11 February 2010

Why corporate policy inhibits productivity

Here I am, sitting at my desk faced with quite a dilemma. Our organisation has invested in new anti-virus software (which I won't mention by name). The internal systems team are overjoyed with the new product, because it's pro-active defense system stops a lot of new viruses from getting onto our systems, which means less work for them.

Unfortunately I am a mere cog in the machine and this new pro-active system has so far stopped Java from working (by quarantining JAVAW.EXE ????), it has deleted Smart board software and currently I am waiting for them to allow me to use a copy of Pinnacle 9 on a system I have set up to perform video file editing & conversions.

So what are my options exactly? Do I wait another 2 days for our team to implement the ruleset I suggested (which tells the A/V to leave everything in the Pinnacle folder alone). Should I wait as they add each single part of the application, one executable at a time? My only other option is to use a non-networked machine which will at least let me get on with the job in hand. While this suits my needs, I can't help thinking that since this machine has no antivirus, I can't put it on the network. Which means if it ever does get a virus from transferred files, it will become an incubator for whatever infection finds a way onto it.

If you find yourself out there considering writing a new antivirus package, it might be worth contacting a few software vendors. I would suggest a simple CD or DVD checksum approach. If the checksum is valid, let my applications install and allow them to do whatever they need to without quarantining anything. It might just save me 3-4 days in the process.

3 February 2010

Moblin for the Masses?

While the rest of the world is going iPad crazy and producing all sorts of humourus comparisons, I've actually taken advantage of the fact that netbooks have plummeted in value to the point where I can now pick up a 1.6 GHz atom powered machine with 160GB hard drive for little more than the very first Asus Eee's were when they first appeared. Am I that far behind the times? Not really but my employer bought some of the first Eee's which were already outdated by the time we got them (it seems that anything you order in the public sector costs at least 10% more than it should and takes an eternity to arrive due to all the bureaucracy).

Anyway after reviewing the market I finally decided that prices had now stabilised enough so that there is very little difference between the various netbooks which are available. They would seem to be more powerful than an iPad and with Windows installed these days it means I can make use of Tucows, 5 star shareware, Major Geeks, Cnet-downloads and all the others (one app store is Soooo last decade don't you think?). It also means that if Apple does sort out the lack of published material in the UK ebook market then I can always install iTunes to take advantage of the fact.

So what did I go for? After much researching and late night review-reading, I finally opted for the Samsung NC10. One of the things which pushed me towards this decision was the fact that it was known to run Moblin, which I have wanted to try out since I saw the first demo video of it around this time last year. What is Moblin I hear you ask?

Moblin (or MOBile LINux) is a linux distribution targetted at netbooks and Medium-sized Internet Devices (or MIDS). The Moblin interface is quite simplistic but at the same time has some very neat features. It also has some limitations which I hope will be tackled in future revisions because I really want to be using Moblin as my main operating system in future years.

First the good points. Moblin has a sort of start page called Myzone which keeps track of your task list, recent web-sites and media files which you've accessed and even your twitter feed. These are shown as medium sized icons which are very easy to tell at a glance, just which content they represent. Also as you browse to web-pages a similar process occurs. By clicking on the internet icon you are taken to a page filled with thumbnails of recently accessed pages. I may have cheated a bit by picking hardware which I knew would run the wireless networking, but connecting Moblin to my home WPA-secured wi-fi network was as simple as entering the password (once I'd figured out where the network icon was). So my initial view was this is a fantastic system with a brilliantly intuitive interface. As I'd already freed up some drive space during set-up I took the plunge of installing it to hard-disk as bizarrely it didn't seem to store things when running from a USB stick. I'm glad to say that it does once it's properly installed and it didn't trash my Windows XP home installation in the process (although you need to be quick at the menu to get back to it).

Now the bad and I hate to say there are bad points about something which looks so good but here goes. First of all the Twitter page took a while to accept my settings. There was no visible feedback on that page that my username and password were correct and you have to go back to Myzone to see the feed. Not very intuitive. Then there's the display theme. It's too bright at night and too dark in my office. There doesn't seem to be any way to change the theme. It also doesn't display the day on the clock (some days I'm just so busy that it's nice to be reminded ok). It also struggled with my test media, giving me an error message about gstreamer codecs? when I tried to play my mp3 files. I also got this message when trying to play avi and mov files. Yet it will play formats I don't have content for (.ogg for music and .ogv for video). The most successful content test was with some PDF ebook files I have. The PDF viewer is awesome and very user friendly. It's just a shame that the display was so harsh in a dimly lit room that I really didn't feel like using it as an ebook reader. Eventually I managed to get mp3's playing with an add-on to the Firefox browser.

Shared file storage is also an issue as unlike other distributions (like Puppy for example), Moblin doesn't seem to want to know about NTFS partitions, not even opening them as read only to get at the content. So my 20GB's of media storage space is not accessible - not a good thing really.

So to conclude, Moblin is very good, but equally bad. It would be great for someone who had never used a computer before; someone who has never used Windows or downloaded an mp3 or had no idea that you can usually customise a desktop to suit your preferences. For the rest of us, it's a sacrifice too great at the moment. I would need to have time to understand how to re-write parts and learn to tweek it to suit my needs. For now I will continue to play with Moblin, at least until I figure out how to remove it cleanly. I will then probably try to install Puppy into that partition and then try to find the apps that will make Puppy look like Moblin. It's user interface is so sweet but it's not currently backed up with usability in my oppinion. A real shame as if it did everything Puppy does, I would even be able to contemplate ditching Windows (at least on my new netbook).

1 February 2010

Why the iPad could be a good thing for the UK

So the hype and the secrecy is over and we have all seen the iPad device previews. There has been a mixed reaction to it, some asking why buy one when they already have an iPhone? Others meanwhile have commented on it's lack of Flash plug-ins, multitasking and USB ports. Whatever you think of the hardware, two things are apparent from the outset.

The first is that Apple think this is what you should use to read ebooks and emagazines. The rest of the world is unconvinced, especially those who spend a lot of time reading books. Those who sell books are also quite busy promoting E-ink devices which update their screens only once (for each page turn), therefore supposedly doing less damage to your eyes and preserving precious battery life. Just this last week I started reading an ebook on my HTC magic, only for the experience to be cut short as my battery ran flat.

Still, it's the second point about Apple's new device which may be good for the UK. The iPad appears to be just another platform for iTunes. Yes they really want you to buy most (or all) of your digital content from them. A lot of people in the US are commenting about how this is not a good thing and that Apple will do to publishing what they've already done to music. Now stop and think about that. In the UK you can get iTunes gift vouchers in most supermarkets these days. Contrast that with trying to buy an ebook. In the cases where I've tried, I've been confronted by pages which say things along the lines of "This file is only available in the U.S. or Canada". So if Apple actually do improve this situation then maybe, just maybe something useful will come from the iPad.

Still the ebook market is young and vibrant. It's been interesting to see how certain online music stores, supporters of drm-free music downloads have not applied this ideaology to their core business and released their ebooks in drm-free formats. This market is young yet and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if E-ink screens start turning up on mobile phones or as plug-in USB accessories; maybe even add-on wi-fi screens. So in such a volatile market why would I rush out to buy an iPad? In 12 months time there will be another, maybe with USB or a video camera and probably with more battery life.

If they do actually sort out the UK's access to ebooks I might be tempted. I have shelves which are stressing under the weight of hefty computer books because that's the only way I could buy them. So the old web-master saying that "Content is King" applies here. It's HD-DVD vs BluRay for books only with more formats and devices. Eventually one will lead the pack. Authors will want to be exposed to as many income streams as possible so expect some severe market shake-ups. Consumers also want to choose their readers based on tactile feel and user-interface rather than which files they support and how easy (or not) it is to get the right content.

When it comes to electronic media distribution you have to concede that love it or hate it, Apple is a big player, possibly even the biggest. When it comes to user interfaces, Apple are again emulated by everyone else. Damn it I'm not ready to turn into an Apple fanboy. Not until they implement proper drag & drop. I guess I need to see the Lenovo hybrid, the Entourage Edge and the Notion Ink Adam before I part with my hard-earned. I just hope they are all represented at the Gadget Show in April.