Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Extreme Middle

Why is it always the extreme right or the extreme left making a fuss? What about the middle?

People only protest when they're upset. But they create this false sense that lots of people are upset and share their view because they're the only ones running around shouting. The majority of people in the middle just want to get on with their lives and know that everything requires compromise and that the people actually in charge will do their best to come up with good solutions.

I sometimes find it amusing to think about going to a protest with a sign along the lines of:
"I'm generally ok with everything."
"I'm angry that people are angry!"
"I trust my representative to make a good decision."
"None of this really matters."
"I'm just here cause I'm bored."

Visual User Interface Design

I often wonder why more user interface tools aren't designed visually from the beginning. Why bother coming up with a text based abstraction that needs an interpreter. Why not just start writing a gui editing tool from the beginning and just spit interfaces to a binary format?

I guess this is why glade XML and EFL's edc files bother me. I feel like all this work is being put into the interpreter and the ui text language when the developers could just spend more time making a kick-ass gui tool.

Maybe it's because making good guis is hard...

Pondering Software Design, ripping on HTML

In Software you design using various languages. These languages are used to create abstractions, which combined describe your intentions for the computer. These abstractions are arbitrary, just as the words and gramar of language are. However, once you create a language or abstraction, you are bound by its limitations.

So, lets look at a bit at how we program today, specifically web applications. We write code in some primary language (Java, Python, Ruby, php, etc), which generates HTML, which your browser interprets and renders. On top of HTML you also have Javascript and CSS. In addition there are a number of software layers in between (Toolkits/Libraries). Sound confusing? It is...

The problem with the web programming model, is the fundamental separation of your primary language from the browser and its languages. The other problem is that there are so many ways to abstract concepts. The same design can be done within different layers. But the abstractions are always difficult to translate between the layers. The limitations of HTML often force you to do certain design across layers. Part of your user interface design may be done in template languages connected to your primary language, and some of it is HTML. Even if you abstract everything with these template languages you're constantly having to tweak HTML to achieve your desired effect.

So, what's the solution? To cleanly layer the languages and abstractions. HTML never should have been both a rendering layer and a ui abstraction layer. Either it should deal with primitive drawing, or higher order concepts such as form elements, not both!

What's the whole purpose of a browser anyway? Really it's just to preload code and abstractions on the client side so that you don't have to transfer so much data to create the visual effect you want (render an HTML document). We shouldn't be scared of changing these abstractions and improving the way we program.

We have to separate web concepts from web technologies. Certain concepts, such as the link, will forever be part of our technological culture. But the abstract idea of a link is separate from it's implementation (an anchor tag in HTML). HTML is a mess that we can and should discard. Links can be described and created with other languages and technologies. We should focus on finding and developing better languages, abstractions, and tools rather than constantly patching the broken concept that is HTML.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mysterious Email

So I just received a strange email:

Dear Arlo,

On the eve of the final test in this wonderful Ashes season myself and my wife were faced with a dilemma as to what to call our new born son. Out of nowhere the wonderful lady suggests Arlo which has always brought to my mind an exciting sports report after the humdrum miserableness and gloom that is the news. So it has been decided upon and with a bit of luck the new Arlo will either open the batting for England or play for Leeds when he is 16 and they are top of the premier league!

I hope that you don't mind my message and hope even more that this brings England all of the luck that they need to finish off the Aussies this weekend. Enjoy the coming days and if you have any advice for a newborn Arlo J Cook then it would be most welcome I'm sure.


Tony (his Dad)

At first I thought it was spam, but it doesn't really solicit any information from me. The email headers seemed legit. I ran traceroute on the ip address of the domain and found that it did indeed originate in England. I visited the website and found that Tony is the manager of a real estate agency in England.

So, this person seems real...the question is why did he contact me. I googled my name and found a wiki page for Arlo White:

Apparently, there's an English sports commentator with my name and Tony was trying to get in contact with him. It looks like he may have just grabbed my email from the second google result (my profile page at the Atlassian Forums). I suppose I'll email back and tell him he's got the wrong Arlo.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rejecting the Cloud

Maybe this seems radical to you, and maybe it doesn't. To understand the reason the Cloud is a bad idea, we need to look at the short history of the web since the late 90's. The best example to look at is e-mail, but the same arguments apply to most Cloud applications. In those days, you got email access through POP and later IMAP. The service you were paying for was just a reliable email server and an account on it. Some free sites generated ad revenue by injecting text ads into the bottom of your emails (some still do). Since then, various web clients have come about. The main reason for the exodus to web clients was not that the web email clients had a better user-interface but because users could have the same user interface at any computer terminal. This is incredibly attractive to many users who do not care that much about their email client's features.

There are a number of problems with "Cloud" applications.

First, is that you cannot access the service unless you're online. You may argue that you're almost always online, but this is hardly true for mobile users. The fact is that a user should be able to access their data even when offline. This is the reason Google has their Gears project. There is another implication: you don't posses and own the data. You don't actually know if it's safe, being sold, or even managed securely. You just have to take it on faith that the service provider is doing their job. In some cases you may not even be able to extract your work or data in a usable way. What if the provider goes under, what if they are bought and the service is canceled? Not completely owning and possessing your work should be a major concern for users.

Second, the user gets an augmented version of the service. By this I mean that the service starts to be branded and enhanced by the provider. It gets integrated with the providers other features and starts delivering unique features. At first this seems like a good thing, a result of competition between providers. The reality is that this results in broken APIs and interoperability issues. These enhancements make it difficult for a user to leave a provider or to integrate a provider's features with their other work.

Third, the browser is a bad platform for these kinds of applications. The browser was never designed to be a host for dynamic applications of this complexity. Their are numerous development and usability issues in web development. Almost all web work involves hacks and workarounds to accommodate situations where browsers don't adhere to the web standards. The browser has been contorted to fill a role that your computer environment should have filled all along.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A more profound Enlightenment, Part 2

There's been some good feedback from people on e-users, though the developers are understandingly cynical. Here's a reply I just posted:

Thanks for the feedback. I have seen clips of Microsoft Surface. However, it doesn't look like it's targeted at replacing our working desktop. It seems like more of a social toy with a few useful features rather than a new user interface that will replace our current operating system. Though I'm sure Microsoft is looking at incorporating some of the ideas into Windows.

Well, realistically I need to sort all of my ideas into what's possible for a first release. For example, the visual database design kind of stuff will need to wait. My general plan is that at first it would be a Linux desktop. If it gains interest and as features are added it will make more sense and may even be necessary to make it its own distro. At some point in the far future there may come a time to make a commercial arm and really push it into everyone's lives, but that's just a dream at this point.

I kind of look at this project in terms of what applications/services can it replace and bring into your native desktop. So for the first Linux desktop release, I'd like to complete wrap around email, im, address books. Then there's the object hierarchy/ontology, spaces, tagging, etc and the scripts/tools standardization. I still have to work through the exact details of how the layers will interact.

Raster just replied:

basically you want us to re-implement every application in existence so it
works with your idea. you know that isnt going to happen? (from photo editor to
text editor and so on...)

Not every application. I think big apps always will have a place, e.g. 3D Studio Max, Music Mixing software, etc. I just think that many of the applications out there would be unnecessary if your computer was just more capable. It sort of ties into Tim Berners-Lee's talk on linked data. Why create brand new apps or websites around each data set? Why not just naturally access and manipulate the data with your computer? Use a collection of small tools that have uses if different contexts rather than one big tool that has just one useful domain.

It's exactly like the GNU command line tools. This time the command prompt is your desktop and each program can be executed through a discoverable interface rather than having to know the name of the tool. And just like GNU tools, you can install new tools and have them integrate with your desktop easily.

Think of why you use the command line and the power of piping programs together. This project would bring that kind of power to the average user in a visual form. Take grep for example. In this desktop, when you have muti-line text selected you'll have the option to filter lines. Under the hood the system will be using grep. It's just a matter of gluing everything together in a clever way.

I'm not naive enough to think I can do all of the work alone. But if I can just get a few developers to help design the core user-interface and concepts. The rest is just plugins and tools written to the standard. As these tools mature you'll bring them into the core set of tools that people will begin to expect from the system.

So for example: Somebody wants to watermark a bunch of pictures. This tool doesn't exist in the default system. They go to an online repository of tools and search for watermark and find something. The developer of this tool just had to think about an array of pixels and what parameters the tools has, such as the location of the watermark and the watermark image. After the user installs the plugin they can create a selection of images and use the tool to watermark them.

Think about the difference from the way its done today. Both the user and the developers job is easier! The developer didn't have to worry about designing a user-interface or a full-blown application. They just had to write a little script that adheres to a certain API. The user didn't have to learn a new user interface. More importantly they had to do less work in terms of clicks. The simplest application would require you to go through an open dialog or drag-drop pictures onto your watermarking app.

What's more is that combinations of plugins will increase the power of the other tools. So say in this situation I have 1000 pictures all in the same folder. Their names are a mess, and I only want to watermark a portion of them based on size. If I get a selection tool that lets me filter my selection of images based on size, then I just use the watermarking tool on that sub selection. With another authors image file filtering tool I've increased the power of the watermarking tool and any other image processing tool.

Again, in the current (old) model, you would have to rewrite your watermarking applicaiton to have image filtering features built-in.

I think it's possible, and more importantly, it's possible to do incrementally and distribute the work. The hard parts are creating a good API and standards for the tool plugins. Handling dependencies, API changes/upgrades, that kind of thing.

So as I see it, this system has two fundamental core components that would be independent standards:

1. The organization of objects, their properties, and how they can be accessed through an API. Classification of objects (simply mime-type?), inheritance of properties? How do you expose an object to a tool? How can ui tools search for objects and move them around (move between spaces, contexts, share them).

2. The tool standard. How you write a tool to plug into they system. Ideally you could write a tool in any language (C, Python, JavaScript, etc.) There's a lot of work in gluing the languages together. The API the tool has access to. For example, a tool working on an image would be interested in finding the image type, size, etc. The tool spec in terms of versioning, compatibility, dependencies, etc. Also, there would be different kinds of tools: object tools, ui tools, filter tools.

Then there's just the user interface built on top of these two standards. Your selection widget is just core tool. The selection widget listens for ctrl+clicks. When you ctrl+click something, the widget decides how to highlight it. Then it uses the previous APIs to query its objects, query the system tools, and match up the right tools for your selection. This means that if people don't like the way selections work in this system, you can just uninstall the default selection behavior and install someone elses widget.

In a way, the selection widget acts very much like a shell, executing other programs based on user interaction.

Hopefully I've made this idea seem more feasible.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A more profound Enlightenment

I've been following the Enlightenment project for years, always impressed by the strength of vision and dedication of the developers. Every once in a while I take an inventory of the graphical toolkits out there and am always disappointed by the fact that the EFL is the most progressive desktop gui system out there and yet hasn't really broken into the mainstream. All the other GUIs (QT, GTK, Windows) are built around boring components (boxes, pull-downs, radio, etc.) The concepts behind these mainstream toolkits are decades old.

When I look at the web, I see all of the excitement about Web 2.0 and the Cloud and "Linked Data". But it's all branded and contained within different application spaces. You go to GMail to access your contacts and send an SMS. You go to Facebook to update your status. You also have your status to set on GMail, AIM, and every other application. These things are really just implementations of a concept. This is especially confusing to less intuitive computer users. Users have to learn a ridiculous vocabulary to do things they already naturally understand: (eMail, Instant Message, AIM, GMail, Yahoo, Facebook, MySpace). Instead users should just have to think "I want to send this to Bob" (Email/IM) or I want to tell everyone who cares about me something (Post a Status). As the features these companies offer all coalesce, one wonders why we need to be branded at all? Why not just standardize on these features and give users more intimate access to them through their own computer.

To make things worse, this is all implemented on a HTML/Javascript layer that was never designed for it. Developers have to wrestle with browser eccentricities and code hackery becomes a necessary part of the development cycle. Instead of looking for a better platform than the browser people have over-inflated its ego (and purpose) and made plugins for it. Now we have Ubiquity, a great idea built on the wrong platform. Rather than take a step back and design a new standard rendering layer we now have Flash, Silverlight, and JavaFX. The browser is tired and overloaded, it's laden with features that belong on your desktop, not next to your web page.

If you've read sci-fi, or watched movies like Minority Report, you know what could be possible. Direct meaningful interaction with visual representations of data. I think now is the point in computer history where that vision can actually become a reality. It's simply the intersection of the browser, your desktop, the Web 2.0 services, and personal management tools like OmniFocus or mind-mapping tools (Freemind, Xmind, NovaMind, etc).

So let me try to explain this idea more concretely...

Imagine your desktop as a space with context. When you start working on a project, you create a new space/desktop for it. As you open files/email/urls it all gets associated with this context. When you decide to work an another project, you'll close this space. Later you come back to it, and everything is as you left it. When you search your computer you can search within a space or all spaces, and move or link things between spaces. A desktop will dynamically adjust to the contents. If you have 3 pictures you're working with, they'll just be thumbnails. If you're working with 1000 pictures, they'll be abstracted as a list that you can manipulate.

Now imagine that all of these things you work with have meta data and tools associated with them. Your computer has a hierarchy of objects and tools. For example, a picture can be scaled, rotated, color filtered etc. Text can have different fonts, colors, be translated. These tools are really just simple programs or scripts that are visually abstracted. Eventually there might be a database of tools you could download for different purposes. This is one of the more difficult components to design well, but I think it can be done.

Within a space you can create selections of different objects and save the selection. Once you have a selection you can act on it in different ways. You can act on their common properties. So since all objects have a creation date, you can sort by creation date. If they're pictures, you could rotate all of them.

Now expand your concept of desktop objects. Not only can they be files, but they can be objects from a database or a website. They might be widgets like you would see on any of the portals (Google, Yahoo, etc) or desktops (Google Desktop, Gnome/KDE/E widgets). They might even be objects from the local database.

Any of these objects can be acted on in certain ways. You can annotate, tag, categorize, or set a due date on them. You can also create basic elements and combine them. Rather than fire-up gEdit to take some quick notes, you just start typing notes on the desktop. You can tag these notes or set due dates for them, and they become todo items. You can type some text and then start formatting it. Then convert it to HTML or a Word Document or whatever.

If you're still with me you have some kind of image of a desktop that understands many kinds of files and data objects and can represent them visually. A desktop that might look something like what you see in sci-fi movies where you can visually drill down, make selections, apply operations, etc.

Imagine that you have a list of contacts that's deeply integrated with this desktop environment. When you open a message from someone on a space, the attachments can be moved onto your space and be manipulated as objects, you never have to open a save dialog. Also, the person becomes associated with the current context. These contacts have email accounts, im accounts, facebook accounts, etc, but you don't really care about that. You never open an email or instant message client. You simply get messages from the person and send messages. If the person is currently online through an im service the message is sent with that method. You can drag any object onto a message. The computer intelligently translates the data. So if it's a selection of rows from a database, it inlines it in the email as an html table. There's no new data formats or apis, when you get an email with an html table in it, you can drag it out into your space and manipulate it and break it apart. Imagine the power of this kind of easy communication and imagine that every object can be sent to someone. If an object is "online" it will give the person a link, if it's small it may inline it. In addition, you could invite people to collaborate on your space while you work on it. Or maybe work with online spaces stored elsewhere?

I'm also thinking that this kind of computer environment would replace a certain amount of work done with data mining and database tools. I don't do much consulting work but I've encountered a few people that had a conceptually simple problem that required a database but the tools were just too hard to use and maintain. They really just needed a few tables with very simple associations. Imagine if you could just visually setup a database and define its entities and then manipulate and search it just like any other object on the desktop. Instead of developing custom reports for every database, you give people the availability to create tables and charts using any kind of object. Say you select a list of pictures, you can then graph the picture dates on a time line. Say you have rows from a database, you can do charts with the measures found within that data.

Hopefully you understand what I'm getting at. The paradigm shift is huge, but I think it's the way computers need to go. Think about it, what does your email client or instant messaging client really give you. Aren't they just different interfaces around the same fundamental concept? If your computer was effective at organizing and archiving your email why would you even use an email client application? I believe this type of integrated desktop would completely replace your need for separate email, instant message, task management, photo management (Picasa) applications.

I've been thinking about this project for a long time now and would like to begin serious work on it. I'd like to create a collaboration space, gather interest, and start documenting more concrete ideas and organize all of this into realistic releases and milestones. I plan to start coding in 2010 after I've had a chance to talk to different experts and design the main concepts. I'm curious though if this could become the Enlightenment Desktop or maybe the next release (0.18 or maybe 1.0)?

If the developers are not interested in this vision than I'll probably just start a separate Linux desktop project that uses the EFL. Maybe call it Nirvana?

Tell me what you think. Has anyone heard of similar ideas? I've tried to find projects related to this but I don't even know what to search for. It's a bit cynical but I truly believe that this is something that won't ever come out of the big companies and can only be developed through open source. Large web companies won't be interested because it essentially obsoletes most of their products. No need for Google Docs, GMail, Picasa, Yahoo's Portal/email, etc. I'm not sure Microsoft or Apple has the vision or desire either.

Also, tell me if I'm totally crazy or not. Do some of you think about these concepts too?