10 November 2009

Open Source Takes a Beating: Sound, Displays, and Karmic Koalas

Open source is having a hard time living up to its promise. I installed Karmic Koala (Ubuntu's Linux 9.10) on my daughter's system last week, upgrading from Hardy Heron. Ubuntu is having horrific problems getting sound and displays to be usable.

The author of PulseAudio will try to convince you it doesn't suck. But after two years, it still isn't integrated into Ubuntu. Meanwhile, the User Interface is less than friendly. How many different things are there to look at when trying to configure sound? At least: Alsamixer, Pulse audio monitor, pulse audio volume control. Multiple postings suggest reloading two or three different packages, doing modprobes to discover what's intstalled in the kernel, running a couple of different commands to discover the name of the sound card, etc.

Two things that would help in the short term are (1) an integrated user interface, and (2) self diagnostic capabilities.

First, we need to make a decision about where the sound configuration should go. The applications menu is probably not the right place. That leaves the system preferences and system administration areas. One of those areas, probably administration, should be dedicated to making system wide configuration changes, and the other area should be dedicated to per-user settings. Each tool needs to be careful with how it uses these areas so the user quickly learns where to go.

The single administration tool needs to be able to tell you what your sound card is (describe your hardware to you) and tell you what software modules and versions you have installed (describe your software to you). A single tool is needed control the sound settings: not both pulse audio volume control and alsamixer. A built in diagnostic capability needs to exist that checks the installed software, hardware, and configuration parameters looking for combinations that tend not to work or that obviously won't work. The single tool needs to recommend when software updates should be applied, and offer to fetch and install the updates.

In other glitches, when trying to launch pulse audio volume control and manager from the applications menu, the apparent result is that nothing happens. By carefully scrolling around the screen (in Karmic Koala, the physical screen is embedded in a larger virtual screen and you can use the mouse to move the physical screen around within the virtual screen), you may eventually notice that the application launched and created a couple of icons on the application panel. You can then use additional mouse clicks to interact with the application. This is horrible UI design. The user expclitly stated that they want to interact with the application, but must repeat themself a second time and in a different fashion.

The display configuration software has similar problems. First, to do anything, you have to track down and install the Nvidia driver. Why this isn't installed by default seems to be a political issue that I'll never understand. If the politics is so important, let's reverse engineer the driver and move forward.

Then you have to figure out the difference between Nvidia-settings and nvidia-xconfig. You have to ponder xrandr and editing /etc/xorg.conf. And there's some other tool that will sometimes be presented to you for describing what terminal you are using.

Again, we need an integrated UI configuration tool; we need good diagnostics embedded in that tool, and we need strong separation between the concepts of configuration of per-user parameters and configuration of the system configuration.

I have four computers in my house using Ubuntu (one is Xubuntu), and I'm not planning on letting Windows back in my house nor moving on to Apple. Hardy Heron was a nice step toward a user-friendly version of Linux. It's getting time to take the next step forward. Karmic Koala doesn't greatly improve the state of the art. I hope that in the next two years we can better organize, integrate, and add self-diagnostic capabilities to the configuration tools.


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