PeppermintOS: Minty Fresh!

A while ago, I decided it was time to get a laptop.  I’ve been meeting with local clients more and having a laptop handy would make a lot of that stuff go more smoothly.  I’m also on the web committee for my kids’ school, and have had to borrow someone else’s laptop to do WordPress demos and show them things.

So, I started looking around at netbooks and my first thought was to (of course) install Ubuntu.  But after initially throwing a distribution of Linux onto a thumb drive and finding out that the thumb drive installation of Ubuntu is 2GB and requires you to format the drive (meaning I couldn’t use it for other things as well), I instead used Puppy Linux, which worked well for that.  Then I became aware of PeppermintOS via someone on Empire Avenue.  I took a look at the screenshots and read the descriptions and the mission statement and thought it would be perfect for the netbook I didn’t have yet.

Fast forward to now.  I don’t have a netbook, but I do have a hand-me-down Dell Latitude from my father-in-law who was looking to get a new laptop as well.  I helped him pick it out (a sweet Acer Aspire with 6GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive — most of which will go unused since it’s been set up to do most of his work on the cloud) and I set it up and migrated his old Outlook file over to keep his email archives while he migrates to using Google Apps for email and docs.  (The conversion process went remarkably smoothly with the help of Dropbox for backing up his entire My Documents folder and syncing it up on the new machine.)

Once I said goodbye to his brand new laptop, I said hello to the old one and immediately pulled out an old Ubuntu 10.04 disc I had lying around.  I started the install — wiping the hard drive clean of Windows XP — and in an hour or so was looking at an Ubuntu desktop with one problem — though the sound worked beautifully, I wasn’t connected to the internet.  I quickly realized/remembered that most Linux distros don’t really like the wifi adapter in Dells and require ndiswrapper or some other hack to get them to work.  I tried to dig out the documentation and remember how I dealt with this last time, but gave up quickly — having no internet access (and being too lazy to dig out my extra ethernet cable) as well as running an old version of Ubuntu just didn’t seem worth the trouble to get it running right.  I decided to download the current version and use that instead.

Of course, part of the problem with Ubuntu is that it’s bundled with Firefox, and I rarely — if ever — use Firefox these days.  I wondered if there was a fork of Ubuntu that came with Chromium instead and started looking around when I remembered Peppermint, with its two flavors — one built with Firefox and Prism, and the other built with Chromium and Ice (a variant of Chrome’s application shortcuts).  I downloaded the light (478MB for Peppermint Two vs the 699MB crammed onto the Ubuntu installation disc) .iso file and burned it and started a Peppermint install.  The process was more or less identical to the Ubuntu install I just finished.

Like Ubuntu, I had no wifi.  This I expected.  I had the recommended drivers I found from somewhere and discovered ndiswrapper already installed in Peppermint (vs. not being installed in Ubuntu 10.04) — in fact, I later found a gui for ndiswrapper, which I thought was pretty cool, even if I didn’t use it.  However, after using ndiswrapper from the commandline to get my driver installed, the wifi card was still not detected.  I did some Googling and found that Peppermint has a utility to scan the hardware and look for third-party drivers.  That required an internet connection, so I got it hooked up, ran the scan, and found some Broadcomm drivers.  I clicked the little activate button and, after a restart, it worked!  Wow, seriously?  That was easy.

That wasn’t the only thing that was easy, though.  I recalled from when I was dual-booting Ubuntu and Windows 7 on my desktop that creating application shotcuts in Chromium on Linux was a losing proposition.  It was a pain to get the shortcut set up and actually functional and I ended up giving up on the whole thing.  Not so with Ice.  All you need to do is tell Ice what the url to the webapp you’re trying to create a shortcut for is and chose an icon you want to use and you’re done.  More than that, the “create application shortcut” (my first impulse being a Chrome user) option actually works!  Maybe this is just a result of the updates to Chromium since last I used it, but I kind of suspect not (if they cared that much about that option on Linux, it wouldn’t be a menu item — at least, it shouldn’t be).  This makes me think it has to do with the Ice app that was specifically designed for PeppermintOS and Chromium.

Peppermint is designed for netbooks — which is good, because that’s how I wanted to use my laptop.  It’s built to be a work laptop that I can take with me on the road, so most of the stuff I want will be web-based.  So Peppermint comes with integrated Ice (or Prism, depending on your flavor of Peppermint) shortcuts to web-based applications like Gmail, YouTube, Pixlr (rather than coming with GIMP installed), Seesmic Web (which I replaced with HootSuite), and Google Apps.  It also has a shortcut to Dropbox which — upon a first run — will download and install the Linux Dropbox client to get you synced up with your Dropbox files.  Possibly my favorite part is that there are no bundled obnoxious sounds for everything.  As much as I appreciate the quasi-tribal boot-up sound of Ubuntu, in almost every case for every install of Ubuntu I’ve ever done, the volume is set to deafening, and that sound quickly loses it’s novelty when the volume is cranked up to eleven.  Peppermint — focusing on being a stripped-down, lightweight netbook-style distribution — doesn’t come with any of those sounds.  To the extent that I started wondering if I even had the sound set up at all and, after deciding I didn’t really care if the laptop had sound or not, tried popping a CD in there to finally test and was surprised when it started playing.

The only possible criticism I have is with the built-in music player Guayadeque, which, while it has loads of tools for streaming and playing local media files, has a clunky interface for playing CDs and no real way (that I can see) to drag and drop tracks from the file manager to the music player or create a playlist without clicking on each track from the CD.  That’s not a huge issue for me, particularly since there’s so many web-based options that are already built into the OS like Last.fm and Pandora could be added easily with an Ice shortcut.

Peppermint is my new favorite Linux distribution.  It beats Ubuntu by a longshot with extra credit for being small, not bundling a bunch of crap I don’t want (particularly Rhythmbox, a bloated music player that I’ve never liked — only tolerated because I had to — and generally ignored in favor of some flavor of XMMS), and making the setup and customization processes a snap.  Even though I had to go online to get a driver for the wifi card, that itself was so easy an idiot could figure it out, and once it was installed, I haven’t needed to plug in my ethernet cable (as opposed to Puppy which often dropped a local wifi connection and forced me to reconfigure the thing every time).  Peppermint compliments my style of computing, which is to give me the bare essentials and let me put on my own damn apps, thank you, rather than assuming some software bundle that would be most useful for the average user the way most Linux distributions (and Ubuntu, in particular) do.  I’d also like to give props to the Software Manager, which pulls from a variety of repositories with an easy-to-use-and-navigate interface that makes installing new packages super-easy.

If you have even a casual interest in either Linux or just dumping Windows and trying another operating system, I highly recommend checking out and downloading yourself a copy of Peppermint.

signs that Adobe Flash is on the way out

i’ll spare the discussion of how Flash is dead because Steve Jobs says it is.

while i agree with him on all of his points, i’m not really into the all bow to the great and mighty Steve camp, even while the rest of the industry bows to the great and mighty Steve.  (i may think it’s just a tad bit snotty for Steve to simply not support a development platform that’s become so ubiquitous as to be an industry standard, but i can’t deny that it’s his prerogative as a hardware and software manufacturer to support — or not — any platform he wants.  adobe wants to sue apple?  please.  on what possible grounds?  hardware doesn’t support software all the time, even to the point that intel-based Macs don’t run some of the software that non-intel-based Macs can run, and vice versa. what makes this issue any different than apple not supporting windows software?  i would like to wish adobe luck; if they win, it could set a precedent that would lead to the end of OS-specific software, which, in a way, is sort of what adobe is trying to do anyway with Flash and Air.)

i also don’t think the iPad is the be-all end-all technology product.  but there are some interesting trends.  and i do think it will change the way we think of computing and, in particular, how we look at the web.  (i don’t think this because i see apple as being able to single-handedly define our web browsing experience.  remember that little thing that Google announced six months or so ago, the ChromeOS?  and how the OS would only work on specially-designed hardware, about how the operating system, essentially, was the internet, about how the internet would be changing and blah blah blah, remember all that?  and all the people at the official announcement were busily typing into their netbooks thinking that this would be a netbook operating system but how could anyone want to run this netbook operating system when there wasn’t any actual software and had such limited features…kind of sounds like the iPad now, doesn’t it?  one major technology company with their fingers deep into the pot of user experience of the web with the most popular mobile browsing device — the iPhone — does not necessarily define the direction of the industry and the web (although it could).  two major technology companies with their fingers deep into the pot of user experience of the web — one of which is essentially the name brand of search — just might.)

this, however, is the interesting juxtaposition of information that i think is particularly telling about the demise of Flash as a standardized development platform:

the iPad is used, predominantly, by well-to-do men in the 35-44 age bracket.  it’s not the young geeks (like me) probably because we don’t have the cash to throw around to buy one (and are probably spending more time texting and listening to tunes at any rate, things that make the iPhone a better fit, although half of them also have an iPhone).  [source: Mashable — iPad: The Device of the Rich?]

the top 10 luxury brands (as reported by Forbes in 2009) fail to work on iDevices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) because they use Flash.  some of them — most notably Gucci — have some functionality, but 6 out of 10 die when faced with a Flash-less browser, and of the broken 4, only Gucci has any real functionality.  [source: PSFK — Top 10 Luxury Brands’ Sites Fail To Work On iPad]

it doesn’t take a genius to do the math.  rich, older guys (older than me at any rate) — guys who probably largely resemble jon stewart, pictured above — are the ones buying iPads, but the top 10 luxury brands (read: stuff that rich guys — and gals — like to buy) can’t be viewed on iPads because they use Flash.  the makers of luxury products want the rich guys and gals with disposable incomes (the ones that buy iPads) to buy their stuff, so they are going to have to redesign their sites to use HTML5 or at least provide a non-Flash alternative.  more will follow.  eventually, whether Adobe likes it or not, whether HTML5 skeptics and detractors like it or not, whether HTML5 is really ready or not, HTML5 will become the de facto standard because people want their sites to be viewable on more platforms.

that’s why adobe is pissed off, and they have a point.  but so does Jobs.  HTML5 is an open platform.  Flash is not; Flash is owned by Adobe and, as such, developers need to wait for Adobe to add new features to be able to expand and innovate their software.  That is not the case with an open platform.  in the end, i think Jobs’ points trump Adobe’s.  even if Google makes a tablet, and HP makes a tablet, and Amazon upgrades the Kindle to be more tablet-like, and they all support Flash, the very fact that Jobs has put his foot down in a “not gonna do it” sort of way means that brands and developers will need to decide whether to build a site that can be viewed on a mobile Apple product or…not.  i think the one million iPads sold in the first month and the most popular mobile phone crowns can suggest what direction that will go.

everything’s better in the cloud

image source: gawker
image source: gawker

since google’s big chromeOS unveiling last week, i’ve been left thinking a lot about cloud computing and chrome as an operating system in particular.  while i failed to be enamored about chromeOS, i do think the concept of cloud computing is an exciting developing technology.  chromeOS felt half-assed and not-fully-developed (the latter of which, at least, was true).  and it’s banking on a technology that is not yet widely adopted for which there aren’t a lot of equivalent technologies to what we are used to on our desktops and standard laptops.

the idea behind cloud computing (and the concept that chromeOS is founded on) is that most of what we do these days is done online, and that our most used applications are things that really just interface with the net.  even things that we think of as applications that run locally of our computer — like word processing or spreadsheets — can be taken to the cloud with microsoft’s new Office Live which was introduced to rival google’s own, longstanding Google Apps.  the few things you sacrifice by using a more simplistic user interface with less options (theoretically the stuff you don’t use anyway), you make up for in having permanent, secure, online data storage that follows you wherever you go, no matter what computer you’re on.  it doesn’t matter if your computer crashes, or your whole office crashes — if all your documents are online in Office Live or Google Apps, they’re safely tucked away in microsoft’s or google’s data warehouses.  and the chances of google’s or microsoft’s servers going down are about as high as snowflakes in the mojave desert in august. nvidia’s RealityServer and the independent OnLive show us ways that gaming can be taken to the cloud — and that is a glorious thing.  imagine not ever having to buy a graphics card ever again, and yet, still be able to play the hottest new games available at breathtaking resolutions that would have you staring at your screen in awe.  by taking all the heavy duty graphics and physics processing off your computer and crunching the numbers on a vast server cluster, the only thing you’d need is a fast enough internet connection to stream the audio and video.

cloud2it’s true, it’s beautiful up in the cloud.  the heavenly connotations are not entirely unwarranted when given access to unlimited data storage, unlimited processing power, unlimited games, unlimited music, everything you do and say and think lives in the cloud, you just need a conduit to tap into it.  all this constant upgrading your computer to the latest fancy technology to make it go faster is unnecessary.  you can access the cloud on the laptop you threw in the closet 7 years ago and forgot about. but wait…what about everything we’ve ever known about computing technology?  about how processors are constantly getting faster, data storage is getting bigger and faster and cheaper.  if you can access the cloud with any old thing, namely, if you can access the cloud with a chromeOS-powered netbook that does nothing else other than access the cloud, wouldn’t that sort of put a wrench in how hardware is developed, and do we even want that? because with cloud computing, nothing is local, all (or most) of the processing is done in the cloud.  at least, that was what google was presenting a few days ago.  you don’t need a fast computer, you just need something that can run their software.  (and google kind of has the corner on that market: one of the things they announced was that you would be running chromeOS on a specially-designed hardware device built to run chromeOS.)

a netbook is either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited local storage.

this is where i get stuck.  it doesn’t make sense to me: why use a netbook to access stuff that only lives on the internet if it can’t do some of the things i can do on a regular computer?  okay, so it’s only task is to access and manipulate apps that live online, but so does a smartphone.  a netbook is, pretty much by definition, either a bloated smartphone that can’t make calls, or a dumbed-down computer with limited (or no) local storage.  this is the future of computing?  really?

the cloud also throws a wrench into our concept of ownership.  i mean, sure, i can say that i own all my documents on Google Docs, but what does that actually mean to me if i don’t actually have a file i can manipulate myself.  or, more to the point, what happens to the music collection i consider to be mine if it’s not actually stored on any hard drive i have physical access or proximity to, but rather, is part of a membership service i am subscribed to?  we saw this summer how easy it was to take away digital possessions thought to be the property of the purchasers when amazon pulled 1984 and animal farm off their (digital) Kindle shelves and, subsequently, out of the Kindle users’ collections.

aw_snapthe cloud is great at some things, but not so much at others.  netbooks are a hot, cheap solution to do some basic daily tasks, but they will never be able to do everything you can do on a regular computer.  rather than forcing users to settle on a good enough, cloud equivalent for what they want to do, let’s embrace the differences between netbook computing and desktop (or laptop) computing.  what i’m thinking is web apps that behave more like desktop apps and desktop apps that behave more like web apps.  so much so that the only distinction between the two is whether an app is web-exclusive and therefore can be run on a netbook with no local storage.  as an example, let’s say i’m using something like a video editing program that eats up a lot of memory, disk space, and cpu cycles.  rather than having to go out and buy a supercomputer that can handle the load, let’s offload some of the memory consumption, processing, and temporary data storage to the cloud.  the app still lives on my computer, i still have to go to the store and make the purchase (or download it online and install it on my computer), but it leverages the cloud to enhance the user experience.  my video editing app can use a server cluster in mountain view to handle the video rendering so that task can take minutes, or even seconds, rather than the hours it would take me to render the same video on my computer.  then i’m limited only by my bandwidth, which is pretty much universally accepted as necessary to make cloud computing — and the environment in which chromeOS can truly live — a reality.

is chromeOS really anything more than a cheap ploy to generate more ad revenue?

granted, google told us that this was not a release, not a true unveiling.  merely, it was a chance to look at what the operating system does and how it’s different than what we’re used to now.  but, if you’ve read the chrome browser propaganda, none of this is really new territory other than the fact that, in the future, there will be chrome devices that only run chrome.  with chromeOS, google is banking on a technology whose time hasn’t yet come, and it’s a hefty gamble.  and are google’s intentions purely benevolent?  if google is working towards bringing about a world in which computing is done entirely (or at least mostly) online, gee, doesn’t that mean there will be more opportunities for their text ads to appear while we go about our normal workday?  is this really anything other than a cheap ploy to plaster more google ads across more things you do, by bringing the things you do online?

when applications can intelligently use the cloud to boost performance and take the load off of the local host computer — as i see it, the best of both worlds — then i will be a true believer.  until then, google’s cloud lives in that same utopian dream that the Agents in The Matrix told us failed the first time they built the Matrix.  we kept trying to wake up.