Blog - Unity Behind Diversity

Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: windows

Hotmail discriminates against non-Windows Firefox users

Can you say artificial scarcity? Also, Hotmail’s “customer service” seems to be a poorly implemented bot.

But did you really need another reason not to use Hotmail?

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Microsoft Knows Best – Unwanted Windows Updates

Microsoft clearly believes it knows better than users and system administrators of Windows computers. A few weeks ago, even users who had auto-update off received an unannounced, forced upgrade to Windows Desktop Search (WDS), whether or not WDS was even active on the computer. This, without permission from the user. Andy Patrizio reports:

What’s worse, users claim that once WDS is installed, it begins indexing the computer. If a user tries to uninstall the feature, it forces the computer to reboot (no reboot had been required when WDS was initially installed) and then tries to reinstall itself again, when they go to Windows Update.

WDS is installed not only on desktop computers but servers as well. This is keeping the WDS support board very busy.

This isn’t the first time that Microsoft has updated Windows machines without user consent (even if Windows preferences were set to require it). It’s becoming a growing trend and headache for system administrators (who want to have control over and knowledge of updates to their environment) everywhere.

This is just one of many reasons that I use free software. Free software respects your freedoms, your consent, and won’t sneak around behind your back and force upgrades on you. And if it ever does, the source code is available and someone will exercise their freedom to change it.

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On treating people like criminals

I recently came across Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists (1976). Although new to me, it’s by no means news. However, since reading it I can’t help but think about how connected it is with the current software landscape and, in particular, Microsoft’s business practices over the last three decades, especially when taken in contrast with the GNU Manifesto (1985).

The letter is a tirade against the widespread sharing of authorized copies of his company’s software, namely Altair BASIC – Microsoft’s first product. Gates was angry with the fact that the developers of the software were not being paid for the work they had done, that the majority of users had obtained the copy without paying.

The letter raises an important point regarding the economic question of sharing software. If copies are being widely circulated, how are the developers to make a living? There are two main sentiments that I detected upon reading the letter. They are that hobbyists and “users” (Gates used the quotes himself) are amateurs and thieves, respectively. First, without real professional programmers they wouldn’t have any good software. Gates completely dismisses any contribution that volunteers can make. Second, users of the software are looked upon and treated like criminals. Rather than recognize that the users are “fans” of the software, that they are helping increase it’s popularity, and trying to find a way to capitalize and monetize that, the users are treated as criminals.

In contrast, the GNU Manifesto (which was written separately from the Open Letter to Hobbyists – Richard Stallman had not read the letter at the time) takes a radically different approach. Richard Stallman considers the freedoms to study, modify and distribute software as absolutely essential freedoms for the computer user, and he sets out to find a way to protect those freedoms. He too addresses the question of “how will programmers make money?” with some suggestions that have been proven to be effective over the last two decades (such as customizing software or providing services and technical support for free software projects).

Let’s take some quotes from the two documents.

Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

– Bill Gates

“Won’t everyone stop programming without a monetary incentive?”

Actually, many people will program with absolutely no monetary incentive. Programming has an irresistible fascination for some people, usually the people who are best at it. There is no shortage of professional musicians who keep at it even though they have no hope of making a living that way.

– from the GNU Manifesto

Both the proprietary and free software mentalities have developed greatly over the past few decades, as our world becomes increasing run by software. The free software movement and open source movement have proven that volunteers can build powerful (often the most powerful) software. Take a look at Firefox, or the LAMP web server environment (GNU/Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl). Large companies like Google and IBM run on free and open source software. Companies such as Red Hat and MySQL are extremely profitable developing, selling and providing services for free software. Many start-ups, like Google in the early days, or Facebook just a few years ago, rely on widely available inexpensive and powerful free and open source software. Without it, they might not have had the means to begin.

But proprietary software is still the norm, and Microsoft still treats it’s users like criminals. A friend of mine pointed this out to me the other day, as I was trying to explain what it was that I disliked about Microsoft’s mentality. His computer has been calling him a criminal for a while now, as Windows Genuine Advantage is accusing him of using an authorized copy of Windows. He certainly didn’t copy it himself, so there’s one of two possibilities: either the distributor he purchased his computer from used an unauthorized copy, or Windows Genuine advantage is wrong (it’s been wrong at least a few hundred thousand times already). It displays notices when he boots his computer and periodically while running. It’s withholding certain updates from his machine. And it took away his Windows Media Player (I know, I know, no big loss, but that was what he had been using). Mistrust breeds mistrust, and rightfully so.

I can’t help but look at the parallels in the music industry. Record labels have really been treating fans like criminals since the RIAA begin its indiscriminate lawsuits against music fans (or their dead grandparents) several years ago. The record industry is all but dead. There are large lay-offs and cutbacks, a huge decline in CD sales. Many insiders believe it’s already over, for the majors. But the music industry is still very much alive, and groups of artist, like the Canadian Music Creators Coalition (CMCC), have formed to combat the “treat the fan as a criminal” mentality which has lead to disaster for the major labels. Groups like the CMCC and many independent record labels have been developing new business models, rather than using draconian measures to protect outdated ones. The Barenaked Ladies are a great example of this, as is Dispatch (an independent band that embraced Napster instead of rebelling against it).

The movie industry, unfortunately, seems to be making the same mistakes that the record companies made. It seems as if they believe that the record industry just didn’t come down hard enough or early enough on new technology. The new video formats are increasingly loaded with Digital Restrictions Management, even to the point of building it into the hardware. They’ve cracked down on camcordering, as if that’s eroding the core of their business and is a replacement for going to the movies rather than simply creating hype for them. Want to feel like you’re being treated like a criminal? Try going to the movie theatres, where after paying for a ticket, you have to walk by posters and sit through trailers that are increasingly headed in this direction:

I believe that the only effective “anti-piracy” policy involves recognizing that the word “piracy” is being misused. People who share music are music fans. People who share software are computer enthusiasts. In the digital world, we can easily make copies of songs or programs to share with other people without having to take them away from someone else. This is fundamentally different from the concept of stealing material objects that proprietary software developers and major record labels want us to associate with sharing. The only thing that makes this type of sharing illegal is the present copyright system, which is just a legal construct and has no basis in natural law. Copyright isn’t an inherent right; it’s simply a system of incentives. The system can be changed if it’s not serving it’s purpose to society. In today’s world, copyright is a weapon used by large corporations to restrict people’s freedom for the sake of increased profits. We are more connected today than ever before in human history as a result of technology, yet so much of our effort goes into building digital walls.

Fear, uncertainty, anger and greed on behalf of corporations in the face of social cooperation produce things like Windows Genuine Advantage and the record industry’s demise. On the other hand, the flexibility, adaptation and innovation of the free/open source software movement and the independent music scene produce software/music that is more plentiful, quite often better quality and more widely available.

Which are you interested in supporting?

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Moving Mom to Ubuntu 7.04 from Windows XP

My own move from Windows XP to GNU/Linux was quite experimental and somewhat complicated, as I was using a dual-boot system for a while, and as such I don’t have a great recollection of everything I’ve done throughout the switch.

But now I’m in the process of moving my mother (amongst other friends and family members) over to GNU/Linux, so I’ll attempt a more thorough recounting of the process here.

(NOTE: This guide is intended for users who are somewhat independent as I may skim over some obvious detail in order to keep this relatively concise. I hope to piece together a decent comprehensive overview of a variety of things, but if you’re looking for thorough instructions you may want to supplement this with other guides.)

Windows XP Files

These are the files we needed to copy from Windows XP. We just stored them on an external drive for the transfer.

  • C:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\ – her main files
  • C:\Documents and Settings\username\Desktop – can’t forget the files left on the desktop
  • C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\ – bookmarks, extensions, saved passwords, etc.
  • C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles\ – email, extensions

I’ll explain where we put these files on her new machine a bit later.

Installing Ubuntu 7.04 Feisty Fawn

Feisty is really easy to install with most computers. On my mom’s new Thinkpad X60, I was able to boot from the Live CD (which you can download here) using the docking station (which contains the optical drive, since the machine doesn’t have one on board) without a problem. Installation took about half an hour and the most difficult decision I had to make was the username – first name or first initial last name? Somehow, I managed to get through that difficult moment, settling on the latter option.

(Though there’s only a slim chance you’ll run into any troubles, unless you’re installing on a new machine without any user data on it, you should definitely backup. The boot process involves partitioning/formatting your hard drive, which is serious stuff, so in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, you don’t want to lose any important data.)

Feisty’s restricted drivers manager provided support for the Intel Wireless card. Though it’s a shame to have to use non-free drivers, I’m thankful that they were made easily available because that certainly would have been a deal-breaker. Better that she is using free software in GNU/Linux now (with hope for free drivers in the future) than still running Windows.


Here’s a list of the applications she will be using:

  • Firefox: internet browser (already in use on Windows)
  • Thunderbird*: mail client (replacing Outlook Express)
  • OpenOffice: productivity suite – word processor, speadsheets, presentations (replacing Microsoft Office)
  • JPilot*: palm pilot desktop organizer (replacing Palm Desktop)
  • Banshee*: music player – syncs to digital audio devices (replacing iTunes in Windows)
  • Gnucash*: accounting application (replacing Microsoft Money)
  • Project Manager*: project management software (replacing Microsoft Project)

(* = These programs are not installed by default in Ubuntu, but are easily installed from the repositories – see Applications->Add/Remove)

For Firefox and Thunderbird, I transferred her profiles from Windows to Ubuntu. If you’re using a different browser/email client (e.g. Internet Explorer or Outlook (Express)), it’s best to download Firefox/Thunderbird in Windows and use the import feature to convert your data to the Mozilla format before copying the files over (which is exactly what I did with Thunderbird). Then, actually transferring profiles from Windows to GNU/Linux is rather trivial – a simple copy and paste.

In OpenOffice, I tweaked some settings. To increase performance, I followed this tutorial. I am a strong believer in the Open Document Format, but I showed her how to read/write documents in the proprietary Microsoft Office format for the purpose of sharing documents with those who are still stuck in the cave.

One problem we did encounter with OpenOffice was with Impress’ (slide show application) templates. There were only a few installed by default, but I was able to find a slew of others with a few quick online searches. However, it would have been nicer if there was a wider variety of templates included by default. Also, there is a bug in a recent update which crashes OpenOffice when switching the design template on an existing presentation! This bug was reported on Launchpad already though, and hopefully it will be fixed soon.

With JPilot, some simple configuration readied the application to sync with my mom’s Palm Treo 650 after installation (“sudo apt-get install jpilot”).

Banshee is a great program to use. It syncs with an iPod almost as easily as iTunes and supports other digital audio players as well. The one setting you may want to change though is the encoder (Edit->Preferences->Output Format). OGG Vorbis is a far superior format to MP3 (technically, ethically and legally), but not many digital audio players support it yet. If you’re syncing to a digital audio player, you may need to use MP3. Otherwise, I highly recommend using OGG Vorbis.

Gnucash was easily installed from the repositories. We did a quick check to make sure that it supported the file format that our bank provides through its online service. Both the bank and Gnucash support a variety of formats, so we had no problems.

My mom hasn’t had a chance to explore project management software yet.

Post-Installation Configuration

As my mother is a relatively non-technical user, I tweaked a few of the system preferences for her after installation.

First, I changed the login screen so that she could click on her username rather than having to type it in. System->Administration->Login Window, then select the ‘Local’ tab, and I chose “Human List”.

Next, I enabled Desktop Effects (System->Preferences->Desktop Effects) to put her workspaces on a cube. Since she’s coming from the Windows world and is unfamiliar with the concept of workspaces, the cube was extremely helpful for her to visualize the workspaces so that she can better understand their use. I also showed her some basic Compiz shortcuts that she could take advantage of. To my surprise, I’ll often walk by her office and see her using Ctrl+Alt+Left/Right to switch between workspaces. Ctrl+Alt+Down is also useful for workspace switching, and Ctrl+Alt+Up and Alt+Tab are useful for switching between windows.

I setup her Google Talk account in Gaim and added Gaim to the startup session (System->Preferences->Sessions, Startup Tab, Add, command is ‘gaim’) so that we can use gaim to communicate for tech support when she’s at the office or traveling.

I also helped her to customize her Theme/Desktop Background (System->Preferences->Theme,System->Preferences->Desktop Background) to help give her some ownership of the machine and feel comfortable in her new surroundings.

The printer she users was easy to install as I’d already installed it on several other Ubuntu machines in the house.

I used for instructions on how to install additional multimedia codecs and enable DVD playback capability.

Unfortunately, though many of the keyboard hot keys worked without any configuration, the Fn+F7 LCD button on the keyboard was not working. I first installed the i810switch (“sudo apt-get install i810switch”), which I unfortunately had to build from source in order to implement a bug fix (the fix will be part of the next version of Ubuntu in October though, I’d imagine). Then I used the gconf editor to setup the keyboard shortcut in the Compiz settings, as she uses her laptop for presentations often.

Overall, the transition was relatively smooth, but the couple bugs we encountered took some time to work through. Now we have much more control over her computer, thousands of powerful free applications at her fingertips from the Ubuntu repositories, and a much better (technically, ethically and monetarily) long-term software solution for her computing needs.

My mom was the third of seven people (with more to come) who I’ve switched over to GNU/Linux variants in the last few months. Why not give it a try?

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Moving Firefox/Thunderbird Profiles

This example will involve moving a profile from Windows XP to Ubuntu 7.04, but the basic idea can be used to move profiles around in many other scenarios.

Step 1: Find Your Files

In Windows XP, look in:
Firefox: C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles
Thunderbird: C:\Documents and Settings\<username>\Application Data\Thunderbird\Profiles

You should find a sufficiently cryptic folder (e.g. “b455b37.default”). You can check inside to see if it has the data you want (ie. bookmarks.html for Firefox, a Mail subfolder for Thunderbird, etc.). That’s your profile folder, the one you’ll need to copy in step two.

Step 2: Copy Your Files

In Ubuntu:
Firefox: ~/.mozilla/firefox/Profiles/
Thunderbird:: ~/.mozilla-thunderbird/

There are two options: (1) replace the contents of the existing profile directory with the contents of the profile directory from your Windows machine; (2) delete the existing profile directory and copy your entire profile directory from Windows in its stead.

The easiest way to copy files is probably to use a USB key, but it doesn’t really matter.

Step 3: Profiles.ini

If you chose option (1) above, then you need to edit ‘profiles.ini’ to update the path to your profile (since the directory name has changed). You’ll need to open up ‘profiles.ini’ in a text editor.

gedit ~/.mozilla/firefox/profiles.ini

gedit ~/.mozilla-thunderbird/profiles.ini

(If you’re copying to Windows, just use Notepad to edit the file.)

Inside profiles.ini, you’ll need to update the ‘Path’ to reflect the new name of your profile directory:


Save the file, open the application and check to make sure your data is there. That’s it!

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Goodbye Windows

I can now officially say I’m running a single-boot GNU/Linux machine. I wiped my Windows XP partition today – good riddance!


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