Ubuntu vs. Vista

I started to install Ubuntu 8.04 LTS on my Vista laptop but ended up bugging out. I’m writing this blog entry in Ubuntu having not installed it, but running it off the optical drive on my Dell laptop. The reason I bugged out is that Ubuntu can’t tell me what’s on the partitions it sees during installation, and can’t resize NTFS partitions (or mount them). From what I can tell of Ubuntu, it’s very slick, but I do have a number of observations based on what little I’ve seen so far.

Screen real estate, especially vertical real estate, shouldn’t be wasted, especially in these days of wide screen displays. Ubuntu’s default Gnome setup wastes quite a bit of vertical real estate:

  • First, there’s the global Apple-like menu bar. Unlike Apple’s menu bar, it’s essentially just an app launcher, which means that 99% of the time it’s just wasted space. Not only is this a waste of vertical real estate, it’s a waste of a screen edge (very valuable — see Fitt’s Law). The Mac’s UI remains the only non retarded implementation of a menu bar in a major OS.
  • Ubuntu still wastes title bar space even for maximized applications. Windows also commits this sin, but at least it doesn’t have the pointless app launcher above it.
  • Edit: I forgot to mention Ubuntu wastes space for a “start bar” at the bottom of the screen even though that functionality is actually provided by the space wasted up top for the app launcher.

Installation

  • During installation, the time zone requester is extremely annoying. I live in Alabama and finding a “dot” corresponding to the time zone I’m in was quite fiddly.
  • During installation, touching the trackpad is treated as a click. This actually led me to accidentally click potentially fatal buttons. Bad. I’d err on the side of not treating random things as clicks in an installer.
  • Not strictly an installation issue, but getting onto my wireless network was needlessly painful. I needed to enter my 128-bit WEP password but it’s too stupid to (a) recognize the kind of password being entered automatically or (b) try all the obvious options automatically, meaning that the proverbial clueless user will have to know that it’s a 64/128-bit hex password and whether or not to use a shared key and so forth. On a Mac you just selected a network and type in a password and your computer, which is good at such things, figures it out. Vista has to be the worst of course, since it makes you confirm the password (like I really wanted to type that damn thing in TWICE).
  • The preceding issue is magnified by some pretty dumb behavior in various nooks and crannies. I have two wireless routers at home and log into them separately (but with the same 128-bit code). Ubuntu’s Mac-like keychain offered to store the settings but stored them incorrectly, so after waking from sleep I lost my network connection and couldn’t restore it without typing the long string in again, which I didn’t have handy. A Keychain tool (there are two and only one seems to work) appeared to let me copy the string, but I couldn’t paste it into the WEP login (and I had previously pasted stuff into it, so I’m guessing the copy operation silently failed in Keychain). But by then I’d deleted the erroneous keychain entries, so I was screwed. At this point I gave up on Ubuntu.

Digital Media

  • When I visited Hulu.com it told me to install Flash and sent me to Adobe’s page. Adobe asked me which of three archive formats to download (gz, rpm, or yum???). I downloaded each and none worked. Later, I tried my own video code (which simply tries to display Flash video naively), which caused Firefox to display a missing plugin graphic. Clicking that automagically installed the right stuff (and now Hulu works). Score one for Firefox/Ubuntu and zero for Adobe.
  • None of the WMV or MOV videos I tried would play. I got a weird looking player interface and a black screen. All the FLV media worked just dandy. I assume that SOME MOV or WMV video will work, but none of the codecs I use, and I tend to use pretty nice codecs.
  • Shockwave stuff doesn’t work… I thought the plugin had been ported to *NIX but apparently not.

Aesthetics

In my opinion, Ubuntu 8.04, despite lacking the GPU-fluff of Vista or even OS X’s understated elegance, is a very attractive OS. It’s tasteful, understated, and tidy in a way that even earlier releases of Ubuntu weren’t. I don’t care for the heron desktop, it seems desperately trendy (with the bezier swirls that seem so popular these days but not so well executed). Someone has gone to the trouble of trying to make all the included apps look reasonably similar.

Final Thoughts

Ubuntu is making Desktop Linux almost credible. I’ve been around long enough to have been excited by FreeBSD distributions. I remember installing a fairly early RedHat on my old PC (it took three of us to even get it vaguely working). The first Linux distribution that even vaguely tempted me was Knoppix (to which the Linux world owes a huge debt, and which should make Microsoft and even Apple pretty ashamed — if one guy can make a self-configuring Linux distro that runs on almost anything, why can’t Microsoft do the same for Windows?)

I’m definitely thinking of quickly rebooting into Vista, backing up any files I really want to keep, and then cheerfully overwriting Vista, but only because I’ve found Vista so annoying. (My major gripe with Vista right now is probably not purely Microsoft’s fault — somehow the permissions policy on my machine have been set such that I can’t install any new software or even updates. It’s a work machine which had Vista Business installed on it for me for testing purposes, but I can’t really use it and our Office is still mainly XP-based so it’s not well-supported.)

All that said, if it weren’t for Flash support, I would find Ubuntu pretty intolerable. One of the few things I find this laptop useful for (aside from testing stuff under Vista using whatever versions of stuff it has on it) is watching Bones on Hulu.com (I’m catching up having just decided I like the show, and this saves me buying the DVD box sets or paying $2/episode on iTunes). If Flash didn’t run under Ubuntu, then I’d probably be rusted on to some flavor of Windows.

That said, it annoys me that Apple doesn’t support Linux with QuickTime. I suppose that QuickTime would make Linux a better alternative platform to the Mac for digital media across the board (and Linux is already very credible in the 3d arena).

Addendum: I just realized that Ubuntu doesn’t seem to know how to put my laptop to sleep. Whoops! If this turns out to be the case, then that’s a show-stopper.

Follow-up: I found the appropriate setting, but it seems that suspend mode is not supported (as I found out later after, apparently, leaving the laptop running all night. That’s a bit of a show-stopper.

Final, Final Thoughts

With the problems I ran into, there’s no way Ubuntu will replace Vista on my laptop just yet.

I haven’t explored Ubuntu very deeply, but I’ve basically looked at three things: the web-browsing experience (fairly crucial, since I’m a web developer), wireless networking, and sleep behavior. In those three areas, respectively, I find:

  • a profound lack of polish (although, in part, this was because of Adobe’s stupidity — why not tell me which install to use with Ubuntu or automatically detect which one to give me versus giving me three options that don’t work) and serious incompatibilities with common digital media
  • usability issues and serious bugs, and
  • complete incompatibility with some pretty common hardware.

Given that free software developers tend to concentrate on the kinds of things they use, and that web browsers, wireless networking, and suspend mode are pretty central to the lives of almost any developer I can think of, it’s hard to imagine that quality and attention to detail will be better in the components of Ubuntu that are less central to a developer-centric world. So I’d rather not find out the hard way right now. Wake me up for the next major release.

Microsoft Vista Business: 1, Ubuntu 8.04 LTS “Hardy Heron”: 0.

Truly final aside: I did the final edits to this post on my Mac Pro, since my Ubuntu laptop has lost its internet connection and I don’t see the point in getting it going again.

It’s The Old Open Technology Trick, Chief

The Open Screen Project is supported by technology leaders, including Adobe, ARM, Chunghwa Telecom, Cisco, Intel, LG Electronics Inc., Marvell, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DoCoMo, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics Co., Sony Ericsson, Toshiba and Verizon Wireless, and leading content providers, including BBC, MTV Networks, and NBC Universal, who want to deliver rich Web and video experiences, live and on-demand across a variety of devices.

From mx:EverythingFlex

So, a bunch of the Usual Suspects have decided to partner up with Adobe in an attempt to (depending on how you look at it) keep Flash/SWF/FLV dominant in the web video market or help make Flash/SWF/FLV relevant again in the web video market.

We’re Number One!

If you look at what format most of the video on the web is in, it’s WMV (or ASX or AVI or whatever — Microsoft’s video container format du jour). This is because most of the folks online use Windows and have no clue how to encode it so that other people can watch it conveniently.

If you look at the video format that most people on the web watch, it’s FLV (Adobe’s video container format, which is Flash’s video container format). FLV is used for YouTube, Hulu, and abc.com. It’s very popular because, frankly, Flash provides the best options for providing custom web players and is solidly cross-platform (if it plays on a Mac it plays on Windows and vice versa).

If you look at the video format people actually pay to watch, it’s QuickTime (i.e. MOV, Apple’s video container format). Aside from that fact that Apple is selling a buttload of QuickTime, while other folks are merely giving away stuff, there’s a nice little twist in this.

QuickTime is not only the oldest digital video container format, it’s also by far the most flexible, general-purpose, and well-engineered. Unlike the others it was designed from day one as capture, edit, and delivery format, and to handle arbitrary numbers and kinds of media tracks. A QuickTime MOV can contain multiple video tracks (e.g. for different bandwidths or resolutions), audio tracks (e.g. languages, directors’ commentaries), text tracks (e.g. subtitles or index markup), interactive tracks (e.g. custom interfaces), and — well — anything else you can think of. And it’s been this way since day one.

Recognizing this, after developing two complete generations of delivery-only video formats (MPEG, and MPEG2/3) that weren’t flexible and didn’t even include proper time-synchronization, the Motion Picture Expert Group went to Apple and asked to license QuickTime. The MPEG4 video container is, in fact, QuickTime. So H264 videos (which constitute a large number of WMV and FLV videos) are in fact QuickTime videos in disguise. Another consequence of this is that the QuickTime container format is, effectively, open and has been since Apple essentially handed it over to the MPEG folks.

Now, what does this announcement by Adobe mean? Well, the Usual Suspects are essentially a bunch of companies who’ll sign onto any bandwagon that sells more hardware and chews more bandwidth (Cisco, Intel), technical incompetents (such as the BBC, who, despite being a public broadcaster, have managed to pick one non-cross-platform proprietary content delivery technology after another, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to make their iPlayer work on Macs or in FireFox) and the “we hate Apple” club (NBC Universal who will cheerfully burn millions of dollars to spite iTunes). So we can guess what their motives are.

Thanks Goodness It’s “Open”

First of all, you need to realize that FLV was the only “closed” container format. You can already write custom codecs for QuickTime and Windows Media, and their container formats are already public. This is why QuickTime can play WMVs compressed with supported codecs and vice versa. This is also why you can’t open up an FLV in QuickTime, even if it’s compressed with a codec QuickTime supports. So Adobe is actually playing catchup here.

As for the “benefits” to the consumer of FLV being open… Well, when Apple controlled QuickTime every QuickTime video would play on any machine with QuickTime installed. But lots of MPEG4 videos won’t play in QuickTime (despite being, essentially, MOVs) because the open nature of MPEG4 allows folks to write their own codecs. (QuickTime already allows for third-party codecs, but most QuickTime developers seem to write cross-platform codecs.) So, in essence, Adobe is opening up FLV to be just as lousy an end-user experience as every other more open format (QuickTime and WMV have been “open” in the sense that FLV is being opened since day one).

Of course, FLV is already a lousy end-user experience for anyone not using a computer. Flash on the Wii won’t play many (perhaps most) FLVs because one of the first things to go when Adobe/Macromedia streamlines Flash is codec support. (The same is true for QuickTime on the iPhone.)

So, in the end, what does the announcement mean? Well, I guess Adobe would prefer manufacturers to settle on their newly “open” FLV container instead of the already open MPEG4/QuickTime container, or the already pretty much open WMV container. Big surprise. A bunch of manufacturers have signed on, but whether they’ll ship Flash-only devices or Flash-too devices isn’t clear. If you put H264 hardware in your device, will you deliberately spite H264 that isn’t wrapped in an FLV container? I doubt it: not even Adobe does that (you can pass QuickTime movies with H264 encoding to SWFs as if they were FLVs and they just work).

Of course, if Adobe is actually going to publish the FLV format, Apple and Microsoft can start transparently playing FLVs with supported codecs, eliminating the need for Flash to play back H264 FLVs. It also makes implementation of <video>foo.flv</video> in HTML5 easier (again, without necessarily requiring Flash). So, on the whole, I don’t see how this is much of a win for Adobe or the general public in the short term, and it seems like it will probably hurt Adobe in the long term.