Ext2 access for Windows

Ext2 For Windows!Many people have dual boot Linux/Windows systems. While it’s fairly easy to access files on the Windows partition from Linux*, it’s not usually that easy to access your Linux partition from Windows. Instead of emailing that entire website that you just finished coding with BlueFish to yourself so you can access the files from a Windows program, (I don’t know why you would need to do this, but hey. You never know.), all you have to do is install the Ext2 Installable File System for Windows. This program gives you R/W access to an Ext2 partition from any version of Windows from NT4 through 2003. It supports paging (Windows swap), and has a pretty nifty interface from the Windows control panel, as well as the Windows native disk manager. The programmer, Stephan Schreiber did a nice job integrating with Windows. I’ve tried it on one of my virtual boxes and it works like a charm. As freeware, the price is right too.

*The ease in which one can access Windows partitions and even “hidden” SMB network shares is trivial. I’ve had full “root” access to a Windows Active Directory domain controller without providing any credentials over LAN from a box running Gnome on Slackware 10. How’s that for security? Microsoft has since made it a bit harder to do this type of thing – not too much harder though.

The Golden Age of Free/Open Source Software

GoldenThe Free Software (GNU) movement and the Open Source(OSI) development model have slowly been gaining momentum over the past decade. Formerly the realm of Uber Geeks, UNIX and it’s various derivatives (Linux, BSD’s, etc.) are finally being seen by the consumer market as an alternative to the best known proprietary products. One of the biggest barriers that I’ve seen though is the cost model associated with the GNU or OSI environments. This is obviously not to say that GNU or OSI is more expensive than proprietary products, but in the United States, at least, it’s ingrained in our culture that you get what you pay for. Comparing the price of a GNU/Linux distribution v. Microsoft Windows is a good example. Thanks to good timing, shrewd (cut-throat) business practices, and the multi-million dollar marketing blitz, Windows has become the dominant operating system in the market.

For over 20 years, consumers have been drawn to, what they believed, was the only game in town. It’s human nature to have the belief that what we do or use is superior to that of others who do not do the same. So it has been with computers and operating systems. Even back in 1989 when a 486 with 1 Mb of RAM and a 40 Mb hard drive cost over $1500.00 (USD), there was much clamoring of superiority between the Apple and PC users. Anyone in our industry knows that Apple/Mac has been the de facto standard in the graphics and publishing industry while PC’s have held the domain of business, large and small – both are a case of the right tool for the right job. As the tech savvy younger generations come of age, so does the awareness of a world outside of Microsoft.

While the lineage of Microsoft code dates to the early 80′s the lineage of modern GNU and OSI operating systems can be traced to the 60′s. It’s taken 20 years for consumers to begin to realize that money thrown at advertising and public relations isn’t what makes a product better than any other. If I had $10,000.00 a month to pay for a premier advert on Techcrunch, (no disrespect intended Mr. Arrington), I’d get a boatload of traffic and the clickthroughs that go with it. To sustain user loyalty though, I need to have good content, otherwise, I’ll just have to keep throwing money at it to generate more traffic. Now, I’d like to think that the content on this site is at least, respectable, but if it were garbage, enough money for marketing would keep it afloat for quite awhile. When there is no mainstream competition from which to draw comparisons, there is no way to distinguish between what is good and what is garbage.

Microsoft has held a captive audience for years – but now the tide is beginning to turn as more and more people see that the traditional proprietary software model is not the only way to do things, and consequently, that proprietary software is not the only option. Apple has done a great “job(s) of showing consumers that there are alternatives to these “tried and true” products. Their model, while not Free Software and Open Source, is a modeled on mix of GNU, Open Source, and proprietary. In the interest of not propagating mis-information, the following has be removed from this post: any GNU/Linux user would immediately recognize xfce as the window manager that the more recent releases of the Mac OS were modeled after. It’s all been done out in the open though so there is no complaining that the gui was stolen.xfce, I am told, has in fact been, to some extent, modeled on OS X. Thank’s to Vincent at xubuntublog.wordpress.com for setting the record straight. Dell, the worlds second largest seller of PC’s, is offering several GNU/Linux options for both business and personal computers, with plans to expand this line of systems. GNU/Linux and Open Source are beginning to see some mainstream exposure. Wal-Mart also sells GNU/Linux PC’s in some markets. I don’t expect Microsoft to fold in the coming years but I do see a significant decline in their dominance of the software market – much like IBM’s decline in the PC market after decades of being number one.

Google’s recent proposal(pdf) to the FCC that the 700MHz band be open to the choices of consumers and not service providers will finally put these service providers at the mercy of the customer instead of it being the other way around. The Free Software movement and the Open Source development model are poised to transform the PC market in the same way. Get ready for a new day, Redmond!

For more information, see:

The GNU Project
The Free Software Foundation
The Linux Foundation
The Open Source Initiative
Google: Our commitment to open broadband platforms

The Google Manifesto and Consumer Choice

In 1996, Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and GNU/GPL, defined “The Four Freedoms” by which “free” software must conform too:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
    Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3).
    Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

This concept of freedom has since been slowly revolutionizing the software industry. Version 3 of the GPL was released on June 29th of this year (2007), causing quite a disturbance in Redmond. The fuss Microsoft has been raising over the GPL3 is a testament to the power of this freedom. It’s all about keeping control and having the biggest market share. Section 10 of the GPL3 in particular is what is causing the problem:

10. Automatic Licensing of Downstream Recipients.

Each time you convey a covered work, the recipient automatically receives a license from the original licensors, to run, modify and propagate that work, subject to this License. You are not responsible for enforcing compliance by third parties with this License.

An “entity transaction” is a transaction transferring control of an organization, or substantially all assets of one, or subdividing an organization, or merging organizations. If propagation of a covered work results from an entity transaction, each party to that transaction who receives a copy of the work also receives whatever licenses to the work the party’s predecessor in interest had or could give under the previous paragraph, plus a right to possession of the Corresponding Source of the work from the predecessor in interest, if the predecessor has it or can get it with reasonable efforts.

You may not impose any further restrictions on the exercise of the rights granted or affirmed under this License. For example, you may not impose a license fee, royalty, or other charge for exercise of rights granted under this License, and you may not initiate litigation (including a cross-claim or counterclaim in a lawsuit) alleging that any patent claim is infringed by making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing the Program or any portion of it.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the GPL3, have a look at it through the link above. It’s remarkably brief and is written in plain English – not in the typical EULA jargon that we have all come to know and love.

On July 20, 2007 Google issued a statement on their blog indicating a …”commitment to open broadband platforms”. In a nutshell, Google wants the FCC to mandate an open and non-proprietary system on the 700MHz band that will soon be auctioned. As an incentive, Google has promised to participate in the auction with $4.6 billion (USD) to spend if the FCC agrees to the terms of this initiative. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin agrees that this concept will spur competition and innovation like we see on the internet. Like other big companies who stand to loose billions of dollars in potential income though, AT&T is slamming Google in the press. Google makes four assertions in this initiative that have far reaching consequences and will certainly give a lot of momentum to the Open Source movement.

  • Open applications: consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire;
  • Open devices: consumers should be able to utilize their handheld communications device with whatever wireless network they prefer;
  • Open services: third parties (resellers) should be able to acquire wireless services from a 700 MHz licensee on a wholesale basis, based on reasonably nondiscriminatory commercial terms; and
  • Open networks: third parties (like Internet service providers) should be able to interconnect at any technically feasible point in a 700 MHz licensee’s wireless network.

In essence, Google would like to see old rules that favor proprietary formats driven by profit be changed to benefit a consumer driven technology boom that will get the US up to par with the rest of the developed world in terms of broadband and mobile communication technologies. The type of competition that Google is seeking to stimulate from FCC mandates serves the greater good through innovation and not the kind of competition that pads the pockets of corporations who drive the market with only their interests in mind. It’s exciting to see the beginning of The Golden Age of Open Source.

Losing users with Office 2007

Microsoft Office 2007 arrived in our action pack a few months back. Always eager to have the latest and greatest, all of our workstations were expeditiously upgraded from Office 2003. Everyone in our office was fairly proficient at day to day tasks in the various Office products like Excel and Word. Suddenly, we were forced to use the program help to search for even the most routine of tasks – like how to run a macro. It so happens that the “ribbon”, as the newly redesigned tabbed toolbars are called, in which the macro capabilities are on isn’t visible by default. After jumping through a few hoops, we know how to run macros again. On the bright side, I can add shortcuts to the “Quick Access Toolbar” so I can find things that aren’t where they used to be. These customizations can then be easily imported to installations on other machines, so I only have to spend a half hour as opposed to several hours, to make sure people aren’t in the help browser all day.

While the latest version of Office does have some nice features, the slick looks don’t make up for the time spent re-learning software that many of us have know how to use for nearly a decade. I’m not sure what Microsoft was thinking when they decided to radically change the UI in such an established product. I can get around just fine in the latest version of Open Office, in fact it’s usability improves regularly. I want to be productive now, not once I’ve figured out a new interface. My final gripe is about backward compatibility to anything older than the current version. By default, documents, et al., are saved in a new format – it’s the old file extension with an x appended to it. I can only open these with Office 2007. The default format can be changed, after jumping through a few more hoops, or I can just “save as…” and pick my file format.

At this point, we do not recommend Office 2007 to our customers. It is, in fact, discouraged because of the learning curve and compatibility issues. When experienced users become lost in your flagship product, you will end up loosing them to legacy applications or alternative products.

Making Microsoft products play nice together

MailboxI recently recommended MS Office 2003 Small Business Edition to a customer for his new laptop. There are several reasons why I did not recommend Office 2007 but I’ll save that for another time. He took my advice and, since he paid for it, he wanted to use as many of the programs as he could. Everyone in his office uses Outlook Express but he was now using Outlook. A couple days in, it was noticed, that certain attachments were not getting to recipients in the office – the ones using Outlook Express. The email would come through and so would some attachments but, for the attachments that were gone, there was never any indication that they even existed in the first place. These were standard graphics files, mind you, nothing fancy. Well, after going around for a bit with Microsoft (a bit = 1 week, or so), the problem was traced to the ISP email server.

Outlook and Exchange encode certain attachments in a manner that are stripped when processed by “improperly configured” email servers – namely Open Source ones. That seemed a little odd to me that the ISP was to blame for the attachments disappearing between two Microsoft products, so I tested it. I sent a few emails from Outlook to Outlook Express through our Open Source mail server – no problems, everything got where it was supposed to go. I then disabled support in our MTA for TNEF encoding – that, according to Microsoft, was the culprit, and sure enough, the attachments that weren’t working for my customer stopped working for me. Apparently, the ISP did have their server mis-configured.

Transport Neutral Encapsulation Format, or TNEF is, paradoxically, a proprietary attachment format used in Outlook and Exchange – there really is nothing neutral about it. Our company MTA was compiled with TNEF decoding so there were no problems passing these attachments to the recipients. Since it is unlikely for an ISP to rebuild it’s mail servers, TNEF related issues can be largely avoided by sending email as HTML of plain text. Avoid RTF in Outlook as this format uses TNEF while HTML and plain text use the standard MIME encoding. TNEF encoding can sometimes contain user login names, file paths, and other potentially sensitive information from which attack vectors could be derived. This vulnerability was patched in 2006 but there are certainly a large number of un-patched systems out there.

Eventually, my customer grudgingly went back to using Outlook Express, accusing the entire IT industry of being a racket, since the large cable company that provides their internet service was not interested in reconfiguring their mail servers, I advised him to buy a product that didn’t work with this mis-configured equipment, Microsoft, the biggest software company in the world, couldn’t get two of it’s flagship products to play nice with each other. Microsoft did offer free support hours to quell my irritation with them, demanding that they make their products work with each other. I declined because, as a Microsoft Partner, we get free critical support – and I only call them when it’s critical. I did get a really nice golf shirt with the Microsoft logo emblazoned on the sleeve though. I believe that Microsoft sent my customer a credit for future purchase, but he never got it. It was sent as an attachment.