FOSS+CSS: Closed Source DOS Accounting Meets Linux and DOSEMU

About the middle of December 2012 I received a call from a long time SCO OpenServer Unix and IBM PC-DOS using client. This client has four Point of Sale business locations and runs a mix of DOS, Unix and Windows in the retail outlets. The main office, here in my town, runs a SCO OpenServer box I built them with Advantage Accounting Point of Sale that is accessed using PuTTY on two Microsoft desktop clients at the checkout counter. The Microsoft systems are basically “dumb” terminal replacements and are used for nothing else.

(One of the locations runs that Intuit PoS system. I had nothing to do with that one.) Two of the other locations run DOS based Advantage Accounting Point of Sale on stand-alone DOS boxes. One of these boxes I had built them about 10 years ago finally gave out. The hard drive would spin up, but the box did nothing else. So, they called me to get a new DOS PC. I explained that DOS was best served these days in a virtual machine or using a DOS emulation layer on something like Linux. We talked over the options and they decided to send me the old case to gut and rebuild with new parts, Mageia 2 Linux and a DOS Virtual Machine.

I ordered the new parts to go in the old case. While waiting for the parts I gutted and cleaned the old case. Everything came out except the old hard drive, which did still work. The new parts finally arrived. Then a new hard drive and all new “guts” went into the case with the old drive. The old drive, being an IDE, had to have an IDE <> SATA adapter. This was installed to access the old drive after Linux was installed on the new drive. I backed up the old drive to a file with ‘dd’ once booted to Mageia 2 on the rebuilt PC.

Then VirtualBox was installed and the ‘dd’ copy of the drive was cloned to a virtual disk image (VDI) using the VBoxManage command line tool. A virtual machine to run the IBM PC-DOS on the VDI was created and booted to test. All seemed well. However, this PC needed parallel port printing. The motherboard ordered has a parallel port and serial port on-board. But no matter how I tried to get parallel printing working with VirtualBox, it never did work. I either got errors (No, I do not recall the errors exactly. I remember permission errors, I think. Silly me lost my notes about that.) or making changes to the setup got no errors but no printing either. This was a show stopping problem, until I recalled that DOSEMU allows one to set up printing to Linux print queues in its configuration file. Whew!

So, out went VirtualBox and in came DOSEMU. I copied the files from the old drive to the appropriate DOSEMU directory under the user account. Edited the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT for use of IBM PC-DOS in DOSEMU. Then I set up a RAW printer to use with the DOS accounting application and placed the command to access that in the appropriate section of the DOSEMU configuration file. A test print worked as expected and all was well. Well almost.

I still needed to address backups. The old floppy tape drive would not work because these new motherboards do not include a floppy controller. Besides, tape is just so passe. Instead, I took a CDRW disc and used K3B to create a backup job that could be run with a double-click from the Xfce desktop used with this build. Yes, I could have whipped out my bash foo and created a backup script from tabula rasa, but time was of the essence on this job. I usually want to spend a bit of time tweaking my scripts to make them extra awesome and fool proof. In this case, I just did not have the time to create an excellent, one off, debugged script. The shop needed its Point of Sale system back “yesterday”. Besides, K3B works fine and this PC has plenty of resources for adding in some KDE bloat to run K3B. Plus, these guys need to see some eye-candy as this is the first Linux box they have ever had.

Now they have their DOS Point of Sale back in place. They also have a new Linux based PC with a GUI, LibreOffice and other office goodies installed for creating flyers, making custom spreadsheets and all the other office PC tasks a DOS only system just cannot do easily or at all. Mission accomplished.

P.S. Old DOS Geeks – Yes, I know there are still those of you using WordPerfect for DOS, Lotus 123 for DOS, [insert name] for DOS and you can do whatever you want with those. But I live in the 21st century and so do my clients. We like the pretty GUI while we do our work. 😉

FOSS: A Linux Conversion

My friend Jerry is 70+ years young. Jerry has also been a client of mine on and off over the past several years for on-site support calls at his home office. Recently he was telling me how his aging Dell Dimension 2400 with Windows XP was running so very slow it was frustrating. We all know the story, the Microsoft OS was suffering from crud creep after several years of use. A cleanup and/or reinstall was needed to get it back to running faster. The other option is a new PC. Jerry is on a fixed income and cannot afford to replace the PC with a new one running “Microsoft Latest OS!” at this time. I talked with Jerry about his options, and he decided to give Linux a shot on this old Dell.

The system has 768 MB RAM and a 30 GB hard drive. The CPU is a single core CPU and “not fast”, but decent enough for a modest Linux install. I went over to Jerry’s home and backed up his Firefox bookmarks and his files in the Microsoft “My Documents” directory. These were placed on my 16 GB USB flash drive. Then the system was installed with Mageia Linux, online sources were added and all updates were applied. I did this for Jerry while he sat in and watched. I also set up his system with LXDE at first. Jerry saw that it looked like “Windows 95” and wanted something different. I know heavy GUIs like KDE 4 or Gnome 3 are out of the question unless one does a lot of tweaking to strip those down for a low resource PC. So, I installed Xfce4. He liked that much better, I am glad to say.

Jerry had already been using LibreOffice on Windows XP, so his documents restored from backup “just worked” when I opened them in the new LibreOffice install on his “new” Linux desktop. Jerry’s e-mail is web based through Yahoo! Mail, and that “just worked” too when I showed him where to find Firefox to get to the web. His printers and scanner were set up and “just worked” too. He now can use Xsane to scan his documents and can print what he needs to print.

I showed Jerry the ‘root’ access to “Mageia Control Center” and to “Install & Remove Software”. I explained privilege separation and how one uses ‘root’ only for administration tasks such as installing and removing software. Jerry had no problem understanding this concept. However, Jerry did not like having to login to his desktop every time he started the PC. So, I set up “auto-login” for his account and that was exactly what he wanted.

Now Jerry has a PC that is running “faster” than it was with the old, aged Windows XP install. It is also a modern OS and will serve his needs until the PC finally quits working. His only wish so far is for a plain old Solitaire card game. I guess I need to find him one.

Open Source: Oooo that rackin’ frackin’ … e-mail!

I grew up in the USA during the end of the age when kids were allowed to just be kids and cartoons on Saturday morning television were not a “statement” of some nanny state group trying to brainwash kids with some political or social agenda. Yeah, I mean the days when Daffy Duck could actually get his beak blown off with a shotgun, pick it up, put it back on, then say, “You’re desthpicable!”. That was hilarious to an eight year old boy sitting in front of the television on Saturday morning. No matter how many times it happened. (Cue the nannies, “Oh gee! The kids will think they can shoot each other and live! Ohhhhhhhh Nooooooeeeeessss! Kids must be stoopid!” … break, gimme, please.) As a young boy getting my Saturday morning Captain Crunch sugar rush while watching cartoons, one of my favorite television cartoon characters, other than Daffy, was Yosemite Sam. I mean, he could “swear a blue streak” and never actually “cuss”. I loved that!

Recently I have been emulating Yosemite Sam, but with less creative verbiage. “Why?”, you may ask. Well, it is due to the “new and improved” Evolution 3.4.1 in my shiny Mageia 2 upgrade on my daily use tower PC. Oh, it works fine to download e-mail, it is more stable than the old Evolution 2.32.2 I migrated from, it works great with the Maildir tree I have meticulously created over several years of e-mail storage. It just will … not … send mail via our SMTP hosted e-mail provider for our small business. I have tried on this PC, on another PC, from a fresh VM install on this PC, from a fresh VM install on another PC. I have even tried the 3.4.2 release that was kindly placed in Mageia Cauldron for me to try. (Thank you, Olav Vitters! I do appreciate that!)  No, 3.4.2 will not send at all with our SMTP host either. You can see my bug report if you want details.

Yes, a VM install of Mageia 1 with Evolution 2.32.2 will still send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. Yes, Thunderbird will send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. Yes, every other e-mail application I have tried will send e-mail via our hosted mail SMTP server. But not Evolution 3.4.x in Mageia 2, which is what I want to use since I settled on Evolution after abandoning Kontact + Kmail many moons ago. Again, I am considering yet another e-mail application switch due to a broken e-mail application following an upgrade. (Broken for me! I don’t care if it “works” for you!) I do not care to go back to KDE’s Kmail since my experience with that breaking following upgrades was just as problematic. My requirements are still the same as last time:

  1. It should be targeted toward businesses and thus be more likely to avoid disruptive changes in the future.
  2. It must be able to import most or all of my data from the former application.
  3. It must support Maildir mail directories.

Well, I thought I had #1 with Evolution, but that proved false in the past week+ that I have been on Mageia 2 with Evolution 3.4.1. Not being able to reply to clients from within my chosen e-mail application is fairly disruptive as far as I am concerned. I would use Thunderbird, but the Thunderbird developers have been avoiding proper Maildir support for well over 10 years now. For me, a local Maildir store is an immutable requirement for my mail application.

So, I am looking around for yet another e-mail application on Linux that properly supports Maildir, does not have disruptive updates, might have some chance of importing my dozens of filters I have created by hand in Evolution and works with my hosted mail provider for authenticated SMTP mail sending. At this point I am desperate. So, I am thinking about downloading and compiling Balsa for myself. Balsa is not included with Mageia. But if it ends up working for me, you can bet I will be requesting it be added to Cauldron for the next release of Mageia.

Open Source: Mageia 1 to Mageia 2 Upgrade

I am jumping the gun a bit and upgrading my Mageia 1 installation on my personal / business SOHO desktop PC tonight, May 21st, to Mageia 2. Officially Mageia 2 is not due to release until May 22nd. But the online repository for Mageia 2 is in place at my preferred mirror and I know that it is basically ready to go right now. So, I am upgrading. Ironically, I am starting this article from my soon-to-be-retired Mandriva 2011 install on the SOHO router / Bacula backup server. I have X and fluxbox installed on here just for occasions such as this where my main PC is being serviced. I am publishing this and will update as I go, so any of you that follow this site via RSS can make comments if you wish while this is being written.

This upgrade is being done over the Internet using the new Mageia 2 media sources with ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ from a command line login as root on console #1. I have stopped X at this point and the PC is in “runlevel 3”, meaning no GUI. Which is going to be good since X will be upgraded while this process is going.

The initial phase of the upgrade was some 200+ packages to get the bits of Perl, RPM and urpm* tools that will be needed once the upgrade enters the 2nd phase where more low-level stuff starts being replaced. The second phase is running as I type this paragraph and has 2,679 packages to upgrade with a total download over 2GB. Phase two is at 370 packages and counting.

One of my hopes is that the new Mageia 2 will have a release of Evolution mail that is more stable and works better than the one in Mageia 1. I have had crashes nearly every day using the older Evolution with my local Maildir store. It also has problems keeping up with the message counts and with deleted mail “resurrecting from the dead” even though I want it to stay “dead”. Sometimes I get new mail and it is filtered to the Maildir store … but no new message count shows up. I have missed some business mail for a couple of days due to this problem. My fervent prayer is the new release will work much better. I will of course report about that here in a later article once I have a bit more experience with the upgraded Mageia install under my belt.

May 21 21:55 CDT – 531 packages installed and counting.

May 21 22:30 CDT – 820 packages installed and counting. I have noticed a few “installation failed” messages pass by during this process. I have seen this happen before when upgrading from CLI. That means I will have to run ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ again when this pass is done. I will do that and report on it when I do.

May 21 23:52 CDT – 1134 packages installed and counting.

May 22 00:44 CDT – 1427 packages installed and counting. It is into the freaking huge KDE 4.8 bundle now. What a beast. Although I do not use KDE myself, meaning the desktop, I have it installed to support my clients that do use it. It helps to be able to see on my screen what they should be seeing on their screen. It is a good thing I have set aside a great deal of drive space (16 GB, currently 93% used!) for my /usr partition. 🙂

May 22 01:08 CDT – Stopped the upgrade to remove some of the old kernel-source packages. The /usr partition got to 99% full and I was a bit nervous about that. Restarted the upgrade after removal of these. Note to self, remove these first next time.

May 22 01:40 CDT – I notice that many of the “failed to install” packages are *handbook packages for KDE applications. They are failing because they require the upgraded application to be installed. It appears none of the applications required for the *handbook packages are upgraded yet. A bit of a backward update attempt there I think.

May 22 02:35 CDT – Upgrade ended with a LOT of un-upgraded packages. I had to install some libraries, libpoppler*, individually. Then many of the un-upgraded packages did upgrade along with those libraries. Then when that finished I ran ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’ once more and another seven hundred(!) packages started upgrading that had been skipped. Among them … LibreOffice, which is one piece of software I use nearly every day.

May 22 03:09 CDT – Upgrade stopped again with 250 packages still not upgraded. Started it again and some more packages, but not all, did update. Looks like this is going to take some more runs though the upgrade process. Each time getting a few more packages updated.

May 22 03:16 CDT – Had to install gstreamer0.10-vp8 and python-gi by themselves with urpmi. Then libclutter1.0_0 by itself with urpmi. Then 61 other packages came along with libclutter and updated. Appropriately further cluttering my drive with software. 🙂 Still 139 packages to go. Gee, this is fun. I start the update again with ‘urpmi –auto-update -v’. This time I notice Gnucash installing … another program I use nearly every day.

May 22 03:32 CDT – Everything is updated, except for one problem package – qt4-examples is error-ing and will not install. I can live with that. going to reboot now to load the new kernel and see if anything goes “boom”.

May 22 03:35 CDT – Yup, it went boom.

Dependency failed. Aborted start of /data1

Welcome to emergency mode. Use “systemctl default” or ^D to enter default mode.
Give root password for maintenance
(or type Control-D to continue):

Bleh, that /data1 is a complete drive mount that has a lot of important “stuff” on it. Yeah, it is backed up. But who of you really wants to have to rely on your backups? This should extend my “fun” to new heights. What the heck, I’ll use Ctrl D and see what happens. Nothing. Okay root password and I have the # prompt. Gotta do some forensics folks. Be back in a bit.

The /data0 and /data1 mounts were not mounting even though they were working just fine prior to the upgrade. This is a multi-drive system with many more mount points than the average PC user might have. Still a bit disappointing that the upgrade did not “just work” for me. The “fix” was to edit /etc/fstab by hand in “emergency mode” with ‘vim’ to comment out those mount points. Then reboot.

I am writing this paragraph from my newly updated PC running Mageia 2. The ‘diskdrake’ tool is choking on this when I try to run it to edit the mount points:

   Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
/dev/sdc1   *          63     8177084     4088511   82  Linux swap / Solaris

That is a swap partition on the first part of one of the disks. Looks like I get to  use gparted to remove that to see if I can then get the ‘diskdrake’ tool to work. There is nothing like an all-nighter upgrade to make one appreciate … sleep.

Okay, something had marked all the first partitions on each drive with the ‘boot’ flag. This was causing diskdrake under Mageia 2 to die on those disks that are not actually boot drives. Using gparted to remove the ‘boot’ flag then allowed me to load diskdrake and redo the mount points. Whew! For the record, this is probably not a problem most folks will run into. My system is used to run a lot of testing stuff for support purposes. So, the problem is probably something I did. That said, diskdrake should have been able to handle this problem instead of dying an ignoble death. At least gparted came through and helped me fix this problem.

My suggestion for an upgrade is, clean out any old stuff you don’t need, such as kernel-source files, before upgrading. Also, check your partitions if you have multiple disks. If each first partition on each disk is marked bootable, this might cause problems if you have more than two disks as I do. Use gparted to remove the boot flag on any partition that is not actually a bootable partition prior to upgrading. While I was able to get everything working after I had already updated, I do have over 20+ years dealing with PC hardware problems under Unix and unix-like systems. Due diligence to look for these problems I found before you upgrade could save you some headaches … and a sleepless night.

Good morning all. I’m going to bed now.

Open Source: Homeschool Computing

Proverbs 22:6 – Teach a youth about the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Many parents in recent years have chosen to homeschool their children. The reasons for this vary, but most include some measure of the understanding that to truly pass on one’s values to one’s children one needs to be the primary source of information for that child. To place one’s child in a school, public or private, is to give up at least part of one’s responsibility to and for that child. There is usually also a desire to have more control over what that immature mind is experiencing as it grows. Some life events should be shielded from a growing mind until that mind is mature enough to handle such events in the context of the desired values imparted by the parents.

One of the facets of homeschooling has to do with computing systems, networking and the Internet. As a homeschool parent once told me, she would never allow her children on the Internet without her or her husband present. This meant the parents could not take time out and let the child have unmonitored free time on the computer unless it was unplugged from the network. I have had that conversation tickling the back of my mind ever since. I think I might have an answer for that homeschool mother and other homeschooling parents in a similar situation. The answer, of course, involves Linux and FOSS.

I recently quoted a dual Opteron CPU (8-cores), 16 GB RAM, dual 500 GB drives, small business Linux server build to a local client. After looking over the quote, which is under $1500, I came to the realization that this server could also serve as the heart of a FOSS homeschool Linux Terminal Server system. The server could have FOSS parental controls, such as DansGuardian, with the parents having complete control of the server. Then the children could have access to the internet only through the controlled connection that goes through the home server. A diskless workstation that boots from the home server could be built for each child for a very low cost. Or, if the parents want to spend the money, each child could have a laptop or netbook loaded with Linux that connects to and through the server. The only costs to the parents are the hardware and the time to become educated about running a Linux based homeschool server.

A homeschool system built with FOSS gets one all the tools one needs to teach a child about general computing and/or programming. Plus there is the benefit of “free” office suites such as LibreOffice, dozens of “free” games, “free” educational software like GCompris (ages 2 – 10), as well as hundreds of other “free” applications. These are almost all “free” in the truest sense of the word “free”. Meaning they are unencumbered with restrictive licenses that forbid one to install an application on more than one system without paying money. They can be given away and even modified at the source code level and redistributed by one’s budding, homeschooled programmer without having to worry about Federal Marshals showing up at one’s door. An added benefit is that one does not have to worry about Microsoft Windows or Apple OS X viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware and adware on a Linux system. A properly secured Linux home server can be set up very easily to also avoid the very few malware that may attack services on Linux.

Custom PC from ERACCIn conclusion, I believe my homeschooling friends I mention above could have benefited from such a system. Their children are now grown and out, so the point is moot for them. But there are hundreds of other homeschooling parents who might want to consider a Linux based homeschool system for their children. The idea is worth examining, in my not so humble opinion.

Open Source: Mageia 2 (Cauldron) Looking Good

If you have not been following the saga of the Mageia Linux distribution then you are unaware that Mageia 2 is slated to be released on May 15th. At this point the distribution is in Beta 3 testing and then will have a Release Candidate out right around May 2nd.

Since I am a business user of Mageia, I decided to assist with the testing for the new release to help uncover any bugs still hanging around in the distribution. At least for any of the software that I use. As there are no CD / DVD images out for Beta 3 yet, I decided to take our VirtualBox Mageia test install up to the Mageia Cauldron (development version) release from which the new Mageia 2 will be created. I usually do all upgrades from the command line using these commands below, so the lack of CD / DVD media for Beta 3 is not a problem for me:

# urpmi.removemedia -a
# urpmi.addmedia  –distrib http://(insert/repository/here)
# urpmi –auto-update -v

Before beginning the upgrade, but after selecting the new media source, I started the Mageia Control Center (MCC) and selected the “non-free” and “tainted” media sources that are not enabled by default. Otherwise I would have not had a complete upgrade as I have chosen some packages to install from both of those on our test install.

In my not so humble opinion, the Mageia Control Center is still one of the defining features of Mageia. The new release keeps the GUI MCC and the command line mcc for the times that the GUI may not be available.

During the upgrade process I was given a choice to keep using “legacy” System V initialization or switch to systemd initialization. This is a nice touch. Since almost all modern Linux distributions derived from Red Hat will be moving to systemd, I went ahead and selected that during the upgrade. I wanted to see if the upgrade would smoothly handle the switch from System V to systemd. I am glad to report that it appears to have handled that very well. As you can see in this short video the OS boots very fast with systemd.

I think I am becoming a systemd convert. The OS is also very responsive in this virtual machine. I look forward to seeing how it does on the “bare metal” after I upgrade our systems here. The bottom line is, it seems at this time that the Mageia 2 release will be well done and a contender for the end-user desktop.

Open Source: Using Mageia 1 for Six Months Now

I am back writing again after my hiatus. If you missed me, good. 🙂 If not, maybe I can write something this year that will pique your interest, inform you, or help you smile. Then the next time I take a hiatus you will miss me. 😉

Back in the Fall of 2011, September 4th to be exact, I decided it was time to migrate from the sinking ship of Mandriva to the new Mageia distribution which is based on the best of Mandriva while leaving the chaff of Mandriva behind. It is now six months later and I am ready to report on my experience so far. To sum up this article in a sentence, “Mageia works and works well.” If you just want the summary, that is it, you can stop reading here. If you want more, read on. I will start with what I haven’t liked since that is my shorter list.

Cons

One problem with Mageia 1 is it did not, and still does not, include all the software I had installed and used on Mandriva 2010.2. However, this is really a niggle because all of these applications still work following the migration upgrade I did. Further, most of these, if not all of them, will be included in Mageia 2 which is due out in May 2012.

The other problem, to me, is that Mageia will be switching from System V style startup and management to systemd with Mageia 2. I like System V and spent a lot of time learning how it works. Now I have to scrap all that and learn something else that I am not at all convinced solves a real problem. To be honest, this is not just Mageia switching to systemd, many other distributions are doing the same. Therefore I would need to learn about systemd anyway. I still reserve the right to dislike the switch and whine about it.

Pros

The window managers / desktops I prefer, fluxbox, Window Maker, Xfce, are part of the official distribution and continue to work as I expect. I do not have to worry that KDE4 + ROSA, the only “official” GUI on Mandriva, will be the only GUI supported in the future. My primary “desktop” is fluxbox. All my custom keyboard bindings and startup settings for fluxbox are still working as expected under Mageia 1. Since fluxbox is part of the official distribution, I can rest assured it will continue to be supported and receive updates through the official Mageia updates.

Mageia is responsive to bugs and new package requests on their Bugzilla bug tracker. For example, my recent request to have the latest release of Wesnoth included for Mageia 2 was handled promptly. (Thank you Stormi!) Mageia still needs more packagers to join the team to help out. But the folks that are already on the Mageia packaging team are doing a great job, in my not so humble opinion.

The Mageia administration team has recently worked on its server infrastructure to make things work faster, more smoothly and to repair a RAID problem that was affecting service. Donations from the Mageia community allowed this. They even took the time to notify us lowly end-users as to what was being done. I personally appreciated the latter. (If you use Mageia and haven’t donated yet, take a minute to send them a small donation. If you can’t donate money, then donate some time to helping others in the Mageia IRC channels.)

Mageia updates work as expected and continue to add new packages that are upgrades of the Mandriva packages I still have installed. The Mandriva list of installed packages keeps getting smaller, as expected. (I ran into a hiccup with updates right after I migrated. An update included some packages intended for Mageia 2. But that only happened one time, and as far as I can tell the problem was fixed as it has not occurred again.)

The Mageia folks are rather friendly and so far I have not seen one person told “RTFM” when asking for help on the IRC channel (See above for the URL). This is a plus as far as I am concerned. Grouchy Linux curmudgeons may disagree. If one just wants to “shoot the breeze” with other friendly folks, I recommend the Mageia Social channel at Freenode. You will find it a good place to chat about just about anything, including Linux in general and Mageia in specific.

Custom PC from ERACCAs far as I am concerned Mageia is my new desktop Linux distribution of choice and will be into the foreseeable future. Please feel free to post comments with your experience, impressions, likes and/or dislikes with Mageia.

Open Source: A GUI Minimalist Tries e17

… and likes it … well, mostly. Hopefully this article will help you if you are searching for that “just right for me” GUI on your Unix/Linux system. But be sure to give e17 a try yourself, do not just pass it over because of anything you may read on the web.

For years now I have been a die-hard GUI minimalist relying on light window managers / desktops such as fluxbox, Window Maker and XFCE4. As such, I was dismayed when the Mandriva Linux distribution decided to drop official support for all GUI options other than its in-house “ROSA” interface. When I found that information and added it to the other disappointing news coming from Mandriva I decided to move on along to Mageia Linux. After that move was completed I decided to take a look at the other desktop options available. While looking at these I saw e17 listed. This is e17 version 0.16.999.55225 for those of you who want to know version numbers. I had seen e17 listed in the package management system for Mandriva in the past, installed it and taken a brief look at it. But I had never decided to give it a real try. This time, I decided to use e17 for at least a month and not use any other desktop or window manager. That was around the middle of September 2011, it is now into the second week of December 2011 and I am still using e17 … for now. Following are my impressions, likes and dislikes regarding e17 so far:

e17 Impressions

  • Appears to take very few resources, which appeals to my GUI minimalist mind.
  • Seems a bit rough around the edges in a few places.
    • Auto-hide of the shelves stops working sometimes. Have to open the settings dialog for a shelf and save it again to “fix” this.
    • At times the Taskbar gadget running in a shelf mishandles / overlaps / truncates the items that it shows running on a desktop. Opening the shelf settings dialog and saving again “fixes” this.

e17 Likes

  • One can configure keyboard shortcuts for pretty much anything.
  • One can change the mouse context menus to match what one prefers, such as right click the desktop for the Main menu.
  • One can quickly switch workspaces just using ALT + Fn keys.
  • One can have multiple desktop background images on a per-workspace basis.
  • One can have multiple shelf objects and have them auto-hide to maximize the usable screen area.
  • All the e17 settings appear to be saved in the ~/.e directory. Making it easy to backup and restore custom settings.
  • Does not start out with a lot of garbage add-ons loaded that one then has to disable or remove to get a streamlined GUI.

e17 Dislikes

  • Binary configuration files?! What?!
    (This will be the reason I end up eventually abandoning e17. I truly loathe the use of binary configuration files under unix-like systems. That is just wrong. Use of plain text for configuration files and log files is one of the primary reasons I love unix-like systems as well as fluxbox, Window Maker and XFCE4. Being able to repair problems or tweak settings by hand in a plain text file from a command line is a big plus for me.)
  • Apparently e17 handles windows so differently from fluxbox, XFCE4, Window Maker, KDE and GNOME that my favorite screen capture tool, Shutter, cannot find windows of which to take snapshots. There is a screen capture application included for e17, but it has fewer options and functions than Shutter.
  • When my X sessions kept crashing due to a bad graphics card recently, e17 lost all my custom settings after one such crash. While this can be recovered from a backup of one’s /home/user directory while at a command line without e17 running, this is at minimum very annoying. Of course loss of all settings happened to me when I used some KDE4 applications for a while too. So this is not just an e17 problem.

As a GUI minimalist my concerns are not glitz, glitter, bells and whistles. I want function over form. If the GUI does what I want it to do with as little memory, CPU and GPU use as possible, which means less power consumption, then I could not care less about transparency, wobbly windows and fire burning up my closing windows. If the GUI is pretty as well, that is just a bonus.

Since Mageia did include e17 0.16.999.55225, which is a “work in progress” release, it is possible to probable that some of the problems I note here have been fixed in subsequent releases. The latest “snapshot” release of e17 as of the time if this article is 0.16.999.65643. As I do not go outside my distribution’s package management system for anything other than a few games I will just have to wait for Mageia to catch up with the latest release of e17 to see what is fixed and what is not.

For the most part, I am favorably impressed with e17. However, the use of binary configuration files is a serious enough personal problem for me that I will eventually move back to one of my favorite GUIs. Of course if the enlightenment desktop team changes course and begins to use plain text files to store configuration data, well, I may just decide to add enlightenment desktop to my small list of favorite GUIs. I am not going to hold my breath waiting for that though.

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Open Source: Why Military Forces Should Use Linux

Why? Because the level of skill required to crack a Unix-like OS is much higher than that needed for a Microsoft OS. Further, properly configured Unix-like systems are much more robust than Microsoft systems. Were Military forces using properly configured and properly secured Unix or Linux systems we would not see items like these below being reported.

I just had a, “What were they thinking?!”, moment while reading this article at ars technica: Computer virus hits US Predator and Reaper drone fleet. First, it is not a “computer virus”, it is a Microsoft operating system virus. Second, using Microsoft operating systems for any critical Military computer systems is just wrong. I know the US Military has specifications for rugged computer systems that must be made in the USA. That makes sense. What does not make sense is the fact that the US Military will accept Microsoft operating systems on its critical, sensitive hardware at this date in time. That is like specifying a bank vault that can withstand a nearby nuclear blast, but allowing the builder to install a screen door for access to the vault. It is just a Bad Idea!

This was a deja vu moment as well. I was following news about Military systems back in the 1990’s and had a similar experience when I read about the US Navy “smart ship” running Microsoft Windows NT … and having a ship killing system failure: Software glitches leave Navy Smart Ship dead in the water. I completely agreed with Ron Redman, deputy technical director of the Fleet Introduction Division of the Aegis Program Executive Office, at the time when he stated:

“Unix is a better system for control of equipment and machinery, whereas NT is a better system for the transfer of information and data. NT has never been fully refined and there are times when we have had shutdowns that resulted from NT.” … and … “Because of politics, some things are being forced on us that without political pressure we might not do, like Windows NT,” Redman said. “If it were up to me I probably would not have used Windows NT in this particular application. If we used Unix, we would have a system that has less of a tendency to go down.”

Actually, after re-reading that, I disagree that NT, or any Microsoft OS, was or is “a better system for the transfer of information and data” when compared to a Unix-like OS. I would use Linux for that too. Especially in a critical Military system like a “smart ship” or a drone control center. Frankly I do use Linux for operational security and the secure transfer of information and data in my own small business. I thank God that I do not have to succumb to political pressure forcing me to use a Microsoft OS for my business. It seems to me, if I can figure out how to implement Linux for my personal and business use, surely the US Military can do the same for its critical systems infrastructure. Obviously some people in the Military “get it” when it comes down to what system is best for critical control systems. Now if only the Microsoft lobbyists can be shut down from affecting the decisions as to what systems are best for the US Military.

Microsoft still makes a decent gaming operating system. But that is about the sum total for which I would agree a Microsoft system should be used. Even there I am agreeing reluctantly only because the majority of current PC game development targets the Microsoft OS.

Hey, US Military folk and US Senators with military oversight, if it has to be from the USA, ever hear of Red Hat Linux? How about the US NSA’s own Security-Enhanced Linux? Perhaps it is time for you folk to rethink the requirements for Military computing systems and make one of these Linux operating systems part of the requirement. Or take the Linux kernel source code and use your own internal Military IT staff and programmers to collaborate and build a custom system just for Military use. Any of these would be a better option than relying on a “known to be owned” OS like any of those from Microsoft. I will be glad to introduce you to Linux if you want to pay me for a Linux consultation. Just sayin’ …

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Edit Sat Oct  8 20:57:30 CDT 2011: Due to a salient observation elsewhere, change “pwn” to crack in the first paragraph.

Open Source: Niche Markets, Linux and Microsoft

If you are a Linux protagonist who has been around as long as, or longer than, I have, you have seen responses like these over and over as to why Linux distributions will never go mainstream on the PC desktop:

  • “Linux will always remain a niche platform because it does not have a native release of Adobe (Photoshop / Creative Suite / etcetera)!”
  • “Linux does not have Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office power users require Microsoft Office!”
  • “The web portal at (insert portal here) needs Internet Explorer. There is no native release of Internet Explorer for Linux, so no one will want to use Linux!”
  • Program X does not have a Linux version or equivalent!”
  • Or other claims along the same lines …

Yes, these comments usually do have exclamation points to show how emphatic the claimant feels about the statement. I think these claimants have the equation backwards. All of these cases are what is known as a “niche market”. How many people using PC systems need to use Adobe Photoshop? How many Microsoft Office users are a “Microsoft Office power user”? How many end-users of a PC system need to go to a web portal that requires Microsoft Internet Explorer? (I will ignore the fact that many of these “IE only” web portals usually work just fine if one fakes the browser string with Firefox or Opera.) How many people need to use Program X on their PC?  I am thinking, “Not that many.”, for all the above.

To me this suggests that the Microsoft platform is the niche platform:

  • Do you “need” Adobe (Photoshop / Creative Suite / etcetera) for your job? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” Microsoft Office because you are a “power user”? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” access to an IE only web portal? Then you are a niche user.
  • Do you “need” to run Program X on your PC? Then you are a niche user.

The vast majority of PC users do not need, or want, any of the programs that are often claimed to be the problem holding back adoption of Linux on the PC desktop in the mainstream. In my experience with the few end-users I have switched from Microsoft to Linux, some of them did have special needs that precluded using Linux on their desktop PC at this time. The others have zero problems using a Linux desktop PC.

These latter are people that do not try to solve PC problems themselves. They call a “computer guy” when they have problems. They would call a “computer guy” even if they ran Microsoft systems and had a problem. They have no “need” for any of the niche usage scenarios above. They are perfectly content that they can send and receive e-mail, access FaceBook, play Flash games, browse web sites, use personal finance software and make a simple spreadsheet with LibreOffice. All from their Linux based desktop PC.

One of these Linux desktop users is also a Skype user and there are “millions” of Skype users “out there”. Skype usage is less of a niche market than it used to be. That is going to be problematic once Microsoft kills Skype development for other platforms in favor of its own software now that Microsoft owns Skype. The “embrace, extend and extinguish” paradigm is still Microsoft’s bread and butter. But if Microsoft does what I suspect, Skype will end up being merged into some Microsoft based software. At that point our smart FOSS developers will likely figure out a way to inter-operate with the Microsoft software from FOSS programs. However, this “problem” would be non-existent if end-users were aware of and used FOSS communication projects like Ekiga.

So, that said, how do we get from where we are to the mainstream desktop?

The “problem” with adoption of Linux on the end-user desktop is not these niche usage scenarios. As I see it Linux adoption is a fourfold problem, apathy, education, marketing and pre-loading agreements.

  • Apathy – Okay, there is not much we can do about this one. If an end-user is apathetic about what operating system is on his or her PC just let it go.
  • Education – There are still many people who have no idea what Linux is or can do for them. I still meet people who have not even heard the term Linux. When I can, I give them a brief overview of what Linux is and then give them a Live CD distribution to play with. Those of us who are Linux professionals can take the opportunity to present Linux systems at local Chamber of Commerce gatherings and local technology shows.
  • Marketing – There is no one company marketing Linux to the masses on a large scale. We will see no advertisement on television or in print from an “Apple” that offers an alternative to Microsoft. Most of the “Linux Big Boys” are only marketing to businesses. Actually I think this should be one of the jobs of The Linux Foundation. But until that organization takes on major advertising, we can use local media and continue to use positive “word of mouth advertising” to “market” Linux.
  • Pre-loading Agreements – Microsoft has pretty much sewn up the pre-load venue with major PC manufacturers. Sure, some of these manufacturers give a slight nod to Linux and offer a few systems with Linux pre-loaded. But I am not content with the puny offerings from these major manufacturers. (Of course since my company builds custom systems with Linux pre-loaded this should come as no surprise to our regular readers.) I do not expect this to change any time soon. So, no consumers are likely to see a Linux based PC from HP, Dell, etcetera on the shelves at Best Buy. The only way I see to overcome this at this point is with education and marketing. If we can create a demand for Linux systems like Apple has done for Apple systems, the end result will be Linux systems on the shelves at major retail outlets.

There are people who should stick with Microsoft or Apple systems for their niche usage. For the rest of the PC user base, Linux on the desktop is ready to go.

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