STATIC DISCLAIMER: All the stuff in here is purely my opinions, and they tend to change depending on what mood I'm in. If you're going to get bitter if I say something about you that you don't like, then maybe don't read. I avoid using names as much as possible, and would request that people who know me do the same in their comments. Basically, I often vent my frustrations on here, so if you happen to be someone who frustrates me, expect to read a description of someone very much like you in here!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Linux on the Dektop, and Open Office

So two things happened today that related to linux and open source software, so I thought I should blog about this, seeing its got me thinking. Please note, that I'm wasting time I could spend gaming to write this (kids in bed, wife at a party) so please feel incredibly privileged.

Part 1: Desktop Linux

So the first thing that happened is a few days back I decided to hunt out a linux distro, and setup a virtual machine. I thought it was about time I got some good solid linux experience, and with all these proponents of desktop linux constantly making noise on various interweb forums, I thought it was time I gave it a good solid try. So I did a search for some distros that might offer me the kind of facility I was looking for - that is, a good desktop environment. A couple of Google searches brought up Xandros linux, and Freespire linux - both which seeed to have the kind of features I might be looking for. I was aware of a few distos (Ubuntu, Red Hat, Yellow Dog) but wanted to look at something that really was aimed at being a desktop for the average joe.

First thing I discovered is that contrary to popular belief, linux is not all free, as in beer. At least, some linux distributions are, and others aren't. I knew that you had to pay for Red Hat on disc, but I thought that was more about it being on a disc then actually needing to pay for the software. It seems funny that software that has basically been crowdsourced over many years can then be profited on simply by throwing in some value add (eg: Freespire includes codecs for common proprietary media formats)
(Edit: I've since been shown that Freespire is in fact one of the free distrobutions - I just was looking in the wrong place.)

Not wanting to pay for the above-mentioned distros, I went back to what I knew: Ubuntu. I've heard several people talk about Ubuntu in a favorable light, and I'm not exactly a novice, so I'm sure I can work it out. So Ubuntu it was. I set about to downloading it, which finished late in the afternoon. I decide to leave it overnight, which then brings us to today.

So I set myself up a virtual machine with a reasonable amount of RAM, and capture the downloaded Ubuntu ISO file to boot the machine. I'm greeted with a menu offering me several options, one of which is "Install Ubuntu". Sounds great. I hit enter on that one. After half a second of thinking, the VM reports a processor error. Ah - OK, probably a graphics issue with the VM. I remember from a previous attempt with Mandrake years ago that sometimes video drivers are tricky. So I hit F4 and select safe video. Same result.

Because this will be very long if I type it all out, basically after literally hours of searching and trying different things, here's what I had to do to get it to boot:

  • On the CD boot screen, hit F4 and choose safe video. Then hit F6 and edit the boot commands. Add "noreplace-paravirt forcevesa vga=791" to the boot options. Then choose to Try Ubuntu from the CD.
  • Once it booted into the GUI, choose the Install icon.
  • When the install finished, restart and quickly press ESC as grub was starting
  • Select the default installation item, and press 'e' for edit. Select the kernal options and press 'e' again. Add "noreplace-paravirt forcevesa vga=791" and then press ESC, and then 'b' to boot.
  • Once loaded, open a command prompt and type "sudo gedit /boot/grub/menu.lst". Enter password. Add above mentioned command again at the appropriate location. Save this file.
  • Open terminal, backup xorg.conf (sudo cp /etc/X11/xorg.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.BAK) and then make some substantial edits to get the resolution to function at 1024x768 at 16bpp. This, btw, still isn't working.
  • Still in terminal, sudo gedit... a file I now forget, to add an initialisation string to get the sound to work.

Is anyone else seeing why linux is SOOOOOOOO not up to desktop OS standard for average Joe user??? I'm using a VM that presents the guest OS with really basic standard hardware, and the amount of difficulty it has just dealing with it is colossal. I'm still playing around trying to get it to function as I'm typing this. I've now given up on it ever displaying a reasonable resolution and am just trying to get it to start in 800x600 which seems to be its default. And at the moment, it STILL WON'T DO IT. As soon as I log in, my desktop goes all badness.

Part 2: The parent

So today, I get a call from a parent of some students at the school. He says he has two questions for me, and the first is quickly resolved to be that the reason his email to a teacher is bouncing is because he's missing a character from the email address. Awesome, sorted. What's the second issue?

The second issue comes about like this: His child had been given an assessment task at school to create a PowerPoint presentation. Now, at home this guy tells me he avoids Microsoft products like the plague - so they have a Mac, and a couple of machines running Linux, and they use OpenOffice. They may have had a copy of Microsoft Office, I'm not sure, because he did seem to mention it a bit - however, for whatever reason, his child had done their presentation in Impress - the equivalent of PowerPoint.

Hey, I hear you say, but that's no problem - OpenOffice is 100% compatible with Microsoft Office document formats!


You see, it appears Impress has at least one "improved" feature on PowerPoint, and that's the ability to record a narration that runs across the entire presentation, whereas PowerPoint wants you to do it slide-by-slide. Anyway, the point is that this child elected to do their project in a different product, and now, it doesn't work right when he brings it to school.

So what did the parent do? Gave the child a USB stick full of open source software to run on the school computers, so that they can present their project in something other then the proscribed software. Ah. OK then. Well, no harm done I guess. Not that I'm 100% comfortable with a parent undermining our best efforts to give their child a stable and consistent computing platform. We wouldn't want that whole "good management" and "consistency" thing getting in the way of the general anti-MS crusade.

However, the reason for his call wasn't just to tell me this. It was to make the argument that seeing as how Open Office is free and all, and doesn't require your stereotypical Windows install (registry entries, etc.), why don't we just provide it? He said "Couldn't you just put it on a server somewhere there?" Now, for me this was a little bit startling, and started a discussion between him and me that I found a bit disconcerting - primarily, because he wanted me to defend my viewpoint somewhat, and also seemed to be presenting information that I wasn't convinced was accurate. For example, apparently Office 2008 for Mac doesn't offer compliance with Microsoft's own OOXML formats. However, we're using Office 2008 for Mac, and haven't had an issue. He was quite taken aback by this, and indicated that the forums he's read tell him otherwise. Regardless of this, I wasn't really sure why the expectation was that I needed to defend my decision not to provide and support application XYZ to the entire network at a parent's request.

Now, I'm going to wrap this up, because its really long. But basically, I explained that if I was going to deploy something that I needed to be able to endorse its ability to integrate with our other systems, and also had to be able to support it. Neither of these I felt comfortable to do with Open Office, and seeing as we deploy MS Office for our office applications, I didn't really think there was a need. The parent said he understood, and generally we had a pleasant discussion where we presented our own viewpoints. But...

The thing I don't get is why people get like this. We provide some software. It's good software. It works well, and is commonly used by a massive chunk of all organizations worldwide. There's other good software, and if you like it, that's fine. But I personally tend to like some of Microsoft's products, and while I'm aware OpenOffice is a reasonable competitor, I still think Windows and Microsoft Office are far and away the best products for the desktop in their respective markets. Even if you disagree with that, I don't understand the attitude common amongst those who would know what Slashdot is to shun and reject anything that has a Microsoft brand stamped on it.

Just in case you think I'm a diehard Windows fanatic who won't stomach anything else, I'm still persisting with Ubuntu, and shortly (hopefully) will have a couple of Macs in my office to begin work on setting up an appropriate network management strategy for deploying Macs/OSX in our predominantly Windows environment. I'd like our network to be platform agnostic, but I think the more realistic perspective for us is to have multiple interlinked systems for managing common platforms, and that's what I'm going to be working towards. Besides, its all going to be web services shortly anyway, isn't it?