Life & much, much more

Testdriving Skydrive

For those unfamiliar with Microsoft’s answer to cloud storage, [Microsoft Windows Live] SkyDrive offers a website accessible online file manager for free. When I first tested Skydrive many years back, it only offered 5GB storage and had a clunky interface that was a horror to work with.

Imagine my reaction when I heard the bozos who work at the University of Sydney’s excuse of an IT department announced that they were abandoning a personal user folder on the  network and replacing it with a SkyDrive account.

Admittedly after brushing up with SkyDrive’s latest updates, featuring a HTML 5 non-uncanny interface along with 100MB per file with a total size of 25GB per person, my interest in trying out the service was rekindled. They apparently also updated photo sharing and manipulation technologies as well as synchronisation with MS Office. Neither feature of which I particularly need or will use, but a nice touch nonetheless that shows at least some departments in Microsoft care about their products.

Apart from playing with it sporadically, this week I had the fortune (that’s right, I wouldn’t say misfortune) to use it within my average work environment, ie. working with graphics and diagrams and scanned images. My other average work environment involves programming, for which anything other than a vcs repository with a local LAMP setup is inappropriate, but that’s something else entirely.

The Good

When working within a relatively small group for a small design project, SkyDrive is great for collaboration. Not only does it solve the issue of always shifting workstations and having to transfer over resources or source material, SkyDrive acts as a replacement for a Dropbox setup. By this I mean that when SkyDrive is operating under an institution, I can very easily tell it to share a directory with 5 of my friends working on the same project as I am, or otherwise interested in my work.

Along with a drag n’ drop interface, it makes it easy to copy over whatever has changed just by looking at the last modified dates and selected the top X number of entries.

SkyDrive is also quick. It doesn’t dally around like other uploaders and gets straight to the point of dumping your files online just like Dropbox does.

The Bad

Unfortunately it’s also completely inappropriate for my uses. The average design save file can very easily exceed the 100MB per file limit, and even when it doesn’t, having to download a ~50MB file, especially when the connection is spotty, is a pain, and can cost you several hours of productive work, or worse, lose a client.

SkyDrive also doesn’t support incremental updating, which I guess is asking too much, but since people have already been spoilt by Dropbox, which does something alike that, I don’t see why I can’t grumble about it.

Brief Conclusion

Apart from not being useful for my usecase I really cannot find much to critique about SkyDrive. Especially when I rarely see other people making use of Cloud solutions other than Dropbox I’m quite surprised not more people are using SkyDrive. With upcoming integration with Windows 8 (of which I have mixed reactions to) and up to 2GB file transfers, I’d say Kudos, MS. Kudos.

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EyeOS has an Oxygen theme!

For the uninitiated, EyeOS is a free, open-source desktop implementation right in the browser. I was recently playing around with my EyeOS installation that I forgot I had installed a while back (v1.x) and like what most people do when they try out a new system, I decided to see what other themes they have.

Turns out they have an Oxygen theme! It’s a little dated but I must say I’m impressed. Very impressed.

Now all I have to do is find a practical personal use of EyeOS! Perhaps it might replace a few of my cobbled series of other cloudish hacks.

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Plans for E2-Productions.com to turn into a personal cloud?

Alert! Alert! Buzzword! Yes, before we start, let’s clear up with what I mean when I say "personal cloud". A personal cloud is a web-accessable system which centralises the function of common web 2.0 services, which may or may not be social. For those that aren’t familiar with this jargon, web 2.0 services are those such as web email clients like GMail, photo sharing and management sites like Flickr, online radios like Last.FM, and even blogs just like this one. So your personal cloud is a system on your very own website, with a web interface for your very own emails, PIM (calendar, notes, todos), images, music, etc. Note that the social attribute is optional. Clouds do not have to necessarily have automatic synchronisation, nor does it have to have the ability to easily share your data with the public.

A little history first. E2-Productions.com used to be the center of attention – thriving with the latest adolescent community fads such as animation, art and music "portals". It later saw the rise of the Blender Model Repository, a personal portfolio, several forums (trendy, weren’t they?), and finally ended with the death of the original animation portal. thinkMoult then emerged somewhere on the Blogspot blogosphere and went on to become a moderately-hacked install of WordPress on the E2 server. E2-Productions had become, and still is now, a dead site.

I’ve been toying with the idea of turning E2-Productions into a personal cloud for quite some time. It did actually occur at one point. Even though a PHP developer myself, it would take too long to create my very own cloud to implement existing free scripts. In the end I had created a network of individual PHP scripts giving me a web based RSS reader, filebin, imagebin, and a proxy. With the helpful addition of several rsync scripts and sshfs, it was usable and offered all the functionality. However of course it was very hacked together and didn’t offer the sort of integration I wanted.

Today I decided to look into other cloud services. One currently in development is ownCloud by Frank Karlitschek, the guy resonsible behind the openDesktop websites. Unfortunately the results were disappointing. Taking into account that it’s still under construction (and therefore incomplete and buggy), like the openDesktop websites themselves, ownCloud is unfortunately yet another developer service that underestimates usability. Whilst it had some nifty features in the works, it’s priorities were skewed away from the rightful mentality that design maketh a website, not the function. Further probing into the code revealed some serious problems with the structure of the coding that didn’t look very well thought out. Needless to say ownCloud is not for me.

The other famous personal cloud is the open-source EyeOS. This one goes all the way, completely replicating the desktop interface in the browser. Again, most of the design of EyeOS 1.x, their stable version, approaches the design of the system as a desktop interface. The canvas of a webpage is not suited for a desktop interface. They both have strengths and weaknesses and unfortunately most of these uncanny designs don’t play to the webbrowser’s strengths. Despite the overblown interface (which excusably is amended quite a bit in their 2.0 unstable version) it’s quite featureful and its extensibility in terms of developing it yourself is quite attractive. However the lag which accompanies such client-side interactive bloat (and server-side too!) doesn’t exactly make it the most practical of choices. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on, though (excuse the pun).

Further searching yielded an exemplary system called Tonido. Unfortunately due to its proprietary nature it’s not for me either. However it does provide a fine example of the potential of a well executed cloud service. This motivated me to reconsider creating a cloud. I began with considering the basic user objectives for the web interface:

  • Ability to dump a file online with a unique private URL, and easily share it via public URL (or a single obfuscated URL).
  • Private browsing of my files with support for subdirectories.
  • Browsing of images will be represented in userfriendly thumbnail form.
  • Browsing of PIM data (vcard, ical) will be parsed and displayed in an appropriate format.
  • Web-based uploader and/or form of synchronisation technique.

You see the "cloud" I had described (in terms of its most basic user-side functionality) as such is pretty much just a smart web-based filebrowser with mini-webapp additions for (mainly) PIM-data. Our latest newcomer to the fad, Ubuntu One, actually provides these needs very well – leaving the browser to do what it does best, and the rest to the desktop. However it falls short in a vital area – proprietariness. This isn’t a question of evangelism, it’s more of one of the simple requirements of a personal cloud. If we analyse the 5 basic user-side needs to its roots, we get a shorter list of what actually makes a personal cloud, personal:

  • Fine control of private, limited, and public files.
  • Convenience – data should be searchable by tags, and there should be no limit on the filestructure or methods of access.
  • Timelessness – data should not be locked into any vendor.

The first issue is tackled quite well in existing cloud providers, with probably the best implementation (in my opinion) being Ubuntu One. Convenience is another easily satisfied need, with wonderful tools like rsync, sshfs, and version control software (though again, most providers lock you into their own system, and convenience ends once you leave it). However the key feature that in my eyes hasn’t yet been solved by any provider is timelessness. Any proprietary client or syncing software is instantly disqualified due to dependency on the vendor. Now, even if the software was completely open and extensible, many so called personal clouds are simply connecting to existing external services. Whilst consistent with the definition of the personal cloud, the service centralises in what is hoped to be seen as the path of least resistance – that is, only for people actually already using those services. What services am I talking about? Oh, things like Flickr, Google, Facebook and Twitter. Social is a hot topic, but not for everybody. Services don’t even have to be online – dependency on, for example Tomboy Notes or Evolution in Ubuntu One qualifies as a dependency and thus means the service is not timeless.

So how is this overcome? Not easily, for sure. I want to propose that the ideal personal cloud be one that focuses simply on file management and synchronisation. It should stop there – the actual display of files and searching of files should be handled by plugins. Plugins can decide how to properly format an image gallery. Plugins can decide how to display PIM-data. These plugins should be accomodating for the most timeless format ever, plaintext, as well as industry standard formats. The user then only applies the plugins that fits their exact workflow, if necessary writing their own for interpreting their own files. This satisfies the 3 criteria of a personal cloud.

I’m still coming up with a few plans and extra ideas on how it’ll be – but meanwhile I’ve got exams to get over. If anybody knows something similar that exists, let me know, otherwise this’ll be a fun project after WIPUP reaches stable.

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Chrome in the Clouds: The Google OS

If you read my initial post about Google Chrome (the OS, not the Brow- wait a minute, is there even a clear distinction anymore?) you would have realised that I didn’t really give opinions on what I felt about it but instead  how I visualised it to be. I believe in designating some mull-over time before making a judgement. (hypocritically speaking, I did not do that when constructing my conspiracy theory when Google Wave came out)

Now is the time to see what exactly is going on.

My feelings in a nutshell

  • Would I buy such a product? If it were cheap (100 dollars or so), yes.
  • I feel Google is harming open-source.
  • Cloud computing is very important to me for accessibility and synchronisation.
  • We cannot fight, and should not fight.

The story behind it

The first point is easy to justify and I do believe this is very agreeable. This is an area of the markt people have always looked towards with an expectation of a “trustworthy” brand, and Google has just provided that to them. People will buy for this OS.

To a company, Google is probably executing its marketing strategy in the most effective way possible. They use a product-orientated approach, making the product first then selling it to the market – or so it seems. Google knows two things: 1) They have craploads of data, and 2) They own (pretty much) the biggest mass marketing device in the world. However they do know that even though they “own” this realm, they cannot control it. It’s like a pet – you own but cannot control it.

They way you control it is by feeding it. Such is the nature of open-source development. However Google is able to turn open-source into money by producing a good percentage of the product before open-sourcing it. This allows Google to keep the leash on the project. You developers aren’t building the product side by side – no: you are doing the grunt work that turns a framework into something consumers will love – something with the name Google slapped onto it.

Let’s move onto my third feeling. This is because of a trend I have noticed over time. Computers is no longer about being in full control of your data – it’s about being in full control of your data no matter where you are. Cloud computing sorts this out – it’s no wonder Google’s objective is “to be the hub through which all the world’s information passes through“. Sorry guys, but the fact is that most consumers want this. The only time they won’t is when the company providing it has a bad reputation – but Google? No, Google’s never been evil have they? Not to the average joe they haven’t. It’s the average joe that changes the workflow – it’s the average joe that makes such a way of working part of your daily routine.

You see, Chrome isn’t about making an operating system to do useful stuff – Chrome is all about changing people’s workflow to become web-centric. Instead of moving into the desktop market, what Google is doing is moving consumers into the web market.  Why do you think it’s named Chrome after their browser? It saves on the advertising costs. You advertise the OS, you advertise the browser. Google is pushing ahead HTML 5 specifications to redefine what the web is capable of, and their browser Chrome going to be the biggest, baddest boy in the playground that knows the meaning of the word “compatibility” backwards. Advertise them both at the same time – what you get are people getting the “wow” experience Google can provide with all its toolkits online from the browser, and making it easy as pie to integrate it into how they work. It’s not because Google Docs is simply an application that allows you to edit documents online, it’s because it’s a shared, accessible, compatible, synchronised alternative.

We cannot and should not fight.

Yes. My last point is so awesome it deserves its own special section.

You cannot fight once a market leader has made a choice on a product/system. We saw it with Windows and we may very well see it again. (I assume you have all seen Google Wave?) Instead we have to understand the market. What does the market want? How do we provide for it?

Now, I am a KDE user myself but what I see as major areas for Linux and DEs in general to focus on are:

  • Plasmoids (in KDE at least) – this is a stepping stone to integrate new technologies and the web into the desktop workflow
  • Provision of private clouds, complying with open-standards – for private, secure and PERSONALISED (imagine giving users the freedom to shape their cloud environment) mobility and synchronisation
  • The social desktop
  • The semantic desktop

Am I right, am I crazy, have I missed out stuff?

Shower me with your thoughts please.