Room for Improvement
This month's column was supposed to be a look at openSUSE 10.2. Here's what I have to report thus far: openSUSE 10.2 is the only distribution that has stubbornly refused to install on my current test machine, an older Dell Dimension 8100 desktop. Earlier versions of SUSE installed just fine on this same PC; likewise, Fedora, Mandriva, Xandros, Linspire, and Ubuntu Linuxes have all lived happily on it.
I can also report that the openSUSE forums are friendly and responsive--I was helped past my first installation roadblock within a few short hours. But one obstacle has led to another, and so far I'm nowhere near the finish line.
I suppose this could be considered a knock against my contention last month that Linux hardware support is rock solid. On the other hand, this issue seems to be some oddball regression peculiar to the SUSE installer--so one thing I would like to see in 2007 is the SUSE installer regaining its former strength.
That wish got me to thinking about other things I would be happy to see on the Linux front in 2007. Here's the rest of my current wish list. (Please feel free to add your own wishes in the Comments section below.)
First up: Desktop search. Two years back I crowed about how Linux users were getting built-in desktop search capabilities before Windows users. I'm here now to say that while we may have gotten there first, what we have still isn't first-class.
Beagle has been around for a good long time, but critics frequently peg it as a resource hog. Upstart Tracker claims to be a serious but svelte alternative (and looks to be headed toward inclusion by default in the next version of Ubuntu, known as "Feisty Fawn"), but it was a severe performance drag on my main Ubuntu desktop.
My personal gripe with both programs: I can't get either of them to index my e-mail, despite the fact that my mail client (Pine) stores the messages as standard Unix mailbox files (in plain text!) in a folder called 'mail'. I want smarter desktop search than this, and I want it now. I'm hoping that Beagle, Tracker, or some other solution I've not yet discovered steps up to the plate in 2007.
A Sweeter Suite
Next on my list is OpenOffice.org. I'm glad we have a Free office suite, I really am. But being dependent on OO.o can be a real drag--especially if you're running it under Linux, where it takes half the morning to start up, and the only noise the suite can make (to remind you to save your document, for instance) is a beep through your PC's internal speaker.
Yes, most Microsoft Office documents import splendidly, but the sort that don't do so haven't for years, with no improvement. The OO.o project itself provides no easy means for users to submit feedback; just try to find a way to file a bug about how OO.o Writer completely hoses a .doc file's layout. And don't even get me started about the program's labyrinthine Options dialog box. That thing might have been excusable back when Microsoft's Office 97 was the main competition, but no longer.
Recently a big hue and cry arose over at Slashdot when Groklaw (a site that covers the intersection of Free Software and the law) declared that Novell's latest contribution to OO.o--a set of libraries for interoperability with the new, craptacular XML-based file format used by Office 2007--amounts to a fork, a new product built from an existing, Free code base. It's no such thing, but I sometimes wonder if it isn't high time that we got an honest-to-goodness OO.o fork.
In the Slashdot discussion, some geeks pointed out that most Linux distributions already ship versions of OO.o that are heavily patched with various fixes and enhancements--isn't that a starting point? When the XFree86 project grew too slothlike to serve the needs of the community, X.org started a fork (the X.org Server), which is now the underlying GUI layer for most Linuxes.
Developing an OO.o fork would be harder, since the majority of active OO.o developers are still Sun employees. But despite efforts to speed up OO.o development, things continue to move at a pretty glacial pace, and the usability improvements that the suite has long needed don't seem to be anywhere on the horizon.
So, as far as my list of wishes goes, this item may be the least likely to come true, but I would like to see the OO.o project focus on speed and usability in the coming year, giving us at least one major upgrade with noticeable improvements that leave the suite feeling less like a relic from the final days of the 20th century.
Griping About Gnome
When I plug my MP3 player or my digital camera into one of my Ubuntu boxes, Gnome's Nautilus file manager lets me browse the device's files and folders. But if I decide to delete any of those files and folders, I have to be careful, or I fall victim to perhaps the nastiest Nautilus bug left in the wild. I need to enable the file manager's Delete command and use it rather than moving files and folders to the Trash, because using the Trash on removable devices doesn't actually delete the files--it just moves them to a hidden folder, reclaiming no space at all.
Gnome developers have kicked this bug around since March 2004, with no solution yet. I wonder how many new users this one has bitten. In 2007, I sincerely hope Nautilus will get smarter about trashing files on removable devices.
Working with archive files (.zip files and the more Unixy .tar.gz files, mostly) is pretty easy under Gnome. You can extract an entire archive lickety-split just by right-clicking it and selecting Extract Here; Gnome's File Roller app will then leap into action. But if you actually open the archive and try to drag folders out of it, another Gnome bug might bite you. This is File Roller's drag-and-drop bug, an oldie but not a goodie.
For nearly four years, the developers have tossed out various ideas for correcting this bug, but we still don't have a working fix. I still use the command line most of the time when I work with archive files, mainly to avoid File Roller. Here's hoping this bug gets squashed in 2007.
Next on the Gnome docket is not a bug per se, but a huge annoyance. I love using virtual desktops, but I want them to look different so that I feel I've "arrived" at a different place when I switch from desktop to desktop. The KDE environment has achieved this since its earliest days by letting the user assign different wallpaper to each desktop. (Most third-party virtual-desktop apps I've seen for Windows allow the same thing.)
This feature doesn't exist in Gnome, though users have been asking for it since 2001. There is a third-party utility that gets the job done...sorta. Wallpapoz has a pretty dismal interface, and is slow to do its wallpaper-switching magic: You click to another desktop, count a beat, and then watch your wallpaper change. In 2007, I deserve better. (Apparently Gnome also has issues with wallpaper on dual-monitor setups, but I don't have one of those yet, so no kvetching on that score now.)
Two Last Wishes
No, it's not Free, but I am glad that Adobe is finally providing Linux users with a modern Flash plug-in. Unfortunately, the latest betas still sport a terribly annoying bug.
You know those Flash ads that expand to a larger size when you hover over them? They're all over the Web these days, and the Linux version of the Flash player doesn't handle them correctly--when they're supposed to be in their small state (not covering up the content you're trying to read), you see empty white space where the expanded version of the ad will appear if you hover. In other words, contrary to the design of the ad, the content is covered up at all times if you're viewing the page under Linux. If I have to refresh Boing Boing repeatedly to get a nonexpanding ad one more time, I'm gonna scream. Please, Adobe, fix this before Flash 9's final release next year!
Lastly, I can't believe that after all this time, I still haven't found a decent personal-finance manager to run on my Linux machines. Yes, GnuCash was updated this past year, and it finally looks and behaves like a modern Gnome application, but it's still far from friendly and it requires the user to engage in double-entry accounting, which is overkill for someone just trying to track the money in a checking account.
Luckily, a new possibility is on the horizon. HomeBank has been around long enough to have started life on the Amiga platform (my ears perked up at that; my first computer was an Amiga 1000) and has a nice, GPL-ed Linux version cooking. But there's no support for importing data from your bank at this point, and I won't adopt the package until such functionality is in place. So my final wish for 2007 is for HomeBank to learn my bank's language and finally emerge as the Quicken replacement that Linux users have needed for quite some time.
Making Friends With GIMP
It's been more than five years since Grokking the GIMP was published, and that worthy volume on our favorite Free, cross-platform, Photoshop-esque app is looking a little long in the tooth these days, as it was never updated for GIMP 2.0. Luckily, publisher Rocky Nook now brings us GIMP 2 for Photographers.
This book packs a lot of instruction (and a ton of full-color screen shots) into just under 200 pages. The text has suffered a bit in translation from the original German, and though there are a few nods toward Linux and Mac users, other parts of the book are surprisingly Windows-centric, as when you're advised to enter 'C:\Windows\Temp' when GIMP asks you for a temporary directory. Still, the lessons here are useful, and I'm looking forward to using the book as a reference the next time I need to do some serious surgery on my photos.