Thursday, 15 January 2009

Ubuntu causes girl to drop out of college? Errr...

I expect by now most of you will have seen this article, about a young woman who bought a new Dell laptop, but for some reason got it with Ubuntu preinstalled, and was complaining that it had forced her to drop out of college.

My first thought was how? Dell's website doesn't exactly make show Ubuntu prominently, you really have to go searching round for it to find it. Also, it has a pretty big disclaimer saying that if you buy one of these computers, you won't be getting it with Windows. Dell certainly don't sneak it onto your computer.

Second, it's certainly not Ubuntu's or Dell's fault. If she'd bought a Mac, for example, the Verizon setup CD probably wouldn't work on that either - even now Macs aren't always well supported.

I don't really blame the girl, although she REALLY should have asked for help earlier, and not gone to the TV station! If she'd logged into the Ubuntu Forums plenty of people would have been willing to help. Hell, I would have been willing to help someone in that position myself, it's certainly not a terribly hard issue!

That girl represents the overwhelming majority of people who use computers for just surfing the net, emailing and writing a few documents. Ubuntu can perform very well in that role, however most Internet Service Providers are still very Windows-centric. I'm sure many Mac users experience these kinds of issues too. So getting broadband working using ISP-provided hardware and software in anything other than Windows can be an uphill struggle.

I guess the issue really here is more about ISP's than end users or operating systems. I truly despise the setup CD's used by most ISP's. Why install software you don't need to use? It's not hard to configure a broadband connection if someone just gives you the information you need.
Here's what I think ISP's need to do:
  1. Ditch those stupid USB DSL modems most ISP's use. On Windows you normally need to install a driver to use them, whereas Linux and Macs will generally either work straight away with them or won't work. A much better option is something that connects via Ethernet. As a general rule, it won't require any drivers to work on any OS you wish. More and more broadband packages include a wireless router, so just make this a decent Ethernet one rather than a USB one. If they don't need to install a driver, that's a whole step in the process gone, like that! Could cut down on tech support calls in one stroke.
  2. Ditch the automated configuration software and use a web interface. These are generally just as user-friendly, but don't require you to install anything. My D-Link wireless router has a web interface and I can configure it on my MacBook, or one of my Linux machines if I wish. If the ISP provides the router, make it one with a web interface, and have the setup instructions concentrate on that router, but provide information that's sufficient to cover any router. Also, what if people are going to be using the connection primarily with something other than a computer, such as a PlayStation 3? This way, no matter whether they use Windows, a Mac, Ubuntu, Slackware, Solaris, FreeBSD or a PS3, they can get online.
  3. Get rid of automated setup CD's for Internet connections. Every remotely user-friendly OS, Ubuntu included, has its own wizard for setting up an Internet connection. Give people the information they need to do it, and let them do it. I really think one of the reasons people have problems with computers is over-zealous hardware and software suppliers trying their best to hide every last little detail, even filling in a few numbers and ticking a few boxes.
I'm all for making things easy to use, but end users should not be spoon-fed. It makes more sense to me to give people the information they need and let them get on with it. Configuring a router via a web interface if you have all the information you need on a sheet of paper is no harder than filling in a form online, which anyone with half a brain can do. If you can join Facebook, you can configure your router if someone gives you the information you need.

Instead people get told to put in the CD, run it and attach the modem. They expect it to work straight away, and if it doesn't are lost, because every last detail has been hidden from them so they don't know where to turn next. If they have input those details themselves, they can go back and see if they have entered something wrongly.

I appreciate there are many people who don't want to learn the technical details. Fine, I don't want to force them to learn. But we should be trusting people to input a few details on their own, rather than pushing everything out of sight.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Unix commands work in Google!

Holy crap! Did you know you can use some Unix commands in Google? I just Googled the following:
ubuntu | grep icewm

and got a load of responses about Ubuntu, all mentioning IceWM! Now that is a SERIOUSLY useful tool, which I will be making very heavy use of indeed! Wonder what other Unix commands work in Google?

Sunday, 11 January 2009

A review of OpenSolaris 2008.11

I'm always willing to try new operating systems, and naturally it's a plus if they're free and open source. I like the Unix environment in general, and find that it better suits my needs than Windows.

So I guess it was inevitable that I was going to give OpenSolaris a try at some point. For the uninitiated, it's an open source operating system based on Sun's Solaris operating system, which is itself a version of Unix.

OpenSolaris feels very similar to popular Linux distros such as Ubuntu - it boots from the CD into a Gnome desktop with all the same applications as you'd expect to see in Ubuntu - Firefox, Thunderbird and Pidgin. OpenOffice isn't included by default, but is available from the repositories. This similarity is no accident - Sun hired Ian Murdock, founder of Debian, to help them create an official OpenSolaris distribution.

OpenSolaris's implementation of the Gnome desktop has to be the best I have ever seen. Check out this screenshot:

This shows the default theme, Nimbus. I prefer Dark Nimbus:

Compared to Ubuntu, the fonts that come by default are nicer, and no need to worry if you're brown-phobic too! It also includes Compiz by default.

As yet, OpenSolaris only offers the Gnome desktop. Not great if you prefer KDE like I do, but it does mean the whole thing is geared towards one desktop, making it a bit more uniform than most Linux distros - you won't find KDE apps that stand out like a sore thumb!

One downside is that compared to most Linux distros, OpenSolaris can be rather leisurely. It took several minutes to boot up in Virtualbox, and while the installer was no harder than Ubuntu's to use, it took a LOT longer. Installing new software was also very slow.

The graphical package manager is very similar to Ubuntu's Synaptic, and won't cause problems for anyone who's used to the idea of package management. However, OpenSolaris doesn't seem to have the sort of simple update manager that Ubuntu has.

One aspect that would no doubt come in very handy is the new Time Slider feature. Reminiscent of Apple's Time Machine, this feature allows you to automate backups in a simple user-friendly fashion. Sun's ZFS filesystem is undoubtedly extraordinarily powerful, and Time Slider makes it easy for the average user to use it.

This is Unix, so naturally there's a shell. While there was apparently a controversy over their selection of the bash shell, as used in Linux and OS X, over the Korn shell which is more often used in Solaris, I feel they made the right decision. Since bash will be familiar to people who use Linux or OS X, the two most prominent *nixes, it makes sense for them to adopt this.

I think for many people, OpenSolaris may be the open source operating system they have been waiting for. Some people do complain about the fact that there's no one company behind Linux and they get confused by the different distros. If so, OpenSolaris may well be the answer to their prayers. While there are other OpenSolaris "distros" such as Belenix, OpenSolaris is the official distribution. It offers an end-user experience that compares favourably with modern Linux distros. Also, the fact that it only supports Gnome so far means that it's consistent, although I personally would prefer to have the option of using KDE instead.

Also, Solaris is one of a number of operating systems that have been certified as real Unix. While as far as I know OpenSolaris has not been certified as this, it's based on the same code base as Solaris. So if you like your desktop Unix, but don't want to pay the premium for a Mac, you may want to consider this.

Sun have announced plans to offer OpenSolaris preinstalled on some Toshiba laptops. This is nothing short of astonishing considering how long people have waited for preinstalled Linux, and I guess that really shows how much difference one company's unwavering support can make.

If you're in the market for an open source operating system, OpenSolaris is well worth a try. This is only the second release, and it's really shaping up well. It still needs better driver support, and it could do with being faster, but I like what I've seen so far, and I look forward to following the fortunes of OpenSolaris over the next few years.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Why the Budget All-in-One Desktop Will (NOT!) Fail

I just read an interesting post on Wired about the phenomenon of all-in-one desktop computers, built with laptop or netbook components (for example the Asus Eee Top). They point out that budget devices such as netbooks do well in poor economic conditions, and that compartmentalisation has proven acceptable in many Apple devices. However, they then go on to claim that these devices will fail because they're not mobile. Huh?

These devices aren't intended to be mobile! They're intended to be cheap and cheerful desktops that nonetheless look good. The fact is, great as netbooks are, you would NOT want to use one as your primary computer, unless you used it for only a few minutes a day. For a price that's not much more than a netbook, these devices offer a full-sized screen and keyboard. And I don't know about anyone else, but I find I'm often more productive on a desktop than a laptop for tasks that require you to spend long lengths of time typing, such as coding. An ergonomic desktop will always be more effective for that kind of task than a laptop which is designed for mobility.

Furthermore, they're missing the point. These are affordable, stylish devices for the ordinary user, rather than the type of user who reads Wired. They don't actually need to be that powerful. Here's what the ordinary user tends to use their computer for:
  • Web browsing (typically Facebook or another social network, eBay, maybe Flickr etc, and sometimes buy something online)
  • Email
  • Instant messaging
  • Writing letters
  • Sync their iPod
And that's pretty much it. These machines will perform fine for this kind of task. Ultimately they are designed for people who use their computer primarily as a portal to the Internet.

I suspect the Wired writer may have fallen into the "power user trap". Just because a power user wouldn't necessarily find it a good deal doesn't mean everyone else would feel the same way. These are ideal computers for the following uses:
  • A child's computer (I believe strongly that children should have their own computer if possible, it encourages them to tinker with it in a way you wouldn't want them to do if they had to share the family computer)
  • For elderly relatives.
  • People who just want to surf the net etc
  • A first computer for almost anyone
They compared it to the iMac. Well, that's a far more expensive computer, so you'd expect it to have a lot more features. No-one would consider these as an alternative to the iMac, nor would they consider the iMac as an alternative to these.

In fact, I've been considering buying some kind of small form factor desktop myself, because I really don't have the room for a full-sized desktop, but I really could do with that kind of productivity boost. I have had back problems caused by using a laptop in the past, and also have occasionally suffered from RSI, so a desktop might work better for me as my main computer. I'm not much of a PC gamer, and I prefer Linux to Windows or OS X so I can get by with a machine that isn't very powerful - just use a minimal window manager like Fluxbox.

There's several options - one of these net-tops like an Eee Top, a Mini-ITX machine (has the advantage that it comes without an OS so I could just install a Linux distro of my choice), an Eee Box, or a Mac Mini. If Apple had actually updated the Mac Mini like they were rumoured to have done then I might well have gone for that as I already have a mouse and keyboard I could use, I'd just need to buy a display for it (although I strongly suspect that a Mac Mini refresh is on the cards at some point later this year, maybe when Snow Leopard is released, and if I hadn't got a desktop by that point a refreshed Mini with Snow Leopard would be a strong contender). So either the Mini-ITX or Eee Box might work well for me.

So, in my opinion the phenomenon of the budget All-in-one desktop will not fail, because it's targeted at ordinary users, and it's often hard for power users to appreciate what people like that want.