Nokia N900 Photography – Spring 2012 Edition

It’s become a tradition to post photos from one of my favorite local destinations (Red Butte Garden) each spring, after all the snow finally melts and nature finally begins to bloom.

All photos in the gallery were taken with my Nokia N900 smartphone.  The phone has a 5mp sensor, but these were all taken at the 3.5mp setting (widescreen).  This year was a bit different because my wife has a new iPhone 4S, and it was interesting to compare the results from that camera and my N900.  I still prefer the N900, in large part thanks to its two-stage shutter button and its dedicated macro mode.  Touch-to-focus is fine for portraits, but for close-ups it simply doesn’t work very well.  Additionally, a lot of these photos require very odd angles (most commonly holding the phone at ground-level) where I can’t see the phone’s screen.  The N900’s macro mode is reliable enough that I’m able to shoot blindly; touch-to-focus simply doesn’t work in those scenarios.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that all photos were taken with the N900’s default camera application, and they’ve received no retouching whatsoever.

Support Linux by Not Writing Linux-Only Software

Phoronix ran a story today about the keynote address at this year’s Fedora India Conference.  The speech can be viewed in its entirety here, but one quote in particular is drawing attention:

The number one enemy we have today is ourselves. And I mean that with all seriousness. Too many times we shoot ourselves in our own foot, by the way we act, the way we deal with people, in our narrowminded-ness that we develop.

The quote and ensuing explanation appears around the 44:00 mark.  It’s worth a watch.

This is a great quote not just for Linux developers and contributors, but for Linux users as well.  It’s especially interesting coming from a Fedora project leader, considering the Fedora project is well-known for its very myopic rules about included software.  (FYI – Fedora does not include any proprietary software, including proprietary drivers, Adobe Flash, Skype, etc.  Is that an example of “shooting yourself in the foot”…?)

In this article, I’m not going talk about the obvious “Linux is its own worst enemy” topics.  Plenty of other people are more qualified to talk about hardware support, FOSS jingoism, obnoxious users, design problems.  No, I’d like to mention something more obscure, but still deserving of attention:

Developing software exclusively for Linux.

Linux-exclusive software should be the exception, not the rule

One of the Linux-centric software projects I’ve followed over the past several years is the OpenShot Video Editor project.  I first discovered OpenShot while researching Linux video editing software in 2009 for a series of Ubuntu articles.  At the time, I considered OpenShot the best choice for default video editor in Ubuntu 10.10.  Canonical eventually went with Pitivi instead, a decision I and many others wondered about.  To quote one article on the topic:

In my view, Ubuntu is doing desktop Linux a huge disservice by putting in basic, buggy tools and then advertising its product as having “video editing” capabilities. The short point is that it hasn’t, and users moving to Ubuntu on the basis of this promise will be bitterly disappointed, tainting their overall view of Linux.

Canonical later rethought this decision; in 11.10 they removed Pitivi from the default install.  The reasoning behind the decision?  According to the linked article:

The lack of ‘polish’ and maturity to the application was also highlighted, with one attendee wondering whether its ‘basic’ nature impacted negatively on the perception of the Ubuntu desktop as a whole.

Ironic, eh?

I don’t mean to slam Pitivi.  Collabora, the company who funds Pitivi’s development, is an incredible contributor to the open-source world and they employ a team of very talented developers.  Seriously – they just released a demo of a video editor built entirely in HTML5.  They’re incredible.

But writing desktop video editing software is tough, especially video editing software provided for free.  Pitivi continues to grow and improve, but it simply wasn’t ready for the big-time in 2009.  That’s okay.

Anyway, OpenShot continues to improve at an impressive rate.  In late 2010, OpenShot crossed what I consider the “maturity line” for an open source project – it began work on a Windows port.  The response to this was mixed, as always.  Many users realized the benefits of making OpenShot cross-platform.  Some, unfortunately, did not.  As one commenter said:

When I’ve seen projects that aim to be multi OS, the Linux version is always the second hand version. More people use Windows so new features are added to the Windows version and no one gives a shit about the Linux users. I have seen it many times, haven’t you?

Why not just use all the time for the Linux version to make it as great as possible. There are already more than enough video editors for Windows anyway.

This is a valid concern.  Take Songbird, for example.  Songbird started out as a promising cross-platform media player with top-tier Linux support.  This lasted four years, until the team made the hard choice to completely drop Linux.  It was an unfortunate loss, but it’s hard to fault the Songbird developers.  They’re a small team and audio support in Linux has never been simple to work with.  (FYI, untested nightly builds are still available for adventurous users.)

But I would argue that projects like Songbird are the exception and not the rule.  While it may seem like Linux-only projects are betraying their loyal base by developing Windows or OSX versions, I would argue that cross-platform development is actually better for Linux as a whole, better for individual software projects and their developers, and ultimately better for Linux users.

Cross-Platform Software Removes One of Linux’s Biggest Barriers of Entry

It’s been said a million times before: one of the hardest things about switching from Windows to Linux is learning new software.  This has gotten easier over time; after all, modern users are probably using the same browser on Windows that they would on Linux, and mature open source projects like LibreOffice, Pidgin, GIMP and Inkscape provide a similar experience regardless of which OS you use.  As we move to a world where more and more software lives within the browser, the switch will get even easier.

But when a new Linux user can’t find a Linux version of software that he or she is used to (Adobe products, MS Office, etc), they suddenly have a very good reason to give up on the platform as a whole.  Even if a Linux alternative is better than whatever they were using before, the fact that it isn’t familiar is often enough to scare them away.

The typical answer to this is: “everything would be better if Adobe and Apple and Microsoft and everyone else just released Linux versions of their software.”  I agree.  That would be better.

But does anyone really think this is going to happen?  Do you really envision a day when you can buy a copy of Microsoft Office for Linux?  I’m afraid I don’t.

So if we can’t force companies to release their software on Linux, we have to do the next best thing – take the best of Linux software and make it available on other platforms.  In the last five years, projects like Firefox and Chrome have done way more to improve Linux adoption than the Linux-only competitors of Epiphany and Konqueror – not because either of those projects are crap (just the opposite, they’re great), but because creating software only for Linux users doesn’t help people make the switch.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  I am absolutely not saying that projects like Epiphany and Konqueror are stupid, or that they don’t serve a purpose, or that they are hurting Linux.  Both are mature, well-written, technical accomplishments from talented contributors, and they definitely fill a niche.

But when it comes to making Linux a viable competitor to OSX or Windows, Firefox and Chrome are the ones to thank.

(Note: yes, I realize that webkit came from KHTML which came from Konqueror.  This doesn’t invalidate my point.)

In the perfect world, Linux users would have access to all the same software as Windows and OSX users.  Releasing a Windows and OSX port of your awesome Linux-only project is a step toward making that happen.

As a Developer, You Will Get More Donations, Support, and Feedback from a Cross-Platform Release

Let’s return to the Songbird example.  In the team’s blog post about why they dropped Linux, they provide the following chart “for perspective”:

It’s hard to argue with those numbers.  Yes, in certain areas (like translations) Linux users contributed more on a per-user basis than Windows or Mac users.  But not that much more.  When you factor in the difficulty of working with audio in Linux, you can see why the Songbird team made the tough decision to drop Linux support entirely.

This same pattern shows up elsewhere.  For gamers, consider the Humble Indie Bundle – Linux users donated 3x more money, per user, than Windows users.  That’s an awesome statistic.  But the sad reality is that there are tons more Windows users, and for the Humble Indie Bundle that meant that revenue from Windows users as a whole was significantly larger than revenue from Linux users.

I point this out only to show that open source developers can receive many benefits – financial and otherwise – from releasing software on as many platforms as possible.  And if you as a developer get more feedback and more money, that will help you produce better software for everyone who uses your products – including your loyal Linux fanbase.

This Isn’t a Major Problem, But It’s Something to Consider

Is Linux-only software the biggest problem facing the open source community?  Hell no.  It’s probably not in the top 10 or 100 or 1000 problems.  But I do think it’s something to point out, especially for Linux projects that seem perpetually close to becoming “great”… only never quite getting there.  Several examples come to mind.

Calligra (formerly KOffice) is a promising open-source office suite developed by KDE.  Personally, I think the project is way ahead of LibreOffice in key areas, particularly the interface.  Consider their word processor, which is one of the few designed with widescreen monitors in mind:

Calligra Words screenshot. Note the very nice use of horizontal real estate. (image courtesy of http://www.calligra-suite.org/words/)

I’m not a Linux software developer, but I would love to contribute to the Calligra project as a tester.  My problem?  I spend most of my time in Windows, and I need a word processor that works in both OSes.  Calligra’s Windows version is in a perpetual state of disarray, and I don’t want the hassle of running my word processor in a VM.  How many testers and contributors is this very cool project missing out on because there is no Windows port?  Would a complex piece of software like LibreOffice or Inkscape be half as good if it had remained Linux-only?  I doubt it.

As another example – Linux video editors.  We’re finally reaching a world where Linux video editors are stable and usable (kudos to the excellent Kdenlive team and OpenShot, among others), but it has taken far, far too long to get here.  In my opinion, the biggest problem is that most major Linux video projects have remained Linux-only.  Kino and Cinelerra have always been in desperate need of testing and feedback, and by ignoring Windows they aren’t doing themselves – or their faithful Linux users – any favors.

Disclaimers

Now I realize that you can’t just click a magical button that makes your Linux-only project compile under Windows and OSX.  I get that.  If you’re an individual developer who doesn’t have the time or the resources to test and compile your code for Windows, I totally understand.  Some projects don’t make sense multi-platform, and sometimes there are very good technical reasons why a project doesn’t make an OSX or Windows version available.

But if you haven’t considered cross-platform support, please do.  Look for help on developer forums or IRC.  Talk to Windows packagers of other open source projects.  Follow OpenShot’s example and ask your userbase for help.  Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are helping Linux by not providing Windows and OSX versions of your software.

Because you’re probably not.  By releasing your software for as many OSes as possible, you are not betraying Linux or open source.  You are helping it.  If people think Linux represents a small fraction of overall users now, imagine how much worse it would be if less cross-platform software were available.

As for my fellow Linux users: please don’t troll developers when they decide to go cross-platform.  FOSS is not just about developing for Linux.  Open source can – and should – work to increase the freedom of all users, everywhere, regardless of what operating system they use.  When your favorite piece of Linux software decides to release a Windows version, don’t think of it as betrayal.  Think of it as a way to advertise the benefits of open source to your heathen, Windows-using friends.

As always, I am extremely grateful to the talented individuals that use their time and talents to provide open-source software for free.  Thanks for all your hard work.

PCLinuxOS 2011 KDE: A Review and Retrospective

tl;dr – PCLinuxOS is a great distro for individuals who favor rolling updates, performance, and a dedicated community. If you’re a first-time Linux user or if you favor aesthetics over technological prowess, better choices are available.

First, a bit of background. (If you want to jump straight to the review, scroll down to where the pictures start.)

In April 2010, I found myself becoming increasingly disgruntled with Ubuntu (my OS of choice since late 2008). There was no one thing that ruined Ubuntu for me; rather, it was a growing list of inconveniences (10.04 had multiple hardware and software issues on my machine) coupled with regular use of Windows 7 at my place of employment. Windows 7 was as easy to use as Ubuntu for most tasks – worse in some ways (updating every piece of software individually), better in other ways (DVRing with Windows Media Center vs MythTV). I had originally switched to Ubuntu because at the time, it provided me a better experience than Windows XP. With the release of Windows 7, this no longer seemed as obvious.

For me, my OS is primarily a tool. I’m willing to fight it on minor issues, but for the most part I want it to stay out of the way so I can get actual work done. The more I used Windows 7, the less I was willing to fight Ubuntu.

I contemplated purchasing a copy of Windows 7, but it’s expensive, and I didn’t think it was fair to leave Linux based only on my experience with Ubuntu (and limited experience with openSUSE and Linux Mint).

So I went hunting for a new distro. My requirements were fairly reasonable:

  • KDE or Gnome was acceptable, though I leaned toward KDE (out of curiosity).
  • Reliability. Updates shouldn’t break software or hardware functionality.
  • Simple install. If 95+% of my needs aren’t met out-of-the-box, I’m not going to fight it. Maybe when I was younger… but now I can’t afford to have a PC out of commission for days at a time.
  • Pleasant community. I deal with enough assholes in real life – I don’t need ’em telling me to RTFM when I post well-researched questions in official forums.
  • Large software repositories. As you can tell from my site, I work in a lot of areas (programming, music, graphic design, writing), each of which requires unique software. Niche distros don’t always support the software I need, so they’re not a good fit.

After a bit of research, I decided to try PCLinuxOS (version 2010.2). Many individuals had good experiences with the distro, and I liked some of the edgier things it had to offer (BFS instead of CFS, for example). I also liked that there was no server remix – this was a desktop-only distro, which is exactly what I needed.

First Impressions

Right off the bat, PCLinuxOS impressed by clearly displaying the guest and root passwords on the liveCD background. NICE. More distros should do this.

PCLinuxOS 2010.11 KDE liveCD default desktop
The PCLinuxOS 2010.11 KDE liveCD default desktop

The installer (based off Mandriva’s) definitely tends toward “powerful” instead of “straightforward.” I had a bit of a heart attack when the drive formatting screen loaded with a blank window titled “resizing…” At first I thought this was blindly resizing some partition… turns out it doesn’t mean anything. Phew. (Someone should do away with that window.) I liked the option to manually specify which drive would receive GRUB… unlike Ubuntu 10.04, which indiscriminately overwrites the Windows bootloader. Besides the brief formatting scare, installation was largely uneventful, as any good installation should be.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend PCLinuxOS for first-time Linux installers. Being able to manually specify bootloaders, mountpoints, and other advanced options are great for individuals who know what they’re doing – but it’s possible to eff up your install if you’re inexperienced. Consider yourself warned.

PCLOS installer GRUB configuration
Screens like this are great for linux veterans, not so great for first-time users

On first boot, some nice touches appear – the themed GRUB is much better than a stock black-and-white one. You’re asked to provide a root password, followed by a “create new user screen.”

PCLinuxOS 2010 KDE default GRUB screen
The PCLinuxOS 2010 default GRUB screen shows off its custom theme
PCLinuxOS create new user screen (first boot)
On first boot, you are presented with this create user screen
PCLinuxOS 2010.11 loading screen
The stock PCLinuxOS KDE load screen

One of my favorite moments from the boot process is the start-up sound; for some reason, it reminds me of the “sleeping” mini-tune from a PS1 era RPG (like Final Fantasy 8 or 9). I laugh every time I hear it.

An interesting PCLOS decision is not including OpenOffice.org by default. Fortunately, a “Get OpenOffice” link appears on the default desktop. This brings up an OO.org installer of sorts, which saves room on the install CD without much inconvenience to the end user.

Not including OO.org allows PCLinuxOS to include a LOT of software by default. Some will like this, some will not. I think some trimming down could be done without sacrificing quality, but I imagine someone out there is grateful for the eclectic collection of default programs. There is no real rhyme or reason to the way software is included – for example, Thunderbird is included instead of KMail or Evolution, GIMP appears (but no Krita), Synaptic is the default package manager, Pidgin is the default IM client, TVTime (a simple tv client) is included, XChat appears instead of Konversation, and Clementine is the default audio player instead of amaroK (or even Rhythmbox). This random assortment of applications from different toolkits, desktop environments, and software teams will frustrate those looking for unification… but it probably isn’t new to people coming from a Windows background.

PCLinuxOS 2010 KDE default menu
The default menu is closer to Windows 95 than a modern KDE build... but it's easily changed

One clever feature PCLinuxOS includes is a repository speed test, which will ping a list of repositories and let you select the fastest as your default. The user interface is confusing and unnecessarily terse, but once you figure out what it’s doing, you should be able to shorten your update and installation processes. Clever!

Digging Deeper

By and large, hardware support in PCLinuxOS was good. On my particular hardware, three major problems stood out – I was unable to get my Ralink 802.11n PCI card working (note: several months later, the problem corrected itself…so go figure). I was unable to find and configure a Canon MX340 printer attached to the network via a Windows 7 computer, and I could not get my Hauppauge HVR-1600 TV card working with MythTV.

All three of these issues were not present in Kubuntu 10.04 or 10.10, so I’m not sure what happened in PCLinuxOS. I primarily print and use the TV card in Windows, so I could afford to live without those. The non-functional wi-fi card was a bigger problem, but I solved it by running an ethernet port to a nearby Windows machine and sharing its wireless signal. Inelegant, but functional.

Now for the good news – PCLinuxOS was significantly more responsive than my previous Ubuntu install. (This may be to BFS…idk.) Interestingly, the biggest difference I saw was on full-screen Flash video. Out of curiosity, I also installed PCLinuxOS to my aging Compaq laptop (1.6ghz Celeron processor), which has never been able to play Flash full-screen at more than 4-5 fps in Ubuntu. On PCLinuxOS, full-screen Flash worked at 13-15 fps… so not quite as good as Windows (25-30fps), but significantly better than Ubuntu. This example is purely anecdotal and YMMV, but I was shocked – and impressed! – at the difference.

PCLinuxOS includes Mandriva’s Control Center software, which provides additional control over a variety of system settings. Also included are some handy tools for mixed-OS environments like mine, with a Windows migration tool, a Windows font installer, and a wizard for connecting to shared printers and drives. Some of these worked well (the migration tool), others did not (the printer sharing wizard). Some of the options will be confusing for new users – for example, “Configure 3D Desktop Effects,” which is great for configuring Compiz but useless for KWin (the default window manager). Additionally, many of the tools require you to install various packages before you can utilize them.

This is a prime example of what frustrates desktop Linux users like myself: there are so many great features and great ideas, but the level of polish is often closer to “beta version” than “release candidate.” Some of the tools the Control Center provides are redundant with KDE System Settings, while others are very useful and unique. Also confusing is the branding… “Mandriva” appears instead of “PCLinuxOS” in certain screens, for example.

PCLinuxOS 2010 KDE Control Center
The PCLinuxOS Control Center contains tools ranging from useful to largely irrelevant

That said, it was nice to have so many system settings available in one place, even if not all of them worked as expected.

Some of my favorite things about PCLinuxOS

PCLinuxOS is a rolling release distro, which means you get updates in an incremental manner. These updates include the usual security and bug-fix updates, as well as major updates (KDE 4.5 -> 4.6 or OO.org 2.2 -> 2.3, for example). If you like having the latest software, PCLinuxOS is an excellent choice. I often received KDE-SC updates before the final release announcement got posted to kde.org. How many other distros can claim that?

PCLinuxOS also includes a number of pre-configured kernels for various purposes. If you don’t like BFS, a CFS kernel is available via Synaptic. A PAE kernel is also available, as well as one tuned for AMD processors.

PCLinuxOS sports a very large, very impressive software collection in its supported repositories. Many small and lesser-known apps are available, though packaging can sometimes be unpredictable. (For example, I was unable to locate Rosegarden in the 2010 repositories, though I hear it was added in 2011.) If you’re looking for something not found in the official repositories, folks in the official forum often know where to find a compatible download or an explanation of why the software isn’t included.

Speaking of the forums, the PCLinuxOS crowd was universally friendly during my time with them. Questions were answered swiftly and often correctly. It was also fairly common to get responses from actual developers. Also unique is the monthly PCLinuxOS magazine – a community-run collection of tips, tutorials, testimonials, FOSS humor, and more, with articles dating back to 2006. The formatting would make a graphic designer cry (hehe) but joking aside, it provides a nice collection of information on the distro and other free software. Not many open source projects give rise to community efforts of this size and consistency.

PCLinuxOS magazine homepage
The official PCLinuxOS magazine isn't much to look at... but it provides a lot of nice information

Finally, PCLinuxOS does a solid job of providing an out-of-the-box multimedia experience. With the exception of DVD playback, most proprietary multimedia tools (including Flash, mp3, and Java) are included in the default install.

Some of my concerns with PCLinuxOS

I believe it’s a fair characterization to say that PCLinuxOS is a distro “for Linux users by Linux users.” I certainly don’t mean this as an insult (or even as a compliment, necessarily): it is what it is. The team behind PCLinuxOS knows Linux well, and they use that knowledge to put together a very unique distro with good ideas from all over the map. Some have called PCLinuxOS a Mandriva derivative, but that isn’t accurate. Recent versions contain elements from every major distro.

Unfortunately, such an approach is both a strength and a weakness. PCLinuxOS is a technical accomplishment and a well-engineered piece of machinery, but it lacks any sort of unifying design aesthetic. A prime example of this is the confusing array of branding in the project:

PCLinuxOS branding
PCLinuxOS branding is all over the place

“Dobie the bull” is the (un?) official PCLinuxOS mascot, but it appears only sporadically across the distro. A circular PC logo is used some places, but an entirely different font is used in each custom application launch screen. The official website suffers from a similar lack of branding, with only a plain text (!!) logo and a cramped, austere layout. Blue seems to be the preferred color choice, but not any particular hue – instead, a recurring gradient from neon blue to navy blue is used. A total lack of secondary colors leaves the desktop with a bleak, uninspired feel.

Making matters worse is the included artwork – for example, notice the horrible photoshopping at the top center of this wallpaper (included with every install):

PCLinuxOS black default wallpaper
Default wallpapers like this (see the photoshopping?) do a real disservice to the distro

It’s difficult to discuss aesthetics objectively, but PCLinuxOS is undoubtedly a project in need of a dedicated designer. The technical aspects of the distro are impressive, but aesthetics are largely ignored. This problem is hardly unique to PCLinuxOS, but it gives off an “amateurish” vibe that’s unfair to its strong technical underpinnings.

Similarly, the name “PCLinuxOS” is… terrible? I guess the random hodgepodge of redundant words/abbreviations mimics the eclectic nature of the distro, but the name is clearly something thought up by an engineer, not a marketer. Again, a lot of people probably don’t care about such a thing – but believe me, it’s embarrassing to share a name like that with my designer and artist colleagues.

One final point, and then I’ll be done with my aesthetics rant. :) As much as its not fair to judge a book by its cover, every Linux distro must accept that people are going to pass judgment based on little things like a name, logo, and color schemes. As a credit to the impressive technical accomplishments PCLinuxOS has achieved, it owes it to itself to package that technical prowess in a handsome package. That’s all I’m saying.

Moving on.

I’ve already mentioned some small technical quirks with PCLinuxOS, but let me add a few more.

First, PCLinuxOS uses Synaptic as its sole package management method. (Raw use of apt-get is actively discouraged.) However, PCLinuxOS is an rpm-based distro, which leaves users stuck with an old, crufty version of Synaptic. It’s well-known in the forums that moving to a new package manager is inevitable; in fact, Texstar – the heart and soul of PCLinuxOS – had the following to say:

The reason for looking at an alternative is because we need to update our rpm package which is quite old now (4.4.6) and has become more buggy resulting in corrupted rpm databases. It won’t recompile against our current gcc/glibc and no bug patches are available. rpm is now at version (4.8.1). apt-get will work with rpm 4.8.1 but Synaptic is in pretty bad shape and crashes out often. Smart gui is not user friendly. packagekit is slower than molasses that last time I looked at it. rpmdrake to me is really not suitable for a distribution that receives daily package updates. The reason I am leaning towards Yumex is it is very close to Synaptic in terms of looks and speed. yum/Yumex works with rpm 4.8.1. The file list generated with apt or yum are compatible with each other. That makes it an easy drop in replacement.

As of this writing (February 2011) no official replacement has been named, but I hope the team settles on something soon. Package management is a core part of the Linux desktop experience, and a grossly outdated, unmaintained version of Synaptic and apt for rpms doesn’t cut it.

Similarly, it is shocking to me that PCLinuxOS doesn’t ship with an update manager. For a distro where regular updates are such a great selling point, this seems like a bizarre choice. It’s trivial to install update-notifier from the repositories, but this is also a poor solution. Update-notifier is unable to update much of anything without throwing the following warning:

PCLinuxOS update notifier error
Get used to this error. You'll see it a lot.

(Thanks to http://www.linuxbsdos.com/2010/07/20/pclinuxos-2010-review/2/ for the screenshot.)

This error doesn’t actually mean something is wrong – it just means an update wants to remove outdated packages as part of the update process. Since this happens frequently, expect to spend a lot of time manually checking for updates in the aforementioned crufty old version of Synaptic.

So Do I Still Use PCLinuxOS?

I used PCLinuxOS as my primary desktop OS from April 2010 to November 2010.  In November 2010, my PC died (motherboard failure) and I replaced it with a new Core i5 rig from ASUS.  This was apparently a bad time to use PCLinuxOS on an Intel chipset – my dual-monitor setup failed to work, the window manager disabled all effects (including useful workflow ones, like “Present Windows”), and having a fresh Windows 7 install made this less tolerable than usual.  I kept PCLinuxOS installed on my old Compaq laptop (where it continues to run like a champ), but have not returned to using it on my desktop.  I tried reinstalling it last week to test KDE 4.6 and see if it solved my window manager problems, but PCLinuxOS repositories have been down for most of 2011 (due to ibiblio.org server moves) and I was unable to install needed updates.  Interestingly, other KDE-based distros (including Kubuntu) have worked with my chipset since last November, leaving me to wonder what quirk affects PCLinuxOS.  Perhaps I’ll give it another shot once KDE 4.6 hits the repositories.

Closing Thoughts

I have been working on this review on-and-off since last April.  I don’t like posting a full distro review after using it for only a few weeks – to me, the real measure of a distro is how it performs after months of regular use, updates, and assorted troubleshooting.

An article from last week (Is PCLinuxOS on the Ropes? by Susan Linton) prompted me to finally finish up my thoughts and get this published.

I think PCLinuxOS KDE is a massive accomplishment in many respects.  In terms of technical prowess, it ranks alongside any of the large, commercially-backed distros – no small feat for a volunteer effort.  It amazes me that such a small team can not only produce a very good KDE-based distro, but also LXDE, XFCE, Gnome, “Gnome Zen Mini,” Enlightenment, and OpenBox spins.  Each one of these is a massive undertaking in its own right. PCLinuxOS also stands out as one of the only distros to ship BFS out of the box – a testament to its focus on desktop-oriented technology.

Unfortunately, a good desktop OS requires more than just powerful underlying technology – it requires careful attention to the user interface, aesthetics, and the overall flow and feel of the desktop.  I would love to see PCLinuxOS receive some attention from trained designers who can help eliminate its many inconsistencies.

Finally, I am in no place to offer advice to a group of volunteers working on something they’re passionate about, but I’ll do it anyway.  :)  I think it would serve PCLinuxOS well to focus on a smaller set of desktop environments.  I’d love to see them polish their KDE version into the truly definitive KDE experience it’s capable of being.  With so much of the technical work already in place, it seems a shame to not put in that extra 10% effort necessary to elevate it from “good” to “great.”

I will continue to use PCLinuxOS on older machines, and I strongly encourage any KDE fans out there to give the distro a try.  Many thanks to Texstar and his team for their impressive work.

You can download the latest version of PCLinuxOS at http://www.pclinuxos.com/?page_id=10.

Update 17 Feb 2011:

Several relevant comments have been made by PCLinuxOS users, which I thought I’d point out here:

  • The default software selection is apparently a community decision.  I’m not sure how formal this is… e.g. do they hold a survey, or does whoever complain the loudest get to make the decision…?  idk
  • Minimalist ISOs are available for folks who want to assemble their own software collection.  I was unaware of this when I wrote the original review.
  • PCLinuxOS users certainly come in all shapes and sizes.  :)  Some of the kinder ones have posted comments below, but I was forced to moderate several comments stating nothing more than “you are an idiot, I hope you die, blah blah blah.”  As a warning to future commenters – make a relevant point, or your comment will be deleted.
  • If you want, you can follow the conversation about this review in the official PCLinuxOS forums via this link: http://www.pclinuxos.com/forum/index.php/topic,87235.0.html.  (Note: I will no longer be posting there, so if you want me to see something, submit it in the comments here or use my contact form.)
  • Finally, as the title of this review clearly states, this is only about the KDE version of PCLinuxOS 2011.  I did not use every other spin available, so my comments may or may not relate to the other versions of PCLinuxOS.

Look for my photography in Mandriva 2010.2

Thanks to the Mandriva team for naming one of my photos a winner in their “community background contest.” For those interested, the following photo will be available as a background in the mandriva-theme-extra package of Mandriva 2010.2:

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to one of the best Linux distros (even if it’s in an inconsequential way).

I strongly recommend checking out the other contest winners at the official Mandriva blog. OStatic also provides a list of the photos, with commentary.

If you haven’t tried Mandriva, you’re missing out. Give it a whirl at mandriva.com.

More Nokia N900 Photography

Since I had so much fun with my last N900 photography article, why not do another?

I’ve continued to experiment with the N900’s camera, and it continues to impress.  I know iPhone users are excited for the camera improvements coming in iOS 4, but I gotta be honest – after looking through the official iPhone 4 sample photos, I can safely say it’s got nothing on the N900 camera.

If you’re interested in more N900 photography, hit up my N900 set on flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tannerhelland/sets/72157624248807430/).

(Note: these are all uploaded straight from the phone.  No retouching whatsoever!)

Cost Analysis of the Nokia N900

I can safely say that my Nokia N900 is the first mobile phone I’ve truly loved.  It’s a brilliant device – and having a phone/netbook/camera/iPod/game system on me at any given time is hugely addicting.  I also find the N900 to be a fine example of a device that “sells itself,” since anyone who plays with it is likely to want one.

Unfortunately, the sticker shock of a $549 phone (at the time of this writing; you can find it as low as $469) can be hard to stomach in the U.S.  Because the N900 can only be bought unlocked, its price doesn’t compare very favorably to similar smartphones.  (The Motorola Droid, for example, is a similar price unlocked – but only $19.99 with a 2-year contract.)  Most Americans have a false sense of what a “fair” smartphone price is, since all advertising focuses on the price when subsidized by a two-year contract.

So it got me thinking – if an individual were to individually purchase all the separate “features” of the N900, how much would it cost?  This isn’t meant to be strictly scientific – more just a “what if” exercise.  I’m also going to use some of my favorite free apps as part of the exercise, so the price for your N900 arrangement may be different.  I’m also going to try and minimize overlapping features by starting with the most comprehensive feature equivalents.

(FYI – you can view the official N900 spec sheet here.)

Netbook

Thanks to the magic of Easy Debian, the N900 is capable of running OpenOffice.org, GIMP, and other desktop Linux apps.  The presence of a great hardware keyboard and touchscreen make the transition less difficult then you’d think, and 1gb of RAM (inc. virt) and a 600mhz processor (easily overclocked to 900, 1100, or even 1700mhz) make most desktop apps usable.  The easiest cost comparison for this feature would be a low-end Linux netbook.  ZaReason’s Terra A20 seems as close a match as we’re likely to find; the Atom N270 is obviously more powerful than the N900’s OMAP 3430, but 1gb of RAM, a 32gb SSD (+$129), and 3G (+$99) match up reasonably well.  Since this exercise isn’t claiming to be scientific, let’s say the N900 represents 75% of the above Terra A20 configuration ($577), or $430.  Fair enough?

Portable Media Player

Technically the netbook comparison overlaps some of the media abilities of the N900, but since it’s not the same level of portable I think it’s okay to include a comparable portable media player in our analysis.  We could look at iPods… but they lack some of the N900’s key features (like FLAC support) while adding unrelated features (the AppStore).

A good comparison appears to be Creative Labs ZEN X-Fi2 32gb – a 3″ touchscreen, similar storage capacity, FLAC support, microSD slot, video out, FM radio.  Close enough for our purposes, anyway.  The ZEN X-Fi 32gb currently retails for $199.

(Running total: $630)

GPS

Unfortunately, the current Ovi Maps implementation on the N900 is weak.  The omission of turn-by-turn nav is a killer, as is the inability to save waypoints.  Satellite view is awesome, and the GPS is very accurate and reasonably fast.  Pathing also works as well as any other phone solution, though it clearly favors European-formatted addresses over U.S.-formatted ones.

All-in-all, I consider the GPS a 50% implementation at present.  The eventual addition of turn-by-turn will go a long way toward resolving this, and if you don’t want to wait, Sygic provides a very good (if expensive) 3rd-party solution.

Since most low-end standalone GPS solutions are in the $100 neighborhood, I’m going to say the N900 currently represents a $50 solution.

(Running total: $680)

FM Transmitter

One of my favorite N900 features, the FM Transmitter is one of those things that makes you ask, “why don’t more companies do this?”  A quick online check shows a range of prices, with a mid-range transmitter costing $40.

(Running total: $720)

5mp Camera (w/ flash and 480p video recording)

I’ve written about the N900’s camera before.  It’s a fine camera for a phone – excellent quality outdoors, “pretty good” quality under artificial lighting conditions.  The dual-LED flash is a nice feature, as is 800×480:25 video recording (though honestly, I’d find more use for 720×480:30).  Autofocus and 3x digital zoom are pretty standard.

5mp is a disappearing resolution among consumer cameras, but I was able to find something comparable at Amazon.  5mp, VGA video, similar digital zoom – $50.

(Running total: $770)

Optional Features (e.g. free repository software)

So far I’ve stuck with stock N900 features.  Now I’m going to switch gears and start looking at the value added from free repository applications.

(If I’ve missed any apps with wide appeal and a clear cost benefit, let me know.)

Note that I’ve deliberately tried to select apps that aren’t easily reproduced on any of the above devices (including the netbook).

Optional Features total (not including game console emulators): $145

Conclusion

Grand total: $915

Like I said, this isn’t meant to be scientific – it’s more just an attempt at representing the cost value of a high-end smartphone.  Assuming you are able to find an N900 for under $500, you’re essentially halving the cost of piecing together the phone’s many features yourself.

Feel free to (politely) assess my calculations in the comments below!

What can Linux learn from Toyota?

Before I begin, let me set the premise for this article.

If you follow news at all, you’ve probably heard of the recent recall fiasco involving various Toyota vehicles.  If you’re not familiar with the situation, here’s a brief recap courtesy of the relevant Wikipedia article:

Three separate but related recalls of automobiles by Toyota Motor Corporation occurred at the end of 2009 and start of 2010. Toyota initiated the recalls…after several vehicles experienced unintended acceleration. The first recall, on November 2, 2009, was to correct a possible incursion of an incorrect or out-of-place front driver’s side floor mat into the foot pedal well, which can cause pedal entrapment. The second recall, on January 21, 2010, was begun after some crashes were shown not to have been caused by floor mat incursion. This latter defect was identified as a possible mechanical sticking of the accelerator pedal causing unintended acceleration, referred to as Sticking Accelerator Pedal by Toyota…

As of January 28, 2010, Toyota had announced recalls of approximately 5.2 million vehicles for the pedal entrapment/floor mat problem, and an additional 2.3 million vehicles for the accelerator pedal problem. Approximately 1.7 million vehicles are subject to both. Certain related Lexus and Pontiac models were also affected. The next day, Toyota widened the recall to include 1.8 million vehicles in Europe and 75,000 in China. By then, the worldwide total number of cars recalled by Toyota stood at 9 million.

Obviously this has become a PR disaster for the world’s largest automobile company, but the fallout has affected more than just Toyota.  The following commentary comes from one of many articles on the matter:

The Japanese government is getting increasingly worried that the Toyota debacle might turn into a worldwide backlash against Japanese cars, or even all Japanese products. As the world’s 4th largest export nation, Japan has a lot to worry about.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama himself urged Toyota to ensure the safety of its vehicles and customers worldwide: ”When an event that impairs safety occurs, the initiative should be taken to work for the safety of people in Japan and worldwide.”

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara was a bit less diplomatic. He said Toyota ”lacked customers’ perspective” and reacted too slowly: ”It might be that Toyota considered it a minor problem,” Maehara said and added that the company must deal ”quickly based on the viewpoint of customers.”

…Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said he ”would like Toyota to deal with the situation properly so that it can alleviate concern among users.”

…[Foreign Minister Kaysuya] Okada is concerned that ”this is a problem for the whole of the Japanese auto industry and it is also about trust in Japanese products.”

One final observation before I transition into the main point of this article: 9 million may sound like a lot of recalls (and it certainly is), but consider that Toyota manufacturers nearly 9 million cars per year – meaning there may be upwards of 75+ million Toyota-manufactured cars currently in use.  That perspective will become important in a moment.

So what does this have to do with Linux?

I believe the impact of the Toyota recall on the wider perception of Japanese automakers is hugely relevant to Linux.  Here are the parallels:

  • Japanese automakers: Linux (for purposes of this discussion, desktop Linux)
  • Toyota: Canonical (maker of Ubuntu – currently the largest, most popular distro)

(For the record, I’m not interested in debating whether or not Ubuntu is the most “popular” desktop Linux distro – it is absolutely the most visible, which makes it appropriate for this analogy.)

Let’s delve into this a bit deeper.

Why Canonical is like Toyota

In classic form, the launch of Canonical’s latest and greatest (Ubuntu 10.04) has garnered huge amounts of media attention – some good, some bad.  For purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the bad.

Why?

Reason #1: when it comes to public perception, bad coverage ALWAYS trumps good coverage.

Reason #2: much of the overtly positive Ubuntu coverage comes from blatant fanboys and/or media personnel who fiddle with a liveCD for 5 minutes before writing a supposedly “comprehensive” review.  Reviews like this simply don’t deserve attention.

Reason #3: I am a disgruntled Ubuntu user, so I personally connect with many of the negative 10.04 reviews.

Early last year (2009) I wrote an article titled “The Only Feature Ubuntu 10.04 Needs“.  It has since become one of this site’s most popular articles, in part because so many people have read it and agreed (at least according to the article comments).  My point in that article is summed up as:

Two significant things need to happen between 9.10 and 10.04 if Ubuntu wants to stay relevant:

1) no new Ubuntu-specific features in 10.04 (new upstream features are fine)

2) make Ubuntu 10.04 a fix-only release

To save you reading the entire article, the basic premise was this:

Ubuntu is an excellent distribution, possibly the best general-purpose distribution of them all.  More than any other distro in recent memory, Ubuntu has the opportunity – and the financial backing – to carve out a real place for the Linux Desktop.

But there is one major, significant barrier standing in its path.  No, I’m not talking about the brown interface (which should improve in the future) – I’m talking about the perception that Linux doesn’t “just work.”

Yes, us lxers we know that it’s remarkably close to “just working.”  We know that if something doesn’t work there are a hundred different sites we can go to for help.  We know that driver issues are rarely Ubuntu’s fault – they’re the fault of lazy hardware vendors.

But everyday users don’t know this, and they arguably don’t care.  For them there are no excuses, only “it all works” or “it doesn’t work.”

And the sad fact of the matter is that it only takes one piece of hardware or one peripheral that DOESN’T work for the average user to throw Linux out the window.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be this way.

Up to that point, I’d had a pretty good experience with Ubuntu as a general-purpose desktop OS.  I first started using Ubuntu with the 8.04 release and a fair amount of work was required to get everything working.  The 8.10 release fixed many of my problems, and 9.04 was nearly flawless as far as my hardware was concerned (two desktops and a laptop).

When I wrote that article, my biggest concern was that Ubuntu’s reasonably good stability would lead to a change of focus from stability and performance to “features.”

I think it’s fair to say that my concern was justified.  VERY justified.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Ubuntu 9.10 was a disaster.  The given explanation was that a ton a features were crammed into 9.10 so that 10.04 – an LTS (long-term support) release – could focus on stability.

So WTF happened?  Ubuntu 10.04 was one of the most feature-heavy releases in recent memory, and its stability – at least so far – is not good.  Let me linkquote some of the most poignant reviews on the matter:

Some readers are inevitably going to accuse me of cherry-picking negative reviews, and that’s not incorrect – as I’ve clearly stated, I am deliberately picking out some of the worst problems with this release.

Thing is, I could have easily sampled another hundred of these.  If I wandered into the Ubuntu forums, I’d have enough bad 10.04 experiences to fill a hundred blog entries like this one.

I’m well aware that many of you will feel compelled to leave a comment stating “Ubuntu 10.04 worked fine for me.”  Good for you.  60+ million Toyota owners had nothing to worry about with the latest recall.  The vast majority of Toyota owners have had a wonderful experience with their vehicle, and the vast majority of Toyota owners are unaffected by stuck gas pedals.

But that simply doesn’t matter.  When it comes to public perception, one very negative experience will always outweigh any number of positive experiences.  Ask Toyota.  Ask Microsoft.  (Vista, anyone?) Ask any company that’s endured a PR disaster.

I’m sure Canonical has plans to gradually work out the kinks in their software, but that is exactly the problem: as an example of a “great” desktop OS, Ubuntu is way off track.

Consider this, as an example: what was the biggest, most publicized feature of the recent 10.04 release?

Remember?

The redone Canonical branding.

Seriously.

Yes, other changes got pulled in – but again, how many of those were merely ways to increase Canonical’s revenue?  (Further UbuntuOne integration and the 7digital music store partnership come to mind.)

How about the infamous 9.10 release?  Key non-upstream features included: a new installer slideshow, the Ubuntu One debut, and the Ubuntu Software Center.

See a pattern?

Let me clarify by saying that self-serving features like these aren’t inherently bad – they’re just so much less important than the basic pillars of stability, security, and performance.  Changing the branding is awesome… assuming a distro boots at all.

Sadly, the future of Ubuntu only gets more and more worrisome.  What’s next on the horizon?  How about Windicators – one of the worst UX ideas in computing history.

Ugh.

At any rate, let me pull this article back on-topic.  Two consecutive weak releases have certainly impacted Canonical/Ubuntu’s public perception, but what of the greater Linux ecosystem?

Again, let me invoke the Toyota analogy.  Toyota’s missteps in safety and reliability certainly harmed Toyota – no doubt there – but as I quoted above, they also sent shockwaves through the entire Japanese auto industry.  When the all-star member of a team displays weakness, the entire team suffers.

So it is with desktop Linux.  Love it or hate it, Canonical has been very successful in positioning Ubuntu as THE desktop Linux distro worth trying.  In 2008, when I again decided to try desktop Linux after several years away, the obvious choice of distro was Ubuntu.  Many, many blogs pointed to it as the best place to experience Linux, and since then Canonical and its throngs of loyal fans have only strengthened that message.

Frankly, I think the users of every other distro should be concerned.  When Canonical positions Ubuntu as the best incarnation of desktop Linux, then proceeds to release multiple problematic versions in a row, it reflects poorly on ALL desktop distros.

Take the following example from John, a new desktop Linux user who left the following comment on my aforementioned 10.04 article:

Couldn’t agree more.  I’m trying to move away from Windows so I thought I’d give the “best”? distro a try.

After downloading and installing (10.04) I get to the boot screen to find something about “gconf-sanity-check-2 exited with status 256″.  As a non computer geek (no offense) I am lost already.  Now I have the problem of getting rid of the untidy boot option screen or at least setting Windows as the default.  Maybe I’ll try again in 6 months.  Maybe….

Another perspective comes from that same comment thread, this time from Les:

Let me give you an outsider’s perspective. I’ve always been Windows user, but I love the concept of Linux and just installed Ubuntu 9.10.

My ipod won’t sync. My network won’t connect. I can’t get printers to work. Installing some programs is ridiculously complicated (tar.gz, then…..what?).

I’ve spent hours on forums, and yes, there are fixes, apparently, but none of them have worked for me so far. And I’m the computer guy all my friends come to, so it’s not an aptitude problem.

I’ve already fallen for Ubuntu, and I will persevere. But when I read that Ubuntu spent the last 6 months moving the window controls from right to left and making Ubuntu more social, I wonder if they will ever reach their goal of replacing Windows.

These are great comments from the kind of people Linux desperately needs – individuals brave enough to try an entirely new OS on their own, and individuals willing to persevere despite bad experiences.

What gravely concerns me is that for every John or Les who perseveres, how many others quit?  How many potential developers, designers, and translators has the FOSS ecosystem lost because people mistakenly think Ubuntu = Linux = FOSS?

Now in preparation for the inevitable onslaught of fanboy hate mail this article will garner, let me state that this same conversation could be had for any other distro.  Perhaps Fedora and OpenSuse and Debian have scared off their own share of potential Linux contributors, and that is also sad.

But because Canonical has positioned Ubuntu as THE desktop Linux experience, their responsibility is necessarily higher.  The more publicity Ubuntu garners, the greater its responsibility to deliver an optimal experience.

Before I end, let me state that despite its relevance, this article deliberately ignores the ongoing debate regarding Canonical’s contributions to Linux, Gnome/KDE/other DEs, and other components of the FOSS world.  This is a hugely complicated topic, and one I’m not particularly qualified to comment on.  For those who have never heard of this problem (or those who have but want to get re-angered ;), here are some excellent resources:

In my book I wrote that Debian has been terminally damaged by the split [with Ubuntu]. You could even say that Ubuntu is screwing Debian twice: once by stealing people away from what should be their natural home, and again by making them dissatisfied and causing them to leave this combined community. Mark Shuttleworth could hardly have conceived of a better way to kill Debian than what he came up with.

Though I doubt it will help, I strongly suggest reading Is Linux Religion? before sending me hatemail.  ;)

Also note that all comments are moderated, so don’t waste your time insulting me or other commenters without some sort of factual basis for your insults.

Dear Ubuntu: I Have Some Concerns

Dear Ubuntu:

For the last couple years, life has been good.  Every time I’ve shown you to a friend or family member, they’ve compared you to what they’re familiar with – Windows XP or Vista, mostly – and by comparison you’ve looked brilliant.  Yeah, your ugly brown color scheme was a bit off-putting at first, but once people saw how secure, simple, and reliable you were, the response was almost universally positive.

But recently, things have changed.  Your last version – 9.10 – was an unmitigated disaster.  At first I thought I was the only user having issues with it (random freezes and reboots), but guess what?  Tons of people had a horrible experience with you.  My comment box is overflowing with comment after comment after comment about how you made their life difficult with your 9.10 release, and thirty seconds on any major search engine will show loads more comments to this same effect.

Normally all this would be semi-acceptable since you still provide a great alternative to Vista.

….but wait.  That’s not actually relevant.  See, my friends and family aren’t comparing you to Vista any longer – they’re comparing you to Windows 7.

And frankly, Windows 7 is a great operating system.

Out of the box, Windows 7 is very pretty.  It makes your brown ugliness look worse than ever.  I realize that your strange obsession with brown is changing with your next release (thank God), but I have to wonder – is it changing enough?

Ubuntu 10.04 (courtesy of Ars Technica)
Ubuntu 10.04 (courtesy of Ars Technica)
Windows 7 (courtesy of http://www.thinkpads.com/tag/windows-7/page/2/)
Windows 7 (courtesy of http://www.thinkpads.com/tag/windows-7/page/2/)

Windows 7 still makes you look ridiculous.  Sorry, but it’s true.

But you know what – let’s forget about appearances.  After all, I can always spend five or six hours (per computer) meticulously changing you into something beautiful.  It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do with my time.  </sarcasm>

Let’s talk instead about something you’ve ALWAYS excelled at: security.  One of my favorite things to tell new Ubuntu users is that dealing with an intrusive virus scanner is a thing of the past.  Linux distros don’t require virus scanners, and if a person wants to use one “just in case”, ClamAV won’t bother ’em at all.

People are always amazed by this, especially after dealing with the likes of Norton or McAfee or AVG.  Even the good free scanners (Avast, for example) can be surprisingly pesky.

But you know what, Ubuntu?  This isn’t as true as it used to be.  Yes, you remain pleasantly secure, but guess what – Windows 7 is quite a bit better in this regard.  Microsoft even provides their own security solution – and it’s surprisingly good.  It integrates very nicely with Windows 7 and is less resource-intensive than many of its competitors.  I barely notice it’s there.

Then there are the other steps Microsoft is taking to improve its overall security model.  They’re doing good work, Ubuntu – and they deserve credit for it.  Yes, you and other Linux distros may still have the edge in total system security, but to a casual user Windows 7 does a bang-up job in this regard.

But wait, you say – there’s still the issue of stability.  Haven’t you always excelled when it comes to stability, especially when compared to Windows?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not sure you provide a better alternative at this point.  In my experience, Windows 7 is remarkably solid.  You, my friend, have not been.  I sincerely hope 10.04 is more stable than 9.10 – and I imagine it will be – but you know what?  The bar’s been raised.  We can continue to mock Vista for the unstable mess that it was, but when it comes to Windows 7, the average user isn’t complaining about stability.  Even corporations are convinced that it’s time to upgrade from XP. This is a good thing, Ubuntu.

True, it would be better if these corporations were upgrading to you, but frankly – I’m not sure you’re ready for widespread commercial use.  Those 9.10 stability problems still linger in my mind…

Then there are the other things Windows 7 has improved.  Windows Media Player is no longer an abomination.  It’s actually kind of nice.  Rhythmbox, on the other hand, has a long way to go before it can truly compete with the all-in-one solutions offered by software like WMP or iTunes.  IE9 looks like it could actually be a competitive browser.  I still love my Firefox, but I grow increasingly frustrated with how poorly the Linux version of Firefox compares to the Windows version.  Then there’s the frustration of being forced to wait for a distro upgrade in order to use the latest version of Firefox.  Yes, I know I can manually configure obscure repositories – and I always do this – but it’s hard to convince my friends and family that it’s worth the extra effort.  “But in Windows, Firefox just does the update for me!”

They’re not wrong.

I’m sorry this letter has turned into a rant, Ubuntu.  I didn’t intend for it to turn out like this.

But frankly, I’m concerned.

There’s one more thing I need to bring up, Ubuntu.  Something I’ve discussed in the past.

It’s called “diplomacy.”  And frankly, you suck at it.

Six months ago I wrote about three key relationships you needed to mend if you want to be successful.  I still think those relationships are in dire need of improvement, but I realize now that I left the most important group off that list.

Your developers.

Many individuals have discussedat lengththe meltdown between various members of the Ubuntu community due to your “interesting” placement of 10.04’s window buttons.  So many discussions have taken place on this that there’s no way in hell I’m going to open that can of worms again.

But what I will say is this: you need to seriously reevaluate the message you send to the free workforce that makes Ubuntu possible.

Let me quote Fewt on the matter:

As you know the change of the title bar buttons from right to left coming in Lucid 10.04 has caused quite a stir across the internets, and has taken focus in a single bug report.  Ultimately it really is trivial to change them back to the right side; a simple gconf oneliner will move them, but there is a greater issue here.

That issue is .. community.  Thousands of users across the internet are voting overwhelmingly against this change, but unfortunately it seems that it like all other Ubuntu bugs have fallen on deaf ears.  Users reporting that they do not want the change are being told that they aren’t going to get a choice or a vote in the decision, and if they don’t like it they can fix it themselves, or they can find another distribution.

What’s worse though is that Ubuntu’s #1 is personally posting in bug threads with an utterly atrocious level of condescending attitude; degrading the very users that this product is supposed to capture.  Users that care about Linux.  Questions have been asked over and over, and evidence has been provided that it is such a bad idea and rather than listening to the people that have supported Ubuntu over the years, we receive statements like “we are not voting on design decisions” and “you don’t get to second-guess their decisions”.

Ubuntu is supposed to be a meritocracy where an elite group of people make decisions based on technical ability.  Where is this technical ability that they speak of though?  How this process seems to really work is that Mark says “make it so” and his drones say “yes master”.  That’s not a meritocracy, not at all.

The end result (like many of their other internally created components ie – Computer Janitor) is a half baked implementation of a theme that looks worse than the theme it is replacing.

I choose to vote with my feet, and maybe I’ll even host a burn your Ubuntu merchandise day since I have quite a bit of it myself.  None of it will ever see the light of day again anyway.  My talent and knowledge is far more valuable elsewhere contributing to projects that actually improve the open source community.

The comments on that thread are also interesting.  Again, I’m not going to debate who is/isn’t right in this case (though it’s hard to argue with Fewt’s POV), but let me say that the damage this issue has done to Ubuntu’s reputation among developers is extensive.  QUITE extensive.

Because if there’s anything a developer hates, it’s having their input ignored without offering a legitimate counterargument.  If a FOSS developer wanted to be treated like that, they’d go work for one of your far-more-successful competitors and make a lot more money for their efforts.

Ubuntu may not be a democracy.  That’s fine.  But when free labor is involved, the free laborers must be given some element of control – otherwise, they are absolutely justified in investing their time and energy elsewhere.

I still have hope for you, Ubuntu.  I like the against-all-odds spirit you espouse.  I believe consumers everywhere could benefit from a strong third-party OS offering, and I still think you are capable of merging your corporate and FOSS interests into a cohesive whole.

But I have concerns, Ubuntu.  I have concerns with your design, your stability, your community, your leadership, and your roadmap for the future.  10.04 looks to have some interesting changes – but are they enough to make you a viable alternative to Windows 7?

Ask me in a month, I guess.

Sincerely,

-Tanner

(Author’s Note: Let me clearly state that I love FOSS and I love Linux.  However, I’m starting to have serious doubts about whether or not Ubuntu is a good representative for Linux and FOSS as a whole.  To anyone who visits – I’m currently looking for a great KDE distro NOT based off Ubuntu.  Any suggestions based on personal experience?)

Why I Use and Promote Ubuntu Linux

I’ve been pretty hard on Ubuntu lately.  Considering that the product is free, is it appropriate for me to do things like insult its appearance and request huge lists of fixes?

I believe it is.  The first statement in the Ubuntu Philosophy reads:

Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.

The “Contribute to Ubuntu” article on the Ubuntu wiki takes this a step further:

Ubuntu is most of all a community. All of the software, artwork and documentation in Ubuntu has been created, tested, used and discussed openly by people around the world participating in the Open Source community made possible by the Internet. Anyone who uses Ubuntu is part of this global community, and we invite you to help shape Ubuntu to better meet your needs. To make it yours!

Anyone can help shape and improve Ubuntu…

While I am a programmer, I have yet to try my hand at contributing code/coding to the Ubuntu project.  It seems to me that while open source can always benefit from more developers, the free software ecosystem is already chock-full of quality software written by some of the best coders in the world.

Free and open source software is not held back by a lack of coding prowess.  If anything, many pieces of proprietary software have a long way to go before they can compete with the technical accomplishments of their open source counterparts.

What I think most FOSS projects lack are things far more difficult to fix than rooms full of talented coders.  Many FOSS projects lack strong leadership.  They lack vision.  They lack designers.  They lack pragmatists.  They lack true communities.

These aspects – while more nebulous than raw coding talent – are what truly prevent free and open source software from directly competing with proprietary software.  If I examine the most successful FOSS projects (Apache, Firefox, WordPress, Wikipedia, MySQL), I see a collection of projects that may not be the most technically advanced, but that represent an excellent mix of design, leadership, vision, pragmatism, and community.

Which – not coincidentally – are the same reasons I use, advocate, promote, and attempt to improve Ubuntu.

Leadership

Mark Shuttleworth is a complex man with many fans and at least several less-than-fans (frenemies?).  But love or hate the man, it is difficult to argue with his leadership techniques.  In five short years he has turned Ubuntu from a pipe dream into the most popular desktop Linux distro on the planet (a distro even Penguin Pete is willing to try).  As a server, Ubuntu has attracted clients as large as Wikipedia – the 6th most-visited site on the internet.

A project as ambitious as building an entire OS cannot succeed without strong leadership (think Steve Jobs), and no other desktop Linux has a man like Shuttleworth at the helm.

Vision and Design

Vision is a difficult thing to quantify.  For one, I believe vision is about more than just “wanting to make the awesomest thing ever.”  Almost every FOSS project has that goal.  (Otherwise, why would they exist at all?)  But vision isn’t just about having a goal – it’s about having a firm framework in place to make such a goal possible/probable.

In 2008, Shuttleworth stated a two-year goal for desktop Linux surpassing Apple in usability.  To quote from the linked article:

“The great task in front of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something that is stable and robust and not so pretty, into something that is art,” Shuttleworth said to applause from the audience. “Can we not only emulate, but can we blow right past Apple?”

However, he made no mention of whether Apple intends to simply sit idly by while desktop Linux catches up to and surpasses the user experience that Apple has become so well-known for.

“I see this [need] for free software—beautiful, elegant software. We have to invest in making this desktop beautiful and useful,” Shuttleworth said of Linux.

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know I have many concerns about Ubuntu’s current user experience.  But things like the 100 papercuts project and this commentary from Ivanka Majic, the leader of Canonical’s design team, give me hope:

Serdar Yegulalp (of InformationWeek): UIs in open source apps, Linux especially, are a common source of complaints from the uninitiated. What can be done about that?

Ivanka: “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Being able to spend the last 7 months working with our own in-house developers, getting the language right (if I change an icon, is that a “bugfix”?), feeding into the process at the right time, figuring out the release schedules, all those things. Right now, there’s not much to see — there’s a kind of shallow level of change from a visual perspective, but that’s because we’re just getting started. Nobody can do everything in six months but we can make it a little better. I think a brand-new design team can’t possibly have gone ‘ta-da!’ and handed you a brand new super shiny Ubuntu. But I think Ubuntu does get better with every release. Karmic has a kind of smoothness to it that Jaunty didn’t have. You can already tell the difference. And I’ve got massive hopes for Lucid…”

Other (read: almost all) Linux distros have prettier default themes than Ubuntu, but user experience is about more than just looks.  If 2010 passes and Ubuntu remains ugly and partially usable perhaps I’ll reevaluate my loyalty – but until then, I’m excited to see what Shuttleworth’s hand-picked team provides.

(And for those unhappy with Ubuntu’s usability: are you aware of any other distro that employs a corporate-funded design team of fourteen people from different disciplines (visual/graphics designers, interaction designers, and more)…?)

Pragmatism

The free software world is chock full of idealism.  What most large-scale FOSS projects lack is not idealism, but a solid dose of pragmatism.

Pragmatism: character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.

Take Fedora, for example.  I think Fedora is a fine distro, especially for users who want a cutting-edge desktop Linux experience.  But have you ever seen Fedora’s forbidden item list?  This is a list full of ideology, not practicality.  Fedora will never become THE desktop Linux distro because proprietary drivers, like them or not, are an unavoidable necessity for at least 5+ more years (maybe longer for certain hardware vendors).  OGV is a great format, but recommending it instead of DVDs is not practical for anyone.

Please do not mistake my commentary as a slam against ideological individuals or distros.  I think the free and open source world benefits greatly from its strong ideological background, and I hope it never loses support from ideological purists.  But in order to compete with Windows and OSX, any potential mainstream Linux desktop must sacrifice certain ideologies for the sake of practicality.  If it doesn’t, it will be forever doomed to obscure usage among tech-savvy individuals only (which may be what many ideologists want, but that’s another matter entirely).

Ubuntu does an admirable job of walking the fine line between ideology and pragmatism.  It ships only a handful of questionable packages by default, and for heavily-used but patent-encumbered software (mp3, DVDs, etc.) it provides easy installation with full disclosure of the risks involved.  I have mixed feelings about Mono and Moonlight, but if they can someday get me Netflix Instant Watch on Linux I’m all for supporting them.

Ubuntu has also extended its hand to commercial developers via the forthcoming Software CenterThis could be the best thing desktop Linux has done to attract developers. I have no idea how well the Software Center will perform in this regard, but its creation is absolutely an excellent usability move with a great deal of potential.

What other desktop Linux distros actively strive to engage commercial developers?

Community

I’ve discussed the Ubuntu community at length elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again.  I am not aware of another desktop Linux community that offers a breadth of information comparable to Ubuntu’s.  Extensive documentation, a huge wiki, paid support options, lively forums, IRC, mailing lists, LoCo teams, books, fan sites galore…

Need I go on?

Ubuntu has rallied an impressive combination of professionals, developers, and casual users to its cause.  With so much at stake, I worry that if the Ubuntu project can’t provide a viable competitor to Windows and OSX, will any other desktop Linux ever have a chance?

Conclusions

I am deeply concerned with the stagnation that has consumed proprietary desktop OSes over the last ten years.  Hardware power has grown in leaps and bounds, but how well have mainstream operating systems evolved to utilize such power?  Viruses and overall security remain a rampant problem, general OS usability is no better than it was 10 years ago, and even the visual presentation of OSes has made only minimal progress toward something truly artistic and not just “functional.”

I believe that a competitive desktop Linux distro could change this.  If all software developers wrote and designed software for OSes they could actively contribute to, we could see massive improvements across all forms of software in a remarkably short period of time.  If all hardware drivers and software formats were standardized and open sourced, how much more time could be spent improving hardware and software instead of just getting it to work at all?  If consumers weren’t forced to pay hundreds of dollars for an OS that was mediocre at best, they could instead spend those hundreds of dollars on software – potentially leading to more jobs for software developers, not less.

Look at the improvements that have come about because of a simple standardization like USB.  Love or hate the spec itself, does anyone really want to go back to the days of competing serial/parallel/PS2/SCSI/etc. interfaces?  Would the internet be what it is without open standards and open source software?

A functional, reliable, usability-focused desktop Linux distro has the potential to redefine desktop computing (which – despite the hype behind cloud computing – will still be around for many years, particularly in developing nations).  Proprietary OSes have had 20 years to give us a better desktop experience, and have they succeeded?

Ha.

I use Ubuntu because it provides me a better desktop experience than Windows.  I promote Ubuntu because I know it can provide others with a better desktop experience.  I advocate Ubuntu not just because free and open source software can save people money, but because FOSS represents an excellent long-term investment in improving the human condition via technology.  I attempt to improve Ubuntu because without honest criticism, it cannot meet any of its stated goals.

I apologize if this post comes across as melodramatic or hammy.  I don’t mean for it to be anything but sincere.

Ubuntu is an excellent distro and I will continue to praise it when it excels.  Conversely, I (and many others) will criticize it when it falls short.  (For the record, I much prefer the former.)

And to any developers that I have implicitly insulted via my critiques: I apologize.  I mean no disrespect.  Your work is absolutely appreciated.

But please – take my criticism for what it’s worth, and use it to improve your project.  If I unfairly characterize something, please correct me.

Because at the end of the day we’re all working toward the same goal: a better desktop computing experience.  I’ll do it my way.  You’ll do it your way.  And hopefully, the end product will represent the combined best of all our efforts.