Mike Schaeffer's Weblog
Thu, 16 Apr 2009
Would you look at that...

...the Linux Hater is back.... and OpenMoko is not.

I can't say that either of these things suprises me.

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Tue, 12 Aug 2008
The Linux Hater's Blog
I have a new favorite blog, the Linux Hater's Blog. Some anonymous Linux user has taken it upon himself to open a blog dedicated to all of the many reasons why desktop Linux sucks (which it does). While it's more than a little mean-spirited, this blog is the dissenting voice of Linux. It is the conscience that, if heeded, will make the Linux desktop a better place to work.

For all of the problems with Linux, it is also the one major platform that allows the motivated individual or company to actually address those problems. The single biggest difference between the Linux Hater's Blog and the (would-be) Windows and MacOS X Hater's Blogs is that on the Linux blog, it's actually possible to do something about the problems. Consider this: 18 years ago, there was no Linux, 12 years ago, there was no Gnome. In 1990, the Linux Hater's blog would have one post: "It doesn't exist, go buy Windows." The reason I mention this is that while it's easy to dismiss the benefits of open source as purely theoretical (i.e.: "Have you ever needed to recompile your kernel?"), the benefits of open source are the entire reason it exists at all.

To look at this in a bit more depth, consider the gnome-panel as an example. Based on the copyright claims in the source code, gnome-panel is itself a collaboration of Eazel, Helix Code/Ximian/Novell, Sun Microsytems, Red Hat, The Free Software Foundation, Ian McKellar, James Wilcox, Rob Adams, Vincent Untz, and Carlos Garcia Campos. All of these contributors found things to change or fix, 'itches to scratch', and all of them changed or fixed the gnome-panel. This is something that basically cannot happen in the model of closed source software. If you want to change something in MacOS X, you basically have three options: try to convince Apple it is a worthwhile change by trying to present (giving up the rights to) a business case justifying the feature, try to go to work for Apple in the right group and convince them to let you implement your feature, or reimplement the entire thing yourself.

As a result of these kinds of trade offs, cross-organization collaboration in closed source is a lot harder to come by than in open source. Closed source essentially divides the stakeholders in a piece of software into two groups: those that can take responsibility for the softawre by making changes, and those that cannot and must either accept the changes as provided or work around them. In that sense, Free Software is the licencing model that brings to software the democratic ideals of personal responsibility and the sovereignty of the people. Like any democracy, in the short term it will have issues compared to more centralized forms of planning, but in the long term it will be a much more vibrant and productive place to be. This is also why the Linux Hater's Blog is so very important. To see why, continue the analogy with democracy a bit, and consider the process by which the United Stated adopted its constitution.

After the U.S. Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, there came the long and highly political process of states ratifying new form of government. During this two year long debate, there were a series of papers, the Federalist Papers, written in support of the proposed Constutition. Less well known are the Anti-Federalist papers, a series of dissenting arguments against ratification. This dissent primarily centered around the lack of a Bill of Rights, and ultimatly led to the incorporation of a Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the constitution. The dissent was not just criticism: open process and free debate allowed it to be a key part of the construction of the Constitution.

This is a much grander version of what the Linux Hater's blog can do for Linux. By dissenting against the idea that Linux is already ready for the desktop (or the server), it also provides a list of weaknesses to fix. Unlike a Windows Hater's Blog, the freedoms of Linux allow this list of weaknesses to effectively become a to do list for anyone or any company with the motivation and time to do the work. It is therefore not a liabilty to Linux, but an asset that derives its value from the freedom at the core of Free Software. Ironically enough, because of this, the 'Linux Hater' could easily turn out to be one of Linux's best friends.

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Sat, 18 Nov 2006
2 Months With the 'Revolution'.
It's been about two months since I've installed Ubuntu Linux on my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop. The initial impression was highly positive, but two months later the reality is starting to wear a little thin. After switching to Ubuntu Linux my laptop is slower, less media-savvy, uglier, and less compatible than it was before. The thing that is sad about this is that as much as Linux has improved, it feels like it is lagging behind Windows more than it did ten years ago (the last time I used Linux full-time).

In a way, this relative lag is not too suprising; It is caused by the convergance of two sets of industry trends over the last ten years. Ten years ago, the commonplace Windows was Windows 95, based on the old 16-bit Windows 3.x kernel; In 2006 the commonplace Windows is Windows XP, based on the much more robust Windows NT kernel. Ten years ago, 3D graphics, video playback, and the Internet were only beginning to emerge in the mainstream; In 2006, these applications define the mainstream. Linux's kernel might still be better than Windows, but it's less better now than it was ten years ago, eroding its relative advantage. At the same time Linux's advantage in kernel technology has been eroded, computers are increasingly used for things that essentially require access to propriatary content and technolgy. The Microsoft windows license fee pays for things like high quality fonts, licences for MP3 and DVD CODEC's, and sophisiticated 3D hardware support. It is either difficult or impossible to replace these things in an open source model, so, to the extent they are becoming more important, Linux increasingly suffers in contrast to its closed course, license-for-fee competition.

One example of how this might directly impact people is MP3 playback. MP3 playback is built into Windows: the Windows licence fee enables Microsoft to pay the Fraunhofer institute's license fee for the MP3 patent. in contrast, MP3 playback is deliberately excluded from Ubuntu Linux because it's patented and, despite the fact that Fluendo has paid for a patent licence and written a GStreamer CODEC, the CODEC is not open source and doesn't match Ubuntu's licensing model. Thus, while it is possible to add MP3 support to Ubuntu Linux, it takes the extra step of downloading and installing a CODEC. The same is true for DVD and MPEG video, not to mention that it will be true for Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (assuming the protection mechanisms on those two are ever broken, which has its own ironies).

What is key to realize about this situation is that it is as intrinsic to the open source model as it is to the closed source model. Open source software precludes payment of license fees, closed source requires it; Open source software precludes enforcement of trade secrets, closed source enables it. Neither of these models is necessarily 'wrong', but as our computational lives become more dependant on technology that requires license fees or technolgy protected by trade secrecy, open source will comparatively suffer more and more. No amount of prosletyzing on the benefits of Open source software will change either this fact or the moral right of those who invest their blood, sweat, and tears into propriatary technology to demand payment for their efforts. The best that advocates of openness can do is to act as revolutionaries by living the cause, advocating its values, and hoping that enough people follow their lead to build a critical mass.

However, like other 'revolutions', the Linux/Open source software cause isn't necessarily an easy cause to live. As I've been finding out once more, the switch to Linux is a sometimes painful struggle through mediocre software, bad asthetics, poor integration, and steep learning curves. The question I'm struggling with right now is is it even worth it? The older I get and the more external responsibilities I have, computers seem more and more like a tool for life and less and less like a way of life. The 5-10 hours a week I spent maintaining and integrating my Linux machines back in college is a much higher price to pay now than it was then. No matter how much I might like for my son to live in a world of free, open information and powerful free software, it would be very difficult to justify taking enough time away from him and my wife to make a useful contribution to the fight to make it happen. This is particulaly true if fighting the open source fight somehow comprimises my actual paying job, which is definately possible. I work for a Windows shop, and my management could give a rat's ass about the theoretical benefits of open source if it compromises my ability to serve our clients. One flubbed presentation due to a flaky Linux installation could do just that, and it would be very hard to use the benefits of Linux to explain it away to the folks to whom I sell my time. Maybe the upshot of this is that Linux is, like other revolutions, a young person's battle. However, unlike other revolutions, Linux requires direct participation to reap the benefits; If you aren't using open software, you're still at the mercy of closed software vendors. If this is really the case, and Linux really is for the 'young', then when will it ever become relevant to the broader audience of Windows and Mac OS X users? I just don't know. I will keep up the struggle for a while longer, January 2007 seems like a good time to reassess.

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Fri, 15 Sep 2006
The long^H^H^H^Hshort road to Linux...
I ran Linux for a few years back in college ('94-'97), lapsing back to Windows for professional reasons when I started working full time. After ten years of running Windows full time, I finally got sick of its crap (excuse my French), replaced the 40GB disk on my Dell Inspiron 6000 laptop with a brand new 120GB and installed Ubuntu 6.06. Two partitions: one swap and one ext3. No Windows partition, no dual boot. This happened a couple days ago, and the experience has been almost uniformly positive. To wit:
  • Suspend to memory and (more importantly) suspend to disk both worked properly the first time out of the box, no questions asked. The only 'issue' is that the fit and finish isn't quite as nice as on Windows. Windows has a nice progress bar for the suspend process and on Linux the display goes through a couple corrupt screens full of noise before getting to the desktop.
  • The widescreen 2MP display was recognized immediately. Installing the Ubuntu packages for flgrx got 3-D acceleration on my ATI Radeon X300 working with no trouble at all. All I need to do now is get a nice compositing window manager. Update: ATI's X300 driver deliberately doesn't with the Composite extension necessary to run a compositing window manager. Oh well.
  • WiFi almost worked out of the box, the exception being the Wifi activity light on the laptop's case. It never lights up, which made enabling the radio confusing but doesn't seem to have caused any other problems.
  • The base Ubuntu is pretty sparse, but it was trivial to install 2GB worth of development tools with Synapitics after the install. Synaptics works well enough that I question why bother with Fedora's 5CD install process. (Out of a historical sympathy for Redhat 6, I first tried installing Fedora Core 5 and had a hard time getting Windows XP to do a valid burn of CD 3. This is why I wound up with Ubuntu.)
  • Plugging in USB keys and drives worked out of the box the first time, even for read-only accsss of my NTFS formatted external 120GB disk.
  • A video recorded on my wife's Canon SD400 showed up with a thumbnail in Nautilus and played, with audio, with the default media player.
  • Audio worked out of the box, even the annoying startup sounds.
  • The qemu emulator and tne kqemu accelerator (hopefully, my Windows solution) both compiled and ran easily. Update: All I had to do do boot Windows XP was start qemu with an image created by saying dd if=/dev/sdb of=orig.img. Of course, Windows XP immediately started complaining about not being activated. We'll see if MS lets me reactivate it: I have a license to run XP on this machine, even if the expectation was that I'd run it on raw hardware rather than via emulation. Oh, and it's too soon to really tell about performance, but it looks usable for filling out timecards, etc.
  • I wasn't expecting it, but I've been able to open and work with several work-related Word for Windows documents using OpenOffice.


Of course there are problems, but overall this is amazing. The last time I ran Linux, it took weeks of downloading and compiling source code and extensive script customization to get things to work right. Setting up X11 to not blow up my then brand new $1,300 Sony GDM-17SE1 17 inch monitor gave me night sweats for days. Once it did work, there were half a dozen different widget sets on the screen at any time and your choices for word processing included Andrew ez, groff, and/or TeX. Linux has come a long way.

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