Computers Linux Ubuntu

Linux-for-the-masses narratives

I’m going to present you with several possible narratives that outline how Linux could be adopted by “the masses” in the future, if ever:

Narrative 1
People continue to buy Windows-preinstalled computers but at one point the Linux developers are such geniuses that they are able to make a foolproof installation that detects and automatically works with 100% of peripheral hardware, even the hardware from companies that refuse to port their drivers to Linux or open source their drivers. Suddenly, self-professed computer illiterates and non-tech-savvy users everywhere will download .iso files, burn them as disk images, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, install Linux on their hard drives and be glad to be rid of Windows. Microsoft declares bankruptcy and everyone starts dancing and singing the last part of “The Age of Aquarius.”

Narrative 2
The thousands of Linux developers of various versions of desktop Linux decide to abandon all of their projects and create one unified Linux distribution. To keep it unified, they change the licensing from the GPL to strictly closed source, so that others won’t fork into disunified Linux distributions. Since there’s no such thing as having too many chefs in the kitchen or any loss of efficiency through needing a consensus before action, this unified distro quickly surpasses Mac OS X and Windows in terms of looks and functionality. Once again, preinstallation and proper marketing are irrelevant to consumer Linux adoption. Everyone, even those who consider themselves computer illiterate, decides to download and install this new operating system. Open source developers everywhere can rejoice because yet a third proprietary operating system has won a place in the market. Hurray for open source that’s now closed source!

Narrative 3
Ex-Windows power users keep downloading and trying various Linux distributions. Some abandon Linux at the first sign of trouble. Others stick with it or happen to luck out with very Linux-friendly hardware. They build up a solid user base for consumer Linux and buy the very few Linux preinstalled options from large OEMs like Dell and HP. The large OEMs realize there is money to be made in selling preinstalled Linux computers to consumers. One model in particular seems to sell extremely well and the distro that comes with that model becomes the de facto standard Linux distro. Any commercial software ported to Linux has a software package easily installable for that distro. All non-commercial Linux applications are also sure to provide, along with the source .tar.gz file, packages compatible with that distro. Whenever non-tech-savvy users ask their Linux-using friends what computer to buy, if the Linux-using friends know the needs are basic enough (email, music, web, word processing, photos), they suggest a Linux preinstalled solution. Eventually a large enough contingent of tech-savvy and totally-non-tech-savvy Linux users has to be recognized by hardware and software companies, and Linux ports become a necessity for economic viability for these companies. The only reason to use Windows is if you like it better than Linux, not because you’re stuck with some Windows-only hardware or Windows-only software.

Narrative 4
Ex-Windows power users keep trying to migrate to Linux. Some try and fail. Some try and succeed. Linux users keep begging large OEMs to preinstall Linux. When they see Linux preinstalled, they rejoice for a little bit but then most of them continue to build their own computers and install Linux themselves or buy Windows-preinstalled computers and install Linux themselves. OEMs say “We’re not going to offer preinstalled Linux any more, because it’s clear that Linux users would rather buy Windows computers anyway and install Linux themselves.” So all potential Linux users have to install Linux themselves or find someone to install and troubleshoot Linux for them.

About the narratives
If you read a lot of disgruntled Ubuntu users experiences, you’d think that narrative 1 and narrative 2 were really how Linux would make a place for itself among “the masses.” Right now, we’re stuck in narrative 4, and really it’s narrative 3 that would make Linux successful with “the masses.” Now I know some Linux users don’t care about the masses. They say as long as Linux works for them, it doesn’t matter who else uses it. That’s fine. But then don’t celebrate when you get more hardware support and more applications ported to Linux because of an increase in Linux consumer use. And don’t pretend that all Linux distros share your values. Ubuntu’s first bug has precisely to do with taking market share away from Microsoft.

And to those disgruntled migrants who think they have great suggestions for how to make Linux accessible for the masses, know that the Linux developers are all working as hard as they can to make good software, and recognize that good software alone won’t bring Linux to the masses. There are market forces at work. In the computer industries, money talks. If you want to do Linux for the masses some good, buy Linux preinstalled.

I believe in choice. I will celebrate the day when Windows users can actually choose Windows instead of just being stuck with it. I will celebrate when you can go into Best Buy and see Linux preinstalled computers there to try out, and the sales staff will be able to talk intelligently about the differences between Windows and Linux. I will celebrate Dell recommending something on its website other than the latest version of Windows. I will celebrate TV advertisements explaining the advantages of using Linux. I don’t want all the masses using Linux. I just want them to be able to buy a Linux computer and use it right away without having to worry about hardware compatibility and burning .iso files correctly.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) on the Eee PC 701

I did it. I wiped Mandriva clean off my computer, backed up my important files, and installed Ubuntu 8.10 beta on my Eee PC, and so far the experience has been wonderful. There were a few bumps along the way, of course:

Other than that, it has worked a dream. I’m very happy with Intrepid on the Eee. I did one update and left it at that (if I did daily updates, I’m sure one of them would break things, and as the Eee is my main computer, I can’t afford to have that happen).

To anyone who says I should file bug reports on this stuff while Intrepid is still in beta, bug reports have already been filed on all of these, so the developers are quite aware of these problems. I don’t know if they’re a top priority to be fixed or not, though.

Linux Ubuntu

Too many choices? Or not enough information?

I’ve often heard it said that in Linux there is too much choice. There are hundreds of distros (or different Linux versions), and any new user will feel overwhelmed and not know what to choose.

I agree with the second part—yes, new users will feel overwhelmed and not know what to do. I was one of those new users back in 2004. I also felt overwhelmed. But the logical conclusion isn’t necessarily that there are too many choices and thus the choice number should be reduced.

When I first started working, I had some confusing choices to make. HMO? PPO? Flexible spending or not? Direct deposit? This retirement plan? That one? Huh? What? Am I upset that they offered me both an HMO and a PPO plan? I was confused by the choices, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want the choice. I was confused because they gave me these thick booklets that are hard to understand instead of just a simple low-down on these are the pros and cons of an HMO plan, and these are the pros and cons of a PPO plan.

Likewise, if I had to pick a restaurant to eat at by wandering the streets of the city, I would be overwhelmed by the options. There are hundreds if not thousands of restaurants in the city I live in. Luckily, I have information about those choices. I can read Yelp reviews about those restaurants and talk to friends about recommendations. If those reviews didn’t exist, would the logical conclusion be that there should be only one restaurant serving only one type of food? No. Of course not. The logical conclusion would be that there is a need for some reviews to be written.

My wife recently got into horseback riding, and she was overwhelmed by all the options. Where do I take lessons? What equipment do I need? Are there good brands and bad brands of clothes to get? What’s the best place to shop for horse-related paraphernalia? So did she just give up and say “No, this is too confusing. Why can’t there just be one horse ranch with one type of horse and one shop to buy horse supplies at?” On the contrary, she loved being overwhelmed by the choices. She loved doing the research to find out just what to get and where to go. She knew there would be research involved, and she embraced it.

And yet many people insist there should be only one Linux distro with one desktop environment. Apart from the impracticality of forcing efforts into one project when the license encourages forking (and the license is a big part of the appeal for many Linux developers and users), in no other realm of life do people want to minimize choice. I’ve never heard anyone say “Dell, HP, Sony, Acer, Apple… there are too many choices! Why can’t there be just one computer manufacturer?” Instead, they read reviews and go to stores to try out various computers before making a purchase.

They do research.

If you feel Linux has too many choices, perhaps you should just get some more information instead of trying to eliminate choices and make one Linux distribution. I’ll help you out a little. There are literally hundreds of Linux distros, but only the top ten at DistroWatch are worth having a look at for any new user confused about which Linux distro to try. There are even online quizzes you can take to give you a hint as to which new-user-oriented distro may be a good first one for you to try.

If life is giving you too many choices, don’t get frustrated and confused. Get educated.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The Linux Live CD Award

I’ve moved this post to be a page, but I didn’t want to delete the comments associated with this older post.

You can find the page here.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

What to do after a failed Windows-to-Linux migration

Did you read an article or blog post hyping up Linux as a cure for all computer problems? Did it give you the impression that Linux is for smart users and Windows is for suckers? Did you think Linux would do everything Windows did… but better? More importantly, after being misled by pro-Linux propaganda, were you extremely disappointed about having to return to Windows?

I’ve read many such stories on the Ubuntu Forums from disgruntled would-be migrants to Linux (Ubuntu, specifically, since it is the Ubuntu Forums, and I am a Ubuntu user). This duped user has had too much trouble migrating to Linux (usually a combination of culture shock and incompatible hardware) but doesn’t want to deal with security problems in Windows.

Well, here’s my advice to this user:

  • You can secure Windows. If the only reason you’re migrating to Linux is security, look into a program called SuRun. It allows you to create a security setup similar to the sudo implementation Ubuntu and Mac OS X use. So you can run almost always as a limited-privilege user, and when you want to temporarily escalate to administrative privileges (say, for Windows Updates or badly written programs that require you to run as an administrator), you can do so with a simple right-click and password authentication.
  • You can experience open source on Windows. If switching to Linux is too much of a culture shock, you can ease yourself in by exploring various open source Windows applications.
  • Hold out for compatible hardware. If the idea of eventually switching to Linux appeals to you, keep your Lexmark printer and Broadcom wireless card for now and use Windows. But the next time you’re in the market for a peripheral or hardware component, do a little bit of research and find one that’s Linux-friendly.
  • Hold out for preinstalled Linux. Taking that last bit advice one step further—the best way to have a positive Linux experience is to experience it the way most Windows users first experienced Windows: preinstalled and preconfigured. Let Asus, Dell, or HP handle all the setup and configuration. Keep using that Windows computer until it’s “too old,” and then buy a new computer with Linux preinstalled and just turn it on and have it just work. No fussing with editing text files. No installing drivers. No recompiling kernels.
  • Just give up. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking with Windows if that’s what makes you happy. If you have the money for it, if it allows you to run the software applications you need, and if a Linux migration is too much of a headache for you, stay with what works for you.
Linux Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Ubuntu

The varying degrees of rich

I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in its state. If you told people you were from my town, they’d call you a “Richie.” Nevertheless, many people in my town identified themselves as “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class” instead of as “upper-class” or “rich.” There were many people in my high school who, when applying to college, applied for and qualified for financial aid.

Many times people use the term rich as a monolithic one. The rich are rich and the poor are poor. To a certain extent, that’s true. Even if you’re on the lower end of rich, you are in a very, very small minority percentage-wise of the US or world population. But there are still varying degrees of “rich,” and they do lead very different lifestyles.

What got me thinking about this was a thread on the Ubuntu Forums asking what will happen when Mark Shuttleworth’s money runs out. Mark Shuttleworth is the founder of Ubuntu Linux, and his initial investment was about US$10,000,000. He also spent, before he set up Ubuntu, about US$20,000,000 to fly into space as a space tourist. In 1999, he sold his company Thawte for about US$575,000,000.

Now let’s think about the typical rich town resident (like the people in my town). My parents were both university professors, so we were barely rich enough to live in the rich town, but we did. A lot of my friends’ parents were doctors or lawyers. Doctors and lawyers can make a lot of money—six-figure salaries, maybe eventually a million a year. If you were a millionaire, you were rich, even in the rich town.

But there is a huge difference between being even a millionaire and being a half-billionaire.

If you’re a millionaire, you can afford a nice house in a rich town, but you’re probably still paying a monthly mortgage. You can go out for meals at fancy restaurants every now and then, you probably own a couple of expensive cars, and you can pay your kids’ college (that’s university, for you non-Americans) tuition without taking out a loan. You’ve still got to be mindful of your money, though. You can’t spend recklessly, and you can’t just quit your job.

If you’re a half-billionaire like Mark Shuttleworth, you don’t have to work. You can invest your money, and the interest you earn on that money per year is probably more than most people earn in a lifetime. In other words, Mark Shuttleworth has about as much money as five hundred millionaires. If he lived to be 100 years old, never invested any of his money, and just had the US$575,000,000 from the original Verisign deal, he could spend US$21,288 every day and run out of money only a little after his hundredth birthday.

That’s more than half my yearly salary he could spend every day and not go broke for another 65 years. Do we have to worry about Mark Shuttleworth running out of money? I highly doubt it. And, hey, he set up Ubuntu on the Isle of Man for a reason. The guy is not dumb. I don’t know if Ubuntu will ever be profitable, but I know it’s not going to die in my lifetime for lack of funds.

Computers Linux Windows

Dell Inspiron Mini Pricing “Scandal”

Linux users love to be outraged.

Ever since Dell started selling certain models with Ubuntu Linux preinstalled, Linux users on forums and blogs have been complaining that Dell hasn’t been doing Linux justice. Why did they pick Ubuntu instead of another distro? Why is Ubuntu available in that country and not my country? Why is Ubuntu available on only these certain models? Why isn’t Ubuntu advertised better on the Dell website? Why does Dell keep recommending Windows Vista Home Premium, even on the Ubuntu build-your-system-page? And why would a computer with a cost-free operating system (Ubuntu) ever be more expensive or the same cost as the same computer with a costly operating system (Windows)?

Back in 12 July 2007, after much outrage from the Linux community, Dell finally admitted the pricing difference was a mistake:

Dell Ubuntu Linux buyers were recently outraged when a price comparison between identical Inspiron 1420 laptops showed that instead of the Ubuntu system being cheaper, it actually ended up costing $225 more than the same laptop with Vista Home Basic Edition. This was after Dell had announced the week before that Ubuntu systems would be $50 cheaper than similar systems running Vista Home Basic Edition.

“Bottom line this was an oversight, pure and simple,” a Dell spokesperson told “We will be posting a comment to IdeaStorm to that effect by tomorrow.” In the meantime, Dell says that the prices have been reset to the appropriate prices.

Since then, though, comparative prices of Vista and similarly spec’ed Ubuntu computers has fluctuated. At times, both are roughly the same price. Then Ubuntu is slightly more expensive. Then Ubuntu is slightly cheaper. As far as I can tell, it comes down to Dell occasionally offering special discounts, “instant savings,” and promotional upgrades on only the Vista computers. So if you take the price as is, Ubuntu is cheaper. But if Vista happens to have a special deal that week, Vista will end up cheaper or with better specs for the same price. In other words, Dell is promoting Windows computers and only offering Ubuntu ones.

Various Linux users have proposed reasons as to why the Ubuntu computers might sometimes cost more or be only slightly cheaper than the same Windows computers:

  • Windows computers usually come with what’s known as “crapware” (all the free trial software people typically uninstall—AOL, Norton Antivirus, etc.). Those companies pay Dell to put that “crapware” (i.e., advertising) on its computers. And you typically see these programs on Windows installations more than Ubuntu ones, so the Windows computers are subsidized by third-party software vendors.
  • Windows licenses may be so cheap as to be practically free. Dell probably has bulk deals with Microsoft. I can’t imagine they pay even close to full retail on those OEM Windows licenses.
  • Microsoft, in fact, probably pays Dell. Why else would Dell Recommends Windows Vista Home Premium be plastered all over the Dell website? Do you really think they recommend Vista? No. They’re paid to recommend Vista.
  • Dell has operational costs. It is not as if offering Ubuntu is free, even though the operating system itself is free. It takes a lot of time to develop proposals, test hardware, work with Canonical, develop an infrastructure for support, and adjust the Dell website accordingly in order to offer a new option apart from Windows. Dell has to recoup that loss, just as a bookstore that orders you a special copy of a rare book might have to charge you more for that book than for a New York Times bestseller.
  • There are other components that do cost money. Even though Ubuntu itself is free, Dell has now added in legal commercial DVD playback and MP3 playback. Those licenses cost money, even if the Ubuntu ones don’t.

Given all of those factors, I’m frankly surprised the Ubuntu computers do not always cost more than their Windows counterparts.

I will say that given the price difference is usually quite small, you should buy the Ubuntu model if you want to use Ubuntu (instead of buying the slightly cheaper Windows model and then installing Ubuntu yourself). Just as there are short-term freedoms (I want to play this proprietary multimedia format now) and long-term freedoms (I want to be able to choose what multimedia format I play), there are short-term costs (paying a few dollars more for a Ubuntu laptop) and long-term costs (having Windows continue to be the main or only preinstalled option).

Money talks. Petitions walk.

You can petition and Idea Storm and Digg and blog and forum rant all you want, but if you tell Dell “We want Ubuntu preinstalled!” and then you buy Windows computers and install Ubuntu yourself, you’re really telling Dell “Linux users are all talk and no action,” which also means if you ever want to present Linux as a viable option for someone who wants it, you’ll have to keep telling them “Find a Linux geek to install and configure it for you or become a Linux geek yourself” instead of “Buy it online from this well-known company.”

I know people who pay more for organic or locally grown produce. I know people who pay more to support mom-and-pop businesses over Wal-Mart. Is it so wrong to pay a little more for Ubuntu when you know there are good reasons for it being slightly more expensive (it’s not just “Dell is out to screw us!”)? You can call it “voting with your wallet,” because that’s what it is.

That said, I really don’t understand where the whining about the recent Dell Inspiron Mini 9 release is coming from.

Let’s take a look at this on the US site. Right now, we have three base options:

  • $349 with Ubuntu advertised as 2GB of free internet storage from
  • $399 with Windows XP advertised as Larger Hard Drive
  • $449 with Windows XP advertised as More Memory and Larger Hard Drive

First of all, the Ubuntu one is the cheapest. I’m not talking value here. I’m not saying if you get the same specs, this one is cheaper than that one. I’m talking sheer money. So if you want to say “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Talk is cheap, and I should vote with my wallet, but that’s easy to say if you have money,” then that line of reasoning won’t fly. If you’re short on cash and have only $349, Ubuntu is actually your only option.

That said, it’s usually cheaper to have a base model than to upgrade. Some people have pointed out that after you match the Ubuntu specs to the highest model XP specs, the Ubuntu one is more expensive. Yes, that’s true, but after you match the middle-spec’ed XP to the higher-spec’ed XP, it’s also more expensive. After you upgrade the RAM to 1 GB and the hard drive to 16 GB, the middle model becomes $464, which is $15 more than the higher model’s base price ($449). So if you want to argue that Ubuntu is “more expensive” than Windows, you’d also have to recognize that Windows itself is “more expensive” than Windows. As a matter of fact, when you upgrade the Ubuntu model to 1 GB of RAM and a 16 GB hard drive and add in the 0.3 megapixel webcam, it’s also $464.

It’s not exactly clear from Dell’s website whether the XP models have the 2GB of free online storage or not, so I don’t know how that factors into the pricing. The main Mini page seems to indicate it’s Ubuntu-specific, but if you click on the Design tab, it has this little blurb, which seems to be attached to all the Minis:

Keep your files online! We’ve partnered with to provide 2GB of free internet storage for every Inspiron Mini 9 customer. Store, access, collaborate, and share any type of file through a secure, simple, and intuitive web browser experience. Plus, upgrade to larger accounts to store more files.

All that said, I am a little disappointed with the pricing overall (not Ubuntu pricing v. Windows pricing). When Eee launched its Asus Eee PCs last year, they were hyped as being as low as $199 but eventually came out as $399 with a later $299 model. The Inspiron Minis were hyped as being as low as $299, but now we see the cheapest model is $349, and its specs aren’t much better than the original Eee PCs (Atom processor and slightly larger screen, but that’s it).

I have a feeling netbooks will really take off when you can get a decent model with amazing battery life for $150 or $199.

In the meantime, if you want companies to sell Linux preinstalled computers, you have to buy Linux preinstalled computers. I thought it was “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Photorec saves the day again

Every now and then my friends seem to accidentally have their files deleted. You can read here about last year’s incident. This year, another friend, who keeps her photos on one laptop with no backups had some folders mysteriously go empty. I had no idea how they got deleted, but I assured her we could probably get most of them back. I didn’t realize what it would take, though!

First of all, I had to borrow an external hard drive, since mine didn’t have enough free space to copy over her entire drive. I booted up a Ubuntu live CD and installed testdisk and tried to run

sudo photorec

on the drive. It appeared to work until it got to 1464 files. Then it just froze up. So I stopped it and restarted it. Froze on 1464 again. Clearly something was wrong. So I tried scanning only the unallocated space on the drive and Photorec gave me a segmentation fault error. I knew the drive was probably damaged in some way.

I figured imaging the drive with ddrescue would solve the problem. I ran it overnight and the next day I realized the external hard drive I’d borrowed was formatted as FAT32 and so would not hold a disk image larger than 4 GB. I resized the partition and created a new NTFS partition and ran ddrescue again. There were a lot of bad blocks on that drive in various places. Running front to back and then running back to front, ddrescue took almost 40 hours to image that 80 GB hard drive with bad blocks.

Then it took another four hours for Photorec to scan the imaged drive and recover the photos. I don’t think it ended up getting everything, but it got a lot, and my friend was grateful and felt a little guilty that I’d spent so much time recovering her data. Instead of accepting a thank-you from her, I told her, “Just buy an external hard drive and back up your photos.”

I think it’s human nature to have to learn the hard way. Most people don’t start backing up until they’ve lost important files.

Linux Ubuntu

Installing Adobe Flash 10 Beta in Ubuntu

Some people have found the new version of Adobe’s Flash player to offer greater stability (fewer crashes) in the Ubuntu version of Firefox. Others just like to try cutting edge software. Either way, this is how you install Flash 10 beta in Ubuntu.

Probably the easiest way to do it is to download the .deb file of it from your local mirror and then double-click it.

If you prefer to install the .tar.gz from the Adobe website, copy and paste the following commands into the terminal:

sudo apt-get remove flashplugin-nonfree

This command uninstalls the Ubuntu repositories version of Flash 9.

wget -c

This downloads the Flash 10 beta compressed file.

tar -xvzf flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz

This extracts the files contained in the compressed file.

sudo cp install_flash_player_10_linux/ /usr/lib/xulrunner-addons/plugins/

This command copies the Flash plugin to the Firefox plugins folder.

rm -r install_flash_player_10_linux

This command removes the extracted files folder.

rm flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz

This command removes the originally downloaded compressed file.

Below is what the whole process looks like:

username@ubuntu:~$ sudo apt-get remove flashplugin-nonfree
Reading package lists… Done
Building dependency tree

Reading state information… Done
The following packages will be REMOVED:
0 upgraded, 0 newly installed, 1 to remove and 0 not upgraded.
Need to get 0B of archives.
After unpacking 160kB disk space will be freed.
Do you want to continue [Y/n]? Y
(Reading database … 68660 files and directories currently installed.)
Removing flashplugin-nonfree …
username@ubuntu:~$ wget -c
=> `flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz’
Connecting to||:80… connected.
HTTP request sent, awaiting response… 200 OK
Length: 4,035,433 (3.8M) [application/x-gzip]

4,035,433 624.95K/s ETA 00:00

18:23:44 (620.39 KB/s) – `flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz’ saved

username@ubuntu:~$ tar -xvzf flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz
username@ubuntu:~$ sudo cp install_flash_player_10_linux/ /usr/lib/xulrunner-addons/plugins/
username@ubuntu:~$ rm -r install_flash_player_10_linux
rm: remove write-protected regular file `install_flash_player_10_linux/flashplayer-installer’? Y
username@ubuntu:~$ rm flashplayer10_install_linux_081108.tar.gz

If you run into problems, post a support thread at the Ubuntu Forums.

Linux Ubuntu

Make a “browse as root” launcher in Ubuntu

Like Mac OS X, Ubuntu includes by default a privilege escalation system that invokes sudo, which allows certain users (in the admin group) to operate as limited-privileged users for almost all tasks and to temporarily escalate (after a password authentication) to administrative privileges for specific tasks. For more details about sudo, check out the Ubuntu Wiki page on the subject.

Sometimes users want to modify system files and thus need “root” (or full administrative) privileges to make changes to those files. This tutorial will show you how to create an application launcher to “browse as root.”

Right-click on an empty spot on the panel and select Add to Panel

Select Custom Application Launcher and then click Add

The type should be Application and the command should be

gksudo nautilus

The rest of the fields and the icon can be whatever you want them to be.

When you’re done filling in the fields and (optionally) selecting an icon for the launcher, click OK

Now when you click the launcher icon, you’ll be prompted for a password…

and you can browse as root and make changes to system files, all within your otherwise-unprivileged user session.