Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Build a Home/Media Server with GNU/Linux (Meeting Recap)

The topic for our February 6, 2013 GNU/Linux meeting was "How to Build a Home/Media Server with GNU/Linux." For anyone who missed the meeting, good news: we have recordings and slides thanks to our two presenters, Brendan Kidwell and Stan Livitski.

Brendan Kidwell's How-To: Building a Home File Server with ownCloud and Subsonic

If you scroll down past the first screenshot, you'll find links to the Slides and Audio (or just search the page for "Slides" and "Audio").

The second presentation of the night was by Stan Livitski, the creator of Data Bag, which is an alternative to cloud storage.

Other Links:

A big THANKS to our presenters, Brendan Kidwell and Stan Livitski, as well as to Martin Owens! Martin moderated the meeting in my absence since I was traveling on that date. I really appreciate the time, energy and quality material each of these guys contributed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

6 Ways Canonical Ubuntu Can Be Profitable Without Being Spyware

Richard Stallman makes a fairly airtight case that Ubuntu is spyware.  Here's the gist of it: 
When the user searches her own local files for a string using the Ubuntu desktop, Ubuntu sends that string to one of Canonical's servers. (Canonical is the company that develops Ubuntu.)
This is done so Ubuntu can return shopping results along with results from your local computer, and is an attempt to make money on commissions from

I don't want to rehash the whole case here because Stallman's piece is concise, well written, and does a better job of describing the issue than I can.  Instead, I'll share my own opinions on:
  • Why Ubuntu's direction is danergous
  • Why Ubuntu's direction is stupid
  • 6 Ways Ubuntu Can Turn a Profit Without Being Spyware

Why Ubuntu's Direction is Dangerous

If someone searches for their "love letter to Anna" on their local computer, they don't expect this search to be sent to Amazon or Canonical. If they search for sensitive financial or health information, they expect their search (of their local machine) to remain private.

The option to "opt out" is not enough and the fear that an update may unwittingly opt you back in or subscribe you to some other privacy-killing advertising scheme is great enough for Ubuntu users to have the right to be concerned.

Why Ubuntu's Direction is Stupid

Canonical's spyware gambit is a punch in the gut to anyone who has advocated for free software and promoted Ubuntu to new users. For free software activists and GNU/Linux evangelists, handing out copies of an operating system that spies on people simply isn't cool, and explaining an opt-out procedure is impractical and insufficient.

Canonical's road the to profitability lies neither in spying on users, nor turning their strongest evangelists into their fiercest critics, nor some half-baked partnership with Amazon to make pennies via affiliate commissions.

6 Ways Canonical Ubuntu Can Turn a Profit Without Spying

#1.  Donation Reminder Applet

Install an applet by default that periodically pops up donation requests.  If this is kept to a minimum (every 1, 3, or 6 months), it won't be much of a bother to users.

If it's easy to deactivate it will be less of a bother.

If it couples the requests with some really cool tips or exciting news about developments at Canonical or with Ubuntu, it will give most people a warm and fuzzy feeling rather than a cold feeling.

This can get really creative too, for example by having a mechanism to crowdfund cool features that people vote on with their donations.

#2.  Premium Support

Canonical already offers Enterprise services and Consumer services.  Their writeup for their desktop support services (which are part of their consumer services) is a bit confusing to follow.  Straight-forward per incident or monthly support plans might get some traction with small businesses and home users who simply like having someone to call when they hit a roadblock.

I don't think Premium Support to home users is the holy grail for profitability, but it's worth exploring further.

#3.  Training and Certification

Canonical has a certification program for hardware vendors.  That's not what I'm referring to.  I mean training and certification for Ubuntu system administrators.  The job market is still struggling, especially for non-low wage work.  People are looking for an opportunity to retool and learn a new skill.  Why not offer the equivalant of a Microsoft Certified Engineer designation?

And if this gets traction, Ubuntu builds themselves a team of future sales people and technical evangelists in the process.  Sounds like a win-win for everyone.

#4.  Ubuntu One

OK, this is one that Canonical is already working on.  Ubuntu One is Canonical's cloud storage service.  It's similar to Dropbox,, Google Drive, SpiderOak and similar services.  I'm not certain which of these are profitable services, but there's plenty of money invested in these companies betting that recurring income on cloud disk space can be a profitable business.

How is Canonical fairing with their effort?  I'm not sure, but it's been pointed out that they flubbed badly by not providing support for non-Ubuntu distributions of GNU/Linux.  Can you believe that?  They have Windows, Mac, Android, and iPhone versions of Ubuntu One, but not Fedora or SuSE versions.  Unreal.  They are missing (perhaps missed sadly) the boat on being the defacto standard for cloud storage on GNU/Linux systems.  Here's hoping there's still a chance.

#5.  Game Servers

I'm not a gamer so I can't speak too deeply about this, but it occurs to me that with Valve Software's enthusiasm for the GNU/Linux platform, Ubuntu has viability as a gamer's operating system in the future.  Is there a market for fast, subscription-based game servers to host multiplayer games?

#6.  Partnering with Freedom Respecting Companies

If Canonical were partnering with a company less notorious than for destroying freedom, their spyware scheme would be equally bad.  The fact that is their partner in crime simply adds salt to the wound because is the largest purveyor of the digital book burning technology known as DRM (Digital Restrictions Management).

What if Ubuntu ditched and instead made a commitment to freedom by partnering with only those publishers that publish non-DRM books and other media?  I'm not aware of a popular store that gathers up all non-DRM books, movies, music and games in one convenient place.

Assuming Ubuntu built an opt-in "free shopping lens" that provided such as service, I think they'd have a winning product.  Since many Ubuntu users believe in "free as in freedom," they'd be putting the right product in front of the right audience at the right time.  What marketer in the world wouldn't take that trifecta opportunity?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

What is Free Software?

It's not unusual to meet users of free software or even advocates of free software and find that while they believe in the spirit of the concept, they don't themselves 100% know what constitutes free versus proprietary software or how to fully articulate the difference.

The Free Software Foundation provides a helpful definition of free software, which I will summarize here followed by a link to the full definition.

First, "free" doesn't refer to price.  It refers to freedom.  In the parlance of the movement, this is often stated as "free as in freedom, not free as in beer."  Of course, free software may also be distributed for zero cost ("free as in beer") but that isn't what makes it free in the important ("freedom") sense. (See Note on "Free software" and non-English Languages at the end of this post for further discussion).

The Free Software Foundation provides four criteria by which to judge whether a piece of software is free software.  These are referred to as the "four essential freedoms."  If it meets all four criteria, it's free software.  If not, it isn't.

The four essential freedoms (numbered 0 - 3): 

#0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
#1. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
#2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
#3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this. [1]
As you read the above, you'll notice that free software is not a technical issue.  As Richard Stallman has stated, "[free software] is a question of the freedom that users do, or do not, have in using it.  It is an ethical, social and political question." [2]   This becomes more obvious when you think about the four essential freedoms in the following light:
  • Freedoms #0 and #1 put each individual user in control (rather than the developer of the software) and they allow the individual user to help him or herself.
  • Freedom #2 allows the user to help his or her neighbor.
  • Freedom #3 allows the user to contribute to his or her community.

Note on "Free software" and non-English languages:

Richard Stallman has pointed out that the English language doesn't have a word to distinguish between "free" as in price and "free" as in freedom.  In other languages, such as Spanish, there are separate words.  So in Spanish, when someone says "software libre," you immediately know they are talking about freedom and not something being "gratis" (zero cost).


[1] The Free Software Definition []
[2] Richard Stallman at the University of Calgary on 2009-02-03 []

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Next Boston GNU/Linux Event: December 5, 2012

I just announced our next event, scheduled for Wednesday, December 5 @ 6:30pm at MIT.

The topic?  "Free (Software) for the Holidays."  We'll celebrate the free and open source software we love by sharing the names of our favorite apps.  I'll also present 3 ways we can give back to the community.

Full details here:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

GNU/Linux Desktop Election 2012

On November 7th, 2012 the Desktop SIG of the Boston Linux & Unix User Group (BLU) held a debate and election on the best GNU/Linux distribution for desktop users.  This is a summary of that meeting.

I'm going to divide the meeting summary into a few different posts, with this post serving as a master post.  That way, this post won't get too long and I can provide as much information as possible from the meeting.

Even if you missed our lively meeting, these notes should ensure you don't miss out on the great information shared.  However, I can't stuff everything into meeting notes.  To experience the community and personal interaction we're fostering among users of free software, please come to our next meeting.

Hey, what is a GNU/Linux "distribution?"
Why Trisquel is the best GNU/Linux Distribution
Why Mint is the best GNU/Linux Distribution
Why Ubuntu is the best GNU/Linux Distribution

We didn't have a full presentation on Arch Linux, but Ista Zahn made a strong pitch from the audience.  Ista commented on Arch's flexibility, rolling release schedule (which helps the distro to stay bleeding edge), and strong documentation in the form of the Arch Wiki.

So who won the election?

It's sounds cliché, but there were only winners.  Each distribution has something to offer for different types of users with different needs.  Free software celebrates diversity and respects users abilities to make their own choices, in part by giving them choices to select from.

I encourage you to read the articles, think about which distribution matches your needs and philosophy the most, and give it a try.  There's no better way to pick an operating system for the long haul, then to pick one for a short trial run.  All of these options can be downloaded for free, so why not?

If you have a different opinion than those shared here or would simply like to share your experience, I encourage you to leave a comment below, contact me directly, or come to our next GNU/Linux user's meeting.

Other Meeting Notes

In addition to our distribution debate/election, we had the pleasure of an update from Michael Mauger on legal/patent issues related to software.

Michael provided us with an excellent overview of how company's like Microsoft have tried to restrict user freedom.  Microsoft successfully defeated an attempt by Massachusetts to adopt the Open Document Format.  As a result, the state is stuck using Microsoft file formats, which lack open documentation, risk obsolescence, and make forced upgrades (paying Microsoft again) more likely.

Using money and clout, Micosoft has pursued similar freedom crushing moves in Europe.

To stay on top of important legal issues surrounding software, Michael recommended the Groklaw website.

Thank You to Our Scribe

Thanks Celso for taking notes during our meeting!  Your notes helped me put together these posts.

Next Meeting

For details on our next meeting, check our Meetup page.

Why Ubuntu is the Best GNU/Linux Distribution?

Based on a presentation by Dick Miller, of Miller Micro Computer Services and

Note this is part of a series of posts debating which is the best GNU/Linux distributions for desktop users.

Popular & Polished

Ubuntu is the most popular and the most polished GNU/Linux distribution for desktop users.

Many competing distributions are anywhere from half a week to half a year behind.  Ubuntu releases new versions on faster schedule than other GNU/Linux distributions and on a much faster schedule than Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X.

It's hard to get accurate statistics on operating system installations, in part because Microsoft has relationships with many hardware vendors that require them to pre-install Microsoft Windows on machines even if those machines wind up running Ubuntu or another flavor of GNU/Linux.

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, is partnering with more and more hardware companies.  In China and Africa in particular, hardware companies are preinstalling Ubuntu (instead of Microsoft Windows) on increasing numbers of computers.

The Ubuntu Logo

The Ubuntu logo is a circle of friends: three people with arms around the shoulders of the other, viewed from top.  And that's the spirit of the Ubuntu distribution and the community that's been built around the product.

Ubuntu Screenshots

Screenshot of Ubuntu's Unity Desktop
Ubuntu's Unity Desktop

Screenshot of Ubuntu's Unity Desktop Showing the Dash
Unity's Dash

Ubuntu Features

The Ubuntu Dash is the program launcher inside of Ubuntu's Unity window manager.  The Dash darkens rest of desktop and allows you to select or browse for your program.  You can start typing the name of the program you're looking for and it will pop up.

You can invoke the Dash by clicking the Ubuntu icon in the upper left corner of the screen or by hitting the 'Super' key on your keyboard.

If you don't like the Ubuntu Dash, you can add back the Classic Menu Indicator, which is like a traditional 'Start' menu where you can browse for programs through a hierarchy.

Another interesting feature of Ubuntu's Unity is the HUD (Heads Up Display). The HUD allows you type a command that may be embedded within a program (e.g. crop within GIMP) and go right to that program function.  The technology is still new and may need to evolve some more before most users find it beneficial.

CTRL-Alt-T opens a terminal window in Ubuntu and there are many other keyboard shortcuts that speed up regular activities.

The Ubuntu Software Center is another great Ubuntu feature.  It allows you to quickly and easily find new software, including free and open source software (FOSS), in manner similar to an app store.  The great thing about FOSS options are that they are free, both in the sense of respecting your liberty and not lightening your wallet

Unity and Alternative Choices with Ubuntu

Ubuntu's Unity window manager was met with controversy when it was first released.  Similar to the reaction some users have had to the shift in paradigm that GNOME took when the moved from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3, many loyal Ubuntu users found Unity to be too radically different front prior windowing conventions when it was first released.

Some of the negative reaction may have been due to roughness around the edges, which Unity was guilty of when it was first released with Ubuntu 11.04.  But now, Ubuntu is on version 12.10 and offers a much more polished experience.

If Unity still isn't the right window manager for you, no need to despair.  Ubuntu offers the option of using a myriad of other options for window managers, including KDE, XFCE LXDE and others.  If you install these alternate window managers, you'll be able to select you preferred window manager each time you log into Ubuntu.  What can be more flexible than that?

A Community of Support

Ubuntu's popularity means that if you have a question, there is a greater pool of users with potential answers.  Further, Ubuntu has rich online communities and resources including:

Ask Ubuntu
Official Ubuntu Documentation

Download Ubuntu & Try It

Like with many other GNU/Linux distributions, you can download Ubuntu for free and create a Live DVD or thumbdrive that can used to install the operating system.  I say "live" because when you boot from the DVD or thumbdrive, you can actually run the operating system directly and try it out, without needing to install it or changing anything on your harddrive.

If you do install Ubuntu, the installer makes it easy to install it along side an existing operating system such has Microsoft Windows.  That way, if you still want access to your old operating system, it won't be wiped out by the install.  If this option is chosen, a boot loader program will be installed and it will allow you to choose which operating system to boot into each time your computer starts up.

Get Ubuntu here:

Why Mint with Cinnamon is the Best GNU/Linux Distribution

Guest Post by Brendan Kidwell

Note this is part of a series of posts debating which is the best GNU/Linux distributions for desktop users

Linux Mint is a soft fork of Ubuntu.  Each time a new version of Ubuntu is released, the Mint team integrates the Mint packages into the new Ubuntu release and releases the result as "Linux Mint."

Mint is free to download, use, and share (as are other GNU/Linux distributions).  Almost, but unlike Trisquel, not all of the software that comes with Mint is open source.

Mint works on Intel x86 and AMD64 architectures only.  It is desktop oriented, but can also run as a server OS.

Mint Screenshot

Mint Linux Screenshot

What's in Mint but not Ubuntu?

  • Software Manager
    • Similar to its counterpart in Ubuntu
  • Update Manager
    • Update stream from Ubuntu is edited by Linux Mint team
    • Potentially dangerous or unnecessary updates are hidden from Mint users
  • Upload Manager
    • Drag and drop upload to predetermined targets
  • Domain Blocker
    • e.g. prevent yourself from browsing Facebook during political campaign season

Cinnamon Desktop History

The Cinnamon desktop (Window Manager) was created by the Linux Mint team.  They considered that the GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity window managers unacceptable desktop UIs, and they wanted to provide a viable alternative that would continue to be supported after the GNOME project stopped development on GNOME 2 and moved onto GNOME 3 in 2011.

Cinnamon was initially released as a set of extensions – “MGSE” for GNOME Shell.  Cinnamon transitioned into a full fork of GNOME Shell in 2012 and uses GNOME 3 core libraries.

Cinnamon Desktop Features

  • Back to basics traditional “desktop”
    • Like Windows 95, GNOME 2, KDE 3, and XFCE
  • Panel providing a “taskbar” functions
    • Start menu
    • Task list
    • System Tray
      • Doesn't ban old system tray apps like Ubuntu Unity
    • Additional “applets” available
  • Themes and extensions available
  • Not extremely configurable
    • But it just works out of the box and I haven't needed to fiddle with it!
  • Searchable Start menu

Why Not Choose a More Popular Desktop Window Manager?

  • Ubuntu Unity and GNOME 3 Shell have confusing user interfaces.
  • The KDE Plasma Desktop is too slow and bloated, and the themes are unattractive.  Further, GTK apps don't look like Qt apps and therefore don't fit in well with the KDE interface.
  • The XFCE Desktop still doesn't come with a searchable start menu.

Why Choose Linux Mint with Cinnamon?

Linux Mint with Cinnamon includes all the features from Ubuntu that I want:
  • Lively package ecosystem
  • Easy configuration
  • Lots of documentation
And it skips features from Ubuntu I don't want:
  • Ubuntu Unity Desktop 
  • search integration, which is enabled by default!

What's not good about Linux Mint?

  • Amateurish web sites for Linux Mint and Cinnamon
    • Cinnamon doesn't have an “About” page
  • Uninviting “Community” forum for support
  • Too many software source layers
    • Mint depends on Ubuntu
      • Which depends on Debian
        • Which collects and builds packages from app developers
  • Cinnamon Desktop requires X server and driver combination where "compositing" window managers work
    • Currently no “2D” fallback for Cinnamon
    • But MATE, Plasma and XFCE are fully supported alternative window managers in Mint

Where to get Linx Mint support?

Use Ubuntu support channels for almost any issue

Where to get Linx Mint?