Friday, September 19, 2014

Excited about GNOME 3.14

When I studied the usability of GNOME for my Master's degree, I was pleased that the GNOME designers took the results seriously and created "usability bugs" based on my findings. And this summer, I spoke about the usability of GNOME at GUADEC, and was again pleased that the GNOME developer and user community also views usability as a serious and present topic. At GUADEC, I learned that several of the bugs based on my usability study would make it into the next version of GNOME.

And the next version of GNOME is almost upon us!

A few days ago, Jakub shared a preview of GNOME 3.14 via a "making of" video. The video provides a brief view into all the hard work going into this release.

One thing that surprised me in Jakub's video was icon animation. I didn't realize that would be featured in the new GNOME. Animation is an important part of user experience, or "UX." The user experience is not "usability" per se, but it is a related topic. UX refers to the emotional engagement of the user to the program. It may be divorced from usability, but typically if a program has good usability it will effect good UX, and programs that have poor usability tend to effect bad UX.

Icon animation makes the desktop seem more approachable. For example, clicking on an icon to reveal a submenu where more program icons spring into existence helps the user relate the action of clicking on one icon to the appearance of the new icons—because they can see the action occur. You can see examples of GNOME animations starting at about 1:10 in Jakub's video.

Today, Allan confirmed via his blog that GNOME 3.14 is on its way. Allan shares these features:

New animations
Yes, the animations previewed by Jakub are there. See the video in Allan's post to see icon animation in Applications View.
Google Images in Photos
"The big news for 3.14 is that Photos will now pick up your Google photos, so any images you’ve uploaded with Picasa, Android, or posted on Google+ will be immediately available there."
Rewritten Adwaita
"Everything feels crisper, sharper, and a bit lighter. There’s also a lot of subtle animations now (thanks to CSS animation support in GTK+), adding to the feeling of polish."
Search More Things
"The number of applications that are feeding results to system search has continued to increase with 3.14, with two really useful new additions:" Clocks and Calculator.
GTK+ Inspector
A new tool for developers.

Update: I think what excites me most is seeing the results of my usability testing, and the improvement in GNOME 3.14. For example, Software includes several changes based on my usability test findings: New first run dialog which explains what the app does, and Moved the Install / Remove buttons down from the headerbar to a more prominent position.

The release notes for GNOME 3.14 should be posted next week.

When the canary dies, get out of the garden

Reported at Gigaom and elsewhere, Apple's "warrant canary" has disappeared, suggesting new Patriot Act demands. In this case, a canary refers to a statement on a website or in a report that states something about the company or its security. For example, a company might add a canary statement to their website's footer that "We have not been compelled to add a security backdoor to our products." If that canary statement disappears from the website, you can assume the company has been compelled to add a security backdoor.

Why the canary? Such demands are usually accompanied by a non-disclosure statement. The company cannot let its customers know that their products now have a backdoor. But a canary is different, a sort of compromise. Like the canary in a coal mine, when the canary statement disappears ("dies") it's time to get out.

When Apple published its first Transparency Report on government activity in late 2013, the document contained an important note (page 5, see PDF) that stated: "Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us." Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits the National Security Agency to demand companies to hand over their business records in secret. It also vastly expands the FBI's power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States, and those served with Section 215 orders are prohibited from disclosing the fact.

Now, that canary statement has disappeared from Apple's reports. And as reported in Gigaom, Apple has become suddenly quiet on the subject.

However, Apple has recently announced a technical solution: Apple has reworked its latest encryption that prevents anyone but the device's owner from accessing data. It's not that Apple won't unlock the data for police, but Apple can't. In a page about "government information requests," Apple claims about the new features in iOS 8:
"On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8."
And that's good. Device encryption should be such that no one else can access your data. That's security. Unfortunately, it has taken until late 2014 for Apple to realize that.

So what's next? Last week, I was asked at an open source software event for my views on the future of free software and open source software. I responded that while the iPhone and iPad are "sexy" devices (and I have an iPad at home, which I use to watch videos and play games, but nothing of value) there will come a time with government spying that people will want to escape the "walled garden" of iOS. People will no longer want a company like Apple or Microsoft or Google to control their data; they will want to take back control of their own data and keep it safe.

That's where open source software will come to the rescue. Free software and open source software is peer reviewed. As open source software advocate Eric S. Raymond is quoted saying, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." It's highly unlikely a backdoor or other data surveillance method could escape detection in an open source software project, especially one with an active user-developer community.

Maybe the Apple canary is the start of that trend. Will people realize the importance of Apple's canary, that Apple is affected by FISA proceedings, and that user privacy is at risk? I think the user-private encryption in iOS 8 may delay the collapse of Apple's "walled garden," but I for one will no longer trust my Apple device.
photo: Majd Mohabek

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Contributing to free software

Over the weekend, the University of Minnesota Morris hosted a special event to help students learn about free and open source software. In partnership with OpenHatch, the event was titled "Open Source Comes to Campus" and provided an introduction to open source software, including a career panel, and hands-on opportunities to contribute to open source software projects.

During the afternoon workshop, I led several small groups in contributing to their first open source software projects. In my case, we helped out with FreeDOS, a project I started in 1994 to create a free version of DOS. During the afternoon, we contributed in two major ways:
With help from Emily, Josh, and Alek, we migrated old web pages into the FreeDOS Wiki. The overall project to convert old content will take weeks or months, and this workshop provided a great kick-off for our documentation clean-up efforts.

Daniel refactored the web code for the FreeDOS News page, which also feeds the news items on the FreeDOS website. Daniel made an immediate and lasting improvement to the FreeDOS website. Behind the scenes, the news code needed to be cleaned up. Daniel's fixes also allow visitors to link directly to a news item, necessary for sharing on Facebook and Twitter.
Other groups provided improvements to a free Senet board game and to a drone control system.

I am proud to have been a mentor for this event. What a great way to help students and to serve the campus! I look forward to next year's event!

Special thanks to Elena Machkasova and others in the Computer Science Club who planned this wonderful event.
Photo: Asheesh Laroia, last year's event at Morris