KDE 4.3 is awesome

It’s been a busy few weeks at the university, with mid-year assessment (in all it’s various forms) having to take precedence over everything else.  Now that it’s over and students are on holiday, I’ve finally gotten around to doing the things I’ve been putting off for a while…like installing the beta version of KDE 4.3 on Kubuntu Jaunty.

The 4.x series of the desktop is getting more and more impressive with every iteration, so much so that I felt I needed to put it on show a little.  I’ve been playing around with it for a few days now and while it’s still a little buggy, it’s stable enough for me.  In this post, I’m going to go through some of the applications I use most often, and give my own thoughts about why I’m loving this update.

Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Desktop showing the Lancelot menu
Folder view with expanding folders
Folder view with expanding folders

Desktop.  The Folder view widgets on the desktop do a great job of keeping it clean and useful, and I love the way they expand on mouseover to make navigation really easy and intuitive.  The Lancelot menu is brilliant, keeping unused applications out of the way, but making it simple to find them when needed.

Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Konsole view (bottom)
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views
Dolphin file manager with Split pane, Information, Places and File tree views

File management.  There was a lot of controversy when the KDE developers decided to
create Dolphin and replace Konqueror as the default file manager, but it was clearly the right move.  There are a couple of things that I love about Dolphin, including the Information side panel, split view mode, Terminal view and the integration of Nepomuk semantic search.

OpenOffice.org word processor
OpenOffice.org word processor

Work stuff.  I tried using KOffice2 even though it’s a platform release (because it looks so very cool), but there are a few issues that keep me from switching from OpenOffice.org, the main one being that it doesn’t support OpenDocument or MS Word files as well as OpenOffice does, and the fonts look terrible.

BasKet note taking application (showing default example)
BasKet note taking application (showing default example)

I’ve installed and am using BasKet notepads for my note taking application, which unfortunately is still a KDE 3.5 application.  There were some concerns about the project stalling when the lead developer decided that he couldn’t continue maintaining it, but it seems as if it’s been taken up by others and may yet have a future.  I hope so because it’s a great application, even in it’s current state.  A project to watch out for in this field is SemNotes, a semantic note taking application being built on Nepomuk (see here for screencast).

Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)
Okular universal file viewer (showing PDF with annotations)

Okular is a universal document viewer, although I don’t use if for much other than PDFs.  The feature I like most is the ability to annotate documents, although the default colour scheme of the notes isn”t great.

Calendar in Kontact
Calendar in Kontact

I used to use Kontact for email for the longest time but then I switched to Thunderbird for a while, then Spicebird and finally back to Kontact.  In terms of functionality, nothing comes close to it right now.  I’d like to say that I use Akkregator for my feeds, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  The interface also hasn’t changed much in the past few years and it seems very slow.

Firefox web browser
Firefox web browser

I have to admit that I’m using the 3.5 preview release of Firefox as the web browser, rather than Konqueror.  While Konqueror was awesome a few years ago, it hasn’t kept up with the changes on the web, and is really starting to show it’s age.  There’s a lot happening at Mozilla that Konqueror jsut can’t keep up with and unless there’s a radical change of pace in it’s development, I can’t imagine using it again.

Amarok media player
Amarok media player

Multimedia.  I’m always switching between different media players, but generally I’ve been keen on Songbird and Amarok for managing my whole library, and Audacious as a light-weight player for quickly playing single files.  Gwenview (the image viewer) has been given an overhaul and

Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view
Gwenview in Browse mode with Information side panel on view

does a brilliant job of managing image libraries.  Amarok is a bit buggy right now (although I am running the beta version of 2.1) and it’s still lacking some functionality that was present in 1 (the port to Qt4 means a lot of catching up has to be done), which is why I use Songbird on occasion.  But as with other KDE apps right now, it’s in a state of transition and every release is building on the solid platform that was laid down with 2.0.

Marble desktop globe showing satelite view
Marble desktop globe showing satelite view

Marble.  This is a great tool that’s something along the lines of Google Earth and Maps, but it’s open and a native KDE application.  I’ve included these screenshots showing a satelite view, as well as a

Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view
Marble desktop globe showing Open Streetmap view

street view using Open Streetmap.  It’s already got Wikipedia and Flickr integration for additional information, as well as being able to overlay additional data, like temperature and precipitation maps.  It’s a young project that’s come really far and has the capability to be incorporated into other KDE apps, like using it together with geo-tagging photos in Digikam.

The one thing that I can’t find anywhere is a decent podcast catcher…something like Gpodder for Gnome, but native to KDE.  I know that Amarok has one but it’s not working for me and besides, it’s lacking the finishing touches that would win me over.  Little things like being able to read a summary of the podcast would be so useful but is currently impossible.

I’m also not a fan of Kpackagekit, as it’s still very much in development and doesn’t always work very well.  Generally the command line is quicker anyway, but there’s always Synaptic if a GUI is needed.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of some of the apps that i use and while most of them are still in beta, there’s so much happening in KDE right now that this post will be outdated very shortly.  Sigh…

If you’re interested in following the developments in KDE, check out KDE.News

Mozilla Open Education course: seminar 3

Open web tech

Again, I missed this seminar because of poor internet connectivity on the day and am catching up on the audio after the fact.  Here are my notes from the presentation given by Mozilla’s Chris Blizzard.

  1. Open as a concept
  2. Innovation and change = important building blocks
  3. Relevance and why open matters
  4. Repurposing key web technologies

“Open”: what does it mean?  First of all, the opposite of open is not necessarily “closed”…though useful terms, in this context they shouldn’t be seen as polarising.  In the context of the open web, the opposite of open may be thought of as opaque…you don’t understand how it works, can’t see inside it, don’t know how it came about.  Gives a sense of the visual.  Therefore, open could be thought of as “transparent”.

Not requiring permission is an important component of open because it relates to patents, licensing, etc.  Comparison of video codecs like h264 and ogg theora and the difference that open licensing makes with regards permission to use the code.

Side note: all content from this course is available under an open license for anyone to re-purpose for any use.

“Generative” – word that is used widely in academia.  Meaning that through your action you allow others to do something as well. It allows people other than the original creator of the work to change the work and use it for things that the creator didn’t think of, it facilitates the mulitiplication of efforts and exploration.

“Innovation” is over-used in many circles…a black box in which things are improved but where the process is invisible.  The most important characteristic of innovation is that it represents change (both good and bad change).  Intentional disruption = standing up to make a difference in a way that’s going to be uncomfortable…and people are often reluctant to change because it’s uncomfortable.  Setting things up to purposefully be uncomfortable and going up against various interests (possibly commercial or political) who would not benefit from that change.  Setting yourself up against the status quo.  In an open model where you’re trying to encourage change / innovation / disruption, you’re going to run up against issues.

Where does experimentation come from?  Assume that progress and innovation stem from experimentation and failure (learning from our mistakes), it’s important to understand this process as it leads to change.  The core group of contributors to large projects are not necessarily the ones doing the experimenting, it usually comes from the periphery.  How do you set yourself up to have “edges” in the community and be open in order to promote experimentation and innovation?  This disruption is difficult for business to commit to because it’s hard to determine future value in experimentation and innovation.

As messy and painful as it is, the open web has worked well.  Very few other inventions have disrupted communication so comprehensively before the web (maybe the printing press, telephone).  An instantaneous communication network that people are continually changing and re-purposing without having to ask permission from anyone is very important.  The nature of the web made this possible i.e. intentionally built on a model of open technology / software where anyone could make changes without permission.

What makes something open web technology?  Web browser is the gateway to the web and we spend a lot of time using it, therefore it should be comfortable and easy to use.  Can you see the page source to understand how it works?  Being able to look at somebody’s source is part of the transparency / open-ness of the web.  Source is delivered (HTML, Javascript) and compiled / executed locally.  Historical mistake where originally authors were writing simple documents where source didn’t matter as much.  Now, this presents as a learning opportunity where others can see what you’ve done and use it in other ways.  This doesn’t mean that you should copy and paste everything, rather figure out how it works and learn that way.

If you have access to the source you may be able to figure out the API (or the API is open), which means that you can then re-purpose the application.  Twitter is an example…even though it’s only a simple application (status updates), others have figured out how to use it in different, more complex ways because of it’s open API and a whole ecosystem has developed around it. 

Another example is how people have changed Google search by implementing code in the browser, even though Google hasn’t explicitly given that permission.  An example of people using the open-ness of the web to figure things out and make changes that have not explicitly been allowed by an open license.

Key peices of open web technology:

  • HTML = core of open web, describes document structure, content, continually improving and evolving
  • XML = more generalised data management (not as widely used), semantic meaning is important in the open web
  • CSS = controls presentation of content (unlike HTML), can imply visual structure, media context, also implies semantic meaning
  • Images = static visual medium that conveys expression (jpg, png are simple but allows everyone to use), adds context to the open web
  • Javascript = integration of all the other peices, makes the static web dynamic
  • Open video = transparent, generative, not closed implementation of web video (in contrast to Flash), using ogg theora (patent- and royalty-free video codec)

Open source alternatives to proprietary applications

I thought I’d take a moment to briefly mention a few open source alternatives to popular computer applications. The following programmes are all:
  • Open source – the source code is freely available, which usually means more stable and more secure.
  • Free – as in no cost and free from restriction.
  • Cross-platform – they run on multiple operating systems, including Linux and Windows.
  • As good as, if not better than, their proprietary counterparts.

So, here goes (by the way, this list is by no means complete):

Firefox – A very popular web browser that offers a more secure, more intuitive and faster alternative to Internet Explorer.

OpenOffice.org – An entire office suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and drawing. It uses the OpenDocument format by default and as such, it’s use is encouraged, especially in academia and governments.

Thunderbird – An email client that is a fast, secure and stable replacement for Outlook and Outlook Express, especially if you just need something light to manage your email.

Pidgin – An single instant messaging client that allows you to use all of your IM accounts at once, including IRC, MSN, Groupwise, AIM and ICQ.

Miro – An Internet TV application to subscribe to RSS feeds of free content from a host of providers, including TED, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

GIMP – The Gnu Image Manipulation Program. A free alternative to Photoshop that, while lacking some high end, professional features, does more than enough for most of us.

Flock – Social web browser…if you use Facebook, Flickr, Digg, or any other social networking service, this is for you.

Ubuntu – Not a software application but an entire operating system, Ubuntu is a Linux distribution based on Debian. Click here for the Wikipedia article.

Another great application to run, although once it’s set up you’ll hardly ever notice it, is BOINC (click here for the Wikipedia article). After installing the software, register with various projects and join millions of other users who donate their computer’s idle time to solving complex medical, scientific and mathematical problems. I can suggest the World Community Grid to begin with.

And while I’m at it, here’s a link to a post that discusses some of the problems with using Microsoft Word. I personally don’t mind receiving Word documents and understand that many institutions don’t give their employees a choice, but the first step is realising that you actually have a choice.