Saturday, October 28, 2006

Xubuntu's Edge First Impressions

So as soon as the Xubuntu page updated, which was sadly after both Ubuntu and Kubuntu, I ran in and grabbed the shiny new 6.10 iso. I have not played with any pre-releases or betas, or production spins for the simple reason that I don't currently have a computer that is working. I was lucky enough that my boyfriend is getting a new laptop and turning over his Dell desktop that he picked up for 10 bucks because of a financial aid program to me. I can have a samba and apache server again, and it makes me happy. We are still waiting for his laptop to arrive, so this is only going to be a review of the live CD experience. Now I should preface this by saying I never really used Dapper. I used 5.10 Kubuntu and at one point did the Synaptic "Update All" thing. The interface changed quite a bit, so I presume this was basically Dapper, but it had some personality problems. So if I mention some issues I had with previous versions of Kubuntu in my case that seem well obscure and weird, consider the source.

Bootup: Bootup was delightful. It was exceptionally quick for a live CD. I am looking forward to seeing how quickly it boots when actually installed. When the desktop showed up there was an icon for my iomega USB hard drive, which has been on the Dell since my computer toasted itself a couple weeks ago. There was also an icon for the DVD burning drive that had a random ATI driver disk in it that I hadn't taken out before I booted. There was no icon for the CD burner that I was running the live CD out of, but that makes a certain amount of sense.
First Action: The first thing I did was double click on the iomega drive and try to load a pdf and a .mpg. The reason I did this is my Kubuntu file manager always freaked out a little over actually launching files from the media:/ location. I hated the fact that if I wanted to run anything, I had to manually go to the location in the Unix file structure. I really wanted the drive icons on my desktop to go there for me since the media:/ thing obviously didn't work. In Xubuntu this worked perfectly, and again even though I was on a live cd the launch time was tolerable. Not what I'd call peppy, but tolerable, which is an excellent sign when launching from CD.

Icon Options and Arrangement: The Applications menu was well laid out. The options were in good places, and there was a decent selection. I had a couple problems. One there was no burning program that I could find. Now this may be because it's a live CD, but I would hope that since live CD function is generally used to evaluate an OS before you actually install everything would be here. There are companies now that you literally cannot purchase a computer from without at least a CD writer. As I have been shopping for a laptop to replace my now defunct desktop most configurations start with a DVD player/CD burner combo drive. I know Xubuntu is meant for older computers, but given how most software is distributed for linux not having the burning interface installed is kinda silly.

The Little Things I Noticed: Firefox is included with its honest to god, not free as in freedom icon. I say good for the Ubuntu people. I personally think that if Firefox wants to maintain a certain amount of quality control around the code that gets distributed under their trademark then they should. It is that kind of attention to quality that keeps so much proprietary software ahead of the game (go ahead flame me I can take it), and it's what has allowed Firefox to take so much of IE's market share. I personally hope they keep it up.

The next little thing I noticed was the "Add Remove" icon in the "Other" sub-menu of the Applications menu. Now when you open this thing you realize it's synaptic with the menus and options taken away. It even uses the same icon. I opened synaptic next to it to see if they were similar, and they do not have even remotely similar interfaces. In fact there is one interface change in synaptic from my old Kubuntu 5.10 install that I am rather annoyed about. The lack of a search field in the main window interface (something Add/Remove has I must say). When using synaptic you're probably going to be searching, because if you know the package that's what apt-get is for. The advantage of synaptic is you can browse package lists. I think it's good that they included Add/Remove. Personally I think they should have taken some time to make a different icon so they could both be in the system sub-menu. I mean "other" why would you go to all the trouble of including and possibly developing (I don't know if the ubuntu people did this interface or not) a whole interface for newbies, and then put the link to it in some weird place no newbie would ever look? This isn't the end of the world, but it's a sloppy little tidbit on the end of an otherwise nice move towards non linux usability while maintaining the options for power users.

Other Usability Complaints: Ok while I'm on the subject of usability. I would like to comment on the media:/ thing again. So while writing this review I open Abi-word to check out how it inputs .odt files. I click the open icon. It gives me a very attractive maclike interface. I click on the desktop to get to my USB drive, and am greeted with . . . nothing. There is no link on my desktop to my iomega USB hard drive. This is totally unacceptable. Ubuntu took the time to generate a whole false hierarchy that only works when you are in their file managers. They didn't even both to alter the code to the packages they distributed so that it would work with them. Way back in the day when I used Xandros 2.0 their weird "My Computeresq" file structure was at least recognized by the programs that Xandros supported. If you installed someone else's software you were out of luck, but it worked with what came with the OS. Now here is my question. If you are going to spend all that time developing a whole new data file structure, you might as well build it into the actual file structure. I mean really. I would rather the mount points actually be on the desktop. Would that be so bad, I mean really would it? Or here's another possibilty could you possible setup a program that could dynamically create actual file structure virtual links? Would this create a lot of messy referencing if you are in the terminal. Why yes yes it would, and let's see this is for the benefit of newbies. If a newbie is in terminal then he deserves to have to start actually learning what things are. This NEEDS to be fixed. I like the link on the desktop, I like that fact that I can actually launch from it. It absolutely must show up when I use the open file command inside of the programs that come with the flippin distro. My other problem is that the live CD did not detect my sound card properly. It is an on board Dell Sound Card. This is not a new dell, this is a rather old dell. It is running 256 megs of SDRAM, the 133 Mhz variety and a 1.6 Ghz P4. So it's not like there were any surprises waiting.

Ok now that my rant is done, I will resolve. This is a good distro. As I never really played with dapper I can't say how much of an improvement it is, but I can say it is closer to a usable desktop than any other I have used. My major complaints detailed above are shared by the vast majority of linux desktops. While Xandros has done a wonderful job of tackling some of these usability issues when you boot into Xandros even now it feels like you are running something that is almost a decade old. Is Xandros ready for prime time commercial desktop, sadly no. I have yet to play with a linux desktop that is. Is it a good choice for linux geeks wanting a complete distribution based off simple low system requirements packages that provide support for all the modern goodness that we have come to expect from distributions, definitely. As someone who doesn't care about bouncing icons and 3D animated squares for my desktop (it looks cool, but I'm sorry it's the stupidest UI idea I've ever seen), Xubuntu makes me very happy. Hopefully it will continue to improve over time, and in a few more versions some of the basic flaws that still plague it will be worked out. Till then it's the best I've seen on the market.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Linux needs to be less like Windows and more like Mac

Ok, so here's for my latest rant about Linux. I'm sort of over my previous period of maddness and fury having to do with my various linux woes. Since then I have thought a lot about some of the flaws with linux. I have been away from linux for a while because my processor in my desktop had an unfortunate run in with fan failure while I was away and overheating as a result. I have not had the time to tinker with my box, and haven't been home much anyway. So I have been using the computers at work/friend's houses. These are all winxp boxes with a variety of open source applications installed.

There is one exception to this. My boyfriend's room mate has a mac. It is the World or Warcraft box in the dorm room, and as such I spend what little relaxation/game time I have on that computer. Now I have never liked Macs. Going back to the dark ages of computing I always thought Macs were silly, poorly designed and bound to that stupid one button mouse. My opinion of the Mac OS has improved dramatically over the past couple years. The interface is beautiful. I don't like all the eye candy taking up precious system resources, but modern linux distros and windows are both going that direction as well, so I can't complain too much. At least with linux you have the option of picking a distro with slenderness as a design goal. Windows and Mac you're at the whim of whatever you are able to turn off. What has struck me about Mac while using the WoW machine in my boyfriend's dorm room is that if you added a second mouse button (this still irks the ever living innapropriate explitive out of me) it would be a better interface than windows. It's easy to use, responsive, has a logical file system interface as far as I can tell.

Here's the important part. The configuration interfaces are easy to figure out. I mean really really easy to figure out. There is very little you have to tinker with manually, but it is nothing like windows. It doesn't look like windows, things aren't in the same place as windows, the aesthetic is different, the buttons on the top of the program windows are different.

Linux is a nightmare to navigate. If a driver doesn't manually detect, you're probably going to have to go into the text prompt to fix it. Especially if you need ndiswrapper for wifi or something similar. Either it just works or you're going to rip your hair out getting it to work. There is no, well this needs some configuration but the system is standard enough that we could write you a decent graphical interface to do it with. Not with drivers, or for that matter most of the system. Some things aren't like that anymore, samba, cups, But too much of linux still needs you to go far too deep to get it to work.

Every time someone brings this up the inevitable conversation comes up about linux "becoming like windows". I say we need to be like mac. Not have easy to use config utilities and interfaces in the places Mac has them, but just have them. Make them as easy to use as we possibly can then put them where we think they make sense. Stop worry about "easy" being too like Microsoft. We need to be unique, but start targeting people who are the reason you now have to request a sys restore disk from major OEMs. We are past "Well Linux is easy to install". Who cares if it's easy to install, most people never install an OS, windows, mac, linux or otherwise. The very idea of it terrifys them. We need an interface that Dell would be comfortable putting in a home computer and selling to one of these people. We need a home video program as simple as Mac's, we need a music player as easy and slick as iTunes, and so on and so forth. Before anyone flames me Amarok is great and all, but it looks too much like a program. Audio is one of those consumer electronics things. People want it to looks pretty, and Amarok is just not a pretty program. I'm really hoping songbird fills this void.

Linspire is starting a real honest to god OEM channel program, and god bless them for it. We need more though. Linspire while an ok consumer OS still has K3B as a burning program, and well no offense, but that just doesn't cut the mustard. The wifi support is great, but if you run into anything non standard in a network someone else controlls at a coffeehouse or something you are still out of luck. Xandros is great in some respects, but it looks like you're running something from the Windows 98 Mac OS 8 era, and well that just doesn't cut it either. I don't want to talk about Fedora, Slack, Ubuntu, or any other distros for that matter because quite honestly they are great linux geek distros, and Ubuntu wants to be a distro for the masses, but until it comes with some proprietary sugar coating it's going to be a geek only distro. Like it or not 90% of the population doesn't give two whits about software philosophy and it's time we started admitting that.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Flash player, development, and the silly FOSS community.

The Flash player beta is live for linux. I am quite pleased that this piece of software is finally available for linux. Though when I saw the blog posting about this going live and I saw the two versions of the player something struck me.

There is a moz plugin and there is a standalone GTK player. I decided to do a little digging and see what dependencies this baby had. What did I find out. I found out that as linux goes it has as close to none as is practically possible. It uses video4linux for video output, it uses basic alsa, X11, GTK, POSIX threads and BSD sockets for non HTTP connections, it also uses openSSL. Now many of these dependencies are for specific features like the video4lin is for webcam input. Most flash doesn't need this. Similarly I imagine computers without some of the later listings would still run the plugin until you tried to use the specific functionality.

This highlights something that really kind of bothers me about how the community has treated Adobe during this process, and it highlights one of the strengths of the closed source development model. This baby will run on just about anything under the sun. I mean really just about anything. Find my a KDE user who is enough of a purist to not have GTK installed on their system. Let's be honest when you think about the history of Qt and Gnome's inception you can venture a guess that they have the lion's share of the purists anyway. So why is this so special, because if this plugin had been developed openly it likely would have used extra development libraries to make things "easier". Would it have gotten out faster, well you bet it would have, and it would have been a beautiful plugin for the people running the distros that properly supported it. Or people running distros that it got into the repositories right away. But even with apt, there have been times, more frequent than I like to list where I have tried to install something and the dependencies weren't in the standard repositories that came listed in my distro, so I had to go in and hunt down new ones that had the required files. This is unacceptable. I am all for distros maintaining quality and perhaps even setting up the version of synaptic on their distro to alert you when you are downloading packages from somewhere other than their main repository, but they should still come connected to a truly comprehensive respository.

The flash plugin avoids all of this, and why do you ask, well likely because the Adobe people reinvented the wheel making the thing. They likely produced all sorts of fun crazy functions and classes that have functionality elsewhere and as a result the program is probably larger than it needs to be, and took a lot longer to get out the door than was necessary, but you know what? I don't care, because it isn't going to be a superior or easier experience on one modern distro than another. It's going to just work, and while I respect the open source development process, and I think it should continue, I wish the FOSS community would start encouraging some closed software where it's appropriate. I like closed and open software. The open software I use, I only use because it is better software. That whole "I don't own a DVD player because it uses CSS" bull that Stallman rants about is in my opinion silly. Open software is a really really good thing. It keeps an open sofware ecosystem, and active software ecosystem, and it keeps the commercial guys on their toes. If it were superior in every way there would be a flash equivalent out. GIMP would be as good as Photoshop, and Blender would be as easy to use as Rhino.

I use GIMP regularly, and I think Blender has come a long way. They are both wonderful programs, but they do not stand up to their commercial counterparts. And the day someone in the open source community takes on Flash I will throw a big ole' here's to the vain hope you keep your sanity party for them. I don't mean vector, I mean a complete open source package integrating vector, and interactivity with a scripting language as dynamic and powerful as actionscript. There isn't even an inferior attempt at this one because no one has been crazy enough to try it.

So give the commercial guys a break, especially when they decide to support us. Maybe if we supported them some the reciprocation would happen more often.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Review of Google Docs

So just like everyone else I saw that Google had released this new Google Docs thing. So I thought I would take a look at the program to see what it was all about, and I have to say it's pretty exciting. It isn't going to replace OpenOffice for doing serious page layout. It is rudimentary in a way that I don't even remember Abiword being back when I first used it in 2000. The interface is slow and awkward, and I don't have even a tenth of the options I use in OpenOffice, which given how I rant about word processing programs having too many features for what they are supposed to do, that is saying something. However, it provides all the basic necessities, and allows me to save the documents on a server where I can get to them from anywhere. I don't have to save them on my USB key and use up precious writes to my poor flash memory. I don't have to burn them off to a CD or e-mail them to myself, or upload them to an FTP. I can just save them directly onto storage, and I can choose other people to have access to them, both plain viewing access as well as collaborative access. In fact there is a little line of text in the bottom of the screen telling me no one else is currently editing this very document and a link to Add Collaborators. This program in many ways reminds me of songbird. It lacks a lot of things that everyone else on the market has, but it brings a lot of engaging new functionality to the table that is far more exciting that getting all the old stuff right again for the who cares numberth of times.

I think one of two things will happen with Google Docs. Either google with aggressively develop and market this delightful little morsel of code and it will develop a significant niche, or perhaps grow into a full fledged productivity and collaboration product, or the features available in this program will over the next few production cycles begin making their way into the established products with the old reliable and oh so unfortunately necessery functions established and polished.

The biggest possibilities for this program lie in it's ability to interface with Blogger. The possibilities available in collaborative blogging are delightful, and while Google Docs lacks much of the functionality that I have come to love so much from my mainstay office productivity programs, as a blog publishing program it is far more advanced than anything I've seen in a wordpress interface, or a blogger interface before. By positioning this technology in such a way that it is compared to established online production and publication technologies instead of office productivity technologies Google has given it a market fertile with changes for development, and who knows it may well develop into something that could eventually displace or at least play with the bigger static boys. So I would say take a look, and think about what you do on a daily basis, you might just find yourself using this little AJAX wonder more than you thought.