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The Path to GNU/Linux

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 10:27 PM

It was a dark and stormy night…

Seriously, it was mostly curiosity, as well as my desire at the time (in late 1997 and early 1998) for a good Perl development environment, since WinPerl left something to be desired. I do not believe ActivePerl was available at the time; if it had been, I may not have ventured into the exciting territory of the penguins.

I can say this: I did not try GNU/Linux for the free (as in freedom) part of it nor the free (as in gratis) part of it. As several in my family work at the "Evil Empire" itself, they'd often send me the latest Microsoft products (Microsoft employees pay next to nothing for full, legally licensed software from the Microsoft store) — so I didn't worry much about the price of software like Microsoft Office.

At any rate, I had read in early-1998 in Byte Magazine about GNU/Linux becoming friendlier with the new "GNU Network Object Model Environment" (that'd be GNOME), and I thought that sounded really interesting. GNOME stayed in the back of my mind, but for a number of months I didn't look into it anymore.

It was about this time I noticed that Best Buy had several different distributions — SuSE, Red Hat and Caldera. I knew my previous web host had used Red Hat (at the time I was using a FreeBSD powered web host; these days I'm back to an RH-powered hosting provider) and I'd heard good things about it, so I decided to give it a try.

Red Hat still had a deal with MacMillan Software at the time, and BestBuy carried this special version rather than the "official" boxed set. For some reason (I can't remember what), I decided to do a big search for an "official" pack (I was told this was the best way to get started), and found an Official Red Hat Linux 5.1 boxed set for $40 at a small computer shop. I didn't know anything about LILO, etc., so I also went and bought System Commander Deluxe for handling switching between Windows and GNU/Linux.

At any rate, after three attempts I finally got Red Hat installed onto my 500 meg hard disk and tried to figure out what to do with it. My modem wasn't configured, my printer wouldn't print and the pre-installed FVWM95 desktop wasn't anything like the "friendly" system I had read about.

So I rebooted into Windows, wondering if I'd just tossed a hundred bucks out the window (heh), and started reading. I got some tips on modems, although it took me awhile to get that going, but I also located some GNOME rpm's on the second CD of the Red Hat distribution. Red Hat didn't install GNOME at the time because it was at something like version 0.16 (alpha quality).

I fought with GNOME for hours, but couldn't get the silly thing to install. Worse, and here is where I should have "read the fine manual," I couldn't figure out why "del" wouldn't delete files and why "move" wouldn't move them (I was pretty good at getting around MS-DOS, so I was comfortable at the GNU/Linux prompt, but…). All of this made me wonder exactly what I was even hoping to accomplish.

At about this time, two things happen that set me on a collision course with using GNU/Linux seriously. First, while looking for documentation, I ran across the Free Software Foundation and thought this "GPL" thingy sounded kinda neat. So I fired off an e-mail to ask about using the license on my own code. Just a short time later Richard M. Stallman wrote back, which got my attention, since I had read enough of the site to realize that he had founded it. I didn't appreciate just how important the Free Software Foundation was, nor all that Stallman had done, but it was still kind of neat.

The second key, ironically, since it was non-free at the time, was that I ran into the KDE Project. I had found a site with all kinds of window managers, and had tried some, but none of them worked that well. Then I stopped by KDE's site. They had just hit 1.0 a few days before and they had this really nice looking desktop. So, I downloaded some src.rpm's (since there weren't any pre-compiled rpm's for Red Hat 5.1), and then went into GNU/Linux and copied them onto my Linux partition from Windows' partition.

The next week or two, I almost went crazy. I had never compiled anything more complex than a Visual Basic application before, and so this whole "./configure; make; make install;" process mystified me somewhat. The real problem, however, was dependencies. Configure couldn't find qt-devel and so I went and searched for that. But then that wouldn't install due to some x11 "header" files missing. I said to myself, "Self, what is that?" Unfortunately, I couldn't answer myself, even after many hours.

Well, I finally gave up and asked, and once someone explained what I needed to get off my Red Hat CD, I finally started the long, arduous process of compiling KDE on a Pentium 100. Finally, it got done, and… it didn't work. It turned out I needed to set the PATH and LD_LIBRARY_PATH for /opt/kde.

Huh? What is that? I did finally get the information I needed to set that, but I did a lot of head scratching first. A new GNU/Linux user should not start out by trying to compile a project as big and complex as KDE.

Finally, the KDE wallpaper appeared, then the desktop icons, and then the kpanel (the thing that kicker replaced in KDE 2.0). It was something to behold. Perhaps not so much because of how wonderful KDE 1.0 was, but after hours and hours of fighting with it, it felt like I'd accomplished something pretty good.

However, I quickly ended up leaving the GNU/Linux community. It was about this time that I bought a new system — a Dell Dimension XPS 450. At the time the Pentium II 450 had just come out and so I was pretty nervous about fooling with the system too much. The Dell techs really didn't know much about Linux but noted that repartitioning my hard disk for it would erase the restore partition. So I just gave up on Linux; I didn't want to mess up my restore partition, and it still wasn't working that well for me.

Then, in November of 1998, Windows 98 died. You know how Windows is, it was just hopelessly messed up. So I fired up the restore utility, only to find the restore partition missing. Sigh. That was bad news, but after I thought about it for a bit, it was also good news — I finally felt free to repartition and get GNU/Linux back on.

Over the next few years I'd go into GNU/Linux and play around, but I still wasn't happy with it. Netscape 4.7 was horrible, KMail wasn't very good compared to Outlook at the time (not considering worm vulnerability, of course), etc. I tried SuSE Linux 6.1 in May of 1999, and liked it, but it was still buggy and it was really hard to get X11 working. I did help beta test KDE 2.0 over the summer of 2000, but things still weren't quite right. Over the early spring of 1999, I also spent endless hours fighting with xfstt to get TrueType fonts to work (finally did, then lost how I did it and had to relearn it two or three months later).

I bought SuSE 6.4 and it had a nice new GUI installer, but KDE 1.2.1 still didn't meet my needs and I still didn't get this whole "freedom" concept. So I got it all working but barely ever used it.

Finally, in early 2001, I bought SuSE 7.1 Professional. It was great. KDE 2.0.1 was still kinda clunky, but KDE 2.1 had just come out and it was, in my opinion, the release that made the GNU/Linux desktop a serious reality. It was stunning. Konqueror's web browser worked well. KMail was multithreaded. Everything worked beautifully. I knew I should switch and get away from the bug-infested Windows operating system. But, inertia is a powerful force, and everything was still working alright in my new Windows 2000 install, so I just stuck to the status quo.

Then it hit. Outlook died for the second time in three months at about 9:00 p.m. one Tuesday after Bible Study Fellowship and I knew a complete reinstall of Windows was the only way I was going to get it fixed easily. I was tired. I was cranky. I just wanted to check my e-mail.

So I did the most logical thing: I exported my Outlook mail to Outlook Express, rebooted the computer into GNU/Linux and imported everything into KMail. That was that, I had made the first major step toward actually jumping over to the GNU/Linux desktop.

Since then, I've learned to stop calling GNU/Linux just "Linux." I also learned to say Linux correctly and not just the Americanized way — it's properly pronounced Lynn-ucks not Lie-nicks (the confusion enters in that the American pronunciation of Linus is different than the Scandinavian pronunciation that Linus Torvalds uses). But, that's another story.

As I used GNU/Linux more, I learned about the advantages of Freedom in software, the power of *nix, and just how bad Microsoft Windows really was (just three years before I was in line at midnight at CompUSA when Windows 98 came out).

Later in November of 2001 I got tired of SuSE's non-free installer/configurator and some bugginess in it and made the jump to Mandrake Linux 8.1. After a brief jump to Debian 3.0 "Woody" in February 2002, I went back to Mandrake Linux for 8.2, then 9.0, 9.1, and I'm getting ready to switch to 9.2 (which is great, but I haven't had time to move my main stuff to it yet). After using Debian, I was able to appreciate not only apt-get but also the power of Mandrake's apt-get clone, urpmi, and now I can't imagine how anyone lives without powerful dependency resolution and software upgrade tools like these.

It was on October 5, 2001 that I launched Open for Business (, and since then I've had the opportunity to try pretty much every major distribution.

In all, I've used:

Red Hat 5.1*, 8.0, 9.0
SuSE 6.1*, 6.4*, 7.1*, 8.0, 8.1, 8.2
Caldera Linux Technology Preview (2001)
Lycoris Desktop/LX Amethyst
LindowsOS 3.0
Debian GNU/Linux "Woody" (pre* and post release)
KNOPPIX 3.0 (and KNOPPIX KDE 3.1 Edition)
Libranet GNU/Linux 2.8
Xandros Linux 1.0
Mandrake Linux 8.1 (DL)*, 8.2 Betas, 8.2 (DL* and PowerPack), 9.0 Betas, 9.0 (DL)*, 9.1 Betas, 9.1 (DL* and ProSuite), 9.2 Betas, 9.2(Discovery Edition).

Desktop wise, I've used:
KDE 1.0*, 1.1*, 1.2.1*, 1.9x*, 2.0*, 2.0.1*, 2.1.x*, 2.2.x*, 3.0*, 3.1.x*.
GNOME 0.16, 0.90, 1.0, 1.2, 1.4, 2.0, 2.2
And numerous others, though not as seriously

[A * denotes a distribution or desktop I used as my default in GNU/Linux for a period of time.]

It's amazing how far GNU/Linux, and the Free/Open Source Software movements have come. Richard Stallman's (RMS) lobbying abilities now make organizations the size of Apple sit up and listen (Apple's non-Free ASPL license, which was suppose to be "Open Source," now truly qualifies as "Free Software" thanks to RMS).

And the system itself is so much easier to use these days. Mandrake Linux 9.2 Discovery Edition (see my review) is so easy. In my opinion it is easier to get a system up and running with the latest GNU/Linux distributions than it is with Windows 9x or XP. It just works. That's a far cry from the days when a GNU/Linux installer was a text-based monster that dumped you at a BASH shell with a (usually) broken X11 configuration and non-working hardware.

After my switch, my computing was no longer a dark and stormy night. Things just worked and the joy reentered using computers. If you haven't already switched to the power of UNIX-like computing, why not give it a try?

The MySQL License Question

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:34 PM

MySQL AB's namesake database is a package that many would list among the crown jewels of Free Software. The Swedish company's database has been deployed over five million times by the company's own count. Yet, some, quite legitimately wonder if certain wording on the MySQL site might indicate the company is backing away from Free Software, and the GNU General Public License. We (OfB) wanted to know, so I contacted MySQL AB, the FSF and others to find out; read what I found at

The Migration

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:31 AM

Well, last night I was still busy copying stuff, so I didn't report exactly what I was up to. I copied any files of any importance onto the new hard disk I bought for my G5, then removed that drive so that Apple would be working with the warranted drive, and I would also have a backup of everything.

I also copied all files I expected I might want access to in the next week or two (most of my home directory) to my iPod. I then copied the 16.5 GB I placed on it onto my PowerBook, which is now serving as my primary system. (Thanks to .Mac sync, my PowerBook is usually already well sync'ed with the PowerMac, but I don't keep everything on it.) The only things I needed to copy onto it were my documents, photos and music. E-mail, being IMAP-based, was already there, and .Mac takes care of bookmarks, contacts and calendar.

I then brought the PB onto my desk and plugged it into my Cinema Display. The system happily woke up from sleep and automatically switched to the maximum 1920×1200 resolution of the display. I could almost forget I wasn't on my G5, if it was not for the fact that things are quieter, and my dock looks itty bitty on this screen (since its size is adjusted for the normal 1024×768 resolution of the 12” PowerBook).

The Apple Store said they weren't sure what was causing the problem: the SATA controller, one of the processors, the logic board as a whole, etc., but they were going to look at it today. Depending on what is needed, they may already have the needed parts in stock. That would be nice!

The Microsoft Surface Scandal

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 2:14 AM

A brewing controversy over Microsoft's Surface and Surface Pro have gotten all the more interesting today. The Surface has been critiqued for any number of flaws, but perhaps most troubling was the fact that a 64 GB Surface only had a usable storage space about half that size (making it nearly equivalent to a 32 GB iPad in practice). The Surface Pro makes the situation even worse — the entry level 64 GB Surface Pro has only one third of its space available to the end user — a ridiculously small amount of space on a tablet allegedly intended to be used more like a notebook PC. A reasonable person might expect some small amount of space to be used by the operating system and other essentials, but creating a system where two thirds of the storage is consumed before the user even copies a single document onto the device has entered the realm of the absurd.

Thom Holwerda sums it up nicely: “When I buy a box of 100 staples, I expect it to contain ~100 staples - not 50 because the other 50 are holding the box together.”

The Little Black Box

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:21 AM

I have in my possession one of the most coveted items of the year, and certainly the most talked about of this day. Yes, that would be an iPhone. In Apple’s usual style of quiet elegance, the box sits there revealing little (as if there was much that has not already been revealed through months of slow leaks of rumors). It is nearly begging me to open it, much like its call beckoned me into the AT&T Mobility store earlier this evening despite my better judgment. I have it, but do I open it? Read my musings on Open for Business.

The iPod vs. the iRiver ihp-120

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 9:20 PM

Firewire connectivity. It's hard to find a player with this, and as always, Firewire devices cost more. But, that “more” equates to faster download/upload speeds. Firewire 400, despite being burst-able “only to 400 MB/s” instead of 480 MB/s like USB Hi-Speed, can sustain much higher speeds, to the tune of 33-70% faster transfers. Since these little puppies are nice external storage mediums for any type of file, the Firewire 400 speed seems advantageous to me. Transferring songs is blazingly fast — an average of one second per song.

Elegant simplicity. This has always been Apple's “thing.” Look at the two players' fronts. The iRiver's controller protrudes from the front and looks rather counterintuitive from what I can see. The iPod's clickwheel is flush with the surface of the iPod so that it won't catch on anything and is extremely simple: slide your finger up (like on a touchpad) to move up, slide down to move down. Click on the side that has the function you want if you want to play, go to the menu, etc. I'd note what C|Net's James Kim said about the interface and control between the two players (note, the ihp-120 is a year older than the present iPod so the whole review is based on the 3G iPod). “We found the multidirectional joystick control on the front easy enough to use for navigating the deep menu structure, but compared to the Apple iPod's scrollwheel, it makes going through long lists of songs a tedious chore.” I'd also note that the iRiver is laden with buttons on the side, whereas the iPod only has three buttons/switches: the clickwheel, the center button and the hold switch on top (to disable the buttons when not in use).

Same goes for the software… no one wants to hassle with complicated software when your out and about and want to listen to music. The iPod software is the simplest I've seen, but still does everything you'll likely want to do. It has multiple On-The-Go playlists that you can create using only the iPod, you can rate songs while they are playing and then the shuffle function will play your favorites more frequently, you can play Audio Books (including some free ones) and much more. Simplicity doesn't mean it lacks miscellaneous features — it still has a place to read notes you've placed on the device, a calendar, contacts, three little games, a music game (where you try to identify short clips from your collection) and so on. Simplicity means everything “just works.” It even has touches like automatic pausing if you remove your headphones.

Accessories. Since the iPod outsells its competitors by about 3:1 (if not more) in the hard disk unit arena, if you want accessories, you'll have a lot easier time finding them with an iPod. Want a dock with speakers built into it? You can get one. Not satisfied with just any speakers? Get the iPod-exclusive Bose SoundDock. Want to store digital photos on your player during a long trip? Choose from adding a memory card reader or a USB port that will download photos straight from your camera. New cars (Minis and BMW's so far, but I expect more affordable fare in the future) now come with iPod support, new car stereos as well… Need a case? Choose from dozens of models that fit every need. With hp now support iPods, expect even more stuff to be available.

Software. Now this doesn't matter as much under GNU/Linux (although once CodeWeavers finishes its work on iTunes support it will)… the iPod/iTunes combination is far more elegant than any other I've seen. Auto-sync on docking (including, on Macs, auto-sync of contacts, calendar, etc.), easy organization tools, smart playlists that add music automatically based on select criteria, etc. As I understand it, the ihp-120 uses drag-and-drop manual uploading instead and requires you to manually run a playlist updater afterward if you want your selection menus to have your music in them.

Both iTunes and the iPod support Apple Lossless, which gives a completely lossless encoding that is 50% smaller than normal. Both support Apple Advanced Codec (AAC), the MPEG-4 based open standard format that produces file sizes dramatically smaller than Ogg that also sound better.

iPod is also the only player with a cross-platform music store for when you only want to buy one song (for instance, I bought the Michael W. Smith single “Healing Rain” two months before anyone not using iTMS could get it). iTMS music can go on five computers, be burnt in the same order 10 times (and burnt in different orders unlimited times) and go on unlimited iPods. At first I never thought I'd use iTMS, but over the last year and a half of its existence, I've found it useful numerous times. Will I buy a whole album through it? Not likely, but for individual tracks its great. As an aside, by purchasing an iPod your going with the only major player that does not work with Windows Media-based online music stores — yet, you are getting the only player that works with the world's most popular online music store. Therefore, it is a win-win situation: (1) the record labels cannot be content to work merely with Microsoft and its partners and (2) you aren't hurting yourself by choosing the iTMS compatible player, you are getting access to the online music store with the most tracks.

All this, plus a similar battery life as the iRiver (only more efficiently, since the AAC format requires less hard drive accesses, since the files are smaller — it also supports MP3), in the new 4G iPods (that's any iPod with a clickwheel). According to C|Net's tests, the same music player reviewer gave the iPod a 9 to iRiver's 8.7 and so on — despite the fact that the iRiver came out nearly a year before the 4G iPod and therefore should have had an easier time obtaining that “9.”

Aestitics. Sure, looks don't make a good player, but if your stuck around this thing all the time, its nice if you like the look. I've always been someone who appreciated simple, clean industrial design: the exact thing you get with the iPod.

Overall. I think it all comes down to what you plan to use it for. Some people will want a player with an FM tuner, on the other hand, if you are like me, the only radio you listen to (other than at Christmas) is AM talk radio — 50,000 watts of Rush Limbaugh, yeeeeaaa! —-so an FM tuner is just something else that can end up breaking on me. Others will want to be able to record sound, but I already have a PDA and a cell phone that do that (and Belkin makes a recording accessory for the iPod). On the other hand, the features I do want, such as an easy to use interface, sleek (and non-mechanical) control mechanism and iTMS support are available almost exclusively with the iPod.

The iPhone Conundrum

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:59 AM

Steve Jobs is known for being able to pull a rabbit out of his hat fairly regularly – far more regularly, anyway, than almost any other CEO. Like most Mac users, Timothy Butler finds himself anxiously awaiting the likely announcement of the Apple phone tomorrow. That people are excited would seem to be a good thing. But, given the amount and kind of hype, could it be that Apple is faced with demand for something it cannot provide? Read more on Open for Business.

The iPhone as a Camera

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:05 AM

Derek Powazek demonstrates the impressive camera capabilities of the new iPhone 4's camera. I think Apple might be on to something with this.

HT: John Gruber

The iPhone 4 Antenna Song

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 2:42 AM

Apple showed this video from YouTube today at the iPhone 4 Antenna Q&A. Classic.

The iPad, Flash and Proprietary Integration

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 8:47 PM

CNet blogger and Canonical COO Matt Asay wrote an opinion piece today in which he applauds an earlier piece at sister publication ZDNet alleging Apple to be on an increasingly proprietary path. The quoted ZDNet writer Jeff Foremski writes,

Since the introduction of the iPod, iPhone, and now the iPad, Apple is becoming less and less open, is using fewer standard components and chips, and far fewer Internet technologies common to Mac/PC desktop and laptop systems.

The iPhone and iPad, for example, don't support common Internet platforms such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight. That means you cannot watch streaming video from Hulu, or Netflix.

And while iPhone chips are available from other manufacturers, the iPad runs only on the A4 processor—an Apple designed chip that no one else can buy.

Let's consider these claims. The Apple A4 processor that runs the iPad is based on the same ARM architecture pretty much everyone in the mobile space is focused on at the present time. While Apple certainly likes vertical integration — because it lowers its dependency on outside suppliers and drives down costs — to say that Apple is becoming proprietary because of an in-house chip design is absurd. An Apple A4 is compatible with other ARM processors. The iPad CPU does not make the iPad more or less compatible with other systems than the iPhone's chip; as a matter of fact, neither chip has any influence on Apple's devices being able to interoperate with competitors' devices.

Foremski's second claim that Asay quotes is that Apple is utilizing “far fewer internet technologies” (implied: “open internet technologies”). By this, he apparently means Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, neither of which are open nor standards. Only Adobe Flash is even a de facto standard, albeit one conspicuously missing from most mobile devices at present. And since when does omitting two plugins become equivalent to supporting “far fewer internet technologies”?

Foremski's other mutterings about Apple in the piece Asay links to are similarly bizarre for someone writing at a quasi-respectable tech media outlet. He suggests Apple came to the PC side, for example, by supporting USB. He fails to mention Apple helped drive the adoption of USB, with the original iMac making waves via its USB-only approach. He also suggests Apple made its “disk operating system files compatible with the PC world,” but fails to explain what he means by that. He can't mean that Apple finally supported reading PC-formatted disks (Apple has supported reading DOS/Windows-based disks for decades) nor that Apple has switched to Microsoft's formats for native disks (it hasn't).

As much of a pain as it may be that Apple is refusing to support Flash on the iPad and iPhone, the company is right in saying that it is pushing for something far more open than Flash. Call that decision whatever you'd like, just don't call it “being proprietary.” Asay, who is a smart chap, shows poor judgment in agreeing with Foremski on this.

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