26 March 2012

The power of the network efect, a story about RAR

I am a Linux geek and I am surrounded by geeks, but I also live in the real world: I may not see 99% of computers running Windows, it may be around 90% (approximate numbers pulled directly from my ass) so I still have a sane look of the computing world. And one of the aspects of this world that made me think was the omnipresence of WinRAR on the computers around, it is close to 99% of the desktops and laptops with Windows (again, anecdotal from Romania), to the point where all the computers I encounter have WinRAR - I usually uninstall it and put 7-Zip instead, able to open .rar, archives to open and create .zip, Free Software... When I happen to install a Windows, I put 7-Zip right from the start. And sometime it happens to see WinRar added back...

I gave this some thought, what's the reason for WinRAR's omnipresence and I concluded it the network effect: RAR was used a lot for warez, it was popular for its compression rate (a bit better than Zip) and the ability to make volumes (the warez was packed in floppy-disc sized volumes). So a lot of people needed at some point a .rar unarchiver, they went with the first hit from search engines: WinRAR, which once installed put itself as the default, making all future archives produced from that computer in .rar format. The archives were shared, resulting in other people needing and unachiver, other WinRAR installs, defaults and more files sent that way.

Today we have broadband connections, fast internet and large storage, most of the files we send are lossy compressed (jpeg, mp3) and it make little sense to compress them further (practically no space is saved) but it is still convenient, is way easier to send one file, the archive, instead of many - think for example how many clicks would be needed to attach them in a webmail interface.

Of course, it also helped WinRAR was nagware: a full functional copy could be downloaded at no cost, it (I don't know about today, never used it for years, I am just uninstalling it) used to have a nag window, asking to pay or press one more button (IIRC), so people were not pirating it and had no reason to feel bad.

Having in mind those thoughts about RAR and its network effect, I noticed this morning an article about how Live Messenger is censoring links, IM is another case of network effects, and here in my country Yahoo has a monopoly on that (I talked about it before). Still, there are a few dents in Yahoo's monopoly, made by the Facebook chat (we geeks with Jabber and/or GTalk are an insignificant minority).

Distro naming and an opportunity to learn

There is an ongoing debate on the advisory board list about the naming of Fedora releases, it started from a ticked for the Board (not public) where, as I understand, complained about "Beefy Miracle" connotations in some cultures (cattle slaughtering). This sparkled a discussion about the purpose and meaning of release names in general, if the tradition is to be abolished, continued or changed and such.

I wish we had a more relaxed community, where people have fun and feel good, don't get easily offended. For example if the Beefy Miracle successor happens to receive an Indian food name, as there are some proposals, I would like people from Western cultures not complain about it being "obscure" but get the opportunity to learn, maybe have some of our Indian contributors putting up tutorials about making that dish and some of us trying them, why not?

PS: this opinion is not related to my Indian experience, I would say the same about any "exotic" alternative.

21 March 2012

Tom's Gnome

The other day I had some intense graphic work, paying a lot of attention in Inkscape to drawing details, so a bit of relax was much needed, then I noticed a message posted to the Fedora marketing mailing list about some yet another distro review, I usually don't read those but as I said above, was tired, needed some light activity already had the daily 9GAG dose, so away with the reading :)

It was a Fedora 16 and GNOME Shell "test and review" on Tom's Hardware. Normally I would stop here, but the first paragraph (in bold) caught my attention (and, remember, I was in need for some light activity):

"Ubuntu and Mint don't want it; Linus called it an “unholy mess.” While most other distros are passing up or postponing GNOME Shell, Fedora is full steam ahead. Does Red Hat know something the rest of us don't? Or is GNOME 3 really as bad as everyone says?"

OK, so it is a piece about Fedora and GNOME Shell, as seen from the eyes of someone in the Ubuntu camp (according to the author, they sometime cover Ubuntu, no other distro so far, but want to expand the area of coverage). With this bias in mind, I can proceed to reading, but read it as you "read" those articles on hardware review websites: the first page, jump over the million of "tests" on separate pages, made for ads impressions, straight to the conclusion were I see this gem (with which I agree wholeheartedly:

"The only thing really wrong with Fedora 16 is the choice of GNOME 3 as its default desktop environment. This distribution is for the people who make Linux, not for the Win/Mac converts. GNOME Shell is most obviously intended for the uninitiated masses, not the developers. Putting aside any gripes we may have with it, from it's very inception, GNOME 3 simply wasn't the right fit for Fedora."

Then it goes on wipping the floor with the desktop, and rightfully so. Then comes the solutions part, where I find myself in disagreement, as the author talk about a monster resulting from the combination of GNOME Shell and Unity, complete with mockups.

09 March 2012

Snowdrops wallpaper

A friend of mine (anecdote: she's a programmer at Microsoft) asked me for a larger-size version of this image, quote "not facebook quality" to use as a wallpaper. So if I optimized the image, I figured it make sense to share this snowdrops wallpaper with everyone. CC-BY-SA, of course :)

spring wallpaper

Maybe a softer, black-and-white version works to? (I usually prefer full-color):

pring wallpaper

08 March 2012

On Zombies and Desktops

I know Bruce Byfield as a good journalist, when I see an article is written by him I usually make the time, read it and most of the time agree with it (not 100%, I am a human, not a sheep). I think I even quoted his articles as good examples on occasion. This is why I am surprised to see such a bad piece, where he is wrong on all accounts, maybe because the article titled The GNOME 2 Zombie addresses a topic I happen to know some, I am able to judge better the text quality?

Anyway, that is yet another piece about the GNOME debate, this time with a new angle: GNOME 2 is dead and buried, still its users want it alive, as Bruce says, a zombie. Then the author tries to investigate why some people like the GNOME 2 interface and makes the effort to demolish all their arguments. And, in my opinion, he utterly fails. He identifies 7 sins about he argues are capital and should make people hate GNOME 2 instead of loving it. Here it goes:

Tools No One Wants to Use

Here are a number of examples: Epiphany, Evolution, Abiword and Gnumeric, which are GNOME applications, he say, included by default by some distros, he says, and used/wanted by virtually nobody, he says. Where should I begin? OK, the first thing that struck me was Bruce saying "For instance, Epiphany is a Mozilla-based browser with fewer features than Firefox" which shows how little research was made before writing this - Epiphany changed from Gecko to WebKit years ago, if the rest is equally researched should I continue reading? I read, since I trust Bruce.

I use Fedora and Epiphany was never a default, the distro always had Firefox as the default (many others did the same), still I kept Epiphany as a backup browser, along with Seamonkey: useful when you need multiple profiles on the same website at the same time. Evolution? I always preferred Thunderbird, but I know plenty of people using Evolution, which is more integrated. As for Abiword or Gnumeric, when they were a default this happened on the live CD, where there was just not enough space for a full OpenOffice.org/LibreOffice.

And, last, I suspect Epiphany and Evolution are defaults in GNOME 3 too, so what's the point?

The Applications / Places / System Menu

This is a diatribe against the menu system "GNOME 2's three-part menu might be called its main identifying feature. No installation is without it. Yet, for all its omnipresence, it's irritating to use." It is pretty much a personal opinion and one made by an author who started by acknowledging he is a full time user of a different desktop environment, KDE, so biased. What can I say here? Of course other people, those who prefer GNOME 2 thins it is an easy to use feature, not an irritating one. For me, using it is a reflex.

The Classic Menu

Another diatribe, this time against the Applications menu "An extreme example of this problem is the infamous Debian menu, which may list everything installed on the system, but also goes at least five levels deep." A sane distro and an average install won't have something close to that. Yes, sometime I may have to vertically scroll the menu on the small display of my netbook, but I found this preferable to the small and fixed-sized start menu in Windows 7 or KDE, where you have to flip page after page before reaching what you need.

The Stagnation of Applets

This time he start by being right, in the last GNOME 2 iterations, applets became less and less useful. What Bruce misses is this was a deliberate move of the GNOME 3 developers for the transition, so if there is something at fault, is not GNOME 2, but GNOME 3. Users will definitely prefer the applets in GNOME 2.28 rather 2.32.

As a reminder of the bias, we are served a comparison with the KDE widgets. Thank you, we were aware about that :)

Controlling the desktop from the file manager

The author find awkward to control the behaviour of the desktop (icons, trash, external media) from the file manager, preferring a separate System menu item (after he complained in the previous items about the menus' length). And he wonders "Exactly why the arrangement made sense to developers in the early years of the millennium has never been clear to me." I guess it make sense to have them this way when you have checked the option to use the file manager to handle the desktop. And is not like to change this setting multiple times a day. Is something minor.

Useless Default Icons

Having the Computer and Home icons on the desktop are not the fault of the GNOME desktop, is getting users what they are used to have since... Window 95. And it does not takes more than a couple of clicks in TweakUI to remove them. This issue is filler, totally minor, put here just to increase the sins count to 7. Myself, I removed the Computer icon from the desktop but still have Home, is one click faster than going to Places.

Over-Simplified Designs

This starts with the strawman of Linux Torvalds criticising GNOME 2 for lack of features years ago (after which Linus moved to use GNOME himself, after which he moved to the even lighter Xfce) and then goes to compare applications from GNOME and KDE and find GNOME apps missing features. This is yet another strawman: if an app is light in features in GNOME 2, it will be light on features on GNOME 3, so is not a reason not to miss GNOME 2 in GNOME 3.

There are a few examples, I will pick one: Brasero versus K3B and at first I will agree, K3B has many more features than the default GNOME solution, years ago I used myself K3B as the CD burner on my GNOME desktop, but since those years I didn't feel the need... a feature I have not used in 3-4 years I would call unimportant. And if I need the advanced functionality, I can just install the app - this is what I do for video editing, not happy with the GTK+ alternatives, my video editor of choice is Kdenlive, I may not enjoy the sight of QT widgets, but is more important to get the job done.

As for the conclusion... I don't understand what is the conclusion: GNOME 2 is dead and won't come back, GNOME 3 sucks due to its wrong design decision, forks as Cinnamon are weak and not long term solution, then... what to do? Probably move to Xfce or KDE, but Bruce forgot about this as a final conclusion.

As for the comments, there surely are people attacking the author for unknowingly criticise a desktop that he's not using himself, people appreciating the GNOME 2 menus and applets, people who notice some of the flaws in argumentation I mentioned before, but I find the most insightful what the reader Andy says: "You have focussed on small issues, ignoring the Big Picture. People are trying to keep hold on the Icons On Desktop metaphor, with Overlapping Windows, minimise/maximise etc. That's what there's a curious and unwanted shift away from recently, with Unity, Gnome 3 and Win 8 - and we don't like it!"