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UPDATE: UltraEdit for Linux!

I posted just over a year ago that my favorite text editor, UltraEdit, was going to be ported to Linux. In the last month or so, I discovered that alpha testing was already underway and that beta testing would soon start for Ubuntu users. Here are the links to the development updates for March and April.

Getting Back On Track

Hello All! As you may have noticed, there’s been a bit of a lull in the postings on our humble little ‘blog. For various reasons, I’ve not been able to dedicate as much time to this site as I wanted (my lame excuses listed below). Thankfully, that is starting to change now!

First and foremost, I plan to finish out the Top Ten Linux FUD Patterns. Seven down and three to go!

Second, I am planning a new series. I often write about market forces since most of the intentional FUD is generated by the supporters of the competition. In this series, I will cover some basic economic concepts and how they relate to the OS market.

Finally, I’d like to hear from you, our readers, about what you want to know with respect to Linux. If you are on the fence, what information will help you decide if Linux is right for you? I’d also love to hear some success stories on the FUD front and how you helped combat it. Please feel free to post a comment to this article or write to us directly via the Contact page.

Cheers!
-Brandon

Oh yeah. As promised, here are my lame excuses for not posting more often:

  • Becoming a Dad. This is my second and whoever said the woman does all the work should be shot. Finding the perfect shade of pink wall paint is not easy!
  • Finishing College. This is also my second time around, presently with a postgraduate business degree. Burnout is not a pretty place.
  • Earning a Living. The busy season in our office spans from August to October. Unfortunately, many lunch hours had to be sacrificed this year, which is when I do most of my writing.
  • Writing a Book. I started writing a technical management book six years ago and all but shelved the project to go to school. That was a good move, but now I am excited to get back to it.
  • Running the Country. Well, indirectly. Researching candidates is time consuming, but well worth the effort.

Linux for Mom

Mother’s Day is upon us! You did get a gift, didn’t you? What’s that you say? Mother’s Day isn’t until May? While that is true for citizens of most of the world’s countries, in Asia, Eastern Europe & the Middle East Mother’s Day falls in the month of March and many of the countries in these regions will celebrate it tomorrow, March 8th. The origin of this holiday stems from various religious rites, including the celebration of the Vernal Equinox, pagan worship evidenced in Roman and Greek mythology, and even to ties to the Christian season of Lent. Regardless of your reasons for celebrating Mother’s Day, it’s time to start thinking about a gift!

I happened across this article on the VirtualHosting blog this morning. It links fifty-two websites to various Linux distros, tools, and guides to assist in setting up a Linux box for your mom. The premise is, of course, providing a fast, safe and highly-functional system with a clean, uncluttered interface. I agree with the commentary, the intended audience of the article is not mom herself, but a son or daughter with a Linux bias who might want to set up a system for mom to use.

My mom uses Linux too, of course! Indeed, I’ve watched her transition from complete technophobe to avid blogger over the course of about a decade. She was tired of period system reinstallations necessitated by spyware, malware and viruses. She instantly noticed the simplicity and ease-of-use of the Gnome interface. She also doesn’t know the administrative password, so new software has to be installed by my dad or myself, a sort of agreed upon system of checks and balances. The only complaint has been in regard to the availability of plugins for things like Flash, but then again, she’s still running Ubuntu 5.10 (as am I). By Mother’s Day (May 11th in the U.S. this year), release 8.04 should be available and the upgrade effort is already being planned.

No PC? Those low-cost Linux PCs and laptops currently being offered by Asus and others may be just what she needs! Unless your mother is already a programmer or gamer, they should be plenty powerful enough for daily tasks, such as typing letters and surfing the ‘Net.

Show mom you really care – give the gift of Linux!

Happy عيد الأمّ / Dita e Nënës / Մայրության օր / Дан мајки / Ден на майката / Eejiin bayar / День Матери / Свято Матері / Materinski dan / Mother’s Day!

-Brandon

Newsreel: Crazies, Myths & Name Changes

For those who have asked for a break from the FUD and focus on why Linux is a great OS, I thought you might enjoy this short article from Linux Journal about why people are crazy about Linux. I find the author’s personal reasons for using Linux (listed just after the bulleted list) are similar to mine, especially the simplicity of text-based config files.

Also, here’s one from the downloadsquad regarding Linux myths. A few of these sound vaguely familiar.

Finally, some proposed name changes to Ubuntu derivatives have made the news. It is generally good practice to avoid changing the names of established products, especially more than once. The author hit the nail on the head… it’s confusing. It also impairs brand loyalty.

TTFN!
-Brandon

FUD Alert! Cheap Laptop Prices Misleading

An article from the Business Standard entitled “Cheap laptop price tags can mislead users” (by D’Monte & Shinde, Mumbai, India, January 24, 2008) warns consumers about the pitfalls of buying a cheap laptop in today’s market. It doesn’t focus on suboptimal hardware offerings, or limited expandability, or the defect-rate of cheap components, or even the impact of pre-loaded bloatware on the unit’s usefulness. I expected any or all of these when I first clicked on the link. Instead, it focuses on the OS cost component and how Linux is being used to bait customers on price point.

The authors (almost) immediately write Linux off in the fourth paragraph, citing the general lack of support for the OS (FUD Pattern #2), commercial offerings of Red Hat and Novell excepted. Once again, the business-centric concept of “good support” – evidenced by a toll-free phone number and a paid staff – is reinforced in the mind of the reader. This simple statement effectively obscures the wealth of online Linux support information and gives the OS a second-rate appearance at best. It also sets the stage for the remainder of the article, a discussion of the popularity of Microsoft’s products in India and the unfortunate piracy rate. The only disparaging remark about Linux after the fourth paragraph is that the affordable Vista Starter Edition has successfully displaced Linux on most new cheap-laptop orders.

On a side note, essentially all of the initial comments support Linux, several even calling FUD. I was impressed with these fourteen opinions…so strong and impassioned, so consistent in thought… so written by only five distinct users. I get the impression that the comment input-box was too small and that two comments had to be spread over eleven submissions. Still, many good points were made in these rants.

Cheers!
-Brandon

Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 3

Linux FUD Pattern #2: Linux is not “officially” supported

When you hear the phrase “official support,” what comes to mind? Informative user manuals? A well-staffed call center? But what makes it “official”? This is the second item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD patterns: the lack of “official” Linux support. The goal of FUD based on this notion is a mixture of fear and uncertainty, to make you believe that using Linux means having no place to turn when a problem occurs.

Generally speaking, “official support” for a product is provided by the entity that owns the intellectual property for the product and/or has the right to produce and distribute it. Products are typically sold or leased, both of which are types of business transactions; this implies that the entity in question is operating as a business. A third-party provider paid to support a product may be licensed by, or otherwise affiliated with the original vendor, but only the vendor’s fixes and upgrades are “officially” supported. “Official” support connotes a certain level of authority or expertise, but also implies consequences, usually legal or fiscal, for a failure to meet service expectations. This is the model used by businesses today.

Linux, however, is not a business-supported product (per se). Linux is not “owned” by a particular entity, nor does one particular entity retain the exclusive right to update and distribute it. It is licensed under the GNU Public License (GPL), which permits any software recipient to modify and distribute the software or derivatives thereof as long as the conditions of the GPL are not violated. This is coupled with the open source philosophy, but they aren’t exactly the same thing – an open source application may be licensed under something other than the GPL.

So then, who does “officially” support Linux? The answer is that Linux has always been a grassroots movement. Though it was originally created by one man, Linux is “officially” maintained by a community made up of individuals, groups, and yes, businesses. Different groups within the community support different parts of the system. These groups are commonly known as “maintainers” and usually include original authors or those to whom the torch of authority has been successively passed. For example, assuming the Wikipedia article on the Linux Kernel is not out-of-date, Mr. Torvalds still supervises changes to the core of Linux and has designated the maintenance of older releases to other individual maintainers. The parts maintained are typically called “projects”. Various entities, such as Ubuntu and Red Hat, bundle various system parts together as a unit and ensure that their respective distributions operate as expected, that is to say, that they operate well.

While maintainer and/or community support for a Linux distribution or a particular project may be “official”, technical assistance may not be readily available, on demand, free of charge, or for that matter, available at all. Most maintainers are polite and willing to help, but please remember that much of Linux has been contributed by developers and that support offered pro bono publico doesn’t help feed the family or pay the mortgage. This is where the rest of the community helps out, in the form of online support forums.

Paid support is available as part of the commercial offerings made by Red Hat, Novell, Linspire and others. Additionally, some of these companies offer professional services, such as consulting and training, though these services are typically meant for consumption by businesses, not home users. Any company offering fee-based technical support for Linux is free to set their own price, whatever the market will bear.

In an increasingly tech-savvy world, I think the difference between commercial and community-based support is rapidly decreasing. Consider the available courses of action that may be taken when a problem does occur with a commercial OS. Almost always, the first step is to search the Internet for a root cause, if not a full-blown resolution. This is often done as a cost-saving measure (easy fix) or so that the user/administrator can better explain the problem to tech support when a call is eventually made. Moreover, help may be actively sought in a multitude of discussion groups, mailing lists, blogs, chat rooms and other forums dedicated to supporting various operating systems. Another option is to consult with a friend or relative that knows about these sorts of things. Of course, the “official” vendor or (gasp) a consultant can be called upon, usually for a fee of course. At the discretion of the user/administrator, the problem may be eliminated by brute force: reinstalling the OS. (Actually, this last option isn’t all bad as long as no data were lost – it provides an opportunity to “clean house” and possibly upgrade to a newer release or move to a different distribution.) The order of preference for these alternatives depends on the facts and circumstances surrounding the problem, but they almost always rank from the least- to the most-expensive in terms of time, effort and cash outlay.

Hardware support (or lack thereof) often appears as diversionary FUD regarding “official” support. Hardware must be able to communicate with the computer at several levels, starting with the physical. For example, a USB device can be attached to any machine with the appropriate port, but to use the device the OS must know how to communicate with both the USB itself and the device on the other side. Obviously, this issue quickly boils down to device drivers and brings us back to a discussion of “official” software support.

Rest assured, common devices such as keyboards, mice and thumb drives, almost always work using standard Linux drivers. In other words, they don’t support Linux; rather, Linux supports them. Newer device classes for which no “official” Linux drivers are provided often suffer a period of incompatibility or reduced usefulness. For example, Wi-fi network interface cards are now going through the same sort of transition that consumer-class Ethernet cards did about six or eight years ago. Many times, this is because drivers have to be derived from messages sent to and from the devices, often requiring many hours of experimentation. A general rule of thumb: hardware compatibility problems are more common as the hardware becomes more exotic. For example, I experienced new levels of frustration with the big-name vendor of a certain USB-ready programmable television remote control for which future Linux support was promised and never delivered. But, the fact is, hardware vendors have the right to choose to support Linux or not, a decision based on supply and demand. The need to operate specific hardware may dictate which OS is used.

The best advice I can give is to ignore the FUD and adopt a pragmatic approach to defining your support needs. Your needs are specific to you. Compile a scorecard and do some research. Questions that should be answered include the following. What is your level of expertise with computers? Have you needed professional OS support in the past? Do you expect to need it in the future? Are you comfortable doing your own support work? Based on community-supplied information? Is your hardware “officially” supported or listed in one of the various compatibility lists? Do you use exotic hardware components? Have you tried running a Linux Live CD, especially Knoppix? When buying a new PC or laptop, have other users posted their experiences with the same model? Research never hurts, but just be on the lookout for more FUD!

Cheers!
-Brandon

<< Go To Part 2 Read Part 4 >>

Top 10 Linux FUD Patterns, Part 2

Linux FUD Pattern #1: Linux has a steep learning curve

The #1 item on my Top 10 List of Linux FUD Patterns concerns its learning curve. This pattern is probably the most prevalent and primarily appeals to fear by attempting to convince you that Linux is too hard for the average person to use or that it is simply not user friendly. There are many variations of this pattern, from the straight-forward “Linux is for geeks” assault to more mature, logical arguments, such as “if Linux can do everything the fill-in-the-blank OS can do, why bother with the hassle of switching?”.

To be honest, as with every convincing piece of FUD, I think this line of reason has…or should I say, had…a glimmer of truth behind it. Back in the day, when I was casually messing around with Linux as a hobby, I spent many hours on “administrative” tasks, such as installing Slackware from 30+ floppy disks on old retired hardware and trying to configure the RedHat-bundled Metro-X server for specific video cards and monitors. Looking back, these tasks were difficult enough for a seasoned PC tech like myself, let alone for the general public. But today, it’s a different story, especially since Ubuntu makes it so easy.Nonetheless, web news headlines asking “Is Linux Ready for Prime Time?” still appear frequently. What makes Linux so difficult anyway? A quick look through screenshots and how-tos for modern Linux distributions tells quite a different story, does it not? I believe its close association with Unix is the primary reason.

The X logo.Unix in general has a “bad” reputation for being a command-line-driven OS. It was written in the late 1960s and the graphical ‘X’ windowing system was not introduced until the mid 1980s. In contrast, Linux was first released by Linus Torvalds about 1991 and the development of the XFree86 windowing system for PCs began about a year later. Therefore, one could argue that Linux had a graphical user interface “from the start”. Moreover, Ubuntu and others have done a great job in reducing the user’s exposure to the system console altogether. The need to log into the system on a character-based screen and manually run ‘startx‘ is no more. Of course, you may forgo an X session and boot directly into a prompt if you wish, but that is not the default.

First impressions count too. Despite the availability of X, my first serious exposure to Unix was in university in the mid 1990s and took place, not on something as fancy as a Sun SPARCstation, but on an amber-on-black dumb terminal in the school’s computer lab. To me, Unix came to mean a terminal screen, often accessed via telnet over a dial-up connection with the host computer. It was not until several years later that I discovered X.

Case sensitivity is another classic example. Unix and its kin are case sensitive in practically every respect, and most visibly when saving and opening files. This can be a most obnoxious feature when working from the command line, especially for the occasional user; however, the impact is minimal in today’s point-and-click Linux world. I have heard the concern expressed more than once that having two or more different files in the same directory, each with the same name, differing only in case, would be too confusing. My usual response is in the form of a question: why would a person have so many files named essentially the same thing to begin with? Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.

Other differences exist, such as installation methods for both the OS and software applications, but I think I’ve made my point: Linux is very much like Unix, but it is not the same OS. Linux was made for the x86 PC platform, though other platforms are supported as well. It was written with the end-user in mind, knowing that the everyday user will demand a slick windowing environment, web browsers with plug-in support, and the like. Contributors to Linux and its applications are everyday users too, you know.

How can these negative perceptions be overcome? The concept that Linux is very similar – but not the same as – Unix is too academic, too logical and would take far too long to adequately communicate to the masses. It just doesn’t make for good marketing.

Nothing, however, beats seeing it in action! Remember what I said about first impressions? Live CDs are very useful weapons against FUD. They allow potential users to test drive the OS, to try before “buying”. This helps prove to some that Linux has come a long way in terms of automatic hardware detection and other features that make it user friendly. It’s also much easier than going to the extent of configuring a dual-boot system. The downside is, they can be a bit slow under certain conditions. If a friend has a Linux system already installed, it may be better to try that out instead.

It is also fortunate that the academic community has shown an interest in Linux. Of course, this stems partially from the never-ending need for schools to save money, but there are also purely-educational reasons for using Linux as well. For example, Linux provides an open platform for programming classes and many math- and science-based applications have been developed. Early exposure to Linux means that kids will “grow up” with it and its “peculiarities”.

Hopefully, this treatise will help you keep an open mind the next time you read an article on how Linux could dominate the market “if only it were easier to use”, or help you form an appropriate response when someone expresses the same sort of sentiment in conversation. Always seek out the reasons used to support these opinions and remember that experience should provide more convincing evidence than the rhetoric of FUD.

Cheers!
-Brandon

<< Go To Part 1 Go To Part 3 >>

Happy New Year: A New Contributor Joins Linux FUD

Ok… I know, I know… it’s been over 7 months since my last post! I have been busy with my personal life, work, and Visual Basic .NET night classes that I’ve been taking for work, which barely left me with a social life, but classes are done now and I think I’ll have more time. I have been commenting or replying to others as much as I can, though.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

With the New Year comes a new thing: a new writer joins this blog in my quest to squash FUD towards Linux. Brandon lives in the Dallas Metroplex in Texas and has much more experience than I do in Linux… and lives much more south than I do! ) We have very similar technical backgrounds and I’m sure we’ll work well as a team. He will post whenever he can on no particular schedule… like me! )

So let’s welcome Brandon to the team! And if you are interested in joining us as a part-time or occasional writer, contact us.

– Kevin Guertin

——

Greetings all! My name is Brandon, I use Ubuntu exclusively for my personal computing, and I’ve volunteered to assist Kevin in maintaining the Linux FUD blog. By way of introduction, I would like to share my own conversion story.

My experience with computing began in the era of the Commodore 64 and the Apple IIe. I never had to use punch cards, but I do remember saving data to cassette tape. I learned how to program in BASIC on our home computer, which ran on MS-DOS 2.1! Over time, I migrated through the various releases of DOS and graduated from BASIC A to the more procedural QBasic. I tinkered with assembly language, removed the sound commands from gorilla.bas on the school computers (my apologies, Mrs. Hanes), and even learned how to add mouse support to a batch program.

In a nutshell, I “grew up” on DOS and BASIC. I was not a fan of the early members of the Windows family, however. Windows 3.x was slow and Win95/98 was buggy. The stability and security of NT 4.0 won me over and I became a huge fan of NT. For a variety of reasons I continued to use it without major upgrade for nearly a decade.

My interest in Linux began around 1996 or so, when two individuals, a coworker and a schoolmate, independently tried to convert me away from NT. I was vehemently resistant at first, but the more I read about it, the more I entertained the thought of switching. I eventually bought (yes, actually paid for) a copy of Red Hat Linux 5.0, but my experiments with it and subsequently with Slackware were less than successful. Though I was unconvinced that Linux was good enough for daily use, I did see its potential value as a platform for computation-intensive applications.

A few years later, a work assignment presented the perfect opportunity to show off some of those QBasic skills. To my surprise, beginning with Windows 2000, QBasic was no longer being bundled with the OS. To complete my project, I gained access to one of the Solaris machines and learned Perl as a replacement language. Though this had nothing to do with Linux per se, I became much better acquainted with Unix in general and eventually traded my Win2K work laptop for a shiny new Sun Station…ok, the “shiny” part was a joke, really, but it was new. Besides Perl, I started making heavy use of awk, sed, and other utilities. I finally had my command line back and with some very powerful tools to boot.

The more I read about the state of Linux over the years, the more I was impressed and I started running Knoppix to try out the new OS before committing to it. After that, there was no question left in my mind that Linux would be my next platform of choice. I was still not impressed with Red Hat, however, so I narrowed my short list to Suse and Ubuntu.

When I purchased a new laptop in 2006, I decided to try Ubuntu first. I thought that I would end up with SUSE in the end, but Ubuntu was making serious headlines and, true to its word, everything “just worked”. I never did install SUSE. Since then, I’ve converted my wife and my parents to Ubuntu and have had several friends express an interest in the recent past.

I do not think my conversion story is all that unique and it is certainly not entertaining or inspirational. No, I wanted to tell my story because it illustrates fear, uncertainty and doubt at various levels. Fear that Linux will not survive long-term. Uncertainty that it will suit my needs. Doubt that I will be able to see my data later if I decide to switch again. The decision to convert 100% was neither quick nor easy. When I look back on it, I recognize that the decision was swayed in both directions by the articles I read and the people with whom I spoke.

Therein lies my interest in contributing to this blog, to help eliminate FUD, both intrinsic and intentional. More on that to come.

Until next time, Happy New Year!

I’m Still Alive…

I would like to apologize for the lack of blogging here on Linux FUD. I can’t seem to find the time anymore to write anything with a full time job that requires traveling and other personal commitments. My priorities have changed drastically this year. I haven’t given up entirely… I will post whenever I can fit it in and whenever I have something worthwhile to write.

If anyone is interested in joining this blog as a writer (you don’t have to be an Ubuntu-only user, any distribution will do), you are more than welcome to join. Send me an email (see the Contact section) and we can work something out. This blog averages about 600-800 pageviews per day.

Thank you for understanding and here’s to hoping someone will be interested in becoming a writer for Linux FUD… pass me my beer.