Everyday Linux gripes

As you already know, if I have to sit down in front of a computer, I want it to be running the Gnome desktop on Linux. I've watched it mature from a downright ugly, needlessly complex playground for geeks, to an attractive, simple interface that holds its own against commercial alternatives. And yet, every day I still encounter rough edges that make me think there aren't nearly enough folks out there hacking away at this stuff. I'd like to watch.

Take, for instance, the fact that I still have troubles playing any sort of rich media (usually video) in my Web browser. It doesn't matter whether I use Mozilla Firefox or one of the two native Gnome browsers, Epiphany and Galeon (see FIGURE 1), both of which use Firefox's rendering engine. Much of the time, if a Web page wants to serve me a video, I'm out of luck.

There are several reasons why. The first is that we still have competing standards for streaming video. On a Windows box, you've generally got to install three different video players (QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media - all with their own browser plug-ins) to confidently approach a video-laden site. Only Real offers a Linux player, so it's fallen to community coders to fill in the gaps - which they've done pretty well, all things considered.

Gnome's Totem media player can hook up to the video-playing engines of both the GStreamer and Xine projects. Both engines can play all three varieties of Web video when fed the proper codecs.

But getting Totem to embed itself in a browser and play video in-place on a Web page? Well, there's a way to make it happen, but it's not airtight.

Sure, if you follow the instruct­ions on Ubuntu Forums (go to http://ubuntuforums.orgg and search for "mozplugger"), you'll be able to watch all the movie trailers at Apple's site right in your browser, just the way nature intended (see FIGURE 2). But sooner or later, you'll hit a video that's been encoded differently - perhaps using a newer codec not yet supported by Totem - and you'll have hit a brick wall. Or, even more frustratingly, the Web site you're visiting will tell you (often wrongly) that your system is incompatible with the site's offerings, and not even give you the opportunity to try playing the video. (I'm looking at you, CNN.com.)

I want my cacophony!

Equally maddening is the state of sound on most Linux desktops. Explaining this mess requires a brief, oversimplified history lesson. Once upon a time, Linux sound drivers fell under the umbrella of OSS, the Open Sound System. OSS's capabilities were pretty limited; configuration could be a real pain; and there was no support for what's known as "software mixing," which lets cheap sound cards play sounds from different apps simultaneously.

A few years back, some courageous coders began work on ALSA, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture. ALSA gives us what we need, but there are backwards compatibility issues and all sorts of other foolishness I won't go into here. Ubuntu Linux tries to compensate for ALSA's shortcomings by adding a third element to the mix: ESD, the Enlightened Sound Daemon.

ESD works great, except when it doesn't. In the case of my Ubuntu machines, all sound-producing apps I've encountered play nice (no pun intended) with ESD, except for those built on Flash or Java. So if there is a Flash ad on a Web page making some noise, nothing else on the system can sound off until the Flash ad is gone. Users don't expect problems like these, because they've not experienced them on other platforms. Even hardened ubergeeks have been known to throw in the towel over things like this.

And Java pains don't stop there. The latest version of Sun's Java plug-in for Linux seems to ignore the system clipboard in certain situations. I learned this the hard way recently while travelling on business. I was accessing my work e-mail via a Web interface provided by Lotus Notes (yes, sigh, we use Notes). The Notes Web interface uses Java applets for various things, including the text-entry box where you craft new messages. I tried copying some text from another window and pasting it into a new message. Didn't work. I tried it many different ways, all to no avail. Then I tried copying text out of my message-in-progress. Again, no dice.

Some Google searching revealed that others have noticed this problem, but I found no solution. So, when I'm working remotely, I can't paste text into e-mails. It's the sort of thing that makes people hate their computers.

You can't do that

Also in the "is it my mistake?" department: I recently added a new launcher button to my Gnome panel. The button I added launches Gaim, a fantastic instant messaging app.

When I selected the stock Gaim icon for this button, the system seemed to accept my choice, but then immediately painted a completely different icon on the button (see FIGURE 3). I right-clicked the button and selected Properties to double-check my selection. Yes, I'd selected the icon I wanted, and the Properties dialogue box was showing me my selection. But the button still sported the wrong icon, no matter what I did.

After some experimenting, I discovered that if your current icon theme specifies an alternative icon for any installed app, then that alternative overrides any manual icon setting. There's nothing that informs you of what's happening; there's also no option to override the theme's setting. You follow steps that should definitely work; they don't, and there's no explanation why. It's like selecting red text in your word processor, getting blue text instead, and having absolutely no inkling (pun intended) why this is happening.

And finally

One more: in Gnome, there's no built-in way to customise your Applications menu. There used to be, but it was removed in a previous version, and no new functionality has emerged in its place. I am lucky that the Ubuntu Applications menu is so trim and organised. I haven't played with Fedora Core 4 yet, but I understand its users are not so lucky.

I suppose all computing environ­ments have their pitfalls, and I'll take this set of annoyances over adware and spyware issues any day. There's no doubt that Gnome and Linux itself have come a very long way in the past few years: I no longer have to manually "mount" removable media devices when I plug them in; font installation has become easy as pie; and I can rip, mix, and burn with the best of 'em. But right now, as I sit out on my back porch, my trusty IBM Thinkpad on my lap showing me the day's work e-mail, I just wish I could open a new message and paste this column into it for delivery to my editor.

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Matthew Newton

PC World
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