Monday, March 02, 2009

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 15: Qimo and Linux MInty

Linux Monday: Distributions Cool and Minty

This week on Linux Monday, let's look at two Ubuntu-based distributions that are designed to make things easy. One's for kids, and one does a little more of the setup work for you.

We start with the cool as in Qimo, which presumably is pronounced as in es-Qimo, based on the friendly Inuit-looking fellow on the default wallpaper.

Qimo is based on Xubuntu, the Ubuntu variant with the low-impact xfce desktop and a Mac-style dock. Basically Qimo is Xubuntu with a few extra kid games. The xfce choice is appropriate; presumably the distributors get that kids often get the older, hand-me-down machines.

Qimo's site is still really new, with the FAQ not filled in. I first heard of it last week but knew right away I had to give it the real test with my 8 (almost 9) and 6 year old tech advisers.

Operating Systems as Airlines, or, How I Screwed Up Last Week Talking About The Command Line

There's several variations of this joke but here's the idea: imagine operating systems are airlines.

Mac Airlines

All the stewards, captains, baggage handlers, and ticket agents look and act exactly the same. Every time you ask questions about details, you are gently but firmly told that you don't need to know, don't want to know, and everything will be done for you without your ever having to know, so just shut up.

Windows Air

The terminal is pretty and colorful, with friendly stewards, easy baggage check and boarding, and a smooth take-off. After about 10 minutes in the air, the plane explodes with no warning whatsoever.

Windows XP Air

You turn up at the airport,which is under contract to only allow XP Air planes. All the aircraft are identical, brightly colored and three times as big as they need to be. The signs are huge and all point the same way. Whichever way you go, someone pops up dressed in a cloak and pointed hat insisting you follow him. Your luggage and clothes are taken off you and replaced with an XP Air suit and suitcase identical to everyone around you as this is included in the exorbitant ticket cost. The aircraft will not take off until you have signed a contract. The inflight entertainment promised turns out to be the same Mickey Mouse cartoon repeated over and over again. You have to phone your travel agent before you can have a meal or drink. You are searched regularly throughout the flight. If you go to the toilet twice or more you get charged for a new ticket. No matter what destination you booked you will always end up crash landing at Whistler in Canada.

Windows Vista Airlines

You enter a good looking terminal with the largest planes you have ever seen. Every 10 feet a security officer appears and asks you if you are "sure" you want to continue walking to your plane and if you would like to cancel. Not sure what cancel would do, you continue walking and ask the agent at the desk why the planes are so big. After the security officer making sure you want to ask the question and you want to hear the answer, the agent replies that they are bigger because it makes customers feel better, but the planes are designed to fly twice as slow. Adding the size helped achieve the slow fly goal.

Once on the plane, every passenger has to be asked individually by the flight attendants if they are sure they want to take this flight. Then it is company policy that the captain asks the passengers collectively the same thing. After answering yes to so many questions, you are punched in the face by some stranger who when he asked "Are you sure you want me to punch you in the face? Cancel or Allow?" you instinctively say "Allow".

After takeoff, the pilots realize that the landing gear driver wasn't updated to work with the new plane. Therefore it is always stuck in the down position. This forces the plane to fly even slower, but the pilots are used to it and continue to fly the planes, hoping that soon the landing gear manufacturer will give out a landing gear driver update.

You arrive at your destination wishing you had used your reward miles with XP airlines rather than trying out this new carrier. A close friend, after hearing your story, mentions that Linux Air is a much better alternative and helps.

Linux Air

Disgruntled employees of all the other OS airlines decide to start their own airline. They build the planes, ticket counters, and pave the runways themselves. They charge a small fee to cover the cost of printing the ticket, but you can also download and print the ticket yourself.

When you board the plane, you are given a seat, four bolts, a wrench and a copy of the seat-HOWTO.html. Once settled, the fully adjustable seat is very comfortable, the plane leaves and arrives on time without a single problem, the in-flight meal is wonderful. You try to tell customers of the other airlines about the great trip, but all they can say is, "You had to do what with the seat?!?"

The boys scrapped over my laptop when I popped it up on the live CD. They gravitated right to the dock and to Tux Paint, a kid-friendly version of the old Windows classic. In no time they were drawing up a storm. They also found a keyboard-learning game (type the right letter and Tux catches a fish -- there's lots of penguin branding here.

In between turns I quality inspected (that's a family in-joke; when I help myself to their candy I say, "I have to quality inspect this to make sure it's safe for kids") and all the apps were where I expected. Then the boys played a Concentration-style memory game.

My big guy Hayden has been very frustrated with his Windows install (in fairness, it was the slowest machine in the house and the hard drive was probably too small; we were putting the programs on a 40 gig drive but Windows itself was living, barely, on an 8 gig drive.) He literally begged to have "kid Linux" installed. I pulled out a 1.4Ghz Celeron with a 40 gig hard drive and (after a couple boots; had to change the settings to boot from CD first) started the install: nothing new here. Just a straight Ubuntu install. The boys got a brief geography lesson as we set the system time("No, Iowa City's not on the map, what's the nearest big city?" "Chicago!" "Right!") and soon our Inuit friend was looking at us again from a fully installed system.

I had a little work to do yet before it was fully ready. Popular kid web sites (basically the Disney/Nick universe) are big on Flash games, and my big guy finds all sorts of Pokemon and Star Wars videos on YouTube. Qimo follows Ubuntu's philosophy of not including certain popular audio and video codecs (that stands for coder-decoder) in the default installation for various copyright reasons. This friendly post tells you what you need to do to get all that stuff, and more, up and flying.

(I also installed the gnome-games package which is included by default in regular Ubuntu but not in Qimo. My little guy Ethan likes the Minesweeper clone.)

But if the "you had to do what with the seat?!?" punchline in the sidebar is you, you might want to start with Linux Mint.

I checked out Linux Mint for the first time last night. I'd read about it before; it's basically Ubuntu with all those codecs installed for you. I was surprised at just HOW much like Ubuntu it was. The default desktop was GNOME (other version are available but I'm basically a GNOME guy), the theme was a little different (none of Ubuntu's default 70s browns and oranges), the menu bar defaulted to the bottom and not the top, and of course my .mp3s and video worked out of the box.

I only had one problem: my audio worked on my built-in speakers but not on my externals plugged into the headphone jack. I had the same problem in Ubuntu when I upgraded from 8.04 to 8.10, and I can't remember just how I fixed it.

Which brings me to my main conclusion about Linux Mint. If you're a complete newbie, starting 100% from scratch, Mint might be the way to go. But if you're in Ubuntu, and have spent any time setting stuff up Your Own Way at all like I have, there's not a compelling reason to switch.

While I was playing with Mint, my big guy was surfing away in Firefox, and hasn't yet missed a beat on working in a new OS. The quality inspection is ongoing; little brother still plays some games on CD and when he wants to try that we'll have to take it to the next level. Which will give me another post.

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