Archive | September, 2009

LXDE Is No Lightweight. Well, It Is, But …

Developer Hong Jen Yee says GNOME is good, but it’s not lightweight or fast enough for some users. After coding several lightweight desktop utilities, Hong and his colleagues wound up building an entire desktop environment – the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE). Now LXDE is getting a distro of its own – Lubuntu.

Does the world really need another desktop environment? Hong says GNOME is less responsive then it should be, especially when used with netbooks. In addition, it suffers from dependency problems; “when you only need part of the functionality provided by GNOME, most of time you’ll need to install a lot of additional dependencies. It’s a complete platform, but it just provides too many things that are not necessarily needed by many users.”

KDE, Hong says, suffers from similar problems. “Components are tightly integrated with each other and don’t work as nicely in other desktop environments. In addition, it’s just too much for some users who only want to get basic daily work done.”

What about other so-called lightweight desktops? “Xfce seems to be something in between GNOME and KDE. However, it’s getting closer to GNOME in feature sets, and now they share similar shortcomings. ROX desktop is lightweight, but some features are lacking. Also, I cannot get used to its user interface.”

If you’re a developer and you can’t find a tool you like, your alternative is to write your own, and that’s just what Hong did. “Around the end of 2006, I decided to develop a lightweight file manager, called PCManFM originally. After it was developed, I replaced the desktop panel with fbpanel, and then used IceWM as window manager rather than using a full GNOME desktop. Later, I felt that some features were lacking in fbpanel, so I forked fbpanel and added the features I wanted, and created LXPanel. Since by that time I had replaced the most crucial parts of a desktop environment, it was quite natural to build a new desktop environment on top of them. That’s how LXDE got started.”

Hong says LXDE is designed to be modular and tries to make every component work nicely in other desktop environments with minimal dependencies. However, when those components are installed together and are launched under LXDE, they exhibit slightly different behavior to make things more integrated. In addition, LXDE follows freedesktop.org standards for compatibility with other desktop environments. It also offers great i18n support; Hong says LXDE has been translated to dozens of languages.

The project tries to reuse existing solution when possible. For instance, instead of creating their own window manager and text editor, the project chose the already mature Openbox and Leafpad. But since the components are not tightly integrated, you can easily replace one with another program, if you prefer, for example, a different window manager.

LXDE is lightweight, but it doesn’t sacrifice usability. Unlike some other lightweight window managers, you generally don’t have to manually edit configuration files. You just choose “LXDE” in your gdm menu as your window manager and log in. You can configure the desktop via the GUI most of the time; you might have to manually edit configuration files only if you want further customization or if your distro maker doesn’t provide proper default configurations.

In the latest version of LXPanel the layout of panel items was redesigned by new project member Marty Jack, and many old bugs were fixed. There still seem to be some performance issues in the latest 0.5.3 release reported by Debian community, but they’re on the list to be fixed.

Also on tap for upcoming releases is a total rewrite of the PCManFM file manager based on glib/gio. Hong says, “If things go smoothly, the first public release will be in Q1 2010. The next generation of PCManFM will optionally support seamless remote filesystem access when gvfs is available. The core of the file manager is now separated from the main program; it became a library named libfm. The library provides basic facilities needed by a file manager. Other programmers can use this library to create their own file managers. For example, you could write a new file manager with a two-pane layout by using libfm.”

Hong says a new display manager named lxdm is being developed to replace gdm in LXDE-based distros, and a broken network management tool, LXNM, is undergoing a total rewrite to turn it into a new lightweight network manager.

The project uses the so-called rolling stone model for software releases. “We make constant small releases of each component rather than a big upgrade of the whole LXDE. However, since now the project is becoming more and more mature, we may consider changing the model if the community wants it.”

LXDE uses several SourceForge.net facilities to develop the software, including use SVN, Git, mailing list, and the bug trackers. When you’re coordinating the work of more than four dozen developers, a good toolset is a must.

Tweet of the day: @leastfixedpoint: the homepage of sourceforge.net looks like a spammy domain parking page

Young Developer Targets Young Users with Hannah Montana Linux

Earlier this year, 17-year-old developer Taylor (who prefers not to publish his last name) had a brainstorm. There’s a version of Linux available for almost every niche, but nothing that targets the tween demographic – young people too old for elementary school but too young for the big leagues. Who better to bring Linux to that market than Hannah Montana, Disney’s real-life pop princess? Thus was born Hannah Montana Linux.

The distribution is based on Kubuntu, the Ubuntu version that runs the KDE desktop, but Taylor says he stripped out software such as OpenOffice.org and KOffice to make the distro lightweight enough to fit on a 700MB CD. (Of course users can employ the apt-get utility to download those applications or any of thousands of others for free.) He also added a lot of themes featuring the tween idol. “Kubuntu isn’t that hard to customize,” he says. “You just have to be an artist and a hacker – hacker in the good sense, that is.”

Hannah Montana Linux screenshot
Taylor released the software July 15. The existence of the distro began to spread by word of mouth. “I just told a few people about it,” Taylor says. Soon there was a review on Desktop Linux Reviews, another on the Linux Critic Blog, and coverage on OSNews, Linux Today, and elsewhere. Taylor says that, according to his torrent counter (which keeps getting reset), more than 2,500 people have downloaded the distribution in the last two months.

“Some people think it’s crazy,” Taylor admits, “but almost no one says it’s a bad thing.” In fact, Taylor says, Miley Cyrus personally gave him a thumbs-up for the project. Her corporate masters at Disney so far have been silent.

Taylor says he is continuing to develop the distro. He plans to include KOffice and a few new apps, including HMExec, which will allow users to run a script without opening a terminal window. He will also fix the boot screen, which currently displays a blue square that doesn’t belong there. Taylor hopes to release new versions every six months or every year.

Your Code Can Improve Healthcare

Ask Barack Obama – healthcare is complicated. That’s one of the reasons Tolven, Inc., chose to use industry-standard technologies and data models in its software, and why it makes its software open source.

“We count on partners and community members to augment functional and technical areas that are meaningful to users,” says Steven Weiner, Tolven’s COO. “We welcome developers who have ideas about special areas of functionality and technology.”

Tolven develops three applications as part of its Tolven Health Record software. An electronic Personal Health Record solution (ePHR) is designed to enable consumers to record and selectively share healthcare information about themselves and their loved ones in a secure manner. An electronic Clinician Health Record solution (eCHR) will enable physicians and other healthcare providers to securely access healthcare information collated from any number of trusted sources relating to an individual patient. And a healthcare informatics platform provides the platform that enables the healthcare data to be stored and accessed via the ePHR and eCHR solutions. The software’s account structure enforces security and facilitates sharing information between clinicians, patients, and researchers.

According to Weiner, three aspects of Tolven software make it unique:

1. Our commitment to incorporating the healthcare informatics standards needed to achieve semantic interoperability.

2. The fact that our platform is equally useful for clinical care systems, personal health records, and clinician health records.

3. Our technology stack and architecture assure enterprise-class scalability and reliability at low hardware cost.

Weiner says the latest release highlights the software’s plugin framework, which makes partner applications easy to develop and implement. “Getting acquainted with our plugin framework may help [developers] see their ideas come alive.”

Development is ongoing, and Weiner says future versions will fill out the functionality needed for electronic records that seek certification from CCHIT and other certifying bodies evolving out of recent legislation. If you’d like to contribute to better healthcare records, Tolven welcomes your input.

Free Animal Shelter Manager Tops Proprietary Alternatives

The huge number of unwanted pets in the world is a large and growing problem. You can address the problem personally by spaying or neutering your pet, not buying from pet stores, and patronizing your local animal shelter. If you want to do something on a larger scale, you might consider opening an animal shelter yourself. As a user of free and open source software, you’ll want to use Animal Shelter Manager to run your operations.

ASM is the only free (as in freedom and as in beer) shelter management package. Other similar applications are expensive or proprietary or tie shelters into buying a product such as insurance, microchipping, or food – or all three.

Developer Robin Rawson-Tetley has been actively working on ASM for 10 years, so the software is mature and stable. Rawson-Tetley says it has more features and is more customisable than similar packages. Users can add their own fields, reports, documentation templates, and toolbar buttons to invoke third-party apps.

Rawson-Tetley is in the enviable position of not having to do any marketing to popularize his application. “There is so little free competition that ASM is the only logical choice for most shelters. I try to make the site friendly by outlining the main features with some screenshots and including some testimonials from shelters. Other than that, ASM pretty much sells itself.”

Many users find their way to ASM from Google and the like. “I get probably 50% of hits from search engine traffic. A lot come from Petfinder.com – they have a comparison of available shelter software on their site, and ASM wins every time on features and price.”

In the latest version, released last week, Rawson-Tetley added the facility to add fields specific to a given shelter, and a getting started screen that allows you to choose the animal types your shelter deals with and remove unwanted items from the database. The software includes sophisticated features like a command-line interface that allows users to automate publishing adoptable animals to not only their own web sites, but also to major adoption sites, such as Petfinder.com, AdoptaPet.com, and Pets911.com. If you have a webcam, ASM can use video4linux or a webcam with an HTTP interface to grab stills of animals, which are useful for ensuring that booked-in animals have an identification image.

In future versions Rawson-Tetley promises more flexibility with the customizable fields, a centralized reports repository that allows users to pick and choose from a large library of reports, custom graphs, and improved lost and found animal matching.

Rawson-Tetley says ASM could use help with translations and documentation. While the software is already translated into six languages, more would help make the program as widely useful as possible. If you’d like to help, the best way to get in touch is via e-mail.

Q&A with Community Choice Award Winner eeebuntu

eeebuntu won this year’s SourceForge.net Community Choice Award for Best New Project. The project’s Paul McDonough answers our questions.

What made you choose to make your project open source?

We wanted to give people the choice to have a free OS on their netbook. Debian and Ubuntu were the ideal basis for this, so we built our project from there.

What does your development environment (OS, IDE, etc.) look like?

We use GNOME as our desktop environment, but we have recently started public betas of an LXDE environment, which is blazing fast on these li’l eeepcs.

How long did it take you to develop your project and how many people contributed to it?

Our project has been running now for nearly a year. We have had people come and go. We currently have three to four main developers on board.

How many open source projects have you worked on? What is your favorite?

This is the first project to which I personally have contributed. Other members of the team have developed multiple pieces of software.