Sunday, September 10, 2006

What I really like about the Nokia 770

Looking at the title you probably think this is a sarcastic joke. I've been a harsh critic of the 770 and more than complained about the Nokia 770's flaws and limitations. If I can't stand it, why I even bother to power it up, let alone use it?

The reason I continue to use my 770 is the bundled browser, Opera. It showcases the best physical feature of the 770, its display. The 770 display is landscape oriented, 4 inches in size and has a resolution of 800 x 480 with 65K colors. It's large enough to easily read web pages, sharp as a tack and the colors are gorgeous. The only other application that comes anywhere close to Opera in quality and usability is, thank goodness, the wireless connection manager.

Let's first start with the wireless connection manager. It has the ability to show every open Wi-Fi access point within range, and allows you to pick any of them to connect to the internet. If the connection needs an access key it will ask for it and save it with the name of the connection. It will remember that connection and allow you to select it for later use. But it gets better than that. You can either select a connection before you open the browser, or you can open the browser and let the connection manager automatically select one of your saved connection points if it finds one near you. This means I can walk into Panera's and just open Google mail, and within about 15 seconds the connection will be established and I'm reading my mail. Connection manager is matched only by the Network Manager found on distributions such as openSuse 10.1, SLED 10, and Ubuntu 6.06 LTS. The ease of wireless connectivity and management matches, if not exceeds, what I've experienced on Windows XP.

Then there's Opera itself. Opera is, in my not so humble opinion, the best browser on the market today. I've been a constant user of Firefox since it's 1.0 days, but Opera on the 770 convinced me to give it a whirl on Windows and Linux. I now use Opera on both and I don't intend to switch back any time soon. One big reason to use Opera on any OS is that Opera is quite efficient in its use of memory. Firefox is a pig when it comes to memory usage. As an example of this, I run SLED 10 for AMD64 on a Boxx system at my work. The system is outfitted with 4GB of DRAM. On more than one occasion I have had to kill Firefox because it had consumed 1.2 GB (and that's not a typo) of system memory. Under 'normal' use it easily consumes between 100-150 MB on just every OS I used to run it on. Since switching to Opera I've not had those issues. I've also noticed that Opera is a lot quicker at rendering pages than Firefox. In short, Opera is a top-notch high quality 'killer' application that make the 770 truly shine in use.

Of course, what good is a browser without content? What do I use Opera for? Let me count the ways.
  1. I use Google Mail to read my mail and mail lists on the go. The 770 isn't good for creating long detailed emails, but I can easily read my mail and make a quick, if brief, response if needed. When I'm back at a regular machine with a keyboard I can write long detailed responses.
  2. I use Google News to aggregate the news. The page is tailored to my tastes and is light-weight so that it renders quickly in Opera. It replaces the screwy RSS feed reader that comes bundled with the 770 OS.
  3. I use The BBC News home page at news.bbc.co.uk, not the 'new' link that comes with the OS 2006 update. I switched it back because, like Google News, it's light weight, renders fast, and it fits nicely on the 770's screen when Opera is full page.
  4. Living in Florida I check the National Hurricane Center. It's light and simple enough such a way that it renders quickly and cleanly whether Opera is in normal mode or full-screen mode.
  5. I read Wired. Wired, while well designed and quick to render, wants to control horizontally how its content is laid out. As a consequence you're forced to scroll horizontally even if Opera is in full-screen mode. However, the articles are on the left and they aren't cut off, so I can ignore the junk on the right as I scroll down the page.
  6. Living in Orlando, just down the road from Kennedy Space Center, I read Spaceflight Now. This is another good, fast site that doesn't fix the horizontal size of the page. It renders as well in normal mode as in full-screen mode.
And the list goes on. In short I have plenty to scan when I can find a connection, either at home or in public. All of the content is static, of course, since the 770 does such a poor job of playing streaming video. And fancy AJAX features don't work well, especially features like drop-down menus that require a mouse fly-over. Some pages don't render, such as Google Calendar, and some pages tell you up front Opera on the 770 isn't supported at all, such as Google Spreadsheets. But there's enough good sites out there that allow me to keep up with the world.

If you want a very light-weight device that has good Wi-Fi management and connection capabilities, and if you can spend 99% of your time in Opera and don't care about any other application, then the Nokia 770 is your ticket. It's certainly far better than any cell phone/PDA I've every used or seen, and it's far lighter and cheaper than a notebook (the problem with notebooks is that you can get cheap, but not light-weight, or you can get very light-weight, but pay dearly for it; and in either case the battery life is still shorter than the 770's).

Monday, September 04, 2006

Why Ubuntu gets it right

There's a rant over on Linux Forums why Ubuntu got it wrong. I've used Ubuntu (and a few other distributions), and frankly, Ubuntu et. el. does get it right, if not right enough. So let's deconstruct the rant and see where the author got it so wrong.
Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere in Redmond you would no doubt have heard of Ubuntu and its many derivatives, touted as 'Linux for human beings'. Ubuntu has become the darling of the Linux media and has stolen the limelight from other prominent distributions such as the stalwart Red Hat and, the now Novell owned, SuSE. The question is why?
Ah. Nice inflammatory opening. A man after my own heart. Beautiful opening sentence equating Redmondites (and by association those who work for Microsoft) as cave dwelling troglodytes. In that same paragraph he goes on to impune the good fortune and reputation of Ubuntu, somehow implying that Ubuntu 'stole' something rather than working hard to obtain it: community recognition.
At first glance Ubuntu appears to be the answer to the prayers of Linux evangelists worldwide. It has a great website, great marketing, an enigmatic philanthropist leader, a devoted community and a philosophy which seems to mirror that of the wider free software community in stark contrast to its enterprise counterparts. With such a stellar resume one has to ask the question, is Ubuntu too good to be true?

The only real problem with Ubuntu is Ubuntu itself. A tested and bug fixed version of Debian unstable with a pretty installer, a splash screen and the Gnome desktop is hardly the 'revolution' which it is purported to be. For Ubuntu to upset major players in the desktop arena such as Microsoft and Apple they need to start behaving like a professional company and provide for the needs of their customers as opposed to what the company thinks they need.
Wait a minute here, bubba. After Debian zealots have excoriated Ubuntu for stealing Debian's thunder by providing a better website, better marketing, and in general a much better product than Debian, you come along and complain that it's not good enough to suit you. Tough being you, isn't it? And by the way, Ubuntu is starting to behave like a professional company. They've started by releasing Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (for Long Term Support). They also offer commercial support. All this from the very navigable and professional looking front page. But that isn't enough for you, is it?
Let's begin with Gnome. If Gnome was going to be a Desktop that would create massive changes in the IT world it would have done so by now. In no way am I belittling the success and advances Gnome has made within Linux, rather it'’s the simple fact that Gnome is old and no longer up to scratch. Users want a pretty, easy to use environment with consistent menus and one administrative 'control panel' type utility. This should provide a simple solution for all administrative tasks such as adding and removing programs, hardware and networks. Gnome is not the answer for the Windows savvy world and neither is the resource-hungry KDE.
The desktop. That's what this is coming down to (not all the critical apps that run on top). You're right. The two dominant desktop environments don't stack up against the Apple and Microsoft desktop environments. For example not only can't you find a single control panel for everything on the desktop, you can't change many of the items that you can under Windows. Under Windows I simply right-click on the desktop and get Display Properties. Under Gnome I have to pull down the Desktop menu, click on Desktop Preferences, then stare for a while looking at all the individual (and somewhat incomplete) innumerable little applets until I find what I'm looking for, and home I can change what I dislike to something better. At first blush this seems no worse (and some could argue, better) than Windows. The problem is that if you coming from Windows (or work between Windows and Linux) that's what you expect to do. It's become finger-tip knowledge. Even the organization of the Display Properties is not what I'd expect; the applets for look-and-feel are the second section on the dialog, not the first.

Something as simple as changing the colors of the window borders is impossible to do under Gnome. And if you enable the flashy, wobbly XGL under SLED 10 or openSuse 10.1, you even loose the ability to change the window border theme: you're stuck with the stock look that comes with XGL, unless, of course, you find all the updated bits that give you back that capability lost under stock XGL. It's sure not there out-of-the-box (or off the DVD as it were). And KDE. What a mess. You have the ability to make greater changes, but the fetish for glossy, poorly copied Apple Aqua themes, makes it even more annoying to work with than Gnome over long stretches. The problem with both Gnome and KDE is we have strong coders who think they're strong UI developers. They're not.

The author goes on to offer suggested improvements for the desktop: "Enlightenment, Mezzo or the Sun sponsored Project Looking Glass." Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. I can't speak for Mezzo, but Enlightenment was never a desktop environment for the inexperienced, and consumed more system resources than KDE ever will. And Project Looking Glass just looked plain ugly. It would have truly taken millions of invested dollars to clean up two of the three, and we'd have been on better off. We'd have been worse, because now we'd have five Linux desktop environments to confuse the newcomer, not just two.

If you really want to appreciate Gnome and KDE, just look at what we've evolved from: CDE with mwm (Motiff Window Manager) and simpler desktop environments like fvwm. You talk about butt-ugly and frustratingly limited. KDE and Gnome may have their limitations, but they're light-years ahead from their predecessors.

Another point: quit calling newcomers newbies. Everybody knows what newbie means; it's a derogatory term, especially in the Linux community. That's another major barrier to Linux acceptance, the disrespect the 'experts' show towards newcomers. If the Linux community put as much effort towards cleaning up it's collective attitude as it wants to put toward the software, then the acceptance of Linux by the rest of the Windows-using world just might go easier.

Ahh. Why bother with this endless (and pointless?) argument? Microsoft is always going to be number one, and Apple number two, especially in the US. Microsoft is an established software power, having survived and grown for over 30 years. No single Linux distribution, or combination of distributions, is going to budge Microsoft. If anything, Microsoft has more to fear from Apple, simply because Apple does get it about the overall look and feel of the desktop, and not just the desktop, but every application that interacts with it. If Linux wants to gain a foothold it's going to do so in developing IT environments outside of the US, such as China, India, Africa, and southeast Asia.

But let's get back to what started all this: Ubuntu. Within the Linux universe Ubuntu is going to eventually bury Debian, and as far as I'm concerned it can't happen soon enough. If there's one thing Ubuntu got right, if there's one feature that makes it really stand out, it is to provide one single simple CDROM that combines live testing on the target machine as well as installation. Windows doesn't provide that, Redhat doesn't provide that, and Suse doesn't provide that. Ubuntu boots up without installation, allows you to kick the digital tires a bit, and if you like what you see, you can install it on the machine right then and there. What's more, I can go to Ubuntu's site and order (for free as in beer) up to 10 CDROMs, in several mixes, that will boot on x86, x86-64, and PPC. I've done this twice already. Then when folks come to me and ask for a good Linux distribution that they can try, I give them one of the professionally produced Ubuntu CDROMs and they go off happy. In spite of Gnome. And based on followup feedback, they stay that way. What more can you really want?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Two More Mediocre 770 Applications

It's been over two months since I posted an entry. That last one was about the 770 (specifically its official software upgrade). I'm starting to post again with another article about two 770 applications, the Gizmo Project and the Nokia Media Streamer.

The Gizmo Project

The Gizmo Project is available for installation on the 770 by following a link off of the desktop's web links (right under the link for AccuWeather). Installation is simple and clean, with no problems. Operation, though, leaves something to be desired. I won't post pictures, since you can see all the eye candy you want on the Gizmo website. I will admit it looks pretty. It's just a shame that, combined with the 770, it doesn't operate as well as it looks.

The two biggest problems are its interface and its operation. The interface, while pretty, is jumbled and out-of-order. After autologin, you're presented with a home page that includes, among other things, information identifying your account and how much money you have left to make calls. This is all well and good, but you have to horizontally scroll tabs across the left-side top of the application to get to the dialpad (fifth tab to the right). From there it's fairly easy to call a number. If you don't do that then you have the little text box on the upper right and the regular soft keyboard to enter a number. Why isn't the keypad the second or third tab after login? Why not a button with a keypad icon on the right front that immediately moves to the keypad? There are other issues with regards to the placement of tabs and information under them, but the overall feel of the interface is clunky and inefficient. It will never take the place of a plain old cell phone's keypad for ease of dialing.

In operation, it does indeed make outbound voice calls. I was able to call my house phone (a land line), and both my wife's and my own cell phone. I made two of the calls at my home, where the background is nice and quiet. This is significant as I'll show later. It was during these dialing experiments that I found that the 770 does indeed have a built-in microphone. It's the tiny unmarked hole next to the power connector on the bottom edge of the device. This means that if you're looking down at the screen, the microphone is pointing at your chest. This placement is also significant.

When I made my two house-to-house experimental calls (with me at one end of the house and my wife at the other with the doors closed), my wife said that my voice was clear and understandable. Her's was as well. I then drove down to a local Paneras. Paneras have free wi-fi access. Once I'd re-connected back to the web, I called my wife again on her cell phone. That's when we both discovered the limitation of the 770 as a cell phone. With all the background noise in the restaurant, it was nearly impossible for my wife to hear me, although I did still hear her. I did everything but shout, moving the 770 around to the point where I was nearly talking into the edge of the 770 (and looking like a dork in the process). After repeatedly hearing her ask me to repeat what I was saying, I finally closed the call and the 770. When I got home I removed Gizmo.

Nokia should not consider the 770 + Gizmo software as an adequate replacement for its line of very serviceable cell phones. The limitation is more in the base 770 platform than in the Gizmo software.

Nokia Media Streamer

Today, just before writing this, I checked to see if there were any new applications to install via the application manager. There was an entry for mediastreamer (Media Streamer). Naively believing that anything showing up via the application manager was OK to install, I installed it. After all, regular Linux distributions (Suse and Fedora come to mind) operate this way. Big Mistake #1.

After installing it I fired it up (it created a new submenu, 'Extras', and its link appeared inside that submenu). Big Mistake #2.

Pretty eye-candy took over the desktop, but there was nothing there to work with. So I tried to see if there was any installed help. There was none. Finally, in annoyance, I tried to close the application by clicking on the applications menu exit. Big Mistake #3.

The flawed exit caused Media Streamer to clear all text on the screen, leaving behind its background. It would not close completely, and required me to turn off the 770. When I turned it back on again it was gone. I uninstalled Media Streamer.

Conclusions

With the notable exception of some core applications and Maemo Blocks (a Tetris rip-off), there really isn't a single quality application available for the 770, not even Gizmo. The only application I use now with any regularity is the Opera browser. I use Opera to read my Google mail, read Google news, The Inquirer, Slashdot, OSNews, CNN, and various other sites. In fact Google news and BBC News Front Page have essentially replaced the now-flawed RSS feed reader. I can't think of any other application outside of Opera that I run on the 770. That seems appropriate since the 770 is pitched as a web tablet. But what an expensive way to just surf the web.