Archive for Ubuntu

Happy Anniversary Windows 10

I finally grew tired of waiting for Microsoft to update my Windows 10 computer to the new Anniversary edition. What can I say, I’m impatient. Thankfully, Microsoft has made it possible for customers to initiate the update on their own. Installing the official Windows 10 Anniversary upgrade is easy. Your computer downloads a ton of software while you wait and then, when there is enough new software downloaded, it begins to install (and you wait). Your computer will reboot three or four times (while you wait) and then it’s done. Altogether, it took about 45 minutes to download, install, reboot, repeat, rinse, repeat, and wait. I said it was easy – I didn’t say it was quick.

After all that reboot, downloading, and waiting, the Anniversary edition was a bit disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any performance gains – in fact, it seemed that some operations were slower. Perhaps there were security upgrades but it’s not like that something a customer really notices. Overall, it was kind of a letdown. Even so, there were a few interesting new additions that were noteworthy:

  • The embedded Linux bash shell. Microsoft has done the unthinkable and built a Linux subsystem into windows. This was done with obvious help of Ubuntu. I say obvious since it’s actually called the BASH on Ubuntu on Windows shell. It’s not an emulator. Instead, it’s a fully functioning Linux kernel with a command line interface. I highly suspect that it is possible to install XWindows and the Unity GUI if one wanted to go through the effort. The Windows bash shell does have access to many important Windows resources such as the filesystem and is clearly not running in a sandbox. This makes it both intriguing and dangerous. It’s not like this is for novices anyway. First off, it’s Linux not OSX. Second, it doesn’t even come installed. You have to enable developer options, turn the feature on, download the Linux bash shell, and then run it to configure it with a couple more reboots thrown in before it can happen. I followed How-To Geeks instructions and they worked perfectly. Still, I can’t imagine the non-geeky even trying this, let alone finding it the least bit useful.
  • Cortana Upgrades. Cortana still can only speak in that cheeky female voice. Obviously, Microsoft didn’t get to all the upgrades for Cortana that was on the wish list. They did add a bunch of new integrations that makes Cortana respond in more useful ways and control more of the computer it lives on (or in? – It’s weird). The biggest change, bar none, is the ability to channel notifications from your smartphone Cortana to your desktop Cortana. The upshot is that you can get notices of calls and texts messages on your PC and vice versa. There are IFTTT scripts that allow the same thing but the Cortana implementation is much slicker, seamless, and two-way. You can also write contextual phrase such as the word tomorrow in some apps, which Cortana will underline and, if you click on it, will cause some actions. For example, I can write “Remind me to buy milk tomorrow” on a sticky note and Cortana will underline “tomorrow”. If I then click on the word “tomorrow” it will launch Cortana with a preconfigured reminder based on the note.
  • The Windows Ink Workspace. It’s a whole set of features that work with touchscreens. Whoopee! No, not whoopee. My desktop and laptop computers don’t have touchscreens and many features are only useful if you have type of pen device. This is clearly a tablet-oriented features and should be a separate download. Even Microsoft must think so since the Microsoft Ink Workspace was hidden by default. You have to left click on the taskbar to show it. Seems like a waste of disk space for a great many computers.
  • Dark Themes. This is only for the emo kids which I don’t even think is a thing anymore.
  • Improvements to Microsoft Edge browser. Edge now has plugins and the ability to sync bookmarks. The latest upgrade thus makes Edge almost as useful as Firefox and Chrome. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Edge is a vast improvement on Internet Explorer but is still playing catch up to the other big browsers.
  • Changes to the Start Menu. Will Microsoft ever stop tinkering with the Start Menu? It was pretty much the same for nearly 20 years but since Windows 8, Microsoft can’t seem to stop messing with it. The version that came as part of the original Windows 10 was pretty good. The new version has some small changes that lend little value. For example, instead of clicking on Apps to see a list of installed applications, the list is just always there. Someone clearly thought this was handy but, sadly, they were wrong. It makes the interface look and feel crowded. In order to show you apps you will never scroll through (that’s what the tiles and desktop are for – launching apps you use a lot), Microsoft has shrunk to tiny icon size, all the other functions on the Start Menu such as file explorer, settings, and shut down. Please Microsoft, leave the start menu alone!

There’s more new stuff that is nice including some updates to the Action Center, the restoration of the Skype universal app, and changes to the little calendar in the task bar (because we all need five different places to look at our calendar details). Most of these are incremental improvements at best. Many of these tweaks only make sense if you are working on a Windows tablet such as the Connect App. Otherwise, unless you are a computer geek jonesing for more Linux everywhere or one of the tiny percentage of people who opted for a Microsoft tablet instead of an iPad or Android tablet, much of the Anniversary update will be of little or no use. Frankly, I was hoping for more.

The Road to Ubuntu 16.04 is Paved with Good Intentions

They say that the road to Perdition, or Hell, is paved with good intentions. So are upgrades. This was most obvious with my latest laptop upgrade from Ubuntu Desktop 14.04 LTS to 16.04 LTS aka Xenial Xerus.

Some readers may remember that, some months back, my laptop hard drive died an ignominious death. Due to a series of idiotic moves on my part, not the least of which was not having a recovery disk, I was not able to reinstall Windows 7 when the hard drive shuffled off the mortal coil. I had saved a disk image that was too big for the SSD I had replaced it with (stupid mistake number two) and was too cheap to buy a bigger one. That’s not as stupid as it sounds; I was planning on using the laptop only for travel and then only occasionally. Once I found myself with no good way to install Windows, Ubuntu Desktop Linux made a great choice for an operating system. It was free and compatible with my laptop’s hardware, as it is with many Dell laptops.

I only adopt the LTS or Long Term Supported versions of software if I plan to use it in any meaningful manner. If I’m just exploring an OS or trying to get a look ahead at new features, then I spin up a virtual machine. Anything on bare metal has to be LTS or the equivalent. My presumption is that non-LTS software, or in the Microsoft world “Insider Previews”, may have bugs. Even when it is a stable release and presumably bug free, it’s likely to have too few changes to be worth the effort of an upgrade. Since 16.04 was an LTS upgrade, I thought I was pretty safe. That was stupid mistake number three.

I knew better too. Operating systems are pretty complex animals. Lots can go wrong, from a small change that is incompatible with your hardware, to vastly different user experiences that impact productivity. Just ask the thousands of people whose Windows 8 to Windows 10 upgrade went awry. For example, my dear daughter whose PC would no longer boot after the upgrade and required Microsoft (and me) to spend over eight hours debugging and reinstalling in order to recover the PC. Thank goodness for data backups.

This Is What Happens to Overconfident Techies

Like I said, I should have known better and not been so cocky, so I got what I deserved. First, the upgrade hung. All looked well for a while and then the display went blank, the hard drive light stopped blinking, and my laptop just sat there inert. Just sat there waiting for… something. Since the display was blank, I couldn’t see what was wrong. I immediately though “It’s just resting.” and realized that it’s not good when you are quoting Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. It’s never good when youa re treating your computer like a dead parrot. Waiting didn’t help. Wiggling the mouse didn’t help. Hitting the keyboard vigorously didn’t make anything new happen, except maybe reducing the life of the laptop’s keyboard. Waiting some more was only more waiting.

The next step was to reload Ubuntu 14.04 from the DVD image I had. That worked fine (which meant it wasn’t a hardware failure) and I now had a clean Ubuntu 14.04 install. Rather than leave well enough alone, I started the upgrade again. See, I was thinking that maybe it was some program I installed that conflicted with something new that the upgrade installed. As Mr. Spock would say “it’s logical.” Except it wasn’t. Blank screen, stopped hard drive, stupid laptop.

Finally, I had to create a new Ubuntu 16.04 DVD image and load it clean to bare metal. This was not a big deal since I was going to have to reinstall all of my applications anyway. That worked like a charm. I was fine with a clean install but not an upgrade. You would think it was the same software. Whatever. This is a good example why keeping your data in the cloud and using cloud applications is more than just convenient.

Shiny and New Features

Ubuntu 16.04 has a lot of great new features. For example, I was never a fan of the Unity desktop mostly because it insisted on putting the application Launcher up the left side of the display. A typical laptop display, with a 16:10 aspect ratio has more real estate across the bottom than the sides and the left side Launcher fills up quickly. When you get to a certain number of icons, Unity overlays them on top of each other like playing cards and other annoying UI practices. Since Unity also places icons for open windows on the Launcher, a bunch of open applications invites the worse of Unity’s faults to come to the forefront. With Ubuntu 16.04 you can actually move the Unity Launcher, though it isn’t obvious how to do it. You have to use the command:

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity.Launcher launcher-position Bottom

to move the Launcher to the bottom of the screen. When will Ubuntu get it into their head that having to look up and execute a command line option to do something like moving the Launcher is stupid. Ironically, you can adjust the size of the icons on the Launcher from the Settings | Appearance application. Why aren’t the Launcher positions just another option in Appearance? Seems obvious to me.

Figure 1The Unity Desktop with the Launcher at the Bottom:

Does Not Play Well with Windows Shares

I work in a mixed environment. My primary desktop is a Windows 10 desktop PC with heaps of memory (that’s a geek joke – look it up), a 1T hard drive, multiple monitors, and all manner of PC goodness. My desktop and my laptop are by no means the only computers in my environment. There’s a second Windows PC for simple stuff, like displaying my task list, and a number of backup and file servers. Some, like the CHIP-based ownCloud server, are Linux-based while others like my NAS device uses an older, headless, Windows Server OS. So my environment is littered with different types of shared folders or directories. Through the wonders of SAMBA, my Linux computers have always been able to access my Windows shares and my Windows PCs my Linux shares.

Well, not so much anymore. My laptop can access my public shares on the NAS server just fine but not the password protected ones. Every time I try and log on to the Windows Server NAS server and access a password protected share, I’m stuck in an endless loop of credentials dialog boxes. No matter what I type in, no matter which accounts, it just pops back up like I forgot to type something in. The forums show this to be a common problem but one that I didn’t have before the upgrade. I don’t know what the upgrade did (though I suspect it has something to do with the upgraded OpenSSH) and none of the “solutions” I found online helped in any way. Right now I’m using the ownCloud server to exchange files.

Figure 2: The Endless Password Loop of Hell

Deb Packages Don’t Always Want to Install

Finding and installing software for Ubuntu has always been easy if the software is available from the Ubuntu Software Center. If not, as is the case with some popular software such as Google Chrome, Skype for Linux, Spotify, and Slack, it is necessary to either download a .deb, or Deb package, or use the apt package manager to install from the command line. With the latest upgrade, this often doesn’t work as in almost never works. Instead, it’s necessary to download the package and use dpkg -i to install it. Why dpkg works and apt doesn’t is still a mystery to me. The error messages are cryptic. This solution is not even a real solution so much as a workaround.

What’s even more baffling is that the Ubuntu Software Center will happily try and install a local package for you but will simply not do so. It looks as if it’s installing the software, appears to be finished, but doesn’t actually install anything. This is another one of those situations that will irritate anyone who is not a very sophisticated user. Ubuntu has abandoned their own software installation center in favor of the Gnome one. That’s fine since the Ubuntu version hasn’t been updated in a very long time. It’s doubtful that the installation problems are due to the new software center though since the same problems happen with apt. The software center uses apt to actually do the work of installing software so I’m guessing the failure lies with apt itself. That’s not something that a non-technical user would (or should) know about. And Linux aficionados wonder why Microsoft still has a strangle hold on the PC OS market. It’s situations like this that make Ubuntu, one of the best desktop distributions, unacceptable to the masses even for low-end hardware.

That and Microsoft Office doesn’t have a Linux version. That’s still a problem too.

Figure 3: The Gnome Ubuntu Software Center

Snap! You Have New Features!

One of the more interesting new features is the introduction of the Snap package format. Snap promises to be “much easier to secure and much easier to produce, and offers operational benefits for organisations managing many Ubuntu devices, which will bring more robust updates and more secure applications across all form factors from phone to cloud.” (deep breath) Unfortunately, there aren’t many (or potentially any) applications using the Snap format yet. We’ll have to see how this plays out in the future.

The server release has a plethora of new features including the latest OpenStack Mitaka release and LXD 2.0, both important features for the future cloud and container oriented world of IT infrastructure. While awesome in its own way, it does nothing for the desktop user.

Was It Worth It?

The difficulty of the upgrade and the problem with Windows share credentials would seem to suggest that the upgrade is not worth the trouble. The changes in the Unity Launcher are cool but many other cool new features are not for the desktop edition or too new to have widespread adoption. Truth is, the best reason for upgrading is in order to update everything. It’s less about new features in Ubuntu Linux and more about new features in all the packages that come with it. LibreOffice is upgraded to the 5.0 release, a significant upgrade, along with the Linux kernel (4.4), OpenSSH (7.2p2), Python (which now defaults to Python 3 instead of 2), and the APT package manager.

Once everything was back to normal, it was worth the effort. The updates to Unity have made it easier to use, performance seems to be better (though I don’t have benchmarks), and it’s nice to have updated everything. I suspect that many of the issues I’ve encountered will be ironed out over the next few months now that Ubuntu 16.04 is rolling out to the masses. It would be nice to see the Snap format widely adopted in order to alleviate some of the work and weirdness associated with installing new software.

The true value of Ubuntu 16.04 will become evident as time goes on. Here’s to hoping that it was worth the time and effort.