Sunday, November 25, 2007

Looking at Cad on Linux a little deeper.

As I have said using Linux as a engineering desktop can be a bit of a frustration. There a number of well developed programs for circuit design and pc board design but for drawing wiring diagrams and regular 2d drafting there is not much to speak of. Yes, there is Qcad, a free 2D drafting program that runs natively on Linux. But so far everybody who has written about it only says that it is easy to use. I would like to hear from someone who is actually using it. You know, a step by step, play by play description of using it. That would be very sweet. I did run into another possibility and that is to run a MS Windows based Cad program in Linux with Wine. Now it is not a perfect solution as there are little gotchas when using Wine. The first problem is committing to using the program in the first place. This means paying for it. Deciding which Cad program is not so easy. There are very few free Cad programs on any platform. Free is often reserved for time limited trials and crippled demos. It is even hard to find copies of old software on the Internet. These companies realize that Cad software is used to make money and they watch very closely how the programs are distributed so they can make money also. So, what is the problem? For architectural and mechanical design work, which covers the most Cad use, a full featured 2d/3d cad package can handle all the work. For electrical design a 2d package can usually handle the work. It is such a waste to pay for the full featured package and only use a small portion of it. Most Cad software companies have addressed this situation by offering a "lite" version, but it still cost something. The second problem is knowing if the program will run under Wine without headaches. On the Wine web site there is a list of programs known to run under Wine, it is not extensive. This does not mean it will not run, just that it is not documented. So, let's see, you have to pay for a Cad program but if you don't need the big full featured Cad you can buy the lite version. Then you must know if it will run under Wine if you are using Linux. I will add to this if you install the program and you can not use your peripherals to your ideal of comfort, you might have to make adjustments or forget it. I used one program and my wireless mouse did not respond correctly, so I had to bring out the PS/2 mouse. Sometimes under Wine, some parts of a program do not function smoothly or at all. It depends on the program. Especially when using a productivity type program, look and feel is very important. Now on my Linux desktop I am trying out Qcad, which is a free Linux based cad and PowerCad which is also called FelixCad and is a MS windows platform product. PowerCad is free for a limited time and so far I do not know of its limitations. I think the time limited versions of software are cool to tryout and learn from but the cost of ownership is often too high. For putting around this is good but if you plan to make money using the software you must decide to spend some. Hobbiest, students and other single users can't always justify the cost and the free versions often suffer from lack of the money incentive to be supported and developed. Maybe and perhaps in the future some in the engineering world will embrace the Linux platform and begin to push for tools on it. With myself pursuing my second career, I don't know if I can spend much energy doing Cad work, but I will continue to play with my choices just to have something to rant and rave about. Stay tuned..........

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cad on the technical desktop

In my latest round of what do you get in Linux I had to let life in the real world leak in a little. I have been for many years an Electrical draftsman and the software of choice in the profession is AutoCad. Now Autocad is only on the Microsoft Windows platform and because it is the industry standard, both Microsoft and Autodesk who makes AutoCad have a monopoly on the technical desktop. This is really apparent when you realize that most electrical cad work is 2D, wiring diagrams and schematics, and have basically have no need for things like parametric dimensioning and 3D capability. So in reality AutoCad is an extreme overkill. I think Autocad is used because of the file formats, DXF and DWG are handled so well. You could get into some 3D work involved with the physical layout and packaging of electrical parts, but for the most part, 2D is the ticket. There are some new Cad programs devised to better handle some electrical drawing tasks for a cheaper cost, but AutoCad pretty much retains a lock on the industry.
What of these other Cad programs? They handle DXF and DWG files with varying degrees of success. When you transfer drawings from one program to another, you can corrupt and or change data, which is not a good thing. So why isn't there a Linux version of AutoCad? There are two reasons. First Linux does not enjoy wide spread use in the tech industry. Then it seems that people who use Linux expect low cost or free software. Of course if a Linux version were the industry standard, you could get people to pay for it. With Linux there is always the question as to whether or not you can get a return on your investment of money, time and energy, which comes first the demand or the development? There is another reason that troubles me. It seems that people who use Linux applications do not develop or support industry user groups beyond the general purpose forums. This is a somewhat fuzzy view because people in the mechanical and architectural disciplines do share lots of information compared to the electrical which is mostly not mentioned.
The question comes up, can you really do Cad in Linux? Yes, by running a MS windows Cad application in a emulator like Wine or in a virtual machine under VirtualBox or VM. And there are a couple of Cad programs that run natively in Linux, namely Qcad and VariCad. Qcad is free and VariCad is not. There is also LinuxCad but I am not hearing good things about that one. Again, what troubles me about Qcad in particular is that everyone talks about it being easy to use but no one who uses it shares enough information about it to get a practical idea about how to use it. There are no Qcad users groups and the makers have left the users to figure it out. VariCad may suffer the same fate but I don't know. To be able to trade notes, symbol blocks, scripts and tips is what makes for an active support community. Right now I question as to if the software is even being used. There are a good number of Linux tools for printed circuit boards and electronic circuit design but simple drafting tools seems to have escaped the platform. The future of Cad on Linux seems iffy.

Now I will say a word to Linux users that may sting a little. Linux is "just" the operating system and means nothing without the applications which run on it. We users need to really around, support and promote the applications that make Linux a worthwhile platform. Perhaps the developers should consider putting among their application web pages, some promotional type pages and market their wares on other web sites. Then develop the user forms into user groups to share stuff that make use of the applications more useful. Linux could be the next great technical platform.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What it seems like, the view from my chair.

I am having some interesting email conversations with a resource person at a local public library. I was browsing through the shelves in the computer section and I could not believe the number of books written about Microsoft products. Talk about redundancy and a glut of information. I believe this is because MS stuff is viewed as the standard that everyone has, both business and home users. It is as if MS products have totally dominated the computing scene and with the libraries help the perception is complete. There is a large array of books on XP and MS Office and before Vista was even warming the shelves, in anticipation there appeared a glut of Vista books and new MS Office books. Well, I really do have it out against Microsoft, but only because they are so big. This library has a few books on Apple products, not as popular and some books on Linux, what's that. So, what is my beef? Every time Microsoft comes out with a new product there is a requirement on the users part to spend more cash on hardware, software, books, and training. The library seems to back this up like an enabling parent. Yet, there are other viable computing solutions in the world besides MS.

I always thought libraries were about the free flow of information and educating the public about history, possibilities of the future and what's going on today. The thought stuck in the back of my head is that some computer companies have the desire and intent to return computing to its roots. This is that we users would access dumb terminals hooked up to large mainframe computers. Of course we have to pay for access and have no control over what is stored on the mainframe. Rights and access would be limited, content controlled and the book "1984" would become a reality, common experience. Heck, we have cable TV and Internet broadband service now, how far a jump would it be to have to pay for computer service also? Desire and intent, who is in control of the direction of technology takes us.

Some how I don't think of Apple as the company to be the juggernaut to hold Microsoft in check, after all they have carved out a niche for themselves. In the computing world there has always been a faction of those outside of the making money business. Who knows, they might even develop into a Jobs or a Gates, spearheading a company. Anyway, they just became a part of the movement because they like to code and solve computer problems. They wanted to do it themselves, not waiting for some company to do it or even because they thought their solution was better than what companies offered. Some are so caught up in who thought it first, who has right to develop the idea and who profits from it. Jobs and Gates started out with the liberty to process an idea and wound up fighting to keep you from doing the same. But what if you didn't process your idea with the intent to make money or you shared your idea freely with others who had the same drive, the same desire as you. Would that idea be processed without the aid of a so-called company or commercial entity? I really marvel at the way Linux and open source software came about. I also remember that personal computing began with the sharing of free software between persons. I am so glad that spirit has not been killed off by the greed to make money off of everything. There is room in the world for free stuff.

We have in our recent history embraced the backyard mechanic, the do it yourself handyman and everyone and his momma has a cellphone and can "text", yet computer savvy folks are still gurus, geeks, nerds and techies. A lesser species who violate patents, product warranties, end user agreements and pirates without effort. And when they take their own handiwork and share them with the public, they become criminals subversive to the way things are done in business and a threat to the bottom line. And when you yourself use that approved code that you have paid for from a certified company, are you really getting anything better than what has been labeled as renegade code? How would you know, after all you don't have the ability to examine both products under the microscope. And you don't really care about the motives of the company supplying the code or the consequences of having it. You just want it to work. It is too bad a big and influential company like Microsoft wouldn't/couldn't put out a unbiased comparison report of computing solutions like what Progressive Insurance advertises they do. Honest assessments of ones competition is not the way business is done.
Well, I can not vouch for Progressive, but historically Microsoft is unlikely to give a fair review.

So having said all of the above, is it worth being bothered with open source software or this thing called Linux? I guess you will have to educate yourself and decide. The value of anything becomes apparent by using it. This is true in the computing world and in much of life.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jobs, Gates and Torvalds, Icons of computing history

You know when it comes to the history of the popular and personal computer, images of two people comes into my head, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. These two are life long soul mates of sorts in the short but colorful history of the personal computer. They inflict on each other wounds of friendly fire in commercials for the public to side up to their respective company's products. The actors who portray them resemble them so closely that even in caricature we are deluded to believe the rivary between them is real. In them and in their rivary we compare their companies and their products as if they themselves embody the reason to choose between them. They carry on and via for the public's attention and dollars to the exclusion of anything else going on in the computer world. To most people, at least to my knowledge, Apple and Microsoft are the two left standing after all the rest have come and gone. With Microsoft being the defacto standard and Apple being the official alternative platform, you would think commercial success would indicate the user has gotten the best and brightest a user could ask for. Fortunately computing history has more stories than just about Jobs and Gates. Let's see, before computers became personal, there was this thing called Unix which ran on university and government mainframe computers. Being inaccessible to most and expensive to all, it was not destined to be put on something so insignificant as a personal computer. Yet there was this bit of code called Minix and the desire of a guy, his name Linus Torvalds. He wanted to write an free operating system that would run on this personal computer. I won't get into who came first the chicken or the egg, but the development and use of Linux grew up along side of Microsoft Windows and Apple Macs, yet in the background. From the get go, Microsoft and Apple were business ventures, but Linux was the backroom project, the passion of folks who just like to code. The rest is history, only you have to insist that the ones telling it include the whole story, not just the popular parts. It seems romance and legions have not been forth coming in including Linux. Even Jobs and Gates have refused to include Torvalds publicly (in commercials). After all, Jobs and Gates were friends first then rivals. Who the heck is Torvalds anyway? And who ever heard of the Dynamic Trio? In the final analysis, if you look at the circumstances from which Linux came to life, it is a pretty miraculous story with events that are as intriguing as the Jobs and Gates story. But the real thing is the results that are seen and experienced on the desktop, what the user sees. If you are not totally blinded by the Jobs and Gates story, you might enjoy the inclusion of the Torvalds story. And you might even enjoy the fruits of his initial labor. It seems that Jobs and Gates are admired for their business savvy which have driven the production of the products we see on the desktop today. We don't seem to acknowledge Torvalds who has driven Linux to the same desktop result by a different set of rules. This story is far from over, stay tuned.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

KDE, Gnome, Xfce or what desktop you like

After re-installing my XP and Xubuntu Linux systems I couldn't help wondering what the next step in desktop design would look like. All eyes once again have turned to Apple. Actually Apple can not really make a claim to fame for having the most original desktop, the new Leopard OS desktop has features that have been introduced in Linux years ago. But Apple can say they have perfected and extended an idea that Linux folks should have developed further. I'm talking about a desktop icon docking system. If you are familiar with Linux at all, you might recall Window Maker had a docking system. Anyway Apple has taken the string of icons, in reality application launchers , and integrated the file system with them. Sort of like drawers that pop out of the icon revealing the contents of the folders behind them. It is very sweet once you learn to work it. Sounds like Window Maker? For one thing, Apples' Leopard Desktop is polished to perfection and is the one to emulate. Is there any hope for Linux? Well, as we speak or write, there is a load of icon docks for Linux. Some have sought to copy Apple's look and feel and some not. Please, don't get into the rip-off and copy-cat argument, borrowing ideas is a big part of the computing industry. If we felt that about ink pens we would still be using quills.
As usual, Linux folk aline themselves with a desktop environment. Kool Dock, Ksmooth Dock, Kira Dock, KX Docker, Tuxbar, and a couple of others are all compatible with KDE. Avant Window Navigator and Enlightenment's Engage will work with any window manager. XFCE has a built-in icon bar. Each of these icon docks have an assortment of features and requirements. Some require the support of special video drivers to do what is called compositing. This makes for transparency and animation and such. I myself am a little shy on the special effects. It's a resource thing. Of course I am amazed that Enlightenment has a history of doing special effects without special drivers. The Engage dock comes in two packages. One integrated into the Enlightenment desktop and one stand alone program. The stand alone program is sort of hard to find. They are not pushing it out there. Then there is Avant Window Navigator (AWN). It is absolutely beautiful, like Apples' dock system. AWN is still kind of new, buggy for some and is being sought after by many. I hope they develop it more and put it out there for us to enjoy. From what I understand, AWN does require special sauce to work. Then lastly there is the icon bar in XFCE. This is what I am using now. It is not a real looker or is it tweakable to the degree that the other icon bars are. I tried the transparency and shadowing effects and was not impressed. Xfce is a low resource user, but I hear that more development is on the way. Oh, by the way, MS Windows users are not really left out, there are a few Apple like icon bars for Windows. RKLauncher which I have used is pretty cool. The single click icons are such a relief over the double click ones. I don't exactly know just how much you can do to a desktop, because the object is to get at your files and stuff. It all has to be very usable. But as software developers try new tricks and revisit rough old ideas, we users get new desktops to rave about.