Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Tempted by Android...

I had the occasion to have a play with a colleague's T-Mobile G1 today, and all I can say it this:
Excuse the somewhat childish overuse of caps and exclamation marks, but I really had to get the point across!
I have a 32GB iPod Touch and have also tried other people's iPhones, so I have a fair idea of how the iPhone compares to the G1. And quite frankly, I think that Android is going to utterly annihilate the iPhone.
Believe me, I don't say this lightly. I'm certainly not an Apple fanboy, by any means, but I do like my iPod Touch. It's polished, it works pretty well, and the apps I've used so far have been pretty cool.
However, the iPhone and iPod Touch have plenty of flaws too. I don't like the iTunes music store - I think it's a bit of a rip-off for downloading music compared to Amazon's MP3 store, which is cheaper and DRM-free.
At present, Apple may have more apps already available, but I feel that longer-term, Android is likely to attract more developers. Here's what I find restrictive about the iPhone and iPod Touch for software development:
  • You can ONLY develops apps for them on a Mac, using XCode.
  • Apps are written in Objective-C, a programming language with little support outside the Mac community.
  • You have to be in the Developer Program which costs $99 (OK, it's not much, but it's still a barrier to development - after all, what if people in the developing world wanted to develop apps?)
  • You need Apple's approval to make your app available - this has been discouraging developers who have seen their apps being rejected for vague reasons, and these are the people you really don't want to piss off as they are the lifeblood of any software community.
Now, compare this with Android:
  • You can develop apps on Windows, Mac or Linux, with Eclipse being the main development environment, although others are supported.
  • Apps are written in Java, probably the most popular programming language in the world, with a massive existing developer base, and already widely used on mobile platforms.
  • No requirement to join a developer program.
  • No need to have Google approve your app - Android Market has no restrictions on apps, unless they are outright dangerous (OK, someone will say that makes them potentially dangerous - I'd answer that Android is Linux-based so it should be pretty rock-solid, and Java apps run in a Java VM so they are sandboxed, so I think that's probably safe enough as long as they sort out the notorious bug where it would run text commands as root...)
So in my opinion, Android has the potential to attract a LOT more developers than the iPhone. Add to that the fact that there are a large number of handset manufacturers that have signed up to the Open Handset Alliance, including well-known manufacturers such as Motorola, Sony-Ericsson, LG and Samsung, all of whom will have an interest in contributing to the pool of applications available, and I would expect Android's developer community to quickly expand over the next couple of years, until it dwarfs the iPhone developer community.

A lot of people have said that the G1 doesn't stand up to the iPhone on various counts. OK, that's fair enough, but they miss and important point - the G1 isn't Android, it's the first Android phone, and is largely for developers and early adopters. There will be others, and some of those are courtesy of manufacturers that really know their stuff. I love Motorola phones, so I might consider getting an Android-based Motorola device.

From what I hear, the Cupcake branch of Android is making staggering progress. Thanks to its being entirely an open-source project, Android can very likely develop faster than the iPhone OS can. In a year or two, I would expect Android to have outpaced the iPhone OS. If you compare Android now to the iPhone OS when it was released, I'm pretty sure Android is superior. The Android of a year hence will no doubt have seen a lot more development, and crucially, a LOT more real-world use, and will therefore no doubt be a completely different beast.

Having seen it in action now I'm sorely tempted to get a G1, and I'm only inclined to wait because of the promise of even better in the future. I've mentioned that I'm currently learning Python, and I have plans to learn another language after that. I've considered Objective-C as creating an iPhone app, even if I didn't make it available, might be an interesting challenge, but now I'm thinking that learning Java and creating Android apps might be more interesting.

Finally, just like to wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Real UNIX my ****!

I've heard that writers write about whatever gets caught in their filters, so usually they tend to write about things that piss them off. That must apply to blog authors, because I've got a real bee in my bonnet about this issue.

According to Wikipedia the current OS's which are licensed to use the UNIX trademark are AIX, HP-UX, IRIX, Solaris, Tru64, A/UX, Mac OS X Leopard (on Intel only), and part of z/OS.

Now, I don't know about IRIX, Tru64, A/UX and z/OS, but as I understand it AIX, HP-UX and Solaris are derived from AT&T's original UNIX source code, as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun respectively licensed this from AT&T, so they include code from the original UNIX.

Now BSD was created at University of California, Berkeley, using AT&T's original UNIX source code. Later, in the early 90's, all the code that was licensed from AT&T was reimplemented. Therefore, as I understand it, BSD contains none of the original UNIX source code, and operating systems like FreeBSD and NetBSD can't call themselves UNIX for that reason.

OK, so that explains to my satisfaction why AIX, HP-UX and Solaris are real UNIX, and I assume the same applies for IRIX, Tru64, A/UX and z/OS. But OS X?

Unless I've got my wires crossed somewhere, OS X contains none of the original AT&T UNIX source code:
  • The XNU kernel consists of the Mach microkernel, which was developed as a replacement for the BSD kernel, together with userland tools taken from FreeBSD4.4. So, as I see it, no AT&T source code here.
  • The shell used in Leopard is bash. Many of the other tools used are also the GNU versions as used in GNU/Linux and GNU/Open Solaris.
  • I believe the X Window Server used is a fork of Xfree86.
So, correct me if I'm wrong by all means, but I can't see that OS X contains any of the original UNIX source code. If so, surely it's not really got any more innate right to call itself real UNIX than Linux has?

So far as I can see, UNIX certification means that it's been certified as being POSIX-compliant by the owner of the UNIX trademark. Well, that really doesn't mean that much, does it? To the best of my knowledge, this would just mean you'd pay The Open Group to certify it as being real UNIX. Is there any reason why any Linux vendor couldn't pay this fee and have their distro certified as being real UNIX? I really don't think this would be a good use of their money, but I see no good reason why this couldn't be done.

So, dear lazyweb, here are my questions:

1) What actual benefits are there to an OS being certified as real UNIX?
2) Does OS X Leopard contain any of the original UNIX source code?
3) If not, what right does it actually have to call itself real UNIX?

Seriously, I'm not trolling here, I just cannot see that Leopard has any more right to call itself real UNIX than Linux does on the basis of the source code. And if it's based on certification, then what's to stop a Linux distro vendor from having their OS certified as being real UNIX?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Linux - Stop holding our kids back

This is one article that genuinely made me angry - it's worrisome how ignorant the teacher mentioned is.

read more | digg story

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Are Macs designed for the left-handed?

I had a bit of a bizarre revelation this afternoon, which I'd like to share. I own a total of four laptop computers:
  • A Dell Inspiron 1150 running Kubuntu Hardy
  • A Philips X58 dual-booting Vista and Ubuntu Intrepid
  • An Asus Eee PC 2G Surf running the default Xandros
  • An early 2008 MacBook
Now, the Dell has two USB sockets at the back, the Eee has two on the left and one on the right, the Philips has two on the left and two on the right. So with these machines you can easily have the mouse on the left or right-hand side.

The MacBook is different. It has all the USB and other sockets on the left-hand side, so you have to plug in your mouse on the left. If you want to use a mouse on the right-hand side it effectively shortens the length of the wire. Also, the touchpad has only one button, so there's no right or left button in the same way.

So that begs the question - Are Macs designed specifically for people who are left handed?

Think about it - the ration of right-to-left handedness is about 90:10, similar to the proportion of Mac users to users of other PC's (yes, Macs are PC's!). Macs have a reputation for being used by creative people and creativity comes from the right hemisphere of the brain, which is linked to the left side of the body, meaning that creative people are more likely to be left handed. So if creative people are more likely to be left handed, it follows that they are more likely to prefer a computer designed for them.

Now, I'm right-handed, and I'm also a good example of a left-brained logical type, and while I quite like OS X (I do think it's better than Windows), I prefer Linux. Linux is more likely to appeal to the right-handed, left-brained people who like getting lost in technical details simply because you can get lost in the technical details, but also most people run it on hardware other than Macs, and like I said above, my impression is that most PC's are designed more with the right-handed in mind.

It also explains why some people absolutely rave about Macs, and plenty of others (myself included) are ambivalent about them (although I am actually writing this post on my MacBook, naturally as it's what I had to hand when I first noticed this!) and can't understand what the fuss is all about. If you were left-handed, wouldn't you prefer a computer designed specifically for you, to the point that you'd never want to go back?

It wouldn't surprise me if a survey were to find out that the majority of Mac users were left handed, and I'd be curious to know if such a survey has ever been done. Any thoughts, anyone?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Pownce is closing - a call for the code to be open sourced!

I was very sorry to learn today that Pownce is closing. It's a good service, and I will be sad to see it go. Although it was never as popular as Twitter, it did offer far more powerful features.
I went and logged in and people were discussing alternatives (I like Rejaw as a Pownce alternative), and someone mentioned open source microblogging software such as, or perhaps a Drupal module. This gave me an idea.
Pownce was apparently created using Django (for the uninitiated, it's a web development framework similar to Ruby on Rails, but based on Python instead of Ruby). It runs on a standard LAMP stack (although with Python instead of PHP, as stated above), which is entirely open source.
Now, bearing in mind that both Python and Django are open source, and from what I read of the acquisition, it was mainly to get the people, could Pownce be open sourced?
If this was possible, it would be a great way for interested parties to set up their own version of Pownce. So far as I can see, there's no proprietary software involved that they might need to hang on to.
I'm therefore going to post this on Digg, as that would be a good way to get some feedback on what people think, and attract more attention.
So, Kevin Rose, how about it? Any chance you could open-source Pownce?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Dead Parrot sketch ancestor found

An ancestor of Monty Python's famous Dead Parrot comedy sketch has been found in a joke book dating back to Greece in the 4th Century.

read more | digg story

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

My suggestion to Dell

Following my post about encouraging people to learn to program, I've posted the idea I had about including development tools and guides in PDF format on Dell's IdeaStorm website. If you like the idea, please promote it!

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The IT Crowd

I'm a huge fan of the geektastic Channel 4 comedy series The IT Crowd, so I was really pleased to find this link today, confirming that it's returning to our screens in the UK at the end of November. For those who haven't yet discovered it, I urge you to check out this link for a taster of this hilarious sitcom (unfortunately it's no longer possible to embed this clip).

But I was even more pleased to find this spoof website for Reynholm Industries, the company which is the setting for the series. With a little searching around, you can find a way to log into the company's Intranet and download wallpapers and images from the series(I won't spoil the surprise by telling you where to find the login details, you'll have to find them yourself!). Top marks for this brilliant comedy website!

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Getting a new PC...

My sister told me today that the IT department at her employers have a load of old desktop PC's they no longer need, so they're going to be installing Ubuntu on them and selling them on for about £5 each. I'm guessing that they have some kind of licensing deal with Microsoft that means they get to use as many copies of Windows as they like, but if they sell them on they have to remove it, so they probably can't keep Windows on them.

I'm actually quite impressed with this, for several reasons:
  • It means perfectly good hardware can be reused and made available to someone else. In contrast, my own employers, who shall remain nameless, apparently have a deal with a company to break up all their computers and dispose of them, which I think is a staggering waste, and this is a BIG company that's in the FTSE.
  • People can get a working computer that's perfectly good for surfing the web, emailing and basic office tasks, for a pittance. It'd be ideal for people's kids or elderly relatives, neither of whom will care that much whether it runs Windows or not.
  • It's probably actually cheaper to do this as it must cost money to have them disposed of.
  • Plus, it exposes Linux to people who otherwise wouldn't try it.
She's asked if I wanted one, so naturally I said yes! So she'll try and get me one.

I see little point in sticking with the Ubuntu install already with it, as I run Ubuntu on one computer already and Kubuntu on another. So what to run on it? I have several candidates in mind:
  • Sidux
  • Xubuntu
  • Damn Small Linux (I've grown to love DSL in the last few months)
  • Slackware
  • Gentoo
  • Linux From Scratch (it'd be a hell of a challenge though!)
  • PC-BSD
  • FreeBSD
  • Debian
  • Linux Mint Fluxbox CE
  • Or I could use Ubuntu Mini Remix to create my own remaster based on Ubuntu, but using a lightweight window manager. I've done this in the past to try to create something that worked better on my Eee PC (unfortunately it didn't work out too well!), but the end result was perfectly useable. I'm actually very keen on the one I created purely for the fun of making it look as 1337 as possible (it's basically Fluxbox with the Matrix theme, a black GTK theme, and an abstract green-and-black background). I'm also interested in trying out some more window managers - I like IceWM a lot, I also like Fluxbox, I'm interested in trying FVWM, FVWM-Crystal and FVWM-95, and I may give some of the tiling window managers like awesome and Xmonad a try.
I'll have to wait and see how powerful the machine is before I can decide what to put on it, although if it's running Ubuntu OK it should be able to handle most Linux distros. That's assuming they haven't all gone!

I've never actually owned a desktop before. All my computers right now are laptops (a Dell Inspiron, a Philips X58, an Asus Eee PC 2G Surf, and a Santa Rosa MacBook), and much as I love them all, certain things, such as coding, are really better done from a desktop. It's a simple matter of ergonomics. So I'm looking forward to having a desktop computer of my own because I anticipate that it should improve my productivity.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

IT Guy vs Dumb Employees Video

I couldn't help laughing at this great video! Check it out!

IT Guy Vs Dumb Employees - Watch more Entertainment

Friday, 24 October 2008

Encouraging the programmers of the future

I found this interesting article on the BBC News website today about the British gaming industry, and how the UK has long been punching above its weight in the gaming industry. This has always been put down to the generation who grew up with BBC Micro's, ZX-81's, and so on. These computers generally had a BASIC interpreter build in, and you'd have to use that to run programs from tape or disk.

Thanks to these native, inexpensive computers, the UK was for years a strong player in the gaming market. Programmers cut their teeth by entering listings from a magazine, progressing to writing their own games. OK, the machines were arguably harder to use than a modern machine, but they were well documented, and there was more of a culture of programming with them - if you wanted to use one, you had to learn at least a few commands.

Now, contrast it with this article from earlier in the year, which makes for somewhat more depressing reading. Few people are learning about programming, and schools are concentrating on teaching kids how to use Word and Excel. No wonder so many people are reluctant to even consider switching to OpenOffice!

I'm nearly 30, and got my first computer (an Amstrad CPC 6128) aged around nine or ten, so I consider myself to be at the very tail end of the generation that grew up around the first home computers. Like many others, I worked my way through the tutorial in the phone-book sized manual to build an address book application, and spent hours typing in and debugging games from magazines. Being a kid at the time, I was regularly distracted from it, but I got to be OK at it.

The 90's were arguably a bad time for the computer industry in many ways, despite the fact that the Internet appeared during this decade. Commodore went under, Apple only survived by the skin of their teeth, and within the space of a few years, Windows came to dominate the desktop. Pretty much everyone else disappeared.

While Windows undoubtedly did a lot to make computers more accessible (much as I hate to admit it, as I am a Linux user!), it also relegated them to being something used for writing letters, making spreadsheets, and later, surfing the web. To a certain extent, it made a computer into a black box, as people weren't interested in learning to code.

At the same time, the games consoles began to draw much of the gaming market away from home computers. While some genres (RTS, for example), have long been strong on the home computer, and remain so, others switched almost wholesale to the console. Platform games such as the Mario and Sonic games are a good example of this. So people who in the past would have bought computers for gaming and got into programming later were rarer.

Nowadays, if you buy a Windows PC, you certainly don't get encouraged in any way to get coding. There's no guide of any kind included, nor do you get a BASIC interpreter (or any other interpreter, for that matter). Modern PC magazines don't seem to do anything to encourage people to learn to program, and I find that a little sad.

With a Windows computer, it seems to me that you actually have to be interested in coding to start with, and to know that you're interested in it, to be able to get to use it as a programming platform. By this, I mean it gives no encouragement whatsoever in learning to program in any language. Microsoft don't include any kind of programming tools at all as far as I can see.

The frustrating part is that they already have a pretty decent tool in the shape of Visual Studio Express Edition. OK, I'd rather people learn an open-source language than be tied to Windows, but I'd much rather see people encouraged to get programming in the first place. Why couldn't Microsoft include at least one of the Visual Studio Express Edition IDE's (I expect they'd probably go for Visual Basic, although that wouldn't be my first choice), and a manual (in print or pdf format), with every copy of Windows? They could place a link on the desktop that says "Start learning to program!", and let people's curiosity take over naturally. If people don't want it, they can delete it, and that's fine. As it is now, you have to go looking for it on the Microsoft website. They should be encouraging people to learn about their software and develop better applications for it.

I think that in many ways, Apple have done better in this respect. By including the Xcode IDE with every copy of OS X, they've provided a powerful tool with their computers. Also, OS X is at heart a form of Unix, making it well suited for programming. However, the fact that Xcode isn't preinstalled does mean it's not there by default, making it less likely that people will try it out of curiosity. Also, although Xcode does have loads of documentation with it, it doesn't include any kind of "beginners guide", it seems to be all for people who are already programmers. They could definitely do more to encourage people to start learning to program. I also think that OS X's polish counts against it in this case, as it means you never have to delve into the terminal to accomplish every day tasks. So again, I feel that like Windows, OS X does little to encourage people to learn how to program.

Another thing with both Apple and Microsoft is that they do emphasise IDE's over text editors. I've had a brief try at using Visual Studio Express Edition, and tinkered with Xcode, and I subscribe strongly to the view that an IDE is the last thing you want to use when you start programming. Learning a brand new and extremely complex application at the same time as learning to program is a bit too much for most people, whereas anyone can use a basic text editor. Even a more complex one, such as Vim (my personal favourite), is far easier to use than most IDE's. There's no doubt that IDE's offer a lot of features to experienced users, but they can be extremely overwhelming when someone takes their first steps in programming.

This is one of the things I like about Linux over OS X and Windows. While these days you don't actually have to use the terminal for everyday tasks in a modern distro like Ubuntu, there's a strong culture of doing so and you're encouraged to use it in solving problems. I think part of this is because the main support is through forums, and it's easier for someone to post a command for you to paste into the terminal than to say "Click this, then this, then this...". Also, the bash shell is a lot more powerful than its Windows counterpart. By and large, while there may be a learning curve, using bash is often the quickest and most convenient way to accomplish a task, and it doesn't take long for this to become clear. From using bash and changing settings by editing text files, it's not a great leap to then go on to write shell scripts or to learn to code using Perl or Python. Most distros also include a lot of documentation for the included languages. Also, languages used in Linux are almost invariably ones that can be written with a simple text editor rather than forcing someone to learn to use an IDE, which I feel makes them more accessible.

However, I still feel even Linux can do more to encourage people to learn to program. The last thing I'd want to do is to force people to learn to program when they don't want to, but I do think we should be taking more steps to encourage new programmers. Maybe just a nice handy pdf file in your /home directory called "Learn to Program" will be enough.

Having recently taken my first few steps in learning Python, I'm enjoying learning it tremendously. It's probably a more powerful language than BASIC, but I find it just as easy to get started with. Having had a go at Perl and Java in the past, and finding these a bit of a struggle for a first language, I was pleasantly surprised by Python. So it would make an ideal language to include with a new computer. OS X and most Linux distros include Python already, and I see no reason why Microsoft couldn't distribute a copy with Windows. Just add a pdf guide or two and sit back. If for some reason they didn't want to use Python, we're certainly not short of other good languages for beginners either.

How else can we get people interested in learning to code? What languages should we push? Should we encourage them to use an IDE, or go with a text editor like Vim? All answers welcome!

Friday, 10 October 2008

My project for this weekend...

I have a little project I've decided on for this weekend. I've previously set out to learn a programming language from scratch (most notably Perl, PHP and Java), and failed! I do have a fair grasp of HTML and XHTML now, though, so I'm pretty confident I can learn an actual programming language given half a chance.
I've long heard that Python is very easy to learn and today I read a passage where a programmer said he was able to learn Python in a weekend through just online tutorials. I've found these to be patchy at times so I invested in a new book, and I'm going to make a concerted effort to learn Python from scratch this weekend.
OK, I may not be able to get through the whole thing, but I reckon I should be able to make a lot of progress. I'm particularly interested in learning to use Django to create web apps as I'm planning a new career in web development.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A new Amiga OS

I came across this fascinating article today on Ars Technica about a new version of the AmigaOS, AmigaOS 4.1. It's well worth a read. AmigaOS 4.1 looks to be as polished as any modern operating system.
I'm really surprised the Amiga didn't survive to the present. I always hear great things about AmigaOS in terms of how powerful it was, and it always had a fantastic range of games (apparently it was very easy to develop for). And, of course they were used with Video Toasters to create the special effects in sci-fi series such as Babylon 5. It was a powerful but inexpensive computer that did it all - gaming, multimedia, you name it. In fact, it was arguably a better gaming platform than a Windows PC at the time. I can't think of a single game available for the PC that wasn't on the Amiga at the time, while I can think of plenty of Amiga games that weren't available for the PC.
Put it this way, when I was a kid loads of people I knew had a Commodore Amiga, whereas I didn't know a single person who owned a Mac (and I never used one until 1995, when I was at sixth fom). Surely, if Apple survived, Commodore should have thrived.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

ReactOS is very much like Windows...

I was just trying ReactOS (an open source clone of Windows) in VirtualBox, and got this rather familiar-looking screen...

I was hoping it was a close copy of Windows so I could use it in VirtualBox to run some games that don't work very well in Wine, but this was something I was hoping it hadn't copied!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Large Hadron Collider Rap

As you may know, this Wednesday the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest particle accelerator ever built, is being switched on this Monday. This hilarious YouTube video tells you all you need to know! Enjoy!

A new distro for my Asus Eee PC

For a while now, I've been dissatisfied with the Xandros installed on my Asus Eee PC. It's quite easy to use, but for an intermediate Linux user such as myself who's a bit more comfortable with getting my hands on the command line, it's a bit frustrating. It's slow and unwieldy, lacks many of the development tools I wanted such as gcc, and just doesn't meet my needs, so I was considering alternatives. Unfortunately, I went for the cheapskate's 2GB version, so my options for a replacement were severely limited. This is too small to run Ubuntu, which would be my first choice, so I had been tinkering with Minibuntu, customising it to add everything I want, but it was difficult to get it installed on the Eee without a USB CD drive.
I'd been tinkering with Sidux, a live CD based on Debian Sid. Being Debian-based, it's quite accessible to someone familiar with Ubuntu, and it also has great hardware detection thanks to the great fw-detect utility. It also has easy installation of the Madwifi drivers for the Atheros wireless card (as used in the Eee). While the regular KDE version of Sidux was too big, it also offers an Xfce version that clocks in at around 450MB on the disc, which when installed comes to around 1.3GB, which is enough to fit on the Eee 2G AND leave around 512MB for a swap partition. Also, it has an easy-to-use USB installer, so there was an easy way to install it on an Eee. So for a while I was considering putting it on the Eee.
This morning I finally decided to bite the bullet and install it. First of all, I used the dd command to image the Eee's flash drive and save a copy of the image to my 4GB SD card so I can restore it if necessary. Then I plugged in my USB pendrive with Sidux Xfce installed on it, and ran the installer.
Once it was installed it booted fine, and I connected it to my wireless router via Ethernet, then ran fw-detect, which told me to run the m-a a-i madwifi command as root to install the Madwifi driver. I then rebooted it and used the Ceni tool to get my wireless connection working. And that was it - it's now working flawlessly, and starts the wireless connection every time it boots up!
Sidux Xfce works great - Iceweasel is a lot faster than Firefox 2 in the default Xandros install, which is the main reason I wanted to switch. I'm very happy with Sidux Xfce, and it makes my Eee a lot more responsive and powerful, it's just a great distro for the Eee. I just wish I'd done this ages ago rather than struggling with Xandros for so long.
Has anyone else got a distro they've been using on the Eee that they want to recommend?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Google Chrome - I add my voice to the chorus!

Like pretty much everyone else who's a serious Internet user, I was eager to try Google Chrome. For once I was glad I still have a Windows install! So I downloaded it to my Vista partition, and gave it a spin.
Holy crap, it's fast! Chrome on Windows not only beats Firefox 3 in Windows, it beats Firefox 3 in the Ubuntu partition on the same computer! You REALLY notice the difference on a JavaScript-heavy site such as Digg. And it's really easy to use, because it just gets out of your way.
It's pretty clear to me why Google have created this: Google want people to use the Internet more and more, because this strengthens them. The more efficient your browser, the more useful web apps such as Google Docs and GMail are. By raising the bar, Google are not only creating a great product, they're forcing other browsers to compete with them, even Internet Explorer. If IE doesn't step up to the challenge, they risk losing market share. If they do, then they're facilitating Microsoft's loss of market share for applications such as Word, Excel etc to web-based alternatives.
It's a hell of a strategy, and a classic Google one at that - Google don't compete, they change the rules of the game. They need browsers to get faster and more efficient to make them a match for Microsoft, so they've created Chrome to give them a platform for this. The fact that it's open source means that Apple, Mozilla, whoever, can pick out bits from Chrome to improve their own products, but also gives them a motivation to better it. Each browser that improves its performance like this means Google can compete more effectively with Microsoft.
Put it this way - I've heard that the reason IE spent so long without a new version being released (2001-2006) was because Microsoft were worried about the threat to their business model from the Internet. Now Google are aggressively pushing a new, faster browser that will change the game. I'm inclined to think Microsoft should be very worried.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Richard Dawkins reads his email

Richard Dawkins seems to have become a hate figure for many religious fundamentalists. Here he reads his emails out loud - well, I suppose it's different from the usual requests for bank account details from the former Nigerian Minister of Finance I get!

read more | digg story

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The babysitter

Found this hilarious video! I never saw the ending coming! Be warned, though, this is a little NSFW!

<a href="" target="_blank">The Babysitter</a>

The rise of the instant-on OS

You may have heard of Asus's instant-on Splashtop operating system, which they are now beginning to roll out across their entire range. This is essentially a minimal Linux-based operating sytem which is built into the motherboard that's capable of getting online so you can surf the Internet, chat and read your email without having to boot into Windows.
Now Dell have announced they are offering a similar system known as Latitude ON, for their new range of Latitude notebooks. Again, it's an embedded Linux distro that can get online without needing to boot the main operating system.
Now, I spend the vast majority of my computing time online, reading emails and feeds and things like that, and I suspect a lot of other people do too. More and more, the browser is becoming the operating system. Web mail services such as Hotmail and GMail have huge advantages over more conventional email accounts, and most people now use these kinds of services in preference to the one offered by their ISP, and many ISP's offer a web interface to email accounts as well. And other services can't be too far behind - online productivity apps such as Google Docs are getting better all the time, and it's only a matter of time till they reach mainstream adoption for casual use, and services like Meebo are proving popular too. And for an awful lot of people, Facebook or MySpace is their main reason to go online. Services like and Imeem can cover listening to music, and you've got services like the BBC's iPlayer and YouTube to handle videos. There's also plenty of casual Flash-based games if you look.
Under these circumstances, the operating system is largely irrelevant, it's just the foundation on which your browser runs, so you just want the fastest OS you can get, and the fastest browser. I can therefore see many people using these instant-on operating systems almost exclusively in preference to Windows. And why not? If it does everything they want, and is more secure, then it makes sense. You'd still have to boot into Windows for serious gaming or running something like Visual Studio Express or Dreamweaver, but it's not actually that many people who want to do this.
There's another advantage to these systems: What about for those times when Windows won't boot? You can't get online to research the problem, and you can't sort it out without being able to search, so if you don't have an alternative way to get online, you're stuck. A few months back my father's computer wasn't booting as the motherboard had been fried by a power surge, but I managed to use a copy of Knoppix to retrieve the files he needed, then once it had been fixed we reinstalled XP. Without a copy of Knoppix he'd have lost those files, but not everyone has a copy of this to hand, or knows about it. These systems would be just as capable of doing this, and they'd have the advantage that users would have already had the chance to become familiar with them.
From Microsoft's point of view, these systems probably aren't so great. Though they don't compete with Windows as such (I expect the systems will still ship with Windows), they may just break people's dependence on Microsoft Windows. People will realise you don't need to use Windows with a computer, and may be more willing to consider alternatives.
We'll just have to see how it plays out. One thing I will say: the more I see, the more I'm convinced the concept of the "Year of the Linux Desktop" and a mass migration away from Windows to Linux is flawed. The way it's actually happening is far more interesting. With embedded Linux distros like these built into motherboards, and Linux grabbing the lion's share of the netbook market while Microsoft were caught napping, but these are entirely new products. Preinstalled Linux in place of Windows does remain a niche offering, at least for the moment. These new products aren't challenging Microsoft's monopoly directly like Dell offering preinstalled Ubuntu, instead they are just making them less relevant.

Sunday, 27 July 2008


I've updated the profile links to show several new services I've joined recently, including and Goodreads. For those of you unfamiliar with Goodreads, it's basically a social network that allows you to record what you're reading and post reviews of books you've read.
I myself have just finished Charles Stross's excellent new novel Saturn's Children and have posted a review there (although I can't find the cover for the UK version). I really love this book, and highly recommend it to anyone with a liking for SF of any kind. For more details, please see my review.
I'm now reading Stephen Baxter's Flood, about a future where sea levels begin to rise, and don't stop. Ever. Once I've finished it (which probably won't be long as I don't have Internet acces at my house in Norwich so I have little to do, and it's so far been a very enjoyable book), I'll do another review. In the meantime, why not check Goodreads out? It's a great service.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Help build dead simple tablet PC!

I have to say: I think this is a fantastic idea. A bare-bones tablet PC for surfing the net and possibly Skype as well. It definitely gets my vote!

read more | digg story

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Could Linux be a better gaming OS than Windows?

Linux and Mac users alike will both know that Windows has by far the lion's share of the computer gaming market. Now, you could buy a console, but there are certain types of games (mainly RTS and things like that) which don't often seem to appear on consoles, and are limited to Windows, so by and large if you want to play these types of games you're limited to using Windows. So Windows is currently the only reasonable choice for if you want to play this type of game, as well as many others. A colleague of mine who is a hardcore PC gamer has also told me that FPS games are better suited to the PC.

However, I believe that from an architectural point of view, Windows is not the best platform for gaming. I know that many devoted PC gamers will spend a lot of time, money and effort building a PC designed to get the absolute best performance out of the components. To me, it then seems an incredible waste to then install Windows (especially Vista) on it. Even with several different versions available, it's not possible to optimise Vista to get the absolute best out of it.

Consider this: Sim City Societies requires 512MB RAM for XP, and 1GB for Vista! Processor-wise, it needs 1.7 GHZ for XP and 2.4GHz for Vista! That's a staggering difference, and can easily make the difference between someone being able to run a game on existing hardware, and needing something new.

The point is, Vista, even with several different versions, is essentially a one-size-fits-all operating system. It's not designed to get the best out of your hardware. A lot of components can't be removed (IE, Windows Media Player etc) and replaced with something lighter.

I therefore believe that if it were better supported with native games, Linux has the potential to be a far better operating system for gaming, especially for hardcore gamers. Here's my reasoning:
  1. Lighter footprint: Pretty much any Linux distro is lighter in terms of system resources than Windows XP or Vista. You'd very likely get better performance out of a fairly mainstream distro like Ubuntu or Fedora than even XP, let alone Vista. And there are plenty of distros a lot lighter than these.
  2. Customisability: Many Windows applications can't be removed, as stated above. Pretty much anything in Linux can be removed, so desktop-wise you could drop Gnome or KDE in favour of IceWM or Fluxbox, remove Compiz etc to get more performance out of it - after all, the desktop doesn't matter when you're playing Crysis. And that's just with mainstream distros as mentioned above - something like Arch Linux enables you to go a lot further.
  3. Freedom to compile system components yourself: If you take the time to compile applications specifically for your hardware, you can get a much faster system. I've never tried Gentoo, but I'm aware that it basically compiles every last component for you from scratch, letting you optimise it for every piece of hardware (for instance, you can choose to optimise the kernel for your processor, rather than using one compiled to work on any x86 or amd64 processor), and giving a truly staggering speed boost. Well, isn't that exactly what gamers want? And if they're willing to spend so much time and effort on building it, isn't it worthwhile to take a bit more time to compile everything in order to get the most out of it?
At present, I still think Linux lacks somewhat as a gaming platform, despite the presence of things like Wine, Cedega and Crossover. Many of these things involve some system overhead, making games slower than they would be running native games.

Of course, there's one massive barrier to the production of native Linux games: DirectX. This is a big barrier. What might happen to change that:
  1. OpenGL: OK, it doesn't provide as much functionality, but I've got to mention it.
  2. Developers abandoning DirectX: Might happen, but doubtful. Can't see any reason why this might happen.
  3. The creation of an open source implementation of DirectX: I believe Wine goes some way to doing this, but it's not exact. I'm thinking something that is to DirectX what Mono is to .NET.
  4. An alternative: Who knows?
I admit I don't know much about DirectX, so much of what I've just written is pure speculation. However, I remain convinced that, at least for hardcore PC gamers, Linux has the potential to be a better operating system than Windows if it were better supported.

What do you think? Am I right or wrong? Are you a PC gamer who'd love to be able to use Linux, or do you think it'd be awful for gaming, even if it was better supported?

Monday, 7 July 2008

Linux for housewives. XP for geeks.

The computer proletariat is rising up - and computing will never be the same. Tiny, sub-$500 “netbooks” like the Asus Eee are the hottest thing going in notebooks today. And some surprising things are happening. Like housewives on Linux.

read more | digg story

Sunday, 29 June 2008

The colour scheme

I've had some negative feedback on Digg and Reddit about the colour scheme of this blog, so I'm interested in knowing what people think. I've therefore added an opinion poll - please cast your vote, I don't want to be driving people away unnecessarily!

Ubuntu is easier to use than a Mac - discuss!

Ever since I bought my MacBook nearly two weeks ago, I've found it a bit of a struggle to get used to. I've used Windows XP and Vista, as well as MANY Linux distros and a few other Unix-like OS's using many different desktops - Gnome, KDE, Xfce, Icewm, E17 and Fluxbox, among others, and the OS X desktop is the hardest one I've ever had to get used to.
Add to that the fact that I've found it a pain to get used to the method of installing things, and I've come to the following conclusion:
A modern beginner-oriented Linux distribution such as Ubuntu is considerably easier to use than a Mac.
Now, hear me out. These are the points I've found where Linux is easier to use:
  1. The desktop. Ubuntu, for instance, has Applications, Places and Systems on the top panel by default, and the Application menu is broken down into categories so it's always easy to track down what you want, and other desktops such as KDE and Xfce are similarly easy to navigate. If you want a launcher, you can install Gnome Do as it's available in Hardy. By comparison, a Mac has no equivalent menu for launching applications. OK, the Dock is pretty prevalent, but it only shows a subset of applications, and if you aren't familiar with them then the only way that you can find out what does what is by trying it. And yes, you can open them in Finder, but that means opening one application to open another, which is a bit of a waste of time. Spotlight is OK, but it takes a bit of getting used to - it's not as good as either Katapult in KDE or Gnome Do in Gnome. Also, it's tiny and hidden away in a corner, while both Katapult and Gnome Do are big, friendly launchers that appear dead in the centre of the screen. To get something comparable on a Mac, you need Quicksilver.
  2. Installing new software. In Ubuntu, you can open Add/Remove Applications, pick out what you want and install it, or you can use Synaptic to get a list of everything you can install, and again can just pick out what you want, and with a few clicks whatever you want will be installed. By comparison, on a Mac you have to go to the web page, download whatever it is you want, then mess around dragging it into a folder, then you have to delete the dmg file from your desktop.
  3. Compiling from source. It's rare to have to compile from source these days, and with Ubuntu you're more likely to see new versions available in the repositories, so you probably have to do so less than on a Mac. And if you do, it's made easier to remove it later by installing the checkinstall package. By using checkinstall instead of make install, you create a deb package which can be easily removed using the package manager if necessary. As far as I can see, there's no equivalent to this on a Mac.
  4. Out of the box functionality. A Mac does "just work" quite well. But so does Ubuntu. I've only EVER had two problems in using Ubuntu or Kubuntu - one was the fact that my wireless card had a driver which didn't support WPA, so I had to use Ndiswrapper to get it working with the Windows drivers. The other was a DNS problem which was to do with my router. I've never had to mess around with my or recompile my kernel, or install any other drivers. And this is on an OS that didn't come preinstalled! To be a truly fair comparison you'd have to compare both preinstalled and installing it yourself on your own machine, as only a "like-to-like" comparison is really fair. A machine that comes with Ubuntu preinstalled "just works" as much as a Mac does, whereas building a hackintosh is MUCH harder than getting Ubuntu working on another machine, and not many non-Apple machines will work at all with OS X, whereas most will work with Ubuntu.
  5. Greater range of preinstalled applications. OK, apps like iMovie, PhotoBooth and Garageband are fun to mess around with, but they are the ONLY ones that don't have equivalents preinstalled in Ubuntu. Ubuntu has more useful things, such as the OpenOffice suite, Evolution (which includes a calendar), the Pidgin IM client (which supports more different protocols than iChat does), The GIMP etc. And it's better supplied with games - there's about five or six, whereas a Mac has chess only!
  6. Better support for third-party media players. iPods are pretty well supported out of the box in Ubuntu or Kubuntu, as are many other music players, as both Rhythmbox and Amarok have wide-ranging support for third party devices. By comparison, trying to get a third-party device working in OS X is likely to involve having to install new software, if it will work at all.
These are the ones I can think of - no doubt plenty of people will be able to suggest other reasons. What do you think? Am I right? As always, please keep it civil, and don't spout advertising slogans. Seriously, I've had enough of "A Mac just works!", it's not a convincing argument!
And if you're a Mac fan - this is not an attack on OS X, having used it I do think it's a good OS, and constructive criticsm benefits Apple because it shows them where they could improve.

Friday, 27 June 2008

My new purchase

I'm a great fan of Unix-based OS's in general, not just Linux. I've tried OpenSolaris, Hurd and a couple of the BSD's in VirtualBox (when I could get them to work!) and liked most of them, but there's one I've not tried till recently. Here's a clue: you can't get it free.
Yes, it's OS X. But I decided to bite the bullet and bought a MacBook. At £799, it's my single most expensive purchase, ever. But, what the hell. I can afford it and it'll be fun.
Here's the list of reasons why I decided to get one:
  1. I could be one of those people on Digg who, when a squabble over which OS is better starts, could say "I use all three and they're all cool, leave it alone".
  2. More likely, I could say "I use all three and Linux is the best"!
  3. I wanted a new computer and I decided a while ago I'm not going to pay for any more copies of Windows, which narrows it down to one with preinstalled Linux or a Mac. And I already have a Dell and an Eee PC.
  4. Macs are supposed to be good for running Linux on (that was before I found out that this one uses the dreaded Broadcom wireless card...)
  5. I might well wind up using Macs at work once I've finished my IT course, so it'd be a good idea to get used to them.

So, what is my impression of it? Well, it looks good from the outset, but I am REALLY finding the desktop to be a b**** to use compared to KDE. I'm beginning to be able to use it, but it's a struggle. I also find it a pain to install things - I keep wanting to open the terminal and type "sudo apt-get install firefox". And I must be one of the first people to buy a Mac and go running straight for the terminal! And so far as I can see if you wanted to install something like a new version of Perl or Python, the only way you could do so would be by compiling it from source.

The applications included are good (the likes of Garageband and PhotoBooth are fun to play with), but there are some things that seem odd. Why, for instance, is there not even a basic word processor, equivalent to MS Works? Do Apple think people will want to store their photos and create music, but then not even want to write a letter? Many of these people won't know about things like NeoOffice or OpenOffice.

From a development side it's very good - I'm really surprised at that. It comes with Apache and Rails preinstalled, and you even get the Xcode IDE on the install disc. But it's probably actually worse than Linux for gaming - most Linux distros include a few games, OS X has chess only, and Linux has plenty of native games free to download as well as things like Wine and Cedega to let you use Windows games.

So, overall I'm impressed in many ways - Apple do get a lot right. But I still think that Linux is the superior operating system - it's FAR more flexible as you can remaster distros, change the desktop and do whatever you want with it, whereas OS X is more restricted. But OS X is defining proof that a Unix-like OS can work for pretty much any user, which is good news for Linux too. After all, one hardware manufacturer will never be able to grab the whole of the market, and if Windows starts becoming a liability to OEMs (as it may already be, considering the rough ride Vista has had), then they will start looking for an alternative that can compete better with OS X, and that will almost certainly mean Linux. Better manufacturer support will almost eliminate the technical reasons that keep people from switching to Linux, and better software support will attract more users. So, in a way, any increase in market share for OS X may well also benefit Linux, and shake up the moribund OS market.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

The return of Google Toolbar

Yes! Google Toolbar is now available for Firefox 3! I've long used this as it's really handy, and I've really struggled without it. Now I've got easy access to my Google Bookmarks and I Feel Lucky again. Thanks for finally getting this done, Google!

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Apple Haters (dot com)

Very funny Apple-bashing pictures! If you're a Mac user and easily offended, look away now!

read more | digg story

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Google Friend Connect

Having had a few weeks to ponder Google's Friend Connect, I'm starting to really think about what it could mean. It's clearly part of Google's social networking strategy, along with OpenSocial, and it shows just how big Google really think - instead of creating a social network to compete with Facebook (which would be pointless as they already have Orkut), they're giving people the chance to make the rest of the Internet into social networks.

This could be very cool if, as I expect, they roll it out to their own services. For instance, if they made it easy to use it with a Blogger blog (which I suspect they will), then any blog will be able to become a social network. While any blog already has a community around it (unless no-one reads it), this could make it easy for people to get to know others in the community, and encourage participation and debate. For me, I think it would be especially handy for Easierbuntu, as it would mean people could connect to each other to share tips and advice on how to use Ubuntu more easily.

It's a shame that Facebook have decided to stop letting people sign in using their Facebook profile as it's one of the biggest social networks, but I do feel strongly that it isn't their decision to make and they shouldn't have done so. If I want to give Google that information, it should be up to me as it's my data. Facebook should not be able to stop me from doing so. In my case, I have other profiles I can use, but not everyone does. I appreciate that they have their own competing product that they want to push, but at the end of the day it's my data and I should be able to do with it what I wish.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

BT OpenZone

Fed up with having nothing much to do in the evenings without broadband and having had little success with mobile broadband, I've just signed up for BT OpenZone. Now at least I can get online in a cafe, just means I'm no doubt going to spend a fortune on cups of tea!
For £10 a month, it's not too bad to get wi-fi on the go, but it's limited to 500 minutes per month. Not really enough for me, but I'm not planning to do a huge amount of browsing on it, just read a few feeds.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Finished part 2 of my course

Just wanted to say that I've just done the online assessment for the second part of my IT course, and I got 26 out of 29! I'm really pleased with that as I found this part harder than the first and was a bit apprehensive about the test.
I'm studying for CIW Associate certification, and I'm thinking that once I've done this course I will then go down either the Enterprise Developer or Web Site Manager route
I'm really looking forward to the next part, Site Development Foundations, as this actually gets into building websites, which I find is a lot more interesting. Also, I can do it on my Asus Eee!


Today I decided to try out Wubi on my Windows Vista machine. For the uninitiated, it's a great new way of installing Ubuntu from within Windows. You just boot up as usual, then run umenu.exe from the disc and go through the menu options to install it. If you then reboot your system, you'll be able to choose between Windows and Ubuntu. If you select Ubuntu, it will be installed for you and you can then boot straight into it. While it's not quite the same as a normal install, it's a lot more convenient as you can later uninstall it from within Windows. I've tried dual-booting in the past but found it a pain - this is a lot more straightforward.

I installed Xubuntu, and I was impressed with how well it worked. Then, on a whim I decided to skin it to look like a Mac, using Mac4Lin. I had a lot of trouble with this, so I decided to switch it to Ubuntu instead by uninstalling the Xubuntu desktop and installing the Ubuntu desktop in its place. After a couple of hours work I had pretty much nailed it.

I'm very impressed with the end result. It's not exactly the same, but it is pretty close - see what you think:

I think I'm going to keep this Ubuntu install on here as I have in the past been using VirtualBox as a test bed for messing around with Linux, but that's somewhat limited. I think this will be better for tinkering, and also so I have a Gnome-based install to play with - KDE is great, but it will no doubt do me good to check out what Gnome offers as well. Also, that's the computer that my music is on so I've installed Amarok and set Ubuntu up to mount my Vista partition automatically so I can listen to music in Linux.

All in all, Wubi is very impressive. Only problem I've had is when I installed Gnome Do - it seems to be a real memory hog, worse than Firefox ever was. Anyone else had this problem?

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Breaching the digital divide

According to this link, there are approximately 1.4 billion people in the world who regularly use the Internet. That's a staggering number, but it represents less than a quarter of the world's population. As the population recently passed something like 6.6 billion, that leaves some 5.2 billion people who don't have regular access to the Internet. And while some of that number represents people who for their own reasons don't wish to go online, I'm sure that probably the vast majority would welcome Internet access.
Having access to the Internet can be a tremendous boon. Internet access allows you to access a great many learning resources - for instance, you can easily find a tutorial and teach yourself Ruby or Python if you wish. It allows people to set up websites that people from all over the world can access, regardless of geographical location. And there's tremendous potential for business use - for instance, a company that sells craft goods in Kenya can advertise their wares to people in the UK. All in all, access to computers and the Internet can be tremendously empowering, enabling people to develop computer skills that will be of value to employers, as well as get in touch with the wider world, and allowing them to work themselves out of poverty.
There's a number of initiatives that are working to provide people with access to computers, such as OLPC and the recent announcement that Brazillian schoolchildren will be sitting down to a KDE desktop in the near future. One notable point is how much these projects are reliant on free software.
So, I was thinking today: It's great that free software such as that used in Edubuntu or the OLPC is helping children to get online. But what about getting adults online? For one thing, the children benefiting from these projects will be grown up in a few years, and for another there are plenty of people a few years older who lack access to computers or the Internet now. When these people are looking for employment, how are their employers going to get computers? And if they elect to start their own businesses, how will they get a computer? For business purposes, a computer is an invaluable tool - and it's necessary to compete in some areas.
So why doesn't someone start selling some kind of cheap and cheerful desktop PC designed for the third world? Think about it - it doesn't cost much to build a fairly basic PC, you can use older product lines that manufacturers are winding down as these are very cheap, often £15-£20 for a processor, for example. I'm sure it would be easy to build a basic PC without a screen or keyboard for less than £150, probably considerably less. Install a lightweight Linux distribution on it (I'm thinking possibly Xubuntu, or maybe creating a variant using a window manager such as IceWM or Fluxbox for more speed), and you'll get an easy-to-use computer, and access to the free software in the distro's repositories, so people can easily set up web servers, install office software or whatever they need. You could manufacture these in large quantities and sell them in developing countries (or for that matter, there's plenty of people in the first world who would benefit from them). On a larger scale, these could help to bootstrap an entire IT industry into existence in a country within a very short space of time - perhaps we could see a whole host of web startups in the third world.
Such a project has a great deal of merit. The best way to sell them would probably be as a franchise, as it would allow people to set up their own businesses, creating jobs in the process. They'd be ideal for small or even mid-sized businesses. Internet cafes could also use them as they'd be good value for money, allowing them to afford more computers and make more money. And it wouldn't even need to be a charity - I feel this is something which has a sound business model.
I'd be very surprised if this is the first time someone has thought up this idea, but I can't find anything similar online. Probably the closest thing to this that I'm aware of is the gPC, as well as some other projects I've heard of to refurbish old computers and install Linux on them then sell them on. What do you think? Could this be a good way to help breach the digital divide?

Friday, 30 May 2008

A demo of Google's Android

Check out this brilliant demo of Android! I can't wait to get an Android phone!

Monday, 26 May 2008

Ubuntu Netbook Remix

Have you read this? It appears that Ubuntu is going to be the first major Linux distribution to release a version designed specifically for the subnotebook market. Nothing concrete yet, but will be very interesting to see what comes of this. Although there are other Linux distributions aimed at ultraportables such as the Eee PC, they're all community ones like PuppEee or EeeXubuntu. Ubuntu Netbook Remix is the first one that's actually produced by a major Linux distributor.

I'm willing to bet good money that not only can Ubuntu produce a great OS for subnotebooks long before Microsoft can, but that other Linux vendors can too. Furthermore, Microsoft won't be able to match Linux on performance, not at least without tearing out huge chunks of Windows XP, probably crippling it in the process, and will really struggle to turn a profit in this field. While it's naive to believe that Windows won't gain some market share of these computers, it does look like Linux is going to be the dominant OS for these computers, and Apple are unlikely to get involved.

I've already seen plenty of people brandishing Eee PC's around Norwich, and Asus are churning them out as fast as they can and still can't keep up with demand. It's looking increasingly likely that instead of the fabled Year of the Linux Desktop, 2008 may be the Year of the Linux Ultraportable. We certainly live in exciting times!

Saturday, 24 May 2008

jTwitter - a Twitter client for the mobile phone

I've been looking for a decent Twitter client that will work on my Motorola RAZR, and just now I found jTwitter. I'm on pay as you talk as I don't use my mobile that much and I tweet as much as I can and also follow a respectable number of people so using SMS would be too expensive, and using Opera Mini or the default Vodafone browser to navigate to the Twitter mobile page is a pain, not to mention expensive as you have to pay to download all those images and things - using a dedicated client is the way to go. I already use the Google Mail client, so with this as well I should be able to keep in touch more easily.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

List: 10 Unmanliest Drinks In The World

Don't quite know what to make of this one! My personal view is this: it's perfectly acceptable for a man to drink anything he wants as long as it hasn't got a parasol in it. The only exception to this is when you're on holiday, when parasols are acceptable. What do you think?

read more | digg story

Asus to embed Linux into all motherboards

Good idea this - while the more technically inclined among us often use Knoppix to troubleshoot a computer which won't boot, other people aren't aware of this option. With this on your motherboard, you can boot into a desktop with a web browser so you can Google your problem with ease!

read more | digg story

Monday, 5 May 2008

OS Community released first OpenSolaris stable version.

I'm a fan of most free operating systems, not just Linux. So I was very pleased to hear that the first stable version of OpenSolaris has been released - why not check it out?

read more | digg story

5 Linux distributions that rival OS X for looks

Mac OS X has a reputation as the most visually pleasing operating system around today. Fans often decry other operating systems as looking pathetic by comparison. Well, I beg to differ. Many of these people's only other experience of using computers is with Windows, which has never been strong in terms of appearance. Linux has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years, and many distributions now offer an extremely visually pleasing desktop, one that (dare I say it) approaches and possibly even exceeds OS X in terms of looks.

Linux has also had several different desktops available, which I think helps as there's a degree of competition between them. Also, it's highly configurable - don't like something, you can change it! Even a distribution like Ubuntu, which has a relatively tame desktop by default, needs only a little configuration to transform it into a real looker.

So, to perhaps open a few people's eyes, I've done a round-up of five of the most impressive Linux desktops available today. I've deliberately stuck to distributions which can be booted in LiveCD mode, so that if you're curious, you can try them out without needing to be installed. I've also avoided all distributions that aren't free to download, which unfortunately does leave out some great ones like Elive.

Some of you may find that these desktops are a lot better than you might have thought. If you're a Mac user, you may want to give some of these a try to see how they stack up against OS X. While I'm not looking to necessarily convert anyone, there is a tendency for Mac users to dismiss anything else as looking rubbish by comparison, which is often just a knee-jerk reaction. By writing this post, I'm hoping that perhaps a few people will see their preconceptions challenged.

So, without further ado, here's my round up of five Linux desktops that give OS X a run for its money:

PCLinuxOS has a well-deserved reputation as a good distribution for beginners, because it includes many of the multimedia codecs that other distributions can't for legal reasons. It has a great range of applications, with plenty more available from the repositories.

It's also got a strikingly beautiful desktop:

Also, like most modern Linux distributions, it includes Compiz:

There's many good reasons for PCLinuxOS's popularity with Linux newbies, and this desktop is clearly one of them! It also includes a great "Copy2ram" feature when booting from the disc that allows you to load the whole OS into memory if you have 1GB or more of RAM, providing an incredibly fast system.

This distribution is another good newbies distro, being based on the extremely newbie-friendly Ubuntu distro. Of all these desktops, gOS Space is the one that owes the most to OS X, but the philosophy behind it is different, with its emphasis on web apps instead of the desktop.

Again, Compiz is included for desktop effects.

gOS Space is a distribution that's easy to use and beautiful to look at. Its use in the MyMiniPC will no doubt expose it to people who wouldn't otherwise consider Linux as an option.


One relatively obscure, but extremely beautiful Linux desktop is Enlightenment, version 17 of which has been in development for many years. While it's not yet been officially released, it's still complete enough that it's used in several distros. Probably the most striking of these is OpenGEU, formerly known as Geubuntu. Like gOS Space, it's based on Ubuntu, but it uses elements of the Gnome and Xfce desktops to fill in the gaps in Enlightenment. And it looks awesome, with animated wallpapers and bling aplenty. Check out the default theme, Sunshine:

It also comes with a second theme, which I prefer, namely Moonlight:

This desktop has to be seen to be believed - it's truly astounding!


Dreamlinux is a distribution that hails from Brazil. Like gOS, the layout takes a degree of inspiration from OS X, but the overall look is distinctively its own:

It has a choice of desktops available - either Gnome or the lightweight Xfce, yet maintains a consistent look between the two and manages to squeeze both onto one CD. It also includes a very handy utility to install it to a USB flash drive, so you can carry it anywhere!

It includes Compiz, and the Emerald theme manager, so it's very easy to customise it to get a distinctive look in a matter of minutes:

It also has Avant Window Navigator, an excellent dock bar. This includes the DCP Control Panel, where you can easily adjust the settings for Compiz, Emerald and AWN to get your desktop looking the way you want it.

Linux Mint

This distribution is based on Ubuntu, but is made even more user-friendly thanks to the fact that, like PCLinuxOS, it includes multimedia codecs by default. The desktop isn't glitzy like some of the other distros I've mentioned, but has an understated elegance of its own:

It also includes Compiz out of the box, so you can easily get the cube effect going in no time! Linux Mint is a tremendous distribution for those who don't want to get bogged down in the technical details but like an attractive desktop that's easy to use. It's always my first choice for a recommendation to Linux newbies.

I'm also going to make special mention of the KDE4 desktop. At the moment, only one distribution (Kubuntu Hardy) offers a KDE4 desktop, and it's not very mature at the moment, as many of the applications for KDE have not yet been ported to KDE4. But it shows a lot of promise:

All of these distributions are freely available, so if you like the look of one, then just click on the link to take you to the website, where you can download an ISO image and burn it to disc to try. I know that some Mac users hate having to use Windows if they're at a friend or relative's house, so if you like the look of one of these, you may want to keep a copy handy to use as an alternative under those circumstances. Also, Linux has the same kind of resistance to viruses and malware as OS X, so you have those advantages as well - always worth having if you're going to use a computer that could have all kinds of junk on it! Live CD's can also be handy if your computer won't boot due to problems and you need to use it in a hurry.

By reading this article and perhaps trying one or two of these, I hope you'll find that Linux has a lot more going for it on the desktop than perhaps you realised!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Linux Stickers

I forgot to mention this earlier, but back at the end of February I sent the following email to Linux Format (a UK magazine for Linux users, and far and away the best of the lot if you ask me):

I've been using Kubuntu for nearly a year now, and Linux Format has been an invaluable resource to me for that time. Thanks for a great mag!
I recently took the "Designed for Windows XP" sticker off my Dell Inspiron, as it seemed silly to have it on there when I haven't had Windows on there for so long, and I found myself thinking about how nice it would be to have a Kubuntu or Ubuntu sticker instead, or even just a Linux one. I expect they are probably given away at conferences, but I've not been to one, nor I suspect have many Linux users. Have you thought about giving away a sheet of stickers for various distros free with one issue so we can show off our distro of choice to all and sundry?
Imagine my surprise when it was actually printed in the May issue! What's more, I got the June issue today and there are three other letters adding their vote to it! Not to mention a thread on their forums about it. Guess a lot of people would like to be able to get rid of the "Designed for Windows XP" stickers!

Linux From Scratch

I first started experimenting with Linux in February 2007, and tried loads of distros before eventually settling on Kubuntu. Although I was using Kubuntu Edgy for about a month, I wasn't able to connect to the Internet, either wirelessly or by Ethernet until I switched to Feisty the day that was released, so I take the launch date of Feisty as the date I started using Linux as my main operating system.

So, now that I've switched to Hardy, I've been using Linux for a little over a year now. In that time, I've learned a lot. Thanks to my experimentation with VirtualBox, I've been able to try more distros than I care to name, and I'm confident that I could easily use a more complex distro such as Debian, having tried Etch in VirtualBox and liked it. I have tried Gentoo, but that won't boot in VirtualBox for some reason - anyone know why? Slackware was good as well, but I struggled a little with it.

But for a while I've had a hankering to try something else:
Linux From Scratch. For the uninitiated, LFS is essentially a project that describes how to build your own custom GNU/Linux system from scratch. It can be done from an existing system, the Linux From Scratch live CD (which includes the software and manuals you need), or another live CD such as Knoppix. It sounds pretty cool, and I've heard that you can learn an awful lot from making your own custom install.

Has anyone else done this before? Was it hard? And do you think that after 1 year, it's likely that I've got enough Linux experience to do it? I'd love to hear from you if you have created your own custom system in this fashion.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The desktop - where do we go from here?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the future of the desktop operating system. As a Linux user and a vocal advocate of Linux and free software in general, this is something I think about anyway. I find myself a little frustrated that people waste money on expensive proprietary software when they could be using free software instead (in both the free speech and free beer sense). In particular, I have something of a bee in my bonnet about schools using this - why should my taxes, or Tesco vouchers for schools, go to pay Microsoft when they could be using Edubuntu instead? OpenOffice is a more than adequate replacement for MS Office (and don't give me that about "they need to learn the industry standard", it's just a word processor, I used other ones when I was a kid and I can use MS Office just fine).

I do think there is a change coming. Having been using Linux for a year now, I know very well that distros like Ubuntu are more than ready for the average Joe. Anyone who thinks that Ubuntu is hard to install must have not installed Windows XP (which is a lot harder to install than Ubuntu). It's just the fact that you have to install it at all that fazes some people, and the fact there are differences between that and Windows. If you were buying your first computer and you got it with Ubuntu preinstalled, it wouldn't be any harder to learn to use it than Windows - in fact it's easier in many ways.

I know several people who don't consider themselves Linux users, but own an Eee PC, and use it without any problems at all. This device, in particular, has made it clear that a well thought out Linux distribution can work for non-technical users.

Add to the fact that Windows Vista is getting a reaction somewhere between lukewarm and outright hostile, depending on who you ask, and it makes me feel that a shakeup on the desktop is imminent. Microsoft are pressing ahead with plans to withdraw XP from sale, but vendors such as Dell and HP are exploiting loopholes to keep selling it.

I do keep hearing rumours that Windows 7 will see major changes to Windows, similar to what Apple did when they moved to a Unix base. There are suggestions that the whole OS might be rewritten from the ground up, getting rid of much of the bloatware. It's difficult to tell what impact this might have. On the one hand, these changes could save Windows, fixing major problems with the operating system and improving performance no end. On the other, changes of this magnitude would very likely break compatibility with previous versions of Windows, so people couldn't use their old software, although I can see how they could include some kind of virtualization software to get round this. Also, people don't generally like the changes in Windows Vista, so more radical changes might go down like a ton of bricks.

Apple, of course, will remain a part of the desktop computing scene, but the fact is OS X is not going to grab a majority market share any time soon. The only way this would happen is if Apple were to license OS X to other hardware manufacturers, which I can't see them doing any time soon. Also, if Apple did somehow wind up pushing every other hardware manufacturer out of the market it would be worse than Microsoft's current near-monopoly - they'd control both the hardware and software markets, which is worse than Microsoft controlling just the software. Sorry Mac fans, but never going to happen, not while there are industry regulators around! Apple's market share may well increase, but they aren't going to take over the world, fact.

If other OEM's start losing significant market share to Apple because Windows became a liability, you can bet your life that they will start looking around for an alternative, and Linux is the most likely choice (but not the only one - it's possible that other desktop operating systems such as FreeBSD might also benefit).

One thing to note is that if something like this happens, growth in Linux adoption is likely to be exponential. For instance, greater numbers of Linux users means that more hardware and software manufacturers will support it, reducing the problems people have when switching so that more use it, creating a reinforcing loop. While I don't think Linux is likely to wipe out Windows any time soon, if at all, it could easily become much more significant than it is now in a very short space of time.

I actually think that if it was better supported by games manufacturers, Linux would be a better choice of operating system for hardcore gamers. These are the people who will spend lots of time and money building a custom gaming rig that's designed to get the absolute best performance possible out of their computer. To me, it seems a bit of a waste to then have a bog-standard Windows install on it. I'm sure many of these people would really appreciate being able to use a distribution like Gentoo to compile the whole installation from scratch and customise it to get the very best from their computer. For people like this, the desktop of choice may be much less important, so they could use a window manager like IceWM or Fluxbox, meaning they can then save the processing power for where they really need it. Something like Aero is a waste of processing time if you're looking for gaming performance.

Whatever happens, I think the next few years are likely to be interesting. One thing to note, though, even if you're happy with Windows or OS X, is that any growth in Linux adoption benefits you as a consumer, even if you don't use it. I'm not just saying this as a proponent of Linux, but if Microsoft and Apple have more effective competition in the desktop operating system market, they will be forced to improve their own products to compete. The nature of Linux, with hundreds of distributions competing with each other, means that it has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and will no doubt continue to do so. The entry of Linux into the mainstream desktop market would really shake up the scene.

Anyway, that's just my thoughts, and you may disagree - please feel free to comment!