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Friday, February 27, 2009

Digital trash for all

One of the changes headed for the SA broadcast market is the switchover from an analogue to a digital TV transmission signal. This is in keeping with similar changes being made worldwide, and helps free up spectrum for other uses (as digitally encoded signals use less spectrum than analogue ones). As is typical with anything involving technology regulation in this country, the swapover has seen numerous delays. According to MyBroadband, the powers-that-be are currently aiming for an initial commercial launch near the end of the year.

This swap-over, along with the eventual discontinuation of the analogue signal, is likely to drive an increase in the sale of digital TVs. Downconverting set-top-boxes will be available, and will be partially subsidised by the government, but I would expect many households that have been avoiding the expense will see this as an excuse to upgrade to an LCD TV while they still have a perfectly serviceable CRT.

This is good news for the environment from from an energy point of view (if they go for a similarly sized set) due to the higher energy efficiency of LCD sets. However it has huge implications from a waste point of view. A culture of recycling and responsible personal waste management is seriously lacking in South Africa, and a lack of public education on the subject does not help. I have seen no mention in any of the articles relating to this swap-over on how the resulting e-waste will be handled. As it is finding a nearby location to do basic plastic, paper and metal recycling can be a challenge, and most people don’t bother. I would like to see the government using this change in technology as an opportunity to educate individuals on the importance of correctly disposing of old electronic equipment (which typically contains many toxic materials).

America is about to go through the same switch switch and faces similar issues as a result (see this article on Grist), however they seem to have at least taken some steps in the right direction. Their Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides excellent information on recycling e-waste and events were held to inform the public about the problem. In amongst all the electioneering and political posturing, I would really love to see a little bit of attention on this looming issue from the individuals tasked with managing our country.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ubuntu Desktop part 2: Applications

This is the second post in a series relating my experiences as a relative Linux newbie using Ubuntu as my primary operating system. See the first post here.

Any operating system is essentially useless without additional software to do the work the user wants to get done. Software support and the quality of software on any platform –be it a desktop operating system, games console or mobile phone framework- will often be it’s biggest make-or-brake aspect.

Out of the box software

Windows user familiar with the ‘free addon software’ in windows such as MS Paint and Outlook Express are likely to be very pleasantly surprised with what they get when installing a default Ubuntu distribution. Besides variations on these simple applications, the OS comes bundled with a stellar office suite (Open Office), email client (Evolution), art package (The Gimp), and much, much more. The average user that just wants to browse the web, chat to friends, email, enjoy media and work on the odd document or spreadsheet is likely to be satisfied with Ubuntu without ever having to make any changes.

Third party software

Walking into your local Incredible Connection it may not appear as if there is as much third party software available for Linux flavours as for Windows. Appearances can be very deceiving. There may not be many boxed products out there, but the internet is brimming with software to do just about every task imaginable. The inherently technical and open Linux user community provides a plethora of applications at no extra financial cost to every day users. For the most part these are easy to find, through the software repositories (I’ll cover these next) and developers’ websites.

Software Installation

Installing software in Ubuntu is something of a mixed bag. The Synaptic Package Manager is a GUI application which hides the command-line complexity of Ubuntu’s apt software installation tool. It allows a user to easily perform a search for an application which suits their needs. Once found, installing the application is as simple as double clicking the app listing, and clicking apply in the package manager. Any dependencies will automatically be installed and downloaded as well. As a result any application which exists in the repositories is a snap to install, and Windows could really use something similar to make it easier for users to find the applications they need. Just as Apple’s iStore is one of the most compelling aspects of the iPhone platform, the software repositories are a huge win for Ubuntu.

Software which is not found in the repositories is another story entirely. In some cases installing these applications is a simple case of downloading a .deb file and double clicking it. Then there are the .deb files that have dependencies which may or may not be available in the repositories, or worse, have a newer version installed already and cannot be downgraded. There are other installation formats as well (typically executable installation scripts) which may or may not run successfully and frequently do not report results to the user either way, or clean up after themselves if they fail. These can be a real pain for even experienced users and are an absolute nightmare for inexperienced ones.

Uninstallation is another area that is decidedly spotty, and with various standards and philosophies on where files should typically reside, a manual cleanup is seldom as easy as on a Windows machine. This gives the distinct impression Ubuntu is intended to be freshly installed when new versions come out to keep things clean, rather than just upgraded.

Software updates

Just as the package manager is an absolute pleasure to use, the update system works as it should and gives exactly the right mix of options for set-and-forget or manual updates. Having all applications installed through the package manager automatically updated through this system is another plus, and mostly removes the need for manual software upgrades. Again, this is something Windows could really use. The one downside to this approach is that the repositories and update system are often far behind the most recent stable versions of some applications.

Of course updating software not installed through the package manager is once again another story and the ease of updating varies wildly between applications.

Software Stability

This is one area where Ubuntu really falls flat in my opinion. I would expect at least fully supported out-the-box software like Open Office to work almost flawlessly. Sadly the various stability and quality quirks in that package alone are enough to have caused my wife to beg for me to reinstall Windows.

The stability of applications –whatever their source- tends to be very diverse. There are those that will run for days on end and never give the slightest problems, and others that will randomly crash for no apparent reason, sometimes taking the system with them. This is of course not unique to Ubuntu, and is just as much of a problem as windows, however the problem seems more pronounced in supposedly mainstream Linux applications than in their Windows peers. The feeling here really is ‘you get what you pay for’.


In conclusion, on the software side of things Ubuntu certainly has no shortage of out the box or third party software support. The quality and ease of use of this software, however, is extremely unpredictable and this could easily put off users.


Next week I’ll discuss my experiences with regards to hardware compatibility and perhaps development.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Disqus test

Just testing the disqus commenting system

Ubuntu Desktop part 1: Intro, installation and networking

I’ve now been using Ubuntu (8.04) as my primary OS at home for six months or more (before which I dual booted it as a second OS for some things). I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the pros and cons of using Ubuntu in this way. I will also comment on my wife’s use of Xubuntu (also 8.04) on her machine.

Prior to my first attempt at running the OS on my machine, my last real use of a Linux OS was back in varsity-almost a decade ago- when we used Red Hat with KDE for our C++ courses. As such I was basically completely green as far as Linux goes, and came from a background of years and years of heavy Windows use.

For reference, my home laptop is a 3.0Ghz P4 with 1 Gig of RAM and an ATi 9700 (with 128M dedicated VRAM I think). Nat was running a similar system but with onboard video.


One of the greatest parts of the entire Ubuntu experience is the fact that with a Live disk, you can try out the OS without actually affecting your machine. The Live demo runs without a hitch, as does the actual installer. The Ubuntu installer is dead simple to use, whether or not you intend to dual boot your system-it’s also prettier than Windows’s boring old blue text installer from the get go (not that it really matters). I’ve done a fair number of fresh XP installs on my laptop, and Ubuntu’s install process is definitely quicker. The options to partition the installation drive may be intimidating to some, and a safe default could probably be made more obvious, but the argument could be made that anyone installing an operating system should have some idea of what will or won’t damage their system.


Next up (since it’s the first thing I set up after an install) is the networking. I can definitely say without any reservation that setting up basic networking in Ubuntu is a far more pleasant affair than the equivalent process in all Windows flavours. Microsoft’s attempts to make things easier by introducing networking setup wizards were well intentioned, but rather tend to get in the way.

Initial configuration of the network is intuitive and the default network configuration GUI tool in Ubuntu is a snap to access and use, with very welcome built-in support for profiles that can be switched between on the fly (for example between home and work connection settings). This is something I feel MS should have incorporated into Windows long ago, especially with the rise of the Notebook as a common choice for personal as well as business use.

Unfortunately 3G networking through my N95 is not as simple as on Windows (due to a lack of software support on the part of Nokia) but is possible for those not afraid to get their hands dirty and mess with setup scripts and the command line. A standard user, however, will not be able to achieve this. Once set up though, initiating and managing a connection through the phone is easy enough, if somewhat unstable at times. As far as I’m aware, there is added support for wireless networking in Ubuntu 8.10 which may make things easier.


That’s it for now. In my next post on the subject I’ll look at software support, installation and stability.


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