Windows is Dead (almost). Long Live Free & Open Source Software, i.e. Ubuntu


My wife’s PC was the last bastion of proprietary software hell remaining in our home (and we have quite a few PCs). 2 days ago, Helen explained that she’d been having a nightmare with Windows. You’d start to login and immediately it would log you out again! Nice. And there was no easy way to prevent it. “Safe Mode” did the same thing. Very helpful – not. Googling threw up a lot of people with the same experience and some rather dodgy sounding workarounds to rectify the situation.

Helen has had a dual boot setup for a while, has been getting used to the nuances of Ubuntu and the Gnome desktop and is now fairly comfortable with it. So, rather than trying to fix an inherently broken OS we decided to make the switch. There was one caveat however; iTunes. Her work is a franchised music therapy business for elderly and disabled residential care homes. She uses a big iPod and iTunes to manage her many playlists etc., and all the music is in Apple’s lossless proprietary format. (I know, but I didn’t have an opportunity to suggest an alternative at the time…)

To make the move to Ubuntu as painless as possible I bought some more RAM and a 320GB HDD from Scan Computers to give her some more space and also just in case I ended up needing to do a fresh Windows install for a dual-boot setup. But my plan was to first of all attempt to use VirtualBox for the iTunes requirement. Unfortunately Wine didn’t seem like a viable option at this time.

After what seems like far too much effort, the iTunes Library is now hosted on our home server so it can be backed up easily. A VirtualBox (the closed source PUEL edition for USB passthrough) VM is running a fresh new install of XP and only iTunes, and it connects via a Samba share (Windows is configured to re-connect the network drive (Z:) on startup) to the music library.

The iTunes library was a complete PITA to move. There are lots of how tos and such like on the web but when it boils down to it, you need to check, very carefully, the structure in the iTunes Library.xml file so it matches the new location of the music itself. What didn’t help me was discovering, after several failed attempts, that iTunes at some stage in the past, had decided to create two complete “Compilation” and “Podcasts” directory structures, each with mostly different content, but some of it overlapping.

Essentially, the process is something like this:

  • Backup the whole library!
  • Create the new library location and copy in the data
  • Delete the *.itl files from the root of the iTunes library
  • Examine the iTunes Library.xml file and use a good editor/comparison tool to alter all the paths so they point to the correct locations in your new library structure
  • Fire up iTunes, edit the Music Library location to where the new one lives
  • Under the File menu (IIRC) you choose “import library” and point it at your modified iTunes Library.xml file
  • Cross your fingers, toes and anything else 😉

Judicious use of that great comparison tool Meld and my eyeballs meant that finally I managed to restructure the library so it was consistent and not duplicated. I think that had it not been like this, my experience would not have been so bad or so lengthy, but iTunes will leave always a very nasty taste in my mouth. Also, had Windows not completely barfed (again) I would have been able to use the already installed iTunes app and move the library using it’s own built in tools (as this is apparently possible according to the interweb).

Probably the next step will be to introduce Helen to Songbird (or similar) and see if we can migrate the library, playlists and music across to that. I’ll do some playing on my own before suggesting it though. Small steps to catchy monkey I think.

VirtualBox 3.02 seems to be really good though. The USB pass through and auto-filtering is just brilliant (so Ubuntu doesn’t alert when you plug in the iPod when the VM is running; it goes straight through to the Windows VM). It does seem to take quite a long time for the whole Windows/iTunes thing to settle down after I’ve plugged the iPod in but it might be just because it’s a big 120G iPod anyway… But it isn’t a major issue.

So, although Windows isn’t completely dead in our household, it is certainly on its very last legs. And good riddance to it to.

Migrating from Windows

The last Windows computer in our house is very shortly going to be history 🙂

I have been threatening my wife’s PC for quite some time now, but there has been no real motivation to move until today… Our bank called and told her a credit card has been fraudulently used in the last few days. Fortunately they appear to have correctly and swiftly identified the misuse and are dealing with the problem.

However, this experience has obviously caused my beloved (Helen) to start wondering how her details were captured in the first place. She is pretty scrupulous with the shredder, and this particular card is almost only ever used for on-line transactions; so her PC was a possible, if not likely, route for the thieves. The ClamWin AV scan threw up a few nasty sounding files, including some IE.IFrame trojan thing, although they had all been quarantined already.  But the fact that Windows is so vulnerable to attack and subsequent compromise when compared to Linux, this saga has just tipped the scales. We now have a good reason to start the final migration of the Lord household.

This evening, I have installed Thunderbird on Helen’s Windows PC and imported everything from her Outlook email client. The import was basically flawless and after changing a few settings she’s now up and running with TB. (Interestingly, her first few comments were very positive: “This looks nice”, “It’s much faster”, “I like the address book layout” and so forth.) I added Lightning and connected her up to our caldav Calendar Server (Cosmo) which is an added bonus for Helen. We all use this for work, family and personal scheduling and Helen had been limited to using web access (simply because Outlook doesn’t support the Caldav standard) which is not the optimum interface to this calendar.

Helen was already using Firefox most of the time but now I’ve asked her to stop using IE altogether.

Helen also has (OOo) installed already but has not been using it much as the Windows defaults are [were] set for MSO 2003. This will probably be the area where there will be some new learning as she stops using MSO and starts using OOo but it isn’t that painful to be frank.

I think within a month, I will install Ubuntu 8.10 as a dual boot for a short period just in case she finds there are things that don’t work and then we’ll turn off the malware-that-pretends-to-be-an-OS Windows within a few weeks from then.

She does use iTunes for her work and pleasure so I am thinking we’ll need to have a VM (VirtualBox) running her copy of XP to support that, unless someone would like to offer advice on alternatives. She runs music therapy classes and her material is ripped onto her iPod using Apple’s lossless codec IIRC that iTunes seems to default to. Never having used it myself, nor do I own an iPod I am not the best source of advice on this one so if anyone can help here I’d be grateful.

I can’t think there is much else that will bite us though; she doesn’t have any other proprietary apps I can see that are going to prove troublesome to replace.

One thing that is really important in this story is this ability to run the main applications: Firefox, Thunderbird and, on both Windows and Linux platforms. It will make the transition, for a non-technical user, much less painful than having to switch wholesale over to new apps and a new OS all at the same time. Thanks Mozilla and OOo.

As we go through this migration I’ll write a little more (I might even ask Helen to document her experiences and thoughts). Hopefully it will help others doing, or wanting to do, the same thing.

Microsoft Holes Exploited Again

As if the last security hole in Internet Explorer was not enough, here’s yet another reason to drop Microsoft Software. This time it’s their cash-cow, Office:

Attackers are exploiting the just-patched vulnerability in Internet Explorer (IE) by hiding malicious ActiveX controls in Microsoft Word documents, according to security researchers.

“Inside the document is an ActiveX control, and in that control is a line that makes it call out to the site that’s hosting the malware,” said David Marcus, the director of security research and communications for McAfee’s Avert Labs. “This is a pretty insidious way to attack people, because it’s invisible to the eye, the communication with the site.”

This all reminds me of a sieve – full of holes.

If I was a small business using Microsoft application software today, I would be dropping it faster than a red-hot rock. If I was a CTO I would be planning now how to migrate away. will protect you from malicious ActiveX in documents, Firefox for web browsing and Thunderbird for email will do the same whilst allowing you to continue to use the Windows OS as you plan the final step to freedom. Ubuntu will complete the process.

If you need help, there are companies out there who can provide support and technical assistance. 😉

Migrating to Open Source: by Mercian Labels

In our “Case Studies” links is a solitary connection to the blog of a UK based label printing company Mercian Labels.

Since March this year (2007) their MD, Adrian Steele, has thoughtfully covered many topics including the:

  • reasons,
  • processes,
  • selection of software & suppliers,
  • general observations
  • and some of the problems & difficulties,

of migrating his company from a Microsoft based IT infrastructure to a fully Open Source alternative. His most recent post is a real milestone for him and for his business – he has finally gone “Redmond Free“. Totally.

Its a great feeling to be free (in a very small individual user way) of the restrictive, slow, unreliable xp/outlook configuration I USED to use!

There are still other users to migrate and work to be done, but it is a fascinating read and many other small to medium businesses can learn a great deal from the experiences that have been so well recorded.

Why not drop by and pay their site a visit, read his blog (as with most blogs it is in chronological order so start at the bottom to read the whole story) and, if you need any labels printed, I can strongly recommend a company that relies on Open Source software to do it. 😉

I would love to have more case studies of this kind included here. The shared learning and experiences of many is a very powerful tool for all so if there are any other businesses that are migrating to Open Source (in part or in whole) and want to share the experience in an “Open” fashion, drop me a line so I can add your company to our list.

Disclaimer: I personally have had no connection to Mercian Labels and our training and consulting business (The Open Learning Centre) has had nothing to do with their migration whatsoever. This is Open Source after all; it’s all about shared experiences, and the freedom to learn with and from others.

Going Redmond Free

I wanted to write up something about my recent experiences of migrating my every day computing platform from Windows XP to Ubuntu.


I have been using Windows and Microsoft as my primary work PC software for years – in fact since before Windows 3.x. In my current computer(s) storage I have lots of tricky Excel spreadsheets with array formulas and multiple workbook/worksheet linkages, loads of images (not what you’re thinking BTW!) hundreds of Word documents, as well as PDF files and HTML files too.

Before I go too far, I should explain that I have also been using Linux for ages too. Using and developing server applications (mainly for the LAMP stack). I learnt most of what of I know about the OS by doing the fantastic Linux From Scratch, and subsequent Beyond Linux From Scratch, projects. In fact I still follow their mailing lists and contribute from time-to-time. So as a user of Linux I am happy to build source code, patch it, edit files by hand and use the command line, Bash especially. But, until recently, I had not found a total Linux “experience” which i felt would allow me to do everything I needed/wanted to happily. (Although that doesn’t mean I was happy with Windows most of the time, especially when it crashed or just hung for no reason…)

I had played with Ubuntu a few times and the recent releases looked very good indeed, so, last month I finally decided enough was enough. Time to go ‘Redmond free’.

Ubuntu installation:

My main PC is nothing special; a home built AMD 64 3200+ with 1G DDR RAM and a couple of Hard Disks (1 x 80G SATA II and 1 x 200G SATA I) and a DVD-RW and a DVD-RAM. Being used to Linux and partitions, the disks were heavily partitioned anyway so I just found a spare 6G slot and installed Ubuntu 7.0.4 from the Alternate CD (this gives you more control over how things are done IMHO and is faster as the UI is text based). I kept Windows where it was, on the first disk (/dev/sda on Linux), and installed Ubuntu on the 2nd drive in partition 11 (/dev/sdb12). As I already had grub installed on the 2nd drive I didn’t let Ubuntu over-write that. I just added a new section to the menu.lst file for my Ubuntu installation.

title Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty)
root (hd1,11)
kernel /vmlinuz root=/dev/sdb12 ro quiet splash
initrd /initrd.img


Because I like “clean” systems with minimal crud on them I did not get Ubuntu to copy over my Windows account and it’s data. I dealt with that manually. On my Windows system I was already using Mozilla’s Thunderbird for my mail/news/rss reader and Firefox as my main browser. So I just used the synaptic package manager to install Thunderbird and removed the default mail client which is Gnome’s Evolution. I also installed NTFS-3G – a userspace NTFS filesystem driver.

Now I could safely mount my Windows NTFS D: drive (where my Docs & Settings folder and all my data lives) in read/write mode. Using the initial command thunderbird -Profilemanager I told it the profile (along with all 12,000+ of my emails) location was on my old Windows partition. It worked flawlessly (and still is actually). It also found that the add-ons I had set-up in Windows, such as the Webmail extension for accessing Hotmail and Gmail accounts, were correctly identified too. I had to change the port settings to be above 1024 but this is well documented in the mailing lists etc. The neat thing about this solution by the way, is if I have to go back to Windows (for some weird reason) I can, and my all my email accounts and folders will still be active and up-to-date as both versions of Thunderbird are using the same store!