Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Open-source guru Eric Raymond joins Freespire board

"Desktop Linux must advance now," said Raymond. "If desktop Linux is to advance to a broader audience, it must work with iPods and other MP3 players, play DVD movies, view Windows Media and Quick Time content on the web, and so on. I wish users didn't require these proprietary formats, but it's naive and unrealistic to expect the masses to forgo these requirements in the near future. Linux must make some compromises to attract mainstream users."

I hope this works.

I tried Linspire aka Lindows a long while back and found it to be very user friendly. But like other user friendly Linuxes (and like Windows and OS X) it was often sluggish at times when I thought it should be snappy. It took longer to start up than other, more basic Linux versions. I used Suse for a year or so and found that it had these problems too, but I also learned what default components I could uninstall to pep up performance a bit.

In the mean time I kept experimenting with Debian and gradually learned how to make it do things like play CDs and Windows media files. It would be nice someday to have the best of both worlds, that is, systems that do excellent device detection and set-up, allow you to override those decisions, and this is important, only do that when you request that it be done (re-detecting my video card and monitor at every start-up is just plain silly).

But I tell Windows and Apple users to look for the "Works with Linux" logo, or words to that effect, even if they have no plans to run Linux. Hardware that only runs on Windows, or worse, only on a specific version of Windows is a good way to isolate vendors that are lazy or cost-cutting to the extreme. They may also be attempting to lock you into their products by co-mingling the software and hardware aspects of their products. Remember replacing a Winmodem with another Winmodem and finding that they aren't all alike, can't be easily detected or unistalled, and interfere with one another? Remember HP printer device drivers popping up messages reminding you to use only genuine HP toner, paper, and asking if you would be interested in HP Life insurance? OK, I made that last one up.

Two years ago I wanted to get off of the inkjet printer treadmill, having tried 5 or more various brands and finding them all using more ink than I spent for myself on food, I decided that black and white laser technology was good enough for me, especially with a price war that was going on in that space. I ended up with a small Samsung ML-1740 that was under $100, and included the word "Linux" on the packaging. At the time I was using my Apple Powerbook almost exclusively, and as it was new, sticking with OS X. The printer worked flawlessly, and in fact it has taken me those two years just to use the included "starter" supply of toner. I doubt I've printed half a package of paper in that time. Finding a full sized toner refill wasn't easy when I finally needed to do that, but Staples just started carrying them, and I could have ordered it online had that not occurred. My guess is that the printer will die from roller rot before I use all that toner. Quite a change from ink cartridges that start drying up while the printer is just sitting there.

Anyway, my acquisition of a used Dell SX-260 small footprint machine for around $300 has caused me to switch back to Linux almost full-time (I'm so fickle, and I wish more users were). The Powerbook is now relegated to actual travel situations and a bedside movie watching machine. When Etch goes production I may even try that on it, but no hurry.

It took a few weeks after setting up the Dell for me to realize that I needed to print something. Thinking this was going to be an ordeal, I "printed" the few pages I needed into a PDF file, transfered that file to the Powerbook, and then hooked the Powerbook up to the printer to get the hardcopy. It wasn't a LOT of trouble, but wouldn't do for printing directions or a map as I was on the way out the door, late for some appointment (one of the few regular uses I have for a printer at all).

So I decided in the next few days I'd better investigate Linux printing to the Samsung. After trying various generic Linux printer set-up methods with less than spectacular success, I remembered an article written by Eric Raymond on his own frustrations with the process. Things hadn't improved much, if at all.

But then I remembered the "Works with Linux" words that had helped me choose this printer in the first place and decided to visit the Samsung web site to see what was available. Keeping in mind that Samsung has gone on to newer models, I was able to find a driver download for the ML-7xx line of printers (some of which include scanners I guess) and downloaded that file. It wasn't a Debian package, but was an "unzip and run the install program" sort of thing. No different really than what you get with Windows, except the Windows things are usually packaged as an EXE file leading Windows users to be more oblivious than they might otherwise be about just clicking on any and every icon they see.

The Install program (which told me the first time I ran it that I needed to be "root", put up a nice GUI dialog. There were a blessed few options to pick, and all the defaults seemed reasonable. It also mentioned that I needed Sane support pre-installed for scanner support, and just in case I did the appropriate apt-get to make sure that was the case, even though my printer doesn't have a scanner (I do need to verify I can scan with my Canon scanner though, another rare activity).

In just a few clicks, my installation was complete and it even asked if I wanted to print a test page, which I did, and which printed quickly and accurately. It put a printer icon on my desktop (KDE, but I don't know if that matters) and now when I print, I get the options I had before of creating a PDF file, or printing to a real printer. Magic. Just as good as Windows, better in some ways. If more devices had this level of support, switching to Linux would be a no-brainer for many home users these days.

I hope the Freespire project meets with much success, and let's get the word out that devices that work with Linux, in general work better with everything else too. It is a mark of value that separates the value brands from the also-rans.

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