Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Ubuntu On The Road To Bloat

I boot my Ubuntu laptop and log in. Shortly after logging in, the IO onslaught begins. I open up a terminal and 'top' exposes the offender 'trackerd'. I begin the motion to kill it. This is a familiar sequence for me, something I have done every day since, well, so long ago I can't remember the exact day I started doing it. A few weeks, at least. Today I hesitate. I have been impatient, unforgiving, and dismissive of Tracker - the application 'trackerd' serves - because of how it renders my PC unusable. I usually 'kill' it so I can resume my daily online routine, but today I decide to wait it out, to let it run it's course.

This means I can't browse the web. Well, perhaps I can, but not using Opera which is my browser of choice. For while 'trackerd' is indexing my home folder, Opera hangs for up to 10s at a time. This is not actually the fault of either Tracker or Opera, but instead a consequence of poor Linux kernel releases which have occurred at an unfortunate time for Ubuntu because the Ubuntu team have chosen one of them for Gutsy and are stubbornly in their refusal to take a chance on next, imminent kernel release. I sense that my current frustrations are soon to be borne out across the globe on the desktops of users who do not have the knowledge to deal with it.

I have tried several things. Firstly I tried to disable Tracker so that trackerd never comes alive to hog my resources. I used the official 'tracker-preferences' application - Indexing Preferences under System->Preferemces. When that didn't work, after rebooting I had a minor epiphany that doing the same as the super user (sudo ...) may be the answer. Still, after another reboot, 'trackerd' is going strong. At least I can rule out prophet as a prospective vocation. I tried disabling Tracker in the start-up programs dialog that is obscurely named 'Sessions' in Gnome. That didn't stop it either. None of these have had an effect after multiple reboots. It is hauntingly reminiscent of Windows. I can't uninstall it because the meta-package ubuntu-desktop requires it (and uninstalling that opens a can of worms I really don't have time to deal with).

"Preferences" - I prefer Tracker off but it's going to run anyway!

It must be said that I am using Gutsy Gibbon, the development version of Ubuntu. So I should anticipate some problems, but it's not problems for me that I'm worried about. I've been using Linux for years. I can fix something if I really have to, I can tweak my system and solve my problems. It is those making the transition from Windows to Linux that I am worried about. They hear how stable and wonderful Linux is, but then boot into something that is attacking their harddrive from day one. That's not a good impression to make.

After an hour of waiting, eventually another process usurps 'trackerd' at the top of 'top'; 'tracker-extract'. Perhaps my desktop is going to be returned to me? No, not yet, it soon goes away and 'trackerd' resumes control.

I'm sure that Tracker is a nice application, much in the way Google Desktop on Windows can be nice for people who use it. However, I am not happy that the Ubuntu powers-that-be have decided to impose Tracker upon us in the way they have. At the very least, make it unintrusive - much like the update manager, have it ask permission to do things. A nice system tray icon and notification that it would like to index your data, thereby introducing itself, that would have been an intriguing surprise and I could opt for it to eat my resources at a moment that is convenient for me, instead of the most inconvenient moment when I first log in and really want to be using my desktop. Or I could opt to disable it without having to dig and find out about it the hard way.

Finally after an hour and a half, my hard drive stops grinding. The familiar shine of it's activity LED satisfyingly fades. I pause to wonder if Gutsy will be the Windows ME of Ubuntu releases, one so problematic that when the next (ironically LTS) release comes out, the new release looks better than ever. I'm sure Windows 2000 would not have had so many plaudits had Windows ME been half decent or even never seen the light of day.

I'm sure eventually the Ubuntu developers will solve this, in this release or the next. I'm hopeful this problem won't affect too many people - I have a few SVN repos that perhaps take more "indexing" than the usual /home folder will require. I'm just worried about the increasing featuritis of Ubuntu. Vista has hit the headlines for it's outrageous requirements, poor performance and compatability. Surely now is a time to be careful about adding too much, careful about following in the footsteps of Microsoft who have traditionally met faster computing with more computing-intensive software. By bucking the trend and releasing something light, we can impress users with the efficiency of our open source world. Gutsy Gibbon will not be welcomed on older computers, and I fear the trend of Ubuntu will be to keep adding "new features" in further releases and going further down the heavy hardware road.

Hopefully now it's had it's initial uninterrupted playtime, perhaps Tracker - with all known options set to disable it - will now leave me alone to work in peace.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Linux desktop going backwards?

Disappointed to find out that the upcoming version of Ubuntu will not be featuring the Completely Fair Scheduler improvements that accompany Linux 2.6.23, I decided to roll my own kernel on my Gutsy-installed laptop so I could enjoy the benefits anyway. I'm not unfamiliar with this - I used to use Gentoo and tried a variety of custom-build kernels "back in the day" when 2.6 was raw and significant improvements were fast and furious. These days the differences between kernels and new features tends to be small so I haven't had to delve into kernel compilation since switching to Ubuntu but I have been lured back into it by the poor quality of Linux 2.6.22 (various IO issues) by Linux standards and the massive performance gain of CFS in terms of desktop responsiveness and predictability under load.

If you know your way around Linux, compiling a kernel isn't that difficult. There's plenty of good guides around for the popular distributions - I used this one for reference - and was pretty quickly done with that part. The only tricky bit is if you care about 3D acceleration and have ATI or nVidia graphics chipsets to cater for. My laptop comes with an nVidia graphics chipset. The various Ubuntu-specific kernel compilation guides recommend using the driver installation package from the nVidia website, so I grabbed that and ran it.

What the hell is this? I have to QUIT X to install these drivers? I'm relatively long in the tooth with Linux and I have never had to quit X to actually accomplish something like that. Hell, I have upgraded my entire OS (think Ubuntu Breezey -> Dapper -> Feisty -> Gutsy) without* quitting X. And this bloodey driver has the balls to demand I quit X so it can compile itself, place itself in a few directories, and modify my xorg.conf file if I let it?

* Of course at some point you have to restart various things... but whilst installing / upgrading software, being able to continue using the software in memory is a UNIX norm.

Almost as galling as this backwards step in Linux desktop configuration is the reaction I got when I posted this in the Ubuntu forums. People seem to think it's completely OK to have to crap out to a terminal-only environment to do this. The Windows mentality of "please reboot" as soon as a gentle breeze picks up seems to be creeping into the much more robust Linux arena.

I hope this is an isolated package and not a trend. Please, nVidia, sort this out. We should not have to quit X just to install your drivers. Even better, be useful and donate some funds to the Nouveau project so we don't have to rely on your binary blobs any more.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Ubuntu frustrates but Vista angers

My new Acer laptop came with Windows Vista Home Premium preinstalled. I quickly installed Ubuntu on a separate partition - keeping the Vista install for the time being. I use Ubuntu Linux as my primary OS. However for a moment, I was pleased to have kept Vista around. Despite having over 6 years of experience with various flavours of Linux, I could not get it to play a DVD in the 30 minutes it took for my girlfriend's patience to run out, so for that single moment Vista had a use. Also, how can I meaningfully discuss the merits or pitfalls of Ubuntu without experiencing Ubuntu's primary contemporary competitor, Vista, firsthand?
This morning I was attending a meeting of predominantly Windows users, a good opportunity to get some Vista-time under my belt. I booted into Vista to set up Eclipse (a Java development environment although I'd not yet installed Java - I was going to after downloading Eclipse) so I could run through a few development issues with them. I downloaded Eclipse; the version I needed is distributed as a 125MB zipfile.
It is important note that I had only run Vista on 2 occasions prior to this - once when the laptop arrived and the aforementioned DVD incident. So, this was a "clean" Vista install with only the freeware version of AVG and Opera installed by me. Anything else is either a preinstalled application by Acer or part of Windows.
Once Eclipse was fully downloaded it should have been simple. Vista supports "compressed folders" out of the box, as did its predecessor Windows XP. Nothing new here - open, copy, browse to chosen location, paste. The result? Barely 7k/s unzip speed. Shocked, I think to myself, "Something must be wrong!" Well, AVG was scanning files - so I stop the scan, and try again. Problem solved? Nope - it steadily improves to a paltry 20k/s unzip speed. That is disgusting. Some will probably shout, "What do you expect, you only have Vista Home Premium!?" I'm sorry, but that just does not excuse this. I am truly appalled.
Naturally, I took screenshots. Thankfully MS Paint still works.

Unzipping Vista's impotence
Just to make matters worse, after losing patience with 15 minutes of waiting for the unzip operation to speed up, I attempted to cancel the unzip operation. Explorer hung. My Vista experience is only a few boots old and I'm already experiencing crashes. And they want this OS installed around the world in people's homes?
Maybe I have to mess around in Ubuntu to get around DRM centric formats like DVDs, but at least it's moving forwards as an OS and not backwards - Vista really made me cringe and I'll probably install XP to get on with any Windows-oriented work tasks in the future.

Friday, 17 August 2007

What happened to Firefox?

Firefox... what happened to you? Consuming gross amounts of memory, slower and slower as releases go by. You were supposed to be a slim browser usurping Mozilla by virtue of simplicity, shedding the feature creep and lack of engineering that had convoluted the Mozilla suite. Now you have become the very thing you were created to kill: a bloated browser.

I installed Opera today. It may be closed source, but it's a breath of fresh air - fast, snappy, simple. Innovative features (speed dial, notes) and a clean, minimal UI. In general it just works and is a lovely UI experience.

Another option in Ubuntu/Gnome is Epiphany but it just doesn't have the polish that Opera has.

I originally posted these thoughts in the Ubuntu forums here.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Open Source Presentation Software

There's a good article over at Linux Revolution about the gaping hole in the Free Software desktop - the lack of a good presentation application.

He misses out a couple of options - notably KPresent and Inkview - but they are hardly earth shattering alternatives. I suppose you could, at a stretch, even involve Dia with this.

I also remember rumours of adapting AbiWord to do slideshows as well (look for AbiPresent).

I'd like to see Inkview get more backing. It comes from a strong SVG background with Inkscape, meaning it is designed around the graphics rather than designed as a Powerpoint clone. I think that's the kind of approach that is needed here, something a little "outside the box" compared to the standard.

Anyway, the article is a good read (as are most of the LR posts) with some good comments so head over and check it out. :-)

Friday, 15 June 2007

Word Processor Reviews

There's an extensive review of word processing options over at DonationCoder.com which includes the two notable open source applications OpenOffice.org Writer and AbiWord.

The criticism of AbiWord is especially harsh but I think it's something they really need to take on board. I remember posting to the AbiWord development list about the program struggling to handle a reference I was writing for another open source project, and was told point blank not to expect AbiWord to handle anything more than basic documents. I was taken aback, to say the least.

The frustrating thing is, with a bit of care taken to make it more robust, AbiWord really has a lot of potential. It is not bloated like OOo Writer, it can gain innovative new features like AbiCollab. It can work well with other "Gnome Office" applications like Gnumeric. And it does - contrary to the statement of the review - support advanced things like equation editing (see 2.4.0 release notes).

The problem is, it is [in the open source arena] the little guy. The big players are backing the big boy, OOo Writer, and the Abi devs have been unable to take advantage of their position so far because they have not been able to make it robust enough to retain users. I just could not rely on it when I tried to adopt AbiWord earlier last year. User retention is everything in the software industry and especially so in open source software. No users, no community, no contributors.

My advice? Take the review criticism seriously. If there are false statements (such as the equation editing) then the problem is documentation. Otherwise, the criticisms are the major reasons people are not using AbiWord.