Ubuntu is not going to give me a decent desktop OS anymore

I’ve always been an Ubuntu fan for the past 10 years since the distribution came out with the promise of a usable deskto, with a promise of openness, regular releases, great integration between different and separated projects, great vision for world dominance. I loved all of that and I loved the execution, including the latest evolution. I love HUD and how it uses screen real estate, allows me to be more effective at commanding window-based application without having to touch the mouse. I love most of Unity, the dash and the lenses although I don’t use most of it.

Lately I’ve gone from concerned fan to very sad: I’m considering switching to another distribution. What I don’t really like is the lack of investments from Canonical on productivity tools that we live for: an email client and a calendar client. I already ranted about the sad state of free software collaboration tools and unfortunately Canonical decided to invest time and energy in supporting not a desktop for productivity but as a gaming platform, a cloud operating system and a mobile system. Canonical is devoting its engineers to develop things I really don’t care about. All I wanted was a good, solid desktop operating system for my daily computing needs: email, calendar, web browsing, audio/video collaboration tools and a decent way to exchange ‘office’ documents with peopls stuck in 1998 way of producing content. Sadly Ubuntu is not going to provide that in the near future, it even backed out from offering the most basic tools like an email client and a calendar client.

When I look at the alternatives though, I am even more sad and want to cry. GNOME seems to be stupidly following all the things that Apple does, including the obvious mistakes like the broken behavior of ALT-TAB (I expect GNOME developers to invert the way we scroll pages any time now, because Apple did that with absolutely no logical reason). GNOME also lacks a modern email client, addressbook and calendar client, with Evolution being stuck in 1998. And spare me to mention KDE: great technology, just no decent UI for it.

I’m sure Ubuntu will look great in a couple of years on TVs, phones, clouds but all I wanted was my desktop and I fear that for the next couple of years I’ll be stuck with a broken one, being it Ubuntu or Fedora or something else.

Webnapperon: a way to share URLs with my dad

Here is an interesting concept: RFID tags used by elderly to retrieve content stored online in different applications. I can see my dad using the  appropriate physical object to retrieve the pictures of his nephews or to read the local newspaper online or to see the meteo or to popup G+ feed (well… not G+ as Google fills it with junk, like trending things and suggestions… but you get the idea). I see a viable and sustainable business for this too, think of RFID tags attached to holiday greeting cards…

ERASME – Webnapperon.

Ubuntu is getting closer to Windows and Mac (in a dumb way)

I’ve always thought that the Ubuntu team “got it right”: I found Unity beautiful, the whole integration of different pieces among different projects, the simplifications and removal of unnecessary options was good. Then I started noticing the over-removal of things. First went CTRL-Alt-Backspace, the very useful combo that kills the windows server. I almost never need it but when I needed I realized it was disabled by default some time ago. I didn’t complain too much as the feature is pretty advanced and I have found myself killing the session unintentionally hitting the combo with fat-fingers a couple of times. So I thought the choice made sense. But today the line between simplification and dumbification  has been crossed: Ubuntu Raring Ringtail 13.04 has disabled the virtual workspaces by default.

Today I upgraded to Ubuntu 13.04. At reboot I wanted to start my apps in the usual workspaces : 1 for the browser and mail, 3 for xchat… but OMG! CTRL-Alt-DOWN doesn’t work… Quick search first to learn what the heck those things are called then the sad truth: workspaces are disabled! What a moronic choice to disable them by default. Guys, come on! I understand making things simple, but dumbing down on Mac and Windows on their limitations is a stupid choice.

To enable them again there is a settings in the panel as described on Ask Ubuntu. I feel like my respect for Ubuntu’s team is at its lowest point ever and this makes me unhappy.

I think removing the workspaces is the dumbest idea ever, on par with grouping windows from the same app in the Alt-Tab cycle. Please somebody explains why. Is this because Microsoft doesn’t have workspaces, so we should copy them, right? Wrong! What’s next? Disable paste with middle-click? I might as well go buy a Mac then or learn how to live with Windows if I have to learn and live with moronic systems.

In search of a modern way to hold discussions online

The OpenStack community decided at the Design Summit to create new lists and consolidate all of them on a new service so I decided to lay down the specifications for the new system following the desiderata from developers and users. The basic need is to allow developers to discuss freely using the tool they prefer (email clients, in this case). I as community manager  need also to be able to measure discussions and allow easily for new developers and users to join the conversations. The desiderata for the messaging system are:

  • Must use email messages as primary mean of communication
  • Must allow tagging/topics for easy inbox filtering
  • Must be easy to manage (dealing with spam, delivery, moderation, etc)
  • Must have good looking archives, skinnable, with search capabilities and SEO friendly
  • Must allow measuring activity, natively or with tools like mlstats
  • Nice to have:
  • SSO integration with OpenID and more
  • Post new message (reply or start a new thread) via web
  • Offer archive via RSS

With these in mind I started looking into Mailman, the typical answer for mailing list management. The software is known and solid although the latest stable release is old.  Mailman 2 has the advantage of familiarity: we know how it works and its limitations. Mainly I know the limitations: the web UI is scary and I can’t find a way to teach Firefox’s password manager to save the passwords for each list (it associates the password to the domain, not the full url, so I can only have one password associated to lists.openstack.org –am I doing something wrong?), the default archives are also ugly and primitive forcing us to use other archivers, like Markmail.

Mailman 3, the upcoming release, is … not there yet. I could only see mockups for the new web management UI  (called Postorius, is a django app, a client of the new Mailman REST API) and it seems that Mailman 3.0 will be shipped without an official archiver.

I looked at Sympa as an alternative to Mailman, since Rackspace uses it internally. It has most of the features we need, including the nice-to-have but it seems to be lacking the Topics (although, we should say that we’re not using the Mailman topics feature at the moment anyway). I don’t think that mlstats supports Sympa and I’m not sure about its tracking capabilities (but it stores lots of metadata in a SQL database so it shouldn’t be too hard to get information from it).

Since the mailing list archives I know all look too ugly, I expanded my search to forum software hoping that in the past years there was some progress in it. The only new thing I found is Vanilla Forums, a GPLv2 forum engine. It mixes features of the old bulletin boards format with the newer question/answer concept, embracing tags and categories. The first page of Vanilla has more meaningful content than the silly topics seen in most bulletin boards and in general I found Vanilla having a better UI than most forum software. The hosted version of Vanillaforums sports also a nice integration with email but there are no plans to release such feature under the GPLv2. The view of a thread with many responses is not exciting though: it has no hierarchy, failing at readability like all bb/forum software … and I think it’s a crucial feature that enables following long discussions. This deserves more thoughts: I know Twitter gave up trying to represent threaded discussions in a single page (but Twitter was never meant for discussions), identi.ca used to have the conversation view with grades of colors but got rid of it, Gmail doesn’t bother either and shows conversations as flat, time based sequence of messages: is it just too difficult to thread discussions like any email client used to do or what else is going on?

To me it seems that Mailman is still the best we can do at the moment even if it leaves me in a pretty sad state, stuck in 2001. I would start looking into Mailman 3 and expand the search to an archiver that we can host (like CSLA) but Mailman 2 is probably the best we have at the moment. Other thoughts?

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.

Three reasons to follow Mozilla Thunderbird development

Since Mozilla Messaging launched Thunderbird 3 I started using it to see if this new version is better than GNOME Evolution, the email/calendar application I used in the past 4 years. Evolution is a decent email and calendar client and I love the integration in GNOME, but it stopped evolving and its GUI has many annoyances. I’ve used Thunderbird 3.0.1 for a couple of weeks and here are three reasons to choose it and why I decided to postpone the adoption.

Search and indexing: Thunderbird 3 indexing is fast and very good. The interface for searching and drilling your mailbox is fantastic, very well done and fast. Check the screenshot.

Tabs: I like to be able to read messages in different tabs. Lightning calendar and tasks conveniently open in a tab and it’s also possible to run Google Wave in one. This shows the power under the hood of this client: it has the potential to become a messaging hub for all services.  It’s annoying that Addressbook and compose new mail open in a new window instead of tab though.

Add-ons: just like Firefox, there are many ways to add functionalities to Thunderbird. The first add-on I installed is Funambol in order to test it and help its development. Then ThunderBrowse, in order to avoid opening Firefox only to check a link in an email and EnigMail to add GPG/PGP support. Nothing mind-blowing yet, but I hope somebody will develop a replacement of the Addressbook with more ‘social’ features. A topic for another post 🙂

Bonus reason: finally! There is an “Archive” button: once you’re done with a message or a thread, and you don’t want to delete it, you hit a button and the message goes into the archives (archiving criteria can be specified). A neat solution for Capo’s problem 🙂

The Addressbook, on the other hand, is pretty lame. It doesn’t contain enough fields, it still has space of a ‘pager number’ (anybody  still using them?), it opens in a window and not in a tab. I hope it’ll improve in next version.

I’m still using Evolution as my main source of data, especially address book and calendar. Even if Funambol add-on for Thunderbird 3 works decently, it’s still unstable and it has other small issues (if you want to help, Funambol offers Code Sniper grants).

Rockbox brings portable music to blind

iPod powered by Free Software
iPod powered by Free Software

You gotta love the Free Software community, you have to.’  The crowds of the Rockbox project make the Archos Jukebox and other common mp3/ogg players (including iPods) “the only “off the shelf” hard drive based MP3 player that offers accessibility to the vast majority of its features to the blind”. There is an audio file that describes how to use Rockbox on the iPod Video. I happen to know somebody that will surely like to hear that.

You can grab the latest release Rockbox 3.0, with a new multiplatform installer.’  I have to put this on my wife’s old iPod so that I can use it to listen to my collection of OGG files, since my Apple laptop is still defective (Apple’s fault), refusing to collaborate with my Samsung OGG player.