Monday, 28 April 2008

Ubuntu 8.04 - Review by a Malayalam User

I was very much excited when I saw the announcement about the new release of Ubuntu in the mailing list and curious to give it a try. The new release, according to http://www.ubuntu.com is a Long Term Supported(LTS) version for 5 years and has numerous features including virtualization. It took almost 7 hours to download and upgrade the latest Ubuntu 8.04, code named Hardy Heron, in my office desktop. I preferred network upgrade since I don't want to affect my office tasks during upgrade process. The download started on Friday(25th April) and then I have to suspend it for a while and completed on Saturday. (Even though Saturday was a holiday, I couldn't wait till Monday :) ).

The upgrade completed successfully, but the new Ubuntu booted up with the old kernel which was installed with 7.10. I have to modify the grub configuration file in Fedora 8 to include Ubuntu in the grub. So I copied the following lines to the /etc/grub.conf and it was done.

title Ubuntu 8.04, kernel 2.6.24-16-generic
root (hd0,8)
kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.24-16-generic root=UUID=9c040612-4dbd-4dd8-9845-9a1050d7cbfe ro quiet splash
initrd /boot/initrd.img-2.6.24-16-generic

I did another reboot to pick the latest kernel with 8.04 and now I am ready with the login screen.

Cool desktop and Applications:
The artistic login screen and the desktop wallpapers are appealing and cool. The panel has a new icon named Search Tracker which allowed to search the desktop files and emails. It's a very user friendly and unlike other GNU/linux searching tools, it was very fast also. The new desktop came with the latest version of OpenOffice-2.4 and Mozilla FireFox-3 (beta 5). Even though , Firefox is still in beta, the new location bar search and unicode URLs are noticeable features. It seems that firefox is much faster than it's predecessors.

The desktop effects have been enabled by default and this gives more dynamic look for the desktop. In earlier versions, the desktop effects tend to consume more system resources, but 8.04 has improved a lot I didn't realised any performance issues. However, if you are upgrading from 7.10, then you probably need to delete all the preference files(files startiing with . (dot)) in your home directory and files related with your username in /tmp.

Disappointment for Malayalam users
I was very keen about the Malayalam support in the new release. Recently the Swathanthra Malayalam Computing(SMC) community have conducted aggressive campaigns for translating the interface and as a result more than 80% of the translation has been completed in GNOME. See the screenshot:


The new Ubuntu is not that much appealing to Malayalam desktop users. However experienced user can tweak the system so that it correctly renders the language. The only noticeable feature is the Firefox's ability to interpret the URLs in unicode. Earlier the unicode URLs seems to be a junk of characters and even techies can't interpret it correctly. I'm sure it's a wonderful feature for non-english users.

The Malayalam support in 8.04 is not installed by default and the first step is to install it from System --> Administration --> Language Support. Ubuntu will then automatically install the packages related to Malayalam including m17n, aspell and Malayalam fonts.

Unfortunately, the Malayalam rendering in 8.04 is very bad and when I opened the Malayalam wikipedia in Firefox most of the sections are unreadable. See the screenshot :
The rendering issues are mainly due to font issues and the Malayalam fonts developed by SMC, which is available for debian, resolved majority of the issues. I have to manually download the fonts from the debian repository and install them using the dpkg command.

# dpkg -i ttf-malayalam-fonts_0.5.2_all.deb

Here is the screenshot with Meera fonts maintained by SMC:

Now the rendering is perfect except this bug.

Since the rendering was OK, my next objective was to set up the Malayalam input in the desktop. Of course this is one of the failure with 8.04. The scim-m17n packages where not installed by default and I have to manually install them using the Synaptic Package Manager. I searched for "scim-m17n" and then applied it. SCIM was then configured using System-->Preferences-->SCIM Input Method The irritating stuff is that I have to start scim manually before typing anything in Malayalam. The following commands helped me to set up SCIM in startup:

sudo -i
touch /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
chmod 646 /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
echo 'export XMODIFIERS="@im=SCIM"' >> /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
echo 'export GTK_IM_MODULE="scim"' >> /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
echo 'export XIM_PROGRAM="scim -d"' >> /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
echo 'export QT_IM_MODULE="scim"' >> /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup
chmod 644 /etc/X11/Xsession.d/74custom-scim_startup

Reference : http://www.mrbass.org/linux/ubuntu/scim/

The scim setup was complete, but again there were problems when using ZWJ and ZWNJ. Both these characters were not properly identified and this caused problem with chillus when typing Malayalam. I was using the default inscript tables by scim, and it had some bugs. To correct this I have to install another package named m17n-contrib which also has a transliteration based input method. I searched for "m17n-contrib" in Synaptic Package Manager and applied it and then I have to relogin to effect the changes in scim. Thanks to Santhosh Thottingal who guided me to troubleshoot this issue.

The Dejavu and freefont packages installed in Ubuntu has included Malayalam glyphs but it seems that they have some bugs. This may prevent rendering Malayalam perfectly in OpenOffice Writer and rich text boxes in Firefox. Even though it's not recommended, finally, I have to remove them from the system.

The Padma extension, which is used to read Malayalam news papers in dynamic font, is not supported in Firefox 3beta5. This turned to be another disappointment as a Malayalam user. Now, I may have to search for the Padma patch developed by Sri. Anil Kumar K V, one of my favourite teachers :).

Even though the issues discussed above can be solved easily, these are real obstacles for an average Malayalee desktop user. I hope that the issues may be resolved soon and shortly we may have a complete GNU/Linux desktop.
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