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

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