A week with KDE 4.3

I’ve been using the new KDE 4.3 for a week now, and I think I’ll stick with it. There are still some issues to fix, but they are small things, I’m sure 4.3.1 will take care of them.

The fun I’ve had so far, and this is why I’d recommend trying KDE 4.3 to any computer user, is in the subtle little helpful things KDE does:

  • When you move a file to a folder that already contains that file, Dolphin (the file manager) will ask what to do with it. It even recognizes the file if they have different names! You can choose to skip, auto-skip, overwrite… No more manually trying to find duplicate files to interleave one directory with another.
  • In Dolphin, clicking on the filesystem path shown on top of your file list lets you edit it and manually enter paths. Very quick.
  • The widgets on the desktop are both silly and useful, depending on which ones you choose. I have the latest lolcats, Penny Arcade, XKCD and Nichtlustig comics on my desktop. But I also have a dictionary widget, the weather, a fuzzy clock (says “half past eleven” in so many words) and the files in my homedir. I can also add the files from my former desktop directory, and they show up in orderly fashion. Compare this to your average desktop, where there’s just clutter and no real useful features. In the worst case, I can glance at the weather and some lolcats. In the best case, I’ll quickly navigate to a file I was looking for.
  • Dolphin as file manager is amazing. I can have OS X-style columns in the window, then split the window and have your usual detail view on the right half. I can mix and match view modes as I please and use the one that’s best for each situation. When navigating the hierarchy a lot, column view might be good, but when sorting audio files from left to right it’s better with a side-by-side detail view.
  • Alt-F2 (this is freely configurable) brings up a quickstart dialog that is really powerful. If I enter “fire” and hit enter, firefox will launch. If I enter “22+3=” the bottom of the window will show “25”. If I enter “Ruben” and some Rubens are in my address book, one of the choices will be “Write e-mail to Ruben”. If I enter “gmail”, my Gmail opens because I visited that site in my browser once before. This is all done 100% automatically and transparently, without any configuration. I’m sure if I configured this thing, it would be even cooler. Very, very, very fast working is possible this way.
  • Kate is a wonderful text editor, it has probably the most beautiful code folding I’ve ever seen.
  • Choqok and other social networking tools integrate nicely with the desktop and also make use of the cool notification feature.
  • If your machine is doing something in the background (copying a bunch of files), your screen isn’t cluttered up with useless progress dialogs. Instead, all current tasks are summarized in the lower right corner in your notification area. Once the task is finished, you will be notified. If you want to look at the progress, hover your mouse over the notification area.
  • I have OS X’s Exposé and other window management features at my disposal, but I don’t need to use OS X for them 😛

Check out this screenshot of my desktop:

kde_43_rca

The kickoff menu in the lower left is very convenient as well. I think you can see that I’m very happy with KDE 4.3. If some of the issues (like the WLAN network manager that can’t connect to corporate WPA2-TKIP networks) are fixed, I see no reason not to recommend this stuff.

Checking out KDE 4.3 – it's a winner

If you have Ubuntu, give KDE 4.3 a try or check out some information first.

I’ve followed the KDE development since version 1.0. I remember installing it in circa 1999 on a PowerPC machine with a 200 MHz 603e and 24 MB RAM, and it ran faster than the native OS I had on that box, Mac OS 7.6.

When the KDE team hit version 3.0, I thought development got very slow, KDE itself slowed down as well, and things weren’t looking great all in all. Now that I’m trying KDE 4.3, I’m surprised at every corner. This thing rocks. It’s fast, it’s quite different to any other desktop, but extremely configurable. I can set this thing up to work like Mac OS X, like Windows, like a mix between the two, like none of them. I can add the latest lolcats to my desktop in a widget, with a dictionary and my home dir next to it, and they’re available at the push of a button.

kde430-desktop

I have a solid copy of OS X’s Exposé, I have UNIX’s own 3D desktop cube, I have Windows Vista’s flip-through task switcher (if I like. I use a simpler one, though). I mix and match all this until it’s my own perfect desktop environment. And if you think it’s hard: I haven’t looked at KDE since KDE 3.x, and that was years back, and I have much more trouble finding things on a Vista desktop (which I also never use) than I had on KDE 4.3. Most settings are where you expect them, and most things do what you’d like them to do. It has the right functionality, and the functionality is right where you expect it.

It’s also the best-looking desktop environment I know, with very clean lines, meaningful icons and widgets and a quick and useful file manager. I haven’t even mentioned the fantastic music player Amarok, but that would require its own article.

And on top of it, all this comes with full source code, runs on Linux, BSD and I think even Windows, and is published under a free software license.

Bravo!

Update: I’ve been using KDE 4.3 now for about six hours, after more than three years of GNOME. I think I’m staying with KDE for now. This is smooth as a baby’s arse. Amarok is integrated into the system so tightly, I have keyboard shortcuts to control all my music, my desktop is full of widgets that are actually useful or entertaining instead of pointless, my file browser works better than ever before… This is the surprise of the year for me.

Archiving your CD collection as FLAC

Copying CDs to CD-Rs just to preserve them is stupid and annoying, and lossless compressed formats such as FLAC have arrived. Terabytes of disk space are cheap, so now you can rip to FLAC and stick the album your NAS, for example.

Here’s how easy it is to rip to FLAC in any decent Linux distribution, in this example using Sound Juicer:

screenshot-sound-juicer

One click, and it rips, encodes and copies to the NAS for safekeeping.

How competition in the browser market helped all of us

browserlogos

Remember the 90s, when Microsoft had illegally established a dominant position in the browser market and the dominant browser was MSIE? You might think that was harmless, but it has caused several problems:

  • No competition means websites were written for a specific browser instead of to a standard (that the W3C publishes)
  • MSIE (purposefully?) broke this standard in order to make sites written for MSIE incompatible with other browsers and further strenghten Microsoft’s position
  • MS started adding tags to MSIE that didn’t exist on any other browser. Not for the good of mankind, but to lock people onto the MS product
  • Lack of competition meant that innovation stagnated
  • There are plenty of security holes in MSIE, and there was little incentive for MS to fix them
  • Ask a web developer to tell you just how broken MSIE’s HTML rendering engine is

Yesterday, the Mozilla Foundation released Firefox 3.5 with many new features (mostly under the hood) and speed boosts. People have noticed this new competition and are no longer happy with an old and broken browser like MSIE 6.0, which used to be the default for many. When we look at our website stats at work, about 35% of our users use Firefox, another 35% use Safari and only 25% use Internet Explorer (either 6, 7 or 8). This is excellent news because it is living proof of competition. Competition gave us many improvements:

  • Stability on the web has much improved. Google released their Chrome browser, which runs a separate process for every tab you open, so that only the affected tab crashes if e.g. a plugin messes up, like Adobe Flash often does. Other browser makers are following suit.
  • Google’s Chrome had an extremely fast JavaScript engine, making JavaScript-heavy sites such as Flickr run faster there. There was little competition in this area before Google started the race. Now Firefox 3.5 has caught up with Google Chrome 1.0 in speed, and further improvements in all camps (including MS) can be expected.
  • Mozilla’s rendering engine (Gecko) and various JavaScript engines have been ported to all major platforms. Developers for those platforms have an excellent, open source rendering engine available to use in their projects.
  • The KDE Foundation’s HTML engine (KHTML/WebKit) is used by Apple in Safari and on the iPhone, by Nokia on their mobile phones etc. It’s another Free Software HTML rendering engine. So even among Free Software engines, there is competition!
  • Security is much improved, as pointing at security holes in the competition’s browser can now be used as a marketing tool. Browser developers have improved their QA processes and even Microsoft no longer allows itself six years to fix the browser.
  • Web developers had been frustrated with MSIE’s broken HTML renderer for years. Since there is competition, there is pressure on Microsoft to start following the web standards. Firefox, Chrome, Opera etc. do a much better job at using web standards, but no one cared for a long time since they had to write broken HTML code in order to support MSIE users. Now web developers discovered their pride, started writing according to web standards (with the help of influential figures like Jeffrey Zeldman) and boom, suddenly good standards support is an important feature for a browser. Someone obviously woke up the developers at MS as well, because IE 8.0 does a much better job at standards support than the previous versions.

So if you ever think “bah, it doesn’t matter that there’s a monopoly, I wouldn’t be better off without it”, think of these points. Yes, it does matter. The lack of competition in key IT markets makes a big difference. Imagine if we had the same situation in operating systems as we have with browsers, a 30/30/30/10% split of the market. Standards would be followed more closely, systems would interoperate better and there would be an actual incentive to innovate and improve. And most importantly, you as an individual or company would have more choice.

Some people think this is just a mantra repeated by free-market fanatics, but it is true, as you can see with your own eyes in today’s browser market, with just the few examples mentioned above. Oppose monopolies in computing. They are bad for you.

Edit: Just one day after I posted this, Microsoft was again caught abusing its power. They are deploying a program that changes people’s default search engine from whatever they have selected (perhaps Google?) to Microsoft’s own Bing. The user is never asked whether they want this change, unless they have third-party software installed that alerts them to such changes. You see that anti-competitive actions by monopolists are still happening in this industry.

Logos used in the image above are the property of their respective owners.

More than half of Standard Norge resigns over Microsoft OOXML fiasco

After the Norwegian ISO standards body, Standard Norge, accepted Microsoft’s MSOOXML file format even though only two of 23 members voted in favor, it became clear that some manipulation had been going on behind the scenes.

Apparently, nearly 40 strong and powerful Microsoft partners had sent identical letters to Standard Norge urging them to adopt MSOOXML, and Standard Norge’s own expert committee’s strong vote against the format was simply ignored.

Now 13 of 23 members resigned in protest of this and of other irregularities in the voting process. From the open letter of the resigning members:

  • Administrasjonen i Standard Norge har valg å vektlegge 37 likelydende brev fra Microsoft-partnere mer enn sin egen fagkomité.
  • Prosessen i Standard Norge har vært uforutsigbar og spillereglene har blitt endret av administrasjonen underveis.
  • SN og ISO har begått en rekke brudd på sine egne regler og andre uregelmessigheter i OOXML-prosessen.

Quick pseudotranslation: The Standard Norge administration trusts 37 identical letters from Microsoft partners more than their own expert committee, Standard Norge’s process became intransparent and the rules of the game were changed during the process, SN and ISO have committed a series of breaks of their own rules and allowed other irregularities during the OOXML process.

As a voting member during the Swiss OOXML process, where we have observed strange happenings as well, I respect and applaud the 13 members of Standard Norge for their courage. I am also very happy that the industry is now questioning the integrity and usefulness of the various ISO standard bodies in light of all the inexplicable vote changes and other indications of corruption that appeared during this time.

KDE 4's ultra-sexy text editor control

I like simple editors and use Kate a lot. It’s like Kdevelop, but without all the additional baggage. It does syntax highlighting and indentation just fine, and it has code folding and can comment and uncomment entire text blocks. If an editor has all of that, it’s already making me very happy.

kde4_text_widget_beauty.png

I was curious to see what will change with Kate in KDE 4, so I installed the KDE 4 version today on Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron), since it’s nicely packaged there. The screenshot above is from that version. Just wow. Text display is crisp and look at those code folding depth indicators (the gradually greener line on the side). When I took the screenshot, I was hovering my mouse over the greenest part, which highlights the block at this depth. The triangles let you fold code, of course.

Beautiful, isn’t it? And they must have done something to text rendering in Qt4, because the text elsewhere in the window looks sharp enough to cut entire horses in half. I can’t wait for KDE 4.1: maybe that’ll be a reason to switch the whole desktop like Shane is currently trying. The least I will do is switch to the KDE 4 version of Kate already 🙂

Popcorn Hour A-100: A proper media player box

popcorn-hour-a-100.jpgI’ve tried the Xbox Media Center, I’ve tried hooking up a full PC to my TV, but nothing beats the tiny little Popcorn Hour A-100 I just received. It’s silent, only wants 12V of voltage, has a BitTorrent downloader built-in and can access an internal hard drive if you mount one. It plays Full HD 1080p video smooth as butter in XviD, H.264 (even in Matroska containers), WMV — whatever you toss at it. And it costs less than USD 200.

I have no computer that is fast enough to play 1080p video properly when it’s high-bitrate H.264, but this thing chews through anything without the slightest trouble. It has HDMI, component, composite and S-Video outputs, and you can solder an RGB SCART output to it. You can play data off NFS or SMB shares in your network, off YouTube directly, from Flickr and Picasa and from any attached USB storage device. All my external hard drives are ext3 formatted, and it reads ext3 just fine; it’s the native format of the machine. Hell, it even plays DVD ISO images, with menu support, and you can hook up any external USB DVD drive and use that for DVD playback. Even has an eject button for the external drive.

Need a perfect media player device for the GNU/Linux user (and extended family)? It’s this.

French court forces dealer to refund Windows price

This is the third time that a French court had to force a PC dealer to return the money for an unwanted copy of Windows. The Slashdot article has some more information in English. The refunds were between 100 and 300 Euros, depending on version of Windows etc.

Do the math. Laptops nowadays often cost under 700 Euros. Laptop makers still bundle Windows and force it down customer’s throats, but if you don’t want that software, return it! It can shave up to a quarter off the price of your laptop, as you can also get a refund for MS Works or other software that was included without asking you. You can then use some other operating system on the machine, or if you want to keep using Windows, you can use your existing license. Tying a license you’ve already bought to a specific laptop you bought it for is also not legal in many countries. If this happens to you, check what the situation is for your country and perhaps sue the company.

Chairman of Norwegian ISO mirror committee reveals whole story

The chairman of the Norwegian standard body’s SC34 (K185) group has resigned after 13 years, in protest of the recent acceptance of MS-OOXML by Standard Norway. He now reveals details on the entire (farcical) voting process:

http://topicmaps.wordpress.com/2008/04/18/the-norway-vote-what-really-happened/

The Swiss working group may have gone through some of these things as well.

Norwegians protest against OOXML

While Switzerland’s people can see nothing wrong with the scandalous acceptance of MSOOXML as an ISO standard, Norway sees it differently. Perhaps that’s because Norway is more successful in the international software business (Opera, Funcom, Trolltech etc.) and therefore has something to lose, while Switzerland has a very passive and consumerist attitude.

But never mind the reasons, Norwegian people were smart enough to gather in front of the ISO SC34 meeting for a demonstration to kick OOXML out of ISO. One sign even asks Neelie Kroes to intervene. Seeing that the EC has started an investigation into the irregularities encountered during the OOXML voting process, it looks like she read the sign.

Yes, throw IS 29500 out. It’s a broken specification, and there is proof. If any other company had submitted this spec, they would have been sent back to the drawing board to fix all the defects. But Microsoft has the power and the money to manipulate and to bribe, so they can undermine ISO’s integrity and force steaming piles like this through an erstwhile respectable standardization process.

The general idea being tossed around by leaders of the Swiss standardization body is now “let’s all be happy and hug each other, and start to fix IS 29500 together”. Come again? Why should we waste our time and money to fix a broken product that we do not even control, because of the patents on it and because of the proprietary extensions that are at any point possible? Why shouldn’t we instead invest this time into making the existing ODF standard even more interoperable and accessible? It’s not impossible that IS 29500 at some point is mature enough, but the problem is that it should have been mature enough to begin with. Microsoft should not have submitted such a broken spec and come through with it. That they have shows that the standardization process has failed.

Link via noooxml.org.