Sunday, December 19

Lithuanian (AltGr) keyboard for Windows

In GNU/Linux I usually use an AltGr-based keyboard layout for entering Lithuanian characters. That is, you can enter Lithuanian diacritics by holding down AltGr (right Alt)). I had lived with separate modes for entering English and Lithuanian until I found out that having a single layout was a huge relief.

Windows does ship with a Lithuanian layout where AltGr switches to English characters, but I use the English layout much more, so I need it the other way around. So, I grabbed Microsoft's Keyboard Layout Creator and made the layout I needed. The result is available on a GitHub repository. You may also download the installer directly.

In Linux, keymaps, being plain text files, are more transparent, but to be fair, in this case the Windows way wins. Not only do you get a GUI tool to create the layout, but also an installer can be generated automatically for deployment of the layout.

Mobile App Camp

On the last weekend my team and I participated in the Mobile App Camp (link in Lithuanian) organized by Omnitel, which is one of the dominant mobile operators in Lithuania. The event seems to be part of Omnitel's push for increasing the share of smartphones in the Lithuanian market, which has been lagging behind the European trends.

Our team consisted of Povilas Kytra, who is behind the TV.LT project, Mantas Kanaporis from A-Gain and me. In the weekend we built an app that shows the TV programme for the coming day for all the Lithuanian TV channels. (The app is not yet available on the Android Market, but we are working on it.)

Here's a screenshot of the main screen of the application:


The app was built using the standard Android Development Toolkit on Eclipse. The app gets the content from a Rails-based server containing a simple database and couple JSON views.

I had some experience of developing for Android before, but it was mostly about working with graphics on canvas, while in this app we used some standard GUI controls (with some nifty styling).

For the source control, we used a private repository on bitbucket.org. That one was a huge letdown: a 'hg push' or 'hg pull' would take ages (or at least that's how it seemed to me in comparison to GitHub), and we had no end of trouble with merging, partly due to the number of commands needed to get the repositories in sync (hg pull; hg update; hg merge; hg commit; hg push). Even Subversion would probably have worked better.

The event itself was great fun. It had been a while since I had last coded intensively for the entire weekend. There were quite a few decent ideas presented by the participants, and some of them were successfully implemented.

The rating system was somewhat disappointing though. The event was supposed to be a contest, with four predefined criteria for winning apps (still available on the website): uniqueness in the Lithuanian market, magnitude of the target group, value provided to the user and creativity. In the end, however, the jury nominated apps for three different awards (best app built on an existing database, best app built anew, and the "hope" nomination) with one app awarded from each category. Our app scored second in the first nomination, so we did not get an award, even though we would probably have been in the global top three, were the original criteria upheld.

To be fair, we did not stand much chance against the winner in our category, an app based on vaistai.lt, which sported a database of pharmaceuticals with detailed usage instructions, information about drug stores in Lithuania with maps and inventory status, and even a barcode scanner. Hats off to them. Another winner was "Alaus radaras" ("Beer radar") with locations of local beer bars and inventory info. The third one was "3 milijonai teisėjų" (Three million judges"), which, as far as I understood, was a conception for a basketball-throwing game (basketball is very big in Lithuania, it is a second national religion).

To conclude, it was a fun event and I wish we will be having more of those in Vilnius, even though the Monday after the long weekend was very unproductive.

Tuesday, December 7

Windows (III): Packaging & nitpicks

(This is a part of a series of posts on my recent experience with Windows; see Windows (I)  and Windows (II): User Interface.)

Every GNU/Linux desktop distribution hangs on a package management system as a foundation, and as a result the packaging systems are quite advanced, while Windows is stuck with those pesky installation wizards. There have been several stabs to implement a package system for Windows (see here), but none seem to have caught on.

There are three main disadvantages on not having good package management: tedium of manual installation, no dependency resolution and no system-wide automatic updates. In practice they are less important than it might seem. Installation wizards are indeed tedious, but in terms of time I found them to be quick enough to get through. Moreover, apps tend to be less specialized and more encompassing than Linux utilities, and as a result you do not need to install as many things as in Linux. For the same reason dependency resolution is not as important: there are few dependencies in general. As for automatic updates, most high-profile apps have integrated mechanisms to deal with that, however, I found that those mechanisms tended to result in nagging the user with messages. After a while I started ignoring the update notifications. I suspect that happens to many users.

The one thing that Windows has going for it is simplicity. You download installation binaries and you run them, and that's it. Linux package systems tend to be very complicated, and if (when) they break, you will need serious sysadmin chops to deal with the problem. Also installing specific versions (either older ones, or newer ones not yet available in the distro) of specific apps/libraries can be unnecessarily complicated, and the dependency graph limits your actions. In my experience, Windows does well enough without all this complexity as long as you don't reinstall your system too often.

As for the other complaints, I frequently run into the restriction of moving/editing files opened by another application. Coming from Linux, that one is stupidly annoying. Furthermore, it is frustrating not to be able to move inactive (or stuck) background windows. I really miss my unified filesystem namespace. Also there's quite a bit of nagging in general on Windows which I would rather do without. In the end, these are not dealbreakers though.

In my next (and probably final) post I will discuss software development on Windows.

Wednesday, December 1

Windows (II): User Interface

(This is a part of a series of posts on my recent experience with Windows. See Windows (I) for the first post.)

The Windows user interface is definitely acceptable. The charge that it is too colorful or toy-like is completely unfounded. Rather, perhaps geeks should spend less time looking at their gray Motif boxy controls. In terms of speed, the UI is generally more responsive than on Linux, though maybe less so than previous versions of Windows (that could be because my Intel video IGP is a slouch).

An interesting observation is that apps are almost as heterogeneous in terms of interface as in GNU/Linux, even though the standard controls are ubiquitous. Even apps by Microsoft can be separated into different "generations" of UI (e.g., folder windows, Control Panel, Microsoft Office).  Also it is clear that generally more attention is paid to UI and usability by app developers, although perhaps not as much as in Apple products.

The greatest asset and the worst offender at the same time, by far, is the overall GUI orientation of the system. Needless to say, it aids discoverability, but reduces scripting capabilities. Problem is, even if you do not need to write scripts per se, command-line actions are useful because they can be repeated and chained very easily, using shell history. In Windows, I occasionally find myself doing much repetitive clicking that would likely be an "Alt-Tab Up Enter" (or sometimes just one key) sequence in Linux. Moreover, the lack of good standartized scripting is a huge pain during app deployments which tend be repetetive. I did not like Windows on servers before, and I do not like it now.

To be fair, my complaints about scripting capabilities may be partly moot because I have only used vanilla Windows batch files, and have not looked at all into Windows PowerShell, which is a new-generation scripting tool. The examples are fairly impressive. The language has a nice look and is clearly powerful, but also looks somewhat complicated which keeps me away until I find a good reason to learn it.

Initially I missed workspaces. The one app I found that was supposed to emulate workspaces would take several seconds to switch the workspace, so it was completely unusable. I learned to do without them rather quickly though. Actually I'm starting to think that using many workspaces is a sign that you are doing too many things at once and also they are an invitation to distraction (how many of you have a "blog reader" workspace right aside your "work" workspace, ready at your fingertips at a moment's notice?). Workspaces do have one killer feature: you can jump directly to a given workspace instead of cycling through windows. This is very useful when working with more than two apps, in which case without workspaces you are forced to think about the morphing Alt-Tab queue when switching windows.

Speaking about UI generations, I much prefer the ribbon toolbars of the new Office. The still-prevalent toolbars with zillions of old-style 32x32 (or 16x16) toolbar icons are really ugly. Typically only a few of the toolbar buttons are actually useful, and they make the user interface unnecessarily cramped and busy. The move to fewer and larger toolbar buttons is definitely on the right track.

The explorer context menus also tend to grow crazy long. Every app wants to get in there, and in the end you have a context menu that takes up half a screen vertically. Needless to say, most of those items are not used much. Sure, you can opt out during app installation, but at that time it is difficult to say how useful the context menu item will be, and there's no easy way (i.e. easier than just ignoring the cruft) to remove the entries afterwards.

In my coming posts I will cover package management and application development on Windows.