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02/21/07 08:52 PM
The Vista Out My Windows (Part 1)

Tanker Bob has been an expert Microsoft DOS/Windows user for over 20 years (and I won't say how far over!) I think that I still sometimes recite the function of each DOS interrupt in my sleep. That stretch came to a screeching halt in December of 2006. In short, the vista I see out my windows displays a Linux landscape.

?The Longest Suicide Note in History?
That's Peter Gutmann's assessment of Microsoft Vista in his technical, economic and performance analysis of the compromises in Vista. This document is a must-read if you are interested in how the performance and stability of the system for which you paid hard-earned cash will be adversely affected. These issues all stem from demands by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to prevent the copying of HD-DVD, Blu-Ray, and other content on personal computers, even for fair use backup. A great article written several years ago on this development sits on the Freedom to Tinker blog. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has an excellent analysis of this cozy and far-reaching relationship here. Lest you think that this is just paranoid hype, read Microsoft's own Output Content Protection and Windows Vista page and accompanying white paper for yourself.

Quoted directly from the Microsoft link above, here are the critical parts of OCP:
    ? Protected Video Path - Output Protection Management (PVP-OPM) makes sure that the PC's video outputs have the required protection or that they are turned off if such protection is not available.

    ? Protected Video Path - User-Accessible Bus (PVP-UAB) provides encryption of premium content as it passes over the PCI Express (PCIe) bus to the graphics adapter. This is required when the content owner's policy regards the PCIe bus as a user-accessible bus.

    ? Protected User Mode Audio (PUMA) is the new User Mode Audio (UMA) engine in the Windows Vista Protected Environment that provides a safer environment for audio playback, as well as checking that the enabled outputs are consistent with what the content allows.

    ? Protected Audio Path (PAP) is a future initiative under investigation for how to provide encryption of audio over user accessible buses.

Note the use of the phrases ?required protection?, ?content owner's policy?, ?what the content allows?. These mean that what you the user can do or see with your PC will be determined by people who did not pay for your hardware or software, not by you who did pay for it all. And, as a commenter on the Freedom to Tinker blog correctly observed: ?Over the past 30 years I have noticed a fairly strong inverse correlation between the quality of the product and the desire to protect the software from the end user (as opposed to commercial piracy).? Said another way?you pay more and get less.

Lest anyone say that all this will have no practical effect on the average user, here's (half way down the page) a case where an independent tester found that Vista would not play his CDs. His hardware didn't comply with Vista's DRM requirements, and now cannot play CDs he legally owns in Vista but can play them in any other operating system or device.

If that's not enough, Vista suffers from the usual initial-release issues as well: software incompatibility (latest catastrophic failure list here) and security holes like the systemic one discovered by Joanna Rutkowska. Forget about using your iPod on Vista as I write this, and drivers for a host of hardware have yet to appear. The Gartner Group estimates that only half of installed PCs will run Vista's Aero interface, and that's one of the higher estimates. Get out your wallet.

Even on XP over the last year, successive Windows Updates have broken parts of my sound system, disabled my built-in USB ports, and messed up my Outlook setup. Then there are the systemic problems like the disappearing system tray icons in XP which is well known. No help was forthcoming from Microsoft for any of these. My patience with the lack of accountability and support at Microsoft has worn very thin.

?Freedom Tastes of Reality?
After researching the OCP issues in Vista, I decided that neither Microsoft, the RIAA, nor the MPAA will tell me what I can do with my PC for which I alone paid. Let me be clear: I do not condone any actual copywrite infringement. Personal copies made under ?Fair Use? are not copywrite infringement by law as long as they are not distributed to others. Everyone should receive the due payment for their work. The overwhelming majority of the computing world would agree with that position. But, in order to solve a problem with a few miscreant users, Microsoft, the RIAA, and MPAA will compromise everyone's PC who uses Vista. But not mine or a host of my new-found fellows. I don't care about HD-DVD or Blu-Ray, just leave my PC alone.

The British rock group ?The Who? did a song called ?I'm Free? on their 1969 Tommy album. The refrain says: ?I'm free, I'm free, and freedom tastes of reality.? Absolutely. And there is a liberated world out there that does not bow their knee to any special-interest industry group. They are called the Open Source community, and Linux is their operating system of choice. Yes, you do have a real choice.

Open Source and Accountability
Open Source has been around for a long time, some say its roots go back to the initial ARPANet development in the 1950s that birthed the Internet itself, and yet it still provides a great model for the future of computing. Its strength lies in the fact that everyone can see all of the code in the software. Security holes are open for all to see, but also for all to fix. The community consists of highly talented individuals dedicated to the concept of open and transparent software development. Open Source doesn't necessarily mean free software, but the overwhelming majority of Open Source software is indeed free. Open Source software is also protected by copywrite and license agreements such as GPL, but these provide very few and reasonable limits on the code's use.

Amongst other notable achievements, Open Source collaboration has produced the very capable and secure Linux operating system which dominates the world server market, the OpenOffice.org office suite, Firefox browser, Thunderbird email program, the Evolution Personal Information Manager, K3b CD/DVD burning software, and much more. All of these compete very well with their commercial counterparts. Many are cross-platform as well. The central home for Open Source is SourceForge. Most larger application efforts have their own websites as well.

The word 'community' accurately describes the Open Source world. Each project is carefully organized and staffed primarily with volunteers that handle every aspect. They maintain strict version control and generally release a large number of interim ?baby steps? (sometimes nightly) for users and other programmers to test and examine. Rather than bugs being hidden from users as is often the case in the commercial world, bugs are fully publicized, tracked, and openly dealt with by the community. Even though most of the work is done by volunteers, they usually address issues more quickly than commercial software houses. This approach has demonstrated itself to be superior in a number of ways in an independent study by David Wheeler, which is a must-read that he last updated in 2005.

Even governments have noticed the success of the Open Source concept and opened up to it. For decades, governments have been held hostage by proprietary solutions, spending many millions to maintain systems which only the original vendors can fix or modify. Testing complex code will always be an issue, but having many more eyes on the code means more thorough testing without breaking the bank. And again, quality stands as equivalent or even better than comparable commercial software, yet either free or at a fraction of the price. The cost of government should be everyone's concern, and Open Source software provides a fruitful avenue to lower that cost to taxpayers.

Jumping Out the Windows
As the saying goes, talk is cheap. After trying out Firefox for a year, Thunderbird for a number months, OpenOffice.org for a couple of months, all under WinXP Pro, I became convinced of the quality and security of Open Source projects. When much of my core software list showed up on the Vista incompatibility list and then my research of Vista OCP issues hit home, I finally decided to taste the reality of freedom.

The Linux penguin is an interesting animal. Linux comes in something over 200 different flavors, though most are branches of a handful of main projects. I looked at the pros and cons of each of the primary players. One distribution (as Linux flavors are called) that kept popping to the surface was Ubuntu. By some estimates, they have garnered over 25% of the Linux ?market? and have consistently finished at the top of all distributions, which is no small feat considering there are over 200 different flavors out there. Ubuntu is managed and maintained by Canonical, Ltd., which is the brain child of Mark Shuttleworth. Their promise is that Ubuntu will always be free, will support a host of languages, and that they will maintain a 6-month new-release cycle. For those that value a longer-term stability, a Long Term Support version is available with a 3-year support cycle on the desktop, 5-year cycle on servers.

Testing the Waters
The Ubuntu project comes in a number of flavors itself depending on the particular desktop that you favor. The Ubuntu default is the Gnome desktop, which is probably the most stable and mature. I initially tried this through a great concept?the ?Live CD?. Simply download a CD image (iso file) to your system, burn the image to a CD, then boot the CD to try it out. The CD comes with OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, and a host of useful apps, giving you a very useful environment to try out. The only thing that you cannot do is save your changes (duh). I did this for a few days to get a feel for Ubuntu.

I liked the Live CD enough to give the system a try for real. Ever cautious, I kept my Windows XP Pro installation intact on one drive. I rooted around for an old 10GB hard drive that I had laying around, installed it in my PC, then installed Ubuntu on that hard drive in a dual-boot arrangement with XP on the other hard drive. The actual dual-boot loader is called Grub, which is primitive but effective. This whole process proved simple and worked perfectly. In minutes, I was running a full installation of Linux on a fraction of the 10GB drive!

Ubuntu (in all its flavors) does more than just install the base operating system. The distribution also installs OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Thunderbird, the Evolution PIM, a suite of multimedia applications, and a bunch of handy utilities. It provides a free and completely productive desktop environment right out of the ?box?. Very sweet.

I abused this system for three weeks, installing whatever I could get my hands on (more on this process later). Gnome desktop feels like a streamlined Windows, with all the power but none of the bloat. The interface strives for simplicity in appearance and operation. For new Linux users, this should prove ideal?that's the whole idea. Ubuntu, being of South African origin, uses subdued reds and browns prominent in the art and landscape of that region. It was OK for a while, but I prefer blues.

Blue? That led to trying out the KDE desktop. KDE hasn't been around as long as Gnome, but it has a lot of support. It's much more graphics intensive, with sharper icons and animations. Targeted to more experienced users, it also provides easier control over the underlying system. In addition, it seemed to come with more applications and utilities. The clincher, though, was the file manager. Gnome's Nautilus file manager proved weak in my opinion. I prefer a Total Commander approach, which KDE's Krusader provides. While you can use Krusader in Gnome, there are shortcomings associated with that approach. Tanker Bob wanted more power user stuff, so KDE beckoned. Ubuntu's KDE version is called Kubuntu, which I downloaded and burned to another Live CD.

The Plunge
Files are like a gas?they expand to fill the available space. While the 10GB drive worked fine for initial testing, eventually I'd want to move all my data from the Windows drive to Linux. That meant a bigger disk. I wanted to keep my Windows system as a dual-boot to run Windows-only programs (more on that later), so that meant a new drive. Hard disks are incredibly cheap these days, so I picked up a Western Digital 320GB EIDE drive from NewEgg. I went that large because my long-term goal (that's a couple of weeks in Tanker Bob's world) was to run WinXP in a virtual machine under Linux. Lots of reasons why, which I'll cover in a later installment.

The fateful day arrived the week after Christmas. I plugged in the new hard drive as the master, set the Windows drive to slave, booted to the Live CD, double-clicked on the Install icon, and changed my computing life forever. Well, sort of. My PC has an old enough BIOS that it wouldn't boot the 320GB drive if the boot partition exceeded cylinder 1024. Oops, I knew that (rolls eyes). So using the excellent Linux graphical GParted disk partitioner included on the Live CD, I created a 20GB (should have done 10GB) boot partition for the Linux system, a 1GB Linux swap partition, and the rest mapped as my home directory. That worked perfectly, and took only a few minutes (well, except for actually formatting the 320GBs). Kubuntu installed as advertised and Tanker Bob joined the Linux world of freedom!

Initial Impressions
Linux runs faster and multi-tasks better than Windows, especially on legacy hardware like mine. I can feel it in everything that I do. Linux also uses memory more efficiently. It is more secure than even Vista because it uses a security model that Microsoft specifically chose not to use. That is, you cannot routinely run as root (or administrator). Practically, that means that nothing running at your security level of ordinary user can compromise the system. In Vista, even though you may not be an administrator, the software installation routine automatically has elevated privileges in the system (read this). Sounds like virus and trojan horse heaven to me. Under Linux, you have to provide your root password to install anything to the wider system. It sounds cumbersome, but you quickly grow used to it and it's a small price to pay for the greatly increased security.

Visually, KDE is very attractive. It offers four working desktops by default, with the ability for the user to define how the task bar works relative to these desktops. I chose to have all apps appear on the task bar grouped by desktop, and by clicking on a task I'm taken to that app and the desktop on which it sits. This really helps organize your work. Just about everything about the KDE desktop can be configured to the user's desires.

While Kubuntu Linux tries to do as much as possible through the graphical interface, some things are best done from the command line. This sounds daunting, but it really isn't that bad. The average user would rarely have to resort to the command line, but a power user will find themselves there regularly. Plus, there are still a number of optional utilities that only work from the command line. This is even true in Windows (e.g., ipconfig).

That term sounds funny in the Linux world, but I'm talking in comparison to the Windows world. Vista upgrade from XP Pro to Vista Ultimate retails at $259 and won't install later on a bare drive if my system crashes. That means that I'll have to install XP first, then Vista, wasting hours in recovering my system. Office 2007 Professional upgrade runs $329. So, not counting replacing incompatible software and adding new hardware to run the Aero interface, especially a new high-end video card, I've already saved about $600 without spending a penny. That's over half of the money I'm saving up for the new PC I'm building this summer. Sweet indeed!

Future Installments
If all this sounded easy, it pretty much was. If you're an average user who just sticks with the standard distribution software and don't live on the bleeding edge of hardware, you should encounter few problems. If you do have issues, there are lots of helpful folks on the Ubuntu forums.

On the other hand, if you're like Tanker Bob and enjoy (!?) self-inflicted pain and anguish while tweaking your PC to the nth degree, then you'll want proprietary drivers for video (for 3D support), your multifunction printer/scanner, proprietary multimedia codecs, customizations, and lots of software. While this article covered my migration in a skeleton manner, future articles will put flesh on the bones. I'll discuss the easy way of getting your proprietary video drivers to work, changing the built-in software out, general software installation and maintenance, Windows software equivalents, creating and running virtual machines, and other fun things that frighten small children and keep us awake at night.

Bottom line: I haven't used the Windows dual-boot since December (actually only once at all just to ensure that it worked), only use the Windows virtual machine to ActiveSync my Dell Axim X50v and access Logos Bible software, and have thoroughly enjoyed my Linux experience. I even have full read/write access to the entire Windows NTFS drive from Linux. Oh, and except for the virtual machine software, the operating system and all my software has been free. This is a keeper. I control my computer, not the MPAA or RIAA, and there's no Microsoft DRM or OCP to prevent my legal CDs and DVDs from playing?I'm free, and freedom tastes of reality.

Read Part 2
Read Part 3

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