Ubuntu 10.04

I’ve been using Ubuntu 10.04 for the last few days and I have to say, it’s very good and very deserving of the “LTS” moniker. No major issues like the ones I encountered with 9.04 so far.

One minor nit: the new ‘dark’ theme works well, but if you’re using Firefox and like to drag your bookmarks bar to the top to save space, you won’t be able to see your bookmarks unless you add the following to your userChrome.css:

#bookmarksBarContent {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
.places-toolbar-items {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
#bookmarksBarContent toolbarseparator {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
#bookmarksBarContent .bookmark-item {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}
.chevron {color: #dfd8c8 ! important;}

Without this, you wouldn’t be able to see the words “Most Visited” and “gmail” in the picture below.

Firefox on Ubuntu 10.04 "Lucid Lynx" using the default theme

Apple's Control Issues

Section 3.3.1 of the new iPhone OS 4 preview SDK caused quite a firestorm on the interwebs. It tells developers exactly which tools they may use to develop apps for the app store. Apple must have known it would raise hackles and did it anyway. Now that’s thinking different. To those who say “they can’t do that!”, well, they just did. It’s pretty evil, but Apple has the users and the mindshare. Short of legal action (it’ll be interesting to see how much of this section is enforceable in court) it’s hard to see how Apple can be persuaded to change its mind. And this won’t result in a developer exodus — developers will flock to the iPhone as long as it’s a leading mobile platform.

It’s hard for me to sympathise with Adobe. Flash is a proprietary plugin that really only runs well on Windows. (In fact, most people forget that Flash’s ubiquity is a direct result of Microsoft bundling Flash with every copy of Windows.) Then Adobe got delusions of Flash’s platform-hood and is having trouble adjusting to the fact that one of the real platform vendors (Apple) didn’t like Flash very much, probably because Flash is a dog on OS X. Problem is, you don’t really become a platform by shipping plugins — the JRE browser plugin is a far more mature (and open source!) platform and it’s nowhere as ubiquitous as Sun/Oracle would like.

The other point against Flash is that it’s fundamentally pro-publisher and pro-advertiser and anti-user. Flash makes the user work twice as hard to maintain control over privacy by having its own hard-to-use settings manager and independent cookie store. This is the platform I’m supposed to get passionate about? And the recent iAd unveiling nicely showed how one can do “rich media ads” in HTML5.

All of this said, Apple’s hubris and control freakery will definitely turn off a lot of the tech crowd, many of whom are also early adopters. I’m sure Apple knows this but also knows you can’t sell 85 million units mobile devices by appealing to the tech crowd — and the ones who care about the best user experience will stay with Apple anyway. Apple’s competitors could always show Apple the folly of its ways by, you know, designing a better product that customers will want — the upgrade cycle on phones is a lot shorter than desktops and people aren’t that averse to changing phones if a new one is cheaper and/or offers a better experience.

Speaking for myself, although I like my iPhone, I’d like a bit more flexibility on a tablet, so I’ll wait to see if a good Windows or Android device comes along. But so far neither Google nor Microsoft has produced anything compelling enough. It’s sad to see the future of personal computing being ceded to a company that wants to turn it into a walled garden.

Smart (curly) Quotes in MSN / Windows Live Messenger

Undocumented MSN / Windows Live Messenger “feature”: Shift+Ctrl+” (Shift+Ctrl+Quotation Mark) toggles smart or curly quotes in the Conversation Window. Unfortunately, not only does this completely undocumented keystroke not give any feedback to the user (and it’s easy to press this by mistake while IMing away) but also breaks some emoticons: [Weepie] produces a weepie [Weepie], but :‘( and :’( produce nothing.

Update: The shortcut is Shift+Ctrl+Quotation Mark on US keyboards only. On British keyboards the shortcut is Shift+Ctrl+~.

Update 2: This still happens in the latest version of Live Messenger (14.0.8089.726), which is why I’ve bumped this post to 2010 (I first wrote about this bug in 2004!).

Tab Docking in Google Chrome

Almost everyone knows you can tear off and re-join tabs in Chrome, but it also supports powerful docking features that are quite useful, especially on Windows XP and Vista (which lacks the window manager refinements of Windows 7).

The most useful feature probably is the ability to drag a tab to the middle of the left or right edge of the browser window (as shown below) and have the windows arrange themselves into a vertically-split view that’s ideal for side-by-side comparisons.

Drag tab to the middle of the left or right edges of the browser window Vertically split Chrome windows side-by-side

There are more docking positions listed on Chrome’s help pages.


Taking platform management advice from a Mac person is like taking relationship advice from an autistic savant. His advice probably works for him, but Your Mileage May Vary.

Which brings me to John Gruber of Daring Fireball on OS opportunity:

If Palm can create WebOS for pocket-sized computers — replete with an email client, calendaring app, web browser, and SDK — why couldn’t these companies make something equivalent for full-size computers?

Short answer: look how many people are developing for Palm.

Long answer: Funny how an OS in some people’s minds (especially Mac users) stops at the web browser and email+calendaring. An OS as a platform is so much more. It took Linux 7-10 years depending on whom you asked to be taken seriously in the server world (it’s not quite there yet in the desktop world). Even the iPhone, with its seemingly unassailable 100k+ apps, has developers champing at the bit with its platform limitations. There is every likelihood that an open standard (whether in the sense of de facto industry standard or open-source, or both) like Android will do to the iPhone what the technically far inferior DOS and Windows did to the classic Mac.

Apple does particularly well these days well because it’s the equivalent of a BMW in the computer market — people buy it for fact that it’s a nice PC, and it has polish and grace for the basic tasks users need to perform: web, email, photo and video editing. But the Mac also has an amazing line-up of applications beyond these basics. Even discounting iWork, you can buy Microsoft Office for the Mac, and lots of Mac users appear to like it (indeed, Microsoft is the biggest ISV for Mac). Then there’s the all-star line-up of pro-grade DTP, photo, video and music manipulation apps – a niche the Mac has held on to for years. And yet even Apple has had to fight hard to convince even its top ISVs to keep the faith – witness the times the Mac community felt betrayed because Microsoft or (worse) Adobe seemed to prioritize the Windows version.

Nurturing a platform is hard work.

Sure a Dell or an HP could go its own and create a platform. But it’d have to stand by and commit to its platform for the 5-7 years it takes for a platform to gain critical mass. (Hint: you can’t commit and still sell Windows. That’d send a really bad signal about how committed you are.) Can Dell or HP take the sales risk? If all they want to do is escape the clutches of Microsoft, wouldn’t they rather throw a few pennies at Canonical and get Ubuntu on their low-end machines?

And no, Desktop Linux in its current avatar isn’t going to save PC OEMs. Apple bolted a proprietary, world-class consumer-grade GUI to an open-source Unix in 4 years. 12 years on, Linux desktop devs are still distracted with KDE v Gnome. Desktop Linux is very much a low-end user/advanced-user choice, not a solution for a mainstream user.

That said, I’m looking forward to seeing what Google’s Chrome OS has in store for us. Google’s heft in the marketplace would go a long way in assuring ISVs and OEMs of commitment. Slowly but steadily, they’ve been putting blocks like Gears, HTML5, Native Client and the Go language (it targets Native Client along with x86 and ARM) in place to make the beginnings of a compelling platform. And they have some of the finest minds in OS development working for them. If anyone can give the OEM market an alternative with polish and backing, it’s Google.

Interesting times ahead, for sure.

Useful Windows Shortcuts: Win+B

Lifehacker recently pointed to a very useful new Windows 7 shortcut that vertically maximizes windows — really useful on laptops with 800 pixels or less of vertical real estate.

In that spirit, here’s another useful “shortcut”: Win+B gives focus to the “show hidden icons” button on the system tray.
Win+B gives focus to the "Show Hidden Icons" button on the Taskbar

This works on Windows XP and Vista as well, but is especially useful on Windows 7 because 7 corrals tray icons into their own box, where they’re not easily visible.
Then, pressing Enter will reveal the hidden icons

After pressing Win+B, press Enter to reveal the hidden icons and press the cursor keys to cycle through them (caveat, the highlight effect is really quite subtle on the RC and easy to miss).

Installing Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope on a Sony Vaio

Installing Linux on laptops still isn’t as easy as it should be. I installed Ubuntu 9.04 (“Jaunty”) on a Sony Vaio today, only to find that

  • WiFi — on an Atheros AR242x controller — was working, but very slowly. I got no more than 23-80kB/sec on a 12Mb/sec connection, and frequently got as little as 1 kB/sec.
  • Video effects weren’t supported on the Intel GM965/GL960 Integrated Graphics Controller (they were supported on Vista and Windows 7) because of a known bug.

I fixed the wifi by using the Windows driver for the Atheros AR242x with ndiswrapper as described here. (Although the page says Jaunty doesn’t have this problem, it did.)

The video effects were fixed by following this thread from UbuntuForums.

Looks like the year of Linux on the desktop/laptop is still a few years off.

Google UK as a Search Provider in Firefox and IE

The default Google search built into Firefox (at least in British builds) goes off to google.com and is then redirected to google.co.uk. Problem is, sometimes the redirection stops working and it stays with google.com — usually clearing cookies solves this problem. This means you lose the benefits of country-specific search. Installing this Google UK Search Provider will make sure that searches from the Firefox search bar go to Google UK every time. Also works with IE 8 (and any browser that supports OpenSearchDescription files).