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….

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Vimperator: Cool Firefox Add-on Saturday, Dec 19 2009 

I received my latest copy of Linux Journal late last week.  I usually open it up and start reading as soon as I get.  Unfortunately, I’ve been tied up with end of the semester responsibilities the last couple of weeks and hadn’t gotten around to it.  Anyway, I finally did today.  The featured cover story was about amateur radio–not really an interest of mine.  Whenever the features don’t appeal to me, I still make sure to read the regular contributors’ articles.  I have found some really interesting and useful information in many of them.

The one that caught my eye this month was Kyle Rankin’s “Dr. hjkl Meets the Vimperator.” I’m not a programmer and rarely use Vi or Vim because I am not accustomed to the interface. (When I need a text editor, I use Gedit.  I do see the value of Vi, and if I had a lot of editing to do, I would probably spend more time learning the keybindings.)  The only real experience I have with the Vi/Vim keybinding is through Mutt.  I had it installed on my Thinkpad in the past and used it for a short time to manage my email.  I actually liked Mutt a lot; however, I abandoned it because I didn’t want to give up the calendaring features in Thunderbird via the Lightning and GCal plug-ins.

Vimperator (and Muttator–a Vi-like plug-in for Thunderbird) may make me a convert.  For those of you who don’t know, Vimperator is a Firefox plug-in that allows you to control the browser using Vi/Vim keybinding.  You can open links, scroll up and down, open and close tabs, and do just about everything you can do with your mouse and the GUI without using your mouse.  Pretty cool, huh?

I already installed it on a Dell Mini from the Mozilla Add-on website, but actually found a version in the Karmic repos afterwards (it looks like the latest version too).   It was kind of serendipitous that I used the Mozilla website.  I found Muttator, which wasn’t mentioned in LJ, listed as a related plug-in on the Vimperator page.  I’ll try that one later; it is still Alpha software according to its website.

After restarting Firefox, I played around for a little while.  Luckily, I read Rankin’s article and knew to expect some changes in the Firefox interface.  One that could be problematic for those who don’t know Vi/Vim keybinding is that Vimperator automatically disables the menu bar.  One of the first things that Rankin explains how to do is to re-enable it; it is very easy to do.  Type :set guioptions+=mTVoila, the menu bar is back.

Also included in the article was a listing of some of the main/basic keybindings.  Very handy for a person like me who has little experience with Vi/Vim.  After about 10 minutes of use, I was getting the hang of it and liking the navigation.  It was very quick.

I could see myself using my browser like this.  I already use many of the built-in keyboard shortcuts in Firefox.  The advantage to Vimperator is that the keystrokes require less drastic movement of your hands and fewer combo strokes (well, sort of, there are some that require multiple strokes).  The Hinting mode is also too cool.  Press f and you see that Vimperator highlights all (well almost all) of the different links and other navigable areas (text entry boxes and the like) on the page and numbers them.  Find the corresponding number for the link or text box you want, type it and hit Enter.  And just like that, the link opens or the cursor moves to the input area.

I couldn’t find a Vimperator man page and haven’t found a comprehensive list of keybindings, but according to Rankin, there is a list on the Vimperator help page.  I’ll check that out later.

I’m going to play with Vimperator a little more and decide whether to put it on my other boxes.  The beauty of Firefox plug-ins are that they are easy to disable and uninstall.  I’ll let you know how goes.

My Favorite FOSS Apps Monday, Dec 14 2009 

I don’t want to start any flame wars here, but I thought I’d share my list of favorite open source apps.

For web browsing, I choose Mozilla Firefox hands down for the bulk of my browsing.  I have Dillo installed on an older machine of mine and use it from time to time when I’m doing research and don’t need all the superfluous stuff.  I have also tried Opera and find it to be a beautiful and full featured browser.  I especially like the visual tabs feature.  Very, very pretty.  I stick with Firefox because it’s something that I’m used to.  After all, I have been using Firefox since my Windows days.  It can be a bit of a system hog, but the overall computing experience doesn’t seem to suffer too much.

For email clients, I use Thunderbird.  I like T-Bird because it’s good at what it does–collects and organizes my email.  I also like that I can use the GCal and Lightning plugins to organize and synchronize my calendars.  When I first made the switch to Ubuntu, I tried Evolution and liked it a lot.  However, I had issues with it because it was a Novell product–more on that some other day.

When it comes to office productivity, I use Open Office 3.1.  It’s full featured and powerful.  I like that Impress allows for some pretty cool transitions using the OpenGL 3-D packages.  Beats the boring predictable PowerPoint stuff.  As for the word processor and spreadsheet, they are both very capable.  There are a couple issues I do have with OpenOffice though.  First, for some reason, you cannot open, edit, and save directly to a WebDaved server.  From what I gather from my research, the file locking mechanism (actually it is the naming convention) is the culprit, and causes an “Input/Output Error.”  So far, I haven’t figured out a work around, and am forced to pull documents on to my local drive to edit them.  I then have to push them back up on to the server separately.  It’s a little clunky, but it works.  The other issue is that you can’t print any marginal comments you make when you review a document.  It will print the comments at the end of the document and embed footnotes that allow for cross referencing; however, it isn’t very slick.  I’d rather they figure a method of scaling the page so that the notes print in the margin where they belong.

To maintain my webpages, I use Kompozer.  It is a WYSIWYG page editor and is very easy to use.  I don’t know html code very well, so I like that I can create the bulk of my pages in Kompozer using the WSIWYG interface and then can go back to tweak the code if need be.  The new version that works with Karmic is still in beta-testing, so there are some bugs from time to time; however, it is very usable.

For multimedia needs, I use a slew of different apps.  I use VLC, Movie Player, and Rhythmbox to play music and movies.  I also use Streamtuner and Dorame (an Adobe AIR app)  to play interent radio.  To make backups of my videos, I use Handbrake.  If I need to create ISO files, I use Brasero.  I use F-Spot to manage my photos, and the Gimp to edit photos and gifs.

That’s my short list of favorite apps.  Let me know what you think.