Constraints for Mobile Software

This post is mostly just an overview of Epistle by Matteo Villa, which is--to my mind--the best Android note taking application ever. By the time you read this I will have an Android Tablet, but it's still in transit while you read this and that's a topic that dissevers it's own post.

Epistle is a simple notes application with two features that sealed the deal:

1. It knows markdown, and by default provides a compiled rich text view of notes before providing a simple notes editing interface. While syntax highlighting would be nice, we'll take what we can get.

2. It's a nice, simple application. There's nothing clever or fancy going on. This simplicity means that the interface is clean and it just edits text.

For those on the other side there's Paragraft that seems similar. While in my heart of hearts I'm probably still holding out for the tablet equivalent [1] of emacs. In the mean time, I think developing a text editing application that provide a number of paradigmatic text editing features and advances for the touch screen would be an incredibly welcome development.

In the end there's much work to be done, and the tools are good enough to get started.

[1]I want to be clear to say equivalent and not replacement, because while I'd like to be able to use emacs and have that kind of slipstream writing experience on an embeded device, what I really want is something that is flexible and can be customized and lets me do all the work that I need to do, without hopping between programs, without breaking focus, that makes inputting and manipulating text a joy. And an application that we can trust (i.e. open source, by a reputable developer,) in a format we can trust (i.e. plain text.) Doesn't need to be emacs and doesn't need lisp, but I wouldn't complain about the lisp.

Org Mode and Mobile Writing

This post is adapted from a post I made to the org-mode email list a few weeks ago. I proposed an application to compliment MobileOrg for writing. Where MobileOrg collects the core bits of org-mode's task planning functionality in a form that makes sense for smart phone users, the parts of org-mode functionality that people use to for writing and organizing the content of larger form projects isn't particularly accessible.

I spend (or should spend) 70% or more of my time in front of a computer writing or editing something in org-mode. Most of my org files have tens of thousands of words of blog posts, notes, drafts of articles, and so forth. While I can store that data on an android device with only minor problems using a little script that I put together, and I can capture content into my org-files using email and some nifty filters, and there are text editors that can let me edit these files: it could be better.

The proposal is simple. Can we build something like Epistle for org-mode? It might just render org-mode text to HTML, and frankly that would be enough for me. If the editing interface had an org-indent-mode equivalent, org-syntax highlighting, and even collapsing trees or org-narrow-to-subtree, that'd be kind of like heaven.

I'm not a mobile developer, so I can't promise to start making an app this instant if there's interest but if anyone's bored and thinks this might be a good idea (or knows of something that might work better for this.) I'd love to hear about it. If someone wants to start work on this, I'll do whatever I can to help make this a reality.

Onward and Upward!

Is Android the Future of Linux?

By now, several weeks ago, in correspondence Matt Lundin that he thought Android was probably future of Linux," mostly as a throw away line. This feels like a really bold statement, [1] and I've enjoyed thinking about Android and "the future of Linux." [2]

On the face of it, Android is the future of Linux. Android is the Linux that most people will interact with before all others in a concrete manner. In all likelihood The future of Linux is probably mostly in running web servers, virtualization hosts, and any other server that matters. At this point, Linux's platform support and use cases is far less interesting than its prevalence: the ubiquity of Linux, GNU, and BusyBox, is more import an that the fact that Linux runs everywhere in hundreds of different usage profiles.

And really, "desktop Linux" or even "Linux for end-users," is something of a distraction. We don't all have to use Linux on the machines beneath our fingers for Linux to be successful. I'm a desktop Linux user because it's the right system for the work I do, and I can't work the way I need to with any other kind of system. But I use my systems in a very peculiar way and the thing that makes Linux ideal for me (and the people who are good at building Linux systems,) is not necessarily the qualities that make the best Linux distributions for most users.

As someone who cares about Linux adoption and the use of free software, I don't want my argument to lead to the very common "let non-technical users use Macs" argument. Although it's true that OS X can be a convincing introduction to power and use of having a full UNIX-like system on your lap: this was my root (as it were.) Rather, I think that the way to encourage Linux adoption is to increase computer literacy until users respect and value and power that Linux-based systems offer.

Easier said than done, of course.

If this is the case, then Android isn't a very good introduction to Linux-based operating systems. Not because it's bad software, but because the kernel is pretty irrelevant to the overall user experience, or the interface that most users have.

Regardless, while madalu is probably right, I don't think it matters. Android is largely orthogonal to the adoption of Linux. The bigger questions are:

  • Does Microsoft have a tablet strategy? Really? The last time Linux made headway into users' hands (i.e. netbooks,) Microsoft changed strategies, and not only pushed Linux-based systems out of the market, but they also basically killed the device class. Netbooks really aren't a thing anymore.
  • How close are we to tablet-like (or tablet-derived) devices from replacing general purpose computers for some classes of day to day activity. I suspect corporate machines will be the first to fall (more constrained/specific use cases; tablet systems give IT administrators more control, and increasingly work happens in web apps.)

If corporate fleets are the first to fall, the first question becomes much more important. In any case, stay tuned, I'm working on collecting the rest of my thoughts on these questions. In the mean time, I'd look forward to hearing from you.

Onward and Upward!

[1]I would like to fully apologize ahead of the time if I'm characterizing the argument unfairly.
[2]Though mostly ceremonial to mark the 20th anniversary, and because there have been 39 releases of the 2.6.x series kernel which is absurd to keep track of after a while, Linux is getting a version boost to version 3.x.

And Then I Broke Down and Got a Tablet

Ok, I caved and got a tablet. This is a post about my experiences with the tablet and some general thoughts on the format.

I opted for the Motorola Xoom. It's an Android device, I appreciate the Motarola build quality, and I'm very pleased with my choice. First impressions first:

  • Reading on the tablet is great. I have a Kindle, and while I respect how lightweight the Kindle is itself. Despite the extra weight, the slightly larger screen and the back light is very very nice and very welcome.
  • I don't expect that I'll be doing a lot of writing on the tablet, a laptop is never really going to be that far away, but I'm really surprised by how easy it is to (almost) touch type on the tablet. A number of very simple and probably straightforward innovations to the keyboard could make things so much better.
  • I think all devices need some sort of "don't auto rotate" hardware switch. In fact, I think apple's whole "lets get rid of hardware buttons," movement to be really annoying. Buttons should be overloaded, sure, but I hate having to hunt through menus to modify basic behavior. Having said that, the "software control bar" at the bottom of Android 3.0 is brilliant and a good move (given screen rotation.)
  • I lament not having a Google voice widget for the tablet. Makes sense that they wouldn't want this for tablets that had data plans, but I just have a wifi tablet.
  • The Kindle app doesn't let you bookmark your place in periodicals. Which might make sense if you were reading the Times, but doesn't make a lot of sense when reading fiction magazines with articles in the rage of 10k words.
  • I'm in love with the calendar application, except for the "full month view," in which you scroll by weeks, not by months. Even with this glitch, I'm curious as to why there aren't (stand alone) calendar applications of this quality for desktops.
  • I've tended to use the tablet for situations where I want to have a distraction free experience (usually for reading,) or where I want to do "computer things" in a situation where I might need to interact with other people. Having a tablet in your lap is more social than a laptop. As such, I don't think it would ever be able to replace a "real" computer for very long, but that doesn't make it less useful.

I'll be writing more about the tablet experience and some cyborg features of tablet use and usability.

Onward and Upward!