Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm Apparently Not A PC

Like Windows Vista, this post has taken far too long to come, and probably won't be worth the wait. Don't worry, I'll do better with my next post. It'll have all the bells and whistles you want, and I'm going to start accepting input about what you'd like in it with this very post.

A blog is kind of like a monopoly that way. I can say pretty much anything I want here and people can comment. I don't have to do a thing about those comments, though, and those who know no other blog will still come back for more with the very next post, just like 95% of Windows users will go on to Windows Vista, Windows 7, and beyond without blinking.

Okay, so a blog isn't so much of a monopoly. You don't like what I have to say, you leave. You take your eyes elsewhere and you read opinions you agree with, or that challenge you in a way you like better. I guess I'll just never understand what really compels people to keep monopolies in power. And yes, just to be crystalline clear I am talking about that abusive monopoly we all love to hate: Microsoft.

And yes, this post was inspired by their recent "I'm A PC" campaign. The one where they'll happily allow you to upload what you do with your PC and let you be included in their advertising -- but only if you use a PC they way they want you to. I'm not a PC. I'm not a PC, because I run Ubuntu Linux.

I'm trying to find a "sweet spot" here; a delicate balance between rabidly bashing Microsoft for all the heinous things they are responsible for in the computer industry and the more sane view of "they're just a software company". I think the simple truth is people live under monpoly control for a few simple reasons. It's comfortable. It's what everyone does. It's safe. It's better than the alternatives. It's too hard to switch to anything else.

How do you sanely argue that a massive switch from Microsoft's products would actually be a good thing for the economies of the world, and that everyone would be happier, in the end? Don't you just end up sounding like a zealot? Some kind of nut-job that is walking through the streets with a sign that says, "The END IS NIGH!" That's pretty much what mainstream media does to anyone outside the accepted norms. Everything is done in terms of what the majority does, whether it is sane or not.

So where's the sweet spot? Do I point out here that using other software can be just as comfortable, or maybe even more comfortable than something that's been in the popular eye for decades? Let's face it: for most users, if it isn't already installed on their computer, it might as well not exist. If a computer comes with Microsoft Works, that will wind up the "office suite" of choice. Which is one reason why Microsoft Office 2007 is pretty much a guaranteed hit, because it sure is the most awkward interface anyone I've spoken to has ever seen (except for literally one individual; there's no accounting for personal tastes and I don't hold it against that person).

Leaving "the beaten path" means you're on your own, right? I mean, what if a user just downloaded some free office suite (or OS, for that matter*) from the Web and started using that instead of shelling out hundreds of dollars for whatever the current Microsoft monopoly offering is? Who's going to support it? A normal user can't be expected to fix their own problems! Heck, if the answer is more than a 20 second Google search, it's too hard to use! Nope, sticking with what everyone knows is safer: just ask the tech at work (or a 13 year old) for help when you get stuck and you'll be alright.

Of course, what happens if that free software doesn't have all the features of the comparable Microsoft monopoly product? It can't be as good. And what about all those templates and wizards and things it does for you? Surely it's all worth the cost. There's no point in searching the web for free templates, wizards, clipart and doodads when it's all bundled right there for you, just hand over your credit card, please. Now, who can you find to show you how to use all this stuff, and what would you actually use it for? Most users only use a tiny fraction of what their software can do. But the alternatives would be too hard to learn, to difficult to support and in the end cost more than the stuff they paid for. And took the course for, to learn how to use. And paid support for (on top of the software cost), to fix the problems they ran into.

But I'm just a zealot, looking for a sweet spot, to try make sense of it all. On free, open software, that I have paid for with my time, my money and my sanity. I'm not a PC.

*By the way, there are many excellent free computer Operating Systems out there for any individual with enough curiosity to try. Maybe start with Ubuntu and see some of what this whole piece is about. A definite "sweet spot".

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Value of Free

How do you put a value on the products created through open source? Do you consider all the time spent crafting quality software? Take into account your own effort in advocating its use? Charge for packaging and a profit margin? How, exactly, would Best Buy have come to the conclusion that Ubuntu Linux is worth $19.99? I think the answer is fairly simple: they guessed.*

You see, putting a price on open source is about as difficult as nailing jelly to a tree. You could charge in the ballpark of competing software (Windows Vista, which starts at $199.99 and runs up to $299.99), but I'll bet people would balk at that, with claims about it being available free, you can't sell open source for that kind of money, and so forth. Although, a Red Hat Enterprise edition will run you about $349 (with 1 year support), and that's built on open source.

Maybe it's because Red Hat sells it; a company that has put a lot of effort and code into the product. I can buy that (literally). Here's a company that's been involved in open source for about as long as Linux has been around. They deserve to sell free software, and make a profit from it. Okay, now how about Dell? They sell Red Hat and Ubuntu on some of their systems, and just a quick comparison of systems shows me that Ubuntu costs an extra $20 over a Windows-based system (check out their Desktop Inspiron). Not bad, for a free OS, but I think they seriously undervalue it. Would there be an outcry if they charged Vista prices?

According to the text printed right on every Ubuntu CD, "You are encouraged and legally entitled to copy, reinstall, modify, and redistribute this CD". Does this include selling the CD, instead of just sharing it with friends, colleagues and neighbours? Well, let's look at the licensing. In general, the software included with Ubuntu is licensed under the GPL or the LGPL. If we look carefully at the GPL (v2.0), the third paragraph of the Preamble states:

...if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis
or for a fee...
Gratis being distributing for free, and "for a fee" pretty much says you can sell software licensed under the GPL. How about the LGPL? Strangely, that same phrase appears in the Preamble (v2.0). Under the newer GPL 3.0 and LGPL 3.0, they've moved this language around, but it still exists.

Why all the fuss over whether you can sell something that is free? How fair is it if a company like Best Buy starts distributing open source software and is actually making a profit from it? According to the licensing, it is perfectly fair! Maybe not 100% ethical, but fair! Personally, I'd like to see them donate something of their proceeds back to the open source projects they affect, but they aren't obligated.

Another way to look at it is to consider how much Ubuntu (for example) would benefit from Best Buy or Dell even giving their product away (like the text on the CD says -- share it around). It's all market share, and increased awareness, so it is irrelevant if a vendor charges $19.99 or a more competitive $199.99. Consider the old adage, "You get what you pay for." When it comes to free software, does this hold true? In many people's minds, this is the perception. Through Best Buy, Dell or anyone else putting a value on Ubuntu Linux, it changes consumer perception. I think they're being very fair in pricing open source low, due to it's availability for free, but at the same time I value the fact that they are raising consumer awareness of open source, regardless of their own profit motives. The actual worth of the product becomes a moot point; once an individual is exposed to open source, they usually become fans pretty quickly. Look at the Firefox phenomenon.

Personally, I think this is an idea that really needs to be exploited by open source advocates of all sorts. Think the open source products you use are good enough to compete in the market? Sell it to the masses! If you feel the need to give your profits back into the community, all the better. The market -- and the community -- will decide if your move has been worthwhile, and your success will ride on how you handle the diplomatic introduction of open source to a whole new world of users.

*I still think the price is somewhat arbitrary, but I'm pleased to find I'm wrong about the lack of connection to Canonical, and that the boxed set actually comes with 60 days support. Here's a link I failed to read prior to this post.

Monday, April 21, 2008

It's All Been Done Before

I'm astonished at the tenacity of Windows users. I'm dismayed at the loyalty of OEM manufacturers, willing to foist Windows upon their unwitting users, all in the name of profit.

Recently, I helped configure a brand new HP Media Centre PC for a client of mine. Nothing terribly difficult, just a problem with a DVI-VGA adapter that the client didn't know he needed to use to connect the widescreen 22” monitor. After getting the system up and running, I noted Symantec had various stages to complete for it's installer, and walked through the steps to ensure the PC was in a secure state. Naturally, Vista Home Premium had been preinstalled and the Symantec Norton Internet Security package was available for 60 days' use, which the client wanted to take advantage of.

Everything went fairly smoothly, and the client was mostly happy (aside from the speed with which Vista was responding; for a fast, top-of-the-line computer, he expected a bit more zip). He liked the service I provided enough to ask about his old computer, and if I could get the old computer up and running again so he could use it as a backup. I said I'd take a look.

The old computer was only a couple of years old, and also an HP. Windows wouldn't even boot, missing some critical system file. The emergency repair partition can only be used to completely wipe the system, so that was of no use in restoring critical system files, and of course the client had never made recovery CDs. I found later this may not have helped anyway: the system was infested with spyware and viruses and would likely self-implode within the first couple of boots and need to be fixed again. So I did what any good technician should do, and booted the system with a live Linux CD.

After repairing the NTFS filesystem enough to recover any documents and data files that may be of interest to the client, I let the HP recovery partition do it's work of reinstalling the system to a pristine install. On this PC, however, I did not enable the Symantec offering. Instead, I opted to install a free antivirus, AVG Free Edition, and made sure it updates itself daily. I also installed SpyBot S&D, and immunized the system right from the start.

When I returned the old system, with most data and documents intact, my client had a simple question for me. "How do I get rid of all these popups?" he asked. He had had the computer less than a week at this point, and already he was getting multiple popups! I examined the new computer for a bit, and found he had been infected with something called Virtumonde, which had taken the liberty of disabling the wonderful Symantec package I had taken the time (on my last visit) to enable. I downloaded SpyBot S&D, installed, immunized, updated, immunized again, and did a complete scan of the system. No less than 48 problems were found, not much by most spyware-infected standards, but it was only a week!

I cleaned things up for him, and got Symantec running again. I would have offered him a Ubuntu Linux installation free of charge, but I had found out recently that the network card used in these new HP Media Centre PCs just doesn't appear to be compatible (yet). Otherwise, all he's doing with his PC is watching movies, listening to music, email and web surfing. Oh, and getting spyware.

If this were any other product (a car, a fridge, a television, even a VCR) you'd take it back to where you got it and ream out the store you bought it from for selling such a shoddy product. I'm not just picking on HP, it's all major vendors that ship their computers with Windows preinstalled. But this shoddy product -- Windows -- is acceptable and normal for computer users. They expect their computers to not work, or to have problems. They expect to have to pay someone like me to come and take care of them.

When I can help them, I do: I give them a working computer; I give them Linux if their PC is compatible. And I tell them Linux is free.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Vapourware is defined as "a software or hardware product which is announced by a developer well in advance of release, but which then fails to emerge, either with or without a protracted development cycle. The term implies unwarranted optimism, or sometimes even deception". In other words, software that promises users the sun, moon and stars, but never comes to fruition. Even if the software does make it into the light of day, it doesn't do most of what it was purported to.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of this in the world of software, and it is an oft-used tactic to keep users from switching to another available option. If you'll just please wait for the release of this wonderful new software, it will do everything the other brand does, and more! Our current offering doesn't provide this feature, but just wait until the next release, it will be better than sliced bread!

One fine example of vapourware can be taken from the world of open source. Specifically, the new and improved gaming console once conceived of as the Indrema gaming system. Here's where vapourware manifested itself in hardware. Indrema promised a whole new type of gaming console; one that is based on open standards; one that uses Linux as its base; one that would be capable of replacing your other consoles through emulation. In theory, it was an idea way ahead of its time. Just look at the proliferation of hacks to run Linux on virtually every gaming console available (the latest breakthrough being the hack to run Linux natively on the Wii). Sadly, the Indrema was too ambitious and lacked the funding to make good on its promises.

OpenOffice is another project that seems to uphold this vapourware tradition. From as early as 2003, users of OpenOffice were told import of WordPerfect documents would be available real soon now through libwpd. Sure, they have it, and it works fine for basic tables and text, but where do all the graphics disappear to, even in versions as recent as OpenOffice 2.3? Now, you could argue that at least the OpenOffice team has done their best at implementing what they can from the WordPerfect document schema, but full importing of archival WordPerfect documents is still a pipe dream.

Corel, for it's part, could have had a much greater impact on this situation, had it chosen to do so. Instead, we have the evaporated WordPerfect for Linux and CorelOS to look back at. CorelOS delivered on a lot of what was promised, and yet due to financial difficulties, and dubious associations with Microsoft, it was dropped (now in the incarnation of Xandros, the OS lives on). WordPerfect for Linux, on the other hand, was never what it could have been, and if it was promised to be a Linux-based equal to WordPerfect on any other platform, it very poorly missed the mark.

Not being the sort that likes to bash the efforts of any open source endeavour (because I really do think this method of development holds the key to future innovations and progress in computing), I feel the need to point out at least one of Microsoft's vapourware announcements. How about Bob, anyone? I'm sorry, I guess Bob was real – a real embarrassment for Microsoft, and now virtually buried down some deep, dank Internet hole. How about something recent? Vista, maybe? Yes, I think it's fair to point out that Vista has a great deal of vapour surrounding it.

Let's start with WinFS, which was promised to Microsoft users back in 2003. Microsoft has had users on the hook for a while with that one, hoping they would be able to organize and locate their files with such greater ease because of the improved file system. How about Aero, the new and improved Vista graphics interface, for Windows XP? They promised it. That seems to have only made it into premium editions of Vista. Did delivery deadlines and the inability to make it work with the underlying bulk of Windows proved too much for even Microsoft's vast resources to be able to save? How about hobbling Vista from the PC-to-PC synchronization feature that once was in the beta version of the program?

Too often, software makers put out promises of “the next best thing” being right around the corner. Many times, they don't deliver. Overall, openly developed software provides the best hope of actually providing what users want to see. If there is real demand for a feature, any interested party can fund development of that particular feature; or, in the case of a talented individual, they can simply do it themselves. Even if the original developer disappears off the development scene, the code can be recycled and made into whatever the end users need of it. With closed software, regardless of who develops it or what promises they've made, there is never end control on the part of the end user. What you get is what they provide.

Instead of putting off that buying decision the next time a future version of software is announced, why not have a look around and see if you can find similar features in an open source project, and support the development of something that fits your needs – and your budget – for now, and into the future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

OLPC: Virus Free

I didn't intend for OLPC to become one of my favourite topics, I just happen to notice a lot going on about it in the press, and sadly a lot of it is just plain wrong.

Take, for example, a recent article by Sam Varghese, entitled "OLPC: one virus per child". I won't link to the article, because it is extremely misleading, in my opinion, and doesn't deserve the clicks. In short, the article surmises that because Microsoft is working hard to provide Windows XP for the XO Laptop and Nicholas Negroponte made a comment about reorganizing the One Laptop Per Child organization to be run "more like Microsoft", the XO Laptop is doomed to be a vessel for spreading computer viruses worldwide.

I fail to see how Mr Varghese links Microsoft providing XP for the XO Laptop and Negroponte's quote that the organization needs to be run "more like Microsoft". The one has nothing to do with the other, and he's clearly taken both out of context to support his inane argument.

Nowhere in the BusinessWeek article he uses as reference does Negoponte say the XO Laptop or the goals of providing that laptop need to change to suit Microsoft or any other proprietary operating system. What he does say is that the organization needs to function more like the most successful software company in the world; like it or not, that is Microsoft, and emulating the way they market and operate would be a major benefit to the One Laptop Per Child effort.

Assuming that this statement means OLPC will be changing direction to provide a proprietary OS for every laptop -- essentially abandoning all the work done previously -- is extremely narrow-minded and naive. It also ignores the principles behind the XO Laptop: "We want the child to interact with the laptop on as deep a level as he or she desires. Children program the machine, not the other way around."

Saturday, March 8, 2008

iPhone, You Phone, OpenMoko!

With all the hype surrounding the iPhone, it's time to consider what this little wonder can really do as a replacement for your portable computer. Of course, iPhone isn't the only player in the market, just the most popular. Apple certainly has a way of getting their name out and making a big splash with their products. The open source and open hardware project OpenMoko, however, promises to be everything the iPhone is and more.

Now let's get beyond the "way cool" bling of the iPhone, for just a moment. I know it's difficult, with it's simple gesture-based interface and it's sleek graphics and text handling, but let's focus on utility here. Essentially, what the iPhone does is makes phone calls, send SMS messages, and let you play around with ringtones, themes and pictures on your phone. Secondary features are music, video and WiFi (yes, a very nice features to have in a phone). Finally, making full use of that WiFi, are the applications you can run on the iPhone: web browsers, mail, maps, YouTube and so on.

The thinking that went into this device is phenomenal: multitouch screen, automatic orientation to landscape when you rotate the phone, proximity sensor for detecting when you're talking on the phone (so you don't take pictures of your ear), simple WiFi interface, OS X multitasking core, smart widgets, web applications to extend its functionality -- in short, it's got features most full-blown PCs don't have.

All of this is locked into a device controlled by one company: Apple.

Now let's consider an alternative: OpenMoko. Just what is OpenMoko? From the OpenMoko site:

The Neo 1973 runs totally Free Software...The Neo was specifically designed with openness and ease of developer-access from very start.

That's a pretty powerful statement. The first OpenMoko phone, the Neo 1973 is just the beginning. It's a totally open, user-accessible device. You can change the software it runs, you can add hardware, you can "tinker" with the device to your heart's content and make the phone truly yours. All the specs, all the software, everything is available for anyone interested, all under an open license that doesn't restrict how you use your phone.

Right now, the features in the developer model are fairly decent. The hardware is fairly typical of a common cell phone: SD card slot, built-in AGPS (as compared to the iPhone's WiFi locating techniques), a large photo-quality screen (although only single touch), enough memory for most uses, and the most open computing architecture available for these devices. Fairly boring stuff, really. What's exciting is the way this product is being developed. "If you can't open it, you don't own it" is what they believe.

The software end of things is where the OpenMoko gets really interesting. Developed using the open source model, all the code for the underlying OS and applications is being developed right out in the open. Anyone who wants to participate in shaping the way this device works is welcome. The code is there, and you can make this little gadget do anything you want. You want bling? You got it. You want business apps? Go ahead! This is a third party add-on company's dream! Imagine being able to fit your custom application into a phone that anyone can download your software on to. You don't have to sign a licensing agreement with Apple, or Nokia, or even a phone server provider like Bell or Telus.

OpenMoko is still just beginning, but the potential to be so much more than the iPhone is incredible. With the opportunity to truly innovate in the cell phone market, entirely new interfaces, applications and possibilities open up, and can stimulate growth in the industry.

Welcome to the opening of the cell phone market and customizable phones. Your phone is ringing.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

OLPC A Good Idea, Badly Misunderstood

MrCopilot: OLPC A Good Idea, Badly Misunderstood

In case anyone is of the mistaken impression my earlier take on the OLPC (XO Laptop) was a negative (trying to shoehorn XP onto the little thing), I invite you to visit MrCopilot for an excellent article.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

I recently came across some Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) information Microsoft has published on their website, showing how using Windows Server gives you a better Return On Investment (ROI) than Linux. Given the ubiquity of Microsoft Windows, you may think that what they have to say would hold a good deal of truth to it. I think the truth is a little closer to "Microsoft makes it as expensive as possible to break out of the lock-in their products create."

The whole "package" the site is selling (Windows Server) is put together very nicely, but there is strikingly little hard data available. But we'll use what's there, without digging into the allegorical studies they've conveniently linked. Remember: there are two sides to every story, and Microsoft is known to lie on occasion. Even to a judge, on one occasion. During a trial in which they were convicted of being an abusive monopolist. But I digress.

Have a look at Microsoft's numbers in the TCO section of their site. What if you tried another server that has better uptime than Microsoft's servers that had just 1% better uptime? Suddenly, all the figures change -- and if you use a pie chart to express this, it really looks like that staffing figure balloons by about 5% for a change of 1% to uptime. And the training component? Wait a second here... the Windows platform gets an upgrade anywhere between every 3 and 5 years, so doesn't this get repeated every couple of years? And don't tell me Vista is exactly the same as XP, so no training is required. Once you know a POSIX-based OS (including Mac OS X, Linux, UNIX, FreeBSD, etc.) you've got pretty much all you need as you move through different upgrade levels. Even better, you can upgrade when you're ready, not on Microsoft's time schedule. Another point: upgrading something like a Linux OS will typically not require more hardware resources. Try squeeze Vista onto any 3 year old computer and see what happens.

Straight from Microsoft:

Choosing a reliable platform that’s easy to manage and maintain reduces the direct costs of reacting to downtime as well as the costs associated with end-user productivity.

Of course, avoiding that downtime is even better. When is the last time your IT team had to take down the Exchange server because of a virus, or due to some critical maintenance issue? Check this against your ISP, which probably uses a UNIX/Linux-type system. I'm just guessing your ISP handles a lot more email than your average company, and I can't even recall the last time I had a problem getting email from an ISP. UNIX/Linux and other POSIX-based systems just aren't prone to viruses the way Windows is. POSIX-based systems were designed to be used by many people, often all at once. Windows was designed to put a pretty face on DOS, and has grown up with that legacy. To get anything done, you have to use it with administrative privileges.

Reliability: getting your computers to do what you want, when you want them to. Is Windows easy to configure? Yes, as long as it's within the parameters of what the GUI says it can do. Otherwise, wade through the Registry and figure out the extra tweaking options. Linux and alternatives become easier to maintain day by day, even if you do have to edit a text file; the files are usually much smaller and better organized (and commented, even) than the Windows Registry. And once it's configured, you can rest in peace, knowing it will work consistently, even across security patches.

Okay, so maybe Microsoft's OSes aren't really the cheapest or most reliable, maybe they are. They're the most secure, right? So go ahead, run your Windows Desktop or Server without antivirus or antimalware software. Microsoft is secure, so this isn't an issue. Now back to reality: Microsoft has one of the worst track records for security in the computing industry. Thousands of viruses, trojans, spyware and the like infest the Internet, at times causing major slowdowns and disruptions to organizations and individual users. Yes, other platforms have problems occasionally, and you can argue that it's because there are so many Windows systems out there by comparison. But I would pick a Linux computer without antivirus over a Windows computer without antivirus any day. The basic security model of Windows is just flawed.

Linux is developed using an open development model; the code is put out in the open, where thousands of eyes can look at it and scrutinize it, like the way the scientific community scrutinizes new discoveries and papers. It puts warts and all out in the open, so that while the "bad guys" can figure out how to exploit a problem, there are dozens (if not more) "good guys" at work fixing the problems. Microsoft keeps these warts hidden, and from experience we know there are many. Just because they only disclose the ones they know they have a fix for, or are forced to disclose those that clever hackers find, doesn't make Microsoft's security model better.

Try running Windows without using an administrative account for a month and see how user friendly it is. That may be more secure, but you can't do much with it. Which is my final argument for the security (or lack thereof) comparisons Microsoft likes to expound, comparing it to the likes of Red Hat, Ubuntu or Debian systems. Any of these Linux-based distributions comes with everything you could possibly need to run on your computer, quite often free of charge (Red Hat charges for add-on service for their products). And Microsoft counts every little bug in each of them as a security flaw multiple times. Even though Microsoft Windows doesn't come with an office suite by default (you have to buy that later), they count the bugs in things like as being bugs in all of the comparison OSes. Even though the same bug may affect Konqueror, Firefox, Epiphany and other open source web browsers, Microsoft will include these stats individually in comparing their security to Internet Explorer.

Microsoft loves to tell you how much choice you have with the Windows OS. Supported by the most vendors, served by the largest number of certified technicians, etc. What would you expect of the vendor with 95% of the market? If they didn't have this kind of stuff in place, they wouldn't be around long. Especially with the amount of support needed to keep a Windows computing environment functional. I mean, just start out with having to purchase the firewalls, antivirus, antimalware, office suites, mail servers, terminal servers, file servers, application servers, hire the staff to look after all that and you've got quite a support network. Now, take the first 8 items I mentioned there and put the money back in your pocket. Use a free Linux-based solution for each of those, and hire the right people to take care of it all (they're out there, and they're not that hard to find).

MCSEs are a dime a dozen, and usually worth about that much. Their certification only lasts until the next Microsoft product comes out to replace the one they certified on, and the new software, I guarantee, has things they don't know squat about. Grab a qualified Linux professional and you've found someone who knows how to problem solve, how to learn, how to adapt to any given situation. The base of a Linux system has remained stable for years, and figuring out one Linux compared to another isn't that difficult when you know what you're looking for. You may be able to customize the hell out of a Linux server, but you don't need to to make it work like a Windows server. The fact that you can makes its value all the more, not an added expense.

How would you like your IT guys to be able to check in on any server or desktop right from their office? See detailed information on what the processors are doing, add a software package, or just remotely control the user's desktop that's having trouble finding a lost document? Sounds like some expensive Microsoft solution, doesn't it? How about, it's a built-in feature of most Linux configurations? While it is true that Enterprise management solutions for Linux are "slim pickings" and maybe not as well-rounded (aka. slick-looking) as the Microsoft Windows options, you can just plain do more with a Linux system by remote than you would ever imagine with a Windows system. You are really only limited by your IT staff's imagination. How's that for manageability?

Such a big word to mean so little, coming from Microsoft. Interoperability to Microsoft means being able to work with their servers, their file formats, their authentication systems, their world. And since they run their world, of course they are interoperable with it. Microsoft has a long history of "embrace, extend, extinguish" and this is just another facet of that behaviour. Microsoft has embraced things like Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and Kerberos authentication in their Active Directory Services (ADS), extended their use enough that it is a proprietary secret how to achieve full authentication, then locked out any alternative from being able to work with it. That last part, they've achieved pretty well, aside from those tenacious open source folks, who've worked around the problem in dozens of ways, in the name of interoperability.

They've done the same thing with the Web. Any web browser should be able to view any site. Instead, we have sites that exclude anything but Internet Explorer, and even some sites that exclude all but specific versions. The amount of pressure Microsoft is able to put on users without most of them even realizing it is incredible. They provide a "free" browser with their OS, and users never realize they are seeing a side of the Web unavailable if they switch; and if they do switch, it's nearly impossible to get some sites to work, leaving the impression the alternative product is somehow defective.

So Microsoft owns the game, and they don't really want any other players. Which is probably why they're currently trying to buy Yahoo! And they have the money to do it. Hell, they even lied to a judge and tried to get away with it. Come to think of it, I'd say they did.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Linux Inside Windows?

Here's a little link that doesn't do exactly that, but it does allow you to install Linux as if it was an application within Windows. You know, for those of you who still wish to "try before you buy" but don't want to burn a CD. Just follow the download link!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Windows Still Isn't Linux

Its ironic how there are so many users who cling to Microsoft Windows and then proudly tout that the first thing they do is run out and load up on free or open source applications. Every year, we see lists of "best free apps" or "essential apps" for Windows, and every year, the apps become more and more like watered-down versions of what is available on almost any Linux-based system.

Office suite? Yeah, OpenOffice pretty much rules this space. There are nice light word processors and spreadsheets out there, but nothing beats the sheer magnitude of what's available for OpenOffice. Especially since its template compatible with Microsoft's Office suite. And since I use a Debian-based Linux, its all in my repositories, ready to install at the click of a mouse. Synaptic is your friend!

For your torrent needs (and these days, it is a reality that p2p is here to stay), there are so many options on Linux choice is your biggest problem. Personally, I prefer qtorrent, but azureus is also a big hit here with functionality galore.

VoIP software? Ekiga is a nice default in the GNOME environment, but for cross-platform Skype is probably the best bet. Although not up to it's counterparts in the Windows and Mac arenas, the Linux version is a hefty contender, and easily installed on most systems.

Everyone has a favourite paint program, and on Linux there are a few nice ones to choose from. The options range from the basic xpaint, just to get the job done, to the GIMP, an Adobe Photoshop contender. You can, of course, get by with the fun TuxPaint, designed to be kid-friendly and easy to use. For many simple drawing jobs, why not have fun while you doodle?

For raster-based graphics, there are even more options: OpenOffice Draw, Xara Extreme, Inkscape, Karbon14, just to name a few. Personally, I find the OpenOffice Draw program more than meets my needs. I even use it for basic desktop publishing layouts and generate PDFs directly from within the program.

With a wealth of graphics programs in Linux, you'd come to expect something simple like a photo manipulation program or resizing tool would be a natural, right? Right! Not only is there ImageMagick for doing just about anything you could want to your images, there's F-Spot, digiKam and a whole host of other programs for organizing and retouching your photos. You're not locked into the software that came with your camera to get the best out of it!

Media players have grown out of necessity on the Linux platform. Who can live without such things as music, videos and online content? Since most of the proprietary software world seems to shy away from open source, many options for playing MP3s, AVIs, MOVs and MPGs have sprung up, including the fabulous Amarok, Mplayer, Video Lan Client (VLC), Xine and the Totem media players. Each has it's own highlights and dark sides, but the wonderful thing is they all continue to get better thanks to the open source development model. HD and Blu-Ray may presently be an issue, but given time, I predict the media players for Linux will easily meet the demand for high definition content.

I'm only going to touch on archiving software in Linux. There are plenty of tools for just about anything you could want to open, including formats Windows users never even see. And there are GUIs to make it all seamless.

Oddly, a popular category of tool in Windows is what I'll call the "cleanup tool". These are those little gems that work through your registry to get rid of the old forgotten bits of bloat that old programs left, or remove the viruses from your email, or keep the spyware from putting all thos annoying popups on your screen. They're a Windows problem, so there is not a good Linux-based analogy, and certainly no similar tools. Yes, old programs can leave their configurations behind if you don't tell the program to uninstall everything; but that would be the point: you have the option in Linux (at least on an APT-managed system) of removing EVERYTHING a program installed. Even if you don't remove the configurations of that program you tried just briefly and no longer want, it won't slow you down. There is no central registry in Linux, so the configs do no harm but taking up a tiny portion of that huge hard drive you have.

There are, of course, a myriad of tools for inspecting the state of your system. Process monitors, CPU frequency meters, hard drive spin rate monitors, and the list goes on. One thing the people who work on Linux like is to be able to see what's going on under the hood. And they have the most interesting ways of showing that off visually. Everything from little toolbars to desklets to animated fish.

So yes, you can go out and buy a new PC and have it loaded with Vista and get a lot of bling for your buck, then save some cash by downloading everything under the sun (and please remember the antivirus and antispyware and firewall FIRST). Or you can try something else just as new to you: Linux. Its good. Its ready. Its free.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It's Not You, It's The Computer

The Problem

Have you ever been told this, when a computer technician crosses your path on the road to PC recovery? How many times have little things about a computer system left you totally lost? For example, you boot your computer one day and instead of your Desktop you are met with the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD):

The first thing a technician will probably ask you is, "What did you do to your computer last?" Unfortunately, more and more this line of questioning is pointless. Users don't need to do anything to their computers in order to be faced with cryptic messages with unintuitive solutions. Thanks to malware and poor software design, this kind of message can occur almost randomly, and can be costly to fix if you can't figure out what the message is trying to tell you.

Even something as simple as moving your files to a new computer can create issues. One would expect, for instance, that the Microsoft Files and Settings Transfer (FAST) Wizard might copy all of your files and settings from your old computer to you new computer. Unfortunately, this is not always the case; recently, while transferring files from one computer to the next, a client of mine couldn't figure out where the Outlook 2003 settings and address book had gone. It seems FAST decided to only copy over settings from Outlook Express, not Outlook 2003.

Another lady I ran into thought she had lost some of her files. She had just copied some PDFs that a friend had made for her into her My Documents. Ever since, she couldn't find some of her Word files when opening that folder. When she opened Word first, they were there, but she just couldn't find them by opening the folder. Telling the folder to change the view and sort by name suddenly made all of her files reappear (the new files had overlapped the older files).

Windows isn't the only platform to behave badly, mind you. Using OS X, one user I ran into had a problem with disk space constantly disappearing. No warning of what was happening, no obvious tell-tale signs. Just an expired .Mac account with an iDisk that kept trying to back up whatever was stored online, but not enough drive space to do it with. Macs are great, but sometimes they try too hard to be user friendly.

For the Linux users out there, obviously problems occur sometimes, too. Not able to drag and drop when you might expect, spell-checking that doesn't work in the language you set, unexplained glitches in the boot process that leave you at a command prompt without explanation. Yes, with the help of the community-oriented model, these kinds of problems get fixed (probably) faster than on the commercial OSes, but the problems do exist, no matter how temporary.

The Solution

I think every programmer out there should be forced to sit with a real user for just one day. Okay, that may be a bit excessive, but for any programmer to try design something for use by an "ordinary" person, they need to try change perspectives. Maybe even stop thinking logically for just a bit, and try to intuit the next step. Does anyone read a manual before picking up a pencil? Yes, you need to learn to draw circles and other shapes before you write, but using the pencil still works even if you scribble.

Interfaces should be so simple a child can use them, without being trained for years. Using the interface incorrectly shouldn't cause major headaches for users. And it shouldn't break the interface. More thought needs to go into what makes good applications and good interfaces. There are many sites that echo this thought, and I won't go over all of their findings here. The simple fact remains: what we have now isn't bad, but it's a far cry from making computing as universal as the lowly pencil. Heck, most of us are still using keyboards designed to slow you down so you don't break the machine.

The Future

As we move into the very real possibility of interacting with computers in a three dimensional world (Wii, anyone?), we need to begin rethinking how we interact with computers, and make the interface more in tune with the way we think.

How will the current paradigms shift in a world where we can virtually grasp objects and manipulate them exactly the way we do any other tool in our world? If things don't change, we may never see this reality. Instead, it may be blotted out with a guru meditation or kernel panic message. Or worse: the Blue Screen of (Virtual) Death?