28 December 2007

Openstreetmap.org

I've spent the best part of today with a friend walking the streets of my village holding a GPS, then using the trace to add the missing streets on openstreetmap.org. I have to say that although it took a bit of getting used to how to enter the data, it's actually very easy once you get to grips with it. There are more sophisticated ways of adding/editing data available but I was just using the flash-based editor that works within a suitable browser, such as firefox. My own street now appears, and some others are at the time of writing sitting in a render queue and should appear in the next couple of hours. This is just a small step towards keeping high-quality information available for all to download/use as they see fit.

However it's clear that while larger cities are fairly well covered in openstreetmap.org, small villages often have only through-routes on them, so there is a lot of work still to do. I also notice that many roads are shown but which still required labels (such as a name!), even in the cities. It's actually very easy to edit the information so I would encourage people to head on over, create an account and update any omissions/errors in their area. Adding information such as street names requires nothing other than local knowledge, whereas adding roads really requires walking them with a suitable GPS device to get an accurate track. If you're walking down the middle of the road to get an accurate track you might get funny looks from people (especially motorised tin-box occupants), I now wish I had worn my yellow high-visibility jacket and just said that I was 'surveying', rather than try to explain things to people!

Just think - if even only 10% of people add just one street (such as the one they live on), we'd have the whole world covered pretty accurately. I'll try and find the time to seek out places in need of further details and walk/cycle them, it's a good excuse to get out and get some gentle excercise, then share its virtues with the rest of the world!

27 December 2007

A technology preview of 2008

OK, it's ages since I've blogged. This is largely because I've found I have very little spare time to think about stuff, but as I've got a few days off I thought it was time I wrote another entry.

Firstly, a look back at 2007. For me personally it has been a very eventful year. Back in March, Nicolas Edward made his first appearance in the world, and he has been an absolute joy to be with, one of the most chilled out people of his age that I've met. Now that he's 9.5 months old he's into absolutely everything, holding on to furniture and standing up (but not sitting back down again, except by accident!) and putting everything you can think of into his mouth (including the muddy wheels of his pushchair!). He's also noticeably copying actions, for example clapping his hands together and hitting the floor (he's still working on patting his head with one hand while simultaneously rubbing his tummy). The other big event is that I gave up on Motorola this year and am now working for Airvana doing 3G femto-basestations. This has turned out to be a good move, as I'm in a relatively politics-free environment now and able to actually concentrate on the technology - and a lot of new technology there is for me get to grips with! I've now got hands-on experience of embedded Linux development, learnt about SMTP and learnt about some of the more esoteric aspects of the 3GPP standards. We use Debian as our desktop operating system and for development, and it works great.

So, onto my technology predictions for 2008.

1. LED lighting will become mainstream (See Here).
OK 2007 saw some big advances in LED lighting technology to the point that there are now LED-based spotlights available on the market, however these are currently very expensive and not bright enough for general use (but if the figures given are to be believed, they are efficient). I predict that 2008 will bring further improvements so that much brighter models will be available in a year's time. LED Christmas tree lights have gone mainstream this year (as any unfortunate souls trying to buy them will have discovered, the shops are full of legacy incandescent versions while LED ones have sold out). Expect to see LED spotlights bright enough to replace halogen spots available in 2008, although probably at a significant price premium. Also, expect many governments annouce the banning of incandescent lights from sale in the next couple of years, as a means of boosting the environmental point scoring of their party. Um, I mean as a means of reducing the carbon footprint of their nations.

2. Flash-based hard drives will become mainstream
We have already seen, there are a small number of these devices available already (e.g. from here) but they are currently very expensive. However their advantages over mechanical rotating disks make them very compelling for both server and laptop use. They consume a lot less power and are silent, and they are also mechanically robust. I expect within a couple of years the majority of laptops will come with flash-based drives just because they can contribute to a much improved battery life. They also seem to have higher performance than rotating disks, making them suitable for server use, and this is something that is only likely to improve. A rotating disk is limited by the speed at which it can rotate and at which the head can move to the correct position for reading, but a flash device has no such limitation. Simply by reading separate chips in parallel it's possible to increase the access speed immensely. Also, I expect to see architectural changes to computers to remove the ATA interface and the bottleneck that it represents - this is really a form of legacy bus support but which will seem increasingly irrelevant with flash drives.

3. Many more computer devices will come with GNU/Linux pre-installed
This year we have seen the One Laptop Per Child project and the Asus EEE PC, both designed with a Linux-based operating system. We have also seen Dell start shipping PCs with Ubuntu installed. I predict more and more devices to be designed specifically for Linux. Microsoft have done an excellent job of promoting Linux by releasing Vista, which is almost universally agreed to be a slow resource hog that adds nothing useful to the user. Now that people realise that there are multiple alternatives that just work so much better, expect to see many more systems (especially low cost systems) designed specifically to run with various flavours of Linux.

4. Internet video will become usable
Video over internet has been touted for a while as being the next big thing. However, people point to youtube.com as an example of this. The typical youtube experience is of watching poor quality video through a postcard-sized box on a very large display. Not exactly appealing. Also, for the majority of operating systems it won't work out of the box as it requires the proprietary flash player.
For an alternative approach, have a look at the Miro project. This is a recent discovery for me, and it is a real revelation. I can subscribe to 'channels' which download videos in the background and provide me a list of already downloaded videos that I can watch. Many of the channels provide content in HD format (which is more than I can watch on my "HD-Ready" TV currently). There are channels available from all over the world, although I would say that the system needs more videos from countries other than the USA to be a really useful general-purpose entertainment platform.
There is just one thing remaining - the widespread adoption of free, open standards for video such as Ogg Theora or Dirac for video distribution. Only when this happens will everyone, worldwide, be able to have an "out of the box" experience without having to download additional software to support it.

5. Many people will become concerned about Google's near monopoly on information retrieval and search
Well, this is something I am beginning to become concerned about. In the software world there is a sufficiently large selection of freely available software to cover virtually every possible use. However, the same cannot be said for information content. Although the Wikipedia project aiming to make a freely available online encyclopedia is well-known and very successful, similar projects to cover mapping (such as Open Street Map), earth imaging (Marble) and general information search just aren't as high profile as similar (proprietary) products provided by Google. Google's success is based on providing good products at zero cost to the user, but the information upon which they have built this remains firmly in the hands of Google and is not freely available for others to use as they like.

04 September 2007

I Crashed My Fighter Jet Near My House

For those of you who are familiar with Google Earth, they have just released an upgrade which includes a flight simulator. Now I'm not really into flight simulators normally, but this just caught my attention and I had to have a go. The first time I set off from the default location (Kathmandu) and had a cruise around the Himalayas while I tried to get used to the controls. It was a bit difficult at first but after a while I began to get the hang of it. After crashing a couple of times I decided to try somewhere a bit closer to home. The nearest airport you can take off from is London Heathrow, so I tried this and made a few passes over central London.

Now this isn't really a fully-featured flight simulator with full integration into Google Earth, although it does download the real image data and present it as the terrain beneath you (or above you if you happen to fly upside-down). What I found was that once you are airborne there is no way to go back to the normal map mode (at least which I could find), so if you end up getting lost then you're on your own. However with my knowledge of the South-East of England being fairly good as well as my familiarity of the colours of different parts of the region as seen in Google Earth, I decided to see if I could fly over to my house just north of Cambridge. Actually, whilst on route I decided as a measure of my flying skill to see if I could crash into my house! Now the one good thing is that when you leave the flight simulator (either because you have crashed or got bored, or presumably landed safely although I haven't yet tested this option) it leaves you in the normal mode looking at the earth in the position you were in when you left the simulator. So by doing this it's possible to see exactly where you are.

Now I'm going to brag about my flying skills - when I figured out where I had landed, it was bang in the middle of Cottenham, probably about 200 yards from my house as the crow flies. Not bad for a first attempt!

I haven't yet ceased to be amazed by the Google Earth software, it just keeps getting better and better and the new features keep blowing me away. OK, flight simulators aren't particularly new and this isn't a particularly amazing one, but the fact that it's integrated into the software is great in itself, but I wonder where this will end up if taken to its logical conclusion. Presumably future functionality might include recording your flight, with the ability to stop and look at the places over which you fly. Integrated photo albums might be available, as well as wikipedia-type entries about the locations. A wider range of aircraft might become available (there are only two at present), and maybe one day you'll be able to fly to the moon, or Mars (both of which are navigable in Google Maps style Here and Here respectively, although not currently in a format like Google Earth). You can now view the night sky in Google Earth but not while flying, as it only seems to support daytime mode at the moment - it would be good to add real-time day/night data for an extra challenge. What about seeing the Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis from the air? Or circumnavigating the world in a hot-air balloon, with real air-speed data estimates dictating your path? What about super-imposing other weather data to make your rumble-pack rumble when you hit a patch of turbulence? Or to travel in yet-to-be-invented vehicles such as a flying car (refuelling stops obligatory of course) which would allow you to pass through tunnels and under bridges. In short, it could become a whole virtual world but which doesn't have the same limitations as the real one.

I for one hope that Google Earth continues to be enhanced with some of these ideas and others - it really is a remarkable concept, made possible only by the widespread availability of cheap computers and broadband connections.

03 August 2007

One Laptop Per Child - the most important development in computers for a decade?

The recent decision of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project to go into full production for the first time marks a watershed in computer usage in the home. For the best part of two decades, home computers have been dominated by one company - Microsoft - and although many incremental improvements have happened during that time there hasn't really been a seismic shift in the approach to computers since the rise of the internet. I believe that the OLPC project, if it succeeds in its aims, will mark a new era of computer use. Let me outline the reasons why I believe this is the case.

1. It brings computers to a completely new section of society
The intended recipients of the OLPC are schoolchildren, mainly from poor nations, most of whom will never have had the opportunity to use a computer before. Most of these will benefit greatly from their exposure to modern technology and what it has to offer in terms of communication, learning and an ability to see what's happening in the wider world. A small proportion of these children will grow up to have successful careers in computing and related technologies, which as well as empowering these individuals is likely to invigorate the economies in which they operate. This simply would not be possible if they never had the opportunity to learn in this way. A much larger proportion will be empowered to go on to careers where computers are an essential tool of the job rather than an end in itself - virtually all office-based jobs involve computers, and nearly every company can benefit from crucial functions (accounting, stock-keeping etc.) being computerised. Whilst these functions already exist, the OLPC project provides a means of bringing these skills to people who otherwise would not have this opportunity.

2. It brings a new, fresh approach to the desktop
The desktop paradigm has changed very little on the last 10 years. People are familiar with icons representing files or applications and possibly 'folders' (directories) but the approach of the Sugar interface used by OLPC is more human-orientated - icons represent other individuals in the user's sphere of acquaintance who are online. The tools it provides are geared very much towards learning, so for example many applications have a "View Source" capability to facilitate this. The 'source' might be the source code for an application or it might be the raw HTML of a web page for example, but it encourages children to look beneath the surface and investigate. Many of these children will develop their own enhancements for their own purposes, and share these with their neighbours.

3. The hardware design spec is radically different from the current 'norm'
For as long as I have been on this planet (and even before), Moore's law has held true. There has been an incessant push for hardware to become more and more powerful which shows no sign of abating (although it's clear that the method by which this is accomplished is changing now that multi-core processors are the norm). This has led to a large number of benefits for users. However computers have stayed resolutely in the office, or at least with laptops in a clean, dry environment where mains electricity is available. The OLPC breaks away from this totally - it is designed to be rugged and used where mains electricity might not be available or at least not in every home. The display has been specially developed to be usable in full sunlight, an important consideration for children who receive their schooling in the open air. The focus is on power saving and maximising battery life - a simple processor is more than powerful enough to run desktop applications.

4. It will mark the introduction of mesh networking to the mass market.
Mesh networking is not a completely new technology, but in the wealthy parts of the world the wide availability of broadband internet at affordable prices means that there just isn't a huge requirement for using it. However in rural locations in developing nations this is not the case. The ability for a single internet connection to be shared among potentially hundreds of users makes the difference between having and not having access to the internet, and all the services and benefits that come with it. Mesh networking enables the reach of the internet to be massively increased without the need for a large amount of expensive infrastructure to be installed. It may not represent a totally reliable, always available internet at any particular location but this is less important as the children will still be able to research and communicate at least some of the time. Their eyes will therefore be opened to the wider world.


5. By increasing production volumes of lower-end components, it will bring the entry-level cost down thus reducing the barriers to adoption of home computers around the world.
By reaching to a sector of the market that is, frankly, huge - economies of scale should mean that the cost comes down. The aim is for the laptop to have a bill of materials of less that USD100. Currently it is more expensive than this but over time it's realistic to expect this to come down. However this will also have knock-on effects for other products aimed at different markets. Ultimately, every market sector should benefit from this.

6. It actively promotes open learning.
OLPC is built upon a version of Red Hat's GNU/Linux distribution, which can be freely downloaded by anyone and shared out. The fact that every part of it is Free Software is vitally important here - no one company can lock in the users to their products (in the way that Microsoft has done very succesfully, albeit illegally, with Windows and related products). Red Hat is just one of a large number of organisations developing GNU/Linux-based offerings. However due to the innovative licensing of these products, enhancements developed by one organisation can be used by any other organisation. The net result is a bit like a mutually beneficial cooperative. My personal favourite GNU/Linux distribution is Kubuntu (a version of Ubuntu using the KDE desktop rather than Gnome which is standard in the default ubuntu). However the vast majority of the software is common between Ubuntu and Red Hat (and indeed other distributions). Each distribution takes what it believes to be the best applications, makes them even better then makes money by providing support services. Expect to see other distributions using variants of the Sugar interface - although it was developed specifically for OLPC, other projects can tweak and optimise it for other, different markets. That's a win-win situation, both for the consumer and for the individual developers. Some of the enhancements made by others will be adopted by the OLPC project itself in future versions.

24 May 2007

Home working - a boon to productivity?

As a general rule I work from home one day a week. There are a number of reasons for this:

(1) It saves me a significant amount of travel time
(2) It saves me the cost of a train ticket
(3) I can get on with work with few, if any, distractions
(4) The coffee is better
(5) I can take my daughter to school

In general terms, the time I save not having to travel to work is extra time I spend working. On top of this, having fewer distractions means that I am much more productive with my time, so it's a win-win scenario. There are of course some things that I really need to be in the office for - meetings of various types, and also to be available for people to come and discuss issues with me. This is all part and parcel of the job, but when I have a specific task to accomplish they can feel more like distractions than anything else.

However there are times when it doesn't go as smoothly as I'd like. This morning I logged into the internal network as usual and was able to pick up my email, but then it all went dead. I tested basic connectivity (I could surf the web, which proved that the local wireless link was working, the ADSL Router was successfully connected to the internet, DNS and local DHCP were working etc) so it was definitely a problem with the software for accessing the company's network. After trying various things I resorted to a telephone call to our support teams, who after going through all the basic networking possibilities (why is it they can't trust me when I say that the problem is neither with the Wifi nor the ADSL link?) recommended enabling a service then rebooting the PC. After this, it all came back to life.

So yet another cycle of having to close down all my applications, reboot the entire PC and then wait for ages for everything to start up again, followed by trying to figure out what I was doing previously. What is it with the mentality of 'reboot the PC' after making any changes? Anyone would think this is the way things should happen.

Still, at least I could drink the coffee that I had roasted myself last night while I was doing all of this. It all didn't seem quite as painful as a result...

20 May 2007

Proprietary vs Free software - an overview of the current state of the market.

As you will know, I am a big fan on GNU/Linux, and although I have tried a number of distributions in my time my current favourite is Kubuntu, as it combines an almost trivially easy installation and configuration process with the powerful KDE desktop environment. However, due to the requirements of my employers over the years it has to be said that I have spend significantly more time staring at a Microsoft Windows desktop than a Linux desktop. I'd like to outline my view of the current state of computer desktop operating systems, and make a few predictions for the future. I will not in this post consider server operating systems as the dynamics of the server market are quite different from the desktop.

The current situation, on the surface, looks much like it has done for the last 15 years. One company, Microsoft, has dominated the market almost to the total exclusion of all others. When people think about a computer, they think about Microsoft Windows. They expect to see a button labelled "Start" at the bottom left of the screen and small number of icons labelled "Internet", "My Computer" and so forth. The exact look and feel has changed a few times but the basic idea is the same. To the non-technical user any departure from this familiarity would represent a step into the unknown. I've not tried it, but I suspect if I were to move the taskbar to the left hand side (my current work PC is configured like this to make better use of the widescreen display) and ask an average user to use this, they would succeed but very slowly and uncomfortably. It represents a departure from what they are familiar with, although not such a huge departure that they couldn't figure it out and adapt. There are a core of Mac users who use a different operating system but the likelihood is that most of these will also be familiar with Microsoft Windows though friends, employers, internet caf├Ęs and the like. There is also a small technically savvy core of users who use other operating systems - mainly various GNU/Linux distributions, but the BSDs and Solaris probably also feature on this list.

However, I think we are seeing an accelerating sea-change. Until Microsoft Vista was released, there were essentially no changes to the user experience for the overwhelming majority of computer users since late 2001 - that's just over 5 years. At the start of this time, GNU/Linux really was just for the technically savvy or the curious. However over time, the ecosystem surrounding it has grown and the user experience has improved at what I can only describe as a phenomenal rate. Installation has become trivially easy, most distributions come with a sane set of defaults that require no configuration, the desktop environments (multiple) have improved in their usability and the range of high quality software to perform almost any task has increased immensely. Underneath, support for hardware has improved to the point where the vast majority of hardware 'just works'; this is as it should be, but in some cases that's not thanks to the efforts of the manufacturer of the hardware. My honest impression is that in late 2006, the GNU/Linux experience was far smoother than the Microsoft Windows experience for the vast majority of users, when comparing like for like.

So why hasn't everyone switched to GNU/Linux? The short answer is resistance to change, but conversations with Microsoft Windows users have revealed the following being given as reasons:

"Everyone else still uses Windows, so I don't want to be non-standard"
"Linux doesn't have any decent games"
"I can't use Microsoft Office on Linux"
"Last time I tried, my hardware wasn't supported"
"My customers want Windows so I'm sticking with it for the sake of my business"
"I use Dreamweaver|Adobe Acrobat|Photoshop which doens't run on Windows"
"The computer came with it, why should I change?"

Now let us fast forward a tiny bit to 2007 - Microsoft has released a long-awaited new operating system. And trying to identify what benefits it brings to the consumer is where I get writer's block. Improvements for Microsoft's ability to lock out competitors? Yes. A reason for people to bring more business to the hardware vendors? For sure. A "my new computer is shinier than your old one" feeling for some, definitely. A nice big kick-back from the entertainment industry to Microsoft for it's lock-down features aimed a preventing copyright infringement? No doubt. But for the user the only positive thing I can think of is a shiny new 3-D user interface, for those who have expensive enough hardware to support it. Now I'm going to be honest here - I've never actually seen Vista running, so I can only go by what I've read here but people say the 3-D interface is nice. But even such well-known companies as Dell have re-started shipping their PCs with XP instead as an option, and are about to start selling some of their range with Ubuntu pre-installed, at least in the US. Times are changing.

So here's a list of the bad things Vista brings the consumer that I've read about:

Lack of familiarity through a change of user-interface.
Reduced battery life on laptops
Difficulty burning CD-Roms
Won't run on anything but the newest, most expensive hardware
Attempts at locking out the user when using supposedly pirated multimedia end up locking her out when using any multimedia
Lack of compatibility with existing applications
An approach to security which is very annoying to the user
Lack of hardware compatibility
Expensive

So the simple question is that if people are going to have to upgrade from Windows XP, they are going to see a few changes anyway so they might as well switch to GNU/Linux instead and save a few hundred pounds/euros/dollars. Here is a list of what they will find:

Good battery life on laptops
Good hardware compatibility
Runs well on older hardware
A slight change of user interface, depending on chosen distribution/desktop environment
Doesn't attempt to lock out the user in any circumstances
Free (as in zero cost)
A security approach that works and isn't intrusive
A very good selection of applications, although for a few people their favourite application won't be supported.

So where does this mean things are likely to go in the future?

Well, there is another revolution taking place that could make the choice of operating system less relevant. That is the shift to online applications. The most advanced proponent of this is Google. Just take a look at some of the things that Google has done:

Google Earth - works on GNU/Linux as well as on Microsoft Windows. This has wasted many hours of my life.

Google Maps - works in (almost) any browser. The mapping code is even available for others to use in their websites, leading to some very cool uses. My favourites are flood.firetree.net which tells you which parts of the planet will be under water for a given rise in sea level, and fillthathole.org.uk for reporting road surface defects in the UK.

Google Docs and Spreadsheets - Write any Office-style text document or spreadsheet from within your browser, using the industry-standard Open Document Format (ODF).

Google Search - seems so far ahead of the competition and it is no surprise that this is a huge money-maker for Google. They are not the first to implement search by a long way but others tried to monetise it by adding intrusive adverts that annoyed the user.

Google Checkout - provides payment services for online retailers.

YouTube - recently bought by Google and rapidly making the old-style entertainment industries less relevant.

...and much more. Of course Google are the only company with some cool online services that aim to revolutionise the way the internet works. Many others have tried to move into this market, but for one reason or another have been less successful (Yahoo! anyone? Or even Microsoft?). But innovative websites such as Cannonical's Launchpad provides project management tools for Free Software projects of which Ubuntu (unsurprisingly) is the largest. These have a much smaller niche but are essentially following the same model of an online approach to a computing resource requirement.

So will Microsoft be able to fight back? In short, not if it continues to treat its customers like criminals to be fleeced for as much money as possible. It's been a very lucrative approach for them until now, but its days are clearly numbered unless it can develop in a completely new direction. No longer when it releases the latest and greatest of its wares do people think 'Wow', I must have that.

04 May 2007

02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0

The title of this post is a hexademical number. It is not a controversial number in any sense, but adding a few more digits at the start would turn it into a controversial number. So my question to you is, is my publishing of this number in any way illegal? No, because the controversy only exists in another jurisdiction, other that the one I reside in. It's perfectly possible that the hoster of this blog site may be required to remove this post because they do reside in such a jurisdiction, but that's not my problem. Let me explain.


In the USA there is a piece of legislation called the DMCA (google for it if you've not heard of it). Among it's provisions, residents of the USA are prohibited from distributing anything that " is (or is a component of) a circumvention technology". This is part of a hexadecimal key, now revoked, that can be used in decrypting HD-DVD discs. Using this key and appropriate software, I can decrypt, and therefore watch, any HD-DVD disc that uses this key. If I were resident in the USA, then I would be in breach of this law.


In fact, I'm about to blatantly break that law again: 0.


My challenge to the MPAA's lawyers is to argue that, if I were resident in the USA, this publication is illegal. If they fail in that, then they surely have no argument that publication of the whole key (just another number) is illegal?


0 is a part of the key too, and if you do a search on google for "09-F9" (yet another hexadecimal number) you can find out a bit more about this.


Note that I have been very careful in this posting not to reveal the real value of this hexadecimal number, as even if you put the various parts I've hinted at together, you don't have the whole picture. I will leave it to the readers to do their own research if they wish to find the whole number.

30 April 2007

Seamless Hardware Support is now the Top Priority for GNU/Linux

I have just installed a PCI wireless card from a company that I'd previously not heard of into an old PC, and booted the PC into a Xubuntu GNU/Linux Live distribution. I wanted to find out if the card was supported by Ubuntu (Xubuntu is a variant of Ubuntu, but using the lightweight XFCE desktop which makes it more suitable for use with older hardware). After booting up, it took a couple of mouse clicks to enable the wireless card, I entered the security details of my access point and 'voila', I was connected. It really could not have been easier. This was in sharp contrast to previous attempts with cards from different manufacturers.

So what was special about this particular card? In short, it was ordered from a supplier (The Linux Emporium) who make a business out of selecting hardware that is known to be compatible with Linux and selling to the general public. So, I could be fairly sure that this card would have a good level of support. In fact, the card was supplied with very detailed instructions from Linux Emporium themselves about what I might need to do to get it up and running; it looks like these were worst case instructions that you might need to follow if you were using an older version of Linux. As it happens, I was using a late release candidate of Xubuntu 7.04, otherwise known as Feisty Fawn, which was released just last week. As far as being up to date is concerned, you don't get more up to date than that without having to do a lot of the work yourself.

It is true that over the 4 years that I have been using various GNU/Linux distributions, I have seen a huge improvement in the level of support for hardware. It used to be the case that virtually no manufacturers of graphics cards, chipsets, WiFi cards, cameras, printers and so forth provided Linux drivers for their wares. Now it seems, either the Free Software community have reverse engineered proprietary drivers and written fully functional Free drivers, or the manufacturers themselves have provided them or at the very least provided full specifications to enable others to do so.

There are a few glaring exceptions to this. Nvidia provide a fairly good quality set of drivers for Linux, but these are proprietary and no distributor of Linux stands a chance of being able to support these as they don't have access to the source code - they are totally at the mercy of Nvidia to fix bugs, security issues and the like and provide updated drivers. They are also reliant on Nvidia not to drop support for older chiipsets - see my earlier post on this matter. The other main graphics card manufacturer ATI (now owned by AMD) also provide proprietary drivers for Linux, although the general consensus seems to be that they are not particularly good (I don't own an ATI card so have not tried them myself). Out of the graphics chip manufacturers only Intel provide good, Free drivers for Linux, but their chips are not as capable as those from Nvidia or ATI so are of little appeal to gamers for example.

When I ask myself what barriers there are to the adoption of GNU/Linux, it's clear that from an applications perspective there is very little that Linux cannot provide but which other operating systems can - OpenOffice.org is an excellent office productivity suite similar to Microsoft Office; Mozilla Firefox and Konqueror are excellent web browsers; Evolution and Kontact provide fully-featured email and calendaring functionality; Amarok and Rhythmbox are excellent music players similar in style to Apple's iTunes; F-Spot and digiKam manage photos admirably; there are mature apps for bittorrent, web development, software development, CD-burning, playing vidoes, watching TV that equal or surpass the equivalent on proprietary operating systems. However, what does still occur far more often is that people attempt to install their chosen GNU/Linux distribution onto their laptop, only to find that there is one or more piece of hardware that isn't supported. This, in almost all cases, is enough to make them go back to their proprietary OS, maybe only to try again a year later. It may be their WiFi, scanner, printer, graphics card or something else but it only takes one failure to put people off. It's clear to me that this must now be the number one priority to adoption of GNU/Linux on the desktop. There has been a suggestion that the next release of Ubuntu (codenamed The Gutsy Gibbon) should focus on this.

According to this article it looks like Dell may be about to start offering Ubuntu pre-installed on some of their models. It also suggests that they understand the hardware compatibility issue well, and are making an effort to ensure that all of their hardware choices are supported by Linux. Given that many Dell owners will at some stage try GNU/Linux out, the last thing Dell wants is to have a reputation for things not working. This will persuade a proportion of potential buyers to look elsewhere, so their bottom line depends on good cross-platform hardware support.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having a piece of hardware that isn't supported in Linux, please bug the manufacturers about this, rather than the provider of your distribution. The manufacturers won't provide support if they don't believe the Linux market for their hardware is big enough, so they need to know that you are part of that market and wish to use their hardware. After all, you won't buy from them again nor recommend them to your friends. Due to the nature of Free Software it's hard to know the true size of that market - it's undoubtedly a lot bigger than any 'official' figures will be able to tell you.

03 April 2007

The Hijacking of the Green Movement

From an early age, I have worried about the environment. I have seen how our natural environment is gradually being eroded, polluted, destroyed, species made extinct and many other forms of damage - all as a result of the actions of man. For sure, in my early years my understanding of this was fairly limited. I was aware of traffic pollution, of oil tankers spilling their cargo being reported on the news, of the risk of extinction of various species and so forth. At some point, I became aware of the risk of global warming due to man's addition of large quantities of carbon dioxide and other chemicals to the atmosphere. All of this bothered me, and I vowed to do everything I realistically could to avoid making the situation worse. I have even been known to get on my soap-box and comment on those who flagrantly abuse the environment out of their own material greed, or in many cases, sheer apathy and carelessness when with little or no effort they could be more responsible.

And then, being 'green' suddenly became trendy. I can't pinpoint an exact date when this happened, but if pressed I would say it became clear this was happening during the latter half of 2006, although in reality some things were happening long before then. Politicians started espousing their green credentials in an attempt to win votes. Large multinationals started using the green message in their advertising, and many made big announcements about how they were now 'doing their bit' for the environment. Environmental activists suddenly seemed no longer to be shouting from the sidelines, but were a central part of the action. Documentaries about the environment started appearing much more frequently on the TV.

And yet, despite this bluster, I am left with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction, and at times despair. Toyota will use the fact that they sell the Prius Hybrid car with its improved miles per gallon compared to similar petrol-only cars to claim they are environmentally friendly, and yet their Chelsea tractors (4-wheel-drive vehicles) outsell the Prius by a huge margin. Tesco tell you they are working to use less energy in their stores, and that they will soon be labelling their food with 'food miles' - and yet they continue to develop huge out-of-town stores, thus making town centres like ghost towns where you can't go shopping unless you have a car. BP will tell you that they are investing huge amounts of money into solar panel technology, and yet they still continue to be at heart an oil company, whose only real financial interest is in selling as much oil as possible. Local authorities are even replacing perfectly good bus services with 'park and ride' schemes, which are the worst of all worlds - you still need to use a car to get into town, but you also incur the time and inconvenience of making part of your journey by bus. David Cameron is even installing a micro wind turbine in his house, an ostentatious act which will cost far more and be far less effective than simply installing more loft insulation. And the biofuels industry, while on the face of it providing a real, near-carbon-neutral alternative to petroleum, is actually guilty of wholescale destruction of the Indonesian rainforests for palm oil plantations, in the process releasing vastly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than could possibly be saved by the reduction in petroleum-derived fuel. They are also largely responsible for inflating the price of maize and wheat on the world market, as the demand for feedstock for ethanol production increases - and causing hunger and hardship among certain groups who rely on these as their staple diet. This puts food and fuel production in direct competition with each other - there is only so much arable land available, and to supply the UK with biofuel would require vastly more land to be planted with oilseed rape than we actually have.

Where is this all leading us? There seems to me to be a very real danger that these high-profile conversions to the green cause will pull the wool over our eyes and convince us with marketing waffle, thus distracting us from the real issues. The individuals and organisations involved will convince the naive majority that they're doing something real, whereas they will in fact just carry on almost exactly as before.

So my question is, who is actually proposing the real solutions to the problem? When was the last time a politician tried to get elected by telling us we should drive more-efficient cars, or use public transport instead for some of our journeys? Where are the companies that are telling us they are setting up in city centres so as to reduce the need for their customers to travel, not to mention the convenience of not needing to use a car, therefore expanding their potential customer base very significantly? Where are the high-profile environmental activists who refuse to travel by air to the latest environmental conferences in far away lands? Where is the new legislation that requires all new dwellings to be built to standards similar to the Passivhaus standard developed in Germany, which is so well insulated that it eliminates the need for expensive central heating systems to be installed? Where are the tax measures to encourage use of environmentally less damaging products? OK, I will concede a very small amount of credit to Gordon Brown in his recent budget speech on that one, but he did the absolute minimum he could and still be seen to be doing something. All the real solutions to the problem (and their are many, I have not seen any one solution that solves more than a small part of the problem, but when many are used together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) are strangely absent from the mainstream and can only be found when you look in the places you have always found them - small co-operatives, individuals with a passion, the third world.

Despite appearances, nothing has changed at all.


Copyright © 2007 Donald Allwright
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

29 March 2007

The dangers of proprietary software

In recent times I have become a great fan of Kubuntu, a distribution of GNU/Linux that is based upon Debian GNU/Linux which uses the KDE desktop environment to provide a pre-configured, easy to use desktop operating system suitable for general use particularly by those who wouldn't consider themselves to be experts in computer operating systems. The current released version is 6.10, also known as 'Edgy Eft' but I am currently running the beta version of the next version known as 'Feisty Fawn'. This has proved to be remarkably stable for beta software, and does everything I could possibly want with remarkably little intervention required to configure it. However, a few days ago I had a nasty shock. I downloaded and installed the latest updates (as I usually do), continued to use my PC as usual and then shut it down for the night. The next morning when I tried to boot up, I was left with no graphical desktop and little clue as to what had gone wrong.



Now I consider myself to be in the vast middle ground between novice and expert, but it took me quite a while (and an experimental fresh install to a spare partition to rule out my own inept tweaking) to work out that the problem was with the proprietary driver I was using with my NVIDIA graphics card. One of the updates had installed a later version of the proprietary driver, but unknown to me at the time, NVIDIA had just dropped support from this driver for a large number of their less recent cards. Given that my graphics card is less than 3 years old, I was somewhat dismayed about this.



Now it's true that NVIDIA do provide an even older driver series that supports my card (but with reduced functionality) but to pay good money to a company for their product only for them to effectively pull the rug out from under me is, to say the least a bit of an insult. Now to be fair to NVIDIA, they have subsequently clarified that the previous version of the driver which I was using (and which the Ubuntu folks had kindly packaged for my convenience) will continue to be supported, but this wasn't clear at the time. You could even quite justifiably say that as I was running beta software, this was, essentially, my own fault.



So why am I writing about this? Essentially, if I choose to run proprietary software then I am totally at the mercy of the provider to continue to support that software. In this particular case it is a kernel module and were any security issues to be found with it the consequences could be serious - and there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it, apart from ceasing to use that software. In many situations that would be next to impractical. However, I know from experience that I can have much greater confidence in the continued support for the Free software I use because, quite simply, there are a large number of organisations that support it, but failing that I can support it myself. After all, the four essential freedoms of Free software ensure that I am able to do this.



So having got my fingers burnt (along with many others) by this issue, I am increasingly wary of proprietary software. Although I try to achieve everything I possibly can using just Free software, there are still a few areas where this is less than easy. Graphics card drivers are one, as are Wi-Fi drivers (although there are a number of Wi-Fi solutions available now that don't require any proprietary software). For the rest, I find that the Free software stack (in my cased based on Kubuntu GNU/Linux, but there are many other options here) provides for my needs far better than any of the proprietary operating system environments I have tried to date. I do have very extensive experience of one proprietary operating system environment provider over nearly a couple of decades, but I have to say that I have no incentive to even try their latest offering. If their past behaviour is an accurate indication of their future behaviour then I am clear that they will use whatever method they can (including many illegal methods) to lock me in to their products and try to extract money from my at every opportunity. I would say 'Thanks but no thanks' to that, except that you can miss off the initial 'Thanks'.

Copyright © 2007 Donald Allwright
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.