Your editor has frequently written that, while Android is a great system
that has been highly beneficial to the cause of open mobile devices, it
would be awfully nice to have a viable, free-software alternative. Every
month that goes by makes it harder for any such alternative system to
establish itself in the market, but that does not keep people from trying.
One of the more interesting developments on the horizon has been FirefoxOS
— formerly known as Boot2Gecko — a system under development at Mozilla.
In the absence of any available hardware running this system, the recent 1.0
release of the FirefoxOS simulator
seemed like a good opportunity to
get a feel for what the Mozilla folks are up to.
Naturally enough, the simulator
is distributed as a Firefox add-on. At 93MB, it's a bit larger than a
typical extension, but, then, it's supposed to be an entire operating
system. The extension refused to install on the archaic iceweasel shipped
with Debian Testing, but it works well enough on more recent Firefox
browsers. Running the extension yields a mostly-empty page with the
opportunity to load software modules and a button to run the simulator
itself. What is one to do in such a situation other than to push that
button and see what happens?
In this case, what happens is the arrival of a handset-shaped popup window
with a clock (two clocks, actually), and a battery indicator. Many
FirefoxOS features look a lot like their Android equivalents — a
resemblance that starts with the initial screen. Perhaps there is no
practical equivalent to the notification/status bar at the top of the
screen. Certainly it will help to make the experience familiar to users
coming over from an Android device.
That familiarity runs into a hitch at unlock time, though. As with other
devices, one starts by making a swipe gesture (upward, in this case) on the
screen. But then one must tap a padlock icon to actually unlock the
device. There is no explanation of why things were done this way, of
course. But it is not hard to imagine that the FirefoxOS developers did
not wish to start their foray into handset systems with a dispute over one
of Apple's higher-profile patents. So, likely as not, anybody who finds
the extra tap irritating has the US patent system to blame.
Like Android, the FirefoxOS home screen is split into several virtual
screens; one can move between them by dragging the background to the left
or the right. The actual implementation, though, more closely resembles
webOS, in that those screens have different purposes. The initial home
screen appears to be reserved for the clock, a standard-issue launcher bar
at the bottom, and a bunch of empty space. There does not appear to be any
provision for adding icons or widgets to this screen.
Dragging the home screen to the left yields a screen full of application
launcher icons. In fact, there are three such screens to be found in that
direction. Installing an application adds its icons to one of those
screens. As with webOS, one can, with a long press, drag icons around to
rearrange or delete them. The icons gravitate toward the upper left,
though; there is no way to arrange a gap in middle. They can be dragged
from one launcher screen to another, but they refuse to move to the home
screen. Icons can also be dragged to the launcher bar, which, amusingly,
will accept far more icons than it can hold, causing some to be pushed off
the side of the screen.
On the other side of the home screen is something that announces itself as
"Everything.me". It appears to be a way to search for resources locally
and remotely. The icons there can be supplemented with such useful
functions as "Celebs" and "Astrology." There is a search bar that will
yield a completely different set of icons with no real clue as to what is
behind them. Unfortunately, none of these icons appears to actually do
anything in version 1.0 of the simulator, so it's hard to evaluate the
functionality of this subsystem.
As one would expect, there is a "marketplace" from which additional
applications may be loaded. Also as one might expect, the list of
applications does not come close to what a more established system would
provide, but, if FirefoxOS is successful, that will presumably change. The
application installation process is relatively straightforward; just click
and it's there. The FirefoxOS privilege
model appears to be still evolving; certainly there are no signs of it
at the application installation level. Interestingly, there is a menu
under "settings" where those permissions can be viewed — and toggled, if
Actually running applications in the simulator is a hit-or-miss matter;
some of them work a lot better than others do. Switching between running
applications is accomplished by holding down the "home" button in a way
similar to how older Android releases behaved.
The impression one gets from the simulator is that the FirefoxOS developers
have managed to put together a credible system for handsets and other
mobile devices. Users of current systems will probably find gaps in
functionality and in the set of available applications, but that can be
expected to change if this platform takes off and becomes widely available
on real hardware. Anybody wanting a system that is more "Linux-like" than
Android may well be disappointed; there is not likely to be much
traditional Linux user-space functionality to be found behind the FirefoxOS
user interface. But this system may prove interesting indeed for users in
search of an alternative system based on free software and Mozilla's
commitment to its users' privacy and security.
Comments (25 posted)
There are three new books about free software thanks to Google's 2012
Summer of Code Documentation
Camp. The week-long event started off with an unconference, but the
main objective was for each participating project to produce a
cohesive, book-length work of documentation. All three projects
delivered, and thanks to the arrangement made by FLOSSManuals with a local
printer, 30 copies of each book were in print late Friday evening.
FLOSSManuals has the sprint process down to a science, which is good
news for open projects of all stripes, but it is still feeling out how
best to sustain the sprint's energy after the participants part
The three projects at this year's camp were the integrated library
system Evergreen, the educational programming environment Etoys, and
the type design application FontForge. FLOSSManuals has been
facilitating book sprints in
a variety of formats since 2008; the most common format is a retreat
where eight to ten project members congregate for a five-day writing and
editing session. The Documentation Camp format is a bit smaller in that
regard — each team had five or six participants and only three
days were devoted to book creation, with the rest spent on a
One purpose of the unconference was to get the three teams to swap
information and share insights and best practices about documentation,
but another was to jump start each team's collaboration. As is often
the case with open source projects, many team members had never met in
person and were used to interacting online. Sharing a small
conference room for ten to twelve hours a day and trading edits is
hardly common practice. But by the end of the unconference sessions,
facilitator Adam Hyde had each team focused on the preliminary steps
to writing a coherent book as a group.
The teams were first tasked with coming up with a title and subtitle
for their books. Although titles can be arbitrary, the brief was more
specific: avoid "clever" titles; decide on a clear title that
addresses a specific audience. Too broad of an audience or too broad
of a scope, Hyde advised, makes for either an unfinished book or one
that is sloppy and difficult-to-read. He also advised the teams to
pick a topic that would be useful in attracting new people to their
I participated in the camp as a member of the FontForge group;
although we grappled (too long) to find our eventual title, we did
establish our target audience quickly, which provided focus for the
book. We decided to write an introduction to the font design process,
using FontForge as the example software. Experienced type designers,
we decided, can already make some use of FontForge's existing,
reference-like documentation. It is certainly imperfect, but, on the
other hand, writing a comprehensive FontForge manual of use to domain
experts would take more time than was available. At the same time, an
introduction to font design would be useful to the interested amateur
— particularly considering that FontForge is the only free font
design application. Currently, newcomers to the field who cannot
afford US $400 proprietary applications either struggle to learn
FontForge, or they give up without exploring type design at all.
The other two teams also picked well-defined target audiences and
subjects. The Evergreen project targeted system administrators tasked
with installing and maintaining an Evergreen installation (as opposed
to, for example, library staff members). The Etoys project targeted
school teachers wanting practical help integrating Etoys into their
With a title and concept in hand, the next order of business was to
generate a rough sketch of the book's table of contents (TOC). The
TOC is essentially an outline of the narrative, so writing it as a
group forces the group to structure the subject matter, work it into
an orderly shape, and start deciding where to cut material. That is
by no means a simple task, as we discovered in the FontForge group.
Type design is a highly iterative process that involves multiple rounds
of testing, evaluation, and adjustment; unrolling that workflow into a
linear series of steps is fundamentally impossible.
Instead, we had to settle for arranging the workflow into a roughly
linear form, starting with a lot of conceptual material for the reader
to keep in mind, then do our best to minimize the amount of jumping
back-and-forth between chapters. The result requires the reader to
get familiar with several parts of FontForge's interface at once (the
drawing tools, the spacing tools, the validation tools, and the
font generation tools) rather than learning one at a time. That may
sound less than ideal, but after several days of rearranging the order
of materials, we were at least convinced that it was the best
The actual writing process occupied about a day and a half, and there
is not much to say about it other than that it was what one would
expect: gruntwork at the keyboard. All three of the groups had some
documentation that they could incorporate and adapt for some of the book
content, but for the most part, the content-creation process is
writing, rewriting, asking questions of other team members, and
building images to use for illustrations.
The software FLOSSManuals uses for book sprints (and other writing
projects) is the collaborative editor Booktype. We looked at Booktype's initial release in
February 2012. The software has evolved since then, but the basic
feature set is essentially the same. It offers a web-based WYSIWYG
editor for authoring, supports multiple users, and locks each chapter
while an editor has it open. It has a drag-and-drop TOC interface
allowing users to rearrange chapters and sections, keeps old versions
of every edit, and offers basic statistics on usage participation.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Booktype is the fact that anyone
can edit any book. This is a conscious decision on FLOSSManuals'
part; the goal of the project is to encourage open participation and
collaboration. That does not mean it sits well with everyone,
though. One of the teams expressed some concern that vandals (perhaps
outsiders, perhaps disgruntled community members) would erase or
destroy the text. To that, Hyde replied that incidents of destructive
behavior have hardly ever happened in the course of FLOSSManuals'
fifty-plus book sprints — in reality, he said, it is very
difficult to get anyone to contribute at all, and it is extremely rare
to see anyone willing to take the time to be destructive. Besides, he
added, encouraging positive contributions is a social
problem, and building a technical solution for it into Booktype simply
would not work. Fellow facilitator Allen Gunn compared it to the open
nature of Wikipedia, which had languished in obscurity when editing
was the purview of approved gatekeepers only. In any case, Booktype
does allow contributors to roll back any vandalism with minimal
The book sprint editing process involved assigning two proofreaders
(not counting the author) to every chapter, and keeping track of their
progress on a whiteboard. Since there was a strict deadline at which
time the content had to be sent to the print shop, the
editing process became quite a rush as well. Hyde advised all of the
groups at the outset to avoid the temptation to start writing a
"style guide" at the beginning of the sprint, and instead to push
stylistic clean-up to the very end.
English majors might chafe at that suggestion, but in reality the
proofreading and editing process already involves so much work
(including unifying multiple writers' tones with consistency) that it
was little trouble to push formatting issues all the way to the end.
Hyde made a formatting pass of his own at the end of the final
evening, solely to clean up the HTML in Booktype. By late Thursday
night, the content was declared finished, and rendered to final output.
Booktype uses HTML internally as its file format, and renders it to
various output formats with a transformation engine called Objavi. Objavi can
create print-ready PDF, EPUB, Mobi, and a wide variety of other output
formats. Hyde created EPUB and Mobi versions of the books
immediately, while the hard copies were printed and bound overnight.
Wait for the sequel
The week ended with each team assessing the state of the completed
project, and planning how to proceed in the coming weeks and months.
Obviously three days is hardly sufficient to cover everything that a
quality book would need, much less to proofread and correct all of the
typos and human errors. There are also layout issues that can only be
revealed after the HTML has been rendered, as well as potential
localizations and translations to think about.
Hyde said that his hope was that all three projects continue to refine
and update their books, but that it requires intentionality. Open
source software is updated quickly, the teams are scattered around the
globe, and most participants have day jobs. Add to that the fact that
documentation remains an afterthought in many open source projects,
and it is all too easy for even a well-written book with motivated
authors to get out of date.
The theory behind the camp, after all, is for the projects to learn a
different and better way to produce documentation in a sustainable
fashion. Although that goal encompasses continuing to write new
material, it also includes maintaining the latest book going forward,
which is not a simple thing. Hyde highlighted past projects that have
excelled at the job (such as the CiviCRM manual and How To Bypass
Internet Censorship). He suggested several strategies for
transforming the documentation camp book into a sustainable, updated
work: how to select a maintainer, how to ask for volunteers, and how
to market the book to people outside of the project itself.
All three projects worked on their own plan of attack, and they met
together one last time to provide feedback on the sprint process and
camp as a whole. Finally, Hyde demonstrated some of the advanced
output rendering features of Objavi and showed some of the
still-in-development enhancements coming to Booktype.
The response to the camp from the teams was uniformly positive;
speaking as a member of the FontForge team, the process was a lot of
fun even if it did include a lot of late nights. In addition to
producing a worthwhile manual, it was also highly educational to
compare notes with other users while hammering out chapters. One team
member also observed that the process of writing out the how-to
material forced him to distill and organize a lot of information that
he carried around in his head, but had never looked at systematically
before. That is surely a worthwhile takeaway, and would be even apart
from the book.
Nevertheless, the documentation camp produced tangible results of use
to readers immediately. You can see all three of the books online
(and generate your own output version). The Evergreen manual is
entitled Evergreen in
Action, the Etoys book is entitled Learning
with Etoys, and the FontForge manual Start Designing with
FontForge. Only time will tell whether each team continues
to maintain and expand its documentation, but I can report that I
started receiving emails about expanding the FontForge book before the
end of the last night of camp. For his part, Hyde was off to
facilitate another book sprint the following week, as part of
FLOSSManuals' never-ending campaign to improve free documentation.
[The author would like to thank Google for support to attend the 2012 Summer of Code Documentation Camp]
Comments (2 posted)
Here is LWN's fifteenth annual timeline of significant events in the
Linux and free software world. We will be breaking the timeline up into
quarters, and this is our report on July-August 2012. A timeline for the
remaining quarter of the year will appear next week.
This is version 0.8 of the 2012 timeline. There are almost certainly
some errors or omissions; if you find any, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
LWN subscribers have paid for the development of this timeline, along
with previous timelines and the weekly editions. If you like what you see
here, or elsewhere on the site, please consider subscribing to LWN.
If you'd like to look further back in time, our timeline index page has links to the
previous timelines and some other retrospective articles going all the way
back to 1998.
Popular pet names Rover, Cheryl and Kate could be a thing of the
past. Banks are now advising parents to think carefully before naming their
child’s first pet. For security reasons, the chosen name should have at
least eight characters, a capital letter and a digit. It should not be the
same as the name of any previous pet, and must never be written down,
especially on a collar as that is the first place anyone would
look. Ideally, children should consider changing the name of their pet
every 12 weeks.
[...] We tried to call Barclays’ security expert R0b Ste!nway for a
comment, but he was not available for 24 hours, having answered his phone
incorrectly three times in succession.
Akademy 2012 is held in Tallinn, Estonia, June 30-July 6 (LWN
coverage: Defensive publications, Plasma Active and Make Play Live; The Qt Project and KDE; KWin scripting; Freedom and the internet; Contour and Plasma Active; KDE successes and areas for improvement).
Oracle Linux 6.3 is released (announcement,
notes, and LWN article on Oracle's attempt
to draw users away from CentOS to their own RHEL clone).
Mozilla surprises Thunderbird users by announcing that it is pulling
developers from the project (LWN article).
The first patches adding support for
64-bit ARM processors are posted (LWN article).
Open Font Library 0.5 is released (announcement).
Michael Kerrisk joins LWN as an editor (LWN article).
CUPS 1.6 is released (announcement, LWN article).
Firebug 1.10.0 is released (LWN blurb).
A number of the developers all went to a climbing gym one
evening, and I found myself climbing with another kernel developer who
worked for a different company, someone whose code I had rejected in the
past for various reasons, and then eventually accepted after a number of
different iterations. So I've always thought after that incident, "always
try to be nice in email, you never know when the person on the other side
of the email might be holding onto a rope ensuring your safety."
Linux 3.5 is released (announcement; KernelNewbies summary; LWN
merge window summaries: part 1, part 2, and part
3; LWN development statistics article).
The Debian project launches a new effort to clarify why Debian is
not on the Free Software Foundation's free distribution list, though
little has changed since then (LWN article).
Bison 2.6 is released (LWN blurb; Motion tracking with Skeltrack).
CRtools 0.1 is released (LWN is released).
GUADEC is held in A Coruña, July 26-August 1 (LWN coverage: Open source and open "stuff"; Imagining Tor built-in to GNOME; New funding models for open source software;
Porting GNOME to Android; GNOME OS conversations).
Trust me: every problem in computer science may be solved
by an indirection, but those indirections are *expensive*. Pointer chasing
is just about the most expensive thing you can do on modern CPU's.
-- Linus Torvalds
The KDE project releases KDE Plasma Workspaces, KDE Applications,
and KDE Platform 4.9 (announcement).
Texas Linux Fest is held in San Antonio (LWN coverage: TexOS teaching open source).
LibreOffice 3.6 is released (announcement,
LWN blurb and an earlier
article looking at the branding challenge facing LibreOffice).
Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a
new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices
we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices
may appear lower in our results. This ranking change should help users find
legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a
song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music
streamed from Spotify.
SCO files for Chapter 7 liquidation (LWN blurb).
CyanogenMod 9.0 is released (LWN blurb and earlier article previewing the release).
The GNOME project turns 15 (LWN article).
Calligra 2.5 is released (announcement,
Valgrind 3.8.0 is released (announcement).
Digia acquires Qt from Nokia (LWN blurb).
PowerTop 2.1 is released (LWN article).
Ben Hutchings announces plans to support the 3.2 kernel until Debian
7.0 reaches end of life, which probably means end of 2015 (announcement).
FreedomBox 0.1 is released (announcement,
earlier LWN article on FreedomBox as an
alternative to commercial home routers).
A critical Java zero-day exploit emerges (The
The third GStreamer Conference is held in San Diego, California,
August 27-28 (LWN coverage: The approach of
GStreamer 1.0; The road ahead; Linux media subsystems).
The 2012 Linux Kernel Summit is held in San Diego, California,
August 27-29 (LWN provided extensive coverage of the main summit, as well as the
associated the ARM
minisummit, Linux Security
Summit, and memcg/mm
Most importantly, a series of leaks over the past few
years containing more than 100 million real-world passwords have provided
crackers with important new insights about how people in different walks of
life choose passwords on different sites or in different settings. The
ever-growing list of leaked passwords allows programmers to write rules
that make cracking algorithms faster and more accurate; password attacks
have become cut-and-paste exercises that even script kiddies can perform
Goodin in ars technica
LinuxCon North America is held in San Diego, California, August
29-31 (LWN coverage: Funding development;
Open hardware for open hardware; Dragons and penguins in space; The tragedy of the commons gatekeepers).
The Linux Plumbers Conference is held in San Diego, California,
August 29-31 (LWN coverage: Realtime
MongoDB 2.2 is released (announcement).
The jury in the Apple v. Samsung patent suit finds in favor of Apple on
almost all claims (LWN blurb, LWN article on look-and-feel lawsuits).
So yeah, I do acknowledge that both modes of working make
sense, I just believe the default approach should be one where focus is on
stabilizing things, not on developing new stuff all the time.
-- Lennart Poettering
Linux From Scratch 7.2 is released (announcement).
openSUSE 12.2 is released (LWN blurb).
Qubes 1.0 is released (LWN blurb).
QEMU 1.2 is released (LWN blurb).
Twisted 12.2.0 is released (announcement).
Yes I have now read kernel bugzilla, every open bug (and
closed over half of them). An interesting read, mysteries that Sherlock
Holmes would puzzle over, a length that wanted a good editor urgently, an
interesting line in social commentary, the odd bit of unnecessary bad
language. As a read it is however overall not well explained or structured.
PostgreSQL 9.2 is released (announcement, LWN article on the 9.2 beta).
GNU patch 2.7 is released (announcement).
SyncEvolution 1.3 is released (announcement).
Cinnamon 1.6 is released (announcement).
The Linux Foundation announces the creation of the Automotive Grade Linux workgroup (LWN blurb).
Rackspace announces that it is handing over the OpenStack project
OpenStack Foundation (LWN blurb).
The OpenStreetMap project completes relicensing of its database to
Open Database License (announcement and 2008 LWN article on the motivation for the
The second Automotive Linux Summit is held in Gaydon, England
(LWN coverage: First signs of actual code;
Automotive Grade Linux).
The X.Org Developers Conference is held in Nuremberg, Germany
(LWN coverage: Status report from the X.Org
Board; Graphics stack security; Programming languages for X application
development; OpenGL futures).
GeeXboX 3.0 is released (LWN blurb).
Canonical decides to include Amazon search results in the Ubuntu
Dash (LWN blurb).
If by "intuitive" you mean "the same as the old
interface" then I must agree. Otherwise, I think you are just trying to
hold on to what you know.
-- David Lehman
Tent 0.1 is released (LWN blurb
GStreamer 1.0 is released (LWN blurb and article previewing the release).
GTK+ 3.6.0 is released (announcement).
GNOME 3.6 released (LWN blurb).
Slackware 14 is released (LWN blurb).
Open webOS 1.0 is released (announcement).
It is an accepted fact that memcg sucks. But can it suck
Calibre 0.9.0 is released (announcement).
Python 3.3.0 is released (announcement, what's new in 3.3
CIA.vc shuts down (LWN article).
Joomla 3.0 is released (LWN blurb).
Linux 3.6 is released (announcement; KernelNewbies summary; LWN
merge window summaries: part 1, part 2, and part
3; LWN development statistics article).
Comments (none posted)
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