Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Gnome or KDE?

I am a Gnome user. Gnome is fine, despite what Linus says. Yes, there isn't much customization allowed and often it tries a bit too hard to act like an bastardized twin of OSX, but who doesn't?

My wish list is short: just replace Nautilus with something usable, there is no point in “fixing” it, just give me something in 2009 at least half as powerful as Norton Commander was in 1991.

But Nautilus is just a minor annoyance - I don't find myself using file manager type of applications on Linux as much as I did on Windows, perhaps due to the fact that I don't wonder around the entire file system anymore: on Linux you quickly learn to live in your home directory and quickly access data directly from applications.

Nevertheless, off to KDE lands I went...

After playing with it for half a day I quickly went back despite the amazing feature in KDE that gives the focus to a control that currently is under the mouse. And oh yes, the beast is customizable in every way imaginable, and the default set of applications blows Gnome's counterparts away. But in the end, it doesn't matter.

I want back because I appreciated Gnome's directness and simplicity and its tendency to stay out of my way. I don't use those basic default programs, I use my own set of tools. I mostly don't even see or “feel” Gnome, even the main menu bar is a lot smaller than KDE's giant log with plethora of little icons and clunky and bold date/time widget. KDE's approach to user interface can be described as “visualizer of data structures”, it simply maps various configuration data to UI elements on screen. “Added a boolean? We better find a spot for a checkbox somewhere for it”. I can understand why programmers appreciate it.

Perhaps I only got lucky and I happened to have pedestrian, simple needs. I can launch my usual 4-5 applications with a single click or keypress, I can see what time it is and how much battery juice I have left, I can switch between windows and desktops. I can logout or fall into a standby mode. If they take away the ability to minimize or maximize windows, I won't even notice.

Gnome doesn't do a lot. Gnome is simple and weak on features. It knows only a handful of tricks but plays them very well.

Sometimes less is more, and with computer interfaces it almost always is.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Get yourself Ubuntu 8.04

Ubuntu 8.04 is out!

Canonical rules and Shuttleworth rocks! These guys made me feel like I am back to high school again, I believe the last time I was this excited was whenever Windows NT 4 and the latest OS/2 were about to come out. I urge my Russian comrades to reimburse Mark the millions they had him pay for his Souiz spaceflight: come on, how can you take money from the guy who's been so relentless at pulling all our computing experiences out of the current medieval cave we stuck in?

Is Ubuntu Ready?

You cannot possibly be serious if you ask this question. I mean come on – most of the world's population is using five year old XP, which cannot even be installed on a typical laptop without myriad of drivers and custom patches directly from Dell or Lenovo. I can't even think of anything of this size with such a painless installation process: network, video with 3D accelerated desktop, audio, wireless, printers and surrounding Windows servers – everything got detected and works like a charm with default settings. The thing only asked me about my name and which time zone I was in. Most Windows applications are harder to install than this. And hey, I am dealing with an operating system here. Even the most historically problematic area of power management works great: my ThinkPad suspends and resumes like a champ without any configuration tweaking and consumes fewer watts than before. When was the last time you heard someone say “I upgraded my operating system and got a longer battery life?” Yes Ubuntu 8.04 is that good.

Got some Windows-only software that you absolutely must keep? Check out VirtualBox - the first easy to use Linux-based virtualization software built for users, not just geeks: you'll be running both OSes at the same time. Virtualization is the only sane way to run Windows anyway, so you can take snapshots and roll back if it starts acting crazy and blasting you with popups and ads. VirtualBox even automatically maps your Linux home folder to a Windows share: you see, someone thought about this.

And did I mention that Ubuntu handles Windows networking better than Windows itself? Just imagine your life without waiting forever for a list of shares to appear (if you're lucky to find your Windows server in your "Network Neighborhood", it's not always there, isn't it? ;-)

What's New in 8.04?

Most of online media reports the exact same list of new features with Gnome 2.22 being the most important thing. Yea it's cool and all, but I don't think it's that interesting: you don't make money using Gnome so why should you care if they introduced a new “virtual file system layer”? You see, that is one of the problems with Linux: it always gets crappy press coverage, i.e. press does not target you when they talk about Linux. I bet Apple added a bunch of “virtual layers” all over Leopard too, but you hardly ever heard of them. That's right: leave that to programmers. Instead, they should be reporting about applications that we actually use. For one, you'd be happy to hear that new Ubuntu finally, after years of waiting... are you ready for this? ... comes with usable Open Office! That's right – you can actually use it now for reading and typing text because they finally managed not to screw the font rendering. Open Office now uses default system settings for fonts, like every other application in the world. And those fonts are the reason big enough to ditch Windows: even my Mac-loving wife is envious of my “beefy and tasty” fonts that make everything so much more readable, especially on a high-DPI display.

Besides, forget about the new: the “old” Ubuntu had plenty of treats to eat for millions of starved windows users, such as painless application installation and removal, nice UI and 3D-accelerated desktop, total absence of junkware, no-nonsense security and speed. Then there are thousands of high-quality programs and many more less polished ones than you can play with and uninstall in seconds without headaches.

What's wrong with Macs?

Nothing, really. I have one. It's very nice and works well. But I urge you to give Ubuntu a try anyway: you may like its font rendering better, just remember to switch it to slight hinting and sub-pixel smoothing in “Appearance” menu in Gnome. You may also discover how flexible everything is and you'll keep discovering little gems of adjustment here and there, ultimately ending up with something that fits your work flow much better than the default Steve-knows-it-all world of Apple. And if you're a programmer, you'll just find a bit more power available to you. Heck, you may even enjoy having decent screen savers that you don't have to pay for. Finally, Ubuntu runs on a hardware where OSX can't: there are some finest pieces of computing machinery out there such as Thinkpads: the Laptops from God.

What's wrong with Windows?

Nothing, really. But there was nothing really wrong with candles and horses too - lots of folks used to think that way - but that didn't stop nerds of old from switching to electric bulbs and automobiles anyway. Besides, if enough people ditch Windows, Microsoft may be forced to lay off thousands of wasted programmers and some of them will inevitably decide to build meaningful things, maybe creating a true AI, affordable personal jetpack or something. By using Windows you are personally slowing the pace of innovation in the world. Evolve already – get Ubuntu. Help us all get closer to Singularity :-)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Startup School 2008 Impressions

Startup School 2008 is over. The videos of the event I am sure will be posted all over the Internet tomorrow, thus there is no point for me to simply describe what happened, you can go and see for yourself: the early, albeit a bit rough, footage is already available on Justin TV.

Instead I'll just share my impressions of what I've seen and heard. I got to see famous Anybots robots in action and I met their famous creator Trevor Blackwell and many, many other people I've known forever but always wondered how they were like in real life, including Paul Graham himself. Trevor turned out to be a lot younger and easier to talk to than I previously imagined, I had no idea where I got that previous "crazy professor" picture from.

The speakers were all excellent, but Paul Buchheit's performance easily wins my heart. It was just that: a freaking masterpiece of a speech on a seemingly lightweight topic. If anyone wants to know how to work the audience so seamlessly, without any visible effort - watch Paul do it. Don't get me wrong, the crazy in-your-face punchy style of DHH and sleek and polished talk by Greg McAdoo were both fine examples of public speaking, but Paul is simply in another league: he can easily switch careers and get into entertainment industry or something. Go and watch him and laugh your ass off in the process.

By the way, I simply could not believe my eyes when I saw on average about 20% of the attendees spent a fair share of their time there surfing freaking reddit, slashdot and checking their emails. There was one dude right next to me who had Visual Studio open (yes, a fucking Visual Studio) and kept resizing an empty form non-stop without paying any attention to Jack Sheridan talking. WTF have you been smoking yesterday? Here you have a well respected lawyer from Silicon Valley teaching you basics of freaking incorporation for free! Yet you prefer to ignore him perhaps not realizing that most of all (those who will get there) will pay $400/hour to guys like him, explaining these details in a more private and expensive setting.

And what the deal with all those Vista laptops everywhere? I thought it was supposed to be a hacker's event, not a retirement home.

Paul Graham's talk was the most unusual, out of place almost. I am sure what we heard was his next essay and you can expect it to appear on his site now. This time Paul turned a bit too much philosophical - and I'm just "not there yet" and need to think a bit about his observations.

With all that said, however, I predict that DHH's talk will be the most quoted on the Internet tomorrow. Of course it had a few f-words and a ton of funny bursts of clever analogies, but I believe most people in the room didn't take what he said seriously. Nearly everyone I talked to, seemed to be stuck in this "I gotta get a million eyeballs" trap and I couldn't imagine a more perfect audience for David's talk - it was the most relevant to this gathering.

Of course I don't want to crush anyone's feelings, but statistically speaking there were not any "next googles" in the room today. Or should I say "such event was highly unlikely", yet every hacker with an idea I talked to, seemed to be going after those "billions of advertisement dollars" and I came away with a strong suspicion that very few of them actually knew how many uniques a month they should be generating to pay for their own salary and rent. Just charge the freaking money for what you made, how hard can it be?

It was kind of ironic to observe the never-ending series of technical hickups, from dropped Internet connections to barking microphones and blacking-out projectors at a conference of young hackers in the heart of Silicon Valley. If we can't get our own shit straight how do we expect our customers to use what we make and pay us for it? Even PG himself, after proclaiming (a few years ago) that everything belongs to the browser now, had to ask the audience to "stop using the Internet" for his presentation pictures to get downloaded. In 2008! If Steve Ballmer was in the room, he'd be flattered: "your cloud is not always with you".

And, by the way, how do Stanford students manage to get any hard studying done in those surroundings? That's just too damn nice to be practical :-)