Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is there an easy way to adapt to Linux?

As popular Linux distributions such as Ubuntu continue to grow and find their way to more main stream systems, it is important for Linux' success, to set up a potential users expectations up front. Handing them a different operating system to someone used to Windows is like handing over the keys to a motorcycle to someone that's used to driving cars. Sure it's another means of transportation, but a motorcycle is a totally different world. And in fairness so is Linux. This way, the surprises and hurdles are expected, rather than not and therefore leading to a much more negative experience.

Linux offers some real world features not available in Windows that are worth exploring. And for some, those features may prove to be worth making a switch. However, the transition may seem simple for some while very difficult for others. But I think that knowing up front that you have to adapt to Linux, rather than expecting a Windows like experience, could increase the chances of adopting Linux as your next Operating System.

Are you looking to make a switch? Has something in Windows gotten under your skin and Microsoft not done anything to fix it or provide you with another option? You are not alone. Windows is a nice product. But the manner in which it is designed isn't for everyone. And quite frankly I find it too restrictive. Many feel that is it's greatest flaw, but it is actually a huge reason for its success. Fortunately, we don't have to be led by the hand if we don't want to. So we'll leave Windows to the users that are quite happy with it the way it is.

So, what is the answer to the Blog's question? Is there an easy way to adapt to Linux? Well, I really hate to not be able to provide a straight forward answer, but the reality of it is that it depends on the individual. Adapting to Linux with ease is directly related to the individual's willingness to adapt. If there is no drive, there is no real interest, and thus no real effort put forth. How so?

Let's begin with a little education in an effort to setting up a potential users expectation of the test drive. The idea is to expect different, and not more of the same mundane tools we are accustomed to with Windows. If you want more of the same, then go back. Stop reading here. Linux is different, it needs to be different. If the way in which Microsoft has developed and designed Windows is what is bothering you, then you have to be willing to put that behind you and learn something new. Otherwise, you will become part of those that have approached Linux expecting a Windows like experience, and in their disappointment are going around preaching that Linux sucks. They are entitled to sounds like idiots, but you don't have to become one of those idiots. It is far more intelligent to say you tried and didn't like Linux, rather than bad mouth unintelligibly something you don't understand.

So why is Linux different? It needed to be. The Windows way of computing is proprietary. Meaning that it can't be replicated or improved upon unless it is done by Microsoft. Microsoft decides what features the users get, they decide how you are to use your computer and they decide when to stop supporting their purchased products, the latter also decides when you buy a new computer. Because of all these restrictions, users are trapped into having to adopt other similarly restrictive products. Since this business model is copyrighted, it can't be modified, so a new way had to emerge.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could control the features you get, or the way Windows looks, or how many systems you install it on? That last one really gets under my skin... specially when you consider their asking price. Wouldn't it also be nice if Windows was safe to surf the web right out of the box? This is all precisely why Linux is different. A new way had to be engineered from the ground up to manage your computer hardware in order to not mimic the way Windows works.

Microsoft is going out of their way to advertise that Linux is hard, or not compatible with certain hardware. Not true... very much like Windows, there is plenty of hardware that is compatible with Linux. And unlike Windows, Linux continues to work with older hardware effectively lengthening the life of our purchases and allowing US the choice of when we upgrade.

This new way of using your computer engineered in Linux is based on choice. We choose how many systems to install it on, we choose the file manager and the network manager to use, we choose the way it looks, etc, etc... choice, choice, choice, all yours, yours, yours.

Linux is engineered around user freedom, not expensive restrictions. With Linux, if you are so ambitious, you could write your own apps and even modify Linux itself. As a matter of fact it is encouraged. This way the amount of choices and features are constantly being improved. It is obvious that none of that could be achieved in a Windows like manner. Microsoft will beg to differ, and they'll go implement something new and claim users now have the choice, but they missed the point completely as once again they would have made the decisions for us.

Armed with the facts, and understanding why Linux is different, a more realistic approach to try Linux for the 1st time can be adopted. And in doing so a greater chance of successfully making a switch to Linux is possible. Then trying new applications, and performing day to day tasks isn't an unexpected surprise. Surprises are expected, and more sensible attitudes are adopted in the event there is need to compromise. There will be some gains, most importantly in system security, but there will be some losses specifically with proprietary products designed to specifically work with Windows.

Once a desicion is made to try Linux, ideally the best way would be via a LiveCD and taking baby steps.  Windows does not offer such convenience, on the contrary a user is rudely plunged into a new version of Windows and left to fend for themselves and forced to acquaint themselves with the changes. With Linux, if the liveCD successfully brings you to a desktop, you are able to take your time and explore at your leisure.  In my experience, the live CD detected the NTFS partitions on the drives and I began opening files and testing them to make sure I could pick up where I left off.

I quickly noticed that the basic tasks such as email and web browsing are a familiar territory.  I quit using IE in WIndows and used Firefox for a long time because IE is the main reason why Windows is so vulnerable to being compromised by viruses and malware. Therefore, my experience with Firefox made it easy for me to browse the web in Linux as easily as I did in Windows. 

If you are using tools such as outlook for email, then Mozilla's Thunderbird would be the app I'd use to try and open my email.  I use gmail, so I didn't have to put Thunderbird through a test drive, and the reason I opt for using Gmail is that over the years I've come to really hate pst files and having to repair them from time to time.

It may seem like I am making things overly simple, and in reality they did turn out to be simpler than even I expected.  There were a few things that proved quite challenging later on, such as being able to color calibrate my monitor and using The GIMP instead of Photoshop.  But I was determined and that determination has made those tasks easier with the gained experience. They say that time heals all things, and it is true with Linux most challenging tasks.

Support for Linux is available from companies such as Canonical and Dell with their Ubuntu loaded systems. But I was able to find solutions to 99% of the hurdles I encountered browsing the web, the lauchpad bug tracking site and Linux forums. Anyone price a support contract with MS?  Browsing the web is far cheaper, it may be a bit time consuming at 1st but free.

Like everyone else, the command line interface was intimidating for me as well.  But it really is a nice feature to have available.  Think of it as booting into Windows safe mode, except that it is within immediate reach by pressing ctrl alt F1-F6, instead of having to reboot. As in the Windows world, not all applications are perfect and they tend to hang form time to time.  Dropping to a terminal grants you easy access to stop that process if needed to regain your desktop in the rare instance the application has it locked.  And in Linux that is indeed rare, where in Windows it seemed to happen often and there was no way to drop to a command line to kill the offending process.

Those are some quick examples from my experience.  It is not meant to be the end all be all answer to making the switch easy.  But I hope that it serves as an example of how to approach your initial test drive of Linux.  My idea was to be able to get the most important things done via a LiveCD to justify the installation.  I figured once I did that, I would commit to figuring out the rest in time. It proved successful for me.  I have not used Windows at home since Feb of 2009.  There have been some hurdles, but they didn't feel any different than the ones I encountered in Windows.  However, the way in which I approached them helped overcoming them... and that was by not treating it like it was Windows, but rather taking time to research how to fix them in Linux.

Monday, August 31, 2009

OpenGEU 8.10 Review

Since my switch from Windows to Linux I have settled on 1 distribution, OpenGEU 8.10. I'm not much of a distro hopper even though I do have Ubuntu Studio 9.04 installed on a different partition, it doesn't get much play. It's there because recently I wanted to see if I was missing out on anything. And so far I don't feel like I am.

You may be wondering, Why Enlightenment? Well part of it was familiarity, and quite frankly when I saw E16 back in the day I new that someday I had to have it. I did try Ubuntu 8.10\9.04 and Kubuntu 8.10 as well as Elive. Ubuntu is one nice distro, I really liked it... but I wanted no taskbars and a menu system by clicking anywhere on the desktop. Kubuntu must not have liked my hardware much, and I didn't like the feel of it. It is gorgeous to look at, though. But that wasn't enough to win me over. Elive is solid, but being only available in 32bit killed it for me.

Notice that all that was a matter of preference. I really have nothing negative to say about each of those. I just didn't like their desktop feel.

You may also be wondering why 8.10? Well the OpenGEU project while well in progress is not made up of a large group of developers, so they have the same individuals working on multiple aspects of the distribution. That said, while they would like nothing more than to keep up with Ubuntu's 6 month cycle, it is quite a task for them to meet the same release dates.

OpenGEU 9.04 is in the works and due out for release very soon.

I found OpenGEU in an effort to find Geubuntu (as it was renamed), and immediately after trying the liveCD it felt right. Well of coarse it did, my early days of Enlightenment use on an old Sparc box were coming back. And best of all it was available in 64bit flavor... gotta have my chocolate.

The install went as well as any of the others I tried. It was all done from the LiveCD desktop which was very nice. And I must say, quite fast. There where no initial hardware issues, everything worked right away. Upon 1st login, I am prompted for updates... a ton of them. I get them done 1 reboot and BAM!!! Done! WOW!!!

No freaking Service Packs, not 3 thousand more reboots or spybot search and destroy, Norton was sent packing... man this is as Cartman would say.... "kick ass!!!"

Since then, the installation has required an extra step due to the fact that the distribution had to change repositories after the liveCD was released. So the OpenGEU packages now reside in a different repository that needs to be updated after the initial install. Fortunately, the folks at OpenGEU have a simple .deb package to run on their website that will automatically do that for you.

Before I go on, I want to get the whole stability issue that looms over E17 out of the way. This is Enlightenment and as you probably already know it is inconstant development. So it did take some getting used to what worked and what didn't. HOWEVER, it has been my experience that everything that isn't quite working yet are a few features on E17 and nothing to do with the apps I frequently use, such as GIMP, Firefox, Pidging, OpenOffice and the many games I have installed. All that stuff is solid. So I feel pretty confident in saying that from that standpoint, the stability is as good if not better than my Windows experience has been.

So what doesn't work?

There are a few modules that understandably are still being worked on. One of them is the Bling module. It isn't stable yet and your milage may vary with it. For me it freezes the desktop unexpectedly, for others it runs fine.

The other is Dropshadow... now while this one works well, as you can tell in the screenshot above, it seems to only draw shadows on the desktop and not over windows beneath it yet. I'm being picky but hey... I'm trying to give some details.

Compiz (from here on out Ecomorph) isn't completely integrated yet, so there are a few features that are not working yet. But for the most part, most of the cool eye candy works, such as animations, some transparencies, cube, expo and many others.

Finally, going to Settings/Look/Colors in the Menu seems to not be implemented yet as it causes E17 to restart.

OpenGEU also requires that you install the nessesary codecs to save your personal music library to mp3 and play restricted DVD's. Not too hard to do, really. But for a Windows convert like myself, it left me wondering why. I soon found out and understand why now. Likewise, instead of Java & Flash, Icetea and gnash are preinstalled, but I didn't have much luck with those. And unfortunately, those restricted apps are a necessity for me for now.

Beyond that I haven't run into much else that doesn't work yet. And days\weeks go by without E17 restarting\crashing and when it does, it never affects the applications or cause loss of work. A testament to its reliability.

The OpenGEU team has done a great job integrating gnome apps (such as thunar) were E17 is lacking. This really gives a real sense of completion to E17 even though we know it isn't yet. So despite the warnings given, OpenGEU feels solid and complete.

One of the things I like the most about Linux (be it Gnome, KDE, Enlightement, etc...) is the ability to change the look to suit our tastes. And in this regard E17 really shines. There are entire themes that change the look of just about everything you see on your desktop. From wallpapers to window borders. And you can take it a step further and use parts of other themes to make individual changes and get a totally custom look and save them into a .gth file.

One thing I must complaint about is the fact that the folks developing Enlightenment have not seen the need to make a theme editor that is more user friendly. Currently, theming in Enlightenment requires that you know how to code in .edj, and quite frankly it is not easy or easy to learn quickly. It requires some determination and time to learn. They do have an .edj editor, but for someone with little to no coding experience like myself it is useless. This is not the fault of the OpenGEU developers though, as this is something the Enlightenment camp should address at some point to allow more people to unleash their creativity without having to contemplate learning to code .edj.
Fortunately, there are users out there that are trying to theme, and are uploading themes for others to download at e17-stuff.org

There are some features being worked on for the next release of OpenGEU (Quarto Di Luna, Ubuntu 9.04 based) that will enable users to save and share changes made to base themes. This is one feature I am really looking forward to. I am also hoping that Ecomorph (Compiz) is fully implemented in the next release or in the very least moved further along.

One of the things most e fans like is its small footprint. e is very light on resources and you can see exactly that in OpenGEU. Upon login you can start experiencing its speed. And a quick look at CPU & Mem use on mine hovers at 0-1% CPU use and less than 350mb ram use at idle with Ecomorph enabled. Without Ecomorph it hovers around less than 300mb at idle.

Windows XP in contrast needed nearly 1g of RAM at idle after all the protection tools needed were running on my system. Kind of pathetic when you think about it. And I hear Vista is even worse, thus the rush for Windows 7 to come out. But I'll not go into that here. However, if you ended up here and you are running Windows still... take note!

Having Ubuntu 9.04 on a different partition I've been able to do a few comparisons such as the speed in which applications launch. IMO, OpenGEU is just as fast if not faster launching apps. And I may have to give OpenGEU the benefit of the doubt since I have quite a few fonts loaded and just the basic fonts in Ubuntu 9.04 that come with a fresh install.

Ubutnu 9.04 does have full implementation of Compiz and that paired with Emerald for window decorations is absolutely stunning. I probably would be quite happy with Ubuntu if I knew how to get rid of the task bars and be able to access the menu clicking on the desktop. It's one of the things that keeps me coming back to OpenGEU. That and iTask-NG.

AWN and Cairo in Ubuntu, in my honest opinion pale in comparison to iTask-NG in OpenGEU. The iTask-NG dock in its current state is very reliable and I use it 24x7 without any problems. Some of the issues I had with AWN like loosing icons in between login sessions or reboots have yet to happen with iTask-NG in OpenGEU. iTask-NG is also themeable, but I think that at the moment that aspect of the dock is not fully implemented yet as I have not been able to get it to work. I've also noticed that Icons do not show with certain downloaded themes, but that may be a bug in the Theme code... I guess not all is perfect as already mentioned E17 is still in development, Nonetheless, transparency works on it and that is how I use it most as you can see on most of the screenshots.

I did have high hopes for Cairo when I test drove it as it does a heck of alot more than AWN and iTask-NG, but I didn't like the look and feel upon 1st impressions. And quite frankly, fans of Cairo can rest assured that yes I probably should give it another shot, and I probably will on Ubuntu at a later date. All that said, I am more than extremely pleased with the functionality and look that iTask-NG offers at this stage in development. It is quite useful.

OpenGEU also offers what they call shelves. In essence they hold a bit more than docks and are also highly configurable and best of all they do not need any compositioning to run.

In the screenshots above of OpenGEU running on my Acer 6530 laptop, I have a shelf on the left with some modules loaded on it for the local weather, moon phase, system temp, CPU speed, date & time and system menu shortcut. Below center is another shelf with an app launcher and trash can module. Notice they look different and that is because of the control they offer. Very nice and also very light on resources.

I feel that Enlightenment gets a bit of a bad rep sometimes. But who can blame them when even I as a long time fan feel that indeed a bit of effort needs to be put on a stable release already. E16 took a long time to reach a stable release and that always comes up in discussions as being the same fate E17 will meet.

The Enlightenment folks are making an effort nonetheless, as evidenced here in their Release Schedule
So I am grasping on to that little bit of hope.

All that said, OpenGEU 8.10 is not only fast and beautiful, but despite the use of E17 is very stable as well. My goal was to be as detailed as possible in reviewing it as to expose as many hidden surprises as possible as there often is when using code still in development. All in an effort to facilitate those that have been putting off trying E17 again due to growing pains early on, make the decision weather or not is worth trying again.

So if you are concerned in OpenGEU's stability and reliability due to its implementation of E17, rest assured that it is indeed stable and reliable. I wouldn't be using it if it wasn't and I even donated to the project since I have installed it on all 5 of my systems at home. 5? Well yes... besides me using it on my Desktop and travel laptop, all 3 of my kids use it on their computers too. And those guys hammer it pretty good with Flash & Java based web games, WINE and a bunch of other games, from Wow to Unreal tournament 2004. Those guys don't hold back, and would have told me if OpenGEU sucked. And so far they love it as much as their Dad.

If you give OpenGEU a try, be sure to visit the forums...

I'll definitely see you there :)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Let's end the use of pirated MS Windows OS\Software

I think it a very good idea to end the use of pirated MS Windows OS\Software. Or in the very least help lessen the problem. After all it is illegal and quite frankly there really is no need to take the risks involved.

What risks you may ask? Well, there are many, and I'll list the most important ones...
  • It's Illegal - who is going to find out you may ask? Well I for one wouldn't want to find out.
  • It's a security risk - In this day and age, the security risks are many. Specially if you manage your finances on your computer.
  • Pirated software is not safe - many of their sources can't be trusted and often lead to infections with worms and viruses that look to compromise more than your HW.
  • Lack of support - the internet is a good source of info, but while searching for solutions, you risk getting or soliciting help from scam artists.
That is just a brief list, and quite frankly it should be enough to turn you away from using illegal\pirated proprietary software. It's become such a problem that it also affects legal users that have to endure the anti piracy measures being taken by the companies that sell their proprietary software.

According to Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, pirated OS\Software users make up a bigger market than Linux & Apple users combined. http://www.osnews.com/story/21035/Ballmer_Linux_Bigger_Competitor_than_Apple

It really shouldn't be so. There is no excuse for opting for pirated proprietary products when there are legal far more affordable options available. Not to mention far more secure in many ways when it comes to using your computer for all personal reasons.

I understand that these are very tough economic times, and the price of Windows and Apple systems is just too high. I couldn't agree more, quite frankly not only are they expensive, but if you are savy enough to deal with pirated OS\Software and its associated security risks, then they are also not aimed at you since they restrict your computing experience as if you were their target market.

I wholeheartedly believe that many if not all of people using illegal\pirated software are savy enough to be using Linux. As a windows server admin whose had his fare share of systems compromised over my carreer in IT, I can tell you that the small problems you'll encounter adapting and learning to use Linux, are small potatoes compared to having your system compromised by a virus or worm that can potentially steal your identity, banking information, and force you to reinstall your operating system.

I don't mean to say people that use pirated software are the ones doing the piracy... on the contrary those folks are far more skilled than the Proprietary Software companies themselves. What I mean to say is that if you are savy enough to use pirated OS\software and deal with its associated risks and ARE ABLE to fix them, then you are no ordinary user. Or one that needs to be led by the hand as Microsoft and Apple aim to do with their target market.

What I mean to say is that you need to be freed from their reigns, and should be enjoying a better computing experience. Now it will take a little bit of learning, but anyone can deal and fix a messed up Windows installation, then you are selling yourself short thinking Linux wouldn't be as easy or any easier.

Linux is a real world option these days. It is free and legal to download, use and redistribute. It has come a long way to becoming more user friendly and compatible with lots of hardware out there. Not only that, but gives you more control over your system and many fixes are simple editing of text files using the command line. While this intimidate mosts, they need to get over it... the command line is the isht when X windows wont start.

Applications are also a dime a dozen, and if this old Windows Server Admin has managed to find applications to do everything I used to do in Windows (from editing photos, docs, spreadsheets to even color calibrating my monitor and playing games) so can everyone one of those users taking risks on illegal OS\software. And the beauty of it all is that all those options are also free and legal to download use and redistribute.

Think about it, if you dislike Microsoft for their over priced products and want nothing more than to stick it to the man, don't do it in a fashion where they can get back at you. Stop using their products to send a clear message and do it legally by opting to use Linux. I can almost guarantee that Windows will not be an option once you have familiarized yourself with Linux.

It's time to put those computer savy skills to good use and give Linux a try. Give it a real shot as it will likely have you a bit confused at first while you get familiar with it. In the end, it will be worth it and the help online is free and there are some incredibly knowledgeable Linux users out there that want nothing more than to extend a lending hand.

Wouldn't it be nice if Windows and Apple offered their OS and applications free and allowed you to pay what you could afford instead of the ridiculous price they set for their products and then charge for support?

Well in the world of Linux, you can do just that. Once I found the distribution of choice, I donated to that project a set amount I was financially comfortable with. You read that right... and while some may say that Linux problem is the many flavors it comes in, I think it one of its greater strengths and went shopping for a distribution that looked and felt the way I wanted.

I legally, downloaded it, use it and if I didn't like it, went on to the next one I wanted to try... Try that with your illegal pirated offering... or legal proprietary purchase for that matter ;)