Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Windows vs Linux: Are we still fighting yesterday's war?

Linux-cluttered-desktop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Energy Blue desktop, featuring the new Royale ...
A similarly cluttered Windows desktop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I use Linux on my desktop daily, both at work and at home. I avoid Windows as much as possible but I also use them every day. I use them every day because everybody else is using Windows and my job is to help people make most of their PCs. Do I wish they were on Linux? Yes. Have I tried to convert them to Linux?No. That may seem odd but I have done the opposite in the past. I have converted some of my users to Linux. They were happy, productive and caused me few problems. But most of them have gone back to Windows. They admit missing Linux and it's stability and speed of  start-up. They miss having things that are working, just work and keep on working. But they all have gone back for the same reason. It's not Windows.
I ask myself why do I use Linux and not follow the crowd with Windows. The biggest reason is that it's free and I can do so much with free software. The reason most people use Windows is because it's what they are used to. I realize that I am also like them. I am used to Linux. And changing what we are used to is the biggest hurdle to moving from Windows to Linux.
For many years, Linux advocates, yours truly included, have been declaring that the next year will be the year of the Linux desktop. But even with it plethora of quality free software and increasing ease of use, the Linux desktop has still not grown. The effort seemed to go somewhere when Linux powered netbooks were gaining global popularity. People love the first netbooks so much that they didn't care about the OS. As long as it served their purpose, whether it is keeping files on the go, quick editing of photos or portable Internet access, people didn't care. They were cheap, portable and could be used longer than most notebooks. The popularity of these netbooks forced Microsoft to do the unthinkable, backtrack on Vista and extend Windows XP's life (that and the fact that businesses were not budging either). Now given a choice of something familiar (Windows XP, for most people) vs something strange (simplified version of Linux), guess which one people would choose, even for a little bit more money.
So, the dominance of Windows was extended. What ever ground gained was lost by Windows was regained by the time the early adopters got their second netbook, which was as soon as they got tired of dealing with the 8GB solid state hard dis. Really soon. To add insult to injury, Windows 7 looked more like KDE  the more you looked at it. 
So is all lost? Is Linux on the desktop going to be within the realm of the technically competent and those who wish to extend the life of their old machines? Will Linux remain the distant third on the desktop (after MacOS) forever?
Today I realized that there are more users using Linux in the office than there were six months ago. Triple, in fact. But they are not using it on the desktop. They are using it on their mobiles phones. A few just got the latest tablets. Some people will call this cheating, calling Android a version of Linux or that mobile phones don't count. It doesn't matter. Android isn't shy about it's Linux roots. In fact, it points to it's use of the Linux kernel as the reason for it's stability.
To make people change, there has to be a driver, an impetus. A reason. Why not work on a way to introduce more people to Linux via Android. Point out that they already use Linux on the phone. Why not try it on the desktop? Doesn't Apple's owe some of it's popularity to the dominance of it's iPhones and iPads? How many people switched to the MacOS because they like their iPhones or iPads? How many people bought Macs because of it's exclusive image, to be part of the in-crowd? These are all reasons for change and people are changing.
I love open source and my wish is to have more people use it. The more people uses open source, the more other people want to contribute to open source. The more, the merrier. 
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Linux to the Rescue... Again

The least favorable job a Linux guy can get is... supporting newbie Windows users. While we live in a virus-free, relatively trojan-less environment, our Windows brethren are waist deep in shady toolbars, gotcha embedded web auto-downloads and the un-safe USB drives. It tickles me to no end when a web pop-up tries to convince me that I am looking at my files in windows explorer..on Linux. And while we may feel smug in the knowledge that our understanding of the underlying technology and Internet services allow us to take the necessary precautions, it is these skills that we are often employed to get Windows users back to being productive in the office.
While Linux-To-The-Rescue meant in the past safe partition resizing courtesy of parted (and later libparted-powered tools), all encompassing backups of partitionimage and harrowing hard disk ER with Photorec and Testdisk,  for a long time, virus and malware recovery work tools were limited to ClamAV, which itself it rather limited and really designed to detect viruses in e-mail.
Boot up screen - Notice the Memtest86+ memory tester
Well, now we have new hero on the block: AVG Rescue CD. I had thought about something along these lines some time ago. With the lawlessness of Windows of a few years ago, between Microsoft threatening to turn it's back on XP one more time (favoring Vista against user's wishes) and the overwhelming rejection of the business community to Vista, viruses and trojans seem to propagate at will; building botnets that continue to be reconstituted past when their mother ship has been detroyed. They were getting wilder too, being able to evade (literally) virus scans or rendering installed (but not updated) virus scanners impotent. I had a talk with friends at PandaSecurity about the viability of building a live cd around their command line scanner version that would mount windows partitions and scan them a few years ago. This is the best time to catch the trojans and virus, knife them when they are asleep. I had a problem with malware on my work PC's Windows partition. I ended up booting up from the Linux partition and trying to find the offending files using Clamav. This was before the age of writable NTFS (courtesy of ntfs-3g). So it was a cycle of scanning on Linux, copying down the location of the infected files, booting into Windows in SafeMode and deleting the file and back to booting on Linux and scanning again. Repeat until ClamAV found no more and then I would boot into Windows properly and run the updated Windows antivirus. It took a course of two days.
Main Menu
I heard nothing back from Panda. But a few months back, Panda also came out with a working LiveCD version that you can boot into and scan the PC with. I've used Panda's and AVG's and for now, I prefer AVG's LiveCD because it is light, works quickly to boot up, easy to update the pattern and program, has a character-based menu driven interface and is compatible with a lot of network hardware. It wasn't as compatible a few versions ago  (not recognizing some on-board NIC), but even then it worked on more computers than the Panda Security version. Panda's LiveCD's  GUI demands, which I think uses direct VESA / framebuffer rendering, makes it incompatible with a lot of PCs I use. AVG also bundles some tools commonly found on standard Linux recovery CDs like, PhotoRec and TestDisk. Both of these solutions read the disk in it's entirety and takes a long time to finish (read: hours). Users can't work on anything while it is running either (although one friend did marvel at what he could do with the Links text-based web browser on the AVG version that supports console switching). Users hate to wait but then again, it's their fault they run Windows. :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wide Pictures and Bad Packages: A Hugin tale

I love my Kodak Z1012. Specifically I love it's in-camera panorama picture auto-stitching feature. I've tried some of the newer cameras' click and sweep panorama picture feature and I am not impressed. The quality is a bit off, like it was a video grab instead of a static picture. Nothing as good as the quality in the picture below which is built from three snaps.
Interesting cloud formation in an afternoon sky
It happened that I was out on a trip and my significant other asked me to stop so that she could take in a nice panoramic view. The road was narrow and downhill, so I stayed in the car while she stood out and took a deep breath. And a few snaps, none of which used the panorama feature. When we got home I realized what had happened and decided this was the opportunity to try out Hugin, a photo stitcher that was featured in Linux Format. There was even a tutorial the for it in the following issue. It is useful as both a straight forward stitcher to create panoramic picture or to create some truly interesting photos. Besides, it had to be good because it was good enough to raise patent violation concerns.
So I started by installing Hugin. Except that the Mandriva Software Manager, powered by urpmi and rpm, said that it couldn't figure out where to get a particular library file. Not the first time this has happened to me, I just copied the name of the file and fed it to rpm.pbone.net, THE place for RPMS. It gave me the name of the Mandriva package and a link where I could download it. I was tempted to click on the file and have Software Manager install it. But I also know that when I do that, it does not check for dependencies. So that would open a whole can of worms.
So I found the same package in Software Manager and installed it that way. I tried installing Hugin again but this time it flat out refused. It didn't complain about the missing library. It just said that it can't install. I was getting annoyed but quickly realized that there was a way. The old-fashioned way.
Rpm.pbone.net has a feature that can check for missing files that are required by a package. It does require enabling Javascript. What it does is that it just looks for them on your hard disk. If it can't find it on your disk, rpm.pbone.net will provide a link to the package that offers the file. Nice.
So I settled on the following process.
  1. Select a file that rpm.pbone.net says hugin needs but I don't have.
  2. Click on the filename to search for that package that has it 
  3. Find the package in Software Manager and install it. 
  4. Re-run the check for missing required files
  5. Go to 1. if there are any missing files.
I like to work according to a process. Sure, I could bulldoze thru and install hugin from the console and fix each errors that pops up. Or worse still, build from source. Been there done, done that. But running through a process like the above gives my head enough space to look at my work for flaws and deal with them. It also gives me a way to backtrack in case I do something wrong. 
Well, I did found something strange. Some of the files the package requires are provided by the package itself. That is, if I click on that missing file, it would say that I need hugin installed for hugin to install. Talk about circular reasoning. It seems that whoever packaged Hugin for Mandriva, got their RPM pre-packaging info files wrong. Another tell-tale sign that the packager messed up is that the Hugin package also requires /bin/sh. Seen that before on other bad packages. Smelled like a bad cut and paste job.
After installing all the of the files rpm.pbone.net found through SoftwareManager, I downloaded hugin from rpm.pbone.net and installed it (Software Manager/urpmi auto adding --no-deps).
It worked like a charm. Hugin, that is. I'm still fiddling with it to come out with a good picture. It works like a charm but has a KDE-esque number of configuration options.
Now where is that tutorial?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The real legacy of Steve Jobs

When people are going to talk about Steve Jobs, they will most likely point to his most recent successes at Apple, notably the iPad and the iPhone. They will talk about it bringing computing and the Internet to the masses, beyond the 'computer literate' or even the 'computer interested'. They will point out how it made using a computer be so natural that we have stopped talking about using a computer to just simply using it for something.
Some will even look beyond that and talk about him and the Macintosh. They will talk about how the Mac brought the GUI and the mouse to forefront and raised the standard of which how people expect to work with computers. Xerox PARC may have invented it, but it was the Macintosh that captured the imagination. People talking about Jobs will highlight the success of the Macintosh popularizing 'fringe' standards like a network connection built-in rather than as an add-on card and the 3.5 in floppy disk.
But to truly comprehend Steve Job's influence on computing and personal computers, you have to go back to the beginning. You have to go back to when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak set out to build and sell the first pre-assembled personal computer. Somewhere then, a spark went off that convinced a young Steve Jobs that this was what he wanted to do. This was what he wanted to shape and influence. This was where he would put his stamp on this world. This was his domain.
Apple Computer and Apple was an expression of Steve Jobs. Steve Wozniak was happy to be the engineer but Steve Jobs knew he had to be the lead, the one in the driver's seat. Think about everything significant that came out from Apple and there was Steve's stamp. Early on, he not only understood how to improve existing technologies to make them relevant to a wider audience and market them as products but also how to manage and handle engineers so that they could produce their best. He took on the image of the creator, basking in the light of adulation but also taking the heat of failed ventures, shielding the engineers away from the public's wrath (although according to some, not from his).
His passion was infectious and with it he sold dreams. Dreams that could only be realized through the computer Apple was making and selling. He understood that the computer was just a tool, unlike other computer companies then (and a few still now) that sold the computer on how beefy the specification were and how many features it came with. As a tool, he understood that the computer was really inconsequential. What the computer made was what really mattered. And the GUI was the first step in making the computer step out of the way and becoming a partner in that process of creation, the process of creating what mattered to the user.
As computers became more ubiquitous, Apple took it to the next level by looking for ways it's computers would positively affect their users, enhancing that relationship, further moving the computer's technicality into the background. The computer became colorful. The computer became beautiful. The computer began doing one thing very well. Until we stopped thinking about the computer and just did things with it. In every step of that evolution was one of Steve Job's imprint, his vision. He lead and others followed.
Steve Jobs also should be remembered for being the new CEO of a new generation. A CEO that understood that a company was about the quality of its people and not solely about the numbers in the balance sheet. He injected his passion in to his work as CEO, changing the notion of the CEO from the topmost manager to the driver, the leader of the company, setting it's path and navigating it through troubled waters. And that passion filtered down, regardless of what the company was facing. Apple was declared dead so many times (Michael Dell said on this month in 1997 that Apple should be shut down after Gil Amelio was fired as CEO), it is more than ironic that it is now is the biggest technology company in the world.
I've done my piece on Apple after Jobs so there is not much to add to that. But don't over look the other significant contribution of Steve Jobs. People should also remember that it was Steve's drive and money that helped kept Pixar alive long enough to fulfill it's full potential. And that is the other genius of Steve Jobs: the ability to know a good idea when he saw one. He saw the potential in the first Apple computer, the potential in the technology of the Xerox Alto, the need for a cheaper Apple Lisa (resulting in the Macintosh), the genius of the magicians at Pixar, the beauty that can inspire computer users that was the iMacs, the need for an easy and cheap way to get more music on to digital players, the desire to both communicate and do simple tasks on phones and the potential that a simple, mobile touch interface can change the way we work with computers. The legacy of Steve Jobs is not just at the birth of the personal computer but it's from there and the evolution of the personal computer to becoming part of who we are and what we do.
TWIT.TV special on Steve Jobs

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

New ideas for WebOS Part 2

This is Part 2 of ideas of what to do with WebOS. For HP or whoever owns WebOS by now. Read Part 1 here.

Go vertical in Business
The Blackberry Playbook is a dud by all accounts. So why not a make a proper business tablet? There is a market for it even though Apple would like you to not think of them. A real business tablet that actually has a proper mail client that works with normal mail servers. Offer a ultra-high security communications back-end service that offers premium features, such as guaranteed delivery and end-to-end encryption. What does that have to do with WebOS? Not much. What does that have to do with selling the tablet? Everything. Businesses love security and centralized management. Neither are available in other tablets platforms.
Especially centralized management. It is the most counter intuitive idea to the tablet concept. The tablet is about mobility and connectivity. But fleet management is a big reason why business opt for Blackberry phones. Remote service provisioning and data security. Bring that idea to the tablet and you have a runaway hit.
Other business friendly features:  Instant Messaging so simple to use, it doesn't get in the way of the message while being secure end to end. And works with HP printers from the get go. Plus whatever a businessman would expect from a tablet on the go. Edit PowerPoint on WebOS? Cool.
Business is conducted everywhere and that is where a business tablet should work. So get the office / productivity apps to work right on the tablet. We'd don't like to think of it but there are times when we just can't connect to the network. Clouds are great but what can you do when it rains? We still need the device to work. Make office apps run on the tablet and push advanced options to the cloud. Most people use only 10% of the full capabilities of MsOffice anyway. Give them the right set of 15% and you're good to go.

Go vertical in Education
    When it comes to tablets, the education market is still wide open. iPads are there but their cost is prohibitive. So take that as an advantage and find revenues further down the chain. Think of the tablet as a service-enabler, much as the set-top box was supposed to be for cable TV. Make money on the hardware but cultivate a thriving market for educational software and services. Unlike the consumer market, when schools buy, they buy in bulk. Customize the app and service market to handle schools of all sizes as well as the home-schooled kids. Sell WebOS devices to publishers as a delivery tool. Whoever starts this at schools may have to pay for companies to come on board at the beginning. Don't charge too much for publishers but aim for gathering a mass market. Spend as much time building a community as you are building a market. Make it easy for people to share safely while offering paid services at many opportunities.
    The killer feature would be the ability to build a child-safe browsing environment with child-safe browsers (via a proxy connection to your subscription-based safe proxy service) or curated links at a predefined gateway. Build tools for collaborated learning for older kids while centralized controls would be nice for the younger set. Think of the teachers. Find ways or build products to be able to pull a particular tablet screen and put it on the big monitor or projected to the wall. Wirelessly. Or to turn off a tablet of an unruly kid until he behaves. Thrown in a lockable cart for charging and evening storage and you're golden.

    Combine a few from the above
    Vertical markets are always afraid of being trapped into buying a product that has limited appeal. The ideas is to invest in a product that everyone is using to leverage on consumer pricing. And pricing, as we have seen, will make or break the future of WebOS. So focus on the markets but offer the product on consumer channels. Sell to the consumer market by touting it's market specific features.

    I am sure my ideas are half cooked at best. I wish WebOS and the people who develop it and who will be supporting it all the success they deserve.

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