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.