Category: Unix/Linux

Oh, you want support?

I don’t know how many open source communities have the same problem, but in the LLVM list we do receive more than a few emails a year with people really upset that no one has fixed their bugs quick enough, or that no one replied to their emails. I find this behaviour quite interesting from a sociological point of view, but if you behave in that way, let me help you straight out: it’s rude. Really.

Business Model

The open source business model relies on sharing of ideas, accumulation of technology and niche development. Small and incremental pieces are incorporated into stabilizing products that provide value to a groups of people.

For example, MacOS and Linux provide different values to the same user base (desktop users). The more commercial software, like MacOS, provide a stable, recognizable interface, with powerful integration to other products of the same line, while the open counterparts provide a more experimental interface, but greater control and spread of knowledge.

Apple’s business model is quite different than most Linux distributions, but both heavily use/derive open source infrastructure (kernel, compilers, libraries). So, if you purchase MacOS, you’re getting not only the eye candy, but also some components that are open source, like LLVM. What companies get from investing in LLVM is up for a different kind of post, but rest assured, the license is really clear: “THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED “AS IS”, WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED”.

Presumptuous Crowd

Most Linux/BSD users, when they have a problem with their programs, they first search the web for the error message. In the uncommon case where they don’t find an answer, they then post on forums or mailing lists, often politely, dumping their logs and error messages, and gladly waiting for an answer, that may take a day, a week, sometimes, it may be forgotten. They, then, try a different forum, or “ping” their messages, work a bit harder, find more causes, etc.

After all, no one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself. Let me make that one clear:

No one is as interested in your problems as much as yourself.

Most people that deal with open source understand that. Most people that buy software don’t. But there is an intermediate crowd, that has recently grown tremendously: the freemium folks.

Most people now enjoy an impressive amount of free products, in midst of all the software that they did purchase, and for most of them, they do receive the same quality of support that they do for their paid products. That seems controversial, even paradoxical, but the answer is quite simple: they’re not free.

If you haven’t figured out yet, let’s get that one clear, too: you pay for it with your personal information. Accurate location logs, purchase history, personal identification, credit status, number of friends (and all their personal information too), who you like and who you don’t, etc. All that information is dutifully stored and used for their profit. A profit that is orders of magnitude higher than it would be if they did none of that and you paid $10 for it. Even $100. Hell, even if you paid $1000 per year, it would have been cheaper, or better said, they would have less money from you.

So, it only makes sense that they treat you like a full-paid member of their exclusive club, and treat you like a king so that you don’t jump ship and go share your cat picture on the other social website. Some people quickly understand what’s at stake, but most of them would keep using the service as a matter of convenience. They know the price of their privacy, and they exchange it for convenience.

Market Penetration

As predicted by many in the 90s, and repeated by most in the last decade, open source (free/libre/etc) has taken the roots of computing and is now the base for all technology. From stock markets, to the ISS. From high-performance computing centres to schools. From operating systems to games. Open source is everywhere, and more people that never thought would have any contact with open source, are now getting exposed to it first hand. The pervasion of open source technologies is so complete, that I risk to say that there isn’t any profitable company today that doesn’t use or ship open source with its products. There isn’t a gadget that you own that didn’t use it during design or production, or rely on it for its operation.

And, as with any other technology, occasionally, open source fails. And as they fail, helpful messages pop up where users were expecting a nice “support contract” fixing it straight away. You may contact whoever you paid, and they may help you, or they may give the standard response that it’s not their problem. After all, your privacy is worth a lot of money, but not that much.

Support Contract

Because open source is everywhere, more and more people that were not used how it works are now falling pray to the support contract fallacy.

You may get expedite help from Android “free” apps makers, or social media websites, and they may provide their services for free and still be very friendly and helpful, but you cannot compare that freedom with libre/open source freedom. In free software / open source, we do not store your personal data, not we want to. We do not track your whereabouts, nor we contact your friend on your behalf. We don’t have that freedom, mostly because that’s not our business model, but also because most of us believe that’s wrong.

Because you’re not directly, nor indirectly, paying us, you cannot, ever expect that anyone will help you, less still, in any reasonable time. The overwhelming majority of people working in open source projects are directly or indirectly paid by companies, and that’s their day jobs. Folks that fix the problems that their companies think will best improve their products. Only a small minority of lucky bastards can work on free software without getting any compensation or direction from a company, but even those people have their own agenda. And that’s very rarely aligned with yours.

Expecting support, complaining about the lack of help or interest in your problems, is like carrying a large bag through the underground and be mad a people for not helping you. Granted, many people will help you, but as a selfless act, not as a support contract. Only those that are going in the same direction, or those that have a free hand, or that have some shared history (like, they have been in the same situation before), will likely help you, and different people align differently with your problem. If it’s a large suitcase, or a baby pram, or some clumsy and fragile painting. Different people will help in different times.

In libre/open source, the situation is exactly the same. We’re all working along our own projects and priorities, and unless your problem is directly related to my paid job, I will rarely even look at it. It’s not out of spite, but if I stop doing the work I’m paid and start helping all those in need, I’ll lose my job and I won’t be able to help anyone any more. Not to mention feed my family.

The social contract

When you send an email that no one pays attention, try to phrase it differently. Or better yet, do some more investigations, provide more information, show that you care about what you’re asking. There’s nothing worse in a forum, than people asking others to solve their homework. The general rule of free help is that you must show equal or more interest and sweat on what you’re asking, than the people that are helping you. It’s exactly the opposite than on a support contracts. Moreover, your behaviour will tell people whether to help you or not. The more aggressive and demanding you become, the less people will help you. The more humble and hard working you are, the opposite will happen.

To understand that social contract, think of it as an exchange. If you bring a lot of information with your request, I will learn a thing of two about that. I enjoy learning, so, even if it’s not my area, I may feel compelled to help you just because you might teach me something. If there is any payment in community help, this is it. The knowledge you pass on to people helping you, and the joy they feel of learning a new thing and helping a nice chap.

In the end, most people that are new to such environments, end up learning it really fast, and become enthusiastic contributors. This is, for me, the beauty of the lack of payments. Each one values the newly acquired knowledge in different ways, so it’d be impossible to treat them as standard currency. But, since I don’t tell you how much I value your contribution, and vice versa, we cannot know who has the profit. More importantly, in this case, profit is not the difference between my gains and your gains, but the difference between my expectation of gains and my actual gains, which is completely independent of your exchange ratios.

This is precisely what Buckminster Fuller meant as Synergetics. The total system behaviour is not always predictable from the behaviour of all its parts, and in some systems, the value aggregated can be more than the sum of its individual gains. This is why the open source business model is so infectious and addictive. Once you’re in, there’s no way out. But you have to put some effort.

Amazon loves to annoy

It’s amazing how Amazon will do all in their power to annoy you. They will sell you DRM-free MP3 songs, and even allow you to download on any device (via their web interface) the full version, for your own personal use, in the car, at home or when mobile. But, not without a cost, no.

For some reason, they want to have total control of the process, so if they’ll allow you to download your music, it has to be their way. In the past, you had to download the song immediately after buying, with a Windows-only binary (why?) and you had only one shot. If the link failed, you just lost a couple of pounds. To be honest, that happened to me, and customer service were glad to re-activate my “license” so I could download it again. Kudos for that.

Question 1: Why did they need an external software to download the songs when they had a full-featured on-line e-commerce solution?

It’s not hard to sell on-line music, other people have been doing it for years and not in that way, for sure. Why was it so hard for Amazon, the biggest e-commerce website on Earth, to do the same? I was not asking for them to revolutionise the music industry (I leave that for Spotify), just do what others were doing at the time. Apparently, they just couldn’t.

Recently, it got a lot better, and that’s why I started buying MP3 songs from Amazon. They now had a full-featured MP3 player on the web! They also have the Android version of it that is a little confusing but unobtrusive. The web version is great, once you buy an album you go directly to it and you can already start listening to songs and all.

Well, I’m a control freak, and I want to have all songs I own on my own server (and its backup), so I went to download my recently purchased songs. Well, it’s not that simple: you can download all your songs, on Windows and Mac… not Linux.

Question 2: Why on Earth can’t they make it work on Linux?

We’re not talking about Microsoft or Apple. This is Amazon, a web company that is supposed to know how JavaScript works, right? Why create executables, ActiveX, SilverLight or whatever those platforms demand from their developers when they can do the same just using JavaScript? The era when JavaScript was too slow and Flash rocked is over, like, 10 years ago. There simply is no excuse.

Undeterred, I knew the Android app would let me download, and as an added bonus, all songs downloaded by AmazonMP3 would be automatically added to the Android music playlists, so that both programs could play the same songs. That was great, of course, until I wanted to copy them to my laptop.

When running (the fantastic) ES File Explorer, I listed the folders consuming most of the SDCARD, found the amazonmp3 folder and saw that all my songs were in there. Since Android changed the file-system, and I can’t seem to mount it correctly via MTP (noob), I decided to use the ES File Explorer (again) to select all files and copy to my server via its own interface, that is great for that sort of thing, and well, found out that it’s not that simple. Again.

Question 3: Why can I read and delete the songs, but not copy them?

What magic Linux permission let me listen to a song (read) and delete the file (write) but not copy to another location? I can’t think of a way to natively do that on Linux, it must be a magic from Android, to allow for DRM crap.

At this time I was already getting nervous, so I just fired adb shell and navigated to the directory, and when I listed the files, adb just logged out. I tried again, and it just exited. No error message, no log, no warning, just shut down and get me back to my own prompt.

This was getting silly, but I had the directory, so I just ran adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/ and found that only the temp directory came out. What the hell is this sorcery?!

Question 4: What kind of magic stops me from copying files, or even listing files from a shell?

Well, I knew it was something to do with the Amazon MP3 application itself, if couldn’t be something embedded on Android, or the activists would crack on until they ceded, or at least provided means for disabling DRM crap from the core. To prove my theory, I removed the AmazonMP3 application and, as expected, I could copy all my files via adb to my server, where I could then, back them up.

So, if you use Linux and want to download all your songs from Amazon MP3 website, you’ll have to:

  1. Buy songs/albuns on Amazon’s website
  2. Download them via AmazonMP3 Android app (click on album, click on download)
  3. Un-install the AmazonMP3 app
  4. Get the files via: adb pull /sdcard/amazonmp3/
  5. Re-install the AmazonMP3 app (if you want, or to download more songs)

As usual, Amazon was a pain in the back with what should be really, really simple for them to do. And, as usual, a casual user finds its way to getting what they want, what they paid for, what they deserve.

If you know someone at Amazon, please let them know:

We’re not idiots. We know you know JavaScript, we know you use Linux, and we know you can create an amazing experience for all of us. Don’t treat us like idiots. If your creativity is lacking, just copy the design and implementation from someone else, we don’t care. We want solutions, not problems.

Fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me (DBD)

Defective by design came with a new story on Apple’s DRM. While I don’t generally re-post from other blogs (LWN already does that), this one is special, but not for the apparent reasons.

I agree that DRM is bad, not just for you but for business, innovation, science and the evolution of mankind. But that’s not the point. What Apple is doing with the App store is not just locking other applications from running on their hardware, but locking their hardware out of the real world.

In the late 80’s – early 90’s, all hardware platforms were like that, and Apple was no exception. Amiga, Commodore, MSX and dozens of others, each was a completely separate machine, with a unique chipset, architecture and software layers. But that never stopped people writing code for it, putting on a floppy disk and installing on any compatible computer they could find. Computer viruses spread out that way, too, given the ease it was to share software in those days.

Ten years later, there was only a handful of architectures. Intel for PCs, PowerPC for Mac and a few others for servers (Alpha, Sparc, etc). The consolidation of the hardware was happening at the same time as the explosion of the internet, so not only more people had the same type of computer, but they also shared software more easily, increasing the quantity of software available (and viruses) by orders of magnitude.

Linux was riding this wave since its beginning, and probably that was the most important factor why such an underground movement got so much momentum. It was considered subversive, anti-capitalist to use free software and those people (including me) were hunt down like communists, and ridiculed as idiots with no common-sense. Today we know how ridicule it is to use Linux, most companies and governments do and would be unthinkable today not to use it for what it’s good. But it’s not for every one, not for everything.

Apple’s niche

Apple always had a niche, and they were really smart not to get out of it. Companies like Intel and ARM are trying to get out of their niche and attack new markets, to maybe savage a section of economy they don’t have control over. Intel is going small, ARM is going big and both will get hurt. Who get’s more hurt doesn’t matter, what matter is that Apple never went to attack other markets directly.

Ever since the beginning, Apple’s ads were in the lines of “be smart, be cool, use Apple”. They never said their office suite was better than Microsoft’s (as MS does with Open Office), or that their hardware support was better (like MS does with Linux). Once you compare directly your products with someone else’s, you’re bound to trouble. When Microsoft started comparing their OS with Linux (late 90’s), the community fought back showing all the areas in which they were very poor, and businesses and governments started doing the same, and that was a big hit on Windows. Apple never did that directly.

By being always on the sidelines, Apple was the different. In their own niche, there was no competitor. Windows or Linux never entered that space, not even today. When Apple entered the mobile phone market, they didn’t took market from anyone else, they made a new market for themselves. Who bought iPhones didn’t want to buy anything else, they just did because there was no iPhone at the time.

Android mobile phones are widespread, growing faster than anything else, taking Symbian phones out of the market, destroying RIM’s homogeneity, but rarely touching the iPhone market. Apple fan-boys will always buy Apple products, no matter the cost or the lower quality in software and hardware. Being cool is more important than any of that.

Fool me once again, please

Being an Apple fan-boy is hard work. Whenever a new iPhone is out, the old ones disappear from the market and you’re outdated. Whenever the new MacBook arrives, the older ones look so out-dated that all your (fan-boy) friends will know you’re not keeping up. If by creating a niche to capture the naiveness of people and profit from it is fooling, than Apple is fooling those same people for decades and they won’t stop now. That has made them the second biggest company in the world (loosing only for an oil company), nobody can argue with that fact.

iPhones have a lesser hardware than most of the new Android phones, less functionality, less compatibility with the rest of the world. The new MacBook air has an Intel chip several years old, lacks connectivity options and in a short time won’t run Flash, Java or anything Steve Jobs dislike when he wakes up from a bad dream. But that doesn’t affect a bit the fan-boys. See, back in the days when Microsoft had fan-boys too, they were completely oblivious to the horrendous problems the platform had (viruses, bugs, reboots, memory hog etc) and they would still mock you for not being on their group.

That’s the same with Apple fan-boys and always have been. I had an Apple ][, and I liked it a lot. But when I saw an Amiga I was baffled. I immediately recognized the clear superiority of the architecture. The sound was amazing, the graphics was impressive and the games were awesome (all that mattered to me at that time, tbh). There was no comparison between an Amiga game and an Apple game at that time and everybody knew it. But Apple fan-boys were all the same, and there were fights in BBSs and meetings: Apple fan-boys one side, Amiga fan-boys on the other and the pizza would be over long before the discussion would cool down.

Nice little town, invaded

But today, reality is a bit harder to swallow. There is no PowerPC, or Alpha or even Sparc now. With Oracle owning Sparc’s roadmap, and following what they are doing to Java and OpenOffice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Larry Ellison one day woke up and decided to burn everything down. Now, there are only two major players in the small to huge markets: Intel and ARM. With ARM only being at the small and smaller, it leaves Intel with all the rest.

MacOS is no longer an OS per se. Its underlying sub-system is based on (or ripped off from) FreeBSD (a robust open source unix-like operating system). As it goes, FreeBSD is so similar to Linux that it’s not hard to re-compile Linux application to run on it. So, why should it be hard to run Linux application on MacOS? Well, it’s not, actually. With the same platform and a very similar sub-system, re-compiling Linux application to Mac is a matter of finding the right tools and libraries, everything else follows the natural course.

Now, this is dangerous! Windows has the protection of being completely different, even on the same platform (Intel), but MacOS doesn’t and there’s no way to keep the penguin’s invasion at bay. For the first time in history, Apple has opened its niche to other players. In Apple terms, this is the same as to kill itself.

See, capitalism is all about keeping control of the market. It’s not about competition or innovation, and it’s clearly not about re-distribution of capital, as the French suggested in their revolution. Albeit Apple never fought Microsoft or Linux directly, they had their market well in control and that was the key to their success. With very clever advertising and average quality hardware, they managed to build an entire universe of their own and attract a huge crowd that, once in, would never look back. But now, that bubble has been invaded by the penguin commies, and there’s no way for them to protect that market as they’ve done before.

One solution to rule them all

On a very good analysis of the Linux “dream”, this article suggests that it is dead. If you look to Linux as if it was a company (following the success of Canonical, I’m not surprised), he has a point. But Linux is not Canonical, nor a dream and it’s definitely not dead.

In the same line, you could argue that Windows is dead. It hasn’t grown up for a while, Vista destroyed the confidence and moved more people to Macs and Linux than ever before. The same way, more than 10 years ago, a common misconception for Microsoft’s fan-boys was that the Mac was dead. Its niche was too little, the hardware too expensive and incompatible with everything else. Windows is in the same position today, but it’s far from dead.

But Linux is not a company, it doesn’t fit the normal capitalist market analysis. Remember that Linux hackers are commies, right? It’s an organic community, it doesn’t behave like a company or anything capitalism would like to model. This is why it has been so many times wrongly predicted (Linux is dead, this is the year of Linux, Linux will kill Windows, Mac is destroying Linux and so on). All of this is pure bollocks. Linux growth is organic, not exponential, not bombastic. It won’t kill other platforms. Never had, never will. It will, as it has done so far, assimilate and enhance, like the Borg.

If we had Linux in the French revolution, the people would have a better chance of getting something out of it, rather than letting all the glory (and profit) to the newly founded bourgeoisie class. Not because Linux is magic, but because it embraces changes, expand the frontiers and expose the flaw in the current systems. That alone is enough to keep the existing software in constant check, that is vital to software engineering and that will never end. Linux is, in a nutshell, what’s driving innovation in all other software fronts.

Saying that Linux is dead is the same as saying that generic medication is dead because it doesn’t make profit or hasn’t taken over the big pharma’s markets. It simply is not the point and only shows that people are still with the same mindset that put Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, IBM and now Apple where they are today, all afraid of the big bad wolf, that is not big, nor bad and has nothing to do with a wolf.

This wolf is, mind you, not Linux. Linux and the rest of the open source community are just the only players (and Google, I give them that) that are not afraid of that wolf, but, according to business analysts, they should to be able to play nice with the rest of the market. The big bad wolf is free content.

Free, open content

Free as in freedom is dangerous. Everybody knows what happens when you post on Facebook about your boss being an ass: you get fired. The same would happen if you said it out loud in a company’s lunch, wouldn’t it? Running random software in your machine is dangerous, everybody knows what can happen when virus invade your computer, or rogue software start stealing your bank passwords and personal data.

But all systems now are very similar, and the companies of today are still banging their heads against the same wall as 20 years ago: lock down the platform. 20 years ago that was quite simple, and actually, only the reflection of the construction process of any computer. Today, it has to be actively done.

It’s very easy to rip a DVD and send it to a friend. Today’s broadband speeds allow you to do that quite fast, indeed. But your friend haven’t paid for that, and the media companies felt threatened. They created DRM. Intel has just acquired McAfee to put security measures inside the chip itself. This is the same as DRM, but on a much lower level. Instead of dealing with the problem, those companies are actually delaying the solution and only making the problem worse.

DRM is easily crackable. It has been shown over and over that any DRM (software or hardware) so far has not resisted the will of people. There are far more ingenious people outside companies that do DRM than inside, therefore, it’s impossible to come up with a solution that will fool all outsiders, unless they hire them all (which will never happen) or kill them all (which could happen, if things keep the same pace).

Unless those companies start looking at the problem as the new reality, and create solutions to work in this new reality, they won’t make any money out of it. DRM is not just bad, but it’s very costly and hampers progress and innovation. It kills what capitalism loves most: profit. Take all the money spent on DRM that were cracked a day later, all the money RIAA spent on lawsuits, all the trouble to create software solutions to lock all users and the drop-out rate which happens when some better solution appears (see Google vs. Yahoo) and you get the picture.

Locked down society

Apple’s first popular advertisement was the one mocking Orwell’s 1984 and how Apple would break the rules by bringing something completely different that would free people of the locked down world they lived in. Funny though, how things turned out…

Steve Jobs say that Android is a segmented market, that Apple is better because it has only one solution to every problem. They said the same thing about Windows and Linux, that the segmentation is what’s driving their demise, that everybody should listen to Steve Jobs and use his own creations (one for each problem) and that the rest was just too noisy, too complicated for really cool people to use.

I don’t know you, but for me that sounds exactly like Big Brother’s speech.

With DRM and control of the ApStore, Apple has total freedom to put in, or take out, whatever they want, whenever they want. It has happened and will continue to happen. They never put Flash in iPhones, not because of any technical reason, but just because Steve Jobs doesn’t like it. They’re now taking Java out of the Mac “experience”, again, just for kicks. Microsoft at least put .NET and Silverlight in place, but Apple simply takes out, no replacements.

Oh, how Apple fan-boys like it. They applaud, they defend with their lives, even having no knowledge of why nor even if there is any reason for it. They just watch Steve Jobs speech and repeat, word by word. There is no reason, and those people are sounding every day more dumb than anything else, but who am I to say so? I’m the one out of the group, I’m the one who has no voice.

When that happened to Microsoft in the 90’s, it was hard to take it. The numbers were more like 95% of them and 1% of us, so there was absolutely no argument that would make them understand the utter garbage they were talking about. But today, Apple market is still not big enough, so the Apple fan-boys are indeed making Apple the second biggest company in the world, but they still look like idiots to the rest of the +50% of the world.

Yahoo!’s steps

Yahoo has shown us that locking users down, stuffing them with ads and ignoring completely the upgrade of their architecture for years is not a good patho. But Apple (as did Yahoo) thinks they are invulnerable. When Google exploded with their awesome search (I was at Yahoo’s search team at the time), we had a shock. It was not just better than Yahoo’s search, it really worked! Yahoo was afraid of being the copy-cat, so they started walking down other paths and in the end, it never really worked.

Yahoo, that started as a search company, now runs Microsoft’s lame search engine. This is, for me, the utmost proof that they failed miserably. The second biggest thing Yahoo had was email and Google has it better. Portals? Who need portals when you have the whole web at your finger tips with Google search? In the end, Google killed every single Yahoo business, one by one. Apple is following the same path, locking themselves out of the world, just waiting for someone to come with a better and simpler solution that will actually work. And they won’t listen, not even when it’s too late.

Before Yahoo! was IBM. After Apple there will be more. Those that don’t accept reality as it is, that stuck with their old ideas just because it worked so far, are bound to fail. Of course, Steve Jobs made all the money he could, and he’s not worried. As aren’t David Filo or Jerry Young, Bill Gates or Larry Ellison. And this is the crucial part.

Companies fade because great leaders fade. Communities fade when they’re no longer relevant. the Linux community is still very much relevant and won’t fade too soon. And, by its metamorphic nature, it’s very likely that the free, open source community will never die.

Companies better get used to it, and find ways to profit from it. Free, open content is here to stay, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that. Being dictators is not helping for the US patent and copyright system, not helping for Microsoft or Intel and definitely won’t help Apple. If they want to stay relevant, they better change soon.

The Ubuntu Way

It’s been five years now that I switched from Debian to Ubuntu, primarily for the updated software and radical changes in the user interface, and there are quite a few things that were constant all this time. When on Debian, I always used the unstable branch. It was the obvious choice for a non-mission-critical desktop environment I always needed. But even being unstable, it lacked a bit of risk-taking that made me some times having to compile (or download binary) applications by myself, working around the packaging management system.

With Ubuntu, it’s the exact opposite. The ongoing lack of support for nVidia and ATI boards, PulseAudio and the new Plymouth splash are good examples of major failures on deploying a technology that is yet too young to be in a distribution, especially a Long-Term-Support one. Recent rumours on changing Firefox to Chrome is a more critical change, since the whole community around Firefox (add-ons, plug-ins, bookmarklets, etc) cannot easily be migrated to Chrome or any other major browser. But this is all about the Ubuntu Way.

Identity

Ubuntu, like many other Linux distributions (especially Debian), has built its identity around the OS that most users share. It’s organic, and grows with time and feedback from the users, joined with the directions the “board” is taking in what goes in and what goes out. The original Linux community (back in mid-90’s) was a bit homogeneous in that respect, with most distributions being yet-another-collections-of-packages, be it RPM, DEB, Tar balls or anything else. With time, strong feelings were separating some distributions apart, and specializing others. Debian, for instance, became over preoccupied with license issues (no other than open source was allowed), while RedHat became more enterprise focused, flooded with third-party libraries, commercial products and a licensing scheme that was more like Microsoft than anything else.

Still, within the Debian community, some people (like me) thought that the release schedule was too wide and the licensing issues were too narrow to produce a really helpful desktop replacement for other commercial systems, like MacOS. Indeed, after a few releases, Ubuntu has shown that it can replace them for most uses to most users. I, as a Linux user for so many years, welcomed the ease of use of a MacOS without the lock-downs and lame packaging systems.

But they went further, and decided to be very (very) much the same as Apple. Initially, the Linux way was to offer everything there was available for everything. There were dozens of instant messengers, browsers, picture viewers, consoles, etc, all installed by default (or to pick from a selection of thousands of packages in the installation process), which was a major pain. Recently, Ubuntu has provided an installation process easier than Windows and MacOS, and for every application type, there was only one default option. That is, what has become, the Ubuntu Identity.

Taking Risks

To keep that identity, and still progress as fast as they (and me) would like, one has to take risks. I have to say that, for the most part, they were right on the spot. Some failures (as mentioned) are expected to happen and you are left with the consequences and decision of those risks. For a company with such a tight budget (and such high expectancy), there is little they can do differently. If they had bigger budgets, they could spend more time adapting the proprietary graphic drivers and the update system (that never works on fine-tuned machines), but they don’t. And based on how updates work on Windows and MacOS (ie. they don’t), I’m not surprised with Canonical’s failures.

I like Firefox, ALSA and Pidgin, but if the overall experience is more stable (and complete) with Empathy, Chrome and PulseAudio, so be it. We’re passt the time to complain about personal preferences in favour of a wider viewpoint. I’m too old to rant about how pity is the new splash screen when using ATI proprietary drivers for the time being, I just want to install and run. As long as my VIM is working and there is a browser and an IM to use, I’m happy. I don’t care Gimp is not included by default, I do dislike that GCC is not, but I understand the reasons and always install it first thing when I get a new system.

That’s the Ubuntu identity and the risks Canonical takes to move the desktop experience forward. As unstable Debian people used to say, that’s the risk of being on the edge…

Upgrades never work

So, I stated that upgrades never work for fine-tuned machines, and that has been my experiences until today. In the beginning, I thought it was that Ubuntu was still immature, but today I had to roll-back my Lucid installation I did yesterday for major incompatibility issues, mainly with the ATI proprietary graphic driver (splash and return from sleep).

So far, the only way I can upgrade Ubuntu is by installing a complete new copy of it every time, and apply the backed-up changes in configuration files manually after all is done. It may seem a lot of work, but every time I try to upgrade and every time I end up installing from scratch and applying the few manual tuning later. Now that I know exactly what I have to change and where (after years of doing), it takes me roughly 15 minutes to customize it.

My configuration is in such a state that it takes me zero maintenance and little backup disk space, as well as easy installation process. The magic is simple.

Preparation

This is one thing I recommend to any system, Linux, Windows and MacOS: Split into, at least, two partitions. One, around 50-80 GB, for your system, preferably the first one (primary partition). The other(s), taking up the rest of the hard-drive, for your data/home directories. If using Linux, of course, reserve (at the end), a space for your swap (4GB is more than enough, even if you have that, or more, of RAM). Swap is a safety measure and not to be used under any normal circumstance.

Daily Usage

Backup your home directory often, including personal configuration files, IM history, panel short-cuts, everything. Apart from your data, the rest might give rise to some complications when upgrading the user environment (Gnome, KDE) but that’s minor and can be overcame easily. That will help you in case things go awry in your update/replace process. A cron job or manual invocation to a script is recommended for that.

Also, remember to back up (manually, by copying) every system configuration you change. Because most configuration on Linux is a text file, that part is very easy. It has to be done manually because, as it’s very simple and easy (you shouldn’t change that many configuration files), you can do a detailed comparison between what’s in there and what you want to replace or add. This will be important for your post-update process.

Additionally, any non-essential data can be moved to a shared disk (with appropriated backup), accessible over the network. This way, you not only don’t have to backup all your data (photos, videos, documents) every install (could take days), but they will also be available from other computers while you upgrade your machine, so you can continue working on them as soon as your machine is ready.

Upgrade

Upgrades never work, especially if you have changed the configuration. Some systems evolve and can’t read old configurations properly, new systems won’t read other systems configurations and migration scripts never work properly on modified files. What’s worse, as Ubuntu has its own identity, the new systems will work better (or only work) with other new systems. So the integration between the new systems and your old, changed, systems will most likely fail silently. PulseAudio is the best example of that conflict.

To update, simply re-install the new version from CD (USB, or whatever) into the OS partition. So far, they have managed to make the upgrade to new systems pretty easy, if you discard your old ones. Empathy imports pidgin accounts (and history), all basic systems are properly configured if you do a fresh install. As wireless network passwords, panels, personal short-cuts, and other configurations are stored in your home directory, you just have to log in to see your old desktop, just the way it was.

The few things that aren’t installed (like GCC, VIM, gstreamer plugins) can be easily installed if you have a list of things you always install in a file (in your home dir), like build-essentials, ubuntu-restricted-extras bundles. Printer VPN, printer and share configurations can be easily copied over from your backup as soon as you installed and an apt-get upgrade can be done to get the new stuff since the CD was released.

Roll back

What’s best in this strategy is that roll backs are extremely easy. You can’t roll back a dist-upgrade using apt, but you can safely re-install the previous CD in case it breaks up things so badly it becomes unusable. Like the new Ubuntu, it’s still bad with proprietary graphic drivers and the open source ones are not nearly as good. So I just rolled back and will wait until it stabilises.

Instabilities occur most often in Long-Term-Support releases (like the current). It might seem weird, but it’s pretty simple: they commit to three to five years of support, so they must get new software that will last that time. The lifetime of open source projects is not great (still, longer than many commercial products), but a five year commitment on a software that is already five years old is a big risk. Ext3 and Ext4 filesystems are a good example of this case.

So, instead of providing the stable components, they change radically the interface and sub-systems and wait for them to stabilise, hoping that the production state of the release will remind developers to speed up the fixes. While not optimal to the users, it’s more or less the only way they can go without breaking the promise of support when the application goes dead. This is why enterprise Linux is so expensive, because companies require stability as well as support, and ultimately, the distribution companies will have to maintain some of the dead application for years, if not decades.

Not only roll back is easy, but changing distribution entirely. As your data is distribution agnostic (Linux centric, not package-system centric), you can re-install virtually any other Linux distribution, as many times as you want, and keep the same look and feel.

Conclusion

In summary, it might look more complicated to use and maintain, but it’s not. Once your setup is done (partitions, backup scripts), the rest is pretty easy and quick. So far, I have stubbornly upgraded every release (since 7.04) to make sure it’s still harder than re-installing and it has been the case for every release.

Also, if you have nVidia or ATI graphic boards, never upgrade in less than a month after the release is out. I recommend you upgrade at least two or three months later (mid-releases), as most of the vendors will have updated to match the new Ubuntu Way.

Lastly, as I normally fine-tune my computer, I haven’t had a successful migration of any operating system until today. I always try to upgrade, if available, and end up re-installing everything. That was true with DOS, Linux and Windows, since 1990 and I doubt it’ll change any time soon. It’ll be necessary an intelligent installation process (which our computers are not able to run, yet), to do that.

In the far future, it lies, then.

Humble Bundle

I’m not the one to normally do reviews or ads, but this is one well worth doing. Humble bundle is an initiative hosted by Wolfire studio, in which five other studios (2D Boy, Bit Blot, Cryptic Sea, Frictional Games and the recently joined Amanita Design) joined their award-winning indie games into a bundle with two charities (EFF and Child’s Play) that you can pay whatever you want, to be shared amongst them.

All games work on Linux and Mac (as well as Windows), are of excellent quality (I loved them) and separately would cost around 80 bucks. The average buy price for the bundle is around $8.50, but some people have paid $1000 already. Funny, though, that now they’re separating the average per platform, and Linux users pay, on average, $14 while Windows users pay $7, with Mac in between. A clear message to professional game studios out there, isn’t it?

About the games, they’re the type that are always fun to play and don’t try to be more than they should. There are no state-of-the-art 3D graphics, blood, bullets and zillions of details, but they’re solid, consistent and plain fun. I already had World of Goo (from 2D Boy) and loved it. All the rest I discovered with the bundle and I have to say that I was not expecting them to be that good. The only bad news is that you have only one more day to buy them, so hurry, get your bundle now while it’s still available.

The games

World of Goo: Maybe the most famous of all, it’s even available for Wii. It’s addictive and family friendly, has many tricks and very clever levels to play. It’s a very simple concept, balls stick to other balls and you have to reach the pipe to save them. But what they’ve done with that simple concept was a powerful and very clever combination of physical properties that give the game an extra challenge. What most impressed me was the way physics was embedded in the game. Things have weight and momentum, sticks break if the momentum is too great, some balls weight less than air and float, while others burn in contact with fire. A masterpiece.

Aquaria: I thought this would be the least interesting of all, but I was wrong. Very wrong. The graphics and music are very nice and the physics of the game is well built, but the way the game builds up is the best. It’s a mix of Ecco with Loom, where you’re a sea creature (mermaid?) and have to sing songs to get powers or to interact with the game. The more you play, the more you discover new things and the more powerful you become. Really clever and a bit more addictive than I was waiting for… 😉

Gish: You are a tar ball (not the Unix tar, though) and have to go through tunnels with dangers to find your tar girl (?). The story is stupid, but the game is fun. You can be slippery or sticky to interact with the maze and some elements that have simple physics, which add some fun. There are also some enemies to make it more difficult. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, when it depends more on luck (if you get the timing of many things right in a row) than actually logic or skill. The save style is also not the best, I was on the fourth level and asked for a reset (to restart the fourth level again), but it reset the whole thing and sent me to the first level, which I’m not playing again. The music is great, though.

Lugaru HD: A 3D Lara Croft bloody kung-fu bunny style. The background story is more for necessity of having one than actually relevant. The idea is to go on skirmishing, cutting jugulars, sneaking and knocking down characters in the game as you go along. The 3D graphics are not particularly impressive and the camera is not innovative, but the game has some charm for those that like a fight for the sake of fights. Funny.

Penumbra: If you like being scared, this is your game. It’s rated 16+ and you can see very little while playing. But you can hear things growling, your own heart beating and the best part is when you see something that scares the hell out of you and you despair and give away your hide out. The graphics are good, simple but well cared for. The effects (blurs, fades, night vision, fear) are very well done and in sync with the game and story. The interface is pretty simple and impressively easy, making the game much more fun than the traditional FPS I’ve played so far. The best part is, you don’t fight, you hide and run. It remembers me Thief, where fighting is the last thing you want to do, but with the difference is that in Thief, you could, in this one, you’re a puss. If you fight, you’ll most likely die.

Samorost 2: It’s a flash game, that’s all I know. Flash is not particularly stable on any platform and Linux is especially unstable, so I couldn’t make it run in the first attempt. For me, and most gamers I know, a game has to work. This is why it’s so hard to play early open source games, because you’re looking for a few minutes of fun and not actually fiddling with your system. I have spent more time writing this paragraph than trying to play Samorost and I will only try it again if I upgrade my Linux (in hoping the Flash problem will go away by itself). Pity.

Well, that’s it. Go and get your humble bundle that it’s well worth, plus you help some other people in the process. Helping indie studios is very important for me. First, it levels the play-field and help them grow. Second, they tend to be much more platform independent, and decent games for Linux are scarce. Last, they tend to have the best ideas. Most game studios license one or two game engines and create dozens of similar games with that, in hope to get more value for their money. Also, they tend to stick with the current ideas that sell, instead of innovating.

By buying the bundle you are, at the very least, helping to have better games in the future.

2010 – Year of what?

Ever since 1995 I hear the same phrase, and ever since 2000 I stopped listening. It was already the year of Linux in 95 for me, so why bother?

But this year is different, and Linux is not the only revolution in town… By the end of last year, the first tera-electronvolt collisions were recorded in the LHC, getting closer to see (or not) the infamous Higgs boson. Now, the NIF reports a massive 700 kilojoules in a 10 billionth of a second laser, that, if it continues on schedule, could lead us to cold fusion!!

The human race is about to finally put the full stop on the standard model and achieve cold fusion by the end of this year, who cares about Linux?!

Well, for one thing, Linux is running all the clusters being used to compute and maintain all those facilities. So, if it were for Microsoft, we’d still be in the stone age…

UPDATE: More news on cold fusion

Who’s the amateur now?

Long way ago, when I started using Linux, lots of people laughed at me: “What an absurd! You have to compile your own kernel, what do they want with that? They’ll get nowhere!”. Well, things have changed a bit in the last decade and Linux grew up as a very mature, modern and user-friendly operating system as we (not them) all expected.

OS companies didn’t believe at start but with time Linux became a nuisance, than a problem and now it’s real competition. Not only Linux (or rather GNU/Linux) but all free software and all the free licenses like GPL, FreeBSD, CC, etc. Linux is real business, it’s more stable, faster, better designed and change so much faster than any other OS in existence both for security patches and new features. Lots of companies today contribute to free software without charge or restrictions, just because we gave them so much without charge or restrictions (and it turns out as profit too!).

But last year something I wasn’t expecting happened… The biggest OS company for the last 15 years did a move so stupid that I couldn’t believe. Windows Vista was not an operating system, it was a joke, a *very bad joke* indeed. It reminded me the first upgrades of the first Linux distros back in 94, it was a nightmare.

Well, seems like the free software community learnt a lot about deployment, user interfaces, quality assurance, software development strategies. On the other hand, Microsoft seems a bit amateurish when trying to fix the previous mistakes. Every round it gets worse, I wonder where the good programmers they use to have are now…

Well, better for us, Ubuntu seems to be the new OS of choice for many previous Windows users and with recent Microsoft moves it may become more and more often… Luckily they’ll force everyone out of XP (the last minimally decent thing they did) as they did to Win2000 (the only reasonably decent thing they did) and people will migrate to Ubuntu instead of Vista… Let’s see the outcome by next year…

Sorry Mac users, it’s Linux time!

It has been a while since Linux became more popular among the non-hackers. Projects like Ubuntu, OpenOffice and Firefox really brought the spotlight to Linux as just another option for your desktop, but it’s hard to compete with money-driven brands such as Apple’s Macs. Not anymore!

According to the register, “Versions 2.3 [of the OpenOffice] is available for Windows, Linux, and Solaris, but Mac mavens won’t get an update until sometime next year” [source]. Funnily enough, IBM’s symphony (their office suite) which also uses the same Open Document format as OpenOffice “is available free of charge to Windows and Linux users” [source].

So, now… what about Mac users? Why should they have to wait that much more to have something that is clearly multi-platform and intended to anyone in the world, for free? Is it that more difficult to develop Mac applications? Well, thank god Linux is the best development environment and it may not touch you (if you’re a non-hacker) but the benefits are showing up these days…

It’s time for non-hackers to start thanking us with our complicated Linux boxes because they will be using them (much simpler than we did) in the very near future.

Thanks again, Microsoft!

The first big favour Microsoft did to the Linux community was to delay Windows Vista over and over (and over) again. That put into highlight some Linux distributions such as Ubuntu. Not that it was the only reason, of course but it did help a lot. Ubuntu got many deals, in special with Dell, selling per-installed Ubuntu systems to the general public.

Now it’s even better! They’re (thinking of) using a black screen of death security system that if your copy is not legal it’ll lock your computer and die. Pretty much what used to happen with the previous blue screen of death, only intentional.

It’s a mighty gift, much better than the One Ring to Boromir, it’ll force all people that use pirate copies of Windows (the vast majority) to buy legal copies or crack the system.

Now let’s be serious, how many people you know will actually buy a real copy? If you live in the US, most. In Europe? Some. In the third world countries? One or two… A hack will eventually be available but the more they force people out of piracy the more people will be using Linux, and that’s the best scenario for us, freedom supporters!

They are so dependent in piracy (and they know it) that the less piracy there is, less market they gain, less people the get brainwashed, less of a monopoly the industry becomes, the more freedom we all have… It’s a bless!

Again, thank you very much!

My first Linux virus?

Wandering around my Linux filesystem I found a weird directory in /home …


drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 2007-08-19 12:03 eb588afc0325b12eeb074fd6

Ok, I thought, I didn’t create that. If it’s a virus, it’s the most stupid virus in existence, but, we never know… Then I got inside and see what files it had, and found this:


$ l eb588afc0325b12eeb074fd6/
total 956
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 865822 2007-08-02 21:41 mrt.exe._p
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 96216 2007-08-02 21:34 mrtstub.exe
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root 45057 2007-08-19 12:03 $shtdwn$.req

Mamma mia, if it really is a virus, it’s even more stupid trying to put .exe files in my Linux box! Anyway, The Oracle would know the answer… Searching for mrtstub, the first hit is this page, directly from the enemy’s site. Not too far I found the origin:

mrtstub is part of the Malicious Software Removal Tool. It is responsible
for copying mrt.exe to the correct location and launching it.

Long story short: I have dual boot (which I never use but my son plays sometimes) and my Linux home directory is mounted using an ext3 driver for Windows. Microsoft asked me to install this Malicious Software Removal Tool which I denied 10 times asking every bloody time NEVER TO INSTALL IT IN THE FUTURE until the 11th was my son that wasn’t even asked but turned it off as he always do and Microsoft stealthily installed this piece of crap in my computer.

That’s enough, I’ll spend a fiver and buy a cross-over software to run my son’s games on Linux and remove this crap out of my computer once and for all.