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Everyday Linux Gripes

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Linux

I've sometimes been labeled a cheerleader for Free Software. This doesn't bother me too much; there's no doubt that I am a lot more gung-ho on Linux and related technologies than most of my colleagues. But lest I seem like a full-time penguin apologist who can't fairly critique his platform of choice, I'm using this month's Free Agent to revel in that oldest pastime of tech columnists: I'm going to gripe.

As loyal Free Agent readers 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 been using Gnome for years; and 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. I've watched so many rough edges disappear, it's sometimes hard to believe how much progress has been made, and in how short a time. 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, 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.

I Want My Cacophony, and I Want It Now!

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. (That's very important if you want to hear your beloved "new instant message" sound while you're watching a trailer at Apple's site.)

You Can't Do That

Also in the "Is it my mistake?" department: I recently added a new launcher button to my Gnome panel. (In Gnome, you have as many panels as you want on the screen; they're multipurpose bars akin to the Windows taskbar or OS X's dock and menu bar.) The button I added launches Gaim, a fantastic instant messaging app.

I suppose all computing environments have their pitfalls; I'll take this set of annoyances over adware and spyware issues any day. And there is 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 'em 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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