Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Moving A Friend To Fedora: Part 1

A few nights ago a frustrated friend popped over for the evening to work out his Vista woes on his Sony Vaio with the option of a shoulder to cry on. He is off on holiday for a week and needed his laptop to keep in touch with his business. The backlight could not be turned down and you essentially needed sunglasses to use his very shiny, expensive laptop. I knew Vaios are supposed to be cool, but this was taking it to an necessary level. :-)

I had been pushing him to use Linux for some time, and now was the time to make him jump. He runs a couple of personal Linux servers, so theoretically the jump should not have been that big, but he was apprehensive all the same. As familiar as he was with the server side of Linux, he was almost technophobic about having to adjust to the differences between Windows and desktop Linux - he has to answer as many as 200 emails a day as an essential part of his business. He still has a Windows desktop PC to fall back on, so when a few hours of muttering and driver installing and Vista reinstalling had gone by, I encouraged him to install Fedora. He agreed and I handed him a LiveCD.

As a Linux user for several years now, 10-15 minute installations are nothing new to me, but to a Windows user who is used to taking a day to get an OS up and running with essential apps, the 15 minute install routine made him very happy and relaxed that maybe Fedora was up to the job. However the backlight controls still did nothing and it took me nearly 2 hours to find and implement the solution that included compiling the CVS version of a utility. This he was less impressed with, but when I juxtaposed this against the futility of the situation in Vista, he acknowledged that it was an improvement.

Identifying email as his primary function, he started with the default Gnome mail client Evolution and was immediately unimpressed. Large icons and a busy user interface mean that screen real estate is wasted and the area devoted to listing and reading emails was simply too small on his 1200x800 screen. I recommended Thunderbird, which he quickly downloaded and tried with a more positive first impression. (I also recommended GMail but don't seem to be able to sell him on the idea of webmail done right. Hotmail has burnt many fingers.)

OK in spite of initially being impressed with fedora we are back to the same problems

/ emails appear in different font sizes necessitating constantly adjusting the font settings
/ emails wont display images even though I've hacked the value that's supposed to enable that
/ always get asked about plain / rich text on sending
/ cant work out how to install java for Mozilla because of 50000 packages with java in the title
/ email apps real-estate bloated hard to get enough info on the screen
/ cant disable mouse pad like in windows when using external mouse keep selecting wrong thing

I stopped there because with approx 200 emails a day clicking on several bits of **** doesn't work

ok vista might not be perfect but at least it doesn't take an ex software engineer over a day to install it and then edit into a satisfactory platform

its the small things. Someone should release "their" pre-configured install with all the right font sizes etc minimalism much better than plastering huge buttons everywhere

Some of his gripes are just a bit wood for the trees. The day of configuring is also required for a Vista/XP machine, just he's done that a hundred times or more so isn't scared of doing it. Of course, he also does not factor in that once you set up a Linux desktop the likelihood is it'll be running smoothly for years, thus saving all those days spent reinstalling Vista/XP after it slowed to a crawl or the latest worm has done the rounds.

However it can not be ignored that there are some definite flaws in Gnome development. Last week I thought I'd discovered a great way to interface from Java to the native file selection dialog in Gnome, only to find the dialog that it pops up is some disused, broken, obselete mess. (i.e. it just shouldn't be there if it's unmaintained). There is a certain level of QA missing but, I guess, that is the role of the community when it comes to Free Software.

When my friend gets back, we'll have another session and I'll see if I can work those issues out. However, he does have a point. Evolution hasn't gone forwards in terms of it's user interface in a long, long time from what I can see with the caveat that I do not follow development closely nor use it.