Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ubuntu for an Kiosk Machine / Home Use

The new releases of Ubuntu are due out this week ("Hardy Heron," which is 8.04), and my expectation is to have continuing pleasant experiences with Ubuntu as it is becoming the de-facto mainstream distribution of Linux for general users.

Some weeks ago a good friend who is a dentist called to tell me that the kiosk machine that I had put in his front office to showcase his website was not working. Turns out the problem he'd identified was an easy fix, but his web services company had upgraded something on his page (likely Flash) and our nearly abandoned LiveKiosk.com program wasn't displaying his page anymore. It's been a little bit of heartbreak for me that the attempt to commercialize our post-hurricanes pro-bono project PublicWebStations never developed enough interest to keep working on it, so I've continued to save articles on web kiosks and specialized Live-CD distributions--in the back of my mind, planning to someday try to build a community around creating a customizable web kiosk program in Linux for anyone to use. That takes me to my old familiar soap-box about re-using old computer hardware, but I won't go there... yet.

So, knowing that my friend just needed a simple showcase machine for his office, and that security and non-hackability weren't critical, I added a hard drive to his computer and loaded Kubuntu, a KDE version of Ubuntu. I then added Firefox, and for Firefox downloaded two extensions: R-kiosk and Stylish. R-kiosk allows the browser window to take over the the screen and lock out any changes, Stylish allowed me to put in some code to get rid of the vertical scroll-bar, which only appears because on the first page is content below the main portion of the site with text information. (See http://userstyles.org/styles/5449) In order to escape from Firefox, since it takes over the whole screen, you can use the key combination alt-F4, then start Firefox in safe mode if you need to make any changes: start a terminal session, then use "firefox.exe -safe-mode" and disable the add-ons before continuing. I had to disable R-kiosk add-on in order to be able to start firefox regularly and then add the code for the scrollbars, then restart, enable rkiosk, and restart again. You'd need to do this to change the default home page, for example.

Anyway, not the most light-weight solution, nor the most secure, but a very easy method for getting a good web kiosk going.

Now that I was in Linux mode, I went into our family room and decided that I wanted to switch from using Puppy Linux there to Xubuntu. Puppy's been great, but the newest beta version of Xubuntu, which is designed to work well and fast on older hardware, has Firefox 3. Our family computer is a P3/1GHz machine with limited memory (maybe even 128MB), and I wanted to see how it would do with Firefox 3, which is still in beta, but which is definitely a faster browsing experience than Firefox 2. Aside from one small hiccup with Synaptic which required that I make a directory it told me it was missing to run, installation was very smooth, and the browsing experience pretty much indistinguishable from my much more modern, core-duo laptop. (As you can see, we still have our small stereo hooked up to this computer, since we have loved www.MP3Tunes.com, where we uploaded all our CDs and can play them from the computer. It doesn't also hurt that Hannah Montana's videos can be found online, forming much of the "educational content" of our ten-year-old daughter's computer use...)

Then the moment of magic. Using Synaptic I loaded Skype, then added my Logitech 9000 webcam through the front USB port on the computer, and with no additional configuring was able to video-conference with Skype. OK, that may not seem like much, but the moment you can have Skype capability with no hacking on a free distribution running on old computers, you have a really, really great solution for disaster relief shelters. Think about all the classrooms that could benefit from this machine--which is basically so old that it's not even on really on the back side of any refresh programs. I was somewhat amazed. No time to really even think or ponder too deeply on this now, but that back-burner project just got the heat turned up a bit.
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