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LWN.net Weekly Edition for December 13, 2012

A simulated FirefoxOS experience

By Jonathan Corbet
December 12, 2012
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 [Lockscreen] 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.

[Home screen] 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.

[Applications] 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.

[Everything.me 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 [Permissions screen] 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 desired.

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)

Google DocCamp 2012: Book sprints

By Nathan Willis
December 12, 2012

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 company.

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 documentation unconference.

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.

Master plan

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 respective projects.

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 classroom curriculum.

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 arrangement possible.

Manual labor

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 fuss.

[DocCamp books]

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)

2012 Linux and free software timeline - Q3

By Michael Kerrisk
December 12, 2012

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 timeline@lwn.net.

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.

July

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.

-- NewsBiscuit

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, release 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 logo]

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."

-- Greg Kroah-Hartman

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). [GNOME logo]

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).

August

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 logo]

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.

-- Google

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, LWN blurb).

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). [FreedomBox logo]

A critical Java zero-day exploit emerges (The H article).

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). [GStreamer logo]

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 minisummit).

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 with ease.

-- Dan 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 microconference).

MongoDB 2.2 is released (announcement). [MongoDB logo]

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).

September

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). [openSUSE logo]

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.

-- Alan Cox

PostgreSQL 9.2 is released (announcement, LWN article on the 9.2 beta). [PostgreSQL logo]

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 license change). [OpenStreetMap logo]

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 and article).

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 faster?

-- Glauber Costa

Calibre 0.9.0 is released (announcement). [Python logo]

Python 3.3.0 is released (announcement, what's new in 3.3 document).

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)

Page editor: Jonathan Corbet

Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition

  • Security: FreeIPA: centralized identity management for Linux; New vulnerabilities in bind9, cups, gimp, libtiff, tor, ...
  • Kernel: 3.8 Merge window part 1; User namespaces; JFFS2, UBIFS, and the growth of flash storage.
  • Distributions: Ubuntu, non-advertisements, and spyware; Slax, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, ...
  • Development: Ekiga 4.0; SparkleShare 1.0; Samba 4.0; RE2; ...
  • Announcements: ROSA join AGL; LLVM Developers' Meeting videos; FSFE on unitary patent; ...
Next page: Security>>

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