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Editorial: The Future of the Linux Desktop

“The year of Linux on the Desktop.” Typically, these articles show up near the end of the year. They always cause a big debate “Will 200* be the year of Linux on the Desktop?!” is the headline, followed by comment wars. The comment wars break down like this. Linux vs. Windows users, Mac vs. Linux users, a branch war of Windows vs. Mac users, KDE vs. Gnome users, Ubuntu lovers/haters, Compiz vs. Beryl, pro/anti DRM people and the list goes on and on. A consensus is never reached. Some concepts show up over and over. This editorial addresses those concepts.

Dear Old Grandma

“Linux will never be ready until my mom/grandma/aunt can use it!” It is funny to me that it almost always is a female. Linux is ready, since this mythical female only uses the computer to do email and browse the web. Linux isn’t ready because this same female won’t understand the package manager or this or that. Once everyone agrees that this female can use Linux, the heavens will open and finally, Microsoft’s monopoly will be over. This concept is fundamentally flawed.

When speaking of the mom/grandma/aunt, people are really speaking of “normal” everyday users. I’ll refer to them as older people for the sake of this article. The goal is to get Linux to the point where older people can use it. Oddly enough, we are pretty much there. For simple and basic computing tasks (think internet appliance) there is no reason why Linux isn’t appropriate. If the old person isn’t going to play games or run Photoshop, modern distros provide everything needed. Firefox and Thunderbird give you a great web browser and email client. OpenOffice.org covers word processing needs. There are plenty of other great programs, including Gaim (now renamed Pidgin) for instant messaging, GIMP for photo editing and plenty of card games. They will run into trouble when they try and download “The Prize Machine” or some other junk from a website, but for all intents and purposes they are covered. Linux can handle, very nicely, their basic computing needs.

That doesn’t mean they will switch, though. These people have a different mindset than you, the person reading this. They want to stick with what is familiar to them, what is known. Do you have a relative that refuses to switch from AOL, even after they have gotten broadband? I do, and I bet there are plenty out there. You can tell them all you want about the security of Linux, how it is “Free as in Freedom”, how they won’t really notice a difference, but it will fall on deaf ears. In their mind, Linux is this weird thing that they are better off not taking a chance on. These are the people that are happy to pay the Geek Squad to install an anti-virus on their Windows 98 Celeron box, rather than get something better, for free, from you. That is fine. When their ten year old motherboard fails, they can’t fault the “Linux you installed on it that broke it”. After all, it was working fine until you got to it.

Let them be. They can be someone else’s problem. If you’ve ever lived the nightmare of free phone support to these people then you know you are better off staying away.

Me: “Click ‘file’ which is on your top toolbar”

OP: “Toolbar? I don’t have a toolbar!! What does it look like?”

Me: “It should be near the top of your screen, above the navigation buttons…”

OP: “Navigation buttons? You mean at the bottom?! I don’t see any buttons. You mean on the keyboard?”

God forbid they accidentally delete their Internet Explorer icon from the desktop. They no longer have the internet!

The times are changing. Leave the old people that aren’t technically inclined to their comfortable existence, with its viruses, spyware and network of zombie drone machines. You can’t really teach an old dog new tricks. A lot of effort is being wasted on preparing something for people that do not want it. Imagine if video game manufacturers said games won’t be ready until their grandma can play them.

The YouTube Generation

Younger people are different. The world they know is different than the one most of us grew up in. Music for them isn’t something you go and purchase at the store. Cheap thrills don’t come through the underwear section of the Sears catalog, they flow freely through their torrent clients. It isn’t the number of signatures in their yearbook that count, it is the size of their friends list on MySpace. Technology isn’t some newfangled thing to gripe about, it has been part of their existence their whole life. A lot of these kids are trying Linux. They may not know that Ubuntu is a Debian derivative or have read the GNU manifesto, but they are installing and running Linux. They run MythTV. This is our audience. These are the people to court.

The 3D desktop in Linux is pulling these people in. Flaming window animations, spinning transparent cubes, wobbly windows are catching people’s imaginations. This is completely unscientific, but will illustrate my point. A search for “Beryl” on YouTube gives 4,120 results. “Compiz” gets 799. “XGL” nets 2640, “AIGLX” 500. “Ubuntu” gets 3240. “Aero” gives 3,900 with a lot of non-Windows results. “Aero Vista” gives 167. “Kelly Ripa” gets 352, so Beryl is immensely more popular than Kelly Ripa on YouTube. At this point, it isn’t trivial to install Compiz or Beryl but these people are doing it. Not only are they doing it, but they are taking the time to take video of their screens and promote it on YouTube.

The more technically inclined of this group is fiercly anti Digital Rights Management (or Digital Restrictions Management). They want their media on their terms. Piracy is rampant. Paying for software is a concept to be mocked by some of them. They want bling. They want speed. They are installing Ubuntu and Sabayon and aren’t concerned about how Flashplayer or their video card drivers fit into the Free Software world. Free Software is familiar to them from Firefox, Wordpress, Drupal and to a lesser extent, Blender. They game on their consoles.

These people will make excellent converts to the cause. If I were running a distribution targeted at them, like Linux Mint or Sabayon, I’d make education part of the Distribution. Include links to the Free Software Foundation, the GNU project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation prominently in Firefox. Get some documentation out saying that while you include MP3, Flash and Nvidia/Ati drivers by default, here is why people are against doing that. Promote the fact that they are running a legitimate operating system and why this is better than just pirating XP or Vista. I admit that this sounds cheesy, but I believe that we can gain some traction here. As dark clouds gather, with Trusted Computing, DRM and Patent disputes on the horizon, we need as many people as we can behind us. Now is the time.

But… My App Won’t Run

One thing I read consistently is that this or that app doesn’t run on Linux. Photoshop, CAD Software, I even read a complaint that Visual Studio doesn’t run on Linux. Wine has come a long way, and you can get some programs running with it, but it is mostly irrelevant. Cedega from Transgaming has done nice work getting games to run on Linux. Still, Photoshop does run under Linux. Any Windows program you name does. All you have to do is install a Virtual Machine, be it VMware, Xen, QEMU or whatever, then install Windows. You can then run Linux, and easily run any Windows native program you need. This solves the perceived hassle of dual booting. Linux doesn’t require complete monogamy.

I have run Linux almost exclusively for the past ten years. I love it. It does just about everything I need, and more. It still did not save me from the hand of the Great Monopoly, though. When sending out my resume, most employers requested it in Word format. Using Open Office and saving it as a .doc screwed up the formatting, something unacceptable to future employers. After trying a few things, I finally had to bite the bullet and use Microsoft Office. OpenDocument (.odt) is a great format, but it isn’t widely known and accepted. Did I sell out? Possibly. The way I looked at it, I had to use the right tool for the right job. I needed to create a perfect looking Word document, so I used Word to do it.

This is changing, as well. There are great free online office suites. Google Docs and Spreadsheets work well. Zoho Office is amazing. Offline, Open Office, Abiword and Kword all do a very good job, a hell of a lot cheaper than Microsoft Office. If you have basic word processing needs, I can easily recommend all of the above. 

The Future

64 Bit Computing. Distros should focus more on this area. The need to run 64 bit applications is debatable; 64 bit processors run fine in 32 bit mode. The problem is that you really cannot buy a 32 bit processor anymore, so the future is now. I haven’t run into too many problems running 64bit distros, but there are a few gotchas here and there. Let’s continue the work so we can run what we need natively.

Educate. As new users enter the fold, let’s make sure they understand the importance of why they are able to freely use what they are using. Most may not care, but the ones that do can help to be influential. The stakes are high, and we should make sure they understand what they are.

We welcome our new Google Overlords. Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Zoho Office are our best chance of breaking the Microsoft Office monopoly. Picasa and Google Earth run on Linux. The move away from applications being OS dependent will only help us in the long run.

Compiz/Beryl/Compositing Community. It is still early, and the 3D desktop on Linux is working very well. There are a lot of great changes coming in the near future. I have seen nothing excite normal people the way this has. It may be frivolous to have all of these effects running, but overall people like them. The days of Linux being disregarded as some UNIX dinosaur that is a nightmare to use are over. Things are moving rapidly in this space, and it is great to see.

Virtualization. You can now run Windows fairly easily within Linux using any of the Virtualization tools out there. You can also dabble in Solaris or any of the BSDs. If you have to run something that will not run on Linux, fine. Boot up your VM and run the program from there. Obviously, the reverse is true. If you are afraid of getting rid of windows, go ahead and install VMware Server and try Linux out inside of it. Hell, install Linux, then Windows in a VM, then install a VM in windows and install BSD, repeat until you reach infinity.

Keep the Faith. Since I’ve long past gone out on the limb of sounding cheesy, I’m going for broke. There are a lot of challenges ahead for Linux. There is also nothing out there like Linux. It has been an exciting ten years, watching this thing grow and improve almost daily. First and foremost, it is an operating system written by nerds for nerds. That is our greatest strength. Infighting in the community is good, when it displays the passion people feel for a particular piece of software. In my eyes, all of this choice is a good thing. As Linux continues to evolve, things will fall into place. We just need to stay vigilant. The year of the Linux Desktop is here, for those of us that use it every day.

 

April 10th, 2007 Posted by admin | Editorial, free software, linux | 13 comments

OpenSUSE 10.2 Released

OpenSUSE 10.2 was released today. Torrents are here. The download page is here, It will be interesting to see the community reaction to this release. I feel bad for the OpenSUSE team. Novell put them in a bad position. The release features ext3 as the new default file system, Firefox 2.0, updated Gnome and KDE and an install add-on disc featuring proprietary software. It is a five cd set, they mention you only need the first 3 discs to install a default Gnome or KDE system in English or German. The announcement is here.
I tried running the 64bit release candidate. I had planned to review it.I wanted to give OpenSUSE an chance. I couldn’t give it a fair review. I hate Yast. I find it gets in my way. I couldn’t use it to edit grub properly. Software management was a nightmare. Updates were unbearable, loading software management took forever. I read that uninstalling zmd (the ZENworks Management Daemon) speeds things up, but I wasn’t able to accomplish this. I don’t know why, but I was caught in rpm hell, a phrase I hadn’t used in years. It was impossible for me to install GCC. Overall, it was a horrible experience and I was glad to wipe it from my hard drive. I understand that I was running a release candidate, but I have never had as many problems running an RC before. I am sure there will be plenty of glowing reviews of openSUSE in the semi-mainstream tech press, though. It looks pretty.

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December 7th, 2006 Posted by admin | Uncategorized, openSuse, linux, Novell | no comments

Review: Arch64, Archlinux for 64bit processors

Due to lack of time, I have been sticking with the “easier” distros lately. I love Slackware, and at one time Arch Linux was my absolute favorite. I recently upgraded to an Athlon64 3200. I tried a variety of distros, only to run into problems I didn’t have time to fix. Fedora gave me a messed up Grub. Mandriva Free gave me problems with my video driver. Ubuntu Edgy has been fine. I saw that Arch Linux had a 64bit version and decided it was time to revisit it. If the easy distros were making me get into config files, why not just jump in fully with Arch64.

The installation documentation is thorough, but will drop you off at a command prompt with no Gui to log into. Make sure you know what you are doing, or do your homework first. If you feel like kickin’ it real old school, they even give you the option of a floppy install. You boot up, then type “/arch/setup”, which brings up the installer program. The steps are:

  1. Prepare Hard Drive. You have an option to Auto-Prepare, which gives you a /boot, swap and root partition. It creates the file systems and mounts the partitions. Partition Hard Drives lets you do the partitioning via cfdisk and set the mount points yourself.
  2. Select Packages. Packages are set up in different categories. I chose to only install BASE. It keeps things lean and mean.
  3. Install Packages. This does exactly what it says. It installs the packages.
  4. Configure System. This allows you to edit your configuration files. Usually the defaults will work, but the point of using Arch is to set things up your way. The rc.conf file is the main configuration file, where you set modules and daemons load, you define your network interface settings and other stuff. A nice addition here is MOD_AUTOLOAD which scans your hardware and automatically loads your modules with hwdetect. In the past I had forgotten to put the proper USB modules. Using a usb mouse and keyboard, that was a problem. Make absolutely sure you check lilo.conf if you use lilo, /boot/grub/menu.1st if using grub.
  5. Install Kernel. Your choices are a stock 2.6.x kernel, 2.4 IDE or 2.4 SCSI. The documentation notes that Arch uses 2.6 by default, and to quote a line that made me laugh, “We are phasing out support for the 2.4 kernel, so you should only use it if 2.6 just isn’t working out for you”
  6. Install Bootloader. You have the option of Lilo or Grub. The documentation has a great tip here. It says that if you multiboot, it might be better to install the bootloader into your root or /boot partition, and refer to that from the bootloader on your Master Boot Record. I did that and it worked like a charm. This is after I had Grub nightmares from a Fedora install. Post install, I updated Grub on my MBR easily
  7. Exit Install. This makes you remove the disk and type reboot.

You reboot into a command prompt, logged in a root. I set up my root password and added a user. The docs say to set up your internet connection, but mine was ready to go. From here, you can use the package manager pacman to install xorg, KDE and/or Gnome and anything else you wish. I was a little to cocky, based on my previous experience, and hadn’t taken into consideration that xorg had changed. I installed xorg through pacman, but could not get a video driver module to load. My stupid mistake, it was as easy as installing the XF86-video-nv package since I have an Nvidia card. You can pull down all the drivers by installing the xorg-video-drivers package. I installed Kde, started x and was in my system. It was very clean and very fast. If you are unsure about how to do any of this, be sure to check out the ArchWiki before installing. It tells you how to set up just about anything you need. Be careful though, some advice is outdated. YMMV.Unless you are a super-genius, you will be using the wiki regularly. You have to set everything up yourself. Sound, cups, whatever. There are no graphical utilities to help you out, it is all command line. It is not as scary as that may sound.

The beauty of Arch is that you only install what you want. You only load the modules you want to, run the daemons you choose. Free as in freedom, baby. The result of this is a system that flies. I can’t give you hard numbers, but Arch boots a hell of a lot faster than other distros I have used. Arch64 is hardcore in that the philosophy is to be a true 64 bit operating system. To quote:
BUT: Our goal is to be the most bleeding edge distribution around! 32-bit is old fashioned. We want Arch64 to be modern and pure 64-bit. So we don’t have a Multilib system. We won’t take any package into the repos improving 32-bit compatibility. Maybe we will place them into the AUR or community repo. Don’t expect any support from the devs getting 32-bit apps running on Arch64!”
I respect that. If you cannot live without flash, some W32 codecs,Opera or Skype you can run 32 bit apps inside Arch64 with a bit of work. It hasn’t been an issue for me. Mplayer has played everything I have thrown at it so far, including WMV files. I can do without flash to save some weird hack-y stuff or chrooting. (Arch64 does have the nspluginwrapper ready to go in the community repositories, so you can run flash on a 64bit browser.) It is hard for me to say if my system is faster due to the 64bits or if it is due to Arch itself. Maybe the combo. From what I read at the Arch64 FAQ you don’t gain much of an advantage using X64 except in multimedia or databases. Some reports have 32bit apps running faster than 64bit on a 64bit machine. I think it is worth any extra bit of hassle to run in 64. If anyone has an opinion on 32bit vs. 64bit, please leave a comment.

Once inside my system, I set up printing and audio. It was a breeze. Using Arch gives you an appreciation for the disdain people have for Gui tools. It is very simple to work from the command line, and the power you have over things is nice. If something goes wrong, you learn what the problem is and how to fix it. Arch, like Slackware and Gentoo, is a great learning tool.

Arch64 tries to stay very close to the Arch current and extra repositories. There aren’t as many developers, which means there is no unstable repo available. There is an list, updated hourly, comparing package versions for Arch32 and Arch64. Arch current port is finished and extra looks to be almost done. Community seems to be coming along. As X64 picks up steam, hopefully more developers will be moving here.

One of the biggest strengths of Arch Linux is its software manager, pacman. It is a command line utility, but there are graphical front ends available. Updating your system is as simple as typing “pacman -Syu”. Installing packages is as simple as “pacman -Sy packagename”. S = sync, y = refresh, u= sysupgrade. All dependencies are pulled down automatically. By editing the file pacman.conf, you can tell the system to not upgrade certain packages and what repositories to use. Another strength is that you can build and use your own repositories with pacman.

The Arch Build System (ABS) gives you the ability to build your own packages from source and rebuild Arch packages with your own customizations. The documentation covers everything. You run the command “abs” as root, which synchronizes the ABS tree with the current and extra repositories. You make a new directory for the package you are going to create. I decided to build Katapult, an alternative KDE launcher, so i made a /var/abs/local/katapult directory. I built my PKGBUILD file, ran makepkg and bingo, I had a package ready to go. I typed “pacman -A katapult-0.3.1.4-2.pkg.tar.gz” and it installed flawlessly. The AUR (Arch User Repository) is filled with PKGBUILD files for almost any program you might need. Nspluginwrapper resides here. ABS really sets Arch Linux apart.

I highly recommend Arch64. If you are looking for a great 64bit system and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, this is the system for you. You only need a fast connection and some time. Pacman is the best package manager out there. ABS gives you freedom to create your own packages or customize packages for your machine. The community is great and very helpful. If you aren’t running a 64bit system, this review would work for Arch32 with the added bonus of having the unstable tree available to you. There is a new project called Lowarch for older computers, so you can breathe life into an old machine.(If it is so old it only has a floppy drive, you are in luck.) Arch is an excellent way to learn. It forces you to. The outstanding documentation and wiki teaches you how to do whatever you may need. Arch is fast and gives you the freedom to run Linux the way you want. It remains my favorite distro. This review may seem fanboyish, but I honestly can’t find a bad thing to say about it.

Final Note: I didn’t include screenshots, because I think my readers know what KDE looks like. If you want them, let me know, and I can provide them.


November 29th, 2006 Posted by admin | Uncategorized, Linux Distributions, Arch, Reviews, Software, linux, Arch64 | 16 comments