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Web Log

Ding Dong, Dell

By Andrew Price, 2007-05-02 04:50:19 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

So, Ubuntu being chosen by Dell as the Linux distro to ship on some of its machines is old news now, but what does it mean for the future? I've had some thoughts about the advantages it could have in the bigger picture but for it to pan out that way there are some caveats which I'll explain later.

The first advantage might be the effect of inspiring other large PC retailers to offer some flavour of Linux with their machines. This would be a big advantage to us consumers as prices might become more competitive as companies vie for customer favour in that market. You might start to see Christmas time bargain commercials with shiny new computers flying across the screen with the Ubuntu logo clearly in the corner of the desktop on daytime television.

It could also be a poke in the ribs for hardware vendors. If large PC retailers start to find that buying hardware which has good Linux support or open specifications/drivers is advantageous to their business models, more hardware vendors might wake up and open source their own specifications and drivers in order to attract those companies to their product lines. Dell might even see fit to fight in the corner of open source software and lobby hardware vendors to go open source just because, say, Michael Dell agrees with the free software philosophy (whether he does or not, I don't know).

Organisations with existing Dell contracts might benefit. I'm not entirely sure how these things work, but here's an example based in reality. My university seems to be keen on Dell PCs and I'm guessing that to buy that many machines they would need to work out a big contract deal with Dell which I'm also guessing would have some kind of time frame attached to it. If the university had to choose from the range of Dell products, and they came across Ubuntu, or maybe even an Edubuntu option for academic organisations (wink), they might recognise the added benefits of using open source software solutions in their networks and opt for that instead. I'm sure my university would prefer an operating system which didn't propagate worms, viruses and other malware throughout its network. Who wouldn't?

The one effect I'm sure about is that the news will raise the profile of Ubuntu and Linux as a feasible alternative to Windows. People browsing Dell's product range will see Ubuntu as an operating system option (maybe even a lower price tag, we'll see) and look into what advantages it would hold for them (free upgrades forever, etc.) and compare it to Windows before they've tried it. It'll help to put "Ubuntu" into the vocabulary of a wider audience and for people who tried Linux back in the 20th century and gave up on it because it wasn't user-friendly enough, it'll help to update their perceptions of Linux.

Of course, I did say there were a few caveats and here they are. In order for the Dell news to have these desired network effects, the whole industry would need to sit back and watch how Dell's business is doing in relation to it. Back in 1999, Dell tried to market Linux as a desktop solution but then decided there wasn't enough demand to carry on. This time, I feel success for Dell's Linux desktop range is more likely but as a realist I'm not entirely convinced. Microsoft has a large amount of people locked into its software and that lock-in is very strong. I think, in the Average Jill's mind, the switch to Linux will need to be sparked off by something greater than a few dollars difference in PC prices. They'll need to take a leap into the virtually-unknown after all. I hope Dell will market their new offering enthusiastically and wisely and in doing so help to carry over the whole feeling behind using Ubuntu and other open source solutions.

My prediction about the hardware vendors taking notice is highly optimistic. Ever since I tried to get an old PC's modem working with Linux back around 2000 I've known about the stubbornness of hardware vendors and their bad habit of keeping their driver code buried as if it was a bloody dagger with their fingerprints all over it. It takes a very courageous CEO of a hardware company to push the decision to go open source (or open specification), and I applaud any that do. I doubt the recent news will directly push any hardware companies into going open but it'd be a nice surprise if it did. As Mark Shuttleworth mentioned on the video interview about Ubuntu and Dell, when Linux became a bigger player in the server market, the hardware vendors took note and decided to start becoming more Linux friendly in the context of that market. I hope they'll do the same for the desktop market.

It's a hard one to predict, but this could certainly turn out to be a big turning point in the life of open source software and I'm excited about the future. I hope as many people who told Dell that they'd buy a PC with Linux pre-installed go out and buy one, to keep our end of the deal.

Pybackpack Loves Debian (And Ubuntu Too)

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-29 02:51:19 in Pybackpack. (Permalink)

I'm pleased to report that after an almost three-week wait in Debian's NEW queue, pybackpack is now available in the Debian Sid (unstable) repository. Hurrah. This means that it'll be available in Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon) too.

Before the 0.5.0 release I hadn't yet made friends with pybackpack's code and I was hesitant to submit pybackpack into a big distro like Debian. At one point It was uploaded to Ubuntu's REVU but I requested it to be removed. Now I'm more confident that I know the code and I have a good picture in my head of what's going to happen next in its development.

I'm sure that pybackpack still has plenty of bugs that need ironing out and it needs some more tender loving care but having it in Debian and Ubuntu will hopefully encourage more feedback in the form of bug reports and other contributions. That way I'll be able to get a better idea about which direction to take it in.

Now I just need to get this coursework and my exams out of the way so that I can give myself some proper hacking time. Bah, computer science degrees - they're nothing but trouble.

Momentum

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-16 15:59:22 in Pybackpack. (Permalink)

Since the release of pybackpack 0.5.0 last week I've seen an impressive blip in the amount of attention the project is getting. I've received more feature requests, bug reports, suggestions and other pybackpack-related emails this week than there has been in the last 6 months. It's pretty exciting, and it's really keeping me busy and motivated.

In an attempt to focus this new attention and to build a small community around pybackpack, I set up a pybackpack mailing list for users and contributors to share ideas, give each other support and coordinate work on the project. I'm happy to say that it's so far been successful, with 25 messages hitting the archive since I set up the list yesterday morning.

Surprisingly the first bunch of people to participate in the discussion on the list all seem to be Mac OS X and Ubuntu users so there's been a lot of talk about how to get pybackpack working on OS X using packages from Fink, presumably so that backups can be made from their Mac laptops using their Ubuntu machines as backup servers. The discussions have already been productive - a wiki page about how to get pybackpack running on OS X has made its way onto the project trac. It's pretty exciting, especially considering pybackpack still has a long way to go before it becomes the simple-to-use backup tool that it was conceived to be.

I'm happily taking the suggestions of the Mac crowd on board. To make pybackpack more accessible to non-gnome users, it's going to need to be further decoupled from the gnome-specific libraries such as nautilusburn and gnome-vfs which, although they provide cheap, well tested and convenient functionality, tend to limit the scope of pybackpack's distribution. The plan will eventually be to not necessarily remove these libraries completely (if they add enough value to the program) but to provide generic fallbacks which should allow pybackpack to cope without being in a Gnome environment. A lot of work also needs to be done to make pybackpack prettier and more HIG-friendly.

All this work will get done eventually, and I'm excited about how it's going to turn out once its done. Unfortunately I'm going to have to put my head back into the books very soon and knock pybackpack down my priority list a few places. I've let far too much coursework stack up over this Easter break and once that's out of the way I need to start preparing for exams. Sigh. Oh well, at least I'm having fun.

Pushing For The Forest Canopy

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-13 20:39:16 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

I've just been reading an article on linux.com about Debian. It's mainly about how Debian is going to reinvent itself to be more desktop friendly etc. which is great, but I found it a bit worrying that it contains pessimistic statements like "as Debian developers and users have deserted the distro for Ubuntu, does Debian have a purpose any more?" and "Rumors of Debian's decline or irrelevance have been circulating for some time." In reality, I believe Debian has nothing to worry about and will continue to go from strength to strength.

The article seems to imply that Ubuntu and Debian are in a win-or-lose competition against each other in the Linux distro market. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ubuntu is based on Debian and depends on all the great hard work and openness of the Debian community, just as Ubuntu derivatives depend on those qualities of Ubuntu.

The article paints the relationship as two trees in a forest, struggling to grow above one another to get all the available sunlight and blocking out the other. The real picture is more of a single, young tree, with upstream FOSS developers as the roots that keep the whole thing alive, Debian as the wide trunk and Ubuntu et. al. as its branches and sub-branches. The contributors to Ubuntu and its derivatives would be the leaves, feeding energy and new ideas back into the whole system and, to complete the analogy, our users would be the sunlight, oxygen and water that we all need to keep growing.

It may be seem like an excessively romantic way of looking at the situation, but I like that. It's the passionate and neighbourly atmosphere surrounding the free and open source software community that keeps me involved and wanting to contribute to it (plus I get to help to improve the software that I and my friends and family use every day). I believe that many others contribute for the same reasons.

My first notable contributions to FOSS were for Ubuntu. I then took over maintaining a project and, once I felt it was ready, I packaged it for Debian rather than Ubuntu, because I felt that it was best to feed another root directly into the trunk of the tree so that the whole tree could benefit. From packaging to sponsored upload (thanks Nico) took less than a day and thanks to the well documented nature of Debian's processes I found it quite straightforward.

The Ubuntu community is different from the Debian community in lots ways but members of both are all good people for contributing to this quickly growing young tree of ours and I'm happy to say that I'm part of both of the communities, part of the whole tree. Debian may not be the best distribution on offer for the new user, fresh from a half life of Windows usage, but it has a lot of good things going for it. It has a very important part to play in the big picture and deserves a lot of respect for being the strong trunk that gives birth to branches like Ubuntu and allows them to grow from it.

Debian may have its problems here and there but as long as it still has that sense of passion and community flowing through its xylem, its branches will eventually push through the forest canopy and tower over other trees in the forest.

Pybackpack 0.5.0 - Obligatory Catchy Release Tagline

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-10 00:21:00 in Pybackpack. (Permalink)

Pybackpack 0.5.0 is now available. It includes some big changes behind the scenes including:

I'm quite excited about this release. Although pybackpack hasn't changed much visually or functionally, the changes made since the last release will make the development process smoother and future changes easier to integrate.

For those who might be interested, I've now filed a Debian ITP for pybackpack and I've submitted an RFS for it too (see pybackpack's page on mentors.debian.net) so hopefully we'll see pybackpack in Debian some time soon.

I'm eager to get plenty of feedback about this release so please head over to the pybackpack download page to check it out and please report bugs on the trac.

Celebrating Rebirth

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-08 18:37:37 in Geekdom. (Permalink)

Happy Etch Day!

...or possibly, happy Easter, for the less religious of you :)

Rejoining The MOTU Fun

By Andrew Price, 2007-03-30 09:14:41 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

Thanks to the absence of lectures since last Friday I've had the chance to properly get back into my FOSS saddle. I've mostly been helping out the Ubuntu MOTU folks who are an awesome bunch of people that, as a team, keeps the Universe and Multiverse software repositories stocked with an insane amount of applications, tools, games, libraries, documentation and other cool packages and keep it as bug free as they possibly can.

There is a lot to do and anyone who wants to can jump right in. There's a huge amount of documentation on the Ubuntu wiki and lots of friendly people on IRC to ask when you get stuck. To get started, I would suggest joining irc.freenode.net and hanging out on #ubuntu-bugs to see all the new bugs being announced and also join #ubuntu-motu where the real action takes place ;) The magic words are "How do I get started fixing bugs?".

You'll probably be pointed at a few handy wiki pages to read but after a bit of learning you'll be able to pick a bug from the list of easy ones (tagged bitesize) and have a go at fixing it. At first, you might find that some of the bugs are a bit confusing or you don't know how to start fixing them. Don't worry if that happens, you can always ask what to do, pick an easier bug to work on, or use it just to practice your bug fixing and packaging skills. I've downloaded source packages only to find that I couldn't fix the bug myself but I learnt a lot from trying. That's the part that I find the most fun.

Talk: Why Pybackpack Sucks

By Andrew Price, 2007-03-19 18:34:51 in SUCS. (Permalink)

I'll be giving a short talk at the first ever (?) SUCS talks event tomorrow evening. I've never been the most confident public speaker but I'm looking forward to giving my talk and hearing what the other speakers have to say. In particular I'm looking forward to Sitsofe's talk on power management in Linux as it's a subject I know very little about.

My talk is entitled "Why Pybackpack Sucks". I'll be looking at the state pybackpack was in when I inherited it and highlighting some examples of bad programming design using it as the example. I'll be explaining how I've fixed some of problems and suggest ways that I could go about making it suck even less. I'm aiming to make it an opportunity to learn about program design and hopefully I'll get some good feedback from my fellow society members. Maybe I'll even get sent some patches soon after the event.

Unfortunately I'm going to have to tweak some of my slides as I've fixed one or two bugs that I was going to mention since I started putting them together. I think the hard part will be condensing the interesting bits down into a 10/15 minute talk but I'm sure I'll manage. I'll make sure to link to a video of my talk if one gets recorded. I'm sure it'll be very... entertaining :)

Update: The event went very well indeed and everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves. We're definitely doing it again some time. Videos of the talks are now up in ogg theora and flash format. Enjoy.

DRM In Windows Vista

By Andrew Price, 2007-02-13 02:16:19 in Geekdom. (Permalink)

I haven't blogged yet about Windows Vista and its crazy you-don't-own-me,-I-own-you philosophy. Actually I've only used it on a friend's computer for about 10 minutes, and even then I wasn't impressed, usability-wise. But here is the man, the legend, Bruce Schneier, giving his take on Vista's DRM:

Microsoft put all those functionality-crippling features into Vista because it wants to own the entertainment industry. This isn't how Microsoft spins it, of course. It maintains that it has no choice, that it's Hollywood that is demanding DRM in Windows in order to allow "premium content"--meaning, new movies that are still earning revenue--onto your computer. If Microsoft didn't play along, it'd be relegated to second-class status as Hollywood pulled its support for the platform.

To me it's as clear as day - if you have Windows <= XP, only care about usability and "shininess" and you want to spend some money on an upgrade, get a Mac. If you really care about your freedom, have a tight budget, have hardware that no other OS supports, want to be part of an amazing development community, or want to influence the software that runs on your computer, install a Linux distribution.

I really don't see what Microsoft's Vista has to offer the current market that you can't get somewhere else, apart from the gaming lock-in:

  1. "Games companies only make games for Windows because it's popular"
  2. "I must buy Windows because games companies only make decent games for Windows"
  3. "Games companies only make games for Windows because it's popular"
  4. (ad infinitum)

And even still, the gaming argument is dubious under Vista, which supports few games that can't be run under XP at the moment.

The gaming argument of course is hindered by the graphics hardware manufacturers being secretive about their hardware specifications, so open operating systems such as Linux have inconsistent graphics hardware support and subsequently, little interest from gaming manufacturers. I see this state of affairs changing significantly in the near future.

So, take a moment to think about your role as a consumer. Are you a passive consumer or a powerful one?

How To Improve Conversation At A Comp Sci Open Day

By Andrew Price, 2007-02-08 10:02:52 in Ubuntu. (Permalink)

Yesterday I helped out at a Computer Science department open day at uni. It was my job to talk to prospective new students and their parents to make them feel at home and answer any questions they might have about the university and being a Comp Sci student here.

At lunch, I was sat at the end of a table, a lecturer and a research student at the opposite end, an enthusiastic kid to my left and to my right, a quiet kid and his father. The conversation made its way onto what I did in my spare time and I mentioned open source software and Ubuntu. The father to the right of me's eyes lit up and he said he was trying out Ubuntu at home and then went on to ask for my help getting his Windows machine to be able to see a samba share on his Ubuntu box. Although I had configured samba before, I couldn't remember the exact syntax so I pointed him towards the Ubuntu wiki (which usually has these kinds of helpful things on it) and I also mentioned the other ways he could get some information about it - the Ubuntu forums, mailing lists, IRC, and failing that, just Googling.

The conversation carried on and the kid to my left asked what Linux is. I explained how Linux is an OS kernel and that other programs are bundled with it to make Linux OS distributions such as Ubuntu and other things. He seemed quite interested and took it all in. It had been a quiet open day before that and I was rather pleased at how much the conversation picked up after mentioning Linux.

The thing that struck me the most was that at one table there was such a contrast between the prospective student who had no idea about what Linux is and the father on the other side of the table who was working on getting a samba server set up on Ubuntu. I think the lecturer and research assistant on the other side of the table were just glad that I was talking about something so they could enjoy their free lunch uninterrupted.

Free Software Paying My Bills

By Andrew Price, 2007-01-11 12:50:50 in News. (Permalink)

I guess it's about time I blogged about this. The UK Free Software Network has started a new "Profits" programme where they're awarding students money for contributing to free software in the form of minimum wage employment. They're kicking off the programme with one student this year and raising the number gradually over the next few years. I'm pleased to report that I've been chosen to be the first student on the programme.

It's a great opportunity for me to spend my spare time working on pyBackPack, contributing back to Ubuntu and I have one or two new projects in mind too. Anyway, I won't ramble on, I have exam revision to do. The story has been covered by Ping Wales.

PyBackPack 0.4.5 - Trees Hug Back

By Andrew Price, 2007-01-06 04:29:49 in Pybackpack. (Permalink)

PyBackPack 0.4.5 has now been released. It includes tweaks for general GUI friendliness (fixed redrawing bugs and the progress bar now gives a better indication of progress) and much needed performance-related fixes.

Get it, file bugs. Oh, and happy new year :)

Evergreen

By Andrew Price, 2006-12-22 10:41:26 in Geekdom. (Permalink)

I just read an article about a new open source library system called Evergreen being developed at the Georgia Public Library Service. I'm impressed. It's great to see these kind of open source alternatives to large scale systems such as integrated library systems being developed. I know how hard a library information system can be to develop after looking into it for my A-Level computing project back in 6th form. Evergreen was released in November and from reading the Open-ILS blog, it seems other organisations are already getting on board with the development. It's hardly surprising - a free system such as this could save them a lot of money in license fees in the long run, and it being GPL'd, they'd get to enhance it with their own features if they want to.

After trying out the online demo of the public web front end it struck me as a substantial improvement over the Voyager system, which my university's library uses. It offers a better presentation of information, provides a nice (although slightly too web 2.0) smooth interface and looks like they've thought of accessibility features too.

It's not perfect though - two aspects I would criticise are the reliance on javascript for the web front end to work and the fact that the generated HTML doesn't validate at the moment. I haven't tested out the staff client or looked at the code so I can't comment on them. But still, it looks like a promising young system and I'm sure with enough interest it will grow into an awesome suite of software.

Chugging Along Happily

By Andrew Price, 2006-12-13 01:52:45 in General. (Permalink)

Things have been rather busy lately. I must admit that I had slightly too much fun on the weekend considering the four coursework deadlines I was supposed to meet this week. A more sensible person would have put their head down and worked like stink all weekend but the temptation of some fun distractions enticed me away from my original path. Here's what I've been up to lately:

All of this and some other, minor sidetrackings led me to run over the deadline for my Algorithms & Complexity coursework due in on Monday and my Functional Programming coursework for today wasn't the best I could have done. I really should have taken a rain check for that fun list of procrastinations but I had fun and I'm happy about the decisions I made. I must remember to recalibrate my priorities before my exams in January, though.

So, just two more deadlines to meet on Friday and then I'll be free to enjoy my Christmas break, which will be filled with coding, partying and shopping. I might even get time to do some Ubuntu work, which I've been guiltily failing to make time for since the end of the Summer. Sorry, Ubuntu! I'll give you some love soon, I promise. I also need to take care of some annoying bugs in pybackpack, do some work on marvin (because it's been vapourware for far too long), write the todo list program I've been meaning to write since the Summer and find a stable source of income before student life empties my bank account entirely.

"More hours in a day" is on my Christmas list this year.

PyBackPack 0.4.4 - Just Like Buses

By Andrew Price, 2006-11-20 00:49:36 in Pybackpack. (Permalink)

It's official, I suck. I released the last version without incrementing the version number in setup.py. That means that I screwed up the release by one character. Sigh.

Anyway, to minimise embarrassment I hunted down two quite nasty bugs and fixed them in order to justify a quick second release this weekend. Adequate for redemption, I hope. Go get it.

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