Thursday, 28 January 2010

Distro choices - hinderance or handy?

I remember the first time that I considered putting Linux on my home machine, my main problem was: which one? I had heard about Linux previously, but I had no idea which to choose from, where to start or even who to ask. In my lack of knowledge I actually believed that there was an operating system called Linux and the rest were simply copies.

After a year trying several different distros and complaining that there was 'Too much choice' I have now completely changed my opinion on this. The choice is what keeps us interested. I never thought of an operating system as being aimed at a specific user.

Ubuntu is clearly one of the most popular distros, mainly due to the fact that a lot works 'out of the box' with little need for any major setup if you do not wish to do so. For the casual user, Ubuntu is simple to use, has a lot of software in the repos, is generally the best known Linux distro and is one of the best supported with loads of forums and magazines appearing on the shelves of many newsagents.

Although I personally did not use Ubuntu for long, I have to admit that it is central to the growth of Linux. It is pointless giving a casual user a Gentoo disc and asking them to give it a try. So not everybody likes Ubuntu, there are plenty of other options for newbie users: PCLinuxOS, Pardus, Mepis, Mint and probably a thousand others I won't name. But the fact of the matter is that the Ubuntu community is growing, Dell have started to sell laptops with an Ubuntu os installed, and the support whether in magazine form or online is probably the best Linux has to offer.

For the users with some experience looking to continue their distro development we have Debian and Fedora as the two main candidates. Debian, which Ubuntu is built on, prides itself on stability. Again this is good for the casual users as they do not need to do much once it is setup and crashes are very rare as the software is very well tested. However this means that users do not get to experience the 'latest and greatest' technologies, but if people are happy with this then it is not a problem.

Fedora is on the other end of the spectrum. It still appeals to mainstream users, however the Fedora team as quite happy to include a lot of testing and beta releases in their main distros. I personally have found Fedora very easy to setup and test, but also quite easy to download an unstable program and wreak havoc on your system.

OpenSUSE seems to be more geared towards office workers, however one thing that the development team have done well with is their implementation of KDE. Should you wish to try out KDE there are few distros that do it better than OpenSUSE. I personally have no experience of Mandriva, but my mates have told me that it is aimed at the programmers among us, a bit more coding and command line functions are used than in the mainstream distros.

Studio 64 caters for the users interested in multimedia, Supergamer and aims for those who have left the old system, but still remain fun loving. However it is worth pointing out that Linux is an age behind other operating systems when it comes to games, all the major releases are for consoles or win, however very few get ported to Linux.

Myth TV is a distro that is designed to be connected to the TV rather than on a desktop. For those of us in the UK it is similar to our Sky+ as it allows the user to pause and rewind live TV, on the plus side you can then also play games, watch video files, listen to music files. However it is difficult to setup initially: you have been warned.

Then there are the power users, easy to spot as they never like anything 'out of the box' everything must be tweaked and I have to put myself into that category. These do not usually come with much pre-installed software, but it allows the user to be in complete control.

Arch is a good place to start if you wish to build your own distro. Some may argue for the packages Ubuntu and SUSE have produced but these are mainly graphical interfaces and won't get you used to the internal workings of a Linux system or using the command line. Arch ships with a small (128MB I think) liveCD that drops the user into the command line. Setup your network and start building up your very own distro using Pacman, not the game, but Arch package manager. It is not difficult to build up your own distro with Arch, the guidelines on the website are very clear and comprehensive, but should not be tried by an inexperienced newbie.

If others want a bit more of a challenge then Linux From Scratch (LFS), Gentoo or Slackware all rise to the occasion. All need a lot of research and sound knowledge of the Linux system and competent command line use. Trust me, it is so much easier to have a laptop beside you when building one of these distros as you may need quite a bit of help.

As I said at the start, I honestly believed that the number of Linux distros available was not a good thing. To a newbie, it confused me, I didn't know where to start, I was diving into the unknown and the problem was I couldn't decide which unknown path to follow.

However after a few years of experience I would be very sad if the Linux distros started to disappear. I would recommend anybody start at Ubuntu, if they are casual users simply wanting to surf the net and write a few letters then don't move. It is a stable operating system with a lot of support. But, if like me, you want to explore then Linux offers the best virtual safari of operating systems. There are thousands of Linux distros: you may not like some, you may love others, but guaranteed there is something for everyone and that is one of the key strengths of Linux operating systems.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Open Source could help

Whilst I am a Linux user, I'm also a realist, I do not think that everybody will simply dump windows and move over to Linux. However I am a firm believer that open source should be a major factor in everybody's business plan. Do people actually know what open source software is. For those of us not 'in the know' open source software is free software that allows others to view its code and modify it as they please, it is not subject to copyright. This means that in a community like the Linux family the program is looked at and modified, usually on the suggestion of users on a forum, and then released in testing modes, meaning that this is not the finished product, but rather the modified program and the users are testing the program to see how it works. The final release is usually referred to as the stable release. But I'm wavering.

Think of a program that is on just about every PC in the country: ms office. There is a perfectly good open source alternative in Open Office. In my experience, showing ms office users the Open Office suite they are able to use it without any problems. Why, in a climate where everybody is looking to cut costs, is dumping ms office in favour of Open Office never even mentioned?

As I said there are no complaints from those that have used both, to be honest for the majority of users all they will ever need is available in the Open Office suite. Imagine every council in the country dumping ms office for it's open source equivalent; what a saving in software licensing alone. Not to mention the future generations.

Word processing is not the only place where savings can be made. GIMP is the best that open source has to offer. It is used for photo editing and is a realistic alternative to Adobe Photoshop, but look on Amazon how much this is compared to the FREE GIMP.

Inkscape is a great vector graphics program that is very similar to both CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator. Edit your pictures in GIMP and combine them and add text and shapes in Inkscape.

For html editing an easy to use open source program is Kompozer (NVU in windows) or for the more experienced user Bluefish is a fantastic editor but is for the seasoned pro.

Playing around with sound files, then Audacity will probably do everything that you need. Play a media file, look no further than VLC.

I am not saying that everything is better in open source, I am simply saying that people need to be made aware of the option. For the majority of schools and colleges the open source versions will do more than they need with the added bonus that they do not need a site license.

Open source is not the answer to every problem, it will not bring world peace or end hunger. However it could prove to be a major factor in the rebuilding of our fragile economy, all the programs that I've mentioned are cross platform ie they will work in windows and Linux. If every council in the country simply moved to open office then we would have a lot more budget to spend on health, education and roads. It would be a major step to educating our future generations about the benefits of open source.

Friday, 22 January 2010 use it or lose it is, on the surface, just another micro blogging site that has already seemed to have lost the battle, along with all the others, to twitter. When it launched on July the first 2008, it was plugged widely by a lot of people, mainly in the Linux community. However it was only, in reality, at a testing stage and the actual release should have been delayed. A lot of user initially signed up but after a few too many bugs in the system left for greener pastures.

But after several improvements and a much more stable product, users are a bit slow to come back. However has several major points going for it that should see it sticking around for a while yet.

It is an open source piece of software. Unlike twitter,'s code is completely open and free to the whole community to modify and manipulate as they see fit. Yeah so what? I'm not a programmer, I can hear some of you say, well true enough you may not be able to change the coding yourself but that is why bug reports and forums are so popular today. Coders are able to listen to the users so that alterations can be made and then tested before a stable release, this process is a lot quicker than trying to contact a large company, who usually sub let these programming tasks to other companies.

Secondly, because it is relatively small in comparison to twitter, a lot of companies do not have much of a presence on the site, except maybe a token group which never gets posted on. But this is also to's advantage, this means that there is far less spam posts. I had the (dis)pleasure of a twitter account for a short month of my life, on average I received twenty posts a day without being a member of any groups: car insurance, loans, anything but actual communication from a human micro-blogger. This is very similar to the windows/Linux arguement about viruses: I'm not naive enough to believe that they can't exist in Linux, there just aren't enough users to make it worth their while.

Thirdly there is a real sense of community in that really appeals to a Linux minded user. Not all the talk is geek chat, however you can ask almost any technical question and the users are more than happy to try and help. You feel like you are part of it, not simply using a piece of software, but a major part of a friendly community.

I know it is not for everyone, but what gets me annoyed is when I hear Linux users slag off and then proudly claim they use the better and more polished twitter. I have listened to a couple of Linux podcasts lately where has been the target of some slagging whilst at the same time hearing several mentions to the podcasts twitter group. We have a great open source based program, a fairly close community (which at the end of the day is what Linux is all about) and we don't have the annoyances of spam. If the Linux community in general does not support, it's target audience, then it will be a thing of the past and we'll be forced to look elsewhere. Spread the word, tell a friend, it's amazing how many Linux users still have not heard of or used Micro blogging has a place in modern society, lets keep an active player.