Category Archives: Open Source Software

Ubuntu Tries to Do Away with Menus, Enter Heads Up Display, or HUD

Over the last few years, Canonical and Mark Shuttleworth have become extremely innovative about User Experience (UX). Ubuntu really has some UX experts in its team, and the kind of things that have been coming out of Canonical for the last few months shout out loud that Canonical is putting them to good use. The recent UX change for Ubuntu is “Heads Up Display” or HUD, and it surely looks like a good feature.

Heads Up Display, or HUD is a new way of interacting with applications, where you do not go through multiple menu hierarchies to reach a menu item. Instead, you simply type it and HUD will search it for you, in live. Moreover, HUD remembers what you typed last and prioritizes those commands in search results, so is also very fast for common tasks. It bridges the gap between the command line interface and application menus, and does it wonderfully.

As mentioned by Olli Ries in a blog post, who was once the Principal Director of engineering at Novell, and is one of the Product Strategy Engineering Managers at Canonical presently, plans for HUD were underway even before the last Ubuntu Developer Summit.

Google Open Sources Sky Maps in Collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University

Back in 2009, when Android phones were not that powerful in hardware, there were very few apps as interesting as Google Sky Maps. Google Sky Maps was one of the best 20% projects at Google. However, the app always stayed a part of the 20% projects, and failed to gain popularity. It was launched in May 2009 for Android phones, and has been an astronomy-enthusiast’s favorite app. Our in-house science-geek Debjyoti speaks of Google Sky Maps as

The ancients have got to be jealous; you can now see the map of the entire Universe on your android phone, thanks to Google Sky Map.

Seeing stagnant growth for years, Google has decided to stop working on Google Sky Maps, and donate the app to the Carnegie Mellon University for further development. This is a welcome move in that they did not decide to kill it instead.

google-sky-maps

At Carnegie Mellon University, Google Sky Maps will be developed as a series of student projects. This will give students something to boast of, as well as ensure development of this stagnant product. Google Research blog announced this news, saying,

Today, we are delighted to announce that we are going to share Sky Map in a different way: we are donating Sky Map to the community. We are collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University in an exciting partnership that will see further development of Sky Map as a series of student projects.

This has sparked an intriguing discussion on Slashdot, on whether we can rely on 3rd-party cloud services for creating our applications. With Google withdrawing many of its services like Picnik and Needlebase, there is no guarantee that other providers will find it necessary to make their services available continuously. Only if you are lucky enough, like in case of Google Sky Maps or App Inventor, Google makes them open source and available for further development. However, if the services fails to gain popularity, Google decides to kill it with a few months’ notice, and those few months is all you have to shift base, in case you have based your business around that service.

Linux Foundation Predicts a Rocking Year for Linux in the Enterprise Sector

Linux has tried gaining a respectable position (by market-share) in the desktop world, and has failed for years. Apparently, not many people want to use Linux until they have something specific to do with Linux. Linux is not the first choice for many and this second-class status is going to stay as long as OEMs keep choosing Windows to be shipped with their laptops and desktops.

open-source

However, nothing beats Linux when it comes to the enterprise sector. The enterprise sector is the playground of Linux, and its adoption has been on a constant rise in this sector. Recently, the Linux Foundation revealed some trends, gathered from a survey conducted among enterprise users. There has been a rapid growth for data handled by the enterprise sector, and Linux is their first choice for handling big data requirements.

In the survey, over 80% of the enterprise users have expected an increase in the number of Linux-based over the next five years. However, a welcome change is the survey on perceived technical-barriers in these deployments, which has dropped to 12.2% from 20.3% last year. As always, more than 2/3rd of the participants considered Linux safer than other operating systems. The top three reasons for adopting Linux were:

  • Lower cost
  • More features
  • Security
  • In-house talent pool
  • No vendor lock-in
  • Openness

The 428 participants in the survey were employees of companies with $500 million in sales, or an employee-strength of over 500. It would be wonderful if this survey result translates into market-penetration.

You can get a copy of the survey result, at Linux Foundation.

X.org vulnerability allows for locked screen to be bypassed by pressing key combination

An enterprising user has reported to seclists.org mailing list a very easy way to bypass a screen locked by a user – by merely hitting few keystrokes.

The user, going by pseudonym Gu1, has reported that by pressing Control + Alt + * (the asterisk key on the numpad) instantly kills most lock screen programs including gnome-screensaver, kscreenlocker, slock and slimlock, amongst others. Further discussion on the mailing list confirms the vulnerability and has been given a CVE id of CVE-2012-0064 by the Red Hat security team.

Further digging from the git sources indicates that all X.org server versions upwards of 1.10.99.902 seem to be affected. To test whether or not you’re affected, just lock your screen and press Ctrl + Alt + * (note: you’ll have to hit the * key on the Numeric keypad, not on numbers on top of the QWERTY row.)

If you’re on Ubuntu Oneric Ocelot, i.e, Ubuntu 11.10, then this won’t affect you since Ubuntu 11.10 runs on X.org version 1.10.4.

As a temporary workaround, commenting

interpret XF86_Ungrab {
action = Private(type=0x86, data=”Ungrab”);
};
interpret XF86_ClearGrab {
action = Private(type=0x86, data=”ClsGrb”);
};

lines from your xfree86 file ( typically found in /usr/share/X11/xkb/compat/ directory) and then running

setxkbmap $(setxkbmap -query | grep layout | awk '{print$2}')

should fix this for now.

Schools in Kerala Save $10,000,000 Per Year, Using Open Source Software

When it comes to adoption of open-source technologies in India, Kerala is way ahead of all other states. Kerala has some of the oldest FOSS groups of this country, and they have done a wonderful job migrating (or persuading to migrate) a large part of the state’s IT administration to FOSS technologies. In October last year, the state electricity board of Kerala saved a whopping $1.6 billion in IT bills, using Open Source technologies. This time though, Kerala has made a new record in IT savings with over $10 million saved using FOSS in educational institutes.

open-source

The state of Kerala has achieved this marvelous feat by using an Open Source school management system called Fedena. The project of migration to Fedena was named Sampoorna, and it is described as

Sampoorna is the implementation of Fedena by Government of Kerala, India. Details of around 7million students from Standard 1 to 12, in over 15,000 schools in the State, will now be easily accessible to school authorities.

Other states in India have a lot to learn from Kerala. If we extrapolate from this data, we can arrive at a rough estimate of $300 million in savings if all Indian states adopt Open Source technologies, and this is considering only education! Clearly, there is a vast scope for saving IT expenses, and the Indian government should take this matter seriously.

Linux Kernel Doubles in Threee Years, Troubles Linus Torvalds

When the Linux kernel came out for the first time in September 1991, it had only 10,000 lines of code. It was elegant and was a revolutionary idea. Slowly, as it grew in popularity, the lines of code increased to 176,250 by March 1994. From there, The Linux kernel has been growing alarmingly. It reached 2.4 million lines of code in 2001, 10 million lines of code in 2008, and it will have over 15 million lines of code by its next stable release. Is this normal? Should we be worried?

This is definitely not normal growth. A large part of the Linux kernel carries code for legacy hardware. Besides that, drivers, file-systems and architecture-specific functionalities use three-fourth of the code. Documentation comments and blank lines fill more spaces. Perhaps it is the monolithic-kernel architecture of Linux, which is the reason for this bloat. It is time to revisit the Tanenbaum-Torvalds debate again.

linux-kernel-rise

Linus has already called the Linux kernel bloated earlier. This time, the real problem as spotted by Torvalds himself in an interview, is that

There are some parts in the Linux Kernel that very few people understand really well.

The only relieving news right now is that the Linux kernel version 3.0 will be a long-term release, with at least 2 years of support. Currently, this status is enjoyed by the kernel version 2.6.32 because of its use across long-term support versions of major distros.

Watch this funny video where Microsoft wishes Linux on its birthday.

A 360-Degree View of Ubuntu TV

Ubuntu has unveiled its next technology, which aims at enriching our TV viewing experience. This product competes with the likes of Google TV and Samsung Smart TV, and it is called the Ubuntu TV. If Canonical manages a partnership with the right OEMs, A TV with this application can hit the shelves by the end of this year. You can read about the Ubuntu TV release at this page.

Interesting Features

Ubuntu TV has some interesting features that impressed me.

Cable and Satellite support, online entertainment and program guides

Ubuntu TV will let you integrate your cable or satellite service. There will be an electronic program guide with support for both HD and SD content. Not only this, Ubuntu TV will let online content providers to provide a list of movies, music and TV shows from the Internet.

Enhanced screen support

Enhanced screens allow for an enriched viewing experience. Imagine how amazing it will be to watch the latest episode of your favorite series or event with a live feed from twitter, giving various reactions on the matter.

Suggestions and indexing

Perhaps, the single most important reason for going with Ubuntu TV is the amount of digital data it will have. This will allow for better recommendations and searching.

To simplify and streamline the experience we can prioritise what channels and shows have previously enjoyed, and even make suggestions on what else they might like. Ubuntu TV puts the world’s content at your fingertips in a simple interface.

Moreover, Ubuntu TV will also allow different users. So, your dad is not suggested channels based on your TV viewing habits, because your user account is different from his.

Ubuntu TV- TV for Human Beings, Revealed at CES 2012

Canonical has recently revealed a concept for a fully featured TV application, based on Ubuntu. It is known as the Ubuntu TV, and has been revealed at CES 2012. Ubuntu TV competes directly with Google TV in its attempt to redefine the entertainment experience on television. It has some amazing features and the first commercial appearance of the TV is expected by the end of this year.

From the CEO’s Desk

In an interview with PC Pro, Canonical CEO Jane Silber says,

It is a simple viewing experience for online video, both your own and routed over the internet. OEMs and ODMs are increasingly wary of the walled garden [approach] that certainly Apple takes – and increasingly Google, although it is much more open than Apple. We see a lot of demand for a neutral player.

Jane Silber knows Canonical is up against Google and Apple with this technology, and therefore, it are offering the software free of charge to gain a competitive edge. The source code for Ubuntu TV will be released later today, allowing developers to customize and modify it, as they want. Jane Silber takes pride in saying “Ubuntu TV will provide viewers with a neutral player”.

Overview

Ubuntu TV will let you stream media content like music, videos an photos from your PC to your TV. You can search, watch, record and play streaming videos. It will also allow media sharing with portable devices using Ubuntu One. You can also share your screen with tablets and smartphones. Like the Software Center in Ubuntu, Ubuntu TV will have an online store where developers can submit their apps for Ubuntu TV. Besides, the application will be controlled with a smartphone or with a TV remote.

Ubuntu TV for Content Providers and Hardware manufacturer

Canonical is calling the technology a Smart TV. Canonical will need to partner with OEMs to enter into production with this new product. This can be an excellent deal for TV manufacturers, now that global content distribution rules, OS development and software engineering  will be handled by Canonical completely.

Verdict

This is Canonical’s first attempt to move beyond the PC. However, this technology of  smart TV has only seen sluggish growth so far, and there is definitely something wrong with the feeble attempts that everyone is making at enriching our TV viewing experience. In spite of a strong marketing force, Google TV has not reached many houses yet.

Initial markets of interest for this product will be the US and China. Canonical plans to extend it to the UK later. However, these markets will prove to be profitable only when Canonical makes local-content deals.

Patches for Several Firefox Security Vulnerabilities Appear in Launchpad

A few days ago, several medium and low priority security-related bugs were handled for Firefox and many other Mozilla applications. These bugs affected all versions of Firefox from version 4, and all versions of Thunderbird from version 5. All patches for all these bugs were added to Launchpad.

While some of these attacks caused the application to crash, others would allow execution of arbitrary code through JavaScript. As Ubuntu’s LTS releases are supported for long periods, fixes for these bugs were released for Ubuntu 8.04, and also for Ubuntu 10.04, Ubuntu 10.10, Ubuntu 11.04 and Ubuntu 11.10.

The Ubuntu Security Notice on this page lists down all the vulnerabilities that were addressed with updated Launchpad patches.

Alexandre Poirot, Chris Blizzard, Kyle Huey, Scoobidiver, Christian Holler,
David Baron, Gary Kwong, Jim Blandy, Bob Clary, Jesse Ruderman, Marcia
Knous, and Rober Longson discovered several memory safety issues, which
could possibly be exploited to crash Firefox or execute arbitrary code as
the user that invoked Firefox. (CVE-2011-3660)

Aki Helin discovered a crash in the YARR regular expression library that
could be triggered by JavaScript in web content. (CVE-2011-3661)

It was discovered that a flaw in the Mozilla SVG implementation could
result in an out-of-bounds memory access if SVG elements were removed
during a DOMAttrModified event handler. An attacker could potentially
exploit this vulnerability to crash Firefox. (CVE-2011-3658)

Mario Heiderich discovered it was possible to use SVG animation accessKey
events to detect key strokes even when JavaScript was disabled. A malicious
web page could potentially exploit this to trick a user into interacting
with a prompt thinking it came from the browser in a context where the user
believed scripting was disabled. (CVE-2011-3663)

It was discovered that it was possible to crash Firefox when scaling an OGG
<video> element to extreme sizes. (CVE-2011-3665)

You can find more about these vulnerabilities in the Ubuntu CVE tracker with the numbers 3658, 3660, 3661, 3663 and 3665. For Ubuntu 11.10 users, a Firefox 9 patch is available at this link. Alternatively, you can update your system with the latest version of all packages. Once the update is done, do not forget to restart Firefox, to apply the patch.

Google App Inventor- an Ambitious Project That Met an Untimely Death, Only to Be Resurrected Soon at MIT

When Google App Inventor came out, Google advertised it as a groundbreaking Android app-development platform. One could integrate components to create awesome apps, or so it seemed from the promotional videos. However, it was a lesser-known fact at that time that the App Inventor project would die soon.

Nowadays, the App Inventor page reads,

App Inventor for Android lets people create apps for Android phones by manipulating programming blocks in a web browser.    Since July 2010, Google has run App Inventor as a large-scale public web service as a part of its Google Labs suite.  With the wind down of Google Labs, as of December 31, 2011, Google ended support of App Inventor.

Google pulled the plug on App inventor back in August, but it will live on as a MIT project. Google Research is funding the App Inventor project, and the Center for Mobile Learning is managing it at MIT. The App Inventor project was open sourced and was removed from under the umbrella of Google product. However, App Inventor has been left high and dry at present with no visible future, in spite of promises. At present, the only way to run App Inventor is to run it on the Google Apps Engine. Alternatively, you can setup your own App Inventor service using this guide.

It is interesting to note that App Inventor is based on Open Blocks, which is a MIT product itself. With untimely deaths of products like these, it is extremely demoralizing to trust a vendor and traverse up a learning curve only to find that it was all in vain. The App Inventor project will take some time, until it is back up again.

Linux Mint Aims to Take Gnome Beyond MGSE, Planning a New Desktop Environment Called Calls Cinnamon

Nowadays, it is a well known fact that everyone in the Linux world is parting ways with Gnome 3. Even Canonical has preferred Unity to Gnome 3 for the last two Ubuntu releases, believing its users will master the steep learning curve of Unity. Linus Torvalds himself has given up on Gnome 3 and clearly, Gnome 3 is not the desktop environment of the future. To clear this desktop environment confusion and save the world, Clement ClemLefebvre from the Linux Mint project has decided to create a usable Gnome Shell called Cinnamon.

Linux Mint 11 shipped with Gnome 2. However, this time, Linux Mint 12 featured Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE), which was the first step away from Gnome for Mint. Although MGSE used an underlying layer of Gnome 3, it was skinned heavily with extensions. MGSE was received well as it makes the desktop much more usable.

Clem writes on the Linux Mint forum saying,

I am not going to argue whether Gnome Shell is a good or a bad desktop. It’s just not what we’re looking for. The user experience the Gnome team is trying to create isn’t the one we’re interested in providing to our users. There are core features and components we absolutely need, and because they are not there in Gnome Shell, we had to add them using extensions with MGSE.

Cinnamon is still in alpha stage, but it carries the features that we saw in MGSE. It is based on the Gnome shell 3.2.1 and with Cinnamon, Linux Mint will bring something that competes with modern desktop environments like Unity, without compromising on usability. If everything goes well, Cinnamon will make its first appearance on Linux Mint 13.

XBMC 11.0 “Eden” Beta Appears Just in Time for the Holidays

XBMC is an excellent choice for a media player. It can be setup on your home-theater PC; it has support for a range of remotes and it is free and open source. XBMC was released back in 2003, and it has seen active development over the last eight years. The skinning engine of XBMC is state of the art, and XBMC supports audio files too. Overall, it is the perfect jukebox and home theater software, whether you are music or movie enthusiast.

xbmc-logo

The current stable version of XBMC is “Dharma“. XBMC has recently released a beta version of their next major release XBMC 11 codenamed “Eden” for this holiday season. This release is still in testing and will reach the final release in a few months.

This Eden release has sparked a long discussion on the XBMC forum. It seems that Eden still does not have HD audio support, which can be disappointing for audiophiles. However, it is speculated that the next release Frodo has a better chance of including HD audio support.

XBMC is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Apple TV and as a live ISO. You can learn more about XBMC here. If you want to try out XBMC 11.0 Beta 1, links can be found at this download page. Ubuntu users have to use the XBMC Unstable PPA; Windows users can download the file “xbmc-11.0-Eden_beta1.exefrom this directory, iOS users can find upgrade instructions here. However, for live ISO users, there will not be a beta release.

Android Mainlining Project Takes Android Back to the Source

Just in case you didn’t know, Android is built atop the Linux kernel. A few patches here, a few branches there, pepper in some code, and Android was created. Unfortunately a lot of the patches were never sent upstream, this means some of the hard work done by the engineers at Google never made it out of the phones and into desktop or server hardware. The Android Mainlining Project aims to solve this.

Greg Kroah-Hartman, head of the Linux Driver Project, has created a new project with 3 major goals in mind.

  1.  To allow a developer to use the latest released version of the Linux kernel to run an Android system, without requiring patches to their kernel.
  2. To make it possible to develop drivers and board support features against either an Android kernel release or a kernel.org kernel release, with little or no modifications or conditional code.
  3. To reduce or eliminate the burden of maintaining independent patches from release to release for Android kernel developers.

This means all the Android-specific code that was purposely left out of kernel releases, will now be easier to implement and merge with the development branch of the 3.3 kernel. Systems like Android’s  logging, low memory kills  and wakelock power management will be branched-in, allowing for more hardware access to third party boards and systems with memory or power restraints.

In an e-mail to the Embedded Linux Kernel mailing-list, Tim Bird,  Architecture Group Chair, CE Workgroup of the Linux Foundation, states that the project was born after discussion and re-evaluation code from Android. With a current stable kernel of 3.19, mainline at 3.2-rc7, there are only a few dot-releases before the project aims to be completed.

Numerous volunteers have signed up for the project, and many have started to contribute patches and code for smooth integration. Without support from Google and AOSP, it’s highly unlikely that both kernels will ever reach parity, but this is quite an excellent start in order to bridge the gap and create a unified kernel that will benefit all users.

The GPL Family of Licenses Sees a Decline in Adoption

Richard M  Stallman, better known as RMS has been the lone crusader, in the world of Open Source for a long time. He is popular for his remarkable work with the GNU Project, and the GPL family of licenses. Although the GNU Project has failed to release a GNU build on time, but it has given the world a wonderful software  license-  the GPL. GPL is a unique free-software license, because it enforces freedom by ensuring that all software using GPL licenses are open-source themselves.

This sounds good in theory. However, there is a valid counter-argument against GPL. While GPL enforces freedom in essence, it restricts developers from using GPL licensed codes, because they fear losing their source codes to competitors. This steers them to other less restrictive licenses, or even worse, forces them to reinvent the wheel. Maybe GPL needs  to be  this aggressive to survive after all, but this restrictive nature has distanced GPL from the developer, and GPL has started seeing a decline in adoption.

According to a study conducted by The 451 Group,

The figures indicate that not only has the usage of the GNU GPL family of licenses (GPL2+3, LGPL2+3, AGPL) continued to decline since June, but that the decline has accelerated. The GPL family now accounts for about 57% of all open source software, compared to 61% in June.

Google itself uses many GPL licensed software, but does not release the source, because it does not redistribute those software. This makes GPL excellent for in-house development and ensures that the GPL code is only used for internal services, but not for developing commercial services or products.

If this decline in GPL’s share continues, GPL licenses will account for less than 50% of the total share of Open Source projects, a year from now. Perhaps GPL is too ambitious a license, given the fact that GNU itself could not release a build, which was fully GPL. GNU uses X Window System, a large part of which  is released  under the MIT license (less restrictive than GPL). Looking at  the  way the Linux kernel and the GNU Compiler Collection have survived the tides of time, it would be inappropriate to judge GPL based on the current scenario. Nonetheless, GPL adoption is declining and this fact cannot be ignored.

Ubuntu Software Center Adds PayPal Support to Payment Options

For any software center or app marketplace, integrating a payment mechanism involves managing fraud recognition and geographical tax constrains. Once these hurdles are crossed, it is merely a matter of technical integration. Ubuntu Software Center showcases some non-free games like Braid, that are extremely popular on other platforms. However, payment for purchase of paid games and apps has been a long-standing issue, for Ubuntu, because it supported only credit cards.

Following a discussion on AskUbuntu, I arrived at a page  on Ubuntu Brainstorm  a few months ago. It was a discussion on possible payment methods for Ubuntu Software Center with an ongoing voting. After almost six months, during which a tough battle ensued, support for PayPal payments beat third-party payment solutions by a small margin. PayPal support grabbed 127 votes, with bank plugins lagging behind at 120 votes. The idea has finally been implemented, and this brings in support for PayPal Payments in the Ubuntu Software Center, beside the regular Credit Card payment method.

All payments for app purchase are directed through “Ubuntu Pay”, a feature in the Ubuntu Software Center. After Ubuntu integrates  PayPal into the Software Center fully, users will be allowed to choose between Credit Card and PayPal payments before they proceed with the actual payment.

Canonical announced the integration saying,

It’s been a long time in development, but we’re finally drawing close to releasing Paypal support in Ubuntu Pay, the payment service behind Ubuntu Software Centre.  We’re aiming to launch this new feature before Christmas.

Not everyone might welcome this move, give the fact that it brings Ubuntu closer to closed-source and proprietary software. Moreover, PayPal’s shady business practices and steep exchange rates are not  appreciable  either. However, this PayPal integration will let Ubuntu application developers earn from worldwide app-sales in a hassle free way, and will attract new talents and developers to the Ubuntu app ecosystem.