Switching to Linux: day 1 and a comprehensive look

hello to all respected readers,

How would you react if I told you that this review is being written from Linux itself? And that, as of now, I am running
Vinux 3.0 beta 1A?

In the background, festival is downloading. In the foreground, I’m writing this in Mozilla Firefox.

Before I get into the nitty-griddy of Linux, let’s talk about what Linux is and why Linux.

What in the world is Linux?

Linux is UNIX based. UNIX is a really really really old Operating System, older than Dos, and probably one of the first operating systems to ever appear on personal and business computers. While this will not matter to most of the regular average people, it is important to state the roots of Linux here.

Linux is also free. 95% of Linux distros (distributions) are free. There’s probably well over a hundred Linux forks. Ubuntu, Debian, Phedora, Red hat, Mandraik, etc. Vinux could also be considered a distro, but on a smaller scale: It uses (now) Ubuntu as it’s base. Same goes for Mint Linux and other Ubuntu-derived versions.
Apple uses the Mach kernel, which is UNIX based. My sighted twin told me, “that looks like a mac!” when I showed her the Ubuntu Main Menu. So the basics internally are similar. Did you know that the iPhone also uses this Mach Kernel? And Google’s rising Android OS? A lot of proprietary cell phones also use Linux;Motorola is one good example. So there probably are very few people in this world who don’t own an appliance with Unix/Linux.

Uh, What does this mean for me?

So let’s talk about you, the average user. I try to make my reviews and articles as average as possible, whilst still satisfying those of you who might not be so average and enjoy more of the geeky things of our technological world.

Ok, so you are Joe. (please don’t get offended if you really are Joe-it’s a common name.). And you like your computer, you use it for the average Facebook/Twitter, e-mail, web browsing. Maybe audio editing/Photoshop from time to time. Ya know, the “normal” stuff.

You’re probably used to Windows. Windows is no doubt one of the most intuitive and perhaps greatest Operating systems. 90% of the world uses Windows, and there is so much support behind it, with millions of applications.
Good old Windows. You also have an easy to use interface. For those of us who are not so familiar with computers, you have tooltips and cute looking bubbles which simplify usage. The visually impaired have several screen reader options also – such as JAWS For Windows, Non Visual Desktop Access, System Access, and more.

On the downside, Windows isn’t free. That means Microsoft could of put code in there which sends information to Microsoft and it’s third parties-without your consent. Usage statistics, they call it- and it is anonymous.
Not being open, you also don’t know and can’t see the bugs within the code. Sure, that’s Microsoft’s job-they alone have the SourceCodes- but in some instances, the idea that the community can scout out and fix bugs could actually speed things up. In Linux’s case, there are thousands of code changes made each day by hundreds of people.
A lot would also say that as a result of this, instability could be an issue. But there usually are people who “oversee” a project. In Ubuntu’s case, you have Canonical LTD. who founded the idea. They still keep track of releases and updates, but hold developer summits to do so, thus allowing the community at large to provide input on what they want.

Because Ubuntu is free software, you generally won’t find many commercial products for it. For some again, this could be a downside. You have apps like Open Office-the best free alternative to Microsoft Office. While it’s an excellent tool, I’ve heard many complaints about how graphically it isn’t appealing, and how compatibility is lacking.
Take the Media player, Rhythmbox, built into Ubuntu: My sister’s first comment was, “it looks ugly.”. Of course, there are no professional graphic designers who are (specifically) higher to make everything smooth and pretty. It’s free software. People volunteer.

On the upside, because it’s free, not only are most of the applications simple to use and for the Visually impaired, accessible right out of the box, but they are also more intuitive and to some, easier to use.

Now, that doesn’t mean everything is accessible if you are blind. I haven’t tried many apps on Ubuntu, so I really can’t say. But there are certainly things which are critical that need accessibility, such as the new “software center” in Ubuntu-which currently uses Webkit and thus does not work at all in terms of functioning with the screen reader of Linux, Orca.

Certainly a lot of apps are built in already, such as for music playing, photo editing and more. Programs such as the Linux bit torrent app Transmission, the Media player, mail client seem to work fine.
There are also a number of support groups if you are blind. These include the Vinux mailing list, the Orca list, Ubuntu accessibility, and more.

Linux accessibility has certainly come a long way, especially when looking towards the last 3 years. 3-4 Years ago you had Speakup-a very basic screen reader for Debian which only supported Hardware synthesizers. The good thing was that even back then, we had a few blind hardcore geeks who went out of their way and actually used Linux.

Now we have Gnome, and the new Orca screen reader. The Internet and a whole host of apps are now accessible and usable.

One thing that personally always captures my heart when it comes to Linux is the dedication these people have towards free software. Just look at the people over at the Ubuntu Launchpad. Or Tony Sales and his Vinux team, the entire “vinux-development” list. These people have a passion for this. They are, from my experience, kind-hearted individuals bent on improving computing and work in a team to do so. That is a key: teamwork. Free software would not exist without it. Everyone knows everyone else-their rolls- and everyone knows how to contribute, even if it is just beta testing and reporting bugs.

Ubuntu 9.10 was unusable, at least if you had no sight. That’s because it used a new sound system called Pulse Audio, as opposed to the previous Alsa. (Jaunty 9.04 already had Pulseaudio, but it was not enabled.)

It was during the new Karmic 10.04 development cycle that people such as Bill Cox worked on trying to fix the considerable lag which existed with Ubuntu Karmic due to the above mentioned change. And it looks like they’ve gotten it pretty well down.


I initially installed Vinux Alpha III. For those who are not familiar with Vinux, it is a version of Linux (Ubuntu) which speaks right out of the box, without having to enter any commands. It also has a few other customizations and tweaks to allow for better accessibility. Essentially, however, you are getting a release of Ubuntu-just as the other sighted users around the world are.

I originally tried Alpha III. The Alpha had several issues, in particular freezes and odd quirks when it came to operation – two instances of Orca talking when auto-log in was enabled was one of them.

Nevertheless it has come a long way when looking at the current Beta 1. So far, I’ve never in my life had a Linux distribution installed on my computer for more than a week. Will I finally make that switch?

The install process went smooth as ever. I have not tried dual-booting Ubuntu and Windows 7 yet, since my last experience where my entire Windows OS wouldn’t load after Ubuntu was installed still left me a bit “traumatized” as far as making another attempt. But tomorrow I probably will end up installing it on my Netbook in a dual-boot environment– and this should make my install process more detailed.

It took me around 10 minutes to get the system installed. I enabled auto login, in order to see if my Alpha III issue was still there. Orca was very responsive during install.

There were, however, instances where I tried hitting on the element in focus and Orca wouldn’t respond, not even tabbing. In these cases I simply hit escape to get back to the install screen. So it does seems as though you manually have to click onthe forward button.

Once installation was complete, I restarted the virtual machine. One notable change which Vinux makes to Ubuntu is the pc speaker beeps – you hear them when starting up and shutting down your computer. It’s actually pretty cool and makes your computer sound a bit like from the 1990s-but it also a great way to know when you can choose boot options.

Desktop accessibility:

Again, a great thing about Vinux is that speech starts automatically. Chances are that when Lucid does get released, you will also be able to start Orca using the live CD, however this can sometimes be complex-especially because the new Gnome release incorporates a new boot screen. During a alt+f2 (run dialog) and typing in Orca is certainly an option, but will require you to log in and out of the live CD, which can and has proven to be tricky.
But anyway. Linux has no start menu. There is the main menu, which you access with alt+f1. It can be accessed from anywhere.

There is a desktop. To get to it, alt+f9 minimizes your current app and should work in getting you there.

There were no crashes when using and accessing the settings pannels or tasks, a nice change from the Alpha.


At this point, the only inaccessible Ubuntu area is the new application center, which uses html content-and Gnome’s new web-kit. To get around this, I used the terminal found in accessories and typed in
sudo get-app
and it worked fine. Quite simple, though I’d love to be able to browse through the 35000+available applications.

Web browsing and other challenges:

Personally, using Firefox proved to be a bit difficult for me. Because Orca uses the dom version of a page, using up/down arrows can lead to links being clustered. For example, doing one arrow down on Google.com would result in Orca saying: “web link images link news link…”
and you cannot navigate these individually like with Windows and JAWS.
I also found entering in forms a bit of a challenge-Orca enters forms mode automatically and pressing “E” for the next edit field results in the letter E being entered in my form.
Password fields, oddly enough, were not entered into automatically.


At this point, there isn’t much to say. I’m not certain how good Linux will turn out. The ease and comfort of Windows will be missed. Who knows if I c an broadcast my radio show from within Ubuntu?
There’s a learning curve for everyone, no doubt. However, a lot of keyboard commands, like copy/paste, are the same as within Windows, which lessens this curve when opposed to, let’s say, a Mac.

Accessibility will also be another of my focuses. Linux is developing each day, and I feel that it has reached a fairly stable ground when it comes to both usage and accessibility where it could be compared to Windows or the Mac.

Who knows-I might be wrong. I will be providing everyone with updates on how this project will go -with an open mind and paeitnts, I think it’ll end up well.

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