Ubuntu 11.04 Gnome and Unity

1 11 2010

I’ve been wondering about the news today that Ubuntu 11.04, the next big release, scheduled for April 2011, is to ship with the new Unity user interface as the default, replacing Gnome. Gnome will still ship and users can switch to it but what strikes me is this is either exactly what the Linux desktop needs or exactly what it does not need.

For years the Linux desktop has been dogged with the simple fact thats its UI and hence UX is, charitably, not as slick as OSx or Windows, but more accurately its a pig. Given enough time and knowledge it can be much better than either of them, the problem is the popular desktop environment is not populated with Linux hackers, so those brave enough to try it see its looks crap and go back to something they know.

I’ve generally thought that between KDE and Gnome, plus a handful of also rans and slightly more specialized offerings the Linux desktop is a complete failure. Sure choice is king and being able to do what you want id fantastic, but not at the expense of being able to use the thing to get a job done. Gnome is usable, just. KDE recently isn’t even that. Both are amazing when you spend time getting them just right. But who has that sort of time? and in an environment of any size who wants that sort of maintenance headache?

Then comes the apps, tools, widgets, thingies and whatsits. The essential collection of things you actually need to use to get something done. Try finding a comprehensive set of anything that adopts any thing approaching common ground to either the desktop manager or anything else, its not a pretty picture most of the time, literally. This all severely hurts, it hurts the Linux desktop and it hurts adoption because it hurts productivity, it doesn’t help that it looks like something thrown together in a kiddies art class either.

Ubuntu has popularized the Linux desktop, growing its reach hugely and despite my misgivings about its somewhat slapdash approach to releases it proves to be ‘The Linux Desktop’.

So, one might think that Ubuntu could lead the charge and sort out the desktop UI/UX in fact I was beginning to think it might happen until the slippage of Gnome Shell and the emergence of Ubuntu Unity in its netbook remix. Unity is another desktop manger, its not Gnome, its not KDE, its Unity. Quite frankly it sucks, Ive been putting up with it on my netbook for a while and as its a device I use when I have to rather than when I want to its not such a big deal, probably more so as the application I use on it is a terminal 99% of the time.

So I was quite surprised to read that 11.04 will use Unity and not Gnome. I would have been comforted to read that Ubuntu was going to be working very close with Gnome to sort out the desktop, but that seems to not be the case. There have been a few blogs today about what this means for Gnome, well quite simply it doesn’t mean anything much. Ubuntu has barely contributed anything to Gnome, Gnome will live on and prosper based on it being largely contributed to by Red Hat et al. For sure not being the default in Ubuntu is going to hurt, but Gnome is’nt going to suffer much. Ubuntu might though…

I don’t know how many desktops use Ubuntu right now, but how many of them are going to be using it after the upgrade to 11.04 and the switch to Unity? Lets consider Unity is new, right now its not pretty, its slow, buggy and in my opinion not ready for release. But they have got time, not much though.  I wonder how many people will stick with Ubuntu when the UI changes, its going to have to be something of an amazingly successful upgrade isn’t it? Any problems could have people reaching for any of the other popular Linux distro’s and the familiar Gnome desktop.

I think its an interesting move, for sure its vital they get the news out now and start to wade through the reaction to it. Right now I think Unity for me will be on my desktop for as long as it takes to switch to Gnome and if that isn’t less than 10 minutes the switch will be to to Fedora, Debian or any one of a dozen other perfectly viable desktop Linux distributions. Unity needs some very positive media in the next month and some well led promotion, making it work well might be a good first step too.

My final thought, for now, is why didn’t Ubuntu try to adopt the Google ChromeOS type of browser based desktop, isn’t Unity actually about anything but?

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Installing Zend Optimizer Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5

24 08 2010

I recently had to install Zend Optimizer for a client using a particular WordPress plugin on one of the hosting severs I run. The plugin was encoded with Zend Guard and the optimizer provides run time decoding as well as some (questionable in my opinion) performance optimizations.

All my hosting servers run Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Plesk as the hosting control panel so I set about looking up something a little more informative than Zends pathetic notes on installation. This is where I started to come a little unstuck and found myself going backwards and forwards between different sets of installations instructions and a segmentation fault problem. Now typically when I get to this point I remember that Atomic Rocket Turtle has usually not only been there and done that, they also have a installation for it and a simple yum repo waiting, as always they did. I wont detail this method as its easy to find and anyone who should be doing it will know what to do and where to look.

After installing Zend Optimizer via Atomics repo I then looked at what it had actually done, to reverse engineer the install if you like, this I hoped would leave me with a simple way to install the required module without having to add the Atomic repos to servers that are under full patch management.

So  here are my simple notes.

These are based on using Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (or equivalent CentOS 5), PHP 5.1 (the standard PHP build for this distro) and Plesk 8.6. If you are using anything different you’ll need to adjust things in what I hope is a fairly obvious manner.

Firstly download the right Zend Optimizer package. Upload it to your server (Zend unhelpfully do not provide a direct download link) and unpack the tar ball.

Now find the right version for your version of PHP in the ‘data’ folder, for PHP 5.1 it’s in ‘5_1_x_comp’ inside will be a ‘ZendOptimizer.so’ this is the PHP module you will need to install, rename it to ‘ZendOptimizer-5.1.so’ then we will know which PHP version it’s for (Zend if you are reading this please try to follow some simple accepted standards with your naming).

In this environment PHP loads modules from ‘/usr/lib/php’ create a sub folder called ‘zend’ and copy the module into it.

Now create a file called ‘zend.ini’ in ‘/etc/php.d’ the file needs to contain the instruction to load the module ‘zend_extension=/usr/lib/php/zend/ZendOptimizer-5.1.so’.

Check things are ok with ‘php -v’ at the command line, if all is well you’ll get

PHP 5.1.6 (cli) (built: Mar 31 2010 02:44:37)
Copyright (c) 1997-2006 The PHP Group
Zend Engine v2.1.0, Copyright (c) 1998-2006 Zend Technologies
with Zend Optimizer v3.3.3, Copyright (c) 1998-2007, by Zend Technologies

Now restart Apache and check the Zend Optimizer module is loaded with a simple phpinfo() script and make sure that your PHP scripts and so on are all still working.

You should have now successfully installed Zend Optimizer.





Google android on the HTC HD2

23 08 2010

I’ve been using the excellent HTC HD2 for quite a while now and its proven
to be a first class smart phone, with one black mark against it, it runs
Windows Mobile.

winmo, as it has become known has been around for years and has been a truly
awful operating system in its exposed form, its true value has been when
used on embedded systems which have hidden it from view and review.

With the arrival of iphone, android and even when compared to nokia symbian
or even blackberry its the outright loser by a long way. So it was quite a
surprise when HTC launched the HD2 and hobbled it out of the gate.

The HD2 hardware is leading edge and the screen is still one of the largest
on any smartphone. Which makes it even more bizarre to see the disappointing
Windows boot screen when you power it on.

To be fair to HTC they did an amazing job layering a very bespoke front end
on to of the awful Windows UI, Sense was lipstick on the pig. It was very
good lipstick but it was still a pig underneath.

As HTC continued to launch new phones, mostly running android the inevitable
calls for an upgrade from winmo to android started to be heard, HTC actually
said they could do it, then cruelly didn’t!

Rumors started to spread of a band of developers working on porting android to
the HD2, XDA soon had posts with devs making progress and soon after there
were videos showing work in progress android running on HD2 hardware.

I was watching carefully, but I use my phone everyday and couldn’t afford for it to
be sacrificed to a partially working android or worse a complete bricking.

Then in the last few days it looked like they had cracked it, android was
working. I downloaded the latest version, upgraded the phones radio and
carefully followed the simple instructions.

There it was, android. I did a lot of testing then started to select the
applications I would need. Everything was working, I decided to trial it for
reliability and stability for a week.

Here we are on day three and I can’t see what could happen now to make me
want to go back to winmo.

It feels like I have a new phone, probably the phone the HD2 should have
always been.

Hats off to the devs at XDA.





Weather on the move

8 05 2010

There are a few weather applications and tools I’ve come across that I have found useful to have on my phone, a HTC HD2. The HD2 runs Windows Mobile, regarded by many as one of weakest mobile operating systems available, thats not something I would argue with but its not completely useless (lets be honest Microsoft never do a complete job of anything!).

I’ve little doubt that the iPhone and Android are covered with many more and likely better applications but this is for those of us with Windows Mobile.

I’ve mostly been looking at applications rather than web sites which have a mobile version, but there are a few of those here too.

So what is there for those of us with more than a passing interest in the weather or an obsession with needing as much technology as possible to tell us its raining when simply accepting we are getting wet is not enough.

1. HTC Sense Weather

The HD2 (thank God) layers HTC Sense (Touch Flo 3D in a former life) over the awful Windows Mobile 6.5 UI, without this there would be no point really. One of the ‘built in’ applications is HTC Weather. This is quite a nice graphical tool and adds much needed eye candy to the home screen as well as offering its own application screen. You can add multiple cities as well as have it automatically report on your current location, however, the current location can be troublesome as it relies on Cell Towers for its location fix and not the inbuilt GPS, perhaps someone at HTC can offer some explanation of why?

A 5 day (today and next 4 days) forecast is the basic offering and the graphics are well made, smooth and do impress, something WinMo based phones need to do in the company of their iPhone and Android counterparts.

2. GPS Enabled Weather

This was a real find in my opinion, you can find it on their web site. The application gives you rain radar images and can take its location fix from either GPS or cell towers, GPS obviously provides a more accurate fix and avoids the ‘reception’ issues that the standard HTC Sense Weather can sometimes suffer. This is not so much weather eye candy as it is good solid weather information in the form of radar maps which you can even run an animated loop. You can set your location manually and you can touch the map to update the location too.

Two nice features are the ability to set the map zoom level (no pinch to zoom though, why not?) and a feature that allows you to call a URL with parameters passed from the application, such as your GPS coordinates. This would be ideal to call the Weather Underground mobile pages for deeper weather info on your location. Again, something I will be playing with in a spare moment.

3. iCumulus

Not so much an application as a mobile version of my weather web site created using Cumulus from SandaySoft and iCumulus from David Jamieson, written for the iPhone it seems to work fine within the Opera browser on the HD2.

I think the scripting and CSS needs some anti Safari or more Opera friendly tweaking though, something I hope to get around to soon.

As iCumulus requires a data feed supplied by your own personal weather station and web site its not something you can use unless you either have your own or access to such a site in your location

4. Touch Weather

This is very nice eye candy and solidly built, available from their web site. It allows you to select from different weather services and report on multiple locations. The basic version (free) does not have the 5 day forecast, for that you need to buy the pro version ( $5).

The default page is lacking any real detail, just the eye candy animations and the temperature. A panel appears at the bottom, when touched for, with further detail. Scrolling up and down steps you through the time period forecasts for that day, scrolling left and right takes you forward and backward through the 5 days of forecasts. A 5 day forecast summary panel is available from the detail panel too.

Its all very nice and there is a lot of customisation possible, from changing backgrounds to defining the levels of opacity used by the animations.

5. Weather4Me

The light weight Weather4me, offers decent 5 day forecasting with tabs so you can switch between Current, Today and 5 Day view. The AccuWeather tab opens an embedded browser page on the AccuWeather site for your selected location, this gives you more options with the forecast data, right down to hourly forecasts. There are also satellite images with animations.

The nice thing about being graphically light is that it will run well on other, less powerful, windows mobile phones.

The downside is that it looks less appealing next to some of the others, however, accurate data is always going to be worth more than pretty pictures.

6. Weather Underground

i.wund.com, although written for the iPhone, provides  a lot of the great data from Weather Underground in a mobile digestible format. Current conditions, forecasts and maps are all available.

The really nice thing with i.wund.com is that you not only have the choice of weather reports from all the usual sources you can also drill down to your own personal weather station, if you run one, providing you supply a data feed to Weather Underground





Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop and Netbook

1 05 2010

With the arrival of the Ubuntu 10.04 Release Candidate I took the plunge and did fresh installations on both my Desktop and Netbook. I’ve previously tried the Alpha and Beta and was generally impressed with the evolution of Ubuntu. My netbook is a ‘never leaves my side’ kind of thing and has to be 100% reliable and operational. My desktop is a compliment to my main desktop, which out of necessity, runs windows. The linux desktop provides my media, social networking, chat/IM, browsing/monitoring and secure access to numerous systems.

10.04 is an evolution but one in an evolutionary process that has visibly slowed down recently.That’s not to say there has not been a lot of work going on or that 10.04 is not impressive, there has and it is. When I say visibly I do mean visibly. Yes its a prettier place to live but, for example, its not got the next generation of Gnome. For that we will wait, hopefully for the next version of Ubuntu, however I do wonder how many who have opted for this latest LTS will not upgrade until the next LTS?

So, what was the install like? Well, it was pretty painless. The Operating System installed quickly, booted with no trouble (and booted fast but don’t believe the hype, its not that fast!). Sound, graphics, media cards all played nicely out of the box. It only took a short while to replace the now, quite frankly, hopeless FireFox with Opera, install the other usual suspects of my daily desktop life and be operational. I’ve always preferred a simple dock to desktop shortcuts or quick launch icons so I installed (as usual) Avant Window Navigator (0.4.0) and replaced the lower panel. I have to say AWN has improved, it feels a little more together than it used to and its not like it was bad before.

My only gripe with the new look and feel is that on a multi desktop system the close, min, max buttons are missing a menu drop down to send the window to another desktop. A right click on the title bar takes care of it but this is something that needs to be covered in the next release when, hopefully, we will see the reason why controls are on the left (ala Mac) and not the right (ala Windows), that space thats opened up on the right is going to have purpose soon we are told.

Media playback is sadly still not there out of the box, licensing and re-distribution can be blamed for this I think. Happily its not difficult to quickly have your MP3’s and DVD’s spinning away. I had one issue with Handbrake, but this was resolved by using the latest snapshot and should be resolved now that 10.04 is on general release. GIMP had to be pulled out of the repo’s as its not part of the standard install, no big deal really but silly in my opinion

BBC iPlayer, Tweetdeck, Filezilla, Dropbox and Skype all worked fine. I installed Sunbird, a screenlet I use to provide weather updates from Weather Underground and my own weather station and that was more or less that, desktop done.

Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop

Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop

The story was barely any different installing the Netbook Remix onto my EeePC901, though the desktop is, of course, the UNR standard.

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook

Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook

One of the new features in 10.04 is better integration between the desktop and the various social networking offerings, twitter and facebook really. This takes the form of two tools, yes two, why use one when you can make everyone do everything twice? Emapthy (which replaced Pidgin as the standard IM client back in 9) handles chat and Gwibber takes care of social broadcasting to twitter and facebook.

I have to say its good to have the ability to have a single chat client, Empathy, to work with Yahoo, MSN and Facebook but it does not handle Skype – I’m not blaming anyone but this is really a huge shortcoming now for me. Skype remains outside but has become almost ubiquitous for voice and IM communication. Not having integration into a single messaging client is something that needs to be addressed. Always preferring the open route I would prefer to see Empathy (or other) include at the very least Skype IM if not voice, however, I wonder why Skype has not built the IM ability for the other popular clients?

The ‘broadcast’ client, gwibber (come on guys, time to pay someone to come up with better names) is pretty weak and not without its problems. but it works in a pretty neatly integrated fashion and lets be fair and say that with some TLC it will do the job, but it needs some love pretty soon. No one who uses facebook or twitter much already will bother with it, they will install tweetdeck or whatever. But it might help tempt newer users into the social media and networking club. Its  quick to get something out in a hurry but links, pictures, etc, forget it!

Its pretty ironic to think, again as with all things in computing tech, that we have advanced so far only to be no further forward in real terms. In much the same way that cloud was my old mainframe, the latest fancy Excel spreadsheet fails to better my old Lotus 1-2-3, now the new gwibber and empathy and skype still need as many clients as MSN, Yahoo and AIM did before. Anyway, enough of that….

There is a lot more, people are raving about the Ubuntu One Music store, sorry but I cant think of anything less exciting. I dont use iTunes and I cant see me using this. I would like to see a native Spotify client though.

I mentioned above that I installed Dropbox, Ubuntu One has been around for a while but to be quite honest it still feels unreliable, slow and badly made. However the killer is its not got a Windows client (or anything else for that matter) so its useless for me and I suspect many many others. It does however, if you can use it, allow you to synch ANY folder not just a single specified one like Dropbox. Thats a very nice feature.

Performance wise I would say its too close to call. My desktop is nothing special, its getting on and doesn’t have a spec to die for. 9 was fine, 10 doesn’t feel faster in any tangible way but it does feel a little more together and it does boot that little bit faster too. On my netbook, again not the latest hardware, I would say its the same story. In short it all runs fine and I suspect on more modern tin its going to be a real delight. The bottom line here is that I can continue to take advantage of new features, better looking desktops, without having to shell out on new hardware. Thats a big plus with linux and Ubuntu.

There is no question 10.04 is a good operating system, if you already use Ubuntu its a no brainer upgrade. I usually find problems in a week of use and I’ve not had anything so far. Its been stable and reliable and everything works as it would.

Upgrade now, you wont regret it (however if you do don’t come crying to me!)





Redwood Lake Weather Station

2 04 2010

Over the last month of so I’ve been making a number of incremental changes to the web site for the Redwood Lake Weather Station. I still would love to build my own site from the ground up and a few prototypes have even gone from white board to web site and back again.

My biggest issue is instrumentation or gauges, Ive tried various offerings the most successful being the free gauges offered by Bindows but even these have left a lot to be desired, wide browser compatibility being top of a list of niggles.

So I decided, while I continue my search for the tools to build my own site, to apply a lot of the other tricks, tips and technology to my Cumulus based site from SandaySoft?

My weather station, a WS2350, is connected to an old server here in my office and via the excellent Cumulus software from Steve at  SandaySoft keeps the Redwood web site up to date.

Redwood Lake Weather Station Web Site

Redwood Lake Weather Station Web Site

So what are the key differences between the standard Cumulus web page and the Redwood site?

The old multi page standard site has been replaced by a single main page incorporating some of the data found on the old additional pages and driven by AJAX based dynamic updates based on a live data feed from the weather station. You can find details of the AJAX scripts on the Cumulus forum pages, implementing it was very simple.

The page has been reformatted a little with some minor tweaks to the CSS and the addition of a banner image (a picture of Redwood Lake, of course).

I have also implemented a data log to drive some graphs. The graphs are based on JPGraph package using the logging and data generation scripts by TNET Services, these are really good and very simple to get working. However they dont seem to deal with data gaps as I would like, I would prefer to see time on the graphs with no data rather than the period omitted. I’ve been looking at Open Flash Chart but have not really had the free time to define scripts to feed data in the JSON format required.

The navigation bar has been changed to allow me to include some great external content from Weather Underground and from Meteorologica, the standard Cumulus instrumentation gauges have been retained but I’m no fan of Silverlight and at best they are troublesome, which is a shame as I think Steve from SandaySoft has actually done a great job in building them.

One thing I always disliked about the standard Cumulus web site was the Moon phase graphic, so I’ve replaced it with some new images.

Overall I’m fairly pleased with the results, I think there is still a lot that could be done (time permitting of course). I would like to implement a better forecast, currently I’m using the simple (Zambretti based) forecast produced by Cumulus, the WS2350 doesn’t produce anything better itself as some weather stations do.

I think a forecast graphic and, if I can work out the scripting, a ‘current’ conditions graphic are next on the TO-DO list.





My Continuing Adventures with a Netbook

28 01 2010

So here we are fast approaching the end of January 2010 and I have itchy Netbook Operating System Syndrome, again. Having played with what i thought were the front runners in the linux distribution stakes for my Netbook OS it seems I may have missed one. One that is about to take an evolutionary step as well.

Eeebuntu currently, as the name implies, is a build of Ubuntu (9.04) for EeePC Netbooks. Now there are plenty of Ubuntu based distributions out there, in fact there are actually precious few not based on Ubuntu; Ubuntu Netbook Remix, JoliCliud, Moblin, ChromeOS, etc all have their roots in Ubuntu. And Ubuntu has its roots in Debian.

Now I’ve never really been a Debian user when it comes to servers or desktops, but truth be known, I’ve never heard a bad comment about it, quite the reverse in fact. Eeebuntu 3 is the current release and as its based on Ubuntu 9.04 the obvious question is where is Eeebuntu 4 which will obviously be based on Ubuntu 9.10, well no, it won’t. Its going back to the top of the food chain, so to speak, and will be based on Debian. So no longer will it be tied to Ubuntu’s coat tails and this could be a good thing. There are plenty of 9.101 ate my desktop stories out there and Ive had a few issues with it myself, nothing serious, but enough to taint my opinion of it.

As a precursor to the (soon hopefully) release of Eeebuntu 4 (name change required I think) I thought I would take version 3 for a spin. I’ve just gotten a little tired of UNR and its lack of finish, its good, don’t get me wrong, but its just like every linux desktop in that it feels unfinished, unpolished and, quite honestly, second class to Windows or OSx. UNR is a remix for Netbooks, but essentially its a screen real estate limited front end to Gnome and not much else.

Eeebuntu has a Netbook friendly Kernel plus EeePC friendly tools for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Screen, Sound and CPU mode. Other than that its a ‘full’ desktop, in so much as the GUI is full on Gnome and not a cut down. If this is a good or bad thing I’ve yet to determine. There are a few flavours to choose from, Base (my choice to start), UNR (a netbook remix, which is what Im getting away from) and a Standard version. As I prefer to pick and choose my applications and not have to remove some else’s clutter I’ve opted to install the base version.

Downloading and burning to an SD card was simple. Running as a live disk to have a quick tour showed everything to be present and correct, all working out of the box. Full installation was the usual uneventful affair and once installed and booted an update offered to update to the underlying Ubuntu 9.10, I declined and just updated the 9.04 install. So here it is, ready to be loaded up with OpenOffice, Putty, Opera 10, Skype, TweetDeck, iPlayer and a few other daily needed applications.

Downloading and burning to an SD card was simple. Running as a live disk to have a quick tour showed everything to be present and correct, all working out of the box. Full installation was the usual uneventful affair and once installed and booted an update offered to update the underlying Ubuntu to 9.10, I declined and just updated the 9.04 install.

So here it is, ready to be loaded up with OpenOffice, Putty, Opera 10, Skype, TweetDeck, iPlayer and a few other daily needed applications.

EeeBuntu

The little display on my EeePC 901 seems to cope fine with a full desktop, where I had previously thought it might not, hence my previous choice of UNR.

There is a certain pleasure in getting a desktop setup just the way you want it, I was happy with the UNR interface but over time found it limiting and ultimately short on delivery of its promise. Let’s see how Eeebuntu performs and hopefully soon how v4 raises the bar for Netbook linux distributions.

Initial impressions are good, everything I use installed without incident, I tend to keep anything other than essential offline data online these days, and this is especially true with the various portable devices I use. Dropbox and my own NAS system serve my purposes perfectly well and the odd SD card full of mp3’s gets me by.

Screen real estate on a Netbook desktop is scarce so the bottom panel bar has to go, the window list moving up into the top panel bar. Date and time was shrunk to just time. I’ve seen quite a few Netbooks running various Docks (like the OSx Dock) and though I find the one I run on my full size desktop linux PC to be a very useful way of getting to key applications there simply isn’t room on a small screen to handover space, that leaves the Gnome menu system, lets say its adequate and leave it at that for now.

EeeBuntu