Going Headless

I have one monitor on my desk, quite a nice one, but only one. Right now I want to install Ubuntu Lucid on another desktop I have in the office, but I still want to use my monitor for other stuff (like writing this blog post). No problem, Ubuntu has an accessible installer, I just plug in the speakers and keyboard and go through it with audio, lets see how it goes.

Firstly I remember there is something on the Lucid installer about pressing the keyboard to get to the accessible install, but then what? And when do you press stuff? No cheating and plugging in the monitor, but I am allowed to Google for instructions on my other PC.

Apparently the process is

Press space every 3-4 seconds, several times, then enter, then
F5, then 3, then enter

hmm, ok. That sucks a bit. How about a beep or something at the point when I am supposed to interrupt it? Bonus points for playing a soundfile telling me what to press for an audio install. Anyhow, I seem to have missed the opportunity to press space, it seems to have done some stuff and now stopped. Lets reboot and try again.

Just realised I was looking at the CD activity light, to see what it was doing in the bootup process, that is cheating so I turned it round so I can’t see that (I could hear the heads moving too and feel the vibrations, but clues from lights are not allowed in this experiment.)

OK, booting again, lets hope I hit the magic moment . . .

. . . silence.

Really not sure what is happening here, did I miss it? Have I waited long enough? Is it going to tell me what to do next? Is it sat waiting for me to plug in a monitor. I have no idea.

Can’t feel or hear any activity from the CD any more, left it a few more minutes. Hit return and it started doing stuff. I think I must have missed the accessible install and it was sat at the normal live cd/installer option. Lets give it another go.

Rebooted, now pressing space every few seconds. The CD stopped spinning, maybe it is time now. Enter, F5, 3, Enter . . .

. . . . silence.

Enter again perhaps? Yes, it is doing something now. I wonder what.

CD stopped spinning, no sound at all.

OK, time to cheat a bit and plug in the monitor 🙁 hopefully when I understand the process I will be able to do it without cheating.

Plugging the monitor in doesn’t power up the monitor and show me the display, presumably it didn’t set up X properly without monitor resolution information.

Right, cheating totally from the start I understand it a bit better, the instructions I googled were wrong, missing an extra enter on the end. Rebooting and lets do it without the monitor.

Power on

Count to 15 from the bios beep (your hardware may vary)

Press space. This goes to the boot menu from previous releases, starting with the language selection.

Press enter to select English (presume you could go up and down to get accessible installs in different languages, but not testing that right now)

Press F5 for Acccessible installation options

Press 3 to highlight the third item in the list which is “screen reader”

Press Enter to choose the highlighted option

Press Enter to start the live CD.

Wait in a silence broken only by the sound of the fan and the CD doing stuff.

. . . nothing

Not really enjoying this any more.

So does it really need a monitor plugged in to do an audio install? Why the heck would I bother with a monitor if I couldn’t see? Why couldn’t it tell me that it has failed because it needs a monitor?

OK, I borrowed the monitor from the kids computer in the playroom and plugged it in, but put it face down on the floor.

Count to 15 and we are off again . . .

Yay, jungle drums. Seems that monitor is essential.

“Welcome to Orca, starting Orca preferences”

“Tab list, general page”


It seems to have dumped me in the Orca preferences page, which goes on forever, with no guidance at all on how to do the install or use Orca? (and anyhow “Welcome to Orca” – didn’t I just start “Ubuntu” did I get the wrong CD?)

up and down seem to let me choose between desktop and laptop – but I think that is an Orca thing, not an install thing.

Tab seems to let me go through a bunch of preference options, but I really have not much idea what preferences I want, I assume the defaults are OK. I wonder if Enter will just select the defaults and let me get on with using the live CD?

“Return Checked” hmm OK

Because I kind of know what I am doing, lets try alt+F2 to run an application

Yup, that works, and I am going to run gedit

After a few spurious audio messages about the orca preferences window, but then gedit was running, I managed to type a little document and save it.

lets browse the applications menu, Alt+F1

yes, that makes sense, I went to the Internet menu, then over to Firefox.

Spurious audio about other windows that are open, then it loads Firefox and tells me there is no internet connection (which there isn’t)

Lets try to actually get to the installer now. I don’t know how to click the icon on the desktop, but I know it is in the menus somewhere, Alt+F1 gets me to the Applications menu, Right to System menu, down twice to the administration menu, right gets me to computer janitor, down to disk utility, down again gparted, again to hardware drivers, once more to Install Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. hmm, that was burried deep. Enter.

“Install frame, Step 1 of 7, Quit Button Forward Button”

hmm, OK. Lets try enter on the forward button. Wonder what else was on that page?

“Install frame, panel”

err, what?

Up and down seems to be a country list, selecting United Kingdom. Enter.

“Window menu”

I seem to be in some other kind of list, might be timezones. I found Europe, then I think I ended up in Belgium, or perhaps the Indian Ocean. Really not sure what is going on there. Tabbed a few times and found the forward button.

ah, now the keyboard

apparently it has suggested one for me, but doesn’t tell me what one it is.

tab gets me into the test box, and shift 3 is # rather than £ so it got the wrong keyboard, shift tab to get back to the selector radio button, I can choose my own, or have it guess. Lets see if it can guess. Tab, “Guess button”, lets press that with space.

Nope that didn’t really work, it didn’t read out the keys it wanted me to press.

Managed to get to the manual selection and find the UK keyboard. and test, shift 3 is now “pound” tabbed to the forward button and lets see what happens next.

OK, this is the partitioning tab, starting to get the hang of the radio buttons now, erasing and using the entire disk. and moving forward.

“What is your name, Text” Tab

passwords are funny, it echos “asterisk” for each keypress

filled out the form without much difficulty

“read only text”

hmm, ok, well read it to me then!

I can’t read the summary, but I can tab to the forward button.

Focus switched back to the Orca preferences window for a second then to the installation progress bar. It should have finished asking me questions now.

While it is doing the install lets think about some conclusions from this experiment.


And now some more constructive recommendations for improvement.

  • Add some help text to the install process, use a really basic command line sound playing application, not a text to speech thing, just something that can play a wav or ogg file with very few dependencies such as aplay. Initally get it to play “press A for an audio install” then just do the boot to the desktop without going through any other menus.
  • Get X to start without a monitor and assume something like a 1024×768 desktop, or play a clip when X fails saying “You need to turn the computer on with a monitor plugged in to start the desktop”. Giving no feedback is terrible.

Right, the install has just finished and I am rebooting.

  • On booting to the desktop play some text (possibly through the text to speech engine) describing how to operate Orca.
  • Tell the user to press Alt+F1 to get to the menu
  • Tell the user how to kick off the installer
  • Get Orca to read out more of the text on the installer pages.

OK, it has rebooted, and Orca has started, I feared it wouldn’t so this is a good thing.

I have logged in as me. yay.

oh back to the Orca preferences window. boo.

Well the plan for this was to neatly do an install, by using the audio install to save me having to use a monitor, thereby proving that this bit of accessibility technology is a handy tool for everyone to use. In the event I discovered that the accessible install is hard to get to and barely fit for purpose, but I don’t think it is beyond rescue, it just needs to give the user more advice and feedback on what it is doing. If you have a few minutes and a spare computer please have a go at reproducing my little experiment. Put that monitor on the floor or wear a blindfold and install Ubuntu. I can genuinely imagine this being a really useful process on a headless server in a rack with just a set of headphones and a USB keyboard, if only it worked a bit better.

If you want to help make Ubuntu more awesome for everyone who at some point in their life might find an audio install a handy utility then please come and join the Ubuntu Accessibility team .

How to totally ‘dis’ Ecma-376 in two pages

I have just read this paper from the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto. It is clear, articulate and concise. Unlike the 6000+ page “specification” document to which it refers.

Many of it’s findings are not new in themselves but when discussed in the arena of accessibility it makes for a very good read.

How, please, have we got into this mess? We have one of the world’s largest and richest companies, producing a totally sub-standard specification and trying to force it through our International Standards bodies.

There is only one winner if Ecma-376 gets ISO approval in its current form – and it isn’t you or me….