Rust, a New Toy Opening New Possibilities

I have not had a chance to blog in a while. Aside from the usual busyness of life, and the occasional bouts of illness, I have been distracted by a few new thing I’ve been learning: Rust, Kivy and Electron. I’ll write about Kivy and Electron in a future post. And a lot of that is centred around the upcoming product launches for Amber Penguin Software. But that is again for another post.

Rust

For the longest time, systems level programming (especially operating systems) have fascinated me. As part of that, I tried to learn the languages used to implement systems namely C and C++. While today I feel more comfortable with these languages, these still scare me with either their complexity (C++), their programming tools (gdb, gcc, autoconf, and minions) and their potential to do horrible things to your system if you are not careful. And bugs can be incredibly difficult to trace down and debug. So I while I have tried to code more C and C++, I still avoid them for these reasons.

Recently I started playing around with Rust, the new language developed partially by Mozillians. After trying to write a small Docker utility in Rust, and working through some koans for Rust, I have become smitten with the language. While some of the borrowing, references and types drive me a bit crazy, overall Rust is an amazing language. It brings the best ideas from Haskell, ML, Python and C and makes them very accessible. While the language is new and evolving the community has super active and creating lots of libraries for the language on crate.io.

Also I recommend listening to the New Rustacean podcast to learn Rust as well. It is not only informative, but very well executed by host Chris Krycho. So far I’ve listened to 10 episodes, and between the podcast, the koans and simply playing with Rust, I’ve learned a lot about Rust. In fact I feel more comfortable with Rust now then I have ever felt with C or C++.

Qt Bindings for Rust or Rather the Lack Of

On the topic C++, the one thing that keeps bringing me back to liar of C++ is the amazing platform that is Qt. However one on the most infuriating thing is that (aside from the limited QML), the only effective way to program Qt apps is using C++. Sure there is PySide and PyQt, with promises that PySide will actually support modern Qt5… some day… soon…

One of the things I hoped for Rust bindings for Qt to come quickly. Unfortunately it turns out that binding to Qt and C++ inside of Rust is really, really hard. There is an interesting project to develop some Qt C bindings for Rust, but it is really early in development and I had no luck using it. It probably is easier to bring in Rust to a C++ Qt project than the other way around.

In general UIs in Rust is a weak point for the language. Then again UI libraries are not the simplest thing to get off the ground, and it might be easier to rethink how we build them in general. Again this something I can get to in a future post.

Distro Hopping

Sorry for the much delayed update, however this year has been an hectic and busy one. (New job, new house, lots of random unexpected events along the way, like two funerals and two weddings in a single month, etc. Long story.) Plus I really hoped to change blog platforms, but that is a story for another time.

Explaining the Journey

With so many things changing in my life, I decided to change up the Linux distribution I’m running. Now I have a large set of requirements being both a developer and gamer. I need a distribution that can handle Python, Java, Android and Qt Linux development. Also I want my distro to run Steam, and handle the Nvidia Optimus graphics card in my laptop, properly.

(Sidenote: A word to the wise, avoid Optimus cards as they are a pain to setup under Linux. I got mine because I naively assumed that all Nvidia cards are easily and nicely supported under Linux. Recently I heard that Nvidia promised to help the Nouveau devs to make the Optimus experience under Linux nicer. But I would not hold my breath to wait for things to get better soon.)

Long Story Short

The shortest version of the story: After doing a fair bit of distro hopping including using some uncommon distros, I am back to using Kubuntu.

Specifically the path I took was:
Kubuntu → openSUSE → Mageia → Debian → Linux Mint → Sabayon → Kubuntu u2192

The rationale behind all this? Well read on. 🙂

Kubuntu → openSUSE

After hearing about Canonical’s plans to use their own display manager “Mir” instead of “Wayland”, and experiencing random breakage with Kubuntu I decided to change distros. When I heard that the main dev behind Kubuntu was not going to be funded by Canonical, I decided it was time to jump ship.

I decided to retrace my steps, and try new versions of distros that I used in the past. Technically before I started using Kubuntu I ran on Gentoo Linux. But I was not about to go back to compiling and configuring everything on my system. So my first stop was openSUSE.

SuSE and now its community driven variant openSUSE, always has been a very slick distro in terms of supporting KDE.  The version I was running was no different. I was also encouraged by the large number of packages available including a nice setup for both Steam and bumblebee (this being the program that adds decent support for Nvidia Optimus under Linux).

openSUSE is a gorgeous distro overall, except for one very important issue… openSUSE feels like it was built for a corporate desktop. The number of PolicyKit warnings that I received whenever I tried to suspend and resume was surreal. While I am familiar with the lingo and ideas behind SELinux, AppArmour, etc, I could not for the life of my figure out how to get my laptop to resume and suspend without some silly PolicyKit message blocking me. openSUSE was not meeting my needs.

openSUSE → Mageia

With openSUSE failing me, I decided to go further in time to my original distro Mandrake/Mandriva. I found out that some Russian firm had bought out the French made Mandriva and as part of a general restructuring effort laid off some of the maintainers. These maintainers started their own version of Mandriva called Mageia. While the distro and its infrastructure is still fairly young, I was encouraged by the fact that some experienced maintainers were behind the project.

I was amazed with the amount of polish but into a budding community driven distro. I ran against some rough edges with Python support, but those were resolved with some help and new updates. I was impressed and I took my first steps to becoming a maintainer myself. The community was very receptive and welcoming. While I ended up using Mageia for weeks, I did not stay with the distro.

Why didn’t I stay with Mageia? I could not get bumblebee running on my machine. I could of fought some more, learn how to maintain a package and help build out the distro. But after some introspection, I realized that I simply do not have time contributing as a maintainer to a distro. There is a lot of work involved, and considering everything going on in my life right now, I needed to get a distro I could rely on and work with right now.

Magiea → Debian

Debian seemed like the logical choice for a stable Linux. The distro is entirely community driven, and has been around forever. So after a bit of haggling with the network installer, I managed to get a KDE desktop running on Debian. Debian definitely run on mature, stable software, which is perfect for someone running a server or managing a desktop configuration that has been around for years. Unfortunately the Linux desktop has only become very stable and usable in past while. Also the Debian community are sticklers when it comes to open source licenses, and how distributable
the software is legally. Unfortunately again, closed source firmware and other software makes things much more difficult. Getting my Broadcom wireless network card, and my Nvidia graphics chip working was just not happening.

Also I assumed that since Ubuntu worked so well, that Debian would be just as well setup from the get-go. I realize now how much work Canonical put into configuring their Debian base and smoothing all the wrinkles out. However I was not up for doing all that work myself, just to stay with Debian.

Debian → Linux Mint

Debian stayed installed on my laptop for a mere two days, before I got fed up with it. The next logical choice to avoid Ubuntu, but get some of the niceties of the platform was to try out Linux Mint. One of my good friends runs it and she enjoys using it thoroughly. I also watched and read some good reviews about the latest stable release of Linux Mint 15, and how much polish the devs put into the KDE desktop. I was intrigued, so I tried it out.

Linux Mint 15 definitely has a lot of polish. However nothing that spectacular that does not come standard to KDE. Except for the extra System Settings panel to handle PPAs (private Ubuntu repos), which is pretty darn cool. I did run into issues with trying to run packages originally meant for Ubuntu. There were slight and subtle incompatibilities, and I eventually gave up trying to fix things.

Linux Mint → Sabayon

By now I had run into a moment of madness. No good easy-to-use RPM based distros remained to try out. Fedora sounded too experimental for my liking. The Debian universe had been pretty much a let down. I debated using Netrunner, a KDE distro, by Blue Systems. (Blue Systems being that weird German company that somehow funds KDE development on Ubuntu, Linux Mint KDE and Netrunner. But no one has an idea how they fund themselves. Maybe by European Union funds, which seems to be the popular way to fund nebulous entities and projects in Europe.)

So I had a moment of madness, and despair brought on by no new leads while looking at potential distros on DistroWatch (http://www.distrowatch.com/). In that moment I decided to try a system not based on the traditional package systems. That left systems in the Arch or Gentoo families. Arch itself fell into the too much maintenance category. Gentoo did as well. Manjaro looks promising, but I’ll wait until it matures or fades way due to its small team. I tried Sabayon Linux, something I did not expect to do.

Sabayon Linux is definitely much nicer than Gentoo to maintain. Everything worked out of the box too. Except Sabayon felt very much like an early adopters hobbyist distro. An update or a new package installation, downloaded half the universe. My laptop ran faster… and ate its battery so quickly that it would just shutdown… randomly while running on battery. I could run Steam and my development environments, just never without worrying about my laptop suddenly powering off.

I realized I could not continue on like this…

Return to Kubuntu

Now I am back to running on Kubuntu, and everything just works well enough. I could of gone back to Mageia, and hoped that the upcoming release of Mageia 4 would of resolved most of my issues. Ultimately I went back to Kubuntu, since for right now it works well enough and meets my needs.

I work with Ubuntu at my new workplace, plus I support a couple of other Kubuntu machines running at home. I no longer use the tools that caused me grief when some libraries changed in Ubuntu. For better or worse, support for new applications or hardware is targeted at Ubuntu. Also it is a bit of a relief that Blue Systems stepped in and now funds development of Kubuntu. Canonical’s plans for transitioning to Mir, still do not affect me at least on my current version. Also this might change in the upcoming release, and I maybe stuck on this version of Kubuntu for a while.

Or things maybe change, maybe Canonical will change its mind and work with the Wayland community. Maybe Nvidia will fix up their terrible driver support due to market pressures. Or maybe I will have to move off to Mageia or Manjaro eventually. In the meantime I can be productive, and once things will calm down again, maybe I’ll go on another round of distro hopping.

Update (2013 October 18): Just upgraded to Kubuntu 13.10 yesterday!  I am encouraged by the news that the Kubuntu devs will push forward on using Wayland and support Kubuntu into the future.  So it looks like I will continue using and enjoying Kubuntu well into the future.  Now I’ll just need to learn how to package DEBs, and I’ll be able to help out occasionally too. 🙂

Diving into the Deep End with Python

Where I Stand with Java

Most of my professional experience in software development has centered around Java.  That should be no surprise as I learnt Java in university, and all the trappings that go with it: Javadoc, the Java Standard API, Eclipse and JUnit.  My professional work exposed me to JSP, Servlets, SpringMVC, Struts, JDBC, TestNG, Ant and the Android SDK.  Sure I’ve used other languages such as PHP, Perl, Scheme (mmm… functional programming…), C and Prolog.  The mainstay of my experience is still Java.

All that said, even as I include more and more exotic features of Java as language (i.e. enumeration, annotations, reflection, etc.) and as a platform, I find myself more and more constrained by the language itself.  Sure I feel comfortable with it, and I’ve written code personally that spans tens of thousands of lines.  However I find a lot of the code is boilerplate code.  Heck thanks to JAXB, I can quickly describe a series of classes using a XML schema.  That is right, a XML schema, one of those awfully obscure XML trappings that only enterprise application developers really should ever care about (or those working with complex document-style data).  Also a large Java codebase is nearly unapproachable with anything less than a powerful IDE.  Thank goodness for Eclipse!  (I write this wearing an Eclipse branded fleece jacket.)

Java is a wonderful and powerful language with great tooling.  However it just seems so wrong to have so much complexity.  I fear that this has more to do with the design decisions in the language itself than anything else.

Enter the Competitor: Python

I also learnt Python in university but I ended up using it largely for building system administration scripts rather than a general programming tool.  Instead of fighting with unwieldly BASH or Batch scripts for admin work, I use Python.  And I have created some powerful scripts using Python for tools for hunting down empty directories and rogue files for automated renaming.  After fighting with Java to do my bidding, I felt the need to look for some better language when building my new hobby project.  Also my recent attempts at learning Qt and C++ at the same time, have made me want to first learn the platform and then the language.  This is where Python seemed to hit a sweet spot.

While talking with one of my old university friends, Dan D’Alimonte, the topic of learning Qt came up.  Instead of using C++ for his Qt apps, Dan used PyQt.  After looking at his code, I decided to experiment with PySide and lo and behold I made a Qt app myself!  On the web side of things I heard a lot of good things about the Django web framework.  Hence I started experimenting with and investigating Python, PySide and Django.  In addition to the simple can-I-do-this-with-that experiments, and playing around with the tutorials, I researched the tooling and performance of Python based applications.

I am impressed so far with what I have found out about Python.  Coding in Python is a breeze and enjoyable.  I can comfortably use any text editor to program in Python.  I found that PyDev makes Python development while using Eclipse easy.  Getting new packages for Python is simple, and I do not have to rely on a package maintainer.  The standard libraries in Python are on par with Java’s.  You can always extend Python with a C or Java binding.  Building a desktop app using PySide turned out incredibly easy, compared to the standard C++ way of doing things.  Django is proving to be a very capable, and apparently *gasp* fast web framework especially when run on the optimized PyPy version of Python.  There is even mention of Python being able to build web frontends, at least in the documentation.  And importantly for me, Python has various XML, database layer, testing, and other enterprise and mobile capable libraries that I can potentially use in my day-to-day work.

Now naturally the quirks of a language become more readily visible once you actually start working on a real-life project.  That is my next step.  Then I can figure out if Python could really replace Java as my go-to language.  I will keep you posted once I get further in the project I am working on.  In the meantime, I’ve collected a bunch of links related to my investigation with Python.  Enjoy!

Python Related Links

Innovation in Increments

I have the good fortune of working in a Research & Development group. That means I get to learn about new ideas, experiment with them and apply them appropriately. Unfortunately I can not discuss my current project, other than it involves automating the creation of mobile applications. While I can not say that I am building something that is so deeply innovative that it has no precedence. But then again what most people do not realize that innovation happens mostly in small increments. You take an interesting idea, see if it makes your life easier and better. If not you review your work and options, and you try again. If it works, you get innovation!

So while I can not comment on my own work… 🙁 I can point some interesting work happening in the libre software community.

Canonical’s New Take on Scrollbars

Many of today’s computing innovations like tablets deal not with radical new technologies.  But rather making technology more usable for non-developers and non-engineers.  It might not sound like much, but Canonical is working on improving the usability of scrollbars in their Gnome desktop: http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/615

Take a look at the video in Mark Shuttleworth’s post.  I definitely think that abstracting the line indicator and the actual control is a great idea.  It also makes it more touch friendly and intuitive.

MeeGo and Qt Lives for KDE and the N900

While not so much an innovation per se, I am happy to hear that the development of Qt and MeeGo will continue.  The KDE crew came out and pointed out that Qt back when KDE started was a great framework and is even better now.  Back when I started using KDE, I was amazed at how well everything integrated together in look and feel terms.  This was all possible with KDE settling on one good UI framework, Qt.  Now that it is more cross-platform and rounded out, it still is a great compelling framework to learn and use.  There are some governance issues that need to get worked out, but it is nothing that won’t be resolved nicely soon.  I indeed intend on learning Qt, as soon as my own schedule clears up.

[Another analysis on the Nokia/Qt/MeeGo/KDE question.  Man isn’t life in the libre software world messy at times.]

As for MeeGo, sounds like Nokia will be supporting the N900 as an official development device for MeeGo.  So maybe Mr. Elop changed direction, but at least there is a way forward for MeeGo handset developers.  Hopefully that’ll mean that we can get started hacking on MeeGo.  And once more devices come out, all developer efforts can get carried over.  Maybe, just maybe we’ll finally have a good libre software platform for new disruptive devices, that won’t be threatened by the domination of one massive vendor.  I’m looking at you Google, Microsoft and Apple.

MeeGo Nowhere

My previous blog post about MeeGo was completely off-base. So it looks like Nokia decided to go with Windows Phone 7. Personally I don’t see the point, but then again I don’t run a Fortune 500 firm either. Apparently there are still plans for a MeeGo powered handset/mobile computer. Sometime in May, maybe? However it does not bode well for us from the Maemo community.

So what about the dreams of having a real Linux running on handsets, netbooks and all that jazz? Well it looks like WebOS gets that privilege and honour. Maybe others will run with MeeGo, but this all is starting to all look a lot like the OpenMoko or LiMo. In other words, a Linux + GCC + X + Gtk + Qt stack is something that for now will remain in the corner. Something that the free software idealists, early adopters and researchers will run. But otherwise, rather irrelevant to the rest of the world. I’m also worried that closed, locked down garden walled ecosystems will prosper rather than something totally free and flexible. So Stallman’s dystopian future of the Luna colonies looks all the more real, each and every day.

So what about our man, Nokia, jumping off a burning oil platform into the “safety” of the North Sea, as CEO Elop so eloquently quipped? Hope they don’t die of shock. The North Sea is not exactly a safe and nice place to take a pleasant dip into. I wish them the best and hope they don’t end up washed up on the shore of some strange mobile country as a frozen corpse. Because baby, it is cold outside (the mainstream mobile ecosystems).

So where does that leave us? Knowing Qt is still a good idea for other reasons. The Maemo user and developer community should prepare to become self-sufficient because there probably will not be anymore Maemo-like devices out there. As for MeeGo? Come back in May and we’ll see if anyone gives a damn. The most widely adopted, open and flexible mobile OS right now is Android. At least thats how I see things playing out.

Nokia and Qt, I Choose You!

Since I commented on this post about MeeGo here, I really should explain.

I went to a Wavefront/Nokia seminar about Nokia’s Qt and Ovi store on Friday.  Partially out of curiosity, partially to network and partially to perhaps win a brand new spanking N8.  Not that I want to hand in my N900, but I like new kit.  And as a research & development mobile developer it is my responsibility to learn about the whole of the mobile ecosystem.

First of all I want to say is that I am amazed by the pains that Nokia goes through to maintain being a market leader.  Not to sound like a PR person for Nokia, but the number of countries and languages that Ovi is available is astounding.  And for anyone wanting to integrate their app purchases with a carrier’s billing system Ovi is the only way to go.  Why?  The Google Market integrates with 2 carriers.  Nokia’s Ovi Store integrates with 99 carriers.  So while Apple iOS and Google Android do a remarkable job, they don’t scale like Ovi does.

Another thing that Nokia does well is compete in various markets against various vendors at the same time.  In the superphone market it is up against Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Microsoft, Google, etc.  In the business space against RIM’s BlackBerry.  And it wipes the floor in the feature phone market.  Yes, the superphone market is proving difficult for them.  Hopefully MeeGo will change all that.

Qt is amazing, and Nokia is pushing Qt hard.  Very, very hard.  This is awesome news for the KDE community.  And it also provides a glimmer of hope for developers who would love to learn one framework very, very well and use everywhere.  Java failed, and if Android (which ONLY works on smartphones or smartphone-like handsets) is the best we can do then we have failed.  This is coming from someone who earns his bread and butter as an Android developer.  I love working in Android, even with all of its quirks and oddities.  But Qt… thats a whole new level, especially if the market accepts MeeGo.

So know there is a bunch of speculation about Nokia CEO Stephen Elop dropping a platform and merging with something Microsoft.  And everyone is speculating Symbian, Symbian^3 or MeeGo.  Symbian is not going away.  And I don’t think MeeGo will go for three reasons: it took years to get MeeGo to where it is.  Second is that already most of the up and coming in-vehicle interface systems will run MeeGo.  And third is this interesting tidbit:

Audience: So when is the next Qt training session for Toronto?

Nokia Rep: There is one in March for Montreal.  There will be one in Vancouver in April.  And there will be a whole new set of sessions including Toronto, around MeeGo devices.

That and other comments at the seminars point to MeeGo device appearing sometime before May.  So what about this mysterious announcement?  Well everyone seems to have forgotten that Nokia has a gaming platform: NGage.  Yes, that NGage.  The one that is not doing so well.  So how will they compete in the mobile gaming space with the iPhone/iPad and Sony’s next PSP that is Android based?  How about bringing Microsoft’s XBox to mobile devices?  Hmm…

Discuss!

As a sidenote, I’m planning to learn Qt while working on my current work project.  I can’t wait.

Migrating to openSUSE

If you’ve followed my dents on identi.ca, you may have noticed that I asked people for their recommendations for a good KDE4 Linux distribution.  Well after a bit of thought I decided that I would move away from Kubuntu to openSUSE.  Why the change?

  • KDE4 is the desktop environment that gets all the attention and polish.  Kubuntu is great and valiant effort by the community to bring the Ubuntu experience to KDE4.  However, there is a lot of polish and integration missing that openSUSE provides.
  • A system that supports my hardware. From some weird reason, the Ubuntu kernel maintainers removed a flag that cause my DVD burner not to see CDs.  This is not the case in openSUSE.  I actually tried to burn something off a LiveUSB before installing openSUSE.  Yes, I could of recompiled my kernel with the right flags.  But if I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have moved off Gentoo to Kubuntu.
  • A system with lots of packages and community repositories. This is why I didn’t choose some of the lesser known distributions.  openSUSE (and Fedora) do a good job at this.
  • A stable system. Fedora does not do that.  The upcoming release of Kubuntu LTS et al, seems to break things.  openSUSE is extremely conservative in this manner.
  • Something I am familiar with. This was not a hyper-important point, but I do like the fact that I’ve used SuSE in the past.  So installing openSUSE is a bit like going back to an old and comfortable place.

And so far I am pleased.  The desktop looks polished, quick and a great KDE4 experience.  All that said there are somethings I don’t like:

  • Configuration is weird. I am not a huge fan of YaST.  It is good, but somehow my brain has gotten used to thinking either configuration files or KDE’s System Settings.
  • Leaving Upstart. Upstart is really, really neat way of dealing with services.  Now I’m forced to think in terms of rc.d runlevels and I’m not a happy bodkin.
  • NXServer installation breaks things. Oh yes it does.  I fought for quite a while with getting my OpenSSH server starting at boot.  It looks like the bootscript for nxsensor (nxserver’s statistics gathering engine) screws up runlevels.  Never ever had this issue in Ubuntu.
  • No DEBs. I miss DEBs,  aptitude and various DEB tool.  I’m hoping that zypper and yast manage RPM dependencies in a saner manner than what I remember from 2004-2006ish.

Somethings I look forward to trying out:

  • How easy updates work. openSUSE 11.3 is in the works, and I can hardly wait until it comes out in July.  I got a taste of KDE 4.4 via a backport  PPA in Kubuntu.  And I want that that goodness, without my system acting weirdish after the update.
  • Easy to do backups. I could not for the life of me setup a decent backup scheme under Kubuntu.  openSUSE provides a backup module right into YaST.
  • Better performance. So far openSUSE feels snappier than Kubuntu.  We’ll see what will happen once I restore all data from a backup.
  • Developing and distributing KDE and Qt with ease. This is a huge one.  I want to get into programming in Qt and enhancing the KDE experience.  I’m hoping that the tools and build system in openSUSE makes this braindead easy.

Tech News – Canonical Bringing Music to Ubuntu, LH Strikes Again & Affero GPL Can’t Fix the Cloud

Canonical Launching a Music Store?

Rumours on the world wild web point to the possibility of Canonical building an iTunes-like music store.  Works for U thinks such a move would add another viable revenue stream for Canonical, even if it seems to stretch the resources of the firm.  If this music store comes to Ubuntu, I’m sure many users will enjoy using it.  And it will help Canonical start a community of artists, musicians and software firms to using Canonical and Ubuntu as a platform for selling content and applications.

The Linux Hater Tries Karmic Koala

No one knows who hides behind the LH mask.  Is he an enlightened but disgruntle Linux programmer?  Or is the king of all trolls?  Who cares!  Read up his (or her) review of the “fail” that is Ubuntu’s Karmic Koala.  You’ll get a kick out of it.

Kubuntu Needs Documentation Help

nixternal (Richard Johnson) calls for help to improve the sad state of the Kubuntu documentation.  If you are a tech writer and enjoy using Kubuntu, please help out.  UPDATE: You should know how to use DocBook to help.

Affero GPL Can’t Fix the Cloud

One of the great opportunities and threats for commercial open source is the emerging cloud computing landscape.  However Matthew Asslett (451 Group) points out the Affero GPL doesn’t negate the threat of no monetary contributions from cloud providers to commercial open source vendors.  Yes it doesn’t.  But the licenses were designed to get  source code contributions from developers.  Business models need to focus on selling value (some scarce resource based on real scarcity not an artificial one) to clients, and some clients will not see the value.  There will always be those that get away.  The Affero GPL does help “guide” most cloud providers contribute back.  If anything the GPL will give more freedom and opportunities for many more smaller players than a few large ones.  And that solves many more economic and social problems than anything else.

News Flash – Matthias Ettrich Gets a Medal, the N900 Gets Reviewed

Dorian continues his quest in pursuit of sanity, salvation and free time under the combined mountains of e-mail and code.  He sents his regards and asks yet again for patience.  As a token, he gives you his take on the latest cool developments in the consumer Linux space.

Matthias Ettrich Awarded the German Medal of Merit

Matthias Ettrich, founder of the KDE project, received the German Medal of Merit for his contributions for the common welfare.  Specifically for his founding of the KDE project.

Dorian’s thoughts: As a rabid KDE user, thank you for starting this awesome desktop project.  Thank you for kickstarting the project that is pushing the Linux desktop computing experience forward in ever increasing terms of usability, aesthetics, flexibility and freedom.  Thank you, and thanks to all the contributers of KDE and the wider libre software community.

An In-Depth Review of the N900

Still wondering whether or not to get the Nokia N900?  Well take a look at this in-depth review of the pre-production N900 from The Nokia Blog.

Dorian’s thoughts: I’m still thinking of getting it.  I wonder how it compares to my current 5800 XM in terms of hardware, but I think it is much, much better… Still waiting for availability of the unit in Canada, and for a review of a production variant too.

Review of Ontario Linux Fest 2009

Two weekends ago I went to Ontario Linux Fest 2009, held here in chilly Toronto for the third year in a row. And for such a young conference, it was quite good.  In fact good enough, that longer review of the event is in order:

Morning Keynote – Changes to the GPL

The day started with me rushing out the door in the morning, to catch a morning bus.  I made a bit later, missing the first part of Bradley Kuhn‘s keynote.   I rushed in, grabbed my conference package, put on my name-tag and rushed to hear the second part of the keynote.  Brad discussed the changes between versions 2 and 3 of the GPL (GNU General Public License).  As someone who followed the licenses and uses the GPL in my current project (justCheckers), it was pretty interesting to hear about why behind the changes.  The original GPL2 was quite brief for a software license, but not quite as understandable as the GPL 3.  The GPL 3 helped simplify the license, made it international and got rid of some icky loopholes.  After the keynote, I did a quick swag run even buying a fleece from the Eclipse guys from Redhat.  (And no Nick, I wasn’t there just for the swag I just haven’t gotten around to contributing to Eclipse just yet.)  I then quickly popped quickly back in for the first track of sessions.

Session 1 – Enterprise Content Management (ECM)

Cheryl McKinnon from Nuxeo did a talk on ECM.  I can definitely relate to having to hunt down information in the mess of Office documents and e-mails at the office.  I can just imagine what happens at larger organizations that have less rigorous guidelines to handling documentation.  So I definitely see the need software that handles such data, especially in terms of productivity and maintaining documents for regulatory purposes.  I can’t understand why every organization doesn’t have at least a wiki.  Interesting note that the concepts I learned in a university course on information science, really applies here.  Managing the capture, collaboration, review, publish, archiving and search-ability of information is really a science on to itself.  No wonder open source vendors like Nuxeo, Alfresco and MindTouch that provide ECM solutions in a flexible and low-cost way are such a big hit for enterprises.  There also was a neat discussion on how Nuxeo can do both centralization (bring documents into itself) and management of meta-data (like the locations and “tags” related to scattered documentation).  Really neat.

Session 2 – Ubuntu Moblin & Netbook Remixes

Jorge Castro from Canonical of Ubuntu community fame presented the Ubuntu Moblin and Netbook Remixes.  As with any live demo, the demo technology co-operated with Jorge like any demoed technology or self-conscious prima donna.  Still the Ubuntu Moblin Remix looks gorgeous.  It sports a nice, simple, elegant and understandable user interface.  However this remix qualifies as a tech preview more than something to hit the mass consumer.  Still I think people will be impressed when they change over from Windows to something like Moblin.  It looks a far bit of effort was put into making refactoring the UIs to fit a smaller, wider screen.  The Netbook Remix looks great too, and if you are reading this and running Ubuntu 9.10… switch over to the Netbook UI, you’ll love it even on your main system.

Lunch Chat 1 – Free Software and Its Impact on the Future of the Software Industry

I skipped out on the last session of the morning to pester Brad Kuhn with a few questions.  It started with an innocent question about his opinion about certain companies planning on moving from the GPL to the Apache licenses.  Brad figured out that I had read one of Matt Asay’s blogs on the topic, and went on a mini-rant.  Apparently Matt is one of Brad’s “nemesis” (not that they don’t get along rather their views on software freedom are quite different).  Brad envisions a future where software stops being a “big box” industry of packaged software products to more of a lawyery/consultancy profession.  I have to agree with him on that, and I don’t mind such a future being a consultant by trade.  However I did point out the difficulty one runs into with consumer-level products or projects.  Basically how does one sufficiently fund a project like Inkscape?  One way would be to sell a proprietary product, which defeats the purpose of going open source.  Another way would be to offer a service.  The heart of the problem is how to finance a regular development and enhancements (like usability) on a regular basis… and still get someone to pay for it willingly.  It isn’t an easy problem to solve… A problem that I plan on working on in my semi-stealth project… But Brad tried to convince it wasn’t as big of a deal as I think it is.

Lunch Chat 2 – Decoupling User Interfaces from the Application Backends

Feeling now famished for lack of a breakfast, I went out with Scott from the GTALug for pizza.  Scott is into user interface design both on a hardware and software level.  We both agreed that user interfaces should be loosely coupled to their backends.  In enterprise web application design the concept of different views for different users and environments comes to mind.  Scott introduced me to the concept of a framework that allows for completely decoupling the user interface with the underlying application, called Metisse.  It allows for building UIs at runtime using a widget palette or toolkit… brilliant!  That would let developers concentrate on what they are good at: application development and design.  And HCI/usability/graphics designer concentrate on what they are good at: design kick-ass usable user interfaces.

Session 3 – Building Business Applications Using SugarCRM

Right after lunch, I went to a more practical session by John Mertic, a developer at SugarCRM.  The session was naturally about developing applications using SugarCRM.  It looks a very nice application, and CRMs apparently can solve a lot of problems centred around customers.  Even just using SugarCRM to manage a client’s organizational contacts would save a lot of my time at work.  However since I work in Java and not PHP, thats not really an option.  But it looks like a neat application, the latest version SugarCRM 5 being all built in PHP and using the YUI (used to use ExtJS).  There is a vibrant community forge and marketplace around the application.  Neat.  Also neat that John just published an Apress book called: The Definitive Guide to SugarCRM.  See a pattern, yet? 😉

Session 4 – World Domination, Documentation and Ponies

OK, I admit it as a writer masquerading as a software developer,  (Or is it the other way around?) I actually enjoy writing documentation.  Some would even say, I enjoy writing documentation too much.  So I jumped at the opportunity of hear Emma Jane Hogbin talk about world domination through good documentation.  Actually I was disappointed by the lack of talk on world domination.  But there was much talk of ponies… oh and documentation.  I swear I’ve never heard anyone comparing documentation to wearing high heels.  I guess the analogy of it being sexy and painful makes sense.  But then again I’ve never (or do I ever plan to) worn high heels, so I’ll trust the ladies on this one.  Still it was an awesome and enlightening talk.  I’ve never consider all the various audiences (devs, users, marketing) and types of documentation.  I must agree with Emma’s statement, that if you are doing a lot of work documenting how to use your program… maybe reconsidering how the UI is done is in order.  The concept of automating documentation and using an XML source is new to me.  But I will have to look into technologies like pywebdoc, Mallard and DocBook.  Emma went through the Capture, Organize, Translate, Output, Review and Revise cycle, using the Status.net documentation efforts.  (Emma’s project on writing open source documentation.)

Session 5 – The Look at Introducing FLOSS into Education

Karlie Robinson of On-Disk did a talk about her experiences with connecting the OLPC, Fedora and RIT together.

Afternoon Keynote – How Linux is Like Music

The conference wrapped up with Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier‘s afternoon keynote.  Zonker is an incredible speaker, and he also threw plush penguins at the crowd which instantly made the keynote awesome.  Alas I didn’t have any thing worthy to add to the conversation so I didn’t get another plush penguin. 🙁  But I’m getting ahead of myself…  Zonker talked about how we should move away from the tired analogy of choosing operating systems like cars.  Rather he suggested how choice of OSes and Linuxes should be compared to bands and musicians:

  • Fedora -> Frank Zappa
  • SuSE -> The Who
  • Ubuntu -> Duran Duran (Hurrah, I mean huh?!?)
  • Gentoo -> Write your own sungs in your own built studio (Damn right!  Sorry, ecstatic ex-Gentooer here.)

A bit zany, but with a nickname of Zonker… 😛 Ok, I’ll stop teasing.  But he did go into the problem of widespread Linux adoption: better self-marketing, pre-installed PCs (we are getting there slowly), market shift to the cloud and mobile (at least we have that one covered to a degree) and  the in-fighting that the F/OSS community seem to love (welcome to the new face of anarchy and things to come?).

The Pre-After Party

At this point most of the participants went out to either go home or wait out the time for the reception.  Having come alone, I felt like I’d love to mingle at the afterparty but I needed to do something while I waited.  Fortunately, the KDE 4 guys (Troy Unrau, Shawn Starr and Eugene Trounev) were quite welcoming and let me tag along with them.  Troy was pulled into the speaker’s dinner so I didn’t get to talk to him much.  But Shawn, Eugene and I chatted for a bit, grabbed a quick bite to eat at Burger King and came back to chill at the venue.  Shawn works on developing plasma, while Eugene makes graphics for KDE Games.  Actually if you count myself and Troy in, we each represent a different aspect of the KDE  project: Shawn – developers, Eugene – artists, Troy – marketing and myself – the humble user/wannabe contributer.

When Eugene found out about my semi-stealth project, he suggested I should join the KDE Games and look into the Gluon project.  I’m planning on getting involved, once I’ve hacked around with Qt, something I started on recently.

The After Party

The conference wrapped up with a reception sponsored by Google.  Actually I got a good amount of useful swag from Google, and the free booze was much appreciated.  At the reception I got to mingle with the presenters, organizers and participants of the conference.  I got to discuss the finer points of revision control systems (CVS, Subversion and Bazaar) with a Bazaar/Launchpad developer, Aaron Bentley from Canonical.  Also got to watch Brad Kuhn and Jorge Castro get into a heated but amicable debate about Mono, software patents and why Canonical should stop releasing and supporting proprietary software.  And I got to chill and talk about Apache Qpid (a reliable message queueing system, think something like IBM’s MQ) with Redhat’s Rajith Attapattu.

I left the reception really, really late.  And I got home around 2 in the morning, which just goes to show how awesome of a conference OLF2009 was.  After the conference I felt a lot smarter, enlightened and inspired to contribute back to the Linux and libre software community.  I’m almost sure I’ll be at OLF2010 whenever that comes around.

Links to what others had to say about OLF2009:

  • Troy Unrau [http://troy-at-kde.livejournal.com/23041.html]
  • Eugene Trounev [http://my.opera.com/it-s/blog/show.dml/4455292]