Saturday, May 10, 2014

Is Canonical planning to take out Microsoft Office with OEM Kingsoft Office?

Here is a link to download the RPM for Kingsoft Office so you can try it, and not wonder if this is vaporware... it isn't.

Lately I've been seeing more and more buzz surrounding Kingsoft Office for Linux. KSO has been gaining a rather devoted following despite it's Linux port still being in alpha and not near to release. My first familiarity with Kingsoft Office was reading about their Android offering which has had rave reviews and a devoted following. Across all platforms, people praise it for its interface and its exceptional compatibility with Microsoft Office formatted documents. So with all the buzz, rumors, and conflicting information I wanted some clear answers for myself and to share with you. On May 5th I had the opportunity to interview Jin who serves as the Chief Software Architect for +Kingsoft Office .



Before I dive right into the things we addressed in the course of our interview, I wanted to give you a brief background for Kingsoft and their office software. For brevity I'll pull from Wikipedia.
Kingsoft was founded in 1988 by the JinShan company located in Hong Kong. JinShan is a manufacturer of IBM PCs and was founded in 1973. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kingsoft researched and developed word processors and other office applications, such as its flagship product, Word Processing System 1.0, which launched in 1989. Today, the latest version of Kingsoft Office 2013 is a freeware office suite which includes Kingsoft Writer, Kingsoft Presentation and Kingsoft Spreadsheet. Kingsoft has established collaborative relationships with Dell, Intel and IBM.

Jin mentioned that Kingsoft has attempted Linux ports in the past (2003, 2007, 2009), which did not succeed. Kingsoft Office (the Chinese market version is called WPS) has over 10 million lines of code, making this porting effort very significant. Complicating the porting effort further is the matter that over 600 dialogs are written in Delphi which needs to be rewritten, including the chart feature which many users have bemoaned the lack of.

So why though is Kingsoft making such a powerful effort to port their flagship office suite to Linux? The reasons Jin gives are interesting. "Firstly, *Nix is a large family of operating systems. Making our product for Windows only is not a good strategy. We once depended on Delphi, and have paid a price for this. So now we say to not put all of our eggs in one basket." Once bitten twice shy, they have come to be reticent of relying on proprietary technologies. I asked about +OpenOffice.org and +LibreOffice, "These are very powerful suites, but fall short in two major areas; the interface, and compatibility with Microsoft document formats." Elaborating on their emphasis of compatibility, he stated they had four dedicated teams working on compatibility with Microsoft formats exclusively. In response to the reports I've read saying that previous versions of Kingsoft Office were based on OpenOffice, "er... It's a rumour, KSO was never based on OpenOffice."

Though these are all philosophically sound reasons, I doubted it was so simple. Certainly we could use a better office suite (I used to work in zoning and entitlements, and wasted a lot of time trying to generate complex documents in LibreOffice) and I certainly can understand being wary of vendor lock in. Jin mentioned, "Linux deals" and I pried a bit further. "Last year, we have a deal from Canonical. They want to make a business version." Canonical whom makes the +Ubuntu distribution has purchased 5 million OEM licenses in order to do this. "They need an office similar to MS Office."

I think the implications for a KSO business version from Canonical could be huge. Clearly this means Kingsoft and Canonical are gunning for the big daddy of the office, Microsoft Office. But this could also mean Canonical is looking to move into the business and enterprise desktop market putting them in direct and formidable competition with the likes of +SUSE whom has been in this arena for a long time. Also, it may imply there could be a version for the Ubuntu Phone OS which could bring their devices into a realm of mobile business that has been largely the domain of +BlackBerry. Whatever the case is, I think it's good news for +Linux users everywhere and helps bring people who weren't able to transition to Linux due to the lack of Microsoft Office in a much better position to join us.

There has been a good amount of rumor saying that Kingsoft will release the code as open source for KSO. Considering how Kingsoft has learned to shy away from proprietary lock in, it might even seem plausible. However, when asked Jin stated "Free to use and distribute. Kingsoft Office is the only profitable product for us. Open source is a very dangerous choice for us. We will however release some source of our product such as emf support, we know the Linux community needs it also." With this in mind I asked what would happen to KSO for Linux when it's ready for official release and out of testing. "KSO for Linux is based on our Pro version, having the full set of functions. We will not change it, but the name will change to Community Version." So thankfully the Linux community will still be getting Kingsoft Office Pro without any feature regressions, and still offered as free to use and distribute.

They plan to bring important features such as charting, mail merge, and the ability to embed formulas in Writer documents. However, the challenges are significant. Besides the transition from Delphi, much of KSO relies on Microsoft APIs. "And too many thing out of our control, for example; we can't input formula in Kingsoft Writer. Why? Because we buy a formula editor on Windows Version. But they can not offer a Linux version. Mail merge is similar. We can not find a good data source on Linux."

Finally I asked how we in the Linux community can help, and if there is any message they would like to convey. "We need quality assurance." "We want to thank the Linux community for their support and enthusiasm. We are not the best yet, but we are working hard on it."

P.S. To install in +openSUSE is very simple. Simply download the RPM from their site and install as you would any RPM. In my test, everything works correctly. KSO checks for updates on launch, and will prompt you to download the newest available alpha version.

Friday, May 2, 2014

GNOME 3.12 arrives to openSUSE Tumbleweed, and it is fabulous

In late March 2012 I gave +openSUSE 12.1 a second chance with +GNOME 3 after having a horrible experience with the version of KDE that shipped in that version. By April 4th I was a true believer in the GNOME Shell and the new user experience paradigm that was evolving in GNOME 3. Indeed, each version of GNOME since has been more exciting than the last, bringing massive improvements in performance, stability, reliability, workflow, and aesthetics. Indeed, a true tribute to the GNOME developers is that I hadn't been so sold on an environment since I left Apple's Mac OS X behind in 2010. Each version of GNOME has shown refinements as dramatic as anything I'd seen in Mac OS X, but at a breakneck pace. The latest GNOME 3.12 is not merely an incremental improvement like previous versions, but rather a shocking advancement. In this article I will allude to some changes that happened in recent previous versions since they deserve comment.

Elegance

I love an elegant desktop. In my days as a Mac snob, I got quite used to having a refined, elegant, and unified theme for my desktop and it's applications. Each version of GNOME 3 has shown significant improvements to it's visual appeal. 3.12 however takes this so much further with a nearly compulsive attention to refined details, resulting in an aesthetic that would make Steve Jobs swoon. The expansion of HiDPI support is very welcome and rounds out these refinements making all text and interface elements use your native resolution to maximum advantage. The clean elegance of GNOME 3.12 and it's applications is peerless. It would be surpassingly tedious to enumerate these refinements, and so I'd rather leave it to your own exploration.

Shell Function

The Gnome Shell itself has seen some refinements in functionality. The all in one User Menu (in the upper right hand corner) has seen improvements, chief of which is the addition of Wired (ethernet) network settings and overall improvements to the way network connection is managed from there. Location services have also been added to this menu. GNOME upstream has added the ability for the user to create application folders in the overview. However, this feature relies on gnome-software which is not installed by default and requires the upstream branding for packagekit. This feature should be moved into the shell itself. Another nice addition (I'll admit I may simply not have noticed it in previous versions) is that you can initiate specific actions from applications directly via context menu from the applications overview.

Online Accounts

I originally was going to include this in the software section below, but there is so much that has changed that it merits its own section. Firstly, the support for things it had before such as Windows Live, Google, and Facebook is rock solid compared to older versions. Of note, the automatic launch of Empathy has been removed from GNOME in a previous version, though Online Accounts still works with it. I will briefly go over the types of accounts supported and what capabilities they enable.
  • Google has not changed much, though it does seem to have gained support for Google Cloud Print. You can still access your Drive documents in the GNOME Documents application.
  • Windows Live has seen massive improvements. You can now access your OneDrive documents through the GNOME Documents application, and it will also set up your email account (outlook.com for example) with Evolution mail. Most impressive though is that it actually works reliably and consistently.
  • Pocket formerly known as Read it Later has also been added, though it currently does very little. So far only 'Videos' makes use of Pocket as  a plugin to play your Pocket saved videos. Developers say they will add integration to Epiphany or 'Web' in a future release of the browser. 
  • Flickr is included and is used by the 'Photos' application. I read somewhere that it can be used in some special way for desktop wallpapers.
  • IMAP and SMTP accounts can be set up directly from here for use with Evolution mail.
  • I believe the above are the only truly new notables to 3.12, I encourage you to take a look and see if you discover something new. I can revise this later.

Software

GNOME 3.12 introduces some welcome changes and refinements to programs, as well as a few new ones. 
  • gnome-software is the app-store style interface (PackageKit frontend) in upstream GNOME. This is not installed by default in openSUSE. Besides installing software, the new user defined application folders in the shell are set up by this program. It can be installed in openSUSE, but appears to be broken as it repeatedly asks for authentication for setting a network proxy. However, I have no need of application folders since I merely search for whatever I want and find it's package management capability massively redundant in light of YaST and our own Software Search portal
  • Gedit is the default GNOME text editor since time immemorial. In 3.12 it has received a massive interface overhaul following the minimalist UI philosophy of GNOME 3. Despite the minimalistic new design overhaul, it appears that none of its familiar functionality has been removed. I like it.
  • Nautilus or 'Files' as it's labeled appears to have changed little, excepting that you may now connect to servers straight from the app menu on the activities bar. For me, this is a very welcome change since the last time I needed this functionality it had been entirely removed into a separate module that needed to be invoked from the CLI.
  • gnome-photos is not installed by default in openSUSE as the default photo manager, that distinction goes to the revered Shotwell. Photos however is a simple and elegant photo manager, now with Facebook integration through the GNOME Online Accounts. Likewise it also supports Flickr via the same mechanism.
  • Totem or 'Videos' as it is now labeled has seen a massive cosmetic makeover. Under the hood though, it sees a new plugin architecture for online video services. Notably, Online Accounts has support for Pocket and any saved videos there will be accessible in Videos.
  • Epiphany or 'Web' as it is labeled now has seen major changes both under the hood and cosmetically. The minimalistic UI gets out of your way enabling your content. Each tab now has it's own process, and so when one page crashes the rest of the browser will not be affected. In my testing of it, I've found it to be swift and reliable like no other non-mainstream browser before. I can for once see people actually using this browser. It also enables with a quick menu option the ability to save a page as a Web App that will then be added to your applications, launchable immediately from the shell. Support for Pocket should be added in a later version. When Epiphany is installed, it enables the ability to perform internet searches directly from the shell.
  • Polari is an early 'preview' application. Polari is the new GNOME upstream default IRC client. XChat for GNOME is shipped by default in openSUSE. Polari however is a beautiful and easy to use client, which immediately became my new favorite. Polari has excellent integration with the GNOME Shell, using Online Accounts and the notification and chat frameworks allowing you to see pending private messages in the lock screen, and responding to them directly from the shell notifications.
  • gnome-logs is a new system log viewer for GNOME. It is not shipped by default in openSUSE and is redundant since we have a YaST module for this purpose. It also appears that it does not yet work under openSUSE, likely due to wrong permissions. Though 'Logs' may not be an important application for us in openSUSE, it represents a significant step forward for less experienced users in any GNOME distribution since it makes it much easier to fulfill the request, "Ok, in order to help you I'm going to need a couple system logs."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Windows XP end of life, is openSUSE Linux the right choice?

Since Microsoft announced Windows XP end of service, +Linux  and Free Software enthusiasts have been dancing a celebratory jig and promoting Linux as the preferred upgrade path. Though a user can continue to use XP, Microsoft will no longer be releasing any updates to it and it will thus gradually become more insecure than it already was. Microsoft's recommendation is to migrate to Windows 8.1 or buy a new PC. Frankly, most people running XP have computers that are running up to being a decade old seeing as Vista became available late 2006. Linux is a common solution for people wanting to squeeze more life out of an old computer, but is it the right one?



In late 2011 I began working as an independent repair technician and IT consultant. Due to my unusually low prices and geography I typically get people running older hardware. Though I will work on solving issues with various Windows versions, I do attempt to upsell +openSUSE Linux to these clients where possible. I assess the clients needs, then their hardware to assure compatibility with Linux. If all checks out and the client gives me approval I'll migrate their data then install openSUSE and configure it (which usually means checking for known bugs and applying a work around) for immediate use for a fee, including limited support for one release cycle. The point of this story, is that more than most I know the challenges of bringing users from XP to Linux.

So is Linux the right choice for people fleeing Windows XP? Yes and no. Firstly one must assess the clients needs. Many of my clients are students, whom you'd assume would be a great match for Linux. However, many classes absolutely mandate the student have and use Microsoft Office and will be failed or unable to complete a course correctly if they don't. Naturally, such a case means Linux is absolutely out of the question. Another case can be such as musicians or artists whom require specific tools, such as a DAW or +Adobe Photoshop . So these potential users are restricted by their own habits as much as availability of specific software.

Next question would be, which Linux? In the enthusiasm to bring XP users to the fold, I've heard repeatedly that they should all be on +Ubuntu . First problem with that idea is the Unity desktop itself, which has problems on older hardware and won't render correctly thus rendering the computer largely unusable. In my experience with Ubuntu, I've found it's package management to be dismal as it is the only distribution I've used where a routine patch can break X which of course means the new user would be stuck without any sort of graphical interface whatsoever.

Unity is blatantly unsuitable for a new user purely from a compatibility and resource usage standpoint. When I first began migrating users to Linux, I would set them up with +KDE  since it has a very familiar interface with a task bar and 'start menu.' However the instability, bugginess, and immense configurability (which leads to over-complexity) proved to be too much for the new user and too much for me as I was constantly having to support the installation. After dealing with this for a while I decided on GNOME (which was version 2.x then) and migrated my clients to that, which resulted in much happier clients and an almost complete cessation of support calls. Even now, I'm still putting my clients on GNOME 3 which they have trouble with initially due to it's very unfamiliar design philosophy. They quickly adjust to the GNOME Shell, and often come to love it to the point that their ranting brings me more clients. A few clients with exceptionally weak hardware have been placed on +Xfce, and this has not led to any unusual support calls. Another unexpected consequence of KDE is that it was too familiar looking, and I saw users making more attempts to install software designed for Windows or trying to install Linux software by downloading and launching it than I see when they are on other environments.

Ideally, a new user should be able to use their computer as designed without having the system become unusable after an update. A new user also shouldn't be forced into fixing things from a command line early in their experience. This is largely why I use +openSUSE , and give it to my clients.

  • Libzypp is the backend for zypper and YaST package management. This provides (scientifically proven) superior dependency resolution, which of course greatly mitigates the potential for an update or other package operation causing damage to a working system.
  • YaST is our amazing modular setup and configuration tool. It's modular design allows it to give graphical interfaces for many system administration tasks from package management to security auditing and beyond. It also includes an ncurses front end which allows the familiarity and safety of YaST to still be usable from a command line in the event that X is down. On each module it includes a help button, which will offer concise and useful information on what the module does making YaST useful as a learning tool.
  • Snapper is a YaST module for use with the btrfs file system. Snapper allows you to easily check and reverse system changes that are logged and snapshotted as part of btrfs. Btrfs also prevents against data decay. Snapper can easily save the day by swiftly rolling back any destructive changes without the end users having to concern themselves with maintaining backups. See video here!
  • One-Click Install or Direct Install makes finding and installing software easy via our +Open Build Service Package Search. Simply navigate to our software search domain and with only a few clicks YaST will handle everything needed to install the program, including adding any necessary repositories. We even include a search extension for our default browser Firefox which allows you to search for software directly from your search bar.
  • The Installer itself is also a YaST module. Our installer offers a nearly unparalleled reliability and compatibility, and like other YaST modules can be used from its ncurses interface when the graphical installer won't work. Its modular design gives it a superior flexibility and capability versus the installers from other distributions, and this still holds true even in the text based ncurses interface. 
  • Tumbleweed is our rolling release. It offers seamless upgrades to each new version of openSUSE while also giving you the latest stable desktop environment and other packages. Tumbleweed is stable enough for daily usage (especially for any ex-Windows user whom is used to things constantly failing) and will alleviate the headache of an annual release cycle as opposed to the longer release cycles of Windows.
I think my own personal experience, and the preponderance of facts conclusively support the conclusion that openSUSE is an ideal choice for new users, including those coming from Windows XP. I would say though, for myself I won't do it without a fee since it quickly becomes too exhausting. I've also found my clients listen much better when they are paying for service. My clients were originally friends I ran out of patience to do free tech service for. 

Firefox 29 coming soon with a fresh new design paradigm.


"It’s not an interface adjustment or tweak. It’s not a bug fix. It’s a complete re-envisioning of Firefox’s user experience, and it’s been brewing for the past five years," +Jennifer Morrow  says in her blog. Jennifer serves +Mozilla Firefox as the senior designer at Mozilla. This will be the biggest redesign since version 4 which brought us a much cleaner and faster Firefox experience and retired the 3.x design. The new aesthetic is being called Australis, and has already been released to all platforms though as of this writing it is not yet packaged by +openSUSE, though it can be found in the Mozilla community repository.

Australis has been designed to address some idiosyncrasies and deliver a consistent user experience. Users familiar with +Google Chrome  will see some strong similarities in the redesign such as the tabs and menu placement. I feel however, that's about where the similarities end. Jennifer Morrow says, "This is when user experience design is most effective: when it envisions the system as a whole. When it steps away from the trees and sees the forest holistically."



 Firefox 29 is doing more than simply delivering a pretty face, and is bringing the ability to easily customize buttons and toolbars via a simple and intuitive drag and drop interface. I think however, it is clear that this release is far more about user experience and aesthetics. In my tests the workflow is negligibly different. Performance may have taken a hit though, the responsiveness is sluggish and page rendering slower.


Firefox 29



Firefox 29 with GNOME addons
 There has been a good amount of backlash from users who do not like the redesign. The majority of these objections seem to be in regards to it being different, a change to the interface that has become so familiar to so many. For newer users however, I anticipate this to be a welcome change that will help bolster a positive first impression while making the browser more usable and accessible to less technically minded people. My only personal concern is in regards to how well the redesign can be themed to integrate into +GNOME Shell. Currently I'm using Firefox with themes and extensions that make it look nearly native to the GNOME Shell.

You can read more about Firefox 29 on the blog of Jennifer Morrow.