Some long-awaited features in GNOME 2.22

I’ve been reading the GNOME 2.22 Release Notes which generally contain a laundry-list of nice-to-have features and improvements, when I stumbled across the following 2 lines in section 5.2 discussng improvement to administration tools:

The Shared Folders tool now allows you to edit the SMB user database (smbpasswd).

The Network tool can now set up PPPoE and GPRS connections.

I cannot stress enough how important I perceive those improvements to be.

Lets begin with the first one, the Shared Folders tool made its debut about a year ago. Setting aside my notion that “shared folders” arn’t the best way to go about user-level information sharing (Distributed file systems like Wuala Which I discussed recently seem to hit closer to home), this is a well known feature of other operating systems. While shared folders utilizing a variety of protocols, have been possible on Linux for very long (Indeed maybe since as soon as it had networking capabilities), utilizing those features required manual configuration of server-grade software, a task nearly impossible for novice users to get right. The Shared Folders tool made it possible for users to share folders using the Windows-compatible CIFS protocol with the relative ease they have come to expect from other operating systems.

However the Shared Folders tool had a critical flaw. When accessing a CIFS-shared folder from a remote machine, a username and a password need to be specified and accepted by the sharing machine (Windows sometimes hides this fact when the username and password on the sharing and accessing machines are identical).

Because of differences in the way Windows and Linux handle passwords, it is actually technically impossible to utilize local Linux user and password lists for this purpose, therefore Samba, the Linux implementation of the CIFS protocol, uses its own user and password database called “smbpasswd“.

To actually share a folder with Samba, two tasks need to be performed:

  1. Samba needs to be configured to actually share the folder.
  2. Account details for users accessing the folder need to be specified in the “smbpasswd” database.

The Shared Folders tools included support for performing only the first of the tasks. This resulted in the fact that users using the Shared Folders tool and subsequently attempting to access the shared folder from a remote machine found themselves being asked for username and password details which they had no way of knowing how to fill in (Filling in the details of the Linux user account didn’t work).

It seems that now the tool is finally complete, offering a way to perform the second task.

The second GNOME improvement I mentioned above is the ability of the network configuration tool to set up PPPoE conections.

Because of the way Israeli Internet Service Providers (ISPs) work, PPPoE is essential for connecting to the internet over ADSL. Because package management, arguably the most important feature Linux distributions have to offer, as well as other essential features, depend upon the machine being connected to the internet, especially during the first few hours after installation, not being able to quickly and easily setup a connection must have served to send many potential new users back to using other operating systems.

Simple command-line scripts for setting up PPPoE connections have actually been available on Linux systems for quite some time, however those have been much less accessible and discoverable by novice users. Therefore having a GUI option for setting up PPPoE connections right in the network configuration tool where a Windows-knowledgeable user might look for it is a blessed improvement indeed.

In the frequent-change-accustomed Linux user community, small new features often receive little if any notice, however, for certain users, especially those trying to learn the system, those features can spell the difference between a pleasant and rewarding user experience on Linux and the shameful return, tail between legs, to other operating systems they sought to escape from.

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