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Journal Ashtead's Journal: One reason why Linux on the desktop isn't quite here yet 4

I've read several stories about the sudden shift from netbooks with Linux to netbooks with Windows XP. And there are arguments about price or accusations of shenanigans, and the observation of the user base being lazy.

This latter is close, but the lazyness isn't just on the part of users, but on certain newspapers' and banks' choices of interfacing software. And it might not be lazyness as such; resistance to change is more accurate. Having to change the way one is used to things being done seems to be harder the older one gets, and it is hardest for those who never knew more than one system ever, and knows that system well. I've seen this in several other situations at work. It is probably where the saying "If it ain't broke don't fix it" comes from as well.

I have had the opportunity of seeing the process of a long-time Windows user getting comfortable with Linux. Beyond the fact that we have a mouse and a GUI with symbols to click on, the innards are as we know, fairly different.

This is a different way of using Linux than I do, having known how to use and program UNIX systems long before there were any MS-Windows at all, and I don't have the same banks, and I don't care about the newspaper video offerings to the same extent.

There is also a third place where there has been some less than helpful messages; that had to do with playing DVDs. I'll get to that in time.

So, here it begins: Vista did work flaky, with occasional refusal to start-up or shut down properly, so the owner of the computer had spoken with several friends, many of whom had suggested trying Linux. I am one of these and there are several others, and all of us had some varying ideas as to which distro would be the best one.

First we tried Fedora 10, as one of the friends had recommended that, and I have used various varieties of that as well, so that was tried. Installing was easy enough; making the maching dual-boot with Vista as another option in the start-up menu was easy for someone like me who is skilled in the art. Even a secondary partition that held non-OS files, was available from the Linux system, and clicking on .DOC files caused them to be opened in Open Office Writer. Even plugging in the printer, which is attached with an USB cable, worked painlessly: a dialog opened up identifying the printer and asking if the defaults were OK. Subsequent attempts to print documents and webpages were all successful, and not very different from what one would do in Windows. After all, Firefox runs both places.

However, soon some desires for changing from the defaults came up, modifying the font sizes, moving the taskbar from the top to the bottom, and where was the control panel? So I showed how things could be grabbed and dragged around the screen, and that the control panel as such was replaced by some fairly easily discoverable dialogs under "preferences". This is a matter of relearning, but nothing really terribly difficult.

Then the bigger stumbling blocks appeared, in order of difficulty:

  • Watching Flash videos from the newspapers VG and Dagbladet.
  • Accessing MSN
  • Getting the bank's certificates to work
  • Playing DVDs
  • Watching the videos provided by Aftenposten

The first one was not so hard. Adobe's flash plug-in was downloaded and installed and we could now see the video offerings on VG and Dagbladet. The videos on the third major newspaper, Aftenposten would not work however, as these are not Flash but something else

Then for MSN, I've used Gaim before, and now this is called Pidgin, so it was pulled down through the "Add/Remove programs", installed, started, and run.

Next was the bank. This uses some kind of certificates, and the online information indicated that this might be windows only, unless one was lucky and got it working on Linux ... WTF? I'm using a different bank, which does not operate that way at all, and mine works fine on any OS that supports a graphical browser (Firefox, Opera, whatever) We've left this one for later.

The first big headache came with DVD playing. No player was available at the system update place, and the reasons given were, paraphrased, that we did not support patented and closed systems, so go complain to the providers. Or take a hike, we're sitting on our high horse and ain't moving off.

This might be the correct stand from a legal point of view, as the legality of non-closed decoders is questionable in some countries at least, and then there is the legal questions about the mixing of the legal closed-source decoders with GPL licensed components, which thus makes the publisher wash their hands of the whole mess. However, we sit here, and we want to see the movie on a DVD which we have purchased and thus have the right to watch...

Trying obtaining the VLC media player therefore, but that came as a .tar.bz2 file, and how do we install that? I know, unpack, configure, make, make install; but is this something we want to have everyone and their dog to be forced to do? First, there has to be a compiler in place. This is, surprisingly and somewhat alarmingly, no longer the default even on recent Linux systems. Then having got the compiler into place, and performing the necessary command-line-fu of tar -xvjf (try explaining this to someone coming in from the cold) then the ./configure generated a need for something called "mad". So go and google for that, and get another file, .tar.gz, this time, so unpack, now it is tar -xvzf (again, having to do a crash course in Operating System Concepts and having no good answer to the question of why there is several kinds of zipping files). But unpacked that and then ./configure, and now it needs several other varieties of codecs and suchlike, and this endeavour is given up.

Even persevering like this is way beyond what many other users would ever want to do, and it ends up looking like "linux is hard", ie. arcane.

A couple weeks later, on another suggestion, we try Ubuntu. There is a second computer available, and the disk is partitioned and this is made dual-boot as well, so now we have Ubuntu on one maching and Fedora on the other.

The first steps are much the same; the printer and open office works right out of the box. The menus ars slightly different, but no big deal. And now there are some "bad parts" available so we can even watch DVDs without too much hassle. This is better than Fedora who basically told us to sod off and complain to the distributers and not to them -- so who do we complain to about a DVD? The distributer? DVDCCA? Yeh right.

We only have Aftenposten left, it still needs the "Microsoft Media Server (MMS) Protocol Source" it says. Bang smack into the clutches of Bill and Steve...

In conclusion, a successful netbook or desktop OS must be able to work well with a number of external systems, and do so right out of the box. Windows on x86 does this, even if not perfect, it is at least good enough; Linux on x86 does parts of this (Flash, DVDs if you use the right distro) but fails utterly on some of the others. On Linux 64-bit which I have here, even Flash seems to be iffy; and chances are that a similar situation will occur on ARM-based netbook systems, whether Linux or Windows -- no Flash until Adobe gets it ported. And thus a lot of different sites' content won't be accessible when browsing.

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One reason why Linux on the desktop isn't quite here yet

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  • I only use yum from the CLI or the yumex GUI front end for that on fedora, never their built and ships by default GUI package manager, which sucketh. Anyway, try this little howto for media playback on fedora [firewing1.com]. (important:Add the livna repository in addition to the RPMfusion repository first, you need both for some of the politically naughty bits). Also, for your non techy type friends, stay one release behind from brand new, usually a bit more stable and all the bugs, mostly, have been extinguished. Those r

    • OK, I admit defeat on video playback there. Most video I can view though using vlc in addition to the better youtube plugin in firefox. Norway is all egalitarian and stuff, they should be lobbied to only serve videos that are OS neutral then. It might still be possible using linux there, but I don't know how to do it, albeit I am not a real linux guru, just an enhanced mouse clicker...I come from a classic mac OS background, not unix or windows.

      • by Qzukk ( 229616 )

        mplayer (compiled with the network options, combined with the mplayer firefox plugin) can read MMS streams, but the big question mark here is what codec is being used inside that stream. Installing the codec package from http://www.mplayerhq.hu/design7/dload.html [mplayerhq.hu] might be required. Try copying the mms:// url from the html and running "mplayer mms://whatever" from a terminal so you can read the error messages.

      • by Ashtead ( 654610 )

        Thanks for the pointers as to where to go looking for the various decoders and suchlike. I did get the DVD playing working to some degree -- but this was definitely non-trivial action.

        Aftenposten is a privately owned newspaper, so any lobbying to the government probably doesn't do much about that. Most of the other papers and media use Flash, which does work reasonably well.

Make sure your code does nothing gracefully.