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For the sake of the Linux Desktop: forget about Linux.

There is no such thing as “Linux” as an operating system. Yet we all think we’re marching under the same banner when we’re clearly not. Between desktop environments, package managers, display managers and the rest, we’re a highly uncoordinated bunch. If anyone from the outside should dare ask for a consistent response, they’re greeted with everything from hand-holding to cold shrugs, from slaps on the back to slaps in the face.

I am not proposing that we as techies forget about Linux, nor that we let individual projects’ managers and leaders forget about the community and their Open Source Free Software roots – but to recognize that whilst for us “Linux” is a selling point, for the masses that drive adoption and support, the label “Linux” is a big turn-off.

From a technologists’ standpoint, when we talk about Linux, we all generally know what we mean: a kernel that forms the core of a vast series of operating systems, of which Android which isn’t a GNU/Linux but is nonetheless powered by the Linux kernel.

For persons outside of the tech-sphere, the concept of “Linux” is at best a moot point, if not an actual source of confusion. Numerous times, we’ve tried to explain what “distro” means and why there are different “desktop environments,” whilst applications are downloaded by “package managers” from “repositories”… all of this heavily discussed in “the community.”

The Curse of Choice

For us techies, choice is good. In Linux-land, choice is sacred. To us, choice is Freedom.

To the average person, choice is Hell.

Distro flame wars aside, there’s the obvious fractioning of the developer community. Some develop for KDE, some for GNOME, some independently. Some have packaged for DEB whilst RPM riders have to get the tarball. Arch always gets a tarball. Notifications and panel icons aren’t always there in all desktop environments. And all the varieties.

Even if you try to not stray far and stay on “the most popular distro for newbies” a.k.a. Ubuntu, you still have Lubuntu, Xubuntu and Kubuntu confusion, with Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian, each with Cinnamon and MATE flavours, close behind. Newbie asks how to change their desktop and are asked in return “what desktop environment are you using?” The newbie answers, “I dunno, it’s blue, I want it to be pink.”

Try telling Average Joe that Manjaro (Xfce), CentOS (GNOME 2), Ubuntu (Unity) and Chrome OS (Chrome) are all Linux whilst merrily swapping through screenshots. They’ll ask you what tea you’ve been snorting. Kinda like showing up at a botanists’ convention and being told that apples, hazelnuts and tomatoes are all fruit, broccoli and artichokes are actually flowers, and that all of them are, indeed, classified under “Vegetable.” The geeks know this. The rest of us model the ecosystem in a very different way.

Hand holding

The other issue is the consistent inability for techies to grasp the very idea that installing a new OS is fraught with danger and uncertainty for a non-tinkerer. Consumers have heard that Linux is hard. They’ve heard it doesn’t run Windows. (Or Windows applications). They’ve heard it might void their warranty. We reassure them that it isn’t hard, to try it, and next thing you know they’ve hosed their data, their printer can’t be found right in front of them and what’s all that scary text on the screen?

And yet we repeatedly see the technology blogs preaching to the choir, “Why DistroX is great replacement for Windows XP” with that chipper encouragement to “give it a go” — like the kind of person who would keep XP for so long would know exactly what to do after reading the article!

There have been plenty of stories in forums, podcasts and so forth where so-and-so managed to put their grandma on Linux Mint and she loved it; or moved their dad to Ubuntu on Unity, so what’s the fuss; or the uber-geek who moved their wife onto a Gentoo or Arch setup and with them at the ready to help, their loved one was absolutely fine. Those are, no doubt, great wins on individual levels, but is kind of a moot point on their own, and still collectively amount to little much than a pat-on-the-head level of success.

But then there are the bigger, more ambitious goals: the City of Munich famously distributing Ubuntu 12.04 CDs for free in the public libraries was one. Whilst the City successfully completed their migration with a host of consultants and internal IT technicians, out in the town, how many people knew what to do with these Ubuntu CDs? Free coasters? Pocket-mirrors to store in your glove compartment? Arts and crafts projects? And did all the gendarmes in France start coming home declaring “ma chérie! I am going to replace the Windows on our PC with Linux?” Mais oui bien sûr, Maurice.

Any time you point out how difficult it is for the average user to install Linux, thousands of commenters are poised at the ready to tell you how easy it is. And I concur that, for me and you, it is dead simple. For grandad and the arts major who pointedly shied away from the school ICT course, installing a new OS is a big freaking deal.

The enthusiasts who are dead set on convincing us that it’s easy have never actually sat down and talked to an actual user. No doubt they’ve gone and done the install for them, and heard “oh it wasn’t so hard then!” after they had gone and done all the hard work.

In reality, if you were to leave an average user to do the switch on their own, you’d need to write a complete manual, many pages long. And that’s just to install the system. There’s a fair amount of IT to be learned before you can go thwack your PC with a new OS. You’ll probably find after a few weeks that Windows is still on their computer and the manual has found its useful place levelling a table leg.

Seriously, have you ever tried to have the conversation about replacing someone’s desktop with Linux when they’re not a close acquaintance and you’re not going to be on hand at their every issue?

Sure there’s a fantastic community out there – of techies speaking techno-babble.

Even in AskUbuntu which is supposed to be the forum of the “most popular distro” (read: the distro that has the lowest skill barrier for entrance) the speak there rapidly becomes super-technical for anyone who hasn’t tried to understand their computer before.

Forget that it’s “Linux”

Ubuntu has dropped the word “Linux” from its name and I don’t think it’s that bad a thing. Sure Free Software purists will be railing against their decisions on Convenience over Freedom, but face it: even when we do away with the ethical and philosophical discussion, getting people to switch from one technology to another, core technology that changes everything about they way they operate on a practical level, introduces a whole load of issues and fears, and just saying “you’re freer” will win you not votes.

Most people are actually absolutely fine with “software Freedom” and would gladly shy away from lock-in and software slavery dungeons of Windows and OS X – but if it means they’re out in the cold of Fedora or Trisqel to fend for themselves in a world they were never brought up in, they’re most gladly consciously choose their old masters. When you’re a slave of the castle, you can either keep serving or run away into the wilderness, hoping you have enough survival skills to patch wounds and pick the right berries, let alone stay safe from the wolves and the natural elements around you.

For me, Ubuntu (or rather, Xubuntu) is [an] answer. Ubuntu just being “Ubuntu OS” allows provider companies something to home in on. Those of us riding all manner of Linux – Fedora, Arch, Trisqel and the likes – can deal with hardware intricacies, repackaging Ubuntu-oriented packages and such; let software authors just focus on supporting “Ubuntu Linux” (and let’s ensure they do it as Open Source if not Free Software); and let members of the general public the option to say “I’m running Ubuntu.”

By letting average users just think in terms of a coherent brand, we can move them to a platform that prepares them that much more for Freedom, and improves the state of support for Linux as a whole, removing over time the practical barriers to adoption. Imagine the state of consumer desktops where Ubuntu has mostly replaced Windows, and where the average user still doesn’t know they’re using Linux. Imagine Canonical does something…. rash and unethical. The move from Ubuntu to Mint, CentOS or OpenSUSE is so much easier to do both from a “sell” point and a practical point of view, because we’re not switching the ecosystem. And to average users, this is seamless. There are no questions about supported apps or document compatibility.

Saying “I have an Ubuntu” allows us to know that it’s consumer. After all, we don’t ask Mac users to recognise they are running BSD, nor Windows users to know that their “NT kernel” is insecure.

Running “Linux” is still (and will probably always remain) a badge of technical honour. Saying one is running “Ubuntu Linux” is still running Ubuntu as a technician. Just let the average person have their plain “Ubuntu” and be happy.

Sony Walkman MTP workarounds…

This post answers the questions:

  • What is MTP (Media Transfer Protocol)?
  • How can I manage files on my media device by simply copying files?
  • How do I manage a MTP USB device through the file manager on Linux?
  • How do I use jmptfs?

So… I’ve just gone and bought a little Sony Walkman Series B and was looking forward to trying it out on my Xubuntu 14.04 install with Clementine.

The Walkman Series B comes with an integrated USB connector for transfer and recharging, which I plugged into a USB 3.0 port. Alas, rather than using a common interface such as the block file system, the device uses the Media Transfer Protocol only interface.

Media Transfer Protocol is a way that a device such as a phone, camera or music player can show itself to the computer, and generally requires special software to add/remove files to. To wit:

Problem #1 – after double-clicking the desktop icon, it took a few seconds to mount, during which I double-clicked it again (thinking my taps on the touchpad may have been too light…) and was presented with a “could not mount” error. Ouch. But it mounted after that.

Problem #2 – it was not mounted as a block device (read: regular hard disk) but as a MTP transfer. Maybe it’s Thunar, or maybe it’s an inherent limitation in the protocol, but this did not allow me to move/add/delete files at all.

Problem #3 – After firing up Clementine, it seems the device was detected as practically full. I had a number of Clementine crashes over my various attempts at copying files from my library over as well. Ghastly procedure.

Workaround – after doing a little bit of reading up, I found that the most seamless solution was to mount the device as a block file system by way of an added library called “jmtpfs” installed following the incantation

sudo apt-get install jmtpfs

Now you can use the command line to mount and unmount the first MTP device found using various commands. I opted to create a script to do this for me: I created a script in my ~/bin directory (which is already in my path) called “mmtpfs” containing:

#! /bin/bash

MTPMAIN=~/mmtpfs
MTPDIR=$MTPMAIN/$2

if [ "${1}k" = '-mk' ]; then
    mkdir -p $MTPDIR
    jmtpfs $MTPDIR
elif [ "${1}k" = '-uk' ]; then
    fusermount -u $MTPDIR
    rmdir $MTPDIR # only removes end directory if empty
    rmdir $MTPMAIN
else
    echo Help:
    cat << EOT
Mount the first MTP device to ~/media/MOUNTDIR

Only specify the name of a directory as MOUNTDIR

Mount device:
    $0 -m MOUNTDIR

Unount device:
    $0 -u MOUNTDIR
EOT
fi

Now I can just open the terminal and type

mmtpfs -m sony

To mount the device or

mmtpfs -u sony

to unmount the device. I might make a Zenity script and a .desktop entry to make it even easier to manage should I have to add this to a user’s configuration.

Manjaro and the AUR

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I’ve been working with Manjaro in a VM for a few weeks, which I use on my work laptop — I don’t want ot have my personal files and browsing history directly inside my work environment, so the VM stands in as my “home” machine when at work.

I’ve also given a friend an old laptop of mine on which I installed Manjaro 0.8.8 and for the most part, I think it has been fine (I checked up with her later, and she still didn’t have any help questions for me, so far so good then…)

Mostly, Manjaro works great out of the box. However there is one area I feel is not quite as smooth from an end-user perspective: the AUR. Read more

Running Krita on a Mac using WineBottler

Screen Shot 2014-03-08 at 16.39.13

Calligra Krita, developed by KO Gmbh, has finally made it onto Windows! It’s a dedicated digital painting application best used with an artist tablet, more specialized than Photoshop or GIMP, with a focus on producing digital painting, options for comic layouts and all manner of tools.

Born in the Free Software community and available initially only on Linux, its Windows port is very welcome… but leaves Mac users out in the cold.

I decided to see if I could get Krita for Windows to work on a Mac, since Macports and Homebrew do not seem to carry it in their repos, and the last version on Fink was updated for OS X 10.6.

It was mostly a success, but unfortunately I was unable to get pressure sensing from my Wacom Bamboo CTL470 in the Krita app. I’m not sure if it’s just my device that doesn’t play well with Wine or if it’s a general issue… For the record, it works fine with Krita in Windows in VirtualBox.

The following are instructions on how to get Krita to run on a Mac using WineBottler. If anybody could determine what the final missing piece is, I’d be very appreciative! Read more

RedHat’s EULA restrictions and the GPLv2

I’ve been trying to figure out whether RedHat’s restrictions of redistribution of their binary has legal basis (I’m pretty sure it does, it’s an elephant in the proverbial room), but I wanted to be sure, know it as fact.

I’ve been poring over the GPLv2 that many have been using, including RedHat, as well as the GPLv3 which is the latest as of the time of writing, trying to figure this one out since nobody seems to have published anything clear on the matter.

RedHat’s EULA (end user license agreement) reads:

WHILE THIS LICENSE AGREEMENT ALLOWS YOU TO COPY, MODIFY AND DISTRIBUTE THE SOFTWARE, IT DOES NOT PERMIT YOU TO DISTRIBUTE THE SOFTWARE UTILIZING RED HAT’S TRADEMARKS

This is a point of contention that has been raised many times – searching “redhat gpl violation” brings up a number of locations in which community members have claimed that RedHat violates GPLv2 by imposing this additional “clever” restriction.

Read more

Why replace Windows with Linux?

There are important things to consider before undertaking the task of replacing Windows with Linux, which will save you time and energy further down the line.

Are you a technical user yourself?

If so, I’m assuming you’re doing this for yourself – great! I’m sure you are as excited as the next Linux geek to be doing this, and that you’ve thought out your own reasons. Far from me to stop you.

Are you a non-technical user?

If you are looking to make the jump from Windows to Linux, may I firstly say, congratulations on the choice! Secondly, however, please note a few of things beforehand:

  • Linux is not Windows. Normally, you cannot run exactly the same programs you did as you used under Windows – namely the most popular Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and Internet Explorer, or any other software intended for Windows only.
  • Linux does however provide some tools to try and force Windows applications to run, but it’s not foolproof – Internet Explorer can be made to run, and some have had success getting Microsoft Office to be usable. Adobe Suite has proven problematic.
  • The best thing to do, however, is to use their Free Software equivalents: LibreOffice in lieu of MS Office (note that LibreOffice is available for WIndows too!), Firefox in lieu of Internet Explorer; and the GNU Image Manipulation Program (aka The GIMP) in lieu of Photoshop.
  • There are myriad other programs, readily and Freely available to you on secure online software repositories, accessible straight from your computer’s software manager. Some of them, like LibreOffice, are available to you on Windows too, but most are Linux-only!
  • You may want to have a technically savvy person help you during your switch over time, as you will doubtless have many questions. Having a helping hand is always beneficial, and migrating incorrectly might cause you to loose data. Again, Linux is not Windows, and whilst it should be easy for you to use once installed, you need to have a lengthy talk about what the differences actually are.

Are you migrating a non-technical user?

Here be dragons. Before you migrate them, you have to absolutely clear that

  • they will not be getting Windows. Even with Wine, programs they used under Windows will not always run perfectly
  • they will be getting a whole new system, that runs a ton of other programs, some of which very similar to the Windows programs they’re used to

Also, this is a conversation to have at length with them – not something to be telling them as you insert the installer DVD into the drive. It will be such a change for them that it’ll be as strenuous a decision as to whether to move homes – minus the money, but with all other practical considerations, in terms of change.

Remember also that with non-rolling releases, you will need to reinstall the OS from time to time, so ongoing maintenance is to be considered. Most pertinently, make sure you do separate the /home directory to a new partition.

What about Mac OS X?

Apple are a tricky bunch. They’re making sure nobody other than them can fully support an alternative OS on the machines they build, so at the current point in time, switching a Mac to Linux is a bit more involved… Read more

Ubuntu Community Council Still Vague About Derivatives’ Licensing

A few months back, Clément Lefebvre of the Linux Mint project hinted at ongoing discussions about licensing access to binaries from Canonical – and a lot of speculation arose around this, but beyond Clem’s initial statement, and DistroWatch’s Jessie Smith’s insight, we haven’t heard anything official until Thursday 13th Feb, when the Ubuntu Community Council issued a statement on the matter:

http://fridge.ubuntu.com/2014/02/13/community-council-statement-on-canonical-package-licensing/

(For those who are confused about how binaries might be withheld when source code is free: see my notes lower down.)

KDE and Kubuntu blogger and developer Jonathan Riddell posted a piece stating that no derivatives of Kubuntu would need to pay a license: http://blogs.kde.org/2014/02/14/no-licence-needed-kubuntu-derivative-distributions

At the same time Silviu Stahie posts on Softpedia an article stating that derivatives do have to pay: http://news.softpedia.com/news/Canonical-Explains-Why-Linux-Mint-and-All-Other-Distros-Must-Sign-a-License-Agreement-426770.shtml

Confused by this, I went and read the council’s statement, and found that the meat of the text is in only a couple of sentences:

“Canonical already provides a license for the use of these [trademarks] to the Ubuntu project and all of its distributions, including Ubuntu itself as well as those flavors that are developed in collaboration with it.”

So far so good: a trademark license agreement is in place at Canonical, and the official distro and all the official derivatives are granted it.

“We believe there is no ill-will against Linux Mint, from either the Ubuntu community or Canonical and that Canonical does not intend to prevent them from continuing their work, and that this license is to help ensure that. What Linux Mint does is appreciated, and we want to see them succeed.”

And this part simply says that they appreciate what the Mint project is doing. Nowhere does it say that Mint has been granted license of the binaries, nor does it say license is being revoked or granted, nor that payment is being demanded at all, nor whether they are foregoing the idea of fees.

In essence, the communication says nothing decisive – only that a license regarding trademarks exists, and that it needs to be granted, but not whether payment must be made. It doesn’t even say whether any agreement has been reached.

The way I read it, it’s a call to the community to say “tone down your nattering whilst we sort this out, and stop making assumptions about what we’re thinking before we even have a chance to say something. Give us time to agree amongst ourselves first.” Too many cooks and all that.

If Canoncial did decide to charge licensing, would this request be legal?

Regardless of the trademarks (which I don’t think are surreptitiously disseminated amongst the packes in the repos, that’s just “conspiracy theory” as far as I can tell), the question remains for many as to whether Canonical even has the right to require payment.

The GPL and similar licenses require the source code of a program to be provided, but does not prevent anyone from selling their compiled binary. A purchaser of the binary can then go on to distribute this to others free of charge (providing they have the corresponding source code too) – so even if a derivative were made to pay a license fee to its parent distro, it could subsequently re-distribute the binary to users for free.

Alternatively, it could simply take the Free source and compile and host it in their own repository, but that is costly in both time and hardware, so it’s handy for all the derivatives to be able to use Canonical’s repos directly.

If Canonical were to decide to request payment for accessing their binaries directly from their servers (a service) even while the sources of the software are Free, that could undermine the derivate projects, if only for a while, until a Ubuntu-compatible independent repo were created, that is, a repo which took the sources and repacked them for Ubuntu-based distros.

But from a binary-licensing standpoint, I see no legal issue in Canonical doing this. Let;s see how it all plays out.

Read more in the GNU GPL FAQ.

About that: Growing the Desktop Linux Community

I have a great interest in growing Desktop Linux as a community – being able to learn about the system and do all sorts of things with it is fine and dandy, but when you still have to deal with the Real World that uses closed source systems en masse, you find that your system is still a fringe consideration, not worthy of time and investment by others, with vendors only making software for the closed systems, and your knowledge only has limited use when helping your peers with desktop problems. I like helping my peers with the knowledge that I gain. And I’m sure that people I help are happy to have someone who can help them.

Over at OStatic, Jon Buys has written a piece calling on the community to stop bickering and getting into flame wars, and start bringing productive input to the table, so as to make the Linux Community a welcoming and intelligent place. I couldn’t agree more. But that alone will not swell our numbers. Read more

Mounting Drives in Linux

Byte City

Mounting drives in Linux is a task that sometimes needs to be performed when the auto-mounting mechanism doesn’t apply, and for neophytes can be challenging. The forums are replete with problems about mounting drives, the system not mounting drives upon plugging in the USB or inserting a CD, and permissions confusions.

The following post aims to explain as many parts of the manual process as reasonable, covering the /dev folder, mount and umount commands, fstab, umask and some particularities on filesystems and newly created disks.

The topic is fairly heavy, with many offshoot topics, and I want to keep this post as straight-to-the-task as possible, so a lot of the explanations will urge you to look up info elsewhere if you want more in-depth discussion. Generally, doing a web search on the name in underlined italics will be sufficient. I also use bold text for example snippets that you’ll need to replace, and pink text for text you would type at the command line, with green monospace text reserved for output.

Questions answered

  • How do I mount my USB key in Linux?
  • Why does my USB always mount as root?
  • How do I automatically mount a drive in Linux?
  • Why can’t I write to my USB in Linux?
  • How do I use the mount command?

Read more

Choosing your GNU/Linux Distro

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Most of the time, the differences between one distro and another aren’t so important – most distros work the same as one another, which we are swift to be reminded of when asking “what’s the best distro for beginners?”

But what about drilling deeper into that question and instead asking, “what are the key differentiating factors between desktop distros?”

Here’s the list of things I consider, when deciding whether to take the time to download and install, or recommend, a distro.

This post aims to answer the questions:

  • What’s the best distro for new Linux users?
  • How do I know what Linux distro is right for me?
  • What are the main differences between Linux distros?
  • What Linux distros are backed by companies?

Read more