Balancing IRC and email, the secret of success for open collaboration

Are seasoned contributors to OpenStack giving too much importance to IRC, and is that creating bad side effects in other areas of the community?

Since I started contributing more to working groups outside of the OpenStack upstream contributor community, I noticed that email is used in a limited way, with a couple of lists having either very low traffic or low signal/noise ratio. The email lists are often used to share calendar notifications for meetings and their agendas with often little to no discussions. Have we insisted so much in holding weekly meetings “like developers do” that now people think that email discussions are less important?

This weekend a couple of posts on Planet OpenStack talk about IRC: one very good source of information on how to use IRC better from Chris Aedo who suggests to stay more on IRC. He argues:

If you are interested in becoming an OpenStack contributor, having a persistent IRC presence might be one of the most important secrets to success. Anyone who spends time in one of the more active project channels will immediately see the value of synchronous communication here where problems are sometimes solved in minutes.

On the other hand of the spectrum Chris Dent who highlights the chaotic nature of IRC. He mentions that too  much IRC leads to:

no opportunity to be truly away, frequent interruptions, an inflated sense of urgency, and a powerful sense of “oh noes, I’m missing what’s happening on IRC!!!!”—but the killer is the way in which it allows, encourages and even enforces the creation and expression of project knowledge within IRC, leaving out people who want or need to participate but are not synchronous with the discussion.

This last point is crucial: not everybody can be online all the time, some of us have to sleep or go see a movie at times. IRC is often mentioned as a blocker to new community members. I advocate using a bouncer only to get personal messages, not to read the backlogs.

While synchronous communication is crucial for distributed collaboration, a sane habit of using email is as important. The OpenStack community has put so much emphasis on using IRC to hold weekly meeting and to resolve the most controversial conversations in real-time that some new comers now think that synchronous communication is more important than async email.

A sane balance of sync-async communication is more crucial to success of open source collaboration, mixing email and IRC (which is what most of OpenStack upstream developers do, by the way.)

All in all, I think there is also a need to teach people how to hold conversations via email, with proper quoting, no top posting and other nice things to do… but also email sorting and filtering client-side, what not to say (hint: “me too” messages are generally considered noise)… a lost art, as much as using IRC.

The sad state of free software collaboration tools

My post yesterday sparked a little conversation on G+. The content of that conversation reminded me that free software collaboration tools are in a very poor state. Email clients for Linux (well, also on Mac OS X and Windows) suck badly, address book managers are awfully ancient, voice/video chat systems compare poorly to proprietary alternatives (technically, not just because none of our friends use them).  Some fellows of FSFE recently tried to hunt for Skype alternatives. The published results are depressing.

It’s a hard to solve. Hopefully we can put behind the quest for the ‘perfect desktop’ and start building tools for the free digital citizens again.

Innovating email clients

I don’t like any of the email/groupware clients I’ve used, from Evolution to Thunderbird to Apple Mail to Entourage to Outlook to Gmail. They are all very bad for me. And I also don’t like email because of this.

This morning I played around with The Email Game, a web app that expands Google’s Gmail client with a couple of interesting features. I like the concept of ‘Boomerang‘ and the countdown for each email-related action. If you have a Gmail account I suggest you to give it a try. I won’t be using it (my gmail account is for spam only and a few mailing list) but I hope that some of these ideas end up in one of the email clients I use on my GNU/Linux desktop.

The Email Game – Conquer your Email from Baydin Inc. on Vimeo.

Breaking the Email Addiction

Reading this made me think that my piece about the limitations of email at work is overdue. In Breaking the Email Addiction author Tony Schwartz argues that email distracts people from life (work and everything else) and must be cured as you would cure an addiction.

We’re pulled to anything that provides instant gratification, even when we know we’d get a bigger reward for delaying. We’re also quick to respond to any excuse to stop working on something that is difficult and requires high concentration.

That all seems correct. My argument for less email at work focuses on discovering of information within the corporation. Now I only need to cure myself from the email addition and finish writing my piece 🙂

How To Read Open Document Format ODF documents on Symbian

My previous post on the topic generated quite a discussion about Open Document Format (aka ISO 26300) documents on mobile platforms. My argument was that ODF support on most mobile platforms is still poor compared to the proprietary counterparts. From the discussion that happened on identi.ca I learned about a quite decent Symbian reader for ODF files, called Office Reader. I tested it using Funambol email push and sync client on my Nokia E71 and the results are quite good. You can see from the screenshots below (taken from a pretty complex ODT test file) that the text rendered correctly.  I’m confident that I would be able to get an idea of the attached document and, if it was a press release, for example, I think I would OfficeReader would present enough information to approve it or not. This is the  if you want to compare to the mobile version. I’ve tested also a couple of ODP presentations and spreadsheets: they are rendered good enough to get an idea of what kind of document it is, but not as well as the text file.

I downloaded and installed OfficeReader directly from the phone’s browser, but of course all other options are valid. Check the FAQ if you can’t install or run it (I had to allow your phone’s operating system to run unsigned apps).

PS I took the screenshots with the free software Screenshot application (GPL license but the install screen says ‘freeware -not to be sold’ ?!?).

Take the mailing list archives with you

I realized that it’s true what they say about email clients: they all suck. Some suck less, some (the majority) suck more than a Dyson vacuum cleaner.’  Mailing list archives are important for communities because they represent their collective knowledge. Having all archives all in one place is definitely better than having to redirect people to google search to find answers or tips.

I had to redirect a few thousands email messages from a mailbox archive to the new Funambol Forge discussion system.’  Evolution allows redirect as does also Mail.app, so I thought it would have been banal: CTRL-a to select all messages, menu / redirect and that’s it. Wrong: both applications cannot apply the command to more than one message at the time.’  Scripting the action seemed too much work, so I reverted to using mutt, the email client that sucks less (as its motto says). Load the mailbox (mutt -f mail.box) select/tag all messages (hit the key T), apply the command to all tagged messages (hit the keys ;b), write the destination address and wait for smtp to do its job. After a couple of hours the postfix server was done. The past archives of Funambol mailing lists are in the archive of the new Forge. Great: the new discussions are ready to roll, on Monday.

Messaging, not email

During the past weeks in the mobile world at Funambol I’ve started deepening my thoughts about how computers are still inefficient and largely too hard to use. One thing that I hate is how the whole online things are separated from the file system.’  I keep my hard disks organized in folders separating my work projects from my home/fun activities.’  Down the tree the classification is done by clients and individual projects.’  I’ve always found this strict classification too limiting, because after many years I have now duplicate files and finding things gets harder.’  Software like beagle or spotlight are only a partial solution.

What is really annoying me though is the separation of all web activities from the files on the disk. Is an email related to a project and a client?’  Why are bookmarks and web pages so difficult to retrace? I would like to find such information grouped in the project folder, available on my disk, tagged properly. I don’t like Google’s idea to move everything online and keep my files there, out of my hands and off my disks.

I look forward to see the new Mozilla Thunderbird. They seem to start on the right foot: it’s not just an email, it’s messaging.

The name Mozilla Messaging is supposed to indicate that it’s focusing on the Internet messaging and communications space as a whole, not just e-mail.

My hope is that within a short time frame Thunderbird will innovate messaging as much as Firefox did in the browser world.

Mozilla Thunderbird Gets Its Own Company @ ENTERPRISE OPEN SOURCE MAGAZINE