Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Microsoft Through New Eyes

Windows Vista has been out now for well over a year, and I have been reading about it and trying it out as I can. My parents have it on their new desktop and as I mentioned, my mother-in-law has it on her laptop. I've always been interested in computers and how they work, and have been satisfied with the way Windows works, mostly. The crash-heavy days of the late 90s were sometimes difficult to bear, but like most Windows users, I was only really interested in Web and word processing features. Really, until February, I was a basically content Windows user, subscribing to antivirus and firewall programs, paying for Windows cleanup utilities and new versions of Office, patiently removing all of the autoupdate programs that automatically load at start up and use up precious memory by constantly running in the background.

When Vista came out, I accepted the idea that I would eventually be using it, either at home or at work or both, because I had seen how Windows versions get phased out. Software developers stop supporting it and develop features that only work on the new OS, and the OS includes features that users of the previous version cannot access. This is the business model that Microsoft and its universe of programs have worked on for the past15 years, and until Vista, it seemed to be working. The problem is that Windows XP is Microsoft's best OS so far, and users want to keep it. Since many new Vista users (including Microsoft Executives) discovered that much of their hardware was not supported by Vista, and that many new computers that were considered "Vista Ready" did not run well. Both my parents and my mother-in-law have computers that I would drool over were they running Ubuntu, or even XP. 2GB of memory, large hard drives, and fast processors are exactly what I want for what I'm doing. However, I've learned that Vista needs these kinds of specs for basic operation!

I've used Vista enough to see good reasons why I wouldn't want to use it:
  • After the eye candy factor wears off, I see that it works a whole lot like XP with program load times, crashes, etc. When I configured my mother-in-law's laptop it crashed three times in the hour or so that I worked on it. And that was right out of the box.
  • The warnings! Whether I was downloading software, configuring start up options, or even surfing the web, I got warning after warning that what I was about to do might put my computer in danger. DANGER!
  • Every program on there, from antivirus protection to QuickTime, wants to have an auto-update feature run in the background and pester you until you update to the version of the week.
I guess the most annoying of these is the unnecessary warnings. They truly make it seem that if you download (gasp!) Mozilla Firefox, for instance, you are putting your computer at risk!

Really though, after a few months now of using Ubuntu as my main OS, Vista just feels really corporate to me, which I guess is how I've felt about Windows for about a decade now. Maybe I don't like Vista because it's the Uber-Windows, in all its hyping, scaremongering, and gluttonous glory.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Use the Ubuntu Forums!

I've posted before about how Linux deals with tech support, and I have to say - I think it works really well. I had two technical issues involving gifts from my in-laws. My mother-in-law gave me her old laptop, and for a couple of days there, the sound card wasn't working. So I scoured the Ubuntu Forums for answers to my issue. Since there are many ways to skin a cat, I got several solution ideas and tried a few. Not only were the solutions I found close to the solution I was going for, several were exactly on point, with the same model sound card and some with the same model computer. We also were given a brand-new Canon Pixma MP210 model all-in-one copier/scanner/printer, which did not work "out of the box" with Linux like our HP did. I drove myself crazy trying to get this to work, especially since I knew relatively little about how Linux device drivers work. I posted to the end of an older thread, but didn't get a response for about three days. So I started a new support thread and emphasized that I was not some cranky Windows user who just wanted Linux to act like Windows (which annoys many in the Linux community), but a new user, eager to learn an important Linux skill. Once I did this, the response was nearly immediate and very helpful. Meanwhile, the older thread yielded the most useful results, and the ones that ended up working for me.

It wasn't fast, but I didn't wait on hold and I was shown solutions that worked!

What I'm Doing Here

I've been working on this blog for a while and have been sharing it from time to time with friends, co-workers, and family members and I'm told kind of all around that much of what I'm writing is incomprehensible to them! At first this was kind of flattering, especially from one or two of my peers who were impressed by how much I've learned about this, but I really want people to understand, especially my friends and family. Of course I've been doing this for nearly 9 months now, and that was after learning a great deal in graduate courses that has given me some background. So I'm writing this post as a jargon-free clarification of what I'm doing and maybe I'll re-clarify why I'm doing it in a separate post.

When you use a computer, you are using its operating system (like Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS) and its applications (like Internet Explorer, Office, Safari, or iTunes). You may have variations on this. You might have Windows Vista or (God help you) Windows 98. You may only use Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer. You may use Quicken or Adobe Photoshop or Dreamweaver or some very specific application you need for work. All those product names are probably familiar, because so many people use them. Your eyes probably don't glaze over as you read them, at least.

Linux, like Windows or Mac OS, is also an operating system. It has a desktop, icons, and volume control. It looks like this:

I use a mouse, a keyboard, a printer, a scanner, and speakers. I type in plain English, not computer code. If you were to sit down at my computer, you would be able to get around and do whatever you normally would do with your current computer. With a little orientation, you would be surfing the web, using email, typing and printing letters, listening to CDs, or watching DVDs. You could also talk on the phone, chat, program a drum machine and lay down guitar, bass, and vocal tracks for your next pop album. You can download all your digital camera pictures and tinker with them. I think I've made the point.

What if I told you that you can have all of these benefits for free? Not one shiny dime have I spent on this project. Here's what I have on my computer:

  1. A brand spanking new operating system that is endlessly customizable to my whims and preferences. It NEVER crashes. I've never had to "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" to get out of something and I certainly don't have to restart after every software installation or update.
  2. A full-featured office suite that can open MS Office documents and save sharp, crystal clear PDF documents.
  3. A professional grade video editor (among several out there).
  4. A first-rate Internet browser, email client, and chat client.
  5. A drum machine and multi-track digital recorder.
  6. As many games as I'd ever have time to play and then some.
I could go on, but again, I think I've made the point. I didn't have to buy this great stuff, and you know what else? I can share it with you for free as well. We don't have to meet in some back alley, and we don't have to call a company and ask permission. No one will come lock us up for doing it. This is what is meant by "free" software. Pretty cool, huh?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Several Musings . . .

I have been starting posts left and right, and then I get bogged (blogged?) down and I never finish them. Here is a summary of some of the ideas that I was trying to express:

I Have Changed

Since beginning this project, I have been mainly interested in the practical aspects of Linux (e.g., "Wow, this works!," "Where do I find this or that driver?," "I wonder how KDE & Gnome are different?" etc.). I had said from the outset that using Linux for me was not at all political, but slowly, as a result of using Linux, and from reading/seeing the books and other media about Linux, GNU, and Open Source, I have a greater understanding and respect for the entire ethos and philosophical framework for these movements. The result of this is twofold:

  1. I am now enthusiastically searching out open source alternatives for proprietary software. I recently did a blog post for our library system about this. I am also talking to others about my experiences ad nauseam.
  2. I have come to view proprietary software very negatively, especially now that I have an understanding of the many benefits of keeping software open and free (as in liberty).
The best thing I can compare this transformation to is a religious conversion. I have "found Linux!" Given the pride, fervor, and devotion of Linux users, I imagine this is not an uncommon experience.

Getting Under the Hood

Because of the requirements of certain employment opportunities in my field, I have decided to learn Unix commands and scripting. I had taken a networking class in grad school that required us to know some of this, but that was nearly three years ago and I've gotten quite rusty. I'm also trying to learn Perl for the same purpose. I was a science/math kid, and then in high school and college I was drawn to literature and the liberal arts, and with my M.S. in library and information studies, my science/tech side was reawakened. However, my current skillset doesn't quite match my enthusiasm. This is what I'm trying to remedy by learning shell and Perl scripting.

Open Source Libraries

A corollary to my interest in open source programs to do everyday computer tasks is my interest in applying all this to libraries. My system uses a proprietary Integrated Library System (ILS) that we all (patrons and staff) tolerate at best. When we want a certain customization, the answer is almost always "no," and I just don't see a good reason why this should be true. Fortunately, in a rare case of my home state of Georgia being ahead of the curve, the Georgia Public Library Service developed the Evergreen ILS, which is released under the GPL and is completely home grown. I would love to get involved in this project, and I am trying to develop a skillset (see above) to let me get my foot in the door.

So there's the gist of the six or so posts I was working on!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wow! Ubuntu Laptop!

My mother-in-law just upgraded computers and very kindly gave me her older laptop, so literally minutes after I officially received it, I popped in my Gutsy Gibbon installation disk and here I am typing on my new Linux Laptop. Here are the specs:

Acer Aspire 2010
40 GB Hard Disk
Pentium M 1.5 GHz

The installation went well, except for a warning I got about Ubuntu security updates. I had also forgotten about having to enable the types of repositories I would be downloading packages from.

So what will I do with another computer? I plan to have this available for wireless access at home and I want to bring it to show people how cool Ubuntu is in hopes of spreading the word.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Two Online Documentaries

I ran across two documentaries today about Linux, GNU, and open source software. Taken together, they clarify and explain a lot of the philosophy and history behind free and open source software and are worth a look.

The first one is called The Code: Linux, which is a Finnish television production featuring many interviews with Linus Torvalds, Eric S. Raymond, Richard M. Stallman and other Linux/GNU/Free/open source figures. Most of the video is in English, but the subtitles are not, so when other languages are spoken, they are untranslated. This one is about an hour long, and would serve as a good, accessible introduction to Linux and the ideas and ideals behind free and open source software.

For a much more complete history, the film Revolution OS might be the better choice. Aside from being an American film, and fully in English, it feels like a documentary film rather than a TV production (as would be expected). It interviews many of the same players, but it delves a little more deeply into each topic, fully explicating the history, philosophy, and ideologies at play in the Free Software movement, Linux, and the Open Source Initiative. And though on first glance it seems like they're all talking about the same thing in shades of gray (as far as "free" vs. "open source" goes), once you understand the difference, you can understand the political divisions between, say, Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond, and why they matter.

I'm really glad I've been looking a little more deeply into this, and I'll have more to say about these issues in later posts, I'm sure.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

GNU/Linux/Open Source History

I just got a book from the library that I came across in an encyclopedia called The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond and started reading it last night. I mentioned in an earlier post that there seems to be a dearth of published (non-web) works about the history of open source software, and this is one of the only ones, and though I was not familiar with it, it is very well known. It was originally an essay posted on the web, and includes other apparently notable essays from the time. The main metaphor of the book evokes two images to contrast closed-source and open-source software development. The corporation method is like the builders of a cathedral - elites who work in secret and unveil their product with great fanfare, while the open source model, which is done in public view and employs anyone who's interested, resembles a chaotic bazaar. Both images have positive and negative aspects. The thing about the current state of Windows, Apple, and GNU/Linux distributions is that the bazaar has caught up with the cathedral.

Compare the reactions from both the public and the press (at least initially) to the releases of Windows Vista and Ubuntu 7.10 last year. You can see the bazaar in action now, with Ubuntu's beta release of 8.04 "Hardy Heron." Critics and programmers are finding problems that will almost certainly be addressed by the final release. One of the most memorable lines in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" is "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," which Raymond attributes to Linus Torvalds. Trapped by the cathedral model, Vista faced much negativity and ridicule with the need for "patches" and "service packs" almost immediately. A large open-source community would have almost certainly found these problems before the release.

I said just a few short weeks ago that my interest in Linux and open source software is not political, but I'm finding myself faced with the undeniable reality that moving to an open source way of doing things has made me evolve in my thinking (I'm working on another post about this transformation, which I'm finding difficult to describe), and my opinions about companies that still claim to own products that I have purchased have moved further toward the "free" software philosophy. Expect more about this as I read on!