Live Blogging Open Source Show and Tell (OSSAT) at TheTeam, November, 2009 (Part 1)

standard live blogging warning

I’m here at TheTeam offices in London Bridge, with a number of my Osmosoft colleagues for this open source event.

Event Announcement

The agenda:

  • Iain Farrell, Canonical – Ubuntu Update
  • Julien Fourgeaud, Symbian – Managing the Symbian community
  • Jeremy Ruston, Osmosoft – HTML5 and the slow death of Flash
  • Leisa Reichelt, Disambiguity.com – Drupal 7 Update
  • Phil Hawksworth, The Team – Playing with each others toys: Developing with open technologies
  • Rain Ashford, BBC – Open Source Gaming for Handhelds
  • Robbie Clutton, BT – iPhone development using web technologies

Canonical: The Ubuntu Developer Summit

Iain explains the process of updating Ubuntu. Happily enough, the release cycle is 6 months, coinciding nicely with these OSSAT events, hence the trend is set for an update each OSSAT.

Every 6 months, there’s a big Ubuntu shindig; this is (I think) just after the last release ships. All ~240 employees invited and ~30 invited people from the community. Room for talks – the schedule is always evolving even during the conference – and spaces for just hacking. Very online too for those who can’t make it – stereo recording in every room. All the audio, mixing, publishing, and so on is power by the magic of open source. Naturally.

The design process is generally speaking 6 months ahead of the development process, i.e. in cycle t, they’re thinking about what they’ll be developing in cycle t+1. For users, a 6 month cycle means lots of incremental improvements, as opposed to

Julien Fourgeaud: Symbian’s Community Programme

Nokia started as an alliance and Nokia then purchased Symbian Ltd. When that happened, there was a move to open source the code. Julien explains the ecosystem – 90 people maing up the foundation (people in US, UK, Finland, Japan, China, elsewhere) – working with a large community of consumers, ODMs, OEMs, and operators. They often run BOFs embedded in other conferences.

What’s Symbian doing to get consumers what they want? They’re creating initiatives to get agile and engage in dialogue going with consumers. [I would have liked to see more on this, but it sounds like they’re just at the start of the path here.]

Of possible relevance to the next talk, Symbian’s portal is a Flash-heavy representation of standard web technologies such as hyperlinks …

Jeremy Ruston on HTML5 and the Slow Death of Flash

Jeremy points out he’s dogfooding by presenting in Cecily, his 3D zooming and panning interface powered by open web technologies. He points out the anti-Flash vibe isn’t new, with Jacob Nielson having declared Flash “99% bad” back in 2000. A few of the problems with Flash are:

  • Battery drain
  • Crashy
  • Can’t exploit hardware acceleration (except video and certain blitting operations) – the operations of HTML5 have been designed to take advantage of it
  • Big opaque ball of bits – can’t reach in and get at the data/content inside
  • Controlled by media interests (e.g. to ensure ads are watched)
  • Breaks the web UI, e.g. browser navigation, text selection, accessibility
  • Not properly open – the license stipulates for what purposes you can use it (restricts uses such as downloading video)
  • Not compatible with open source – can’t ship as part of open source; so a pain for users as it requires a separate download.

Jeremy shows Chrome Experiments and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Flash (the site I made with @philhawksworth which should really be launched at some point. ahem.)

He walks through the history of Flash. He explains there was a time when they looked quite innovative, but it’s become more closed systems and walled gardens, with silly license fees. So a young person who wants to get into the industry is required to pay 500 quid to get started with it.

Where does HTML5 fit in? A couple of weeks ago, When Can I Use launched, and the meta-message of that site – when you look at the complicated matrix of HTML feature support – can be interepreted as “Damn, HTML is complicated”. This led some to say – why would I want to use HTML5 when I can get it up and running, cross-browser compatible – with Flash right away. So Jeremy’s call to action is to take a few steps back and build some kller authoring tools that let us do similar things in Javascript.

In Q&A, @psd points out that Flash lets you make nice toys, but HTML5 lets you build something better than Flash, i.e. the data inside there.

Drupal 7 Update

Leisa Reichart explains the design work going on with Drupal 7. Where most open source (including Drupal) is done bottom-up, grassroots, stuff, there’s an element of top-down design here. Leisa’s talking about “open source design” (#d7ux), where she’s spent around 85% of her time engaging the community to help with design, rather than just doing it herself. The community includes end-users, agencies whose customers are using the CMS, and also other designers and usability studies. (Reminds me of the message in the community session at OWF – don’t just engage programmers, but also translators, designers, tech writers, etc.)

They set up a WordPress, yes WordPress, blog to act as the community portal; because (a) Drupal takes too long to get a very nicely designed blog; (b) it sent out a message to the Drupal community and got them engaged.

She also shows a nice eye-tracking study, something you don’t see much in open source land.

The Switch to Linux Begins?

A couple of high-profile bloggers (via Dion) make the switch from Apple to Linux and O’Reilly Radar wonders if it’s the starty of a trend. While I prefer working with Apple, I’m nonetheless an Ubuntu fan so I certainly hope this trend picks up. However, I wonder if people know what they’re getting into. In both of the Switch articles by Cory Doctorow and Mark Pilgrim, the authors focus on the reasons for moving away (more hardware bang for your buck, using mostly open-source anyway, various misgivings with Apple softtware), but neither actually explains what sort of experience they’ve had with Ubuntu and how they’ll cope with the issues that inevitably arise. Okay, so these are both insanely smart guys and can deal with it, but if others follow, they might be sorry.

The fact is, Ubuntu takes Linux a step closer to the user-friendly desktop it should be, BUT it’s still a far cry from the ease you can expect from an Apple. I’ve been using Linux for 13 years, and if there’s one golden rule that’s always applied, it’s this: At least one thing will always fail. It could be wifi, it could be X, it will probably be power management on a laptop, it could be running Skype at the same time as ITunes. Whatever it is, it will require a decision: Do I spend 2+ hours trawling for solutions and ultimately recompiling the kernel on the dubious assumption that it will resolve the issue and not break anything else in the process, or do I just live with the pain. As a student, the answer was often the former; in the real world, it’s inevitably the latter. Even with a modern, fairly Linux-friendly laptop (Toshiba Satellite Pro), Ubuntu ?5.05 still led to the aforementioned audio and power management issues, and most Ubuntu switchers are likely to come across similar issues.

Furthermore, though Mark Pilgrim complains about ITunes (as have I) and uses mostly open-source stuff available on Linux, there’s still a lot of software missing from the modern Linux desktop. You will suffer with inferior, incompatible, versions of Real and Flash, household apps like Skype will trail even further behind than on Apple, and you will end up with clumsy – if well-intentioned – impersonations of the finely polished apps you use every day (yep, such as ITunes. I’m not even going to mention the Gimp.) In addition, more specialised software will be much harder to come by. For instance, I recently needed some screencasting software, and, while options on the Mac aren’t great, they’re certainly more appealing than under Linux, where there are so many possible hardware combinations it may not work anyway. If there is useful Linux software that fits a niche, there’s a very good chance it runs under Apple too.

I love working on OSX due to the underlying command line, but I’m no Cult Of Mac guy. There’s a lot of silly things about the Mac, like hanging on to one-button touchpads, resizing windows from one corner, etc. Some might see them as cute eccentricities, some may say I don’t get the zen of Apple, whatever. All I can see is that these “features” are pretty much a 22-year old joke, though nothing I can’t live with. In addition, DarwinPorts and Fink aren’t perfect; I’ve never got gnome-terminal working with fonts that I can actually see. Furthermore, Apple support sucks in my experience. I recently suffered from a pathetic support incident involving around five prolonged calls to an offshore call centre, no resolution, and will now require some correspondence with the legal department. So I’m all for a ?revival of Linux among the uber-geeks. I’m just saying: I hope you know what you’re getting into. Cory says he’ll be blogging the experience, which will be interesting to watch.

Installing Linux? Some Tips For Switching From Apple To Linux

Here are some tips if you’re thinking of switching to Linux:

  • Go with Ubuntu. Sorry, no choice here if you’re new to Linux. Ubuntu right now is the clear choice for a standard Linux desktop setup. Best hardware compatibility, good support wiki, excellent hardware compatibility apparently due to its networked feedback facility, the power of apt-get (which beats RPM hands-down) and the most important thing: a Live distro (next point).
  • Try the Live distro first (The killer app of Ubuntu is that it supports both live and installed Linux.) Run the live distro, see how it handles your hardware, kick the tyres a bit to pinpoint the things that don’t work (see above – there will always be at least one thing that doesn’t work), and decide whether you can live with that.
  • Go for an Express installation When you proceed to install, it’s easy to go control-freak and spend hours setting things up. The problem with that is you often have to do a reinstall for one reason or another. Modern Linux systems make it easy enough to change settings later on, as well as install new software, so there’s no need to do it upfront.
  • Buy the right hardware So many people encounter problems with Linux because they’re using the wrong hardware, often hardware that is notoriously bad on Linux. Whenever you buy a laptop, a card, etc that you intend to run Linux on, do your homework first and note that manufacturers hardly ever advertise they are Linux-compatible (as they’re probably worried they’ll be obliged to support it). Google is your friend. Your friend running Linux is your friend. If you’re willing to pay for it, Macbooks are an appealing choice for for running Linux on. They’re reasonably priced, since Apple is now aiming for the mass market, and they are very standardised, which is a huge benefit when it comes to Linux. Isn’t it ironic?