A brave new world of 3D printing

Around 2006, I had the privilege of visiting the famous MIT media lab. Out of the numerous geek toys I had a chance to play with, one was a modified inkjet printer that sprayed glue on successive layers of powder until a 3D object emerged from the dust, thus a 3D printer. Even though I had never heard of 3D printers, this MIT machine was in reality a layman’s version of the SLS printer invented almost 20 years ago at University of Texas at Austin. It looked pretty neat, but I didn’t give it much more though at the time…

A few days ago, I stumbled on this video of a small 3D printed hand fan. The fan was printed as is, with cranks and all in place, no assembly required. I was stunned and realized it was time to do some research on 3D printing. It didn’t take me long to notice how much farther ahead we already are than I imagined. I now have an unshakable feeling that 3D printers are one of those technologies that are going to usher in a new era on humanity. Continue reading “A brave new world of 3D printing”

Veggies and fruits – Lufa Farms

Do you still remember what a real tomato looks like, smells like and tastes like? If it wasn’t for my frequent trips to Lebanon, I’d have forgotten a long time ago. I got used to the idea that veggies and fruits are tasteless in Montreal (except apples). I mostly blamed the weather; with these conditions everything must surely be imported. I was, as I often am, wrong. Turns out there is a vibrant and large community of local farms in Quebec. A very serious system of organic certification for food producers in the province and country is in place. I will leave the details for another post, but http://www.quebecvrai.org and http://www.ecocert.com are good places to start.

One specific farm stood out from the others. Continue reading “Veggies and fruits – Lufa Farms”

GStreamer SDK – Android and more

About a year ago, Collabora and Fluendo started discussing the idea of having a commercially supported version of GStreamer. One year later, we are proud to announce the second release of the GStreamer SDK that you can download over at gstreamer.com. In addition to supporting Linux, Windows (XP, Vista, 7 and 8) and MacOSX (10.6+), The GStreamer SDK now supports the ever so popular Open Source based Android mobile platform (Gingerbread and higher).

The GStreamer SDK aims to bring the powerful multimedia framework to the masses of multimedia developers out there by providing stable, documented, multi-OS, cross-platform (hardware) and commercially supported releases of GStreamer. As our efforts on the GStreamer SDK continue and we make new releases, we will provide support for more software and hardware platforms until there are none left!

You are what you eat

With the recent realization that I only have a few months before being thrown into the extreme sport of parenthood, I began re-assessing my understanding of life with the aim of giving my child a head start. I started with the basics. As most people congratulated me, they usually followed with wishes of good health. Health is evidently of primary importance and we too often forget this simple fact until we get sick. We can’t really control all aspects of our health, but one primary factor that is entirely within our reach is our food intake. Eating food is a basic part of our life; we love it, we do it everyday, several times a day. Food defines our bodies, our mood, our longevity, our colour and our smell. It is obvious that the quality of the food we ingest affects the quality of our bodies and therefore our health. If I want my children to be healthy, I need to ensure a supply of high quality foods. Ironically, it took the prospect of caring for another life before realizing this obvious fact and starting to research my food.  Continue reading “You are what you eat”

Will Microsoft prove me wrong about GNOME 3?

In October 2008, the GNOME UX hackfest at the Boston summit became the place of birth of GNOME 3. The seeds were planted out of a will to induce a more design-centric mentality in the GNOME project. As the GNOME shell was being designed and implemented, the computer world was changing under it’s feet. The touch-screen revolution was under way, starting with smartphones in 2007 followed by the introduction of tablets in 2010. This caused dramatic changes to the way we consume information on our computers. A large chunk of users and use-case that GNOME 3 was trying to cater to started to convert over to iOS and Android running on tablets for most of their tasks, leaving their laptops behind for those times when they needed to produce information. As the whole industry was transforming, discussion amongst GNOME shell designers about addressing the change naturally ensued. But this was not a small change, it meant having to rethink and redesign the shell to cater for touch-screens. In order to keep the momentum going, it was agreed that GNOME 3 is being designed for desktops/laptops but that touch-screens would be kept in mind for later. As we stand today, there is a list of items and planned design specs for making GNOME shell more “touch friendly”, but those are still mostly for the future and application developers are still confused as to what that means exactly for them.

I argued, mostly internally here at Collabora, that GNOME shell needs a clear and definitive answer to this question and that taking a design decision to aim somewhere in the middle between desktops and touchscreens was a recipe to fail at both. Writing a shell that can work for both is one thing, but what about applications? I couldn’t see how one solution could fit both form factors and input methods. Little did I realized that on the other side of the fence, Microsoft was facing the same dilemma with the next release of their famed Windows operating system. Microsoft Windows was king of the desktop; a mouse, a keyboard and a congenitally insensitive screen was their playground. But now, the rules had changed and a new plan of action was required.

Introducing the Microsoft Surface. Hardware was nothing new to Microsoft, but this was a radical step since it could be interpreted as direct infringement on the business of their OEM partners, which historically have been key to Window’s success. So what is this Surface? At first glance, it looks like a tablet, but hook it up to it’s keyboard and it becomes a laptop with a track pad and a touch-screen?! It seems to be both a laptop and a tablet, or at least it’s trying to be. This sounds exactly like what I argued was impossible to get right from a UX point of view. But wait, we are talking about Microsoft here, a company that has been writing and designing UX for as long as I can remember… and they are good at it. So what is this magic UI that is running on these monstrous hybrids? It’s Windows 8, the same UI that will drive your laptop, will also run on your tablet, or will power one of those new convertibles. OK, so maybe they managed to make a shell that works well across the board, but what about the applications? The Surface comes with Office, a primary tool for producing information. Looking at the screenshots, it seems obvious that this was not designed to be driven through the touchscreen but rather the more traditional keyboard/pointer inputs. So Microsoft’s strategy seems to be that some applications will be driven with the keyboard/touchpad, whilst others will be more touch friendly. Basically, there is no reason why each application needs to do both simultaneously. This is reinforced by the fact that Windows 8 runs both traditional desktop applications and applications written using their new UI toolkit named Metro.

I’m willing to acknowledge that Microsoft can pull this off as I personally like the idea of being able to have my tablet and laptop packed into one slim, lightweight device. Nonetheless, my instinct tells me Microsoft is in trouble, that this is Microsoft’s fumbled attempt at making Windows 8 relevant in a world that changed too fast for them. Most critics agree that Windows 8 running on the Surface is either confusing or just plain bad. I guess time will tell, but in today’s world, things happen fast, so I doubt we will have to wait long to see the unravelling of Microsoft’s wager. Either way, I think GNOME shell designers should be watching Windows 8 very closely, as the results of this experiment could be very useful for the future direction of GNOME 3. Should it stick with the desktop and focus on content creation such as suggested by Eitan? Or are some of the currently proposed touch-friendly work items enough to make it a viable UI for tablet based consumption?

A new battle in the war of the mobile

In mid 2007, the release of the iPhone catalysed the long overdue transition from desktop to mobile. Mobile quickly became the holy grail resulting in a mobile platform war with iOS leading the charge. Out of all the platforms that fought it out over the next 3 years, all but iOS and Blackberry OS carried the Open Source badge. MeeGo, WebOS, Qtopia, OpenMoko, Android, Bada, Limo and even Symbian OS all tried to capitalize on the many advantages of pre-existing Open Source assets, methodology or brand. Even though iOS is the anti-thesis of Open Source, it is nonetheless based on the BSD kernel.

By 2010, the tablet form factor was introduced to the mobile world with the release of the iPad and two clear victors began to emerge from the battlefield, iOS and Android. Through its use of an Open Source license, closed governance model and strong service offering, Google was able to take a dominant position in this space as OEMs rushed to integrate Android into their latest mobile and tablet offerings. By Q3 2012, 73% of smartphones sold are running Android whilst 14% are iOS based, the tablet market is split halfway between the two and Samsung dethroned Nokia to emerge as new king of the mobile world (thanks Android). The first battle of the war has ended and the winners are reaping the rewards.

Looking back, it is clear that Android was a success because it was adopted by every single OEM out there. The OEMs jumped all over Android because it was free, competitive and most importantly, wasn’t owned or controlled by a competitor. It didn’t bother the OEMs that Google controlled Android and they cheerfully ignored the fact that they became a conduit for Google services, as that doesn’t constitute their core business anyway. They needed Android to fight Apple and Google gave it to them.

Looking forward, what future do Android OEMs have? By using Android, they have consciously forfeit their right to sell their own services. This obviously doesn’t bode well with the operators or for those more ambitious OEMs. On the software and user experience side, as demonstrated by HTC, the closed governance model of Android makes it extremely difficult and expensive to differentiate. So what’s left for the OEMs? Hardware. Unfortunately, with the recent release of the Nexus 10, Google now has a full product offering that competes directly with the OEM’s brands, sells cheaper, has hardware value-add and runs the latest and greatest Android release (which Google gleefully keeps for itself). Ironically, even Amazon, a service company that competes directly with Google, is using Android. But that has been a difficult and treacherous path for them, how long can they keep it up? I bet not long.

For these reason, a new battle in the war of the mobile world is looming in the horizon. New players are already making an entrance; Microsoft is on the attack with Windows 8, its deal with Nokia and the release of its very confused Surface tablet. RIM are soon unveiling their new QNX based BlackBerry platform with talks of potentially offering to license it out to OEMs. Samsung’s first true Tizen product is long overdue. Mozilla are running full steam ahead with FirefoxOS. ChromeOS is starting to mature. Will WebOS make a come back through HP’s new strategy? Will Amazon reveal a new platform, fork Android or keep using it as is? Will new Open Source based platforms be revealed?

I believe there is a demand for a new platform; something neutral, customizable and free. I believe there is a good opportunity ahead for GNOME. Can it finally become a relevant platform in the mobile space? I think now is an interesting time to ask and come up with answers to that question…

Throwing money at not so shiny and worthy technology

A few weeks ago, BeirutSpring posted this opinion peace about the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the ministry of Telecom and Intel to provide Linux based tablets to Lebanese students. Since his post got the attention of telecom Minister Sehnaoui, I though it would be important to voice my very different opinion on the matter and show my support to the project and Minister Sehnaoui.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Minister Sehnaoui, Intel or the Lebanese government. I have been working in the IT industry for as long as I can remember and I am a promoter of Open Source software methodology and ideology.

If you’re too lazy to read the initial blog post, here is a short summary. It argues that Minister Sehnaoui has made a deal with Intel to buy obscure tablets running obscure software for students in Lebanon. Instead, they should get the latest and shiniest consumer electronics product such as an iPad or an Android-based tablet. The blog post implies that the Intel tablets are running expensive proprietary software whose only aim is to put money and control in the hands of Intel and giving bragging rights to Minister Sehnaoui. He claims that these tablets have no ecosystem or content and are therefore “junk” that students will ignore and throw away.

First, it’s important to note that these tablets are running Mandriva, which is a distribution of Linux. Linux is a free and Open Source operating system. So all these claims about proprietary and expensive software defies reality and fact. Even with the remote possibility that there is some proprietary education software on these tablets, the bulk of the software remains Open Source and free. Intel is not a software or service company and therefore is not interested in selling content or services for a fee to the end-users of these tablets. The blog post happily ignores the fact that the software that is running on iPads and Android tablets is designed specifically to maximize profits of Apple & Google through technology/service lock-in rather than to provide education. As an example, Apple and Google get a cut from each application or book sold through their devices. The large ecosystems that come with these products are useless to young and potentially poor students who don’t have credit cards or disposable income. How the author argues that the minister should have instead purchased tablets that target rich adults living in developed countries by trying to sell them commercial services & applications is mindboggling.

Intel launched the World Ahead program along with it’s announcement of the ClassmatePC in 2006. The project was spawned after talks between Intel and OLPC broke down (OLPC decided not to use Intel chips). Intel didn’t want to miss out on this market and therefore started it’s own project. It addresses the exact same market as the OLPC and has the exact same objective: make technology and the Internet more accessible to third world countries. This is done through the context of getting cheap hardware in the hands of young students using the classroom as a medium of delivery. Therefore, the whole ecosystem is built around principles such as low hardware costs, zero end-user costs and high education content. If Minister Sehnaoui’s main objective from this project was to create some PR and bragging rights for himself, then he would have purchased the “cool” iPads or Kindles. Minister Sehnaoui decided to buy the boring product that would get young students connected and educated. Instead of receiving praise for such an initiative, he gets scolded for not getting the “cool” consumer products.

The benefits of putting Open Source platforms and software in the hands of young students in combination with an Internet connection are undeniable. Open platforms such as Linux give students the capability to create content independently and without having to give a single dollar to any large corporation. Combining that with an Internet connection allows them to communicate and develop their ideas and projects. These two elements in conjunction form a catalyst for education and innovation.

Minister Sehnaoui should be commended for this investment and should be encouraged to do more work around promoting Open Source in Lebanon on three main levels, government, education and private sector. The BRIC nations have been huge benefactors of Open Source to fuel their rapid economic development; perhaps it’s time Lebanon started looking into it more seriously?