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… ūüôĀ 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:¬†

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 1.0 and Maemo5 PR 1.2 Released

While I was busy with the randomness of life, awesomeness hit the world of mobile Linux.

Maemo5 PR 1.2 Released

For all you proud owners of Nokia N900s, go and upgrade to the recently released PR 1.2 update for Maemo5.  This update really, really improved the performance of the phone.  Better multimedia playback, faster browsing experience and many other improvements.

I went the way of reflashing the device, using Nokia’s Updater.¬† Now it claimed that it would wipe out my personal data on the device.¬† So I made a backup and let the Updater do its thing.¬† I went the Windows route, because I didn’t feel like messing with the Linux flasher.¬† Both work the same, I just went with the easiest route.¬† To my surprise and delight, all my data carried over.¬† I needed to reboot the N900 before everything showed up.¬† But it was all there with the exception of my applications.¬† That required me to go and re-download and reinstall all my apps.¬† Not a big deal, but a slight hassle nonetheless.

What about MeeGo?

One thing that didn’t happen was an update to MeeGo for the N900s.¬† On one hand I understand why Nokia didn’t want to push-out a risky upgrade to existing N900s. On the other, never getting official support for MeeGo on the N900 is a shame.¬† Developers will get to play with MeeGo images for the N900.¬† But don’t expect Ovi or anything non-community based finding its way on the MeeGo for Handhelds, in terms of anything for the N900.

MeeGo 1.0 for Netbooks

Even if MeeGo never arrives officially on the N900, it is ready to hit the netbook.¬† The MeeGo project recently released MeeGo 1.0 for Netbooks.¬† Being the ever curious geek, I decided to download and install the MeeGo 1.0 image on a USB stick.¬† Since the netbook at home is currently on the other side of the pond, I decided to try it out on my non-portable super-netbook (a.k.a. desktop workstation). Unfortunately I got as far setting up and booting off the USB stick.¬† Then I got a funky framebuffer not found message, and the poor thing tried to start up a display.¬† I guess no playing around with MeeGo, if it isn’t a supported netbook just yet.

However Nixternal (of KDE/Kubuntu fame) had a better go and blogged about his good impressions of MeeGo.  So far people are impressed.  The MeeGo platform will impact the netbook and tablet market, at least with the products showcased at Computex.  Also it looks like DeviceVM will make their next SplashTop product on top of MeeGo.

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? ūüėČ

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 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. ūüôĀ¬† 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… ūüėõ 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 []
  • Eugene Trounev []

Excuse the Dust

I apologize again for the silence earlier this week.  I meant to post a few posts earlier on, but I did not get around to it.

Also you may have noticed that I’m updating this blog.¬† In fact in general I am updating and cleaning up my “Web” presence in a big way.¬† Hence I’m working on refreshing the look and feel of this blog.¬† I’m plan on modifying the current theme into something I built myself.¬† And I’ll building out my portfolio, something I should of done ages ago.¬† Hence I’ll try to keep updating this blog frequently, but I might be a bit too busy for daily updates.¬† Also the e-mail subscriptions ARE going way, please switch to using RSS feeds.

A Mobile Internet for a Frantic Lifestyle

Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day, and I hope everyone not had a great holiday but also found a myriad of reasons to be thankful for. I know I did.

But now I’m going to hijack that thought. I’m thankful that I subscribed to that data plan. Well, we’ll see how thankful I’ll be with the inflated cellphone bill. Thankfully I’m young, foolish, employed and single so don’t need to rationalize such purchases. Having the Internet in your pocket can be terribly convenient. There can be downsides though. Most sites scale down too well, onto a small screen that is. Thats where something like Nokia’s WRT can really shine. Consider it like a website thats been turned into an application. Its been done before for desktop browsers. But still a desktop with its fast connection, ample screen size and comfortable standard input allows for developers to sweep a good many UI and workflow decisions under the rug. Developing for a mobile device is far more demanding. Demanding not only terms of computing and engineering. But also demanding in terms of usability. And also the problem of handling offline and caching comes to mind. Fortunately for all you mere mortals out there, there are nuts like me who dream about the next big thing and how to make it actually useful. Hmm… Though I should do something about it. And not just write about these things. I have a few ideas, that I plan on putting into practice. In the meantime, I wish there was a WRT widget or decent S60 app for blogging…

Web Play Made Fun with ExtJS

At work I’ve started working with ExtJS for the user interface for the web application I’m helping develop. ¬†I’ve always had reservations about using Javascript. ¬†Or rather I’ve always hated dealing with inconsistencies in DOM handling in browsers. ¬†Whenever I deal with CSS, I always hate dealing with cross-browser checking. ¬†Fortunately with increased popularity of Gecko-based browsers (Mozilla Firefox) and Webkit-based browsers (Google Chrome), I have to deal with headaches of a browser incompatibilities less often. ¬†However writing pure Javascript can be a bit daunting, and a library like JQuery or ExtJS comes in handy. ¬†So I’m still not sold on the concept of building everything in a RIA (Rich Internet Application) context. ¬†However using a Javascript library sure makes my website coding-hacking more¬†palatable.

Mental Shards: Ninjas, Stacks and Menus

I’m a huge fan of checking out RSS planets, especially with the technologies I love to use.¬† Now I use Google Reader to aggregate and handle these hundreds of stories.¬† Every so often, a story grabs my attention and gets me thinking.¬† I’ve starred hundreds, only to never look for them again.¬† I found that even thought I can e-mail myself these stories, they get lost in the giant abyss known as my e-mail.¬† So for fun, I’ll post the blogs that caught my attention in a new section on my blog: Mental Shards.¬† (Yes, you guessed it… it is a play on the name of my upcoming novel.)

Lydia Pintscher writes about dealing with people who communicate in various forms and degrees.¬† I’d probably fall into the communication ninjas group.¬† In fact at one point thanks to my Internet tablet, anyone could reach out and touch me over instant messenger.¬† This became terribly distracting, and even thought I could the same with my cellphone… I’d rather not.¬† Well actually in theory if I acclimatized people to the concept of on MSN, but may not respond in an instant we’d be good.¬† Still it is a good reminder, that not everyone feels compelled to feel embedded into the Internet cloud at all times.

Oops… I forget which KDE developer mentioned the Stack Overflow site.¬† This looks like an excellent resource for developers, especially when dealing with open source technology.

Richard Dale, another KDE contributer writes about the GCDS talk about Moblin.¬† Here’s a thought: menus are useless.¬† I’m a bit reluctant to agree.¬† Most menus are huge and a pain to navigate around.¬† I’d prefer a flexible tool/toolbar system.¬† Maybe not quite a ribbons design though.¬† I am a strong believer in keeping UIs simple, clear and pleasant to use.¬† However menus seem a necessary evil, for large complex applications.¬† However the argument, on why do we need large complex menu-driven applications rather than smart intelligent, flexible ones those hold much merit.

Congrats to Celeste Lyn Paul for winning the KDE Akademy Award for Best Non-technical Contribution.  Her work and writing inspires me to one day get into usability, user interface design and (human-computer interaction) HCI myself.  Once things settle down in my life, I plan on looking into doing a Masters in HCI.

And on Phoronix we have: News of a Game Going Free Culture.  Should be an interesting experiment, I wish the developers luck.