Chrome OS and Portage
A number of folks have been surprised by Google’s decision to transition to Portage – the package management system from the Gentoo Linux distribution – rather than something more popular like Apt (Debian/Ubuntu) or Yum (Fedora). In retrospect, however, this is a logical choice given the needs of Chrome OS. Portage, which was the first package management system I used, offers very fine grained control of the build process, allowing you to easily compile for different chipsets, optimizations and so on. The decision would be more questionable if Chrome OS would be running applications besides the browser, because the volume of applications packaged as a .deb or .rpm is considerably larger than that packaged for Gentoo. As Chrome OS will be running just the browser, however, the move is actually pretty straightforward.
What will be interesting to see, as some commentators have mentioned, is whether the selection will draw more attention to Gentoo, my first Linux distribution and still a favorite.
Open Source and UIs
The conventional wisdom that says that open source can’t do UI work – good UIs, anyway – is demonstrably false. It certainly can’t be considered a strength, not relative to the work of proprietary vendors like Apple. But there are many projects that demonstrate consistent, usable and occasionally inspired UI desgin. Android, Chrome, Firefox, and Ubuntu Netbook Remix, to name a few, are credible in their interaction and appearance.
Which is not to say there’s not a kernel of truth to the assertion. Or several. Yesterday’s look at the fragmented toolkit options for the newly formed MeeGo project are illustrative of the challenges that user interface designers face on open source platforms. Just as interesting, however, is the lack of interest in GUIs in some quarters.
It’s perhaps not surprising that most if not all of the myriad of open source NoSQL projects lack even rudimentary GUIs. At this stage of the game, if you need a front end to configure the likes of Cassandra, GT.M, memcache, Mongo, Redis, Riak, Tokyo Cabinet, or Voldemort, you probably shouldn’t be using them. That will change, but considering the projects’ relative maturity levels, it’s no more reasonable to be focusing on development of tooling than it is to expect it. Like Hadoop before them, the survivors will get their interfaces, thus widening their market, eventually.
NoSQL then, is the classic, early stage open source market: frantic buildout of infrastructure, in the open, against zero by comparison attention to the kind of technology aimed at hand-holding even the early adopters – i.e. tooling. Considering that the basic phpMyAdmin is still something of a standard in the MySQL world, the NoSQL focus on the back end at the expense of the front is logical and, probably, correct.
More curious, however, is the tangentially related field of analytics. There are, to be sure, any number of open source business intelligence solutions and options, from Actuate to Jaspersoft to Pentaho. But in the pure analytics realm, there’s pretty much R and everything else in a distant second from an open source perspective. It’s the choice of academic statisticians and analysts, is on its way to becoming the open source alternative to a variety of low and high end tools for businesses, governments and data nerds everywhere. The state of the UIs designed for R? Think Windows, circa 3.1.
As these folks put it:
A fraction of the R users are asking for, and would probably benefit from a R GUI, mainly, occasional users and some teachers. R is open and communicating. Several projects develop or offer the opportunity to develop alternate user interfaces.
None of the projects, according to the R experts I’ve spoken with, are anything resembling mature. The question is whether this status quo will persist. Will R users continue to content themselves with the CLI, while those seeking GUIs head elsewhere? Or will R become the centerpiece of a vendor tooling effort? Should be interesting to watch.
Ubuntu, ARM and Enlightenment
Speaking of UI’s, check out some of the new UNR themes. Fresh off some bad publicity for its later rescinded decision to remove OpenOffice.org from the distribution – which I was more or less ambivalent about, personally – UNR is back in the news for its latest UI concepts, and the underlying technology used to deliver them. The 2D Launched for Lucid is pretty average; a direct clone, as Jamie Bennett acknowledges, of the UNR UI from Karmic. The Beyond Netbook Launcher theme, however, is a pleasant update. The real news with these releases, however, is what’s under the hood: Enlightenment libraries. An alternate window manager, Enlightenment also offers a repurposable set of components to build UIs like the one UNR will be sporting in Lucid. According to the post, the Enlightenment bits will allow the interface to be quick on non-accelerated hardware. But it’s also interesting ecause it’s another defection from standard GTK; maemo, remember, had abandoned the standard GNOME UI toolkit in favor of Qt.
Just a datapoint, to be sure, but an interesting one. The future of UI development on open source platforms will be interesting.