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Member Since 10 Nov 2009
OFFLINE Last Active Apr 24 2012 09:08 AM

Amazon Alexa 'brief mode' will make your Echo less chatty

Today, 10:27 AM

Ever feel that Amazon's Alexa voice assistant can be a bit too chatty for its own good? A new mode in testing could help the digital helper bite its tongue at appropriate moments on your Amazon Echo device.

Some Reddit users (as reported by AFTV News) are being offered a new beta "Brief Mode" to try in the Alexa app. This replaces spoken responses for simple beeps when some tasks have been completed.

So, for instance, were you to ask Alexa to turn on some smart lights, you'd be given the option of having Alexa beep affirmatively rather than speak.

Simple but effective

It's only a small tweak, but it could make that sense of an omnipresent Amazon spy in your home feel a little less overbearing, and there's plenty of potential for expansion.

While Amazon is keeping it simple at present, an expanded Brief Mode could cut down on things like timer explanations and unavailable music streaming songs. Sure, it'd be a little less personal, but perhaps also a bit more useful.

There's no word yet on when or if Brief Mode will roll out to all users, but we'll keep you posted.

Best Linux distros for small businesses in 2018

16 March 2018 - 10:33 AM

Running a small business is no easy task. The last thing you need is extra complexity in your IT infrastructure – so why turn to Linux?

Well, it could (if you're lucky) actually turn out to be a less complex choice for many tasks, depending on the distribution you select. And, critically, Linux is free; at least if you don't figure in support costs. That's an overhead ticked off the list.

So what's the best choice for your small business? We've approached this selection with a few criteria in mind. Stability must come first: if you're putting a distro to work, uptime is critical. Solid support provision comes a close second.

We've also considered practical capabilities, which is why you'll find a couple of non-desktop distributions on our list.

Built on the solid foundation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) – and, indeed, officially funded by Red Hat as of 2014 – CentOS is undoubtedly a distro with strong credentials. Its default Gnome desktop is pleasant and reasonably familiar to most computer users, the RPM package management system is widely supported, and it's equally at home on workstations and servers.

CentOS harnesses the open source components of its parent OS, which actually make up the majority of RHEL. Only Red Hat's trademarks and a few proprietary components are omitted. Thanks to this unique partnership, updates tend to flow to CentOS only a day or two after they hit RHEL. In other words, this is enterprise-class Linux that anyone can use.

CentOS is now one of the world's most popular server distros, and is perfect if you want to build serious hardware appliances without paying for a Red Hat subscription. While the CentOS community can provide some useful advice free of charge, professional support is the key reason for using RHEL. Server prices for Red Hat combined with a support package start at $799 (around £600, AU$1,065) per year, so it could be prohibitively expensive for small business use.

ClearOS and CentOS are pretty close cousins. Both run many of the same packages inherited from RHEL, and can benefit from the swift Red Hat release cycle. But while CentOS is a functional desktop OS, ClearOS is designed primarily as a server platform and an alternative to commercial options like Red Hat Enterprise Server or Windows Small Business Server. The OS is administered entirely from a web interface, so you won't need a keyboard, mouse, or even a monitor connected to the machine once ClearOS is installed. 

Because of its tight focus, ClearOS is actually easier to use than most server operating systems. That web interface makes installing this operating system's various components a breeze, so you can easily set up a firewall for your business, manage an email server, install a file server or more – all safe in the knowledge that each of these components will (most likely) work perfectly together.

ClearOS 7 is supported professionally by a dedicated ClearCARE team. It also includes software packages that have been thoroughly tested for stability. Prices start at $108 (£80, AU$140) per year. You might also be interested in ClearVM, the team's virtualisation solution – the free version allows you to finely manage the precise performance of two virtual machines and eight CPU cores.

While CentOS is an open source OS based on a paid-for release, OpenSUSE works in reverse. This community-developed operating system is used as the basis for the commercially-supported SUSE Linux Enterprise. SUSE actually borrows a lot from Red Hat, including its RPM package management system, but isn't a direct clone.

OpenSUSE is one of the few distros to use the graphically-heavy KDE window manager by default, though you can also install Mate, LXDE and others. This means it can run on older hardware. In fact, if you're looking to run small web appliances, the latest version will run on a Raspberry Pi and includes a huge number of packages. 

OpenSUSE now follows a rolling release model, which means updates are regularly available without you having to manually upgrade every 18 months as before. This makes for a much more secure and stable operating system.

If you're running a small business, the security of your network should be as important a concern as the behaviour of your employees. IPFire ticks both these boxes at once. It's an all-in-one Linux appliance: install it on a machine which sits between your internet connection and your network switch and it'll do everything from managing IP addresses to protecting you with a firewall, and controlling what sites your workers are allowed to visit and when.

It does require a certain level of knowledge to get IPFire installed, and its unique nature – it's constructed from scratch, not forked from any specific version of Linux – means it won't be quite as easy to configure as other distros may be. Thankfully there are regular ‘Core’ updates, which incrementally keep IPFire up to date with the latest security and app updates.

IPFire is managed via a web interface and requires at least a machine with two network connections. There's an excellent installation handbook and paid support is available if necessary.

As the most popular desktop distribution of Linux, Ubuntu’s reputation might lead you to think that it’s best suited to home users. While Ubuntu's stability and flexibility for end users is very solid, there's also a free-to-use Ubuntu Server version to handle your backend tasks. This is based on Debian Linux, and can make use of Debian’s packages through the Apt package management system (to supplement its own offerings). This means you'll be able to get the software you need quickly and easily.

One of Ubuntu's strongest features is the level of support it benefits from. The vast user base means there's a raft of technical documentation available, and its generous community has answered just about every question you might have.

Ubuntu is released twice a year in April and October. The April releases are tagged LTS which stands for Long Term Support, and unlike the versions released in the autumn, these are maintained for five years. With Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, you're covered until 2021, which is a great advantage for long-term stability.

For those times when you need a little more help, the Ubuntu Advantage program is a reasonably priced support offering, starting from $75 (£55, AU$95) per year for virtual servers and $225 (£160, AU$285) for physical nodes.

Manjaro is built on top of Arch Linux, traditionally one of the more complex and obtuse Linux distros out there. This OS does away with that complexity, while sharing Arch's streamlined and fast environment, its latest 'bleeding edge' software, and its rolling release schedule.

This means you should never have to install a later version of the software – you'll get the updates as they're released, and your Manjaro machines will upgrade over time rather than being taken out of service.

The latest release of Manjaro 17.0.6 uses its own default dark theme which is based on Xfce, but other official builds use the KDE and Gnome desktop environments. 

Manjaro has made other improvements over Arch – a better installer, improved hardware detection and repositories full of stable software make it a solid choice for end-user systems. With some work you could probably build a server from Manjaro's Minimal Net edition, but other distros handle that aspect a lot better.

You could also find a prebuilt version amongst Manjaro's community editions which may suit your needs perfectly; check them out here.

We're entering the realm of more difficult distros here, and we're doing it without the safety net of a dedicated paid support structure, but give Slackware a chance if you're looking to build bespoke Linux systems.

It's the oldest consistently maintained Linux distro, having first emerged in 1993, and as such it doesn't make any assumptions about the way you're going to use it, giving you more control than most other types of Linux.

You're going to need control, though: its package manager doesn't resolve software dependencies, there's no fixed release schedule (new stable versions of Slackware tend to come out when they're ready, and the most recent release gap was around three years), and there are no graphical configuration tools.

But knuckle down, edit a bunch of plain text files, and you'll be able to create exactly the package you need for your business, all on top of a lightweight and bloat-free distro.

  • Linux Format is the number one magazine to boost your knowledge on Linux, open source developments, distro releases and much more. Subscribe to the print or digital version of Linux Format here.

Spotify India launch seems imminent, confirms CEO

16 March 2018 - 09:49 AM

Spotify might just be coming to India soon, according to its CEO, Daniel Ek. During the company’s annual presentation on Thursday, Ek stated that, “We are working on launching in some of the biggest markets in the world, places like India, Russia, and Africa which has a very rich musical culture.”

He didn’t provide any specifics as to when Spotify may release nationally but this confirms that Spotify definitely has India’s music loving audience on its radar. Previous reports have already told us that Spotify has leased office space in Mumbai. The report also shows that Spotify has 308 employees across 21 nations, that includes India as well as Brazil, Singapore and others. 

Daniel Ek

Spotify in India

India already has access to various music services like Saavn, Gaana, and Hungama. Even international music streaming services like Apple Music, Amazon Music and Google Play Music are already present in the Indian market. 

Once Spotify does come into the Indian market, it will have to compete against these established players to capture market share. 

Spotify shouldn’t be too worried though with 71 million paid subscribers, which is double Apple Music’s 36 million subscribers and Amazon Music’s 16 million subscribers. 

Tencent Music, which just Gaana’s strategic partner now, has over 120 million paying music streams but it’s service is limited to China for now. Interestingly, Tencent is also in an equity partnership with Gaana, which means they both have minority stakes in each others companies.

The company has recognised that most of its users are under the age of 34, making India an ideal platform to launch on with its current demographic dividend. 

Spotify globally

Spotify has already started expanding globally with launches in South Africa, Vietnam, Israel and Romania within the last week. The service is present in a total of 65 countries around the world within 10 years of it’s initiation. 

Aside of its plans of expansion, Ek also reiterated the plans of Spotify to go public on April 3. 

He explained that, “You won’t see us ringing any bells or throwing any parties. The traditional model for taking a company public isn’t good for us.” Instead of Wall Street underwriting their public offering, the company is going down the unbeaten path of directly listing itself on the exchange.

The India music market’s revenue from streaming services is poised to cross Rs 3,100 crore by 2020 according to a report by Deloitte and with Spotify leading the world in music streaming, it only makes sense that the company takes advantage of this opportunity. 

Not to say that there won’t be heavy competition, but Spotify’s reputation and content should be enough to carry it through. 

  • Apple Music vs Spotify: See how the two music streaming giants fair against each other. 
  • Can't figure out which music streaming service is best for you? Here's our guide on what you should be on the look out for.
  • Music streaming has been around for a while, but the arguments in streaming are still the same. 

Nest Temperature Sensor will keep every corner of your home cosy

15 March 2018 - 01:16 PM

Nest's smart heating system just got smarter. From today, you'll be able to pre-order the long-awaited Nest Temperature for $39 (a three pack costs $99) letting you get precise heat readings from every corner of your home.

While UK and Australian pre-orders have yet to open, that converts to around £25 / AU$50 and £70 / AU$125 for the single and three packs respectively. 

A bundle that comes alongside the Nest Thermostat is set to launch in the spring, too.

Smarter readings

You may be asking, if the smart thermostat itself can read ambient temperature, what's the need for an additional sensor?

Well, a thermostat only take a general reading from its immediate surroundings. So if you've got several floors to your property or a draughty corner, it may not be an accurate reflection of some colder or hotter corners of your home. With a set of the temperature readers, the thermostat can be programmed to favor the temperature in individual rooms – perhaps lifting the temperature for a cosy sleep in an icy bedroom, while lowering it at a time when the kitchen is generating lots of heat.

A replaceable CR123 battery keeps each sensor ticking over for as long as two years, but you'll yet to be able to get smart assistant integration for the sensors. You'll have to wait a bit longer before you can ask Alexa or Google Assistant for specific temperatures in specific rooms.

Google Home gets location-based reminders

15 March 2018 - 10:49 AM

Google has added location-based reminders to its Google Home speakers, giving them another smart edge over Amazon’s Echo products. 

Google announced this upgrade on Twitter. It says you can tell your Google Home “Hey Google, set a reminder to pick up more coffee at the grocery store”, and you’ll get an alert on your phone when you reach the supermarket.

Pretty neat, right? Soon the only thing we’ll need to remember are the 400 passwords for all our logins. 

Google Power

Google wrote about its plans for location-based reminders in late February 2018 in a blog post. Just three weeks later, it’s here. 

What we don’t know yet is how versatile and reliable these reminders will be. We haven’t had a chance to test location reminders yet. 

However, it demonstrates the power of cross-pollination of Google services. Having Google Maps and Assistant baked into Android phones makes this, theoretically, less of a technical challenge than it would be for Amazon Alexa.