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!

Monday, 28 April 2008

Why Linux always wins!

Maybe it's too soon to be doing the second instalment, but I had this idea buzzing around my head and I couldn't wait!

Something funny for a Monday morning

A little XKCD-style cartoon I knocked up in five minutes, which I think some of you might enjoy!

If this goes down well, I might even do some more!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

BBC News website

Has anyone else noticed that the BBC News website has dumped Windows Media Player and Real Player, and started using Flash instead?

This is great news as I struggled for ages to get to play videos in Linux. I finally found a way using a Firefox extension and VLC, but now I don't need to do that, I just need to add flashplugin-nonfree and I'm away!

Upgrading to Hardy Heron

I've upgraded to Kubuntu Hardy Heron, and so far I'm very impressed. I decided to stick with the KDE3 version in the end (mainly because Katapult isn't in the KDE4 version and I'm so used to it, and yes I know it's easy to download and install it), and it's working out well for me. Now that I've got /home on a separate partition, I didn't have to spend ages loading old e-mails or entering passwords for websites I used.

However, I'm using the Firefox 3 beta as my browser and I have one or two issues with it. First of all, a couple of extensions that I rely on aren't yet available (Google Toolbar, Google Browser Sync). Second, it's a real pain sometimes when I click on a link - sometimes it will open something random, like it will try to download something if I right click, rather than coming up with the right-click menu! Not sure why this is, but it's a shame as Firefox 3 solves many of the issues I'd had with Firefox 2 and is a LOT faster.

I'm also impressed with Xubuntu Hardy - great default wallpaper. I was actually seriously tempted by it this time, as despite my preference for KDE, I also really like Xfce (as well as IceWM and E17).

One very handy feature in Hardy is uFW, an easy-to-use command-line application which enables you to configure your firewall. Also, Kubuntu has better Compiz support.

All in all, while I'm sad to see Gutsy go, as it was so much more reliable than Feisty, Hardy is a worthy successor. It appears to no longer have the issue with DNS that I experienced with Gutsy, and the wireless works out of the box as it did in Gutsy.

What kind of experience have you had with Hardy so far? If you're using Kubuntu, have you gone for KDE3 or 4? Have you switched desktops? Or has Hardy given you problems?

Sunday, 13 April 2008

My review of gOS Space

You will all no doubt be aware that a few months back I reviewed the original gOS, and I was enthusiastic about it. In my opinion, the original gOS was a great Linux distribution for the average computer user - someone who used it to write up a few documents, send a few emails, and surf the Internet a bit. With its emphasis on web apps, it was not only an ideal operating system for casual users, but was an indication of where desktop computing appears to be headed, with the real work being done "in the cloud", with the desktop just the front end for that.

Subsequently, gOS Rocket was released, but I never got round to reviewing this, mainly due to hardware issues (I couldn't get it working with my wireless connection). I tried it, and there was very little improvement over the original - a slight difference to the iBar, and a few extra applications.

But now, gOS Space is here, and it's a radical departure from the original. So, once again I downloaded a copy and gave it a try.

One thing I noticed straight off is the size. gOS Space is around 768MB, too big to fit on a CD-ROM, so you'll need to burn it to a DVD-R instead. Like it's predecessors, gOS Space is based on Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, so you know right from the start that it's going to be easy to use.

The biggest change to gOS is the desktop: they've dumped Enlightenment (although apparently code from Enlightenment is still being used), switching instead to Gnome (as used in Ubuntu). I was a bit sceptical about this, not being a great fan of Gnome, but having seen it, they've done a fantastic job with it. Check out the awesome desktop:

It's radically different to the previous gOS desktop, but retains the same ethos behind it, with the concentration on web apps, accessible through the dock, in addition to the usual applications as used by Ubuntu, which are available from the menu in the top left corner:

This picture really doesn't do justice to the wonderful little animation you get when you mouse over an icon on the dock - they glow blue and rotate. Great little touch, and makes it look really user-friendly.

In place of the existing dock, they've used the excellent Avant Window Navigator, and have included a feature similar to OS X Leopard's Stacks to enable many links to be activated from one icon:

The theme used for the application windows is simple but stylish:

Now, it would be fair to say that the desktop still owes much of its inspiration to OS X, but it's not just copying the Mac graphic interface. The switch to Gnome means they can include Compiz, always one of the great advertisements for Linux:

And, of course, under the hood it's Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, so it's among the easiest of Linux distributions to use.

The inclusion of the Stacks-style feature means that they can fit a lot more links in than previous versions of gOS, so for each item there are several choices. For instance, look under Music and you'll see, among others, Jango, Imeem, Last.fm, and Pandora. Equally, look under Videos and you'll find YouTube, Google Video and MySpace TV. The apps are generally well chosen, and there are more available from the menu, including all the old favourites from previous versions of gOS such as GMail and Google Reader.

The name, of course, is no accident: gOS Space is aimed at people who use MySpace. There's an entire stack devoted to MySpace, as well as links to add the new applications to MySpace (shame that MySpace still persists in not allowing you to edit your profile in anything other than IE). The News stack is not something you'd use for serious news: the links are for MTV News, MySpace News, and Perez Hilton - basically they're concentrated on celebrity gossip rather than news:

Cosmetically, gOS can't be faulted. It's a truly stunning desktop - if anyone ever tells you that Linux doesn't have a nice desktop, just show them this and watch them eat their words!

Space is more like Ubuntu than any previous version of gOS - the file manager is Nautilus, the terminal is the same one Ubuntu uses, in fact I could only find one application in Ubuntu that isn't in gOS (namely Ekiga Softphone, but then it has Skype instead, which is more widely used, so that's not a great loss). So there's certainly no problem in terms of functionality. You could just as easily use gOS Space to do serious coding or compile a new kernel as with Ubuntu - the sources list for APT includes all the Ubuntu repositories, so anything in Ubuntu is also available for gOS.

In all honesty, I can't find a single thing to dislike about Space. The only drawback is the larger size, meaning you need a DVD instead of a CD, but that's not a big deal, as it doesn't seem to be any slower than Ubuntu. It will appeal to people far outside the usual group of Linux enthusiasts, and will help to get people using free software, even if they don't give two hoots about open source. Personally, I won't be using it as my main OS, being very much a KDE man, but I would be more than willing to recommend it to a less computer-literate friend or relative. If the Everex MyMiniPC were to become available in the UK with this installed, I'd be straight down to buy one, as it's a fantastic deal regardless of what OS you wind up using on it, so the fact that gOS Space is such a great distro is even better.

I do have a few suggestions, though. I still think that Flock might be a good fit for gOS instead of Firefox, due to its integration with social networks. I also think that it could do with a good application launcher similar to Quicksilver - fortunately there's an excellent candidate for this in Gnome Do, which is not yet in Ubuntu, but I believe is available from Hardy Heron onwards. Finally, I'd suggest the creators add a link for a social bookmarking service such as del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia, as these are extremely useful web apps that would prove very useful for many casual Internet users.

If you're a casual computer user who doesn't want to use Vista, this may be a great OS for you. If you like the Mac desktop, but aren't willing to shell out the exorbitant price for one, this also may be ideal for you. It's a great choice as a first Linux distro, and if you want to use Linux but the rest of your family don't, this may well be the distro to make them change their minds. If you want to try it, here's the link to the homepage. gOS Space could well be a distro that changes a lot of people's minds about just how easy to use Linux can be.

Saturday, 12 April 2008


I've been trying a lot of window managers with Ubuntu in VirtualBox over the last few months. These are a bit harder to get set up than the regular desktops such as Gnome or KDE, but they're a lot more lightweight. If you have an older computer that might suffer under the weight of Gnome or KDE, then using a window manager instead is worth considering.

I'm a fan of Enlightenment, but I don't like the current stable version (E16), and the forthcoming version, E17, has been in development for years, despite its use in OpenGEU and gOS (although gOS Space has switched to Gnome). Enlightenment is probably one of the biggest and most powerful window managers, yet looks amazing. I've heard rumours that there may be a release of a stable version of E17 this year, but I'm not optimistic. However, it really does look great - I actually think it knocks the stuffing out of the Mac desktop.

So, Enlightenment's not really much of an option for me. I've tried Fluxbox, Openbox and several others, but one stood out for me - IceWM. This is a very simple window manager - it resembles the classic Windows GUI, with a main menu at the bottom left and a panel along the bottom. Although there are a few graphical configuration apps for it, it's not too hard to configure it by editing text files. It has a great integrated application launcher - just press the Windows key and the Space bar, then type the name of the application and press Enter. It doesn't autocomplete like Google Desktop or Katapult, but it's still a great touch.

It supports both Gnome and KDE apps, and it's easy to find or create themes for it - you can find plenty of Windows ones, as well as more than a handful of Apple-themed ones. Presumably because of its resemblance to Windows, IceWM is used in the basic desktop on an Asus Eee PC (using the SilverXP theme), making it an easy transition for people used to Windows.

I've found IceWM to be a great desktop, and have now installed it alongside KDE. If your computer finds Gnome, KDE or even Xfce to be a bit too heavy, IceWM is definitely worth a try.

Going Mobile

On Wednesday, fed up of having no Internet access at my new place, I went and bought a Vodafone Mobile Connect ExpressCard, basically a PCMCIA card which allows you to access the Internet via HSDPA. It works out of the box in Windows Vista, but of course I didn't want that, I wanted it to work with Linux!

Trouble is, it's one of those chicken-and-egg situations - I needed Internet access to get to the information and programs necessary, and until I'd done that I couldn't get online. Thank goodness I had a Vista machine as well, which allowed me to find Vodafone's Betavine Forge site, which provides Linux drivers for Vodafone's mobile broadband devices.

I had opted for the PCMCIA card rather than the USB modem, because I've had bad experiences with USB wi-fi adapters, although I was keenly aware that USB is generally more likely to work than PCMCIA devices. But Kubuntu seemed to detect the device fine on startup, although you couldn't get anywhere from there on as the software on the card is for Windows.

So I downloaded the Linux drivers (the stable version1.99.17, rather than the beta, both of which were available as .deb packages, presumably designed for Ubuntu). Thing was, the Linux driver had rather a lot of dependencies, which themselves had other dependencies, meaning that it wasn't practical to get it working without already having an Internet connection. So I had to wait till I could use my parent's broadband at the weekend.

So the weekend came and I brought my laptop home, and logged onto the wireless network. First of all I did:
sudo apt-get -f install

to resolve the outstanding dependencies (there were a few, many of which themselves had further dependencies to resolve, so it did take a few minutes. Now, I could start up the application, but I didn't have the settings to get it working, namely the user name, password, and APN (Access Point Name), which the application prompted me for. A little Googling led me to this forum post which explained that the settings needed to be "internet" for the APN, and "web" for both the user name and password. After having done this, the card works perfectly in Kubuntu Gutsy!

It's very slow at my parent's house as there's no 3G coverage in Diss, just GPRS. But in Norwich where 3G coverage is near-total, it was a lot faster on my Vista laptop. Still significantly slower than connecting via wi-fi to my parent's broadband connection with TalkTalk (which I didn't appreciate earlier, but now realise is pretty damn fast and has a sky-high download limit, although it's worth taking the time to ditch their DNS servers and use OpenDNS instead for a faster and more reliable response), but it's faster than some of the dialup connections I've used in the past.

Word is that mobile broadband will become dominant by 2011, but for it to match landlines the mobile phone networks will need to invest very heavily in new infrastructure. I've noticed a big difference in speed between browsing around 7-8pm and around 11pm, significantly more so than when I was using my parent's wi-fi. It could potentially be very big, and with the price war going on between the mobile operators in the UK, it's reached the point where it's competitive with landlines on price, if not performance.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

gOS Space & myMiniPC:Bling-Enabled Linux Desktop for Myspace

Seriously cool-looking! The new gOS Space-equipped myMiniPC is clearly a shot across Apple's bows, and looks pretty awesome. You'll already know that I'm fond of gOS, so I'm really pleased to see this. Shame I haven't got an Internet connection at my new place so I can't try it yet. Ah well, I'll have to wait till I go to my parents and download a copy then.

read more | digg story

Friday, 4 April 2008

I'm moving!

Just a quick post to say that tomorrow I am moving into a new house in Norwich so I may not have time to post for a while. Also, I don't think my new house has Internet access yet, so I may have to manage without it for a while - don't know how I'll survive, thank God Norwich has municipal wi-fi in the city centre!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

A classic Dilbert...

Check out yesterday's Dilbert strip...

A classic!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


I heard about a great website today called Tryphone, which enables you to try out mobile phones through a Flash-based simulation. Great idea, and fun too.
You can even embed them in websites or email them to people. Here's the iPhone for example:

I'd like a 32GB iPod Touch, so this is quite fun to play with!

Kernel compilation

Well, on Sunday I managed to compile a new kernel fine in Xubuntu Gutsy (I actually compiled a 2.6.24 kernel, rather than the 2.6.22 kernel Gutsy came with, and really I should have gotten it from apt-get so I was getting the one patched specifically for Ubuntu rather than a vanilla kernel). It took absolutely ages to compile.

But was it worth it? Hell, no! I should really have had a better idea of what to do when I got the menu up to decide what drivers to include! Therefore I just left it as the default, so presumably it included every driver under the sun! It took a long time to boot up afterwards.

But, on the plus side, I CAN say I have compiled my own kernel from scratch, and it did work. Next time, I will pay a LOT more attention to the options available.

Incidentally, I found out today that the book Linux Kernel in a Nutshell, which I will have to read before I try to compile a kernel again, is available as a free download. Needless to say, as soon as I heard this I was straight onto the site! I'd actually rather have a physical copy as ebooks are hard to read, but I'm not going to complain.

My kernel has now gone - it was in VirtualBox, which I use to experiment with different Linux distros and generally mess around a lot, which is actually a very good learning experience. I've now put a new command-line install of Ubuntu in to play around with.