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….

How Ubuntu (Linux) Changed My Life Thursday, Dec 24 2009 

Ubuntu changed my life!  I’m smarter, cooler, and more ethical.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it isn’t.

I began using Linux about 2 years ago.  Before that, I was a long time Windows user.  (And before that, an Apple user.)  Until my Linux days, I was a pretty typical PC user.  I would word-process documents, play a few games, and later, check email and surf the net.  I really didn’t care about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  And hence, my Windows days were nothing pioneering or interesting.

In general, I would consider myself to be a pretty inquisitive person. I have always been interested in how things worked, but for some reason, probably because I saw them as too complex, I did not take an interest in knowing how computers worked.  The movie War Games probably had something to do with this too.  I didn’t need or want the FBI knocking down my door.

But I did take a few computing classes growing up, so I knew some of the basics.  But by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in getting my essays word-processed than understanding computer programming.  I figured the computer geeks could worry about that stuff.  Anyway, by that time, my dreams of being a computer scientist were already dashed by complicated math.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important technology, specifically the personal computer, had become. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a word-processor and other applications that made the production and editing of documents much easier, technology was linking disciplines and essentially changing them. The expectations of what people could produce quickly grew as documents became more sophisticated in appearance.

But even though I realized this importance, I accepted that technology had passed me by, and I would be destined to be a casual end user.  So I did the safe thing: I used Windows.  I knew the interface, it did the job most of the time, and it was available in all of the computer labs on campus.  There were a few times when I considered going back to Apple, but once I figured out what it would cost, I decided to stick with the PC platform.  Besides, I had already begun to dabble in open source applications, so I knew there was plenty of free software out there for Windows users.

It wasn’t until that fateful day I came across a Laptop magazine reference to Ubuntu Linux and its growing popularity.  I began to do some research on Linux and Ubuntu.  I talked with the head of our IT department on campus and asked him what he thought about Linux.  Of course, many of his servers were already running Red Hat, so he suggested I give it a try, but warned me to expect some hitches.

So I did.  My first distro was Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) and Gutsy soon after that.  I then tried Open SUSE (10.3, I think) and eventually SUSE SLED 10, which was preinstalled on a new Thinkpad I bought.  After some testing and trial in the classroom and work environment, I decided to go with Ubuntu.  I really liked SUSE; however, didn’t feel comfortable with the Novell and Microsoft “agreement.” I figured if I was going open source, I would go with a cleaner and unencumbered distro.  (See, I told you I became more ethical!)

So how did Linux, Ubuntu in my case, make me smarter?  I began to tinker with my computer again.  I had to figure out what I needed it to do, and how to get it to do it.  The one nice thing about Ubuntu is that its default install is very usable “out of the box.”  I think most casual users would need to change very little.

For me, I was pretty apprehensive to change anything at first.  But as time went on, I gained more confidence, and soon was making some small ones. In fact, some of them weren’t voluntary.  I’ll admit; what my campus IT guru told me came to fruition.  There were some hitches along the way.  I had to edit configuration files and learn how to use the command line to effectively solve some problems.  But all of these hitches and changes forced me to get more intimate with my computer.  When I used Windows, everything was veiled behind a GUI (and I suppose in many ways Ubuntu is guilty of this too), and so I didn’t need to understand what I was doing when I made changes; rather, I just needed to know how to execute them. Easier, right? Quicker, right? Well, not always. How do you fix something you don’t understand? And believe me, there was plenty that vexed me about Windows.

But if we take James Taylor’s advice and “[enjoy] the passage of time,” I think we could and would learn so much more.  I understand why many would find what I’m suggesting abhorrent.  Why bother trying to understand your computer when you have better things to do?

But I’m not talking about major time commitments here. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every intricacy of the OS. And as a matter of fact, I want to suggest quite the opposite.  I think we should invest just enough time so we can understand the larger concepts of computing. These concepts will help us better understand how to solve problems that arise.  And I’m not talking about Linux problems, Windows problems, or Mac problems exclusively.  But in general.  If you understand how WebDav works, then the chances of you setting it up properly increases immensely, regardless of the OS that you’re using.  It’s like cooking.  If you understand the basic concept of stewing, you can probably produce a pretty good beef stew no matter whose kitchen you’re cooking in as long as the basic supplies and comparable ingredients are available.

How has Linux made me cooler.  Simple.  It is not the same old expected stuff.  The interface is different and in many ways more intuitive.  People are amazed with Compiz and the 3-D effects that I use.  And besides, when everybody is panicking about the latest major security hole in Internet Explorer, I can smugly smile and say, “I use Linux.”

Why am I more ethical?  Easy.  I don’t support they guys who are trying to control the way we interact with technology.  I stay away from products that are platform restricted. Also, I really embrace the FOSS philosophy because it levels the playing field.  I remember in the past, you had to buy a commercial word processing program to produce decent documents.  Today, thanks to a slew of community supported office apps, this in no longer the case.

It’s not that I’m necessarily against people getting compensated for their work, and, in fact, think every FOSS end user has some responsibility to “pay” for what they use.  The payment doesn’t necessarily need to be in monetary form though.  One could pay by donating time to test updates or new versions of apps. Or by being a part of a community. Maybe report bugs or issues that come up in daily usage. Or they could take an active role in promoting what they use. I’m sure there are numerous ways that end users could help open source developers. (Developers, if you’re reading this, go ahead and suggest some.)

So how has Ubuntu changed my life?  I’m taller, skinnier, and better looking.  Okay, maybe not.  I do feel that I have become closer to my PC though.  I understand it and the concepts that make my computing experience better and more successful.  And I know not to blame technology, but instead, the ones who wield it. Am I cooler? I don’t know, but using Linux has a sort of geek chic that suits me.  And in terms of ethics, I can sleep a little better at night knowing I haven’t made Bill and Steve any richer.  So has Linux changed me? Yes, I think so. And to the distro that figures out a way to make me taller, skinnier, and better looking, I promise to be your biggest fanboy ever!

Happy Holidays!

Karmic on a HP Mini-110: Murphy’s Law at Work Thursday, Dec 17 2009 

So my former student who was interested in Ubuntu came to see me Tuesday morning.  In her hands was a small, pink neoprene sleeve.  “I’m ready.  Can you install Linux on this?” she said as she passed me what she was carrying.

I unzipped the sleeve and found a pink HP Mini-Note 110 inside.  It still had all the static-charged plastic coverings on it.  I quickly searched the hardware support site on Ubuntu.com to see if there were any known problems with the Mini-Note.  I was happy to find the following entry: “The Karmic version “just work” with almost everything supported without tweaking. Wired nic works nicely. Sound works nicely. The “windows” key however does not work anymore, and the built-in SD card reader has no available driver.”  I asked my student if she needed her SD card reader.  “What’s that?” she said…so we continued.

“This will take about an hour and half or so,” I said to her confidently.  After all, I have successfully installed all the different Ubuntu variants, Geubuntu, Elive, Puppy, Damn Small, SuSe SLED 10, OpenSuSe 10, Moblin, and gOs on various boxes without a hitch numerous times (well, DSL and Puppy did give me a little trouble).

“Why so long?” she responded.  I went on to explain that I had everything set to install Ubuntu; however, that I wanted her to try a live version first.  I also wanted to test for any problems and run an update before I sent her home.

All things considered, I expected the install to be fairly quick and easy.  I should’ve known better….

When the live session finished loading, everything looked okay.  I clicked on the Network Manager applet to test the wireless capabilities.  Although the hardware switch showed that the wireless radio was on, the system didn’t recognize it.  I immediately suspected a Broadcom driver issue–call it intuition.  Before I went any further, a system window opened.  It automatically recognized that there were propriety drivers available.  Of course, the only one listed was the Broadcom STA driver.  I happily enabled it and within a few seconds, was able to get on to the campus’ wireless network.  Great, I thought, smooth sailing from here.  I launched Firefox, and as soon as I did the system froze.

I shut everything down and started a new live session, enabled the Broadcom driver, and launched Firefox again.  And guess what?  The system froze.  “Why is it doing that?” my student asked with a hint of agitation in her voice.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll figure it out.”  After three more failed attempts, I began to get a little nervous.  I suspected that I could probably get further if I did an install instead of trying to troubleshoot the wireless card in a live session  But since it wasn’t my netbook, I didn’t wan to render it unusable for any prolonged amount of time, so I decided to do something I had never done before, a dual-boot install.  I figured if anything went wrong enabling the Broadcom driver, my student would still be able to use her computer until I figured out how to fix the problem.

So I began.  After going through the install wizard, I sent my student off to study for her exam.  I hit “Install,” and I went to a meeting.  When I got back to my office about 45 minutes later, I was happy to see that everything went seemingly okay.  I began the shutdown process.  I pulled my Unetbootin thumbdrive from the USB slot when I was instructed to and waited for the system to shut down.  When it restarted, Grub came up fine.  I decided to test XP, so I launched it first.  Everything looked as expected, so I logged off and rebooted again.  Grub came up fine, but this time I launched Karmic.

I was relieved to hear the familiar sounds of drums and the sight of the Karmic splash screen.  As soon as the desktop came up, I went to work on the Broadcom driver.  I waited a minute to see if the system would recognize the Broadcom card; it didn’t.  I ran the Hardware Driver utility and was disappointed to find no available proprietary drivers.  My student, who had returned to my office, looked concerned.  “Is everything okay?  Is it done?  Why is it taking so long?”  After some explanation, she calmed a little.  I pulled my wired connection from my Thinkpad and plugged it into the Ethernet port.  Immediately, the system recognized the connection and established an IP address.  I looked for the driver again.  This time, it was there.  I enabled it, pulled my wired connection, restarted the wireless radio (it was smart enough to shut down when it realized there was a hardwire connection), and connected to the campus wireless network.  I ran ifconfig from a terminal, and saw an IP address.  Relief.  I crossed my fingers and launched Firefox.  It opened fine.  Just to be sure, I navigated to a couple of webpages; I felt more relief when it did without issue.

“Almost there,” I said to my student.  I launched the Update Manager.  Since the image I was using was the Karmic RC (which was probably the culprit for the aforementioned problems) there were over 200 updates.  I ran them and restarted the system.  I crossed my fingers again and hoped that the wireless card would automatically connect…it did.

Before my student left my office, I installed the Compiz Config Manger and the simple version (CCSM), so I could configure Compiz.  After all, she wanted the cube.  After some quick instructions on how to use the managers, I set her virtual desktops and the cube.  She thanked me and promised to go home and test everything out.

When she left, she was smiling.  She told me she would let me know if there were any problems.  It’s been a couple of days and so far, I haven’t heard from her.  I guess things are going well.  I’m glad.  For a minute, I thought I was going to lose a convert.

It really wasn’t a bad install.  Only a few minor problems.  I just wished things went a little smoother for my student’s sake.  You should’ve seen her face when I opened a terminal session.  Just goes to show that you can never get too cocky.  I’m glad I was able to figure things out, but the experience was a nice reminder to always expect the unexpected.  Good old Murphy is always lurking around a corner…waiting to strike.

*For a how-to on this install, please go here.

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…