Monday, April 28, 2008

Some observations ...

Recently, my trusty old WinXP installation on my even trustier Sony Vaio laptop went South. The NTFS file system crashed. At first, I thought the hard drive had given up the ghost. In fact, I was so convinced that the hard drive was bad that I ordered a new hard drive for the computer. But it turned out that the file system had become corrupt. My, oh my! What about all the files I had yet to archive and back up?! (Yes, I routinely back up my important files and photos ... and so should you!) And all of this happened with NO warning whatsoever!

I put in my WinXP installation disk (commercial copy, not one of those recovery disks that comes with your computer), and managed to run chkdsk.exe in an attempt to clean up the errant file system. I had hoped that merely running the chkdsk program to clean up the bad, bad file system would allow me to again boot my computer, that was not to be so. The computer remained "un-bootable."

Having ventured into the land of Linux (as you know from my previous blog entries), I decided to use my PCLinuxOS 2007 Live CD to boot my laptop and see what I could do from there. The forums are full of stories of how others were able to use their Live CD to resurrect lost files, if not the operating system itself. I was initially skeptical that this would yield any appreciable results. But not only did PCLinuxOS boot my laptop, but even from the Live CD the computer sprang to life and ran faster than it ever did! Plus, PCLinuxOS allowed me to access my previously lost files on the Windows disk. Using a SD memory card reader, I was able to transfer all the files of importance to me, 2 GB at a time, and move them to my 500 GB external hard drive (attached to another Linux computer in the house). And, before you say anything ... yes, it might have been easier to simply hook up the external hard drive to the laptop, but because it is formated with NTFS, PCLinuxOS was not able to write to that drive from the Live CD. So my only other choice was to use some form of a USB drive to move the files. Hey, I was happy to at least have access to my files!

In the course of moving these files, I discovered how fantastically well my laptop ran with PCLinuxOS. As my previous work with PCLinuxOS had demonstrated, everything about my laptop was immediately recognized and properly set up. Joyously, I even had wireless internet access ... and it was set up with a minimum of effort on my part!

Afterwards, I figured since I had a new (and larger) hard drive on the way, and since the Windows installation was toast, I was going to have to reformat the hard drive and re-install whatever operating system I chose to go with. So once I got done saving my files, I hit the "Install" icon on the PCLinuxOS Live CD desktop and reformatted the "old" hard drive to use only PCLinuxOS. The installation of PCLinuxOS took only about 20 minutes, and after applying all the updates from the repository, less than an hour had elapsed.

PCLinuxOS literally hummed and sang on this laptop! Under the previous Windows XP installation, WinXP would routinely "thrash" my hard drive for no apparent reason. It would just sit there and have all kinds of hard drive activity, even at times when I was doing nothing on the computer. One of the first things I noticed was that under PCLinuxOS, the hard drive light scarcely came on ... regardless of what I was doing!

Finally, my ordered hard drive came, but it was DOA. I sent it back, and while waiting on the replacement to arrive, hummed along with PCLinuxOS without any of the usual problems I was accustomed to under Windows, but also at a greater speed. I had already made up my mind. Since the new hard drive was more than twice the storage size of the older one, I was going to "dual boot" the laptop with Windows XP and PCLinuxOS.

When the replacement arrived (Whew! The new replacement worked perfectly), I used GPartEd Partition Editor to partition the new hard drive into two fairly equally sized partitions. GPartEd made this exceptionally easy, especially since this is what it is designed for. I attempted to install Windows XP Pro on the Windows partition. It was successful, in that it ran, but unsuccessful from the stand point that not all of my hardware was properly installed. And, due to procrastination, I never got around to creating the Vaio Recovery Disks, as I should have done when I initially got the laptop. And the crash of the file system also took the Recovery Partition right along with it, so those could not be accessed any longer. I ordered the Recovery Disks from Sony (bravo to you Sony ... I had those in only two days!), then proceeded to install PCLinuxOS on the remaining partition. Installation of PCLinuxOS went totally without a hitch, and once again, all my laptop hardware and features were properly recognized and set up, with scarcely any input from me. The installation of PCLinuxOS was sooooooooo much easier than the installation of Windows XP! And the total time of installation was, again, less than one hour from installation to applying the updates from the PCLinuxOS Repositories.

Once the Recovery Disks arrived from Sony, I proceeded to finish a "proper" Windows XP re-installation from the Recovery Disks. After about an hour to an hour and a half of repeatedly swapping Disc 1 with Disc 2 and constantly rebooting the laptop, Windows was finally re-installed and all my laptop hardware was finally working. Then, Windows spent the next four (4!) hours applying all the updates from Windows Update. One thing that I stood out during this process was that 90% to 95% of those updates were "Security Updates" to plug security holes in Windows XP. As soon as one round of updates were complete, it would come up with more updates to apply. I have never experienced anything like this with PCLinuxOS.

Since installation of the new hard drive, and the subsequent installation of both operating systems, I've spent most of my time (including the time writing this blog entry) under PCLinuxOS. I've only booted to the Windows partition a few times, mostly to finish setting things up or to try out a new piece of freeware. This laptop runs so well under PCLinuxOS that I have yet to find much reason for booting to Windows XP. Most of the programs that I routinely run under Windows XP, have counterparts under PCLinuxOS that usually do the job just as well and just as easily ... and sometimes even easier!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Microsoft Threatens FREE Linux

Having browsed the Linux forums and news items, it's quite disturbing that Microsoft is threatening the free Linux community ... with patent infringements!

How absurd! Microsoft claims to have something like 250+ patents on things in Windows that it claims that Linux is violating. Microsoft's claim is that the similarities between Windows and Linux infringe on those patents and Microsoft's "intellectual property rights." Never mind that Microsoft, themselves, has stolen many of it's "ideas" from Apple.

Imagine if Henry Ford had applied for, and was granted, a patent on a round steering wheel. Would that mean that no other car manufacturer could have a round steering wheel? What if he applied for, and was granted, a patent based on the layout of the dashboard and instrument panel? Would that mean that no other car maker could have similar arrangements? I think you can see what I mean when I say that Microsoft's assertions are absurd.

Just because you have an "idea" on how to do something, that doesn't mean that you are the ONLY person to have ever had that idea ... although that idea may be new to you. But that in no way doesn't, and shouldn't, stifle the creative expressionism of others who have a similar idea. And that "idea" should be no more protected by "patents" than the other guy's, just because you have the money and the army of lawyers to throw at it and the other guy does not. Should you expect to have to pay royalties/licensing fees to the first guy (or his heirs) who came up with the basic design of a chair every time you buy a new chair? What if someone who had never seen a chair comes up with a similar and functional design?

The reason Microsoft is coming out with these assertions is because it feels threatened by the current Linux offerings. Their release of Vista has been a TOTAL flop, as in not even coming close to living up to initial expectations. That has sent a hoard of users unhappy with the latest Redmond offering out to seek other alternatives. Linux is one such alternative for those users. And Microsoft, who must certainly be feeling the pinch, is looking for a way to still profit from the mass exodus of users from the Windows camp by attacking the FOSS (free operating system and software) community, to which those disenchanted Windows users are heading.

Here's my advice to Microsoft ... put out a product that actually works, without all the security holes, without all the malware, without all the virus attacks ... and people will beat a path to your door. Right now, those people are beating a path to Linux's door, because it offers all of that and more. Use the market place, in a fair and competitive manner (hey, new concept for you guys in Redmond!), to offer a better product that meets the needs and expectations of your customer. Do NOT, however, use slimy lawyers and hide behind absurd "patents" and other legal maneuvering to maintain your market share. Come up with an operating system that works on the vast amount of computer hardware already out there, instead of forcing computer users to purchase new systems, printers, accessories, and the such. Linux offers this! Get out of bed with the hardware manufacturers and focus on what you should be doing ... and that is offering a stable, safe computer operating system.

Competition should exist on a level playing field, not on a field made slippery with slimy lawyers and all their legal wrangling. He with the better product wins!

A "Flavor" of Linux That ... well ... WORKS!

Those who read my blog, know by now that I've been trying out the Linux operating system on some of my computers at home. First, let me start off saying that there are many "flavors" of Linux out there; they are called Linux distros (short for distributions). And the vast majority of them are FREE for the download. And each one of those "distros" have varying degrees of what I call finish and polish.

Ten years ago, when I first tried Linux -- RedHat Linux 5.2, to be precise -- Linux was relegated to an even smaller user base. It was perceived as a text-based, DOS-like operating system. It was a "tool" used by academia and geeks. It had a young, meager, and not-so-polished graphical interface, called X-Windows. While a step in the right direction, there just wasn't much you could do with it, aside from the specialized tasks that programmers and system designers allowed you to do. For instance, the hospital where I worked around the same time had a bedside charting system, all built on top of X-Windows.

And, at that time, DOS was on it's way out as an operating system, having been supplanted by Windows 95 and Windows 98, due to DOS's limitations and lack of an intuitive way for the user to interact with the computer. Text-based operating systems were on their way out, and the graphical GUI was in. Bad news for Linux, since it was still perceived as a text-based operating system, with fledgling and incomplete efforts to supply a graphical interface via X-Windows. Some people, including myself, saw X-Windows as an imitation of MS-Windows to give Linux some appeal to an ever-growing MS-Windows user base.

Fast forward 10 years, and Linux has matured. It is no longer perceived as a text-based operating system. In fact, many of the Linux distros are known by the graphical user interface they employ, along with the "whistles and bells" they supply. This is the world in which Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Xubuntu exist.

The Linux community does not court MS-Windows users. They do not wish to force Linux down the throats of MS-Windows users. But they do welcome MS-Windows, who are exploring Linux for the first time as a Windows alternative, with welcome and open arms. To say that they are a friendly and helpful lot would be a serious understatement. No, the Linux community sits back and comfortably wait for Windows users to come to them. And come to them they do, in ever-increasing numbers, as the Windows users are faced with an increasing barrage of viruses, malware, and software failures. The Windows users get to a point that they want to see what other alternatives are out there. I am a member of that exodus.

Initially, my second foray into Linux started with Ubuntu. But the GNOME desktop environment felt foreign and unfinished to me. Then I discovered Kubuntu, built around the KDE desktop. Now this felt much more familiar to me -- an old Windows workhorse -- and seemed to have a bit more of a finished and polished feel to it. But then things just started to break under Kubuntu. Things that would work during one computer session would suddenly and inexplicably stop working in the next. Now, I'm not trying to "bash" any particular Linux distro, but things inexplicably breaking does not make for a smooth transition. And it doesn't help Linux's position as a replacement for Windows when users are facing similar problems that they are fleeing.

I, however, was not going to be deterred. I kept looking at the various "flavors" of Linux that were (and are) available. In my searching, I found occasional mention of one smaller Linux distro. Every person talked about how "it just works." And with having endured Kubuntu's "breaking" for no good reason, I had to take a look. And this is the reason for this blog entry.

That Linux distro is called PCLinuxOS 2007. "Born" as an off-shoot of Mandriva Linux, PCLinuxOS 2007 does exactly what all those forum posters say it does ... "it just works." Finally! I have found a Linux distro that works the way I do, that doesn't break for inexplicable reasons, and that has all the finish and polish of any commercially offered operating system. And all of this was discovered from just the LiveCD ... a version where you can run the entire operating system right from a CD in your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. WOW!

Back in the day, Texstar (the nickname of the guy who put together this "special" version of Mandriva Linux) was putting together a version of Mandriva that "just worked." Quite a few Mandriva users were cruising over to his site to download the latest package that he had put together. Before long, PCLinuxOS was spun off to become it's own "flavor" of Linux, with a loyal following. (At least, this is what I've understood from all I've read about Texstar's birthing of PCLinuxOS.)

Today, Texstar is still intimately involved with the maintenance and improvement of PCLinuxOS, along with a close-knit group of testers and programmers. Every program that goes into the repository is closely scrutinized, to insure that it works without failure and works without breaking other components of the installation. Thus, while the repository of programs available for PCLinuxOS isn't as vast as the Ubuntu (and related) repository, there also isn't the worry that installing one program will inexplicably break three others. The latter seems to be what's happening with the Ubuntu-related distros.

The Ubuntu-related distros seem to be more interested in meeting a self-imposed "deadline" to put out a new version every six months. This doesn't allow for proper or adequate testing to be sure that everything in the repository behaves and can co-exist peaceably. PCLinuxOS doesn't have such an ambitious release schedule. Instead, updates just "come as they are ready," and not before. The old adage that "too many cooks spoil the soup" seems to be what's happening to the Ubuntu-related distros, as there doesn't seem to be strong leadership driving the distro ... just the money of a rich guy and a much-too-loosely-organized set of stewards.

PCLinuxOS's slogan is "Radically Simple." For me, it should be "It Just Works." I can attest that PCLinuxOS works, and it works exceptionally well, with a high level of finish and polish. This makes a transition from the bastions of the MS-Windows world to the promise of the Linux world much less painful.

New Linux users, attempting to transition from Windows to the Linux community, rightfully expect any new replacement to work at least as well as what they are attempting to leave behind. They don't really like having to jump through hoops and to crawl through uncharted trenches just to get basic computer hardware up and running. Many Windows users are just that -- users who just want to get various tasks done. Many do not have a "geek-ish" understanding of how their computer works. Most can't differentiate between DDR-RAM and a hard drive (it's surprising how many people equate the two!). Their expectation level is to simply turn on the computer and be able to complete the task they set out to do.

PCLinuxOS accomplishes that. PCLinuxOS works at least as well as what Windows users are seeking to leave behind -- and often performs better! (I recently installed PCLinuxOS on my Sony Vaio laptop (Intel Centrino 1.6 GHz, 1 GB Memory, 60 GB hard drive, DVD-RW), after my copy of WinXP became corrupt, due to a corruption in the NTFS file system. That computer runs faster and better under PCLinuxOS than it ever did on the first day I got it with WinXP pre-installed. In fact, I was able to use the PCLinuxOS LiveCD to recover my files from the failed WinXP installation!)

The computer I spend perhaps the most time on with PCLinuxOS is a 7 or 8 year old, refurbished, IBM T23 ThinkPad, with a Pentium III 1.13 GHz processor, 512 MB of memory, a 30 GB hard drive, and a DVD-RW. And this laptop runs faster than many of the new laptops on the market with Windows Vista pre-installed ... or WinXP for that matter! I initially ran both Windows XP Pro and PCLinuxOS (as a dual-boot system). But I rarely, if ever, used WinXP, because everything I needed to get done I could do in PCLinuxOS. So I reformatted the hard drive with ONLY PCLinuxOS installed, and I have never looked back. So far, I have yet to miss Windows and I am able to accomplish virtually anything I want using PCLinuxOS. Now THAT is what I'm talking about! So PCLinuxOS has breathed new life into this older, no-longer-cutting-edge-state-of-the-art laptop. If PCLinuxOS can do that, and make everything work as it should, imagine what it can do with your more modern equipment!