November 18, 2008
Here’s a list of a few of the reasons I think you might want to take a look at Ubuntu. Thanks to the Ubuntu UK Podcast episode 10 for originally inspiring this post.
- Cost – Ubuntu and all the software Ubuntu makes available costs $0. If you are comparing this to the cost of Windows, don’t forget the costs of your Office Suite, any other software you need to purchase, plus the annual subscription to your Antivirus and Firewall vendor of choice. If you want to upgrade to Vista, you’ll also need to buy a new computer. In contrast, Canonical (the for profit company that funds much of the development of Ubuntu) will even pay the postage to mail you an Ubuntu installation CD if you ask for one. If you are a business considering deploying Ubuntu on the Desktop or on the Server, you don’t need to work out a licensing deal before trying the system, or deploying it fully. Paid support is available, but not required.
- Wide Range of Support Options – You get your pick. The easiest way to get a question answered is by doing a quick Google search (I use Uboontu). Alternatively, you can read up on the Official Ubuntu Documentation, post to the Ubuntu Forums, ask a question on Launchpad, chat in #ubuntu on irc.freenode.net, send an email to an Ubuntu Support Mailing List, contact someone in your local Ubuntu LoCo Group, or get paid support directly from Canonical.
- Live CDs – You can use a Live CD to test drive Ubuntu on your computer before actually going through the installation process. I’d recommend running the Live CD to make sure all your hardware works, including things like printers and other peripheral devices. NB: The performance of your system while you use a Live CD is dependent on the amount of RAM your computer has – I’d recommend 512 MB RAM for a good experience. A fully installed system will certainly have better performance.
- Ease of Installation – Ubuntu is quite easy to install, particularly compared to Windows. There are no tricky questions, and all the user interaction occurs at the beginning of the installation, so once it gets going you can walk away. If you are currently using Windows, I’d highly recommend using Wubi to install the system. Wubi makes installing Ubuntu ridiculously easy. Ubuntu is installed just like any other Windows application, and can be removed from Add/Remove Programs in the Control Panel. The entire system is installed inside a single file, with no impact on the rest of your Windows installation. An entry is added to the Windows boot loader, giving you the option of starting either Windows, or Ubuntu each time you start your PC. Wubi also comes on the Ubuntu Live CD, so if you insert the CD while running Windows, it will give you the option of installing Ubuntu with Wubi without requiring the additional download of the Ubuntu installation files.
- Less Post-Installation Work – Ubuntu comes with software for everything you need to do on a typical desktop system, pre-loaded. After a Windows installation is finished, you need to find and install drivers for every piece of hardware in your computer. Afterward, you get to install all the different software applications you need, one at a time, meticulously typing in all the CD Keys, or hunting for the installation file on the internet. If you’ve done this before, you can probably appreciate the Out of the Box completeness of an Ubuntu installation.
- A New Version Every 6 Months, or 2 Years – Ubuntu has a 6 month release cycle, bringing you a new version of Ubuntu, along with new features and new versions of each piece of software you have installed. If you’d prefer not to upgrade every 6 months, there is also a Long Term Support release, every two years. The LTS release has a longer support lifetime (3 years, compared to 18 months for Desktop support), if you are purchasing support from Canonical.
- Easy to Install Additional Software – Need something that didn’t come with a default installation of Ubuntu? Just go to Applications > Add/Remove, and after the list populates itself, you can browse through thousands of available applications, grouped by category. These include games, desktop publishing applications, alternate office suites, audio/video remastering software, and just about every other type of software you can think of. Installation is as easy as checking the boxes next to your chosen applications, clicking Apply Changes, and clicking Apply again on the confirmation box. That’s it. All the software is automatically downloaded and installed, with icons placed in the appropriate places in your menu. No more clicking next, next, next, next, finish, ad nauseum, and no need to keep those precious software installation CD’s you bought from getting damaged while you aren’t needing them.
- Better Language Support – Gnome, and therefore Ubuntu, has 45 languages having at least 80 percent of the system translated with some support for over 100 languages, including Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Bengali (India), Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese (China), Chinese (Hong Kong), Chinese (Taiwan), Czech, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha, English (US, British, Canadian), Estonian, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malayalam, Marathi, Norwegian Bokmål, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian (Cyrillic and Latin), Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.
- No More Worrying About Viruses – Ubuntu users don’t need to worry about viruses, as viruses are programs which exploit holes in Windows security. This means that you also don’t need any Anti-Virus software, which saves you money and system resources. This extends to spyware and adware, and other malicious programs lurking about on the Internet.
- More Secure – Linux, and therefore Ubuntu, is more secure than Windows, particularly on the desktop. Windows comes with all kinds of ports open waiting for connections, and Ubuntu does not. This is why you are foolish not to run a firewall on a Windows desktop computer, as the firewall is intended to fix the open ports problem. On Ubuntu, installing a software package which requires a port, opens that port. If your Ubuntu system is directly connected to the Internet, I’d recommend you set up some kind of firewall anyway. In Ubuntu 8.10, check out the new graphical front end to ufw (Uncomplicated Firewall), gufw. Also, the filesystem used by Linux is more secure, and more tunable to exactly what kind of security you need for a given file or folder, in contrast to the ON or OFF file access provided by Windows XP.
- No Vendor Lock In – Proprietary software vendors often take advantage of their customers, by locking them into the system they purchase, by making it hard or impossible to migrate to a different system. Apparently, they think that doing this will keep their customers coming back, year after year. They’re usually correct, no matter how unethical it is. I, for one, will not buy anything that traps me into using a particular product, given the choice. Ubuntu, and FOSS (Free Open Source Software) in general, support open standards, and are providing your software at no cost.
- Designed to Last Forever – Free Software is often developed by people who wanted something for themselves, and after creating it, chose to give it away to everyone else. So, the software is designed to serve the user. It isn’t designed with Marketing in mind, nor is it designed to become obsolete so you need to buy the new version. Not to mention, the software is open source, so even if the guy that originally wrote it gets hit by a bus or something, anyone else can continue to improve the product, if they want to.
- Learn How it Works – If you like to tinker, and want to learn, the sky is the limit. There is excellent documentation available in the Help menus of most of the software that comes with the system. If you want to learn how to use free software for the production of art, video, or sound, there is free educational material available, and the tools are free. If you want to get more technical, you can go as far as viewing the source code for even the most arcane parts of the Linux Kernel. And again, all the tools are free.
- Change the Appearance – It’s really easy to dramatically change the look and feel of Ubuntu. Don’t like brown? Go to System > Preferences > Appearance for a number of different themes. Check out www.gnome-look.org or art.gnome.org for a wealth of additional themes and icon sets. If you are using Ubuntu for your business, you can even rebrand the Operating System with your own logos and themes, if you want to. Of course, anyone can do this on their Desktop at home, too.
- Change the Software – You can take any Free Software and modify the code to make it suit your needs perfectly. If you redistribute it, or if you are just feeling charitable, make the code changes available to everyone else.
- Help Make Ubuntu Better – It isn’t hard to join the community and work to make Ubuntu better for yourself, and for everyone else that uses the system. You can help by submitting bugs, suggesting ideas, translating documentation into another language, testing the system, supporting others with problems, contributing artwork, writing documentation, or contributing code.
- Real Ownership – With Ubuntu, you actually have ownership of your entire computer. If you are using Windows, you don’t own the software – you only paid for a license to use the software in a specific way. Ownership means you can change it, and do whatever you want with it including having redistribution rights and including the ability to making money off of it. Your ownership is unrestricted, and you don’t need to worry about someone trying to sue you for what you do with it (the only exception would be relating to the use of trademarks, such as the Ubuntu and Firefox logos, if you change the software). Of course, real ownership also means that if it breaks, it’s up to you to fix it. But you aren’t alone. The entire community owns it jointly, and many people are helping to provide you with support, fix the problems on your system, and make improvements to your software.
- Pwn your Friends – Ubuntu has a number of great, free First Person Shooters available in the repositories including Tremulous, Nexuiz, OpenArena, and Sauerbraten. Other cool games are available, like Kobo Deluxe or Battle for Wesnoth. Running Windows games in Wine is also an option. See the Wine App db for how well your favorite Windows game runs in Wine. For example World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Homeworld, Warcraft III, Starcraft, EVE Online, Command and Conquer 3, Call of Duty 4, Everquest 1 and 2, and Counter-Strike all run very well in Ubuntu with Wine.
- The Power of UNIX, thanks to Gnu’s tools – If you really want to make your system work for you, you’ll be learning how to make good use of the command line. The Terminal is scary at first, but that’s only because it’s unfamiliar and you don’t know how to use it. Once you have some command line experience under your belt, you’ll find that you can do what you want to do much faster than you could using your mouse in the graphical environment. (If you find yourself using the Terminal a lot, I’d recommend checking out tilda. You can install tilda from the command line with ‘sudo aptitude install tilda’.) A few tips for beginners:
- ~ represents your home directory, where all your files live.
- cd changes directories, cd .. takes you up a level, and cd – takes you back to the previous directory.
- ls displays the contents of a directory.
- Autocomplete commands by pressing tab, or pressing it twice for suggestions.
- After finding the name of a command, type “man COMMAND” for the manual.
- Use the nano command to edit a text file.
Here are some challenges associated with switching to Ubuntu:
- Unfamiliarity – It might sound like I’m stating the obvious, but the system will be new to you. Using Ubuntu may appear to be more difficult than it really is, just because of this fact. After you get over the initial shock, I think you’ll find that Ubuntu is actually easier to use than Windows.
- Terminology – When you are new to the FOSS world, it’s really hard to know what everyone is talking about, since you don’t understand the terminology. How are you supposed to know the difference between a desktop environment and a window manager? Not to mention, the names of different projects that are interchangeable, like Gnome, KDE, and XFCE or Metacity and Compiz. Every software project has come up with it’s own name, and the name never seems to have anything to do with what the software actually does. The good news, is that the Ubuntu Community has provided a Glossary.
- Vendor Support – Many hardware and software vendors don’t provide much support for Linux. The good news is that the Linux Kernel hackers have managed to backwards engineer hardware drivers for just about everything. 3d Graphics card drivers, and some Wifi cards require the use of an Ubuntu tool called Jockey which will install proprietary drivers for you. Software that isn’t designed to work on Linux might run if you try using Wine, and there are Free Software alternatives for just about every type of computer program. Some of the most popular Windows applications actually run great, and possibly faster in Ubuntu using Wine, such as MS Office and World of Warcraft. If you really need Windows XP, you can easily install it inside Ubuntu with Virtualbox. Also, if you call your ISP and tell them you are running Ubuntu, they will probably freak out for no good reason. At least, they’ve heard of Firefox, by now.
- Some Hardware Might Not Work Out of the Box – Hardware that doesn’t work is uncommon, but it’s possible. Less popular hardware is less likely to work. Try the LiveCD, and test your hardware. Some people have problems getting Suspend and Hibernate to work. If it doesn’t work, check the forums or do a Uboontu search for help in getting it working. In the future, it’s a good idea to check the forums to see if a piece of hardware is supported, before you buy it. I haven’t found this to be a big problem when I’ve helped people switch to Ubuntu.
- Migrating your stuff from Windows to Ubuntu – The Ubuntu Community has compiled a good list of stuff to consider when you are going to make the switch, available here. I’d again recommend using Wubi, as you can take your time migrating everything as Wubi installs Ubuntu on your computer with no more impact on Windows than installing any other application.
- Restricted Media Formats – Many media formats, such as mp3 and aac music formats don’t come pre-installed in Ubuntu, due to legal restrictions on distributing the software required because of patent issues. I’d recommend you start ripping your CD’s into Ogg Vorbis format. It’s better, and it’s free. DVD support doesn’t come pre-installed, also for legal restrictions on decrypting DVD’s without paying for it. Flash video, required for YouTube and other websites, doesn’t come pre-loaded either, because of restrictions imposed by Adobe. Also, Microsoft’s fonts don’t come installed, also due to legal restrictions, irregardless of whether or not you own a copy of Windows. Ubuntu costs nothing, after all, and the people that hold patents require compensation for using their technology. If you want to make all of this work in one shot, no questions asked, you can install the ubuntu-restricted-extras package. For more on the topic, see the Ubuntu Community documentation available here. If you want to buy software that allows Ubuntu to play these formats, Canonical has started making this available in the Canonical Store.
Let me know if I missed anything important. NB: Many of the advantages of using Ubuntu listed above are shared by other Linux Distributions, and are the result of the hard work of Gnu and a lot of other Free Software projects.
November 13, 2008
In response to our global economic woes, Sequoia Capital gave it’s portfolio company CEOs a scary slideshow presentation, which I thought I’d share. If you don’t know who Sequoia Capital is, here is a description of the company from the TechCrunch CrunchBase:
Sequoia Capital is a venture capital firm founded by Don Valentine in 1972. The firm has offices in the US, China, India and Israel. Sequoia has funded an unprecedented number of enormously successful companies including Google, Yahoo, Paypal, Electronic Arts, YouTube, NVIDIA, Cisco Systems, Oracle and Apple. Sequoia estimates that 10% of the NASDAQ’s value is made up of firms they have funded.
To see their presentation, check out the TechCrunch article here. It’s morbidly fascinating.
I’ve heard many report that proftable Open Source companies like Red Hat have been weathering the bad times better than most, since many businesses are looking for ways to cut costs, and Free Software solutions can be a much less expensive option for many. Page 46 of the presentation does point out, however, that companies that don’t already have an established revenue model, paying customers, and existing profitability will have trouble getting any new funding from Venture Capitalists.
So, what does this mean for popular Web 2.0 apps and other projects which depend on paid employees but don’t have clear cut business models? Unless they have wealthy benefactors, as does Canonical, they could have some trouble convincing investors to provide the funding they need to keep going.
November 8, 2008
USB-Creator is a new tool that comes pre-installed in Ubuntu 8.10, the Intrepid Ibex. It allows you to install any Ubuntu installation CD to your USB Disk (or SD card in a USB Card Reader), and makes it bootable. In Ubuntu 8.10, USB-Creator can be found by going to System > Administration > Create a USB Startup Disk.
Using this tool instead of burning CDs each time you need to make a new install disk is a great idea. USB disks are faster than CDs, so the live image boots faster, installs faster, and has generally better performance.
If you are having problems getting an older computer to boot from USB, you will need to create a GRUB Boot Disk. Instructions for making a GRUB Boot CD can be found here. After creating the iso, you’ll need to edit the menu.lst file to add the option to boot from your USB drive. In Intrepid, you can simply right click an iso, and go to Open With > Archive Mounter. You will see the drive pop up in the Nautilus sidebar. Open it up, and edit the file boot/grub/menu.lst file with a text editor. Add this section to the end of the file:
title Boot USB drive (1 Internal Hard Disk)
If the computer has two internal hard drives, you will need to change “(hd1,0)” to “(hd2,0)”. When you are finished, just save the file, unmount the iso, and burn it to a CD! Easy, huh?
USB-Creator can also make your Live USB Stick persistent, which means that after you boot into the live image, you can make changes to the system (such as getting your wireless working or installing Flash), and the changes will stick around after a reboot. Having a Persistent LiveUSB in your pocket is like carrying around your own tiny, private computer. It’s a great option for doing online banking while you are at work, or on any computer you don’t own.
Last but not least, USB-Creator is REALLY easy to use. It will take an Ubuntu image from an installation disk you already have, or from an iso image you downloaded. Also, it’s designed to coexist happily with existing files on your USB Stick, formatting only when absolutely necessary and after warning you first, so you can still use the rest of the space on your USB drive for storing files.
In the next release of Ubuntu, the Jaunty Jackalope, expect new versions of USB-Creator for KDE and for Windows. Also planned is support for installing directly to SD cards, without the need for a USB Card Reader, for those of us with internal SD Card slots. The developers also plan to integrate Ubuntu’s Add/Remove Software GUI into USB-Creator, so people can customize what software gets pre-loaded onto their Live USB. Also, USB-Creator will gain the ability to overwrite the Master Boot Record (MBR), which is sometimes required to get the USB Stick to boot properly.
I had some problems getting my USB Drive to boot after running USB-Creator, and I was given a great workaround in #ubuntu-installer on IRC. Before you use this command, understand that the program you will be using can be dangerous if used improperly, so be sure you understand exactly what you are doing before you proceed. Executing this command will likely erase any data you have on your USB Stick, so back it up! To replace the MBR on your USB Disk, in a terminal run the following command, all on one line, replacing the x with the appropriate letter for your USB drive:
sudo dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sdx bs=512 count=1; sudo blockdev –rereadpt /dev/sdx; usb-creator
So, give USB-Creator a try. I’m sure you’ll find it quite useful. If you have any problems getting my instructions to work, or if this helped you out, leave me a comment to let me know! Thanks for reading!
November 1, 2008
So, now that the Intrepid Ibex has officially arrived, I thought I’d present some of my impressions on this release of Ubuntu. Most of the new features have been described elsewhere, so I’ll leave the obvious out of this post.
Improved Wireless Internet Access
Improved Wireless Internet Access is the most important new feature of this release, and the improvements are the results of the inclusion of Network Manager 0.7, and all the hard work that has been put into improving Ubuntu’s support for 3G cellular modems. My Ubuntu wireless experience has improved significantly since I upgraded. I do most of my work on a Dell Inspiron 1300 Laptop, which uses an internal 802.11G Broadcom wireless card. As you might imagine, it’s been a rough road, thanks to Broadcom’s lack of Linux support. Around the time I upgraded to Hardy, I started having a terrible time connecting to my wireless router. I was to the point of considering purchasing a new wireless card with better Linux support, or perhaps a new laptop entirely. Well, I decided to test out Intrepid Alpha 4, to see what didn’t work, and to my surprise all of my connectivity issues vanished. I decided to stick with Intrepid for the duration, and in spite of some other issues, it was a very good decision. Also, Ubuntu’s default wifi solution via the Hardware Drivers tool (a.k.a. Jockey, p.k.a the Restricted Driver Manager) seems to work just as well as ndiswrapper, from what I can tell.
So, if you are having any wireless issues at all, I’d highly recommend giving the Intrepid Ibex a try.
One feature that has gotten a lot of attention is the new Fast User Switcher Applet (FUSA), which lives in the top right corner of the Desktop, replacing the Ubuntu shutdown applet.
I think it’s a nice utility, as it consolidates a number of different functions into one small panel applet, including user switching, setting your IM status, and all the functions of Ubuntu’s old shutdown button. What you may not know, is that right clicking the applet also gives you quick access to the About Me, Users and Groups, and Login Window system settings.
So, the applet does give you quick access to a lot of User and Login related stuff, and I like quick access. As for how intuitive the functions of the applet are, I’m not so sure. If you are using an IM client, it displays a graphic representing your presence, which duplicates the panel icon of your IM client, and hides the fact that it is a shutdown button. I’d like it if you could opt to have it continue to display the shutdown graphic while using an IM client, or perhaps to display both icons. Replacing the panel icon for your IM client entirely is a consideration, but the FUSA is intentionally a simple interface, and will never fully replace your IM client.
I have heard some people express frustration at how much more space the new applet takes up when comparing it to the old shutdown icon, as it displays the full name of the current user. Displaying the full name is handy if you make good use of the user switching capabilities of the applet. However, if your system has only one user, it might be an annoyance for you. If you fall into the second category, you can easily ask the applet to hide your name – just access the FUSA Properties menu by right-clicking the applet, and you can swap your name for a small graphic.
If you are interested, Mark Shuttleworth just posted on the design of the Fast User Switcher Applet, which is an interesting read.
In this version of Ubuntu, you can install a selection of very nice desktop backgrounds, in case you get tired of the default. Just install the package gnome-backgrounds with synaptic, or type “sudo apt-get install gnome-backgrounds” in a terminal. The addition of new backgrounds is a welcome change.
A few bugs…
There are a few bugs bugging me in this release. First, I get some annoying flickering on the bottom quarter of the screen now and then when I’m launching applications, or when Gnome first starts. From what I understand, it should only be affecting people with certain Intel graphics cards. Click here for the bug report.
Another bug I’ve noticed is that Sound Recorder is broken. When you try to record some audio, the capture level gets automatically muted, and the recording time runs very fast. Expect this bug to be fixed in Intrepid, shortly. For more on this bug, and a working patch, click here. Fixed!
Also, due to the inclusion of webcam drivers into the Linux Kernel, Skype’s webcam support is broken in Ubuntu (and all other Linux variants using the new 2.6.27 kernel) until Skype updates their code. You can track and vote for this bug here.
To upgrade, or not to upgrade
So, should you upgrade to this shiny new Ubuntu 8.10 version from your only slightly less shiny Ubuntu 8.04.1 LTS version? That’s up to you. I’d say, if all you do is browse the Internet, and do some basic word processing now and then, you are probably safe sticking with the quite stable Hardy Heron for another 18 months. Sticking with the LTS version can be a good move for people that don’t see the appeal of running a major upgrade twice a year. Otherwise, go ahead and upgrade – particularly if you use Ubuntu on your laptop. The Intrepid Ibex is a great release!