Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can Ubuntu Survive Long-Term?

I've always been a fan of Ubuntu. While I started my Linux journey on RedHat,  I completely fell in love with Ubuntu from it's earliest days. This was a distro for the average Joe. This was a distro I could show my grandmother. This was a distro that would finally tip the scale into Linux's favor once and for all. Why would anyone want to use Windows or Mac when they had a fast, stable, secure, alternative in Ubuntu?

But the years have shown that quite a few people still do want to use Mac and Windows and that Linux adoption, pushed forward by Ubuntu, hasn't taken off the way I thought it would. But recent movement in the Linux community, and particularly around Ubuntu, have reawakened my hope that Ubuntu is a viable desktop for the future.

Of course, the big item on everyone's "Ubuntu is going to survive" list is Steam. Earlier this year, popular video game maker Valve announced that it would offer a Steam client for Linux. Well, specifically for Ubuntu.  For a platform that has been historically viewed as not for gaming and pretty much ignored by game makers, this is huge news. It means that game makers are now taking Linux seriously and seeing it as a viable platform that can support their products.

For their part, Linux users have stepped up as well. Several video game related Kickstarter projects have quickly and easily met their goals, the Humble Indie Bundle routinely makes more from Linux than any other platform, and Linux users have shown they are definitely willing to put their money where their mouth is to support good software. The anti-profit attitude that was the albatross around Linux's neck for so long is gone.

But what about grandma? Can Ubuntu really penetrate the home market to any large degree? Will it ever be commonplace to walk into a home and see an Ubuntu PC sitting on a desk? I believe the answer is a resounding yes.  Ubuntu has everything that most home users need to accomplish their daily tasks and still not be shut out from communicating with their counterparts in the Mac and Windows worlds.  The software is there, the operating system is becoming more and more intuitive, and Mark Shuttleworth might just see his 400,000,000 users after all.

Overall, I think Ubuntu is a contender. For as much as I complain about the Unity Desktop, it's one of the things I believe Canonical did right. They realized that they're not really designing a desktop for hard core Linux users; those users have probably gone to other distros. Instead, they are designing a desktop for users who are seeking refuge from the crazy and weirdly changing world of Windows and Mac. They are designing a desktop for mom, and dad, and grandma, and your little 12 year old sister. That's going to be the future of Ubuntu and that's who they should focus on.

In my mind, that's not a bad thing. Ubuntu's survival benefits us all. While I might not always like where they take the distro, I will always be a fan because they are doing more than just about anyone else to get Linux into the hands of the masses.

So the pundits say that the Linux desktop is dead. LONG LIVE THE LINUX DESKTOP!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Teaching privacy to the masses



I'm a privacy advocate. Moreover, I often professionally instruct people on how to protect their privacy both online and off. Unfortunately, it's a pretty fluid thing. What works now might be completely upended by new research or technology and, so, privacy remains a constant battle.  Because it's a battle that involves sometimes complex tools, the average person has, for the most part, given up. They take basic precautions to stop the most obvious intrusions but they stop at the things that require what they perceive to be a lot of work or a high learning curve.

Enter 'cryptoparties'.

Cryptoparties are pretty awesome. The idea is based on the concept of meetups and user groups. A small group of people get together to discuss encryption, privacy, and their related technologies, and to help each other learn how to use the commonly used tools. It's an open-ended environment where everyone's skill level is accepted and newbies and pro's mix together in a relaxed setting that allows information to flow freely.

And, as governments around the world tighten their grip on online communication and ramp up offline citizen survelliance, cryptoparties are exploding. Some parties report 50-75 people routinely attending these meetups and the number seems to be growing as word of them spreads.

This may well be they way to introduce ordinary citizens to cryptography and privacy. It's not intimidating, it's not overwhelming, and it comes in easily digestible chunks that even the most technologically inept person can understand. It's something that's been a long time coming.

If you're interested in seeing if there are any cryptoparties in your area or if you might be interested in starting one, pop on over to www.cryptoparty.org and check it out. It's cheap (free) and very easy to participate in. Best of all, everyone is welcome.

Friday, September 14, 2012

App Stores Revisited

In this post from August, I laid out my reasons for avoiding app stores like the ones on Mac, Windows 8, and Ubuntu.   There's a number of reasons why app stores are bad and there are a number of good reasons why developers should avoid them as much as they can.   But being a pragamatist, I also realize that, as independent developers, we have to feed ourselves. Sometimes, that means doing things that we find a but unsavory and making hard compromises in order to put food on the table and live a decent life.

App stores are one of those things.

I've got a few applications that I sell through services like GumRoad and, I have to say, it's tough. More and users are turning exclusively to app stores to find everything from small, free, utility software to major applications like PhotoShop and Quicken. Additionally, users are (incorrectly) begining to equate app store inclusion with security; if you're not in the app store, you can't be trusted but if you are, everything is alright. The sad fact is that we can rage against the machine as much as we want, we can blame users ineptitude at using their computers, we can shake our fist at the heavens but, at the end of the day, it's all about money and putting food on the table.

After selling software for over 10 years without being in an app store (for a good part of that time, they didn't exist), I'm not convinced that an independent developer must be in an app store to succeed. There's simply no way around it.  I continue to hate the idea and I think it's harmful to independent developer like myself, but it is what it is and I will be paying my $99 to Apple and Microsoft to be part of the club.

Times are changing for both users and developers. We either have to change with them or be left in the dust. It's time to pick our battles. I'm not choosing to die on this hill.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why the Bitcoin community needs standards

It seems like nary a week goes by without us hearing about the latest 'Bitcoin hack' story.  Bitcoin, a form of anonymous digital cash developed a few years ago, is hot and valuable and digital thieves want their slice of it. What the thieves don't realize though is that, by hacking sites related to Bitcoin, they are helping to shake the public's trust in the currency and costing themselves money by devaluing it.

So the question on everyone's mind now is 'how do we protect Bitcoin'?   But I don't believe this is the question we should be asking. When a bank is robbed, do we see endless stories about "US Dollar Hacked!" or questions about "How do we protect the US Dollar" (or whatever regional currency is in use)? Of course not! People don't lose faith in a currency when a bank is robbed because they realize the problem isn't with the currency but, rather, with the bank 

It's the same with Bitcoin. When an exchange like MtGox is hacked or a scam happens, it doesn't show a flaw with the currency. It shows a flaw in the security model of the organization that was hacked. And these are flaws that have been seen before and addressed. Banks dealt with these issues long before Bitcoin existed and they have good practices in place to handle them.

So how do we protect Bitcoin? First, we realize that the problem lies not with the currency but with the community. The community trusts people and there is currently no real way to validate that trust besides reputation on the BitcoinTalk forum. We need more. Much more.

What we need is for a group of trusted community members to come together and develop standards of security that anyone wanting to accept or store Bitcoins should follow. Then, we need the community to refuse to do business with anyone who doesn't follow those standards.  These practices could easily be patterned after those the banking industry uses and the problem would be mostly solved. It's really not that hard.

Next, we need public education. The fact that any of us hear 'did you hear Bitcoin was hacked" every now and then shows public ignorance that needs to be addressed. Every time we hear this we need to use it as a means of education. Explain to the person that Bitcoin was not hacked and is safe. Instead, a bank was robbed or a store that had Bitcoins was robbed. Put it in ways they can understand. It's the only way to start breaking through some of the fear and stigma surrounding Bitcoin and it's our duty as the community to do it.

Bitcoin is safe and reletively unhackable. The problem lies in the community. Thankfully, it's a problem we can fix. Indeed, it has already been fixed by a sister industry. Now, we just need to copy it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

URGENT: Help Gary Johnson get on the ballot on September 5!

URGENT: If you are in Oklahoma (or willing to drive to Oklahoma City) we need you TODAY (Wednesday). Attorney Jim Linger will be presenting our case for ballot access to the Oklahoma Supreme Court at 1:00pm CST. We're asking everyone who can to show up in support of Gary and Jim.

The Court is located at:

2100 N. Lincoln Blvd #4
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Once you're there, you'll need to ask which room the hearing is in but any court personnel should be able to send you in the right direction. Let's show that our voices will not be silenced and that we are behind Gary 100%.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Miguel de Icazza is wrong about the death of the Linux desktop

I have to say that I'm a bit put off by Miguel de Icaza and his statements about the death of the desktop. To be honest, his proclamation of the death of the desktop is so 'link baitish' that I have to wonder if he didn't do it just for that reason: publicity.

Miguel isn't an idiot and he's been around the Linux community long enough to know that 'Desktop Linux is Dead!' stories come out about once a year. They always cause a stir when they do and gets whoever said them a ton of publicity. With his star fading and nothing really exciting to keep it bright, is it so tough to believe that Miguel saw making a proclamation of his own an easy way to a little attention?

Don't get me wrong: he had good points. In fact, anyone who isn't an absolute rabid fanboy would admit that most of his points are valid. But Miguel misses the main reason people use Linux in the first place and _why_ they're willing to put up with the very annoyances he cited:

People love freedom.

People who use Linux realize that they'll have to make sacrifices. They realize that, sometimes, things break. They realize that, sometimes, hardware simply stops working after an upgrade. But they're willing to put up with it because Linux offers them freedom.  Of course, Windows and OS X suffer from these same issues but there's a major difference: users make the same sacrifices but get nothing in return. No freedom. No configurability. Nothing. Just a high priced piece of underpowered hardware.

I'm not trying to trash OS X here. For the crowd that uses it, it's probably fine. For people who value freedom, configuration, and control, it's not acceptable. Miguel has been using Mac for such a long time that I think he's forgotten why people love and use Linux in the first place. He's forgotten the passion of the community.  He's also probably not noticed how _good_ Linux is getting lately.

Distro's like Ubuntu are innovating at a much faster rate than OS X. They aren't' locking themselves down, they aren't putting all sorts of restrictions on their users. They're just working on making a killer desktop experience. And if you buy your system from a good vendor like , hardware compatibility issues are pretty much non-existent.

Miguel also talks about "switchers"; those coming from another OS like Windows.  Sure, Mac used to have the upper hand here. Less than two years ago, I would _never_ have recommended Linux to my newbie friends and family. I would have recommended OS X. But that's changed. Now, I routinely recommend Linux and you know what? For the most part, they _love it_. They love that they can set it up, learn at their own pace, configure it just to how they like it. They love how much software is available, how helpful the community is, and how beautiful the desktop has become. I haven't recommended OS X in months now and I don't see myself ever recommending it again unless companies like RedHat or Canonical really screw up and trash their systems.

Personally, I respect de Icazza but I think he's out of touch and not driven by the same values that a lot of people in the Linux community are. I'd challenge him to ditch his Mac for a month and work purely in something like Ubuntu Unity or even KDE then come back and tell us how he still prefers OS X. I suspect his view might change a little bit if he did.

Miguel does raise some interesting points that the community needs to address. We need to work harder, we need to constantly innovate, and we need to face the issues he brought up head on. If we do, desktop Linux will have a long and happy life and, who knows, we might even see de Icazza become a fan again.