Should the Ubuntu Release Cycle be Cut Back Saturday, Mar 27 2010 

The end of March is near, and in about a month, we will be seeing Lucid Lynx, or Ubuntu version 10.04.

After finally cutting my last machine over to Karmic a few weeks ago (my X60 tablet), I’m wondering if Ubuntu is developing new versions too fast.  I know some may think how can development be bad or too fast.  The answer is simple: stability (or lack thereof).

The main reason why I waited to cut over my last machine was because I was worried about having to tweak my machine so that I could get my tablet functions working.  It took me about an hour to work through, and I got it pretty close to perfect.  (I can’t get one feature, auto-rotation when in tablet mode, which was working in Jaunty to work in Karmic.)  The other reason why I waited was because, aside from a couple of issues, my machine working fine, and I didn’t feel the need to upgrade.  After all, regression sucks.

But I did finally bite the bullet because I noticed my personal T61P at home was running much cooler and more efficiently after I cut it over to Karmic.  I also had a problem with that bone-jarring alert beep occurring on shutdown or when I over-deleted/backspaced (entering one too many of either) in menu dialogues with Jackalope on my X60.  The sound was so annoying I became like a Pavlovian dog; after a few days jumping out of my seat (because of the alert) after beginning the shutdown cycle, I learned to turn off my external speakers before doing so.

So what’s my assessment of Karmic?  Actually, on my personal machines, I have had no major issues with it.  However, after my last cut-over, my feelings are mixed.  I have one issue with Karmic and dual-head mode.  Karmic seems to have better monitor detection capabilities and allows me to extend my desktop over two monitors.  The only problem is that if Compiz is running, X routinely freezes up.  After many months of routine use my X60 (I plug into an X6 multi-base in my office), I’ve had to learn to do things differently.  I have to disable Compiz before plugging into my base.  Not a big deal; however, after many bouts of forgetfulness, I’ve needed to restart at lest two dozen times.

So, for the first time in my computing life, I have decided to run alpha software to see what Lucid Lynx has to offer.  Since I was planning on fresh installs anyway, I decided to upgrade to the 64-bit version instead.  I started off slow.  I put Lucid Alpha 1 on my other Thinkpad (a T60 with integrated graphics).  Amazingly, things worked quite well with little tweaking.  It is alpha software so there were a few glitches here and there, but very minor.  Since it worked so well, I decided to install Lucid on my T61p at home (this one uses NVIDIA graphics); the Alpha 3 was already available, so I installed it instead.  Aside from some issues with the current NVIDIA drivers, the experience has been very positive as well.  I began thinking, Wouldn’t it have been better to hold off on Karmic and wait for Lucid instead?

I also began thinking about Ubuntu’s quick release cycle.  Do they need to release new versions every six months, or should they give themselves more time in between versions to try and release something more refined say once every year?  I’m not a programmer and have the faintest idea what six calendar months equates to in computer software development time, but after using every version of Ubuntu since Feisty Fawn (not to mention several other distros in between), I find myself wondering if it is too much.  Couldn’t the upgrade cycle be cut back to allow for partial upgrades of the current version instead.  For example, instead of going to a new version of the entire OS, couldn’t new versions of apps like Open Office or Firefox be moved into the repos instead?  (I know, things we can, as Linux end users, do anyway.)

Why not give the Ubuntu developers time to work out the kinks and get things more stable?  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t some off the cuff rant because I am angry or disappointed with Ubuntu.  In fact, this line of questioning is quite the opposite.  Like every good citizen of every country, contrary to what many conservatives in this country believes (they call it unpatriotic), we have a responsibility to ask questions and critique the status quo to see if there is room for improvement.  The only way things stay at the top is if it is willing to adapt and change.

I know.  You must be saying isn’t that what the six month cycle insures.  Well you’re right.  It does insure a new version every six months, and seemingly, a change in the status quo.  The problem is of course time and quality.  Look at Microsoft as a prime example.  Although their release cycle is very slow and not a good model; how many times have they released a sub-standard product because of profit margins?  Vista was a joke because it was poorly designed, too ambitious (in terms of driver development and third-party interest), and was on a timeline that it could not keep up with.  So what did MS users get?  A product that no one wanted to use or move to (like Windows Me).  People were clinging on to XP or jumping ship to Mac and Linux.  I had never seen so many new Macs in my life until Vista was released.  (Which may not be a good thing either…but that’s another post for another time….)

Well, Lucid is still in alpha and we won’t know how good it is until it is finally released in April.  So far, aside from moving the minimize, maximize, and close icons from the right side to the left, a la Apple (something that can be easily moved back), it has been very positive and promising.  The load times seem to be faster–although nowhere near ten seconds–so far I’ve been averaging about 30-35 seconds to working desktop, and I do like the new themes and splash screen they’ve installed.  I do like the fact that the apps seem to have finally caught up; all of my favorites, Firefox, Thunderbird, Kompozer, etc. are there in their newest versions (sans the Gimp…it is in the repos and can be easily installed).

I look forward to when Lucid is finally released in a few weeks, and regardless, I will be a happy Linux user.  But while using whatever version I finally decided upon come that time, I will still be pondering whether Ubuntu could benefit from a slightly less ambitious release cycle.  Cutting edge is good…bleeding edge…not so much….

The Children are the Future…for Linux Wednesday, Dec 16 2009 

Whenever I read articles or hear discussions about Linux’s ability to take over the desktop market, Whitney Houston’s song “The Greatest Love of All” comes to mind (actually, I think of Arsenio Hall’s–aka The Sexual Chocolates–rendition in the movie Coming to America).  “Why?” You may ask. Because the children are the future in so many ways, but especially for Linux.

I’m certain you’re all familiar with that old cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Although this is not the case for every old dog (OD) (after all, I get my technology butt handed to me on a regular basis by some pretty old dogs), it is true for many who don’t have interests in technology.  ODs like this yearn for familiarity.  They don’t like change–not even from one version of MS Office to another.  “Why did they move that thingy from here to over there?”  “I don’t understand why they changed that.  Everything was working fine until now.”  “Why would I want to give up this big, shiny tower that takes up almost half of my desk for that tiny little laptop.  Bigger is better, right?”  All right,  you get the idea.  Enough geriatric bashing; I’m not getting any younger and will probably be just as stubborn and more cantankerous in my golden years.

Back to my point.  To truly understand where I’m going with this, I need to redefine what I mean when I say old dog.  An old dog isn’t someone who is merely old, in fact, many of them are fairly young; rather, they are people who are stuck in their ways–the ones who will sacrifice faster, more efficient,  and secure technology for what is familiar because it simply works for their needs.  After all, no one wants to relearn how to do the everyday typical task. I know, I know.  I said in a former post that intuitiveness and qualitative measures of what is good or better is intrinsically linked to familiarity, and what is most intuitive, a lot of the time, is the one that is most familiar.  This is true; however, the true measure of intuitiveness is the ability to make changes while staying familiar.  How users adapt to the changes is a good measure–the quicker they adapt, the more intuitive the technology is.

Again, I digress.  Back to old dogs.  The problem with old dogs is that you can’t force them to change.  You have to let them think that they are dictating change.  That’s why it’s better to roll out changes slowly, so that the learning curve is flatter.  The less painful it is, the more welcoming ODs become.  But yanking the entire OS from under their feet is not a good idea.  Too much change.  Too steep a learning curve.  But why bother?  Why force ODs to change?  If Deepak Chopra’s Fourth Spiritual Law, “the Law of Least Effort,” is accurate, it makes little sense to force ODs to do so.  Too much effort.  Besides, it goes against nature’s flow.  Introduce new technology to them, show them how it works, and then, let them decide if they want to take the leap.

But the kids!  Ah yes, the kids.  They are the answer.  Today’s children have grown up with technology all around them.  Nintendos, X-Boxes, Playstations, iPods, iPhones, and so on and so forth.  At their age, they aren’t frightened of change.  They are just beginning life’s journey and are eager to learn new things.  These two factors combine to create the perfect storm for learning new technology. Today, children figure out new technology quickly without much trial and tribulation.  I’ll give you a personal example.  It took me three boot cycles to teach my 5-year-old son how to load Puppy Linux from the Grub menu, launch Firefox, find the bookmark for his favorite Spongebob game, launch the game, and how to shut everything down when he was done.  Three boot cycles…that’s it.  I know some adults who can’t even check their voicemail on their cell phones, or how to program the favorites button on their TV remotes after numerous attempts.

If the Linux community wants to see their market share increase, they need to go after the children.  I know that sounds insidious, but believe me, exposure to Linux is safer and more beneficial than McDonald’s, Barbie, and GI Joe.  Steve Jobs and his marketing team figured this out a while ago.  They don’t necessarily target young children; however, they have used a concentrated marketing strategy, and have gone after young adults and teenagers with great success.  Look around.  How many young people do you see carrying iThings?  iPods?  iTouches? and iPhones?  And now, rumor says that Apple will be releasing their first iTablet next spring.  (Sounds suspiciously like a bigger iTouch to me.)  I’m guessing it will be very intuitive and will be all the rage if the price is right.  Why has Apple become so ubiquitous?  Because they figured out which market required the least effort on their part.

Canonical has at least made an effort to reach the children with their Edubuntu spin.  It’s a good idea, and a nice starting point; however, it needs much more development.  Development in two ways.  One that creates apps that are more exciting, appealing, and educational for children.  And the other that creates apps for educators–e.g. gradebooks (like GradeL) and class management software.  A concentrated effort like this will help get Edubuntu in more classrooms, and hence, more exposure.

There are other distros and interface tweaks that seem to be targeting a younger and more mobile crowd.  Android, seems to be making some headway.  And although I’m skeptical of Google’s motives, I think their influence and marketing savvy will bring Android to more and more devices.  If the multi-touch tablet takes off, I’m sure the heavyweight distros will begin developing for this platform.

I once read a comment on some blog that stated that Linux needn’t worry about Windows, but instead, should set their sights on Apple.  I didn’t think too much about the statement at the time; however, in retrospect, that person was right.  Why worry about Windows?  Linux has overtaken Windows in so many ways, that the point of which is better between the two is moot.  But Apple on the other hand, is leading a revolution.  They have flooded the market with sophisticated and innovative peripheral devices that aren’t in direct competition with the desktop computer.  Slowly but surely, many of these device holders are more and more interested in Mac computing.  The iTablet will be another stepping stone to the promise land.

Do I think Apple is on the brink of world domination?  No, I don’t.  But I have to say, they are surely working towards it.  What does Linux have to do?  Focus on the children.  The more young people who are raised on Linux and Linux devices the better it will be in the long run.  Build it fast, beautiful, and easy to use…and they will come.

I believe the children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way…