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
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