Category Archives: linux

Ubuntu Hardy Heron – very cool

I had a spare desktop after upgrading my Vista box – at least, I popped my old motherboard in a spare case and added a hard drive. It seemed a good opportunity to try Ubuntu Hardy Heron. Ubuntu has a policy of  upgrading its Linux distribution every six months, in April and October, and Hardy Heron is this year’s April release. I tried a late beta, since final release is not until the end of the month. Burned a CD, stuck it in the drive, and installed it.

The install went smoothly. The main hassle with Ubuntu, and most other Linux distros, is that there are a few add-ons which you can’t easily do without, but which are excluded from the main release either for legal reasons, or because they are proprietary. For example, I tried to play a DVD, but the Totem movie player said it did not have the right GStreamer plugin. It would be nice if Ubuntu had a one-click install, something like “OK, I give in, give me libdvdcss2, give me Flash, give me Java, and I’ll take the consequences.” I fiddled around with Medibuntu, then realised you can get something close to a one-click install if you add ubuntu-restricted-extras to the repository. It didn’t actually take too long before I was up and running: DVDs played, YouTube worked, Java worked. I also added the NVIDIA proprietary driver which is needed to enable the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop. That one was easy: Ubuntu prompted me to do it.

The “what’s new” list includes Linux kernel 2.6.24, Firefox 3 (although still in beta), and better virtualization support with KVM. Gnome is updated to 2.22. Think incremental rather than dramatic changes.

Subjectively, Ubuntu performs better on the same hardware than Vista. There is just less waiting around. I had some fun connecting to my Vista desktop using the Terminal Server client. Then I pressed Windows-Tab to cycle between applications (note the cool reflections):

The key factor for Ubuntu is not features, but usability. In this respect, it seems to get better every time I look.

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Trolltech says Qt for Windows CE coming in May

Trolltech has announced Windows CE support in the 4.4 release of Qt, its cross-platform development framework. A pre-release is already available. Qt already supports desktop Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, so this plugs a significant gap. Features include SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) and OpenGL. It’s good to see this going ahead  despite Nokia’s acquisition of Trolltech, which is set to be completed in the second quarter of 2008. Nokia is committed to a couple of rival embedded operating systems, Linux and Symbian.

What about Qt for Symbian then? There are hints that it will happen. Then again, perhaps Nokia will increase its focus on Linux?

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How long should it take to set up a laptop?

So you need a new laptop. Ignoring those irritating voices that say you should go Apple, you select a value-for-money offering from one of the big names like Toshiba or HP, hit the buy button at Ebuyer or the like, and a day or so later a van is at the door and you have your shiny new laptop. You slit the tape, pull the thing out of the box, plug it in and turn it on. How long should it take before you are happily typing away in Word or enjoying a DVD?

The answer I guess is as short a time as possible. In principle, I don’t see why it should take more than 5 or 10 minutes. The manufacturer has pre-installed the operating system and can ensure that all the right drivers are in place.

Here’s what actually happened when I did this for a friend yesterday. Toshiba Satellite Pro A200 with Vista Business. Not a bad machine, great value. We also had a key to activate Office 2007, which came pre-installed as part of Microsoft’s Office Ready scheme.

I started mid-morning. Turned on. It takes ages before it lets you in. I lost count of the reboots. There is some sort of partitioning dance, then when Vista itself starts up it goes through an optimisation process, then various Toshiba and third-party utilities install themselves, sometimes requiring a reboot. I broke for lunch.

After lunch I connected to the Internet. Vista immediately set about downloading updates. Needed reboots, naturally. Then I ran the Office Activation Wizard. Microsoft’s Office-Ready program is great marketing, but fairly annoying, because typically you don’t want to purchase all of it. In our case we had purchased Office Small Business, but not Access. In consequence, you end up with an installation that is partially a trial version, even though you have paid. I’ve heard of this scenario actually preventing a machine from passing “Genuine Office Validation” when trying to download updates from Microsoft. Not a good way to treat customers. The solution is to uninstall the bits of Office you are not actually buying.

At this point I could have declared “job done”, but I knew that it wasn’t. I applied Vista SP1, which takes ages. I applied Office 2007 SP1, which is fairly quick. I removed a few things that I knew would not be needed, like Outlook’s Business Contact Manager.

I uninstalled Toshiba’s ConfigFree utility. This is a thing that is meant to “simplify” managing wireless (and wired) networks. It hijacks Vista’s perfectly good built-in wireless configuration utility. Now, it is possible that ConfigFree genuinely offers some added value, but even if it does this kind of thing is still a nuisance. First, because people like myself know how the Windows version works, and are disinclined to learn the foibles of an unnecessary replacement. Second, because the official item will be maintained and updated through Windows update, rather than at the whim of Toshiba (or whomever).

If you are really unlucky, the supplier of your wireless card, or wireless router, or your ISP, will persuade you to install yet more network configuration software. Once two or three of these guys are fighting to manage and diagnose your wireless connection, you have little chance of connecting successfully to anything.

There there is anti-virus to think about. Personally I reckon the practice of installing trial versions of Norton’s anti-virus suite (or similar) is a disgrace. It makes for a lousy user experience because the first thing you see after enduring setup is a nag screen assuring you that your new computer is insecure. It is a disgrace because if you accept the trial but don’t pay up, you end up with an out-of-date anti-virus utility, which leaves you vulnerable. Let’s not forget that basic anti-virus software is available for free from AVG and a few others – if Toshiba really cared about the security of its customers, it would pre-install that. I have zero confidence in anti-virus software anyway, but this is not the place.

Result overall: three to four hours spent on something that should take a few minutes.

I have a good understanding of the commercial, technical and political reasons for these hassles, and I don’t regard Toshiba as the worst offender. Nevertheless, Microsoft and its partners have failed to tackle the problem effectively, and this is a factor behind Apple’s resurgence. Frankly, Ubuntu and other Linux distros are more fun to install, though with Linux you inevitably end up Googling to solve one or more strange issues so overall it is no better for the non-technical user.

Recently I’ve been working with Windows Server 2008, which is a delight by comparison. The concept is simple: pre-install the bare bones, and make all the features optional. So Microsoft can do it. Why can’t consumer Windows work the same way? Install a clean, fast, basic version of Windows, and then let the user decide what else they require?

Windows Server 2008 is done, embraces PHP

Microsoft says that Windows Server 2008 has been released to manufacturing.

Organizations will be naturally cautious about upgrading their servers. Nevertheless, I suspect that Server 2008 will get an easier ride than Windows Vista. IIS 7.0 is a major upgrade for Microsoft’s web server. Built-in Hyper-V virtualization lets you run multiple operating systems on a single server, Linux included. Server Core is a minimalist install that comes close to answering those critics who have always said, “Why do I need a GUI on a server?”

Here’s the most interesting part of the announcement, especially bearing in mind the Yahoo bid:

With Windows Server 2008, Microsoft is also embracing PHP hosting on Windows via the FastCGI module for IIS 7.0. PHP is a popular open-source scripting language used to build dynamic web applications. This allows IT Professionals to host PHP and applications side by side. As a result, the PHP community will be able to take advantage of the increased reliability of PHP on Windows and simplified administration available on the Windows platform.

Quick way to deploy all those PHP applications, eh?

I’m surprised at Microsoft’s choice of language here. Microsoft is not really embracing PHP, as far as I am aware. Its web development platform remains ASP.NET. This is about compatibility and easing migration. Note that Mainsoft can do a fair job of getting your ASP.NET application running on Java, and there is also Mono, so portability between the Microsoft and *nix platforms is improving.

PS I first blogged about IIS 7.0 in July 2005. Nobody can accuse Microsoft of rushing this one.

Nokia acquires Trolltech,

Nokia is to acquire Trolltech, makers of the popular cross-platform Qt GUI API and widget set. Qt (Cute Toolkit) is used by KDE, one of the two most widely used Linux desktops. It is also used in many cross-platform applications.

The announcement states that Qt will continue to be open source:

We will continue to actively develop Qt and Qtopia. We also want to underline that we will continue to support the open source community by continuing to release these technologies under the GPL

Nokia says:

The acquisition of Trolltech will enable Nokia to accelerate its cross-platform software strategy for mobile devices and desktop applications, and develop its Internet services business. With Trolltech, Nokia and third party developers will be able to develop applications that work in the Internet, across Nokia’s device portfolio and on PCs. Nokia’s software strategy for devices is based on cross-platform development environments, layers of software that run across operating systems, enabling the development of applications across the Nokia device range. Examples of current cross-platform layers are Web runtime, Flash, Java and Open C.

Interesting acquisition. I have great respect for Nokia, but find its platform strategy confusing. It is the major partner in Symbian, the operating system used in its smart phones, but it also uses Linux, for example in its Internet Tablets like the N810. Nokia sponsors an open source development platform called Maemo, which uses the Gnome Toolkit, a competitor to Qt. I also met Nokia folk at Adobe Max in Barcelona, talking up its Flash support. The Flash player is included on all high-end Nokia mobiles.

And what’s this about “applications that work in the Internet”?

It is a shame to see another smart, independent company swallowed by a giant, but there could be worse homes for Qt. That said, I’d be nervous about Qt’s support for Windows CE. And what will happen to Qtopia Phone Edition:

Qtopia Phone Edition is a comprehensive application platform and user interface for Linux-based mobile phones.

The releases say Nokia/Trolltech will continue to invest in Qtopia. Will it become core to Nokia’s own range of devices, or sidelined? What are the implications for Symbian? Is Nokia worried about too much mobile development going to Flash?

However you spin it, it seems that Linux is ascendant at Nokia.

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Becta’s report on Vista and Office 2007: wise advice, or mere polemic?

I read Becta’s report on Vista and Office. Becta is a UK government agency supporting IT in education. The report is a ponderous affair and tells us that XP still works, so why bother with Vista; and that Office 2007 saves by default in a tiresome new format that few other applications can open; and that free office suites like Open Office work well so why pay for something else?

All this is fair enough; but I’m surprised that Becta didn’t spot a couple of other things. One is that Office 2007 can easily be set to save by default in the old Office binary formats that pretty much everything can read. The other is that while ODF is indeed an ISO standard, it is also pretty awkward from a compatibility point of view.* So I’m surprised by this recommendation:

When specifying new systems, schools and colleges should normally insist on the desktop having access to office productivity software that is capable of opening, editing and saving documents in the international standard ODF, and setting it as the default file format.

I suppose the idea is that if kids come home with their homework on a USB key and find that their documents will not open on the home PC running Microsoft Office, that they just download and install Open Office. Fair enough I suppose; but why not just use .doc and .xls?

The report adds:

Becta did not conduct technical assessments of the merits of either the existing international document standard (ODF) or the proposed second international document standard (OOXML).

There is however a lengthy discussion of the inadequacies of the half-baked ODF converter add-in which Microsoft has sponsored. I agree; but I’m not sure why it merits so much space.

I would have found it interesting to see a bit more examination of the merits or otherwise of the ribbon UI in Office 2007; better, worse, or indifferent for education? What about overall usability and functionality versus Open Office? It would also have been good if Becta had considered the large market share Microsoft Office enjoys, especially in business. Like it or not, it is relevant to this discussion.

I didn’t see much attention given to security, which is perhaps the biggest single reason for adopting Vista versus XP (it could also be a reason not to use Windows at all). This is not only a matter of Vista being more secure, if it is, but also that it aims to fix the insecurity of Windows long-term by fostering well-behaved applications that will enable future versions of Windows to be more tightly locked-down. Not interesting in education? I’m surprised, since when I talk to IT people in education, security is one of their chief concerns.

I find myself wondering whether this is really a document aiming to offer wise and objective guidance to schools, or a more polemical report promoting ODF and open source in education.

I reckon there is a good case for promoting open source in education. However, considered as a report on Vista and Office 2007 this is a poor effort.

*PS: It is interesting to see what Asus has done with its Eee PC, which  actually gets an oblique mention in Becta’s report:

We have also noted the emergence of low-cost innovative ‘mini-notebooks’ that have been brought to the market running a version of Linux and a range of Linux-based applications including

On my review Eee, which was supplied by RM for the education market, Open Office is set to save in the Microsoft formats by default. I imagine that Asus wanted to make the Eee fit seamlessly into a Microsoft environment if necessary. It must have been a conscious decision, since an untweaked Open Office install uses the Open Document formats by default.

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8GB Asus Eee PC from April 2008, Windows or Linux

RM has announced an upgraded version of its popular miniBook, also known as the Asus Eee PC. The details:

  • 1GB RAM (up from 512MB in the current version)
  • 8GB solid state drive (up from 4GB)
  • Same 7″ screen, webcam and built-in mic, speakers
  • Prices “in the region of” £229 + VAT for Linux, £259 + VAT for Windows XP Home
  • Available from April 2008

I would assume that the same machine will also be available from other vendors, with small price variations.

The Eee is already a great machine and having more space is nice, though it’s a shame that the biggest weakness of the Eee is not yet being addressed: the limited 480 pixels vertical resolution of the screen. This makes some applications and web sites hard to use, since few are designed for this size of screen. In some cases dialogs appear with no buttons; in other cases there is little working area left because of the space taken up by toolbars or header and footer panels.

Why Windows? RM says:

The introduction of the Windows based miniBook means that schools that already have curriculum software which is Windows based can add this to the miniBook. Also, schools with Microsoft Volume License agreements have a route to upgrade to XP Pro and enable network connection using Windows.

I can see that there is demand for this. On the other hand, Windows needs some tweaking in order to work at its best on the Eee. One of the issues is that frequent writes to the solid state drive are reckoned to reduce its life, so it makes sense to configure Windows without a swap file as well as cutting out unnecessary components.

Will the Windows Eee, which costs £30.00 more (plus VAT), come with an equally generous suite of bundled open-source applications, such as Open Office, as found on the Linux version? It will be interesting to see, though I doubt it.

It will be fascinating to see how take-up of the Linux and Windows versions compares, both in the education market, and more widely. I’d suggest that Linux is better suited to the device, but Windows has familiarity, compatibility, and arguably ease of use advantages. It will be a shame if Windows ends up dominating on the Eee, as it has given a boost to the visibility and adoption of Linux on the desktop.

Playing music over the network on an Asus Eee PC

I’m an enthusiast for SlimServer, so when I got hold of an Eee PC one of the first things I investigated was how to play music from SlimServer over a wireless network.

I tried SoftSqueeze but with mixed results. It seems to work OK at first, but after you hit pause a few times, or change the playlist, it seizes up. There is no error message, but it stops communicating with SlimServer and the only fix I’ve found is to restart SoftSqueeze.

You can play files directly via a shared directory, but navigation is awkward.

I’ve had the best results from SlimServer’s MP3 stream. Here’s what you do. First, open Music Manager from the Eee’s Play tab. From the Playlist menu, choose Add Stream. Enter the URL of your SlimServer, for example:


You can use an IP number in place of the server name if you like. Click OK and then hit Play. You should get a silent stream called Welcome to SlimServer.

Minimize Music Manager, and open FireFox. Navigate to:


This will open the SlimServer user interface. In the right-hand pane, make sure the Eee PC player is selected. SlimServer does not know what the device is, so it will show as an IP number. Once selected, click Settings at top right and enter Eee PC (or whatever you like) for the Player Name, then click Change.

Now play some music. Just perform a search and start playing. All going well, you will hear music from your Eee PC after a short interval.

A few observations

This is a pretty effective way of using the Eee PC as a SlimServer client, but let’s just say it lacks that last bit of usability polish. In other words, only geeks are going to do this. It seems to me that there is scope for an alternative to SoftSqueeze that would offer a user-friendly way of searching and playing your SlimServer tunes via a desktop client – in other words, with no need to open a web browser. SoftSqueeze does this already, but emulating a remote when I have a full keyboard at my disposal is not my idea of user-friendly. The obvious solution would be to extend Amarok or the like.

I realise that you can copy music files directly to the Eee, or have them on a USB stick, and play them in Amarok. The problem is that you soon run into space limitations, especially if you like high bitrate sound files.

There is an annoying lag between making a selection in the browser, and hearing it. This can be solved with programming – see apparently dead projects like slimp3slave for example. 

The sound itself is decent. The Eee has an Intel High Definition Audio integrated soundcard. The built-in speakers aren’t great, though at least there are two of them (occupying space in the lid that some of us would like to see filled with a larger screen). Plug in some external speakers though, or headphones, or feed the audio output to a hi-fi, and the quality can be excellent.

PS if you haven’t installed SlimServer yet, you can get it free here.

Firefox segmentation fault on Asus Eee PC after update

I’m writing about Eee PC right now, and after updating a clean install (no added repositories) was surprised to find Firefox failing with a segmentation fault. Clicking the Firefox icon did nothing. Running from a console got this:

/opt/firefox/ line 131: nnnn Segmentation fault

Reinstalling Firefox and deleting the profile did not work, nor did safe mode. I found the answer here. Open a console (Control-Alt-T) and type:

sudo apt-get install eeepc-updatepack-20071126

What does this package do?

This update pack fixes SCIM for applications which were provided to ASUS as binaries. This includes Firefox, Thunderbird, Adobe Acrobat.

SCIM is the Smart Common Input Method platform.

All is now well, but I’m not impressed. Running apt-get update and then apt-get upgrade should not break important applications. Nor is it obvious how to fix the problem. This kind of thing will put new users off Linux; not good if Asus really wants to make the Eee a mass-market device.

Incidentally, if you are stuck without Firefox on the Eee and need to browse the web, typing konqueror from a console will fire up the KDE web browser.

Asus Eee PC down to £199

The price of the Asus mini PC running Linux is falling. UK computer superstore PC World is advertising the 4GB model for £199 including VAT – and yes, right now there seems to be stock in hand.

An improved model with an 8GB solid state drive and 1GB RAM is available in the USA, and my guess is that this will come to the UK early in the new year.

It is not without annoyances but nevertheless a great little device, and will give desktop Linux a significant boost.

Presumably we will see Linux and Windows variants side-by-side in the shops before long. It will be interesting to see how the sales proportions shake out.


I reserved one of these myself, for collection at a local store. 30 minutes later I got a telephone call from PC World (yes, at 9.00pm). It was someone who “just wanted to check” that I understood that this runs Linux and is “not a laptop running Windows or anything”. Fascinating. I have no objection to being called, but I wonder what prompted this ring-round? Customers complaining? Or just a retailer nervous about this strange new thing? Should have asked, bother.

I’ve also noticed something odd about the product description. PC World has the white and the black at the same price – well, I am guessing, but one product is -GW and the other is -GB. However, the code and description for the white (PC2-GW) suggests it is the 2GB variant, which you would expect to be cheaper. There’s also no mention of the webcam (not that I really care about that). If you go for one of these, I suggest checking it is really what you are expecting before parting with money. I will.

Further update

Price is back up to £219.99 for the 4GB this morning. Looks like a temporary pricing snafu. Never mind, it is still a good deal.

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