Free Agent: Mo' Beta Builds

I didn't mean for things to work out this way, but the topic for the month is "great things that are currently in beta, but won't be for much longer." On the docket: 2.0 and the "Hoary Hedgehog" release of Ubuntu Linux. Let's start with the office suite and then move on to the Linux-specific stuff. Plays Well With Others is becoming well-known enough that I expect this may be the last time I provide a bit of context for those of you who've been hiding under rocks.

When Sun Microsystems bought the StarOffice suite of applications several years ago, the company licensed most parts of it under an Open Source license and kick-started the community. development is driven by Sun, with added participation by coders at other companies and even a few stalwart volunteers. Following a stable release of the suite, Sun bundles it up with a few extras and a support package, and voilà, you have the latest and greatest StarOffice, a commercial offering. 2.0, which recently went into an official public beta release, represents an enormous step forward for the office suite that comes preinstalled on most Linux distributions (the current release is 1.1.4).

First and foremost, the suite now inherits the look-and-feel of the desktop it's running under, so it no longer sticks out like a sore thumb visually. This is a cross-platform behavior: If you're running under the Gnome desktop environment on a Linux box, then it will inherit the current Gnome theme, use standard Gnome Open and Save dialog boxes, and so forth. If you fire the suite up under Microsoft Windows, it will look like a Windows app, sport Windows file dialog boxes, respond nicely to drag-and-drop, and genuinely behave like a Windows app.

I've been using development builds of 2.0 since last autumn, always saving documents to Microsoft Office formats since that's the standard here at PC World HQ. In that time, I've had only a couple of small problems sharing documents with coworkers using Microsoft Office. We're talking about very slight formatting inconsistencies, here--not anything that prevented work from getting done.

Here's a tip for those of you who are stuck in a Microsoft-dominated workplace like mine: Set your apps to always save to Microsoft formats. Select Tools, Options. In the dialog box that pops up, select "General" from the "Load/Save" section on the left. Now look to the "Default file format" setting on the right. To make word processing documents always save as Microsoft Word .doc files, select "Text document" under "Document type," and then choose Microsoft Word 97/2000/XP from the Always save as drop-down list. Similarly, to save all spreadsheets as Excel .xls files, select the "Spreadsheets" document type, and Always save as, Microsoft Excel 97/2000/XP.

A Few Snags

There's only one feature in which will completely fail you in its attempts to be compatible with Microsoft Office: macros. Microsoft Office uses Visual Basic for Applications as its macro language; uses a similar form of Basic, but with different objects and methods. Consequently, a macro written in one suite has to be rewritten to work in the other. If a document that depends on macros is going to be shared, everyone must get with the same program--literally. I've got a spreadsheet here at the office that I would like to spruce up with a macro to apply color coding to certain cells based on certain criteria, but I've switched to and am not looking back, while my colleagues are still using Microsoft Office. So for now, in that spreadsheet that I share every day, everything will just have to stay black and white.

You might assume that's interface more or less mirrors that of Microsoft Office, but this is actually not the case. If you've been using Microsoft Office for so long that its menus have become second nature to you, you will hit a few snags when you start working with An example: In Excel, if you want to alter the headers and footers that print on your sheets, you select File, Page Setup. In the counterpart Calc, you select Format, Page. If you ask me, a formatting command fits better in a Format menu than a File menu anyhow, but the point is that during your first few weeks of working with, you may spend some time fishing around for things that you know must be around somewhere. 2.0 is scheduled to go final in April; if you want to beat the rush, download the 2.0 Beta from the site. I've used this edition on both Windows and Linux, and have found it to be dependably stable.

Ubuntu: Friendly and Free

Ubuntu Linux burst onto the scene in 2004. It is closely tied to the nonprofit Debian project, a Linux distribution beloved by many hard-core Linux fans. Debian releases are few and far between: If you want cutting-edge components such as the latest-and-greatest release of Gnome, you have to commit to running the "testing" or even the "unstable" branch of Debian, which is in constant flux and may not function properly on any given day.

Ubuntu, however, aims for a new stable release twice each year, based on the spiffy stuff that appears in Debian's testing and unstable branches. Ubuntu has a penchant for alliterative nicknames for its releases: Last fall gave us the "Warty Warthog" edition; the "Hoary Hedgehog" release (version 5.04 if you want to be square about it) is now in beta and should be finalized shortly.

Ubuntu is sponsored by a British company named Canonical, which tells us that ubuntu is an "ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others.'" The Ubuntu home page makes the relationship between the project and the company quite clear: "Canonical will not charge licence fees for Ubuntu, now or at any stage in the future. Canonical's business model is to provide technical support and professional services related to Ubuntu." Elsewhere on that same page, you'll find several pledges like these: "Ubuntu will always be free of charge, and there is no extra fee for the 'enterprise edition', we make our very best work available to everyone on the same Free terms. . . . Ubuntu includes the very best in translations and accessibility infrastructure that the Free Software community has to offer, to make Ubuntu usable by as many people as possible."

This approach gives me warm, fuzzy feelings, but that's not the only reason to like Ubuntu. This is a Gnome-based distribution (KDE is not a supported option) that takes user friendliness very, very seriously.

A Well-Ordered Desktop

Let's begin with the menus at the top of the default Ubuntu screen: Applications is your Start menu equivalent, and it's split into just a few straightforward categories.

The second menu, Places, houses entries like Computer, Network Servers, and even 130MB Removable Media (when I plugged in my USB keychain drive). The Places menu makes desktop icons for devices unnecessary; so by default, there are no icons on the Ubuntu desktop. Any icons there will be things you've put there--thus, the desktop becomes a space dedicated to works in progress, as it should be.

Synaptic is Ubuntu's interface for adding and removing applications. Like all of Ubuntu's administration tools, it's both friendly and powerful.
Synaptic is Ubuntu's interface for adding and removing applications. Like all of Ubuntu's administration tools, it's both friendly and powerful.
The third menu, System, has submenus for Preferences (user settings) and Administration (system settings), plus commands for logging out and such. Administration is where you'll find several custom apps, and they're all extremely intuitive--every bit as nice as their counterparts in Fedora Core, though not as comprehensive. (Remember, a key place where Linux distributions vary is how they let you tweak the system.) After spending time with Ubuntu's Administration tools, I never want to see the Mandrake Control Center again.

I mentioned Network Servers in the Places menu. I selected that option on my test machine, which is connected to the Windows network here at PC World HQ. I've lamented several times before how crummy Gnome generally is at connecting to Windows networks, so I was amazed when Ubuntu popped up an icon pointing at the various servers I wanted to access. When appropriate, I was prompted for my network user name and password, and then given the option to save these user name/password pairs for later use. Before long I was browsing all around the network with Gnome's Nautilus file manager. That's extremely cool, and exactly the way it should be.

The only thing I don't like about Ubuntu is that, like Fedora Core, it lacks multimedia functionality out of the box. Ubuntu doesn't know how to rip or play MP3 files, or read a DVD, unless you install some unsupported system components. The reason for this is simple: These technologies are encumbered by license restrictions that Canonical doesn't want to touch. After all, this sort of thing can get expensive, and the company is trying to offer its software free to all comers while also building a viable business. (Yes, it can be done.) So you've got some work to do if you want MP3 and DVD support. Luckily, the work's not hard, and the necessary packages are kept up-to-date by kind souls who want to play movies and listen to music just like you do. If you're going to give Ubuntu a shot, just know going in that you've got these tasks in store.

Disk Imaging for Free

Next up on my to-do list is installing the Hoary Hedgehog on my trusty IBM Thinkpad. This is an effort I approach with trepidation: Several distributions have failed to play nice on that machine, and one of them was the previous version of Ubuntu, which didn't like the laptop's power management routines. (The machine is several years old; it does not support ACPI power management, and its APM implementation seems a bit off.)

Anyway, the point is, I want to give the new Ubuntu a shot, but I also want to be able to get back to the status quo--a severely hacked-up Mandrake 10.1 that's working reasonably well--if all hell breaks loose.

Luckily, I discovered g4u, a Free utility that boots from CD and will image an entire hard disk or a single partition (your choice) to a file on another machine. You don't need any special software on the second machine, just an FTP server. Any Linux distribution worth its salt provides one of those, as does Windows XP Professional.

So you pop your g4u disc into a drive, boot it, point it at a hard drive or a partition, and tell it what server to save the drive or partition image to. G4u uses a command-line interface, so it doesn't offer point-and-click simplicity. But there are only a few different commands available, and the program provides useful error messages if you do something wrong or if something bad happens (if the connection to the FTP server is lost, for instance), so it's easy enough to feel your way along. Don't neglect the tip at g4u's site for keeping the size of your image files small.

I've now got a file on my desktop PC at home that represents all the data on my Thinkpad's hard drive. So if my latest Ubuntu experiment doesn't work out, I'll pop g4u back into the Thinkpad's drive and have it pull the old data back into place, as though nothing ever happened.

Have you taken the Free Software plunge? Have a gripe or a success story to share? Send it in to PC World's Free Agent. Other thoughts relating to Linux and Open Source are welcome too, of course. Speak Freely!
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