Tuesday, September 25, 2012

When in doubt, Webmin

I was listening to the Linux Outlaws podcast. Well catching up more likely. My time has been quite filled up lately and I'm behind on my listening to podcasts. I don't listen to a lot but they are just so deep and the discussion that go on just spring my own opinions and ideas. Some of it, those that are better formed, end up here.
I was listening to the edition that was done right after OggCamp. By all accounts it was brilliant. Well, except apparently there was some problem with food for the volunteers and that there was a mixer with some grannys. It's hilarious and you should listen to it yourself.
But what piqued my attention was Fab's issues with setting up a DHCP server. He had some problems and that although there were loads of Linux people around, most of them couldn't help him. Not that they didn't want to. But it's because they weren't Linux server people. They were Ubuntu users but mainly on the desktop.
Now I'm a server guy. Or so I keep telling myself. But I was wondering what would I do in Fab's situation, given that I have some basic ideas for what to do. Or what would I tell someone in that situation.
Well, there seems to be only one sure thing to do. Install Webmin. The dependency is Perl and no distro worth it's salt does not have packages for Perl. Perl was the PHP of it's day. And for most of the stuff that you want to do with Webmin, the standard perl packages would do. Even then, if you do need them, Webmin is smart enough to suggest to you what to do or ask permission to do it itself.
So if you are ever caught having to so anything server-like on a Linux box (or Solaris box for that matter), just grab Webmin from the distro's repos or the webmin site itself. It supports many languages and has add-on for all sorts of things. But even with the standard Webmin, you could do almost all of the daily admin tasks. I do recommend installing it and gaining some familiarity. Help is uneven with some modules having excellent help while others barely have any. Install it even on a desktop machine, it'll work. There is almost no difference in the basic OS for a desktop and a server.  So give it a try. It's not the first time I've thought webmin is great.
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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Kicking the tyres on Ubuntu ZorinOS 6

A friend of mine asked me to install Linux for him. Now, I get that request a lot but this friend of mine isn't your typical PC user. In fact, he had 'graduated' from Windows XP to the Macintosh recently and was facing some other problems on that platform. It wasn't too hard for him, it just required for him to think in a different way.
He wanted me to convert a low-end laptop he bought so that he could try Linux out and eventually send the laptop to his parents. He understood the problems Windows can be but wasn't sure how his parents would deal with a Macintosh. He chose Linux because he has seen me lock down a PC using Linux and was keen on reducing the support calls from his parents. Why not a tablet, which seem more appropriate given their design is to limit the user to one app at a time? His parents understood the PC and would find this slab of glass too futuristic to deal with. Like my parents.
Since my friend was going to do the support himself, I had to choose something that was easy to support and support would be available easily to him. Plus it had to look cool. My go-to distro is Mageia. It's is extremely easy to support but Mageia2 with Gnome3's spectacular dive into utilitarianism, the looking-cool factor is gone. KDE was tempting but I've been down too many rabbit-hole support calls with KDE when the user tries poking around with the settings. I'm sorry but while I love KDE's customability, it's not for the newbie who may be overwhelmed with choice.
I looked around and finally, settled on ZorinOS. On paper, it was perfect. Powered by Ubuntu means that a lot of resources are out there (people and webpages). But it also has the cool factor down to a pat. So I downloaded the ISO, loaded it on a USB disk with unetbootin and loaded it up on the MSI CR650 laptop.
Which disto had the first graphical installation tool? I'm not sure but I was using OpenLinux in 1998/9 (before Caldera was bitten and became evil) and it had an graphical installation tool. This means it has been around a long time and that by now, all the major kinks should have been worked out and all we have to look out for are the small stuff, the details. Well, I'm not sure why, but after installing all the files, ZorinOS wanted to install Grub on the USB disk. "No matter," I thought, "I'll just change it so that it'll install it in the right disk." Well, the place where to set that setting was the same screen as setting up a custom partition scheme, way back in the beginning. So I had to set up the custom partition scheme in order for it to install Grub in the right place. I deemed this the lesser evil than dealing with which version of Grub was I looking at and the non-standard device numbering it has.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

5 ideas for the awesome Linux tablet

There is still life for the Linux desktop. No matter what the Mac guys say or the Windows guys thumb about, Linux on the desktop will not go away. It's a choice where you don't have to sacrifice security for convenience nor sacrifice IQ points to use them.
But beyond the Linux desktop lies the Linux tablet. I love Android and I do consider them a legit Linux distro, but it's not the same. I need my Gimp, OpenOffice, Inkscape and one day, Scribus.
It's still some distance away but here are my 5 ideas that will make the Linux tablet awesome.

1. Bring back tiling windows. The window manager that will power the Linux tablet must do tiling windows. Yes, a tiling window manager. Before any of you cry out a Windows 8 patent violation, Linux has always had that, in one way of another. Compare them if you want. I've had a soft spot for DWM but I think by now the Gnome3 guys would have figured tiling windows out. Why not? It's their philosophy to throw things out. Why not the desktop background?
But seriously, the tiling windows manager will allow the user to utilize the screen space more efficiently. The tendency of tiling window manager will try to fill the screen, giving the user the maximum visible access to open applications. The user can dock / minimiza applications to free up more space and the window manager will automatically resize. If it comes to an arrangement where one application is given more desktop space, the user can toggle which application is given the biggest space.
We all know that running applications full-screen is just a ploy to avoid window management and window decorations (that is the official name for the graphics that make up all of the sides and the buttons of a window). But if the Linux tablet is to stand out and appeal to power users, we have to be able to see more than one application at a time.
Besides, Linux don't need to hide the fact that the OS can't run more than one application at a time by showing only one application at a time.

2. Permanent task bar / always visible widget to anchor other widgets or buttons to. 
I hate auto-hiding stuff because they tend to consume resources to bring them up. I do so only when necessary like the limited screen real-estate of my netbook. It slows things down because the OS has to do calculations to redraw part of the screen, move or resize windows and basically change context and focus. Especially as you reach for them at critical times, like trying to switch out of a windows that has slowed down and causing massive swap space to be moved around. Trying to bring up back the auto-hidden bar consumes more resources just to appear and can bring a low-powered system to it's knees. By having it always visible, it doesn't try to strangle the CPU just to appear from hiding. The emergency buttons on it (like show keyboard) will always be there for use. This is even more critical on a tablet where bringing up the keyboard is also a task upon itself. 

3. Have a button that brings background or desktop widgets up on a translucent layer above the open applications. I've lost all the Gnome3 developers at 'translucent'. 
There will be a time when you need to see or reach for the desktop widgets / applets. It's just is. Unlike some people, Linux users can actually think about more than one thing at a time. It's called the subconscious. It's also that thing that makes you remember about something else. Maybe that's why some people have no recollection of things other people have already done and decide to patent them and sue others for it. Boom.

Monday, September 17, 2012

New beta release show OpenWebOS still has life to it

The OpenWebOS project announced recently the beta release of the storied OS. In a surprising twist, there were two build releases announced, the Desktop release and the OpenEmbedded release. Both are available via github.
The Desktop release allows developers to develop and test WebOS applications on the Ubuntu desktop. It's essentially, the System Manager running as an application. There is an effort on Troy Dawson's site to modify the existing install instructions to make the release work on Fedora but the site has problems at the time of writing. Depending on the complexity of the setup, this could either mean anything from changing the library location variables on the install or it could mean replacing Ubuntu specific libraries. 
The OpenEmbedded release is the actual OS release. The OpenWebOS project has decided to use the OpenEmbedded framework to base or build their OS release on. The software framework allows users to compile and build a Linux distribution for embedded systems. So this means that if an embedded hardware platform is supported by the OpenEmbedded framework, you can port WebOS to it. The layered structure of the framework allows for flexibility in compiling for multiple platform targets. As it stand currently, this includes ARM-based CPUs, several Texas Instruments single-board PCs and even the PowerPC. The framework also supports QEMU which mean developers don't have to load the OS image on real hardware to test. Which means that anybody who wishes to sell an OpenWebOS-based device can modify the configuration of the OpenEmbedded system (called recipes) to fit the chosen hardware target and just use it to generate an OpenWebOS distro. I believe the process is quite involved but not extremely difficult as the OpenEmbedded developers have gone to great lengths to ensure that people who would develop for the platform,  like the OpenWebOS project, is isolated from the development of the platform itself.
So what does this mean in the big picture? Especially for HP.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Linux gaming Steams ahead: Valve looking for tester for Steam for Linux

Linux gaming can be a contentious subject. For a long time, the question was what is Linux gaming. Hardcore gamers were defining it as something that was closer to their interests but their definition left out casual gamers. Games publishers agreed with the gamers definition.
But the meteoric rise of Angry Birds made the publishers rethink about the importance of casual gaming, where these games run and where Linux stands in the big picture. For the publishers, they saw a postage stamp-like revenue model in casual gaming, where the cost of the game is low but with a high number of purchases. This is compared to traditional mainstream games which costs significantly more but with fewer users. More importantly, popular mainstream games have a higher development cost than casual games, which means a lower profit margin per game.
For Valve, it was Windows 8. And the encroachment of what they see as the operating system on the domain of their business partner. Valve have made coy indications of making Steam available on Linux in the past but the rhetoric had gone up a notch in recent months.
Now Valve is taking the next step in making it's games available on Linux by asking for software testers. They would be the first major games company to take Linux seriously in a long time.  More details the jobs on SteamForLinux.
There are two other reason fueling this move. First, it is no secret that PC gaming is back on the rise because console platforms are old and due for a refresh in 2013. Second, the main reason most Linux users list for keeping a Windows partition is to play games. This seemingly creates a ready market or at least an opportunity for Steam and Valve to succeed on Linux by capitalizing on the better PC hardware platform and the interest in running mainstream games on Linux.
The damper on this was John Carmack's comments on gaming on Linux, specifically listing their previous two attempts to sell Linux games. There some valid points to be made about that statement.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

How time flies: Linux turns 21

I read this on a dumb terminal '92. It is Linus's post on comp.os.minix inviting other users to suggest features for an OS he was writing. I found it as I was trying to figure out how to solve a problem on Linux. I was trying Linux out a 4MB (RAM) PC but it needed  (RAM) PC but it needed 8 or 16 MB to run X windows. I tried it because I needed to program on X windows in college but we were sharing 4 guys to a workstation (HP Apollo, I think). Even then, Linus's original scope was being expanded, I think beyond his control by others who wanted more functionality out of Unix but not with the price tag. The difference was that some of them were willing to put in time to code for the features that they wanted.
I ended up abandoning the effort because I simply could not squeeze in X windows in 4MB of RAM no matter how many things I threw out or not loading. Correction: I could not squeeze X windows and a window manager in 4MB of RAM. X windows came up ok but not having a window manager is such a pain when you have to resize windows. I went with cross-platforming the project by encapsulating the graphics primitives into simple procedures. That way I could program on Turbo-C in ANSI-C mode and test out the graphic subroutines at home. Later I would swap out the code in the simple procedures with their X windows equivalents.
But that taste of power with Linux was addictive. I had the same capabilities as the big Sun and HP boxes on my small (even by those day's standards) PC. I have been using them in one way or another ever since. And it has rewarded me by saving my skin on more than a few occasions.
Happy (belated) 21st birthday Linux!

Thanks to fitofinsanity for posting on reddit.com the image of the message by methodshop.com at Flickr.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Dell preloads Ubuntu

Click on image to see larger version
..at least in Malaysia.
Is Dell hedging it's bet in the face of a possible future where Microsoft is both a supplier and competitor? Only if Dell decides to sell Windows 8 tablets. And we know what the answer to that is.
The news isn't that Dell is offering a $500 Intel 3rd Gen Core i5 laptop with Ubuntu 11.10. The news is that Dell is offering it side-by-side with their Windows laptops in print ads. Previously, to have Ubuntu loaded meant selling the laptop without an OS and offering Ubuntu as an OS option. This skirts around the need to have everything working properly from the get go and supplying the correct device drivers. Although I would have loved to buy this laptop just to see how much of the hardware is supported out of the box, it comes at an inopportune time as I'm in-between jobs right now. However, Dell's reputation with getting it right with Linux drivers on their servers probably meant they got it right here, too. The more interesting question is how good is the phone support for users will be. While it has support for Linux on servers, taking end-user queries is on a different dimension. Will Dell limit it's support around Unity and not go into hardware configuration at the command prompt? How will it handle the inevitable query on hooking up the laptop to the printer? Especially if one was bought together with the laptop.
It looks like a solid laptop with better than most, specifications. With a 4GB, it should be enough for most tasks. 4GB of RAM means something different to Linux users than what it means to Windows users. There is no option to customize it, although a call to Dell when ordering may give you extra options but bump you up price-wise. The 500 GB disk is also more than sufficient for the advanced Linux user. In fact, the most disk intensive use for Linux users would be for storing videos. The laptop also with comes with a 15.6 inch display with a 1366 x 768 resolution. This matches up nicely with the widescreen 1.0 megapixel camera at a 1280 x 720 resolution. All that and a writable DVD drive. This is the link to the specifications of the Dell Ubuntu laptop online. If this takes off, I do hope that Dell will kick in some local mirrors for faster updates.
Dell is also selling a Celeron-based version of the same laptop with 2GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive for about $350.
So is this the tipping point where Linux will be offered as an equal?

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Hey Apple, just so your remember, this is what innovation looks like.

Although I an writing a piece on the Apple vs Samsung decision last week, I found myself having to take breaks from writing. Not for lack of ideas, though. I had to stop writing because I was starting to sound either like Samsung fan-boy or an Apple-hater. And I am neither. I use and Android phone but I have used Macs in the past and understood it's minimalistic design philosophy and the focus on the use experience. I was more interested in why I was writing that way.
I can understand Apple wanting to defend what they thought is theirs. However, the geek in me hated what Apple is doing now. Rather then embrace change and become change, I get a feel like Apple is trying to control change. Like Microsoft in the early 90s, they are incensed that someone else is playing in "their" field and better at it. So the decision is made to do whatever is necessary to keep out these "newcomers". The problem, like Microsoft in the early 90s, they are not the first ones in the field nor was it theirs to begin with. If anything, the field is the consumers'. So what Apple is doing now, like Microsoft, feels like bullying. In geekdom, talk is cheap. The value is in what you do. Put up or shut up. Don't just tell me, show me.
So it came as a surprise when I open the paper and sat the ad for the Samsung Galaxy Beam. I'm not going to review it here. Instead you can read a good one from PhoneArena. I've seen pico projectors before but the idea of merging it with a phone is brilliant. It's like taking a big screen everywhere. The ability to own a wall and share. The coolness factor is high. But the proof is in the pudding. Put up or shut up, remember? Samsung designed it to last with the projector on for about 3 hours, more than enough to watch most movies. And it goes beyond that. Since the battery usage is the big deal, Samsung decided to pack in a second battery! If that is not thinking of the customer, I don't know what is.

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