Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Month: December 2008

An overview of Christmas

So, Christmas is now over for another year pretty much – and it has been good fun, albeit interspersed with slight bouts of snottiness.

Amongst some of the very lovely gifts I was given, I have a really nice selection of books that I need to make time for:

  • The Art Of The Start, by Guy Kawasaki – very little to say about this one since it is so well-known, but I’ve been meaning to read the full thing since I was given a precis of the first chapter by a friend.
  • Don’t Sleep, there are Snakes, by Daniel Everett – this is a story of language and life experienced by a missionary living with a tribe fo Amazonians. I haven’t read any of this yet, but was captivated by an abridged version read on the radio.
  • Making History, by Stephen Fry – this Fry’s only work of fiction I believe, and I have very high hopes for it. Reviews have been invariably flattering, but then Fry’s name alone commands a good amount of benefit of doubt.
  • The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – an explanation, of sorts, of randomness and how it affects our lives. I’m not totally sure what to expect of this yet.
  • Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini – again, a relatively well-known book which doesn’t need an awful lot of discussion here.

I’m looking forward to reading all of these, and will post small reviews as I get there. Slightly interestingly, to me at least, the last book on the list – Influence – was actually recommended to me by the same friend who passed on the TAotS precis, but too late for Christmas. Somewhat bizarrely, I had already put it on a list of books  I was interested in sometime in November, and the list was very short and little thought was put into it – indeed, I re-did my list in early December from scratch, “Influence” didn’t make it back in and I didn’t think about it again until I received it on Boxing Day.

Perhaps also what I need is some bookshelf type module for my blog too, to remind myself of what I’ve read through so that I can review it at the end of the year – some kind of new year’s resolution appears to be calling.

Bikeshedding notifications

Mark Shuttleworth recently posted about the work Canonical are doing on application notifications, and a couple of things struck me.

The first thing that struck me is that even though what they’re doing is quite pretty, it’s intensely pointless. Designing a notification system that will spew out messages that the person using the computer doesn’t need to see is making the computer less useful: it’s another piece of UI vying for my attention, and every time something interrupts what I’m going I’m losing concentration. It’s not helpful for productivity at all, in fact, it’s helping destroy it.

The second thing that struck me is how strongly I feel about such a small and relatively irrelevant piece of software. On one level, Canonical are designing something that I actively want to use: a channel of non-important information that I can (presumably) actively control by turning the damn thing off and not have to worry about the latest e-mail hitting my Inbox, or the title of the next track that my CD player has figured out its playing. If every app uses that, then hooray – I can shut them all up. On another level, it annoys me somewhat that time and effort is going into something which is effectively Twitter for Applications (“I’m waiting for the bus”, “Still waiting for the bus”, “on the bus now, woO!”, etc.), but then it’s not my time and effort, so I should shut up really.

But. It is basically surprising that while for the most part I care less about the bigger picture stuff, this kind of small-scale app could potentially get right up my nose. I wonder why that is.

An argument against the “fat client”

This is based on Miguel’s desire for an IMAP interface to his Evolution mail, but isn’t really focussed on that particularly problem: rather, the more general problem of where “collaboration brains” belongs. One of the things which I think seems to be a bit worrying about free software mail clients is that there is this continuing move to smarter and smarter MUAs.

Miguel is actually asking for something which is much closer to what KDE are doing: the Akonadi project, as I understand it, is basically almost a full-blown local groupware/collaboration server. It uses a private MySQL instance, and has everything “built in” to this middleware which can sit on top of existing mail / contacts / etc. stores.

This also came up in the discussion the other day about Thunderbird 3 too – in order to do the “great local search” thing that they want to do, they basically have to download an awful lot of information about mails and keep it around. And again, you end up with effectively this local cache of remote information, and a local “groupware” thing.

I really don’t like any of these approaches. For me, the brains belongs in one place: on the server. There are a whole tonne of good reasons for this – not least locality to the data and keeping the client simple – but it also seems to me that the main drivers for these fat clients are only feature requirements, not technical requirements (I absolve offline access of this – that’s a technical requirement).

The main problem with the fat client approach is that you get data loss, like Miguel suffers: if something gets entered into the client and doesn’t make it to the server, it doesn’t make it to other clients. If you use a desktop app and a web app, you have to suffer through not having your up-to-date address book, or not having your “junk” status flags, or different filing rules, etc. etc.

Of course, this isn’t really a client problem per se – it’s a server problem, because we don’t have the protocols and the ability right now to let clients do this “the right way”. People have tried using stuff like IMAP and it kind of works, but it’s a hack. But by working on the client side, it just exacerbates the server problem. I’m sure people who’ve moved from Evolution to Thunderbird, or who use an IMAP client which has one way of deleting items with another client which does things the other way, will know what I’m talking about.

It’s difficult to know what to do about this, though. Working on Bongo is one answer, because better servers will encourage more lightweight and featureful clients. Being able to access the same information from Evo/Tbird and from Bongo web UI is an absolutely crucial use-case. But it will take time, sadly…

Thunderbird 3

Unlike Jono, whose experiences with Tbird 3 are worth a read, I’ve been a loyal Thunderbird user for a few years now – in fact, we’ve had it deployed at work relatively happily for a while now (I say relatively – the mail client is fine; lack of calendaring is a bit of an issue…). I also tried the Tbird 3 beta recently too, although I think I met with even less success.

For one thing, I was trying this out on the EeePC 901 I have, and for whatever reason, they really didn’t get on at all. I could log into my Bongo mail ok, but the mail box was entirely read-only: no marking read, no moving, no deleting. And the GUI problems just got worse from there – functions which should have been there were just completely missing. I suspect this is to do with either the distro or something I have in my environment; speaking to others, they had much more success, so I plan to try it again in the future.

I also see Tbird as a project with an enormous potential. However, the appearance of Tbird 3 really surprised me, and David Ascher’s blog post on the direction wasn’t something which filled me with a huge amount of confidence. I don’t get some of this at all; a great example is tabs. I just don’t see the value. I can see people lining up mail messages to respond to and that kind of thing, but that seems a really poor UI to my mind. Another example would be the complete Gmail-like effect in the screenshots in that blog: it’s basically Gmail offline, which is fine if that’s what you want, but.. eh.

As a server guy, the “improved search” stuff also worries me. It looks very much like client-side searching, which is fine for personal mailboxes. Once you have a few shared boxes and bigger corporate-level stuff, that starts to become a bad plan very quickly. But it seems to me that the business market is really where Tbird should be aiming: people at home are pretty happy with Gmail and stuff already. I don’t see why they’d want to access Gmail over IMAP.

It will be interesting to see how Tbird 3 turns out. Integrated calendar is absolutely crucial. Hopefully it can all be pulled off without becoming a less business-suitable product. Mozilla Messaging have the resources, but they seem to be trying to take on a lot with this first bite.

Brand new old blog.

You may have noticed that I’ve been very quiet on my blog over the past couple of months. This has been for a couple of reasons: primarily, I’ve been really busy, but also because I’ve been sort-of locked out of it while my laptop was out of commission. I was a Blosxom user, which is a lovely piece of software and very simple, and I chose it because it’s very easy to integrate into another site – however, that has now bitten the dust.

At some point, for some unknown reason, all my historic blog entries ended up getting dated to September. Blosxom takes the dates from the file stamps, and there’s no other information I seem to have available – so, basically, my blog history is now entirely buggered.

Anyway. I’ve used this as an excuse to move to WordPress 2.7 – the release that just came out. I’ve always been a bit against WordPress, mainly because it needs an SQL database, but also because it seemed so complex and difficult to work into my existing site. However, I did it earlier today, and it probably took literally an hour – the hard part was making the mod_rewrite rules actually work for the permalinks.

I found DeWitt Clinton’s blog post on moving from Blosxom, and with a bit of light editing to the script he provided, I managed to import all my old data – thanks, DeWitt 🙂 All my old posts are back – minus the correct dates and permalinks, of course – which is nice.

Basically, it all seems the same from the front – albeit it I can now take pings, comments, and all that new lovely stuff. Plus, I can access my blog from whereever now, and hopefully that will mean I can blog more easily / more often. Let me know if you find anything broken!