Linus On (desk)Top

At DebConf14, Linus Torvalds had a Q&A session. One topic was GNU/Linux on the desktop. At one point, about 8:45 in, he details a major problem with GNU/Linux on the desktop, from the viewpoint of developers dealing with a bunch of distros. Essentially, a distro changes something and has to rebuild everything or all applications may be broken. For one distro, this is not a problem but a developer can’t produce binaries for all distros. It’s just impossible. He thinks Valve distributing major applications, games, to GNU/Linux will use huge statically linked binaries to overcome this. This will put pressure on all distros to come to some standards to help developers.

I agree with Linus that this is a big problem but I think it’s mostly a problem for non-Free software where the distros or OEMs have no access to source code. If the distros fix the issue in source code for their repository, the users don’t see the problem and the developer is not closely involved in the work. Clearly, OEMs and distros can do the work if they have the source code of applications. Since most users of PCs can function perfectly well with any particular distro without importing a lot of “foreign” applications, I think this problem is back a level or two from the key issues which I rank from most important to least important:

Problem My take
1 – Getting OEMs to ship GNU/Linux readily, without buyers having to beg, Still a problem for consumers buying directly, but not a problem for wholesale buyers like governments or large organizations because OEMs make a few changes and copy images, not a lot of work. Distros like Linpus and Ubuntu have made big inroads with this.
2 – Getting retailers to offer retail shelf-space (some aren’t even giving retail shelf-space to that other OS here…), Still a problem here even for small cheap computers because legacy PCs are not getting much space and consumers are not lining up demanding choice. When the market matures in a few years things could change. GNU/Linux is better for OEMs, retailers and consumers in many situations. Retailers tend to like selling higher-priced items with higher markups when they should consider that they can sell more units at a lower price and make more money. With FLOSS, the retailer gets to keep more of the money the consumer pays.
3 – broken ABIs by distros, making it difficult for developers to get applications into distros or onto OEMs’ machines, Linus’ issue, and Important for non-Free software because distros/OEMs can’t get the source-code. Less important for FLOSS because the packager in the distro does the work, not the original developer. The developer needs only to convince the distro to package the software. (Linus does mention that this is not practical even for a FLOSS application (e.g. his diving programme, Subsurface) with a small number of users. ~58minutes in)
4 – Consumers’ lack of familiarity. In my experience, consumers/students/non-geeks are readily convinced with a demonstration/advertisement, particularly when they see improved performance and/or lower price, something OEMs and retailers can do.

I have built a few applications from source code and it is a problem how diverse the library-space is: years of constant upgrades with incompatible versions of dozens of libraries. At some point, the ABIs should be frozen. After all these years, why is that not done? Perhaps instead of employing developers to constantly update libraries in source code we should employ them to create applications using the libraries as they are. Just fix the bugs. Stop throwing more features into the bins.

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A Little Initiative With FLOSS Goes A Long Way At NHS In UK

The old model of allowing some corporation to dictate more and more expensive IT for big government is dying.“Cost savings from dumping Oracle will come through not paying an Oracle license a maintenance fee and by consolidating the hardware.
Basho claimed Riak is up to two times cheaper than Oracle while the infrastructure will cost five per cent that of the old setup, as various blades and SANs are gone. Also cut from the cost is BT, as HSCIC has whipped management of Spine2 back in house with on-going development. A new architecture uses 106 x86 servers for Riak and local storage.”
At NHS in UK, in a period of three years, Oracle was replaced with a NoSQL system for a fraction of the capital and operating costs. The reduction in licensing fees and hardware needed practically paid for the transition.

This is what I have also observed on the desktop/client PC level. You can have more hardware for the same cost or less overall cost very quickly by switching to FLOSS. Further, the system is simplified because FLOSS licences permit running as many systems as you need without having to count/audit licences. If everything is FLOSS there’s no need for that. There’s no worry about whether a CPU has N cores or whether there are M servers or not. There’s just less to worry about.

See NHS grows a NoSQL backbone and rips out its Oracle Spine.

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Students As IT-techs

During my career as a computer teacher I was often the major IT-support person. When I left a school and moved to another there was always an issue of what would happen with IT support. This was handled in different ways:

  • the school looked for another computer teacher to do the job,
  • the school arranged another teacher on staff to take over the job, or
  • if no proper computer teacher could be obtained, the job was just assigned to someone…

There are lots of things that can happen in such transitions. To ensure a smooth transition, I repeatedly suggested interested students be given the role of IT-support. This suggestion was never accepted because students were considered untrustworthy or incompetent or that somehow this just wasn’t done. I could not understand that because students I taught could do it all and they certainly could have learned the few gaps in their training by practising giving tech-support. They could disassemble and reassemble ATX PCs with certainty the machines would work. They could install and update software. They could write simple HTML and native code applications. They could make Ethernet cables reliably and they could run websites and servers. I felt they were a greatly underutilized resource in the school. Teachers in every other subject area had students help out by tutoring other students, working on projects to help the school or community, and yes, sharing with other students in other schools over the Internet, yet students were not trusted to help out with local IT.

At a school where students do support IT, things are humming. Read about it below. I used to use thin clients in schools to lighten the workload. Here’s a school that used 1:1 notebooks as thick clients and students do a major portion of the work and they use FLOSS to lighten the impact on the budget…

“Students technology apprentices work alongside district IT staff on hardware support, repairs, software setup, instructional tutorials, system imaging, peer training, and any number of tasks related to our school-wide laptop program. Daily work assignments are guided by the needs of fellow students and classroom teachers. On any given day, you might observe our help desk apprentices answering questions from students or staff, repairing a damaged laptop screen, experimenting with code, or diving into Linux configuration files.”

See Linux laptop learning initiative at Penn Manor High School.

“The laptops are running Linux, specifically Ubuntu 13.10, along with several dozen free and open source programs. Our program is believed to be the largest open source 1:1 implementation in Pennsylvania. By using open source software exclusively, we estimate an initial cost savings of at least $360,000 on licensing fees.”

See The Laptops Have Landed!.

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New Theme

No, I haven’t changed my tune! It’s about the HTML/CSS errors. I switched canned themes and things seem to work better, clean HTML and many fewer CSS errors. We seem to be able to copy and paste from/to the comments now. I may tweak a few more things in the coming days as I play with this.

The new header has three images I captured myself this evening, just walking around the yard. Like GNU/Linux two of them are tiny things (Manitoba maple, Acer negundo, on the left and a plum I planted from a stone of the fruit from a relative’s yard on the right) eventually growing into a giant ecosystem. The centre image is an old wild hawthorn I pass on my walks sometimes. It’s a wonder. I saw two more even larger and more prolific today on another walk. They were 20 feet tall and drooping under the weight of colourful fruit.

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Free Software Foundation On Apple

I don’t like Apple for a number of reasons:“Keep a tally of how many reviews you read today mention that Apple threatens anyone who dares attempt installing another operating system like Android on their Apple phone or watch with criminal prosecution under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Keep a tally of how many reviews mention that Apple devices won’t allow you to install any unapproved applications, again threatening you with jail time if you attempt to do so without Apple’s blessing. Keep a tally of how many reviews highlight Apple’s use of software patents and an army of lawyers to attack those developing a more free computing environment than theirs.”

  • suing Samsung and others over rounded corners…
  • restricting use of their software to their hardware, using Copyright to enforce bundling, which I generally see as evil,
  • selling hardware similar to everyone else’s and claiming it is superior even while made in the same factories in China… and
  • anal-retentive secrecy, hype, and scary management style while pretending to be laid-back “creatives”.

I thought my list was good enough to cross Apple off my “good folks” list but FSF does even better, attacking Apple for DRM and other nonsense and restricting use of hardware they sell to people. What nonsense!

Good! Apple deserves to be smacked. Too bad governments and courts aren’t doing their job to protect consumers.

See Free Software Foundation statement on the new iPhone, Apple Pay, and Apple Watch.

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Approaching The Singularity

Singularities are fun to contemplate, horrible to achieve. You approach a singularity when you fall into a “Black Hole” or a nuclear bomb goes off… bad things can happen. However, if GNU/Linux approaches a singularity in adoption/use/prevalence on the desktop, good things can happen:

  • folks could have lower cost IT from client to server,
  • folks would be relatively free of malware,
  • folks would have fewer re-re-reboots, Patch Tuesdays, “critical vulnerabilities”, etc., and
  • folks would have much more flexible IT allowing them to get the best performance from the hardware they buy/own/build.

In the real world, I don’t see a singularity any time soon but check out this correlation of the data from StatCounter’s page-view-shares. In just a few short weeks the logarithmic fit to the data blows up… That’s probably just the limitation on how the mathematics compares with reality (it could be more like a bend in the linear relation) but on the other hand, I do like the shape of the data. Things are definitely moving on up since Ubuntu/Dell, moves in European governments, and the death of XP. I don’t see any downside.

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A Tale Of Two NAS Devices And Their Makers

A recent failure of a router has been diagnosed as a NIC failure on the motherboard. I can install another NIC to solve the problem. Along the way, I considered converting the rackmount server to be a NAS device for the LAN. With one NIC that could work. Well, I found a couple of NAS devices with similar capability and I checked out their specs.

  1. WD My Cloud EX2 High Performance Diskless NAS Personal Cloud Storage – $250 at NCIX
  2. QNAP TS-212E 2 Bay Personal Cloud NAS DLNA Mobile App Marvel 1.2GHZ CPU 256MB DDR2 RAM USB3 – $130 (special) at NCIX

Hmmm… This requires some research. Why is a NAS with a paucity of specs from WD double the price from someone I’ve never heard of before? Even QNAP’s page on Wikipedia was deleted as blatant advertising. I guess human knowledge does not need to know its existence… Strangely, WD’s page survives

A check on WD’s support pages finds wailing and gnashing of teeth. Users using NFS on the box found a firmware update scrapped NFS support! Ahhhhh!!! What were WD thinking?

Anyway, if I plugged Debian GNU/Linux into that router and used the single NIC, I could have total control over my NAS and skip problems like this. I’m not going to delete that statement even if someone thinks it’s blatant advertising. ;-) That special is attractive, though…

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Post PC

James Kendrick has a pretty good article about the post-PC world.It’s not the same outside the workplace. The vast majority of folks use something else to do the things they used to only do on a PC. This includes going on the web, using social media, and similar activities. Those are now done almost exclusively by most on smartphones and tablets. PCs don’t enter into the picture at all, and that’s the very definition of Post PC.”” He argues that the legacy PC won’t “go away” but folks use of those outside the workplace has already been replaced because people move around and love mobile gadgets.

He’s right about the way people use computers but he’s wrong on two counts:

  1. people at work/in business can do real work on small cheap computers whether they be thin clients, tiny PCs, tablets or even smartphones. The small cheap computers are that powerful and it’s trivial for them to be backed up by powerful servers on wireless or wired networks. Yes, you can hook huge monitors and keyboards and mice up to a smartphone these days although it’s still not that common but tablets for sure.
  2. since about the Age of the Pentium III, CPUs, memory subsystems and storage subsystems have been up to the job of doing what people and businesses need doing. Present day ARMed systems are much more powerful than those. It doesn’t matter that the legacy PC has become more powerful too. They were idling then and they are idling more now. Even the current smartphone is more powerful than users need. Think
    • gigabytes of DDR3 RAM
    • 8-core CPUs
    • 2gHz clockspeed
    • SSD and USB3 devices
    • wireless that’s as fast as the copper of that era

So, small cheap computers of all kinds are a new vibrant and growing segment of real PCs, Personal Computers. The post-PC era is populated by new kinds of PCs, not just new kinds of users. From my perspective, the chief characteristic of the post-PC era is that users of IT have many choices other than M$ and finally can use whatever hardware they choose to best advantage rather than complying with M$’s restrictions designed to maximize M$’s profits. M$’s business-plan, while it worked for them for a long time, no longer works for PCs in general and makes M$ a niche-player in the long run. M$ could be several times bigger than it is now if they had been able to tax all the new kinds of PCs but thanks to FLOSS and */Linux they could not. The chief characteristic of the post-PC era is that users are in control of their PCs, not M$ and “partners”.

It is true that this trend is not just about gadgets. Take a look at Norway, for instance. There, GNU/Linux is on a tear, just as it is in many other countries on Earth, and most of that runs on legacy PCs, not the new gadgets. You can see the same sort of growth in Germany, France, Ethiopia, Uruguay, India, Venezuela, Reunion, … The post-PC era is about people and their OS and their gadgets and what they do with IT and where they do it.

See Post PC is already here and it’s not about the gadgets.

See also a smartphone being used as a legacy PC:

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M$ Accused Of Massive Copyright Violation

Hmmm… a billion images X some default amount = a big hit for M$’s bottom line.“Online stock photo and imagery service Getty Images has filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, alleging "massive" infringement of copyrighted images.” What was M$ thinking when they created a widget allowing searched images to be embedded in web-sites?

Looks like an open and shutter case to me. I’d bet M$ negotiates another payout. When will the shareholders revolt?

See Getty Images sues Microsoft for 'massive' infringement over image search tool.

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The Document Foundation Goes After Android

Not being content with making a huge impact in the market for desktop office suites, the Document Foundation is going after the burgeoning market created by Android/Linux. To speed things up, they are seeking an experienced team to organize and run things for the next year or so.“TDF currently plans to invest into getting LibreOffice, its free office suite, to mobile Android devices like tablets and smartphones, extending the existing desktop version of the software. For the volunteer community and the ecosystem to work on concrete features and an enduser-ready version that can be published, a base framework including the LibreOffice program modules Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw and Math is required. TDF seeks for companies to deliver this as a turnkey project until the end of February 2015.”

This should put to rest the idea that FLOSS is about not paying programmers. It should also work because Android was designed to be a rapid development system where Java developers could port things conveniently. How much of the bulk of LibreOffice will fit on a smartphone remains to be seen but it should be no problem for many tablets with a keyboard.

See Tender for base framework for an Android version of LibreOffice with basic editing capabilities (#201409-01).

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The Wrong Way To Install GNU/Linux

Don’t get me wrong, for a complete novice the black-box approach to installing GNU/Linux may be pragmatic and effective,“Once you’ve chosen what to do with the hard drive, Linux Mint will start the install process so you can save some time. The installation itself won’t take long, depending on the speed of your system, and it also won’t require multiple restarts like when installing Windows.” but it’s definitely not the best way to do it.

There are many reasons to switch to GNU/Linux, among them are:

  • freedom of choice, and
  • flexibility.

Why give those up by substituting one black box for another? No, even the newbie should open the door to FLOSS and look around before choosing to close doors to the best IT for what the newbie wants.

FLOSS and GNU/Linux are utterly without limits. That many choices is daunting and the newbie should not waste a lot of time wandering but at least look at a few distros and desktops and applications. There are hundreds of distros and dozens of desktops and thousands of applications. Trusting that some manufacturer of a CD has done what you want is an unnecessary restriction on the newbie’s freedom.

I suggest taking a look at Debian GNU/Linux, the distro from which many other distros are derived. There’s a reason for that. Debian has a huge repository and a great application for choosing amongst the software packages in that repository. You can get an idea what I mean by browsing Packages.Debian.ORG. There are tens of thousands of packages that will run on your computer and you can have any or all of them for the same cost, $0 and a bit of your time.

Now, the newbie does not need to create a shopping list with thousands of entries. Many of the Debian packages are libraries shared by multiple applications so start with the major applications the newbie needs: a web browser or two, an office suite or two, some graphics applications for producing drawings or editing images, some multimedia software, various utilities like file-manager, search engine (yes you can have powerful tools on your desktop), database, etc. Make a short list of a few dozen or less packages that give the newbie what he/she wants. Then consider the desktop itself. The newbie can have none at all (strange but true), simple iconified desktops, brave new world shortcut-driven searchable-everything desktops and even some combinations like several different desktops running in virtual machines… Here the possibilities are numerous but there should be some combination that suites the user. If the user like most runs a few applications routinely and has a small total number of applications ever used, a rather finite desktop like XFCE should work. It’s a lot like XP with a task bar (or not), actual menus and such. If the user is some kind of genius with a huge number of applications, too many to hide behind icons, a search-engine base might be the way to go. You just start typing the name/description of an application and you find it just like URI’s autocompletion in your browser. Then choose KDE or GNOME.

Armed with a rather short list of choices that work for him, a newbie can do a minimal installation of Debian GNU/Linux and then installing with APT or Synaptic (the graphical interface) the newbie can let Debian pull in all those packages needed. It might take a few hours to choose applications and desktop but just a few minutes to actually get the software installed depending on the speed of Internet access. A few hours invested for years of satisfying computing is a good investment. Moving from one black box to another just because there’s a door between them is not. The newbie will still be in a black box.

My advice to a newbie:

  • Get Debian’s installer running any way you can, from hard drive, USB drive, CD, the network…
  • do a minimal installation, just the basic stuff, or even uncheck “basic”
  • reboot and login as root and run the package manager, APT
  • apt-get install xorg xfce4 wifi-radar wicd iceweasel libreoffice-writer libreoffice-calc gnumeric vlc gimp xfce4-weather-plugin lightdm xfwm4 xserver-xorg- xpdf ristretto aptitude synaptic gufw xfburn net-tools glib-networking-services python-numpy gnome-icon-theme dconf-service liblapack3 gksu openssh-server
  • reboot with shutdown -r now or start the gui with /etc/init.d/lightdm start

Now, the newbie has my short list describing a perfect desktop for me. The newbie has only to change a few things and he/she gets what is perfect for him/her. The wifi-radar and wicd packages are for notebooks that will be wirelessly connected. xorg and xfce4 and lightdm and xfwm4 and xserver-xorg- are about the GUI. Change lightdm to gdm3 and xfce4 to gnome or kde if that’s what is wanted. gnome-shell will give the newbie the latest stuff from GNOME instead of xfwm4 or kde-window-manager for the KDE version. The applications are pretty similar for all. There are some applications that prefer GNOME or KDE, however.

I think a newbie is better off with what works for him/her rather than what anyone else prefers and as we are all individuals, we should grant newbies the right to be different in FLOSS as well as in life.

See Switch to Linux part 2 – install Linux.

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FLOSS Is The Right Way To Do IT In Los Angeles Schools And Everywhere

Nathan Schneider has a good piece on bad things happening when big business gets to control the IT of large educational organizations“More and more governments are turning to free and open software. Munich, Germany, has saved as much as 10 million euros by gradually weaning municipal workers off Microsoft Windows. Iceland is in the process of making a similar transition. Geneva, Switzerland, has moved all its primary schools to Linux, and it will do the same for secondary schools by next summer. The Chinese government is undertaking a massive effort to move from Apple, Microsoft and Google software to Linux-based systems.” but the bottom line is that Free Software cuts out many of the ways and means of such corruption. Software that works for the end user doesn’t work for the puppet-masters.

See Los Angeles schools need to think outside the iPad.

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