October 30, 2003 Edition

By Jorge "whiprush" Castro (mailto:jorge@whiprush.org)

Welcome back to Linux.Ars. Once again the Linux community here at Ars has stepped up to bring you the latest buzz from the world of Open Source. Before we dive in, we have a correction from the last issue: mackstann from the Kahakai team dropped by on Ars' IRC server and pointed out that Kahakai is not actually a Blackbox fork, as we had originally stated. See the whole Family Tree (http://kahakai.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/TheBoxes) of the *boxes at the Kahakai wiki, and while you're there make sure to check out Kahakai. Now, as always, less talk, more lubix:


Whither Mandrake?

This fall we've seen new releases from Slackware, SuSE, Red Hat, and Mandrake. New releases from distributors are always exciting, and those of us clamoring for new things to play with usually snag them up rather quickly after release, and immediately find new things to break. Unfortunately for Mandrake 9.2 users, things haven't been going too well.

You probably think that this is in reference to bad LG CD-ROM drives (http://www.mandrakelinux.com/en/errata.php3#badlg) that a kernel patch in Mandrake 9.2 exposed. In fact, if anything, the LG problem is the least of Mandrake's problems right now, as this bug was squarely on LG's shoulders. The CD-ROM bug was just the icing on MandrakeSoft's quality-control cake.

While it's true that the blame doesn't ultimately lie with MandrakeSoft, this sort of negative publicity couldn't come at a worse time for a company that is struggling to stay in the game. The latest problems look extremely bad for Mandrake a distribution known for shipping bleeding-edge software. It doesn't really matter whether it was their fault or not. Admit it, when you first heard of this you probably thought "I wonder what prepatch from some Godforsaken kernel branch Mandrake applied this time."

Maybe the 9.2 release was just doomed from the start. First came a miscommunication (http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=03/09/12/1315224&mode=nested&tid=126&tid=147&tid=163&tid=187&tid=98&tid=99) concerning advertising in the distribution, which led to confusion, and ultimately, claims that Mandrake had "sold out" and become Adware.

Another sticking point was Mandrake Club members being given a sneak download of the 9.2 release via Bittorrent only, even though many community members had reservations (http://www.mandrakeclub.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=Splatt_Forum&file=viewtopic&topic=11667&forum=2) about the method. While almost every distribution uses Bittorrent to help facilitate distribution, was the performance of the release-day torrents worth the price of admission for Club members? It seems as though plenty of people have no intention of ever joining the Mandrake club (http://www.pclinuxonline.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=7929), which is causing some tension in the Mandrake community. You're either a member or not, and it's hard to feel like a member of the community when you're not part of the Club. On the other hand, if you are a member of the Club, are you then irrititated by other people not chipping in to help your struggling distribution? On top of that, one of the most popular packagers for the distribution, Texstar (http://www.pclinuxonline.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=7892), has decided to take a break for a while. Where does that leave the Mandrake user?

This release, within weeks of being unveiled, is almost up to a half a compact disc of updates (http://www.mandrakesecure.net/en/advisories/advisory.php?name=MDKA-2003:020). This is unacceptable in today's Linux market, and at this rate Mandrake will not survive long. We've all heard the "Mandrake is dying," yet somehow the company has managed to survive. Times are changing however: SuSE's latest release that is new and stable. Fedora is around the corner, and plenty of Mandrake users have learned enough about Linux to move on to Gentoo or Debian. This release is just plain bad, and a "Mandrake will kill your CD-ROM" reputation is not going to make things any easier on them.

Don't get me wrong, I used to love Mandrake, but the quality of their releases continue to decline. A good proportion of their users continue to be loyal to the distribution, and there is no doubt as to the technical contributions that Mandrake has given back to the Linux community. The question is, how much are the users willing to put up with before they move to another distribution? Mandrake's primary selling points an easy installer and quality GUI tools are now commonplace in Linux. MandrakeSoft is also suffering from its strategy of going after the home desktop while the others went for the enterprise. SuSE and Red Hat have penetrated the IT departments of many large companies to subsidize the cost of the development of their distributions while Mandrake lacks these kinds of partnerships. US$40 boxes don't keep a company afloat, racks of servers in Fortune 1000s do and right now the only thing Mandrake users can look forward to is a surprise (http://www.mandrakeclub.com/article.php?sid=1323&mode=nocomments) in December. I think most loyal Mandrake users would like fewer surprises, and more predictable quality assurance. What do our Mandrake users think? Is 9.2 a solid release? Or are you in the market for a new distribution?


TTT: Tools, Tips and Tweaks


vi - Resistance is Futile

vi. You either love it or hate it. Without getting into a holy war, the truth of the matter is that eventually, you will run into vi. It is almost guaranteed to be on any commercial UNIX, Linux, or BSD box, so you are best served to familiarize yourself with it, like it or not. I skated for a good two years not learning vi, having learned pico and nano. It wasn't until one day someone pointed at me and said "Hey, you know Linux, come fix this Solaris box." that I realized that you need to know vi. I kicked and scratched my way into vi, now I swear by it. So, if you are a newbie and unsure how to use vi, let's get you started.

These days, when people say vi, they mean vim (http://www.vim.org/), or vi improved. Several versions of vi exist, each with their own intricacies, but generally speaking your vi skills will translate from UNIX to UNIX pretty easily. The first step to learning vi is a simple tutor application that comes with your distribution. To begin learning vi, open up a terminal, and launch vimtutor.

jorge@gohan:~$ vimtutor

vimtutor is an excellent way to get started in vi. It's great because the tutorial itself runs vi. You just launch it, and follow the instructions. Make yourself a promise and run that tutorial once a day, for a week. This will give you enough information to be fairly competent on any vi installation, regardless of OS. You can supplement this with DevShed's Vi101 (http://www.devshed.com/Server_Side/Administration/Vi101/) course.

Another great way to learn vi is to use the graphical version, gvim. This is a good way to learn some of the more seemingly obtuse vi commands. gvim, a GTK2 application, has a menu, and a toolbar. The great thing about the menu is that the commands are spelled out next to the menu item itself. So when I click on File, Save, I see that the entry is :w. So when I am in the console version, I know the command is :w. This is also how I happen to know that ggVG is Select All. Elegant isn't it?

The last tip is for you Windows users that haven't tried Linux yet, but are interested. Editing files is an essential Linux skill, so a great way to practice is to snag VIM for Windows (ftp://ftp.vim.org/pub/vim/pc/gvim62.exe). It also integrates into Explorer, which lets you right-click on files to edit them. If you are a cross-platform user, you will come to appreciate the flexibility of vi it is available on nearly any OS, and is simple enough to use once you get past the initial learning curve.

Now for something really neat.

jorge@gohan:~$ set -o vi

This puts bash into vi mode. Now, your shell works like it does in vi. So if you want to edit a command, hit the up arrow key, ESC, and then x to delete a character. Cool, huh? Hit ESC, v and vi will launch. Add and edit your command. Then :wq to paste it to the command line. It seems odd at first, since bash defaults to an emacs mode, but once you are used to the vi keystrokes, it will become very useful. Start here (http://www.faqs.org/docs/bashman/bashref_102.html) to learn how to use this mode more effectively. Add the set -o vi command to your .bashrc to make it permanent.

Got more vi tips? Add your comments to the discussion thread!


Cool app of the week

In a world where Windows is commonplace, sometimes practical necessity dictates that you make compromises. One necessary compromise has been the Wine Project (http://www.winehq.org/). I'll be fair, I've never been a fan of Wine. It always seems that there is some sort of magical voodoo that is involved. Odd errors and weird behavior, that's been my Wine mantra. I've always thought that Wine was just a necessary evil to entice newbies to try Linux. "Sure, that Half Life will work perfectly in Linux! EASY!" *snicker*

My perception of Wine changed recently, as I have been forced to use the Exchange server at work. This means running Outlook, so I clenched my teeth and decided to try the much lauded Crossover Office (http://www.codeweavers.com/site/products/cxoffice/). This product, produced by Codeweavers, promises to run certain applications (http://www.codeweavers.com/site/products/cxoffice/supported_apps/) in Linux. After looking over their supported options, I decided to take the plunge. Within seconds I had a free 30-day trial key in my Inbox. Determined to find another reason to hate Wine, I deliberately tried the software on my Frankenstein Debian Sid box running kernel 2.6test9, and my Red Hat Fedora laptop.

The installer runs pretty easily, especially on the Fedora box which automounted my CD. I ran the provided .sh and inserted my Microsoft Office 2000 CD. The Microsoft Installer came up, and within 10 minutes, it was done. I was immediately surprised to find a "Windows Programs" menu entry on my GNOME 2.4 desktop. I went in the menu entry, selected Word, and there it was. Not bad.

Next was Outlook. I launched it, put in my Exchange information, and was finished. I tried the global address book, which is connected to Exchange. It worked. It worked well. Determined to prove that there was no way that this could be working, I hit Ctrl-P in Word. To my chagrin, my CUPS-configured printer printed out my document. I wanted to see how Crossover handled its mapping of Windows files to Unix, so I did a Save As. Whoa. My /home/jorge directory, right there in the Windows file dialog.

That was a month ago. Crossover recently released the 2.1 release of their application, and I tried it again today, just to be sure I wanted to spend the US$50. The answer is a resounding yes. The attention to detail in this product is impressive. The Office icons show up in my pager, in the window list, and in the menu. The screen presentation in PowerPoint actually goes into full screen when you hit F5. It installs Internet Explorer 5, and it works on every web site I tried. I double-click on an icon in Nautilus, and it launches the proper files. All the MIME types were handled for me, just like as in Windows.

Here is where I will upset a good number of OSS advocates. The performance of Crossover Office, in my month or so of testing, is absolutely leagues above OpenOffice.org. Internet Explorer launches faster than Mozilla, Firebird, Galeon, and Epiphany. Outlook launches faster than Evolution and Thunderbird. Yep. This product launches Windows software faster than its respective native applications. It's that good. Or maybe there is some room for improvement on our part.

I think Crossover Office is an excellent value. I had a few issues with Fedora, although I am confident that these will get ironed out. If you look at Codeweaver's Truth in Advertising (http://www.codeweavers.com/site/products/cxoffice/truth_in_advertising/the_real_dirt/) page, you can immediately tell the kind of company that you are dealing with. These guys know that it might not work for you, and they have the guts to tell you up front and back it up with a money-back guarantee. The great thing is that it really does work. As they say on the page, Office XP and 2003 are unsupported, but for the sake of interoperability the product works as advertised, and these days it is easy to find Office 2000 on the cheap.

This is where I see the added value vs. using conventional Wine. The attention to detail in the product cannot be overemphasized it even installs the proper fonts from the CD, everything Just WorksTM. Purists will argue that such software only propagates the use of closed-source software, and inevitably hurts customers. While there may be some truth to that, it's an excellent stopgap for those of us that need to interoperate with Windows solutions. Codeweaver's also offers a server edition; check out Linux Journal (http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=6752&mode=thread&order=0) for the review.