's THAT easy!

  • Easy installation: Installing Ubuntu is very easy. The last time I installed my copy of Windows XP, it took over an hour. And that was just the installation from the CD and didn't account for the other hour and a half to download all the Windows "critical" updates ... after getting the internet connectivity set up. Ubuntu installs in 30 minutes or less (usually less). And Ubuntu recognized ALL my hardware without any difficulty ... including my previously mentioned tuner card that ATI only makes Windows drivers for. Just like with Windows, Ubuntu has an installation wizard that walks you through the steps.

  • (Fairly) simple network setup: Ubuntu is fairly easy to set up on a home network or to connect to the internet. I say fairly simple, because there's not a lot of support for Linux systems by the manufacturers of wireless network adapters (the route I chose to try initially). While there is a Linux solution that utilizes the Windows driver information (.INF) files, it's a crap shoot on whether or not the wireless network adapter will work properly. But once I abandoned the "battle" to set up a wireless network adapter and opt for a "hard wired" solution, Ubuntu recognized the connection immediately and made most of the necessary settings on its own. I simply bought a 50 foot length of CAT-5 cable, and ran it from one of the four ethernet ports on the back of my router to the ethernet port on the computer. Little else was required. It took me more time to drill two small holes in the floor, and run the cable through the basement than anything else. After all, Ubuntu, like every other "flavor" of Linux, is built from the ground up with networking in mind.

  • Run Windows programs: Yes, that's right. You can also run the vast majority of your favorite Windows programs. There are quite a few "Windows Emulators" out there that allow you to run your favorite Windows programs with minimum hassle. Probably the more popular one is called "Wine." Via Wine, you can run your MS Office programs or most any other Windows program you have become accustomed to using. However, I doubt that you'll find much need. I know I've been able to find more than adequate and suitable replacement programs from the Linux software offerings for all my "favorite" Windows applications. Nonetheless, this is an option for anyone who wants or needs to run Windows programs.

Overall, I can see Microsoft's monopolistic grip on the computer operating system market beginning to slip away. Increasingly, the various flavors of Linux are gaining converts ... and at an increasing rate. Many people I talk to (and I talk to a lot of people) have grown tired of the hassle of running a Windows based computer and would welcome a good, stable, inexpensive alternative. Compared to the "closed" nature of the programming source code of Microsoft products, Ubuntu and the other Linux distributions (they are called "distro" in the Linux community) are open source. If you are not familiar with the term open source, it means that the programming code is open for any and all who wish to modify it or add to it to increase its functionality. Anyone can contribute, from programming code to writing program documentation.

If you have, as I have, tired of adding to the Gates family fortune by purchasing a new operating system every few years, you should give Ubuntu a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

BTW ... I've written this blog while running on Ubuntu. Proof positive that Ubuntu just works!