Get off of my (Joli) cloud

This is going to be a bit of a weird column, some might say they all are, because I haven’t got anything to write about.

Most columnists get to this point sooner or later, and usually plug the gap by writing a column about how they got into that situation. It’s a noble tradition and whom am I to change it.

The thing is that I had been planning to install and review a free new operating system, Jolicloud, but when I sat down at the usual time of the week to do this column, Jolicloud stubbornly refused to start.

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Restarting Windows 7

In a previous column, I wrote that I was having a fine time using Microsoft’s recently-released Windows7 operating system.

My very favourable first impression has not changed after much intensive use, and I figure that the company really hit the jackpot with this version of Windows. It does everything in such a capable and fuss-free manner that I barely notice it’s there.

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Why the hell not?

During a recent very difficult time, I was once again given cause to wonder what software designers think they are doing.

The situation was that I had e-mail that I needed to take home and edit and, as I usually do, I exported the messages I needed from Microsoft Outlook at work in the form of an Outlook PST folder. I saved the folder onto a flash disk and took it home where I expected to import the messages into my Outlook Express mail client and do the edits I needed.

hellnot  My suggested new dialogue box!

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XP is a jealousy custard

The week started off with a bang this morning when I went into my office only to discover the frozen remains of my screen saver on the computer’s screen.

Apart from that slight sign of life, nothing was happening and that state of affairs carried on even after I applied the usual treatment of switching off, unplugging the machine completely, and turning it back on.

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Cool refreshing mint

Late last year, I did a couple of columns on the free Ubuntu Linux operating system.

I reported that I had installed it on my spare computer and that I had been extremely impressed with how well it worked. I was convinced that the average computer user would find Ubuntu more than adequate for all their computing needs.

One reservation I did have with the operating system was that the initial installation did not provide support for playing many media file formats. I discovered that you can get files, such as CDs, DVDs and various types of streaming media, to play on Ubuntu, but it does require some fiddling under the bonnet.

Another reservation I had was that, although there is a way to run some Windows programs under Ubuntu, the process can be far from simple. I concluded that it would be a viable choice for many computer users with the only real exceptions being people who need software which is either not available on Linux, or won’t run on it.

Since those columns were published, I have discovered a new version of Linux which is even easier to use than Ubuntu. It is called Linux Mint and is essentially a streamlined and simplified version of Ubuntu.

Linux Mint 8 (codenamed Helena) corresponds to the current version of Ubuntu, known as Karmic Koala, and can be downloaded for free from www.linuxmint.com.

It installs with a refreshing minty-green (what else?) colour scheme and is indeed very simple to use and navigate your way around. It comes with a wide selection of software, including OpenOffice and many other packages, and it is totally compatible with all the software that will run on Ubuntu.

One area where Mint has greatly improved over Ubuntu, is that it is able to play most media formats straight after installation. The desktop layout has also been simplified and there are fewer options and buttons to click on.

The installation file is rather large Nearly 700Mb), but I have discovered that it is possible to order it on CD from fosscds.co.za for about R30 a copy.

One good thing about Linux Mint, and many other versions of Linux, is that they can be used to boot up your Windows computer into Linux without making any changes to Windows. This makes it very easy to preview new operating systems without committing yourself to installing them.

Linux Mint is also able to install itself in such a way that, when you switch your computer on, you are given the choice whether you would like to boot into it or the operating system that you had previously installed.

This option seems fairly safe but as usual with these things, you’d be well advised to have a good backup of all your data, before starting the install process.

I have been incredibly impressed with the two versions of Linux that I’ve tried so far. To my mind, they are more than ready for prime time and are extremely viable competitors for Windows.

My feeling is that Windows could have a serious problem going forward, especially if the Linux developers start paying more attention to making a really bullet-proof means of running Windows programs on Linux.

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Ubuntu Part III

I managed to install the free Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer with very little problem and, being very easy to get to know, it was getting high marks in my eyes.

It came with a wide selection of free software packages already installed including, as I was pleased to find, a very nice Mahjong game. I managed to use the built-in package manger to find and install a program called Wine, which lets you run many Windows programs on Linux.

The time for playing around was over, and I decided to put Ubuntu to the test to see if it could be a really viable replacement for the Windows XP I use every day. It recognised my HP D1360 printer as soon as I plugged it in, and I was able to print a document without any fuss at all.

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Ubuntu Part II

Last week, I wrote of my experiences installing the Ubuntu Linux operating system on my second computer.

The whole experience was pretty quick and painless and I was most impressed with how civilised and house-trained it is. The feeling you get is that the system is solid and reliable with very little unnecessary flashiness which, to my mind, just eats up computing resources and offers little benefit.

It is obvious that a lot of time and effort has gone into the design of the interface and it is laden with thoughtful little touches to make life easier. A nice feature is that it keeps an eye out for when you plug in a disc or memory stick, and displays it on your desktop as an icon, so that you can access it quickly when you need it.

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Ubuntu Part I

Over the last few months I have been promising myself that I’d have a go at installing Ubuntu, a version of the Linux operating system, on my spare computer.

The attraction behind Linux is that it is free, in stark contrast to Windows for example and, by repute, is more stable and powerful. I arbitrarily chose Ubuntu among the many variants on offer because it is the version of Linux supported by Mark Shuttleworth.

Ubuntu is apparently a modified and improved version of Debian Linux and, although its name is an African word for Humanity to others, one Internet wit defined it as a word meaning ‘I can’t configure Debian’.

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Milking the cash cow

Operating systems have traditionally been a cash cow for software companies because no computer can do without one.

They tie together computer hardware and software, taking care of printing, ensuring that files are stored correctly, that they are accessible when needed, and that user input is processed properly. The complexity of operating systems (OSs) means that there have been few players in the market and the companies have tended to exploit their near-monopolies by charging high prices for their products, and by forcing customers to accept new products they don’t want.

There has been a backlash against these high-handed business practices among computer programmers and users, which has given rise to the phenomenon of programmers creating brilliant software and giving it away to users for free. The free software includes operating systems which are mostly based on Linux, a derivative of Unix, and are being adopted by growing numbers of people.

Users have found that the free Linux operating systems are more than sufficient for their needs and my feeling, confirmed by some experience, is that these products are now good enough for the computing needs of most users. The fact that the majority of people have not been exposed to them, and most likely don’t know they exist, is the reason that there hasn’t been a wholesale migration to free OSs.

In short, there hasn’t been a free OS with a high enough profile to attract the attention of the average user, but this is going to change significantly in the next year. The first week in July saw a lot of excited speculation in the computer world, with the announcement by Google, that they would be producing their own free operating system.

To be known as Google Chrome OS, the new system will be available to users from the second half of 2010. In the next couple of months, it will be a made available to the open source programming community and Google believes that, by this time next year, it should be ready for distribution in new Netbooks, laptops and desktop computers.

Chrome OS is aimed at people who do most of their computing on the Internet and will be designed to get users connected a few seconds after switching their computers on. The actual computer that the user works on will become far less relevant because Chrome OS will be designed to take full advantage of programs running on the Internet and for user data to be stored there, or on the cloud, as Google calls it.

I have no idea what sort of a dent Chrome OS will make in the sales of desktop operating systems but I suspect the fact that a major company is producing a free operating system, may give the free OS movement a lot of momentum. If it works as promised, and I imagine that it most likely will, Chrome could tempt a lot of people into trying it out, especially when you consider the price.

I can’t see my desktop being replaced by a machine running Chrome OS, at least while our Internet connectivity is so expensive. On the other hand, I could see me using a lightweight portable unit for my day to day internetting, and only resorting to the desktop for heavy-duty tasks, such as processing pictures, or whatever.

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A new Windows on the world

It has been a long time since I have looked forward to the launch of a new version of an operating system, but I’m in that position again.

I started talking about Windows 7 last week and said that I’d acquired and installed a copy of the pre-release version, which Microsoft had put out for users to test and evaluate. The real for-sale version will probably be here by Christmas and I have to say that I can’t wait.

New to me, and everyone who managed to avoid Windows Vista, is a snazzy-looking interface called Windows Aero. It’s strong on animating things like windows opening and many elements of it incorporate a glass-like translucent look. You’ll like it if you like that sort of thing.

I didn’t and turned off the glass and animation but I was very pleased with the rest of the interface. There is still a Start button and a taskbar, but they are greatly refined and better than those in XP.

For example, you still get a button appearing on the taskbar when you start a program but you now get multiple instances of a program, like many browser windows, stacked under one button.

Hovering the mouse pointer over a button gives you a thumbnail view of all the windows open under it, and it’s a simple matter to click the one you want. Programs that you use often can be pinned permanently to the taskbar, so that you can click the button to start them.

There are a fair number of accessories new to me in Windows 7 including a Snipping Tool, to capture images from your screen, and Sticky Notes, for leaving notes to yourself on your desktop and there is also a Mahjong game.

That stole quite a lot of my time as I tried to identify and remove matching tiles from the various shaped piles that the program generates. I found it quite a challenge at first but my brain adapted to the task and I got better as I went along.

Also available are Desktop gadgets which live on your desktop and are either ornamental or provide useful information. The gadget idea is not new but the Windows 7 ones I tried, including a calendar and Durban weather report, did not make my desktop feel cluttered, as the Google Desktop ones do.

For me, one of the most important changes in Windows 7 is in how user files are stored. The system works on libraries for storing documents, music, pictures, and videos, and it is now less important where the files are physically located.

There are still a basic set of folders where these files are stored but Windows can also show you files stored in other locations like, for example, music stored on another hard disk drive. Quick access to your libraries is provided from the Start button and from a sidebar in all open Windows, so your stuff is only ever a click or two away.

I was incredibly impressed with Windows 7 and, in spite of it not being a final release, it is elegant, clean, and hassle-free. Best of all, it seems to be quite a speed merchant and will allegedly work perfectly well on lesser computers, which was not at the case with Vista.

In the week or so I had Windows 7 on my machine, I didn’t have a single problem that I could trace to it. I eventually decided to step back to Windows XP only because two of my most vital programs refused to install on it.

All the other many programs I installed, including little freeware ones, worked perfectly but my Quickbooks 8 and my Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.5 refused to install. So many programs worked so I conclude that those two programs try to do something non-standard and fall over when they encounter a Windows they hadn’t heard about.

It would probably be a good idea for everyone wanting to upgrade to Windows 7 to check that all their software is compatible before taking the plunge. There’s no telling what price it will be launched at but, assuming its reasonable, and my software will work on it, I’m upgrading for sure.

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