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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The Nook E-Book Reader with Ubuntu Saturday, Jan 16 2010 

Hello blogosphere.  It feels good to be back.  I got caught up in a new semester and all the work that goes along with it and haven’t been able to write.  I have good news though; my Nook e-book reader arrived yesterday.  I was quite surprised.  It wasn’t even supposed to ship until the 15th.  Imagine my happiness when it arrived at my door instead.

I had been neglecting my family recently because of semester preparations, so I couldn’t open the package right away.  Instead, I put it on my desk and waited a few hours.  When they went they went for a walk, I tore in.  It was kind of anti-climatic when I did.  When I got the shipping box open, I was happy to find everything inside.  It comes in really pretty packaging; however, that same packaging, like the ones they love to use these days (think toys…they come in that heat sealed plastic with wire twist ties, and plastic zip ties), is horrendous. It took me almost 20 minutes to cajole my Nook out of its package.  First you have to fight through the hermetically sealed plastic, then the lexan-like box, and finally the plastic tray the Nook is cradled in.  It really is pretty; however, overkill considering what it takes to get the Nook out.  Once I did though….

The Nook is beautiful.  It has a sleek look, rounded corners, beveled bezel with a continuous smooth look (even where the page advance buttons are), and don’t forget the color touch screen at the bottom.  Once I put it into the green Italian leather cover I bought…forget about it!

First things first, I chose the Nook over the KIndle for a few reasons I discussed here.  To save you the trip, I’ll briefly review them.  First, I liked that the Nook allows users to expand the memory by installing micro-SD cards.  (You can go up 16GB.) I assumed the Nook engineers were smart enough to put the card slot in a highly accessible place like at the bottom of the unit or on the side.  Unfortunately, I quickly found out after I ordered mine, that the card slot is actually located under the back cover where the battery is located.  I was greatly disappointed with this because I was planning to save documents onto SD cards and them plug them into the Nook to read at my convenience (mostly for student essays and other written work–after all, the Nook supports PDFs natively–see reason two).  But putting the card slot under the back cover put that plan to rest.  I am not going to remove the back cover every few days to get my SD card out.  Ultimately, the back cover isn’t designed to be taken off regularly and takes some effort to do so.

The second reason I chose the Nook, was because it supported PDF, ePUB, and MP3 formats natively.  Unlike the Kindle, you don’t need third-party software to convert files to make them render or play on the Nook.  This was important because I did not want to be forced to buy all my books exclusively from B&N.  I like having choices.  In fact, and this leads into my last reason for choosing the Nook, my initial plan was to read and reread many of the classics (and other texts) that can be found on Google Books and in the public domain free of charge; a service that comes with the Nook.  I guess choosing Android gave them access to Google’s collection.  Don’t get my wrong though, I’m not against buying books and probably will purchase my share.  However, I do plan to read what’s free most often.

The Nook has gotten mixed reviews so far.  Many find the touch-screen interface laggy and slow.  I’m not much of a touch-screen kind of guy, so I’m almost certain the lagginess won’t bother me too much.  As long as I can use the interface, download books, and read them, I’ll be happy.  So far, so good.  I have already downloaded five books and am about 70 pages into one of my favorites, Don Quixote, already.

The one thing I was most concerned about up until this morning was the Nook’s ability to connect and be managed by Ubuntu.  Because my original plan to swap SD cards regularly was dashed by the placement of the card slot, I had to bank on the Nook working with my Linux boxes.  B&N has software downloads for MS and Mac that allow both systems to download, render, and mange eBooks from B&N.  Unfortunately, they don’t offer similar software for Linux users.  I was a little concerned that the Nook would need such software to allow management from a computer terminal.  Luckily though, I can confirm that I connected my Nook to my Thinkpad this morning and Ubuntu recognized it as a mass storage device.  A file manager dialog opened as soon as I plugged in the USB cable.  I could see the individual folders on my Nook.  I was able to move two PDF files from my hard drive to my Nook without a hitch.  One file had a lot of pictures and the other was basically a text file I created in OpenOffice and converted to PDF.

The first file opened; however the formatting was not correct.  The captions under the pictures moved and the alignment of the photos changed.  The pictures rendered, and they looked like photos in a black and white newspaper–nothing spectacular, but acceptable.  The second file also opened without a problem; however the formatting also changed a bit too.  Text that was center aligned on the original file moved to the left, and the numerals in the header did not render at all.  Although many would be disappointed by this, I wasn’t.  The main reason I would be opening a PDF on my Nook would be to read a student essay during times I was not sitting at a terminal.  My plan was never to do a lot of editing and commenting while on my Nook.  When I grade student essays, I like to read them at least a couple of times.  Being able to convert them to PDFs and render them on my Nook will allow me to read them while I wait for my kids or wife in the car or while I commute to work in the morning.  I will be able to do a lot of my first reads during these times, thus allowing me to do the more involved readings sooner.

I did not move any music files, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.  Unfortunately, many of my favorite music files are in OGG format, so I’ll have to convert them to MP3 first before they have any hope of working on my Nook.

I feel fairly confident that I’ll be happy with my purchase even after the fabled iTablet is released in the next couple of months. My electronic arsenal will still be free of panes of glass and forbidden fruits!

By the way, I received another cool product recently; in fact, I’m using it right now.  I’ll be writing about my impressions of it soon.  (I’ll give you a hint; my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing about four weeks ago, and I went old school!)  Happy new year!

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.