Tuesday Aug 21, 2007

Is OpenLazlo the wave of the future?

My buddy Tony Vigna, uberconsultant and bleeding-edge CIO, has become quite enamored of OpenLazlo as a platform for building rich, interactive Web 2.0 applications. I've been checking out their site, and also Lazlo Systems, the commercial startup that produced OpenLazlo. I like their business model, which is to sell support and commercial applications based on the open-source OpenLazlo that they have released under the Common Public License. I also like their endorsement of OpenLazlo on the front end, Java on the back end.

I also signed up for a free LazloMail account, and I really like the rich browser-based experience. Other web-based mail systems I've tried have the look and feel of a washing machine control panel. LazloMail feels like a thick client, yet it's delivered in a browser. OpenLazlo definitely seems like a technology to watch.

Monday Aug 20, 2007

Office suites on Apple -- so many choices!

Suppose you buy a Mac (nice thought!) What will you use for an office productivity suite? I've been toying with the idea of getting a Mac, so my interest in this subject is more than academic. Also, since I've been doing StarOffice and OpenOffice.org services product management, I've got a professional interest, too. 

It turns out that there are lots of choices in this space, maybe the most on any platform. Let's see what's on offer:

Microsoft Office for the Mac -- probably the most popular choice. Microsoft has put a lot of effort into this product over the years, in spite of their rivalry with Apple. Back in the day when Apple had a huge share if the personal computer market, I've been told, Office for Mac was a major profit center for the Redmondians, and it's nice to see that they've kept it up. I've always been a big Excel fan, though I often find Word to be quite frustrating and unintuitive.

Apple iWork -- this one is starting to get interesting. It wasn't a complete choice until now, because it lacked a spreadsheet. Now it has one, and it's been getting good press. The price is right, too. It's always nice to use software built by the guys who built the hardware, just like Solaris on Sun. iWorks is the replacement for the obsolete AppleWorks.

NeoOffice -- I don't know too much about it, except that it is the brainchild of a couple of guys who used to work on OfficeOffice.org, and started life as a port of OpenOffice to the Mac. Main claim to fame: it uses the wonderful Mac Aqua screen interface instead of X11 and also has the virtue of being an open source project. I know guys within Sun who use it and like it.

OpenOffice.org for Mac -- helps pay my salary, so I'm not objective, but I use its twin StarOffice (on Windows XP) on a daily basis, and I've been very happy with it, much more than I thought I would be when I stopped using Microsoft Office. I haven't used OpenOffice.org on the Mac, but I think it's clear in general that StarOffice/OpenOffice.org is the only professional-quality office suite out there that can rival Microsoft Office. If I get a Mac soon, OO.o will be my choice. The main drawback of OpenOffice.org on Mac is that it uses the X11 windowing system, instead of the native Mac Aqua, and there are folks for whom that is a major issue.

OpenOffice.org, Mac Aqua port -- yep, it's coming. There are engineers working on it full time, and the screen shots I've seen look amazing.  All the professional quality of OpenOffice.org combined with the elegance and clarity of Aqua.

Lots of choices! It's nice that Sun plays a big role in the diversity available on the Mac.

Sunday Aug 19, 2007

This guy owns 100 Apple computers

What a cool guy. He owns 100 Apple computers.

Gee, I don't even own one.

Deconstructing Solaris

Solaris is an unending source of amusement for me, possibly because I am rather easily amused. First I backed off from using the Java Desktop System in favor of the simpler FVWM window manager. Then tonight I thought, hmmm, why not try running with no window manager at all?

I'm actually kind of surprised that it worked. I logged into a Solaris failsafe session, which gave me a command line in a terminal emulator, but no desktop. Then, from the command line I just typed "Firefox", and here I am, typing in my blog. I can't move the browser window around, and there are no buttons to resize it or  minimize it. I can't even get back to the command line without closing Firefox. Now I see why people invented window managers.

But I can still write my blog quite nicely in a browser window that fills most of the screen. Sort of a minimalist, Zen-like Solaris experience.

This is way cool. I feel a bit like a medical student learning anatomy by dissecting a cadaver. I'm learning about Solaris by deconstructing it piece by piece.

Friday Aug 17, 2007

A little trick with FVWM

I was having a problem using the FVWM window manager that I had installed on OpenSolaris. Each time I opened a window from the command line, I had to open a new terminal window, because I was losing the shell prompt with each application I opened.  Thanks to Deborah and Eric Ray's Visual Quickstart Guide to UNIX, I've now figured out how to avoid this problem. For each new application you open from the command line, add an ampersand (&) after the name of the program, as in

bash 3.00$ firefox &

This runs the job in the background, at least as far as the command line is concerned, so it gives you another command prompt when the application opens. However, from the user's point of view, the "background" job can be interacted with in its own window like any application. I'm typing this blog entry in Firefox in its own window, and my command line is ready and waiting for any applications I care to request. I just have to remember to add the ampersand for each new one I open!

Thursday Aug 16, 2007

Software Experience Group at Sun

Software usability engineers are the kind of cool people I like to hang out with. They're an interesting hybrid of developer, visual artist and psychologist, and they're responsible for the great, easy-to-use pieces of technology that everyone raves about, like the Mac.

Sun has its own usability crew, known as the xDesign group, and it includes a couple of my buddies, Loren Mack and Leon Barnard. The xDesigner team has a cool group blog,  where they talk about some of the things they're working on, like the redesign of the NetBeans.org web site, and the OpenDS directory server installer.

Currently, Loren Mack is blogging  there about the redesign of  one of the products I used to manage, eIndex(TM) Single Patient Identifier, and there's also a great article about the construction of the Sun usability lab in Prague. Check it out!

Wednesday Aug 15, 2007

Google to distribute StarOffice!

This is big news for StarOffice. Just off the wire -- StarOffice will be part of the Google Pack of  downloadable desktop software! You can check out the Google Pack beta here. Google Pack also includes Google Earth, Norton Security Scan, Google Desktop, Skype, RealPlayer and lots more. Pretty good company!

Sunday Aug 12, 2007

OpenOffice.org and linguistic diversity

We were talking with our son in Dubai on the weekend, and he pointed out how striking it is over there that English is the worls's lingua franca now. Dubai is a mashup of people from dozens of cultures, and they all communicate with each other in English. As my son pointed out, the British Empire started this trend, and the pervasive influence of media has only strengthened it.

I think it's clear that the computer is one medium that has accelerated this trend, through the Internet, but I think there is a happy counter-trend, too. Yes, the computer has solidified the place of English as the world's language of commerce, but it has also had the beneficial effect of preserving and encouraging the use of suppressed and waning languages. I like to think that OpenOffice.org is playing a useful role here. OpenOffice.org is one of the most globalized pieces of software in existence, with ongoing community-based localization projects in more than 80 languages. Take a look here at a list of the projects.

I was particularly impressed with OO.o's level of commitment to native language support when I read about the upcoming OpenOffice.org Conference (OOoCon 2007) in Barcelona. As the conference site notes, over the last seven years, the Barcelona-based OpenOffice Catalan localization team has distributed over 2 million copies of OpenOffice.org in Catalan. When you realize that Catalan was actively suppressed under the Franco regime, you can see the important role that our profession can play in the preservation and expansion of the world's cultural and linguistic diversity.

  

Saturday Aug 11, 2007

Weird and wonderful Solaris variety

One of the weirdest and coolest things about Solaris, at least to me, is that there are so many different ways to interact with it. Instead of presenting a single face to the world, like Windows or Mac OS, Solaris is a hydra with a hundred heads, and you can talk to any one of them -- or even create a new one. Case in point -- as I write this post I'm using Roller, but I didn't open the Java Desktop System to do it. I'm writing the post in a window that I opened in FVWM, one of the dozens of alternate window managers that UNIX and Linux have spawned. I downloaded FVWM from Blastwave.org yesterday, and followed instructions I found on a blog by Sun's own Brendan Gregg to get it running. Thanks, Brendan!

Why would I want to do this? I guess it's the same reason that sometimes I like to look at my email using Pine, and sometimes I like to speak Spanish. The freedom to choose one's mode of communication is something very basic. They can build the best monolithic desktop system on the planet, like the one I was fooling around with down at the Apple store today, but there are still going to be a lot of shadetree mechanics like me that are going to want to roll our own, and you'll find us down at the corner of Solaris Avenue and Linux Street, here in UNIX Town.

Thursday Aug 09, 2007

Cassette tapes are ice cool

Management consultants have a saying: "The last iceman always makes money." The last company in a dying industry has a very profitable niche for a long while. There was a neat article in the Los Angeles Times Thursday about the last US manufacturer of cassette tapes. They're making money, even though sales of music on cassette only amount to about 700,000 tapes a year, down from 442 million in 1990. The company, Lenco-PMC Inc., actually makes 22 million cassettes a year. It seems that they have advantages over CDs that make them quite popular among certain segments of the population, for reasons you might not think of. Blind people like them for talking books, because they can be labeled in Braille, something you can't do with a CD. Also, for any user of an audio book, they have the great advantage that they start in the same place they stopped when you move from one player to another. They're also popular with court reporters and religious publishers.

This is the same reason that I advocate supporting old releases of software much longer than conventional wisdom dictates. If a customer keeps using an antiquated piece of software, there must be a powerful reason that may not be readily apparent. Why not keep cashing their support checks? The last iceman always makes money.

Wednesday Aug 08, 2007

Free the fonts! Free the colors!

I've been reading Winston Churchill's magnificent history of the First World War, and I noticed that in one of the chapters he uses a seemingly archaic stylistic device -- he capitalizes important words, as in "And behind smoke lay a more baleful development -- Poisonous Smoke: smoke that would not only obstruct the vision, but destroy the eye...."  For those of us admonished by 20th-century grammar school teachers to only capitalize proper nouns (names) this is anathema, but perhaps something has been lost by enforcing such an austere style.

In the eighteenth century, great prose stylists used capitals freely: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Is it "right" to use typography as a stylistic device in literature? One of the few examples of this that still seems to be within bounds is to use italics for emphasis, though magazines like Cosmopolitan are often derided for overdoing it.

All the other arts eagerly embrace technology. The invention of oil-based pigments revolutionized painting. The computer and video transformed filmmaking. And note that these technologies were not used to do the same old thing more efficiently, but to create wonderful new effects that had hitherto not been possible. Computerized typesetting now gives us the power to use hundreds of different fonts in the same document, if we so choose, or to print text in multiple colors. Why shouldn't we? Is there some purity of plain text that makes prose more "artistic," and that must be preserved at all costs? Is it something about our era that abhors decoration? We now believe that those revered, pure white marble statues of the ancient Greeks were actually painted in their day, so it seems clear that the ├Žsthetic of purity is something that evolved in the West in our own era, not something timeless. Closer to our own time, the monks of the Middle Ages illuminated their manuscipts with colored inks and gold leaf, and used wonderful stylistic devices like ligatures.

The invention of movable type, and later machine typesetting, made possible the explosion in publishing that underpins our civilization, but also destroyed the use of most typographical enhancement in literature. With the advent of the computer, encoding systems like ASCII, with their very limited character sets, reduced the possibilities even further.

But the computer long ago gave enhanced typography back to us. TeX has existed since the late seventies. Why do we insist that only black and white, single-font type may be used for serious literature? It's not due to an economic or technical constraint: pick up any magazine and you'll see black and white text set next to garish color advertisements.

It seems clear then that our insistence on plain text is purely ├Žsthetic. But this may be slowly changing. A serious novel, Gould's Book of Fish, uses the device of printing each chapter in a different color to reflect the different fluids that its prisoner narrator is forced to write with, for instance. As we do more and more of our news and information reading from screens, where hyperlinks are colored and underlined, and all kinds of embedded hypermedia objects are considered perfectly acceptable, perhaps our own internal ├Žsthetic view of what literature should look like will change.

Update: Now that I view my own text as published, I see that most of my embedded experiments with colors and different fonts didn't come thorough. Gaah! We artists are always being thwarted.


Monday Aug 06, 2007

An opening for Solaris?

There is a sea change under way in desktop computing that could be an opportunity for Solaris. Eric S. Raymond (esr) and Rob Landley wrote a very perceptive essay last year that argued that every time desktop computers have increased the number of bits used to store memory addresses, the dominant platform dies and a new one takes its place. They argue that BASIC was the lingua franca of 8-bit computing (regardless of OS), that the advent of 16-bit machines brought in MS-DOS dominance, and that 32-bit machines brought in Windows.

Now, with 64-bit desktops just coming in, Rob and esr speculate that whatever OS best handles 64 bits, and that has a big enough community writing device drivers, will come to dominance. They also argue, based on history, that this platform will continue to dominate until the next big paradigm shift occurs, which they think won't happen until at least 2050.

I happened to read their essay a few days ago, and thought it interesting, but highly speculative. Then I happened to read this article on CNET that seems to back up their conclusions! Naturally, esr and Rob are hoping that Linux becomes the new dominant paradigm, but why couldn't it be Solaris? Nobody knows more about 64-bit computing than Sun, and we now have a very active driver-writing community. Why not Solaris?

Saturday Aug 04, 2007

Another terrific UNIX bookl

My quest to find the perfect UNIX book is approaching an obsession. I'm only half way through Understanding UNIX, A Conceptual Guide and already I've gone and bought another. This one is Visual Quickstart Guide UNIX, Third Edition, by Deborah S. Ray and Eric J. Ray. Eric is a noted Sun engineer, so I knew the book would be good, but it turns out that Deborah and Eric have written more than a dozen books on software, and their expertise shows throughout. 

I wonder if there is something about male/female teams that produces great software books? Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates wrote the breakthrough Head First Java, and the brother-sister team of John R. Levine and Margaret Levine Young wrote my well-thumbed and beloved UNIX for Dummies.

The Rays' book takes more of a cookbook approach than I have liked in the past, but now that I have gotten past the initial learning stage with other books that explain everything in detail, I think this information-packed handbook is exactly what I need to have at hand when I actually sit down at the computer. Excellent!

I should note that the book focuses exclusively on the command line -- true classical UNIX. This is what interests me now, but as I move into learning about X and window managers, I think I will need yet another book. Or two. Or five. Obsession is a terrible thing.

Friday Aug 03, 2007

Score one half point for Mozilla Thunderbird

When Sun took over SeeBeyond, they eventually switched us all from Microsoft Outlook to Mozilla Thunderbird for our email client. I found T-bird to be pretty good, but it always bugged me that the blazing white background color on messages was hurting my eyes. When using Outlook, I had been able to pick up the nice neutral gray that I had set for the general background color on my PC. I was thinking about writing a nasty blog entry about how T-bird was slowly blinding me, but then I discovered this morning that there is a facility on the T-bird Tools/Options menu for setting the background color for messages. Excellent! Now if I can just figure out how to set the background color for the message list folders, I will be fine. So I can't give T-bird a full point yet, but this is a great improvement! And a good lesson to not be too hasty to criticize open source stuff as not being user-friendly.

Tuesday Jul 31, 2007

StarOffice is invisible

I went to Borders the other night to see if there were any books on StarOffice or OpenOffice.org. Not a single one, but dozens on MSFT Office. What's up with that? Are we suffering from "If you build it, they will come" syndrome? Then I went to the web site of Encore Software, the US retail distributor of StarOffice. I didn't see SO listed on their home page among the games they sell, so used their search facility. It came up with nothing. We have an excellent product that sells at a fraction of the price of its only real competitor -- maybe we should tell the world about it.

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