Monday, February 18, 2008

A distro based entirely on Firefox derivatives?

About six weeks ago I was on vacation, lamenting gOS 1.0's impotence, and playing around with the idea of a distro based entirely on Firefox derivatives as a decent alternative ... since there are so many spin-offs these days. Just as a test, I fired up a virtual machine and put up a minimal installation of Ubuntu, added XFCE 4.4, trimmed it down, then set about trying to get all my bases covered with browsers. The application choice ended up looking like this:

  • Internet
    • Firefox
    • Flock, the social browser
    • Miro, as default torrent client
  • Graphics
    • Miro, as a browser for many photo-sharing services
    • Flikr Uploadr
  • Office
    • Google Apps
    • Thunderbird
    • The Lightning extension for Thunderbird
    • Possibly Sunbird if Lightning didn't work out
  • Sound and Video
    • Songbird, the music player
    • Miro, as default video player
On the surface, this looked like a workable system for a normal user, but the programs are each using their own XUL and XPCOM libraries at this point. Once FF3 comes out and the applications catch up to it, we should have a single set of shared libraries for the programs, making the system have much lower requirements. If I can get the SymphonyOS2007b code, which uses FF as the actual desktop, from Ryan Quinn and get that backend on FF3, there may really be something there. We'll see.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Installing Ubuntu(s) on a Windows 98-era Laptop

My friend told me that his laptop wasn't working, and asked if I would fix it for him. As usual, I didn't make any promises other than that I would do my best. He also gave me two other machines which he said were significantly older and which I could have if I could find a use for them. This conversation was last week sometime, and I'd been too busy for most of the week to even boot them up.
It turns out that all three are from roughly the same time period. The specs are as follows:
  1. A Pentium II PE 300 MHz with 128MB RAM and a 4GB drive, running Windows 2000
  2. A Pentium III 500MHz with 128MB and a 12GB drive, running Windows ME
  3. One with identical specs as #2, but a different manufacturer and a 10GB drive, running Windows ME
He, of course, was using #1 thinkning it was the best of the three. He's not computer literate. It was immediately obvious that WinXP wouldn't run decently, barely skating by on the recommended minimums. Keeping EOL'ed products like Win2000 or ... gulp ... WinME is also a really bad idea. I set about finding something for him. He volunteered that he was open to Ubuntu, which I had installed on some mutual friends' computers.

To make the process easier for me (this wasn't paid, afterall), I went through my stack of CDs to see what I had. Ubuntu 6.06.1 seemed promising, but I couldn't get around the 256MB limit with the desktop version. Installing a minimal installation from a server CD worked, but Xubuntu was still too heavy for the old laptop. I fired up VirtualBox and ran my myriad of test images in 128MB to see what worked. I made a decision to go with either gOS or the Linpus Lite edition for UMPCs. They looked light and easy enough for him to get his head around. I started a download of Linpus and torrented gOS 2.0.

Then I broke out the three machines to see which one would likely work well. I soon found out that my choices were more limited than I thought. Machine #2 had had the LAN jack ripped out of the case. Machine #3 didn't have a working CD drive. Both of them were too old to boot from USB or the network, and I didn't have any way to make a boot floppy. Machine #1 is his, I guess, and I'll take the other two to SE Asia and have someone fix them for a couple bucks. I may even be able to find extra memory for them. 256MB will make them useful kitchen computers. If I can't get the RAM, I'll probably install a minimal distro, connect to via wireless, and use an X Session from another computer.

Anyway, back on topic. The Linpus download was entirely too slow for me, and it hasn't finished yet. gOS, however, finished in under half an hour, so I ran out to get some CDs and burned a copy. While the CD took a long time to boot, it eventually made it, and I started the installation. I switched over to TTY1 to make sure that the swap partition from the server disk install was being used, and there is where I ran into my first problem. The laptop BIOS was programmed to use CTRL-ALT-F# as some kind of display toggle, so I couldn't get back to the X session on F7. Instead, the display would zoom. Reboot and retry.

The second time everything looked fine until the apt mirror update, where the installation stalled for some time. Attempts to restart Ubiquity werre failing, but killing a bunch of processes helped, and I started again. Finally, after several hours, the system was installed and ready to go.

Impressions: The interface is remarkably responsive for such an old machine. There are animated transitions between workspaces and the bar on the bottom works fairly well. The displayed fonts are gorgeous when compared to the pixelated crap that was displayed on the Windows desktop. Firefox takes forever to start, but Windows 2000 wasn't very responsive, either. Once FF starts, it works for everything but flash video -- either the video card or the processor can't keep up. Video is extremely choppy at about a frame per second.

There are several things, though, that just don't work. Some of the links in the bar go to nowhere. The home page for FF is a modified Google search, but searches from there fail with a permission error from Google. The file manger is crap. Finally, CDs appear to mount, but this is an illusion. They are mysteriously unmounted seconds after you open a file manager window. These problems (including the 20 sec start time for FF) are illustrated in the crappy video below.

Overall, I can't give it to my friend this way. I'll be searching for something else. Fluxbox is not an option. Linpus is supposed to work on 128MB. I'll try that next. After that, it's Icebuntu.

OO.o OpenGL Transitions probably for Hardy+1 2.4 will sport 3D transitions. They look pretty good, and even though I'm not a big fan of OO.o, they will make a big splash. Initially available only on Linux!

Thanks for the heads up, Ninja!

The Top Ten Usability Problems With Ubuntu 8.04LTS Hardy Heron

I've put together my opinion on the top ten usability issues that exist now in Hardy's Alpha and will most certainly be in the final long-term release. I also try to suggest a solution, if there is one.

10. The open/save dialog

The open/save dialog in some applications uses the Gnome virtual filesystem while some applications don't use it, resulting in a situation where the available locations for this action are not the same. This is especially a problem for people with network shares mounted through Nautilus.
Solution: All apps should use the Gnome virtual file system.

9. Importing music files in Rhythmbox

Rhythmbox has a preference for the location of your library and a file hierarchy, but doesn't move files there when you import folders. Instead, importing a folder is more like adding another location for your library.
Solution: The rhythmbox menu should have an import entry, which pulls the files into your library location and an add music location entry which uses the current method.

8. Browsing of samba shares

Nautilus is unable to browse shares which are in CJK locales when the user locale is different. Some of these share appear as dots while some are invisible. Other non-latin languages may be affected, as well. I'm not sure about that.
Solution: There needs to be a GUI option to set the browsing locale so that it's different from the current locale.

7. User switching and an unknown password

When a user uses the fast-user-switching applet to create a new X session and GDM login, what happens if the user doesn't know the password? He is stuck at the password prompt with no obvious way to get back to the first session. There is a time-out, but it is so long that most users will become frustrated before it kicks in and will press reset.
Solutions: A count-down timer for the time-out on the password prompt.
Failing after a single failed password.
An obvious way to switch between sessions or a quit button needs to be on the GDM login screen. This could be as simple as text stating "If you have multiple users logged in, you can switch to the first user's session by pressing CTRL-ALT-F7." It could be as complicated as a new entry in the Options menu.

6. Samba file sharing doesn't work well

There are a number of well-documented problems sharing via Samba. The share is user-level, but no password exists for the user. It's not browsable by default.
Solution: Make the default share-type share level access with an optional password to protect it. More advanced users can use another tool.

5. Do you unmount or eject USB keys?

If you yank a USB key or external drive out without unmounting it first, you are told to do it safely. Great. The directions, though, tell you to right-click onthe icon and choose "Eject." The problem is ... there's no "Eject," only "Unmount" in the context menu. As far as I know, this only affects English locales.
Solution: Change the wording so that it's consistent. "Safely Remove" would probably be a good choice.

4. Trackerd fails to index files and dies silently

Trackerd will hand on some file and fail to index further with no notification. Search shows no files.
Solution: User notification that the process has stalled or died.

3. Virtual desktops don't have the same behavior in Metacity and Compiz

With 3D effects enabled, windows are moved between spaces by dragging. This doesn't work in Metacity. Without 3D effects, a window is moved by dragging on the virtual workspace area in teh panel. This method doesn't work for Compiz.
Solution: Make draggin on the panel work for both.

2. Firefox doesn't conform to the GNome HIG

Firefox has a completely different look-and-feel from other Gnome and GTK apps. The menu structure is different.
Solution: None. Firefox can't be altered radically and users won't accept using Epiphany instead of FF.

And finally, the number one usability bug that won't be fixed in time for Hardy is ...

1. Network Manager is buggy as hell

Network manager doesn't work with some cards. It has real problems maintaining a connection in some cases. Just look at the bug reports for it. Wow!
Solution: Remove it until it works consistently. That may never happen. Who knows?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How I Added a Digg Button to My Blogspot Posts

I've had a Digg button for a long time. I thought it had worked fine since I threw the script code into my template, but it had one major bug I didn't see (It's difficult to test these things without getting Digg pissed at you...): it didn't work from the front page. This was pointed out in a comment on my last story. About fifteen minutes of searching came up with a solution to the problem, but it's still not perfect. I thought I'd let you know about it.

First of all, you can copy the Digg code from the Digg site, and it will work when someone is reading a particular ppost with the permalink. If the user tries to Digg from the front page, however, it linked to the front page, not the post, and future Diggs on new posts made from the front page would Digg the first story, instead. Ugh!

So, the question becomes how to find the permalink variable. It's not as easy as you think, and that's because it's not named anything like permalink. The permalink is actually data:post.url, so you will need to change the Digg button accordingly.

Since I was changing stuff already, I signed up for and got a social button. Put it in the footer section of your template, and you're finished. It seems to work well. If anyone has trouble, please alert me!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Where is Ubuntu headed, and why are Linux users upset?

Seven years ago, I knew what every process running on my computer was. I could -- with confidence -- tell users exactly how to solve a problem which was occurring. That's not really true anymore. Ubuntu has great stuff like HAL and D-Bus, and there are a million processe whose names I am familiar with but which I am clueless on how to fix. Long-time Linux users (if you consider 10 years a long time ...) like myself find that the system has grown increasingly complex and more difficult to manage (WRT to desktops). Applications crash more often than they ever used to, and my AMD64 system suffers from strange things like closing the session sometimes when I close an Epiphany tab.

This post is not a rant on how great the good ole' days used to be, though. Instead, it's a look at where Linux (and Ubuntu) used to be and where it's headed. The changes that are happening upset a fair number of older users, but I think that even the ancient among us can respect what's being accomplished. All right! That's enough of my yacking. Let's get started.

The Desktop: The Ubuntu desktop is moving toward Deskbar and possibly Gimmie. I can say this about Deskbar without a doubt. New users can expect to press ALT-F3 and do just about anything with their computers. Combined with Trackerd for indexing files, this offers a very powerful interface. I no longer need the Dictionary applet, a bookmark button, a browser history button, the "Recent documents" menu entry, and several other things. In fact, virtually the entire Gnome menu can be replaced by Deskbar if the user knows about it. (To Apple users -- Yes, I know it operates like OSX.) Geeks seem to like the million applets on the panel thing, though, so ...

The file structure is changing, too. .config and .local mean that many config files which used to live in your base home directory will be migrating. Your files will be kept in pre-named folders. You won't even browse to them, because you'll be searching. Boy, is that one pissing some people off!

Video: Totem-GStreamer is the future. MPlayer, the player everyone used five years ago, will never reign on the Ubuntu desktop. The GStreamer0.10 plugin architecture allows for all those ugly things like Windows DLLs. Totem will be more integrated into every Gnome application.

Of course, every application is now looking for the videos in ~/Videos.

Music: Whether you use Banshee, Amarok or the default Rhythmbox, you'll have to admit that XMMS (and now Beep) is no longer the player everyone wants.

The name of the new game is music management. There are new players which organize your music and find metadata automatically, storing it in databases for future use.

That music should, of course, be in the ~/Music folder. :P

Heck, Rhythmbox will even rip and write CDs for you.

Photos: GThumb is out, and F-Spot is in. Who knows where your photos are (except that they're under ~/Photos). The application handles all that. The point is, though, that you don't need to know. You just tag. The app could throw them all into one folder and it wouldn't matter to the user.

Your screensaver uses your photos tagged with Favorite as a slideshow.

Bittorrent: The standard client is out and Transmission is in. Even geeks shouted "hurray" at that one. It's a BT management program, though.

Management. That's the word for today. The apps and the desktop are taking the power away from the user and managing things for them. That makes a lot of control-freak geeks pretty upset. We remember hand tweaking everything ourselves.

The Unix mantra of small, specific tools isn't heard any more. It's more and more difficult to get under the hood of the Ubuntu desktop.

What you have to ask yourself is, "Are cars better off with computer chips and fuel injection than they were with springs and two or four barrels like when I was young?"

Well, I'm out of time for this post.

Edit: First of all, thanks to everyone for commenting. This post was a quick one-off and may have given the impression that I'm unhappy with Ubuntu. I'm not particularly angry about the changes I talk about, but I notice people mentioning these points regularly.

To clear up the point about photo organization in F-Spot -- Photos are actually organized in a three-tier directory by date (~/Photos/YYYY/MM/DD) and any tag data you use can optionally be embedded into the files, so I don't think that migration issues should be big on the list of troubles.

About control of the system: Ubuntu is completely customizable. Just like Debian, I can add or subtract almost any part of the system I want, so the issue is not REALLY control. The problem for most geeks is that modern Linux distros seem more interested in the average user and making everything "just work" without much thought, I guess. Geeks feel disenfranchised from an OS they started. Geez, Gentoo is almost dead. What does THAT tell you about the state of Linux? (And, yes, I've used Gentoo and LFS before, but no, I didn't stick with them.)
Specifically to Bad Wombat -- I'm not really that upset about where Ubuntu is going. I like F-Spot and Rhythmbox and Deskbar. I use them every day. I keep my files in the XDM locations. I think the "improved gas mileage" of the modern desktop with its fuel injectors is probably a good thing. It's just a lot different than what we grew up with. The problem isn't with HAL and D-Bus spcificlly: I was just pointing to the added complexity of the desktop.

Finally, about the Digg problem -- Hmm The individual pages work well and I'll look into it. No one has Dugg me in months.

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