25 September 2010

Not Every Jolicloud Has A Silver Lining

Platform Agnostic is what's written on the "Operating System of Choice" line of my DeviantART profile as well as any other profile or bio that asks. It means that, officially, I couldn't care less what OS something has installed on it because, apart from a few and fairly reasonable strength/weakness debates, they're all alike. The only factor that truly differentiates Microsoft from Apple from Linux is market share; Windows is the 500-pound "Any color, as long as it's black" Gorilla, Mac is the Cocky "Well, you win some, you lose some" Upstart, and Linux is the Grassroots "None of the above" Rebel. I grew up in a Mac household up until OSX, became a Windows convert of sorts with XP after college, and dabbled in Linux (specifically, Ubuntu and Mint) the last two years. I've seen the best each has to offer, and I've witnessed their stumbles. Most recently, I gave a little OS called Jolicloud a try, after hearing it briefly mentioned on a podcast called Dumpstertech. I thanked them for letting me know about it via Twitter:

Matsugawa: I'm about to try out that #Jolicloud OS that I heard about on @dumpstertech some time back. We'll see how it stacks up in Linux terms...

This leads me to what is probably my favorite part of Jolicloud's design, the installation and demo design. Normally, if you want to install a Linux operating system on your PC, you have to download the .iso file to create an install disc with a CD or DVD burner. ISO files are between 650MB and 1.5GB in size, so this requires a relatively substantial internet connection, not to mention a modest degree of patience. In short, it's more of an investment than an impulse. Jolicloud, however, seems to understand the weariness many of its potential users may feel toward trying a new and substantially-simplified operating system, so they came up with a solution in the form of Express, something that could only be described as a demo of the full version of the OS. Demos are usually reserved for applications, namely games, and consist of a pared-down version of the full program intended to take up less room on one's hard drive and be relatively easy to install and, if necessary or desired, removed or upgraded to its full capabilities. While Jolicloud Express cannot be upgraded-to-full per se, it does not require an install disc to be made, and is instead simply downloaded and installed like any other application.
Jolicloud is designed for netbooks and favors touchscreens, giving it more than a passing resemblance to the iPad operating system. While it has folders for user-created documents such as text files, photos, and videos, applications are hidden except for desktop shortcuts, which are large icons arranged in a grid on the main screen. When there are more apps than there is room to display, or you want to organize your apps according to their function or something, a small row of white dots appears along the bottom of the screen, each representing a new "page" of applications.
While this setup would only prove slightly problematic as my test drive proceeded, there was something of a false start that nearly put the whole trial on indefinite hold. When an operating system is installed on a computer as a partition (that is, keeping the original OS with the new one installed alongside it), the option is presented upon boot-up which one is to be used until the next shutdown or restart. Unfortunately, after installing Express and restarting, no such option appeared. I found out Jolicloud's support department had a Twitter page:

Matsugawa: @Jolisupport I used the Express version, but it won't let me choose between it and XP on boot, only #Jolicloud. What gives?

Expecting an automated "please visit our full site" response, I was rather relieved to get a real response from a real person with whom I could have an actual (if somewhat limited) dialogue:

Zak Kaufmar: @matsugawa Did the installation complete correctly? Maybe try reinstalling. ^ZK

Looking back over JoliSupport's other messages to users, this was the catch-all solution offered at least once during the conversation, regardless of the situation. To be fair, back when I worked in customer service for a cellular provider, whenever a customer was having a technical issue with their phone, our first step was always to have them turn the phone off and back on again and, surprisingly, that solved the issue nine times out of ten, at least. At worst, the issue would recur and do so frequently to the point of no longer being simply a glitch, but this was rather rare. The point is, this solution was not by any means inappropriate, but its preceding question assumes that a first-time user would know the difference between a successful install and one that was otherwise.
Furthermore, the problem was that I couldn't actually reinstall if I wanted to, because I would have to go back into the Windows XP environment to remove Jolicloud, but I couldn't get there to do so. The only thing that kept my next message from being one of complete verbal abuse was a great sense of smug satisfaction that I'd listened to my prior instinct and backed up all my files onto an external disk before installing Jolicloud. Past experiences with computers have included some close calls in terms of data loss, but while I've made archiving a habit, it begs pondering how many otherwise-lucky people trying Jolicloud will fill Jolisupport's inbox with pure textual hatred.
On a whim, I went to Jolicloud's official page and clicked on their support link, arriving at their community forums named "Get Satisfaction" (which always makes me think of Barry Lyndon, for better or for worse). It seemed more than likely my problem wasn't unique, so I typed in a brief description of the issue, something along the lines of "Jolicloud dual boot XP issue," and got about a half-dozen forum threads whose respective headers noted that at least two or three people each had this exact same problem. It turned out, luckily, that XP had not been supplanted so much as upstaged by Jolicloud. To fix this issue, all I had to do was find a file called boot.ini and open it in a text editor. To Jolicloud's credit, a user can access all their original Windows files (like documents, photos, and the like) while in the Jolicloud environment, and this was where I found the mystical INI file. The document, a script less than 20 lines in length that effectively told the computer how long to leave the dual-boot option visible for, with the "timer" set to zero. All one had to do was change that value to something like 10 or 30, click on save, and restart. Sure enough, there was the dual-boot screen. It sounds weird to speak of how the sight of some white text on a black background can invoke such a warm feeling of relief. Still, I wondered how many other users would be as patient and, more importantly, persistent as I in finding this solution, and concluded that just because a problem has a simple solution is no reason for it to not have preventative measures taken against it. I told as much to Jolisupport:

M: @Jolisupport found a solved thread regarding XP bootup issue. Thanks, just wish boot.ini's timeout defaulted to 30 instead of 0.

Of course, had this been a full install, there would have been no XP, Vista, or 7 to choose, so there would have been no reason for the INI script to be set to a value higher than zero. Similarly, if this had been a partition installed, the ability to still access Windows files might well have, for most users, made the whole dual-boot option borderline redundant. The problem is, though, this was neither a full install nor a partition, this was a demo, essentially an application running in Windows. In other words, it's a completely different entity from its more "permanent" kin, so why not have the default dual-boot timer set to 30 or 15? From what I came to understand, this issue is somehow exclusive to XP users, so it might have more to do with Windows than Jolicloud, but it still just strikes me as this glaring flaw that will ultimately break more deals than make them.
With that rough start out of the way, my second session with Jolicloud resulted in what could best be described as the OS having a nervous breakdown. After installing a few apps (namely Opera, as I didn't care for the default browser, Chromium), I tried to rearrange them into something a little more intuitive and streamlined. I found it a bit frustrating that I was limited to two horizontal rows of icons, thereafter I had to go to the little white dots underlining the screen to see the rest; my monitor was tall enough, and there was a tantalizing gray space between the second row and the white dots. This ended up not being the worst of it, as suddenly I found I could no longer rearrange the icons and the white dots at the bottom of the screen did not respond to being clicked on, limiting my view to one screen and with only a fraction of my apps accessible. The most troubling part of all was that, every time I clicked on an icon or tried to drag and drop it to elsewhere on the screen, a white dot would appear on the bottom of the screen; where once were two, now came to be three and counting. Every failed attempt at moving an icon made for a dot, until they numbered at least twelve. Jolicloud had crashed, but it was completely oblivious to it. I tried the old standby countermeasure Ctrl+Alt+Del only to find that Jolicloud didn't work that way. I used my phone to bug Jolisupport on Twitter again:

M: @Jolisupport cannot rearrange apps, white dots at bottom of screen multiply if I try to move an app, and stuck on one screen. What now?

Z: @matsugawa You're dragging and dropping? Can you maybe provide a screen shot? ^ZK

M: @jolisupport yes, I drag and drop the icon only to have it stay and a dot appears at the bottom of the screen, as if it's been moved

Impatient for a reply, I used the next oldest remedy and physically restarted the PC. It regained its senses; I could rearrange the icons, but they now left lingering transparencies of themselves where they once stood, overlapping with whatever application would fall into its place.

Z: @matsugawa Have you tried reloading the launcher with F5? ^ZK

M: @jolisupport actually, I'd tried restarting altogether, which fixed the issue, but F5 has helped a new issue of icons overlapping.

So, with that second ordeal sorted, there was now a chance to do some tweaking of the system's general settings. In particular, I wanted to change the desktop background to a customized image. As this can be done with any and many a number of devices, including cellular phones and even my PSP, it didn't seem like it would be utterly out of the question to do this with a netbook OS. Sure enough, there was a way to customize the desktop's appearance, but it was rather unorthodox to the point of enigmatic. On Windows and OSX, these features are managed using the Control Panel. On Jolicloud, however, there's a button on the upper-left corner of the screen (resembling a gear) that takes one to a sort of profile page, which displays the user's profile information and a device manager. Here, there's a tab labeled "Legacy Apps" containing a set of App icons which cannot be removed, rearranged, or placed on the desktop proper, the first of which is "Local Settings." This is the control panel where the desktop's appearance is managed, including desktop wallpapers. In any other operating system, the Control Panel for customization is an integrated part of the OS, so having it as an application (not to mention, one that is held in place compared to its more mobile counterparts) made the option seem like an afterthought of the design process. To deepen the mystery, the entire application seemed ineffectual as I could not actually see any image I picked as the desktop wallpaper. It was only visible for a brief second during startup and shutdown.

M: @Jolicloud why is Local Settings a Legacy App instead of a more integrated part of the system?

Z: @matsugawa Because it's part of the legacy system of Ubuntu/Gnome, I believe. ^ZK

Fair enough, I suppose, though I don't remember any such setup in Ubuntu or Mint. A return visit to Get Satisfaction revealed that the inability for the custom desktop image to appear was, in fact, not a bug, not a feature (the oldest spin in the history of technology), but rather a solution to a bug. Affecting only dual-boot installs, switching between the two operating systems creates conflicts in the graphics cards of most netbooks, so the option to make the desktop transparent to show the customized background image was simply left out.
So, the rough start was simply a growing pain, the nervous breakdown was a temporary insanity solvable by a simple keystroke, and the lack of customization was limited to the trial version. All these things could be forgiven, but when everything else had been solved, one problem remained: there was no sound. I went back to the forums, found a few relevant threads, and followed all steps to no avail. This, for me, was the deal-breaker. The next day, I turned on the computer with the intent of starting up Jolicloud to try a few new apps, only to select Windows by reflex and take that as a sign that this was not going to work out.

M: I think I'm officially done with #Jolicloud ; I switched back to XP and don't miss it. Write-up to follow soon.

Z: @matsugawa Did you have any trouble with it? ^ZK

Yes, lots of trouble, more than 140 characters in a tweet can express, hence this write-up. To Jolicloud's credit, I probably wasn't the target audience, given my relative expertise with most operating systems and the fact that my computer needs tend more toward the productivity side of things than basic browsing or networking options. Also, the computer this was installed on was my Compaq Presario, bought on a tax-free day in 2005 and, except for a graphics card and additional disc drive, left virtually untouched in terms of its specifications. Needless to say, there have been many changes in the market since then, so compatibility issues are practically unavoidable and not technically anyone's fault. This was intended for newer netbooks, and I used it on an older desktop, so, from the start, Tech Support went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I was happy with their product.

In the end, I can't truly recommend Jolicloud, but take that condemnation with a grain of salt and consider my experience an example of the worst possible scenario, which consisted of a brief scare followed by a few petty annoyances. I highly doubt you'll have a worse experience than what I just detailed.

To end on a positive note, one thing that intrigues me above all else about Jolicloud as a company is a note at the bottom of their main page. It promises that if you purchase a computer and perform a full install of Jolicloud, you can have the cost of Windows refunded to you. Between OEM versions of Windows ranging in cost from 90 to 150USD, depending on the version, and netbooks costing as little as 250USD, that sounds like a damn good price to pay for an iPad clone. This is exactly the sort of step Linux needs to take in order to be taken seriously as an alternative to Microsoft and Apple. This offer is not without conditions, of course, but they're unspecified beyond "Applies in certain countries." Still, I'm going to e-mail them through their media inquiry channels for more details and write a follow-up of it with their reply.
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