Touch Monitors Are On My Wishlist

I think I want touch screen monitors for my work and home desktops. I might be one of the few who still uses a desktop, but my quirky thoughts on the coming obsolescence of laptops as a form factor can be saved for another time.

The appeal of touch monitors is not to replace my mouse or keyboard, but rather to do the things they aren’t terribly great at. For example when I want to re position my cursor from my browser on one monitor to a specific location in my text editor on another, neither the mouse nor the keyboard are able to do this with the level of efficiency that a touch screen enables. To illustrate what I mean it helps to detail the steps a bit.

With the mouse I first have to find the cursor. This is normally not so difficult and there are even tools to help, but it is a task none-the-less. It gets a little worse if the window currently in focus doesn’t have the mouse within its space. Usually what happens is I wiggle my mouse or finger on the track pad and find the movement with my eye. With dual monitor setups this is yet less trivial.  Step two involves navigating the pointer to the next location. Step three is clicking to place the cursor. Step four is placing my hands back on the keyboard to start typing.

With a keyboard there are so many options for keyboard shortcuts and paths to accomplish the task that whatever steps I chose someone could just say, ‘well my [secret hidden] way is much simpler’ and probably be right, but a typical person like myself in a typical scenario as I often find myself in might use alt+tab to select a new window to focus from the list of open windows, and either press that multiple times until they land on the one they want or use arrow keys. In Ubuntu this method uses icons and I have to remember which icon belongs to the program window I want to focus on (text editor). Add two more little steps if I happen to have two text editor windows open so that I pick the right one. Once I get the right window in focus. I hunt down the blinking cursor with my eye and move the cursor with the arrow keys (or in my case nimble well trained fingers with lots of keyboard keys in combination that are faster than using only arrow keys.) to the desired location.

With a touchscreen I could simply reach up and touch the place on the screen I want the cursor to now be at, put my hand back on the keyboard and start typing.

And there are probably infinite combinations of using all three interaction avenues to accomplish the task depending on if it involves multiple windows of the same application, minimized or hidden windows, scrolling to window content that is out of view, tabs within the application, windows on other virtual desktops, etc.

Anyway long boring bit about HCI, but point of it is that I think touch is here to stay because it is a intuitive and useful way of interacting with computers. It has been overplayed so much that I kinda hate bringing up how effortlessly my kids use a tablet, but seriously, they do, and observing them on it is part of why I am thinking about this. Personally I don’t think touch interaction will replace keyboard, mice, or track pads on platforms where those already dominate. Touch screens will merely compliment them very nicely. And as cool as other interaction methods such as eye tracking, voice recognition, or body gesture readers are conceptually, for the near future at least, I see those as only being practically applicable for niche cases whereas touch seems beneficial in many more scenarios. My take away from all these thoughts is probably nothing all that revelatory or novel. It is simply that it doesn’t matter what sort of device you are designing your application GUI for anymore, you need to consider if, where, and how to make it touch friendly because, even if your particular platform doesn’t have touch capabilities now, I guess the odds that it will in the future are increasing rapidly.

Ubuntu Lucid = mega cool, but…

I am really enjoying the latest Ubuntu. They added lots of polish, and the OS is consistently moving steps ahead as far as ease of use for geeks and non-geeks alike. My thoughts center around, “but does it even matter?”. Sure, Ubuntu is free on a couple levels that OS X and Windows aren’t, but most non-developers don’t feel the shackles, so they don’t care.

Like an invisible tax the cost of the OS is bundled with the hardware for the vast majority. Again, for non-developers, the licence restrictions are slightly annoying at worst, also they are accustomed to paying for software, so they think “who cares?”. It would take something more significant than a very usable and free alternative OS that they would have to take the effort to install and get accustomed to make them care. I won’t be wasting a lot of breath trying to convince these sorts of users to make the switch. My lengthy discourses on open source ideology would merely prove to be confusing or annoying. That is not a guess, it’s happened.

Developers, however, have much less of an excuse for not caring. They should be feeling, or at least be aware of, the shackles of the closed environments and ecosystems. Those with a choice, often choose to ignore or to justify. I have noticed they justify their use of OSX or Windows for what tend to be short sighted reasons. If such short sighted excuses were ever really valid, is another debate, but either way, those justifications are getting weaker and weaker. Ubuntu, from a developers perspective, has potentially crossed over from being a viable alternative to being a superior one. 10.04 = a better chance of them actually being convinced, like me, that Ububtu is mega cool!

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layout testing – browser resizing

If you want to test a flexible or elastic site layout in Ubuntu you will be doing some window resizing. In MS Windows and Mac OSX window contents dynamically resize. It is a feature that makes it nice for seeing how CSS floats and positioning are behaving. I don’t know if it is a consequence of Compiz or what, but Ubuntu doesn’t do this be default. It only redraws the contents one you are finished resizing. Dynamic resizing is something you can enable in Ubuntu, though it is certainly not an area where Ubuntu shines.

To enable you will have to open CompizConfig Settings Manager (install it first if you don’t have it, obviously), open the “Resize Window” settings go to the “General” tab and from the “default  resize mode” drop down choose ‘normal’

You should now see window contents redrawn during the resize process, but chances are it is really laggy and crappy. To avoid the majority of this annoying crappiness on the rest of your desktop you can reset the default resize mode to rectangle or outline, and on the line that says “Normal Resize Windows” click the “+” icon. In the dialog that appears use the “grab” feature to pick the browser you want to have dynamic resizing on then click “add” to finish. That’s it! Close the settings Manager and you should be set.

UPDATE: A little more research turned up that this was in fact more an issue with Compiz. So I installed Compiz Fusion Icon , started that up and selected Metacity as the window manager. Dynamic resizing works in all the windows I tested and pretty fast/smooth. The downside is all my Compiz effects are gone, but it’s relatively easy to flip back and forth between Metacity and Compiz, so this is probably a better solution to this issue. I also noticed my javascript animations got much smoother with Compiz off.

Really if the only significant piece of compiz animation I would actually miss is the desktop switcher and zoom functionality.

Also, just tried it and this Metacity fix all goes away if you turn on Metacity’s compositioning feature as well. Compositioning is the problem, so it seems…

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gpick outdoes agave

Found a new colorscheme designer called gpick . In the past my fast little color helper in Ubuntu has been Agave, and if I really wanted to get serious I would head over to http://kuler.adobe.com/. Adobe’s tool is really well done, but for whatever reason I just don’t feel fond of anything associated with Adobe, so I tend to look for something else. Also there are obvious advantages of not needing a web connection and the speed of a little desktop app is nice. The Kuler concept as a HTML5 web app could have serious potential. Seeing this amazing HTML5 demo makes me think the technology is in place. Hold on… in fact… I think I just found it, or something pretty close. Wow! I love the where the web is headed! http://www.colorjack.com/sphere/.

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retooling desktop setup again

Thought I would write out a few thoughts on stuff as I have been tweaking my desktop work environment.

I have been trying out Kupfer (install it yourself!). I have found it to be very stable and haven’t even encountered any bugs over the past couple months using it. I talked in a previous post about it being more light-weight than Gnome-Do. Well that seems to true …sometimes and depending on how you are using Do. In Docky mode Do gets a little heavier, and it uses more system memory after being open for a while, but so does Kupfer. The difference is probably less than 5 MB realistically. Do is still the prettier of the two by far, and has significantly more features, but Kupfer is catching up on plugins.

DockBarX is a nice tool that I found this week. It works very similarly to the new Windows 7 dock (which is actually very nice! ) It manages to be a very nice blend between launcher and task manager. The fact that it integrates into the Gnome Panel so well is a big advantage! Docks like AWN, Cairo, or Docky have to figure out some hiding, morphing into a panel like thing in order to not occupy to much screen real-estate, or getting so much functionality that the gnome panel can be removed. It is a bit heavier on system resources than I would have hoped – around the 22MB range. The combination of Kupfer and DockBarX is a really good one.  I think I prefer it to Gnome-Do with Docky. I can’t help wonder if they could be integrated together since they seem to touch so much of the same stuff.

I know some people and Linux distros want to avoid Mono applications. I suppose this would be an appealing solution to get some of the coolness that Gnome-Do brings in that case as well.

Update: I have been running with Compiz disabled lately. An upside to the dockbar/kupfer combo is, unlike GnomeDo or Docky, they don’t require compositing to work well. In addition they both run leaner (17-18 MB each) when compositing is disabled.

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moving past Gnome-Do docky

The past year or so I have had Gnome-Do in docky mode as a staple of my desktop environment. It beat out AWN and Cario for simplicity and stability, and I love the keyboard shortcuts it provides. The more I get used to actually using the core of Gnome-Do with its keyboard shortcuts the less I find myself actually utilizing the dock. When I upgraded to Karmic I decided I would try out going without and actually stumbled upon a more lightweight, less popular alternative to Gnome-Do called Kupfer.

Kupfer

Comparing:

Gnome-Do is pretty, and it works, what’s not to like? Well, it has always stuggled to open Nautilus for me, and occasionally it has just crashed. It crashes gracefully though, just isn’t there anymore, it doesn’t freeze anything and simply starting again is all it takes to solve this rare issue. Another down side it is a little heavy, eats about 28-35 MB of Ram according to my system monitor.It has way more features/plugins than I ever use.

Gnome-Do

Kupfer is simpler, not quite so nice looking (though not bad) and I haven’t had it fail yet. Nautilus opens fast. It can act as a file browser in itself, and even moving files around and using it as an application switcher seems to work slicker than Do did. It has a fair amount of plugins, many of the same basic ones that Do does. The one I am missing is a pastebin type thing. In Do I could highlight some code, trigger Do, type ‘sel’ for selected text, tab over, and pick ‘send to pastebin’, then it would put the URL in my clipboard. Slick! However, Kupfer runs from 9-12MB according to system monitor, so about one third of Do. There are tradeoffs both ways I guess. I am going to stick with it for a while on my work machines because I like the simplistic approach it takes, and how it encourages me to use the keyboard more and mouse less. It just feels more efficient.

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Virtual Android Phone on Karmic Desktop

I am in the process of reading “Mobile Design and Development” by Brian Fling. It’s pretty good stuff. The first 8 chapters haven’t gone into technical details of programming at all. It’s been a lot of discussion about mobile as a platform, it’s history, its potential, its complexness, etc. All fascinating stuff.

Supporting the wide array of devices and browsers is a daunting task to say the least. For efficiencies sake I have decided to start by focusing on WebKit. From what I am reading and my perception of trends I’d say WebKit is a platform to really keep an eye on if you are a web developer at all. For those who don’t know, Webkit is the underlying technology in the browser used in the iPhone, the numerous Google/Android phones popping up, and the Palm Pre. WebKit’s approach to rendering CSS seems to be defining or redefining the standard of how to use CSS for mobile. For example two major players, Opera and Mozilla have adopted it for their mobile browsers (Mozilla’s Fennec is still in Beta). The old media=’handheld’ thing, which I never ever got around to experimenting with, seems to be losing traction.

here are a couple articles talking about web design for mobile.
optimizing for iphone and android
a list apart article

All that said I wanted to start playing around. Android is an open source platform and it’s development tools including an emulator are free.

download
install

this is what I put in my .bashrc file

### Android
### (home will be where ever you extracted the package you got off the Android website )
ANDROID_HOME=~/opt/android-sdk-linux_x86-1.6_r1
PATH=$ANDROID_HOME/bin:$PATH
export ANDROID_HOME PATH

In order to load the new path do:

source .bashrc

use eclipse to launch emulator

Android Virtual Environment on Karmic Desktop
Android Virtual Environment on Karmic Desktop

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Giving KDE a try

I had been hearing some buzz around KDE over the past few months. People saying how much it has improved and praising the features of the advanced desktop environment. My thoughts were that eye candy is fun, and plasma widgets may be cool, but I was curious whether I could be as productive (or maybe more) in KDE, and I knew that figuring that out would require me setting down and actually trying it hands on for a little while.

Since I was in an experimental mood I went with a fresh install of Kubuntu 9.10 alpha 4, and it installed in about 30 min with no problem. My initial impression is very positive – plasma widgets are cool! Lots of cool functionality out of the box, and it looks pretty too! Things like WiFi and desktop effects were a simple matter of turning on.

Firefox isn’t included, which just feels weird to me, but Arora seems promising. It even prompted me to install the flash plugin when I started it up, but though the install appeared successful flash didn’t work.

The file manager, Dolphin, seems sweet! more features and options than Nautilus by far. This is a big plus for KDE, though you could use dolphin in Gnome . The usability of something this fundamental is hard to determine in such a short time, so I don’t want to make to strong of judgments to soon, but so far I feel confident that Dolphin would enhance my productivity. Split views, tabs, columns,previews, zoom slider – nice!

I spend a lot of time in a text-editor. I have come to love Gedit, Gnome’s default editor, for its lightweight and feature full (via plugins) nature. Kate is the corresponding application is KDE. My initial impression is that it has some features I have missed in Gedit – split view is the one that really stands out, but it also seems to be missing some pieces I would like to see.  And after the impressive GUI of Dolphin I fell let down by Kate’s lackluster interface, but it is very similar to Gedit, so no real complaint.

After messing with KDE for a couple weeks some of the sparkle that initially impressed me has started to fade. It has been dulled by a desktop environment that is different enough from Gnome to really confuse and lose me at times. It is hard for me to tell how much of this is just unintuitive and how much is me being mentally trained to do things a certain way. Various things just don’t work (of course this could be due to the fact that I am using a development build…) , and overall the desktop just feels less snappy and responsive than I am used to in Gnome.

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IE6 or IE7 on Jaunty with Wine

IE6 (Internet Explorer 6)  is dying and with every month that goes by I give less and less effort to supporting it, but IE7 is still relatively popular. I have been relying on other machines to test IE7 but that gets kinda old. Running Windows in virtual environment or dualbooting have been other ways I have tried to solve the problem of testing Microsoft’s troublesome browsers. Today I managed to figure out a relatively simple way of getting IE7 running with Wine on Ubuntu 9.04.

The first step is to go to the Wine download page which will walk you through installing the latest Wine.  For me it was 1.1.26.

You will also want to get winetricks.

Here is where it gets just a little technical. I tried a couple different methods and this is way I finally got things to work.

  1. From a terminal, navigate to where you downloaded the winetricks file and type “sh winetricks”.
  2. In the window that appears check the box for “ie6” and click OK.
  3. Follow the prompts for the IE6 installer.
  4. Test IE6 by opening Applications->Wine->Browse C:/ Drive … Program Files->Internet Explorer — right click on “IEXPLORE.EXE” and select “open with ‘Wine…'” .

IE6scrnsht

Getting IE6 running is just a preliminary step that I found to be necessary in order to get to IE7. If you wanted to stop here you could. If you are on a 32bit version of Juanty you can go farther and get IE7 running – I wasn’t able to get it running on 64bit systems:

  1. download IE7.
  2. Close any running IE windows.
  3. Right click on the .exe and select “open with ‘Wine…'”
  4. Follow the prompts as per a normal windows install except that you should uncheck the updates option
  5. start IE7 the same way you previously started IE6

Screenshot here…

Have fun!!!

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Make Firefox 3.5 UI more Chrome like

I must say Google Chrome touched on some great stuff with their UI design. Firefox 3.5 will still be my primary browser, but more and more I use Chromium. It is fast, light, and just a pleasure to use.

I did find a way to improve the Firefox 3.5 UI and make it a little more Chrome like by using the Tiny Menu Plugin and customizing the toolbars. This makes it more friendly for smaller laptop or netbook screens, but I like it even on a large monitor.

Here are some instructions to get the toolbars set up this way:

  1. Install the Tiny Menu Plugin and restart Firefox.
  2. Go into the view menu option and under toolbars select “customize…”
  3. Drag pieces from navigation toolbar onto the menu toolbar – arrange to taste…
  4. Optionally replace “home” button with “bookmarks” button ( I find I almost never use the home button. )
  5. Go back into menu>view>toolbars and un-check the navigation and bookmarks toolbar options
First Try
First Try

My first try at it was pretty good, but I played around just a bit and replaced “menu” with an icon and arranged icons a little more to my taste

second try
second try

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