Open Source Bits and Pieces

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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.


  1. Can you support your assertion that there are more .debs or .rpms for any distro (*source*, not broken into separate packages) than ebuilds for Gentoo? I’d love to see where you got your data.

  2. I have to wonder how many people who need (or would even appreciate) a GUI for a NoSQL DB there really are.

    If you’re using a NoSQL solution you’re almost certainly running your own servers and managing your infrastructure to the point where you have a depth of knowledge that obviates the need for a GUI.

    NoSQL is still pretty cutting edge stuff, I wouldn’t expect kid gloves tools for it until there are more kids working with these systems willing to pay someone to make it.

    That being said, as a counterexample, CouchDB’s got a pretty decent web UI baked right in.

  3. I’ll have to check out those themes – I still remember being blown away by Enlightenment when I first saw it – I can’t even remember how long ago it was, but it was well before I first tried Ubuntu – I think I was on Red Hat then …

  4. Count me as one of the surprised folk. Nevertheless, I can understand why the Chrome OS developers chose Portage: I’ve used it for around 3 years under Sabayon Linux (“standing on the shoulders of [Gentoo] giants”, and all that) and, apart from it allowing fine-grained control and normally building packages from source code, it has matured significantly over that period. I honestly find it a pleasure to use and think the Gentoo developers have done — and continue to do — a tremendous job with it.

  5. @Donnie Berkholz: the assertion was based first on my experiences with both Gentoo and Debian/Fedora platforms, where the latter would have packages not yet available in Portage or overlays, and second on the fact that when i’m looking for new or just built applications, they are nearly always available in a .deb, occasionally in a .rpm but not generally listed in an ebuild format. which doesn’t mean that it’s not packaged, of course, as the builds for, say, the Amazon MP3 downloader or Dropbox can attest. but from what i can tell, there are simply more packages available for Debian distros, at least, than there are for Gentoo.

    that said, i am happy to be educated on the subject. if the numbers contradict me, please do let me know and i’ll correct the piece.

  6. Hi Stephen: Do you think the adoption and embedding of the WebKit layout engine in QT will impact UI development on open source platforms?

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