The state of Firefox OS – a report from FOSDEM

The smartphone market is currently dominated by two big systems; Android and iOS. But there are others in the run. With Microsoft struggling to get anyone to voluntarily use Windows Phone, maybe Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch and/or Firefox OS will make a difference. It’s this last one I attended a talk about at FOSDEM. So here it goes; The current state of Firefox OS, and what we can expect for the future.

What’s already there?

Except for the visual refresh and performance improvements, which are always nice, Firefox OS has gained support for MMS, dual SIM and multiple resolutions. It is now also possible to import your contacts from GMail and Outlook, there is a new lock screen, and a download manager has been added.

firefox_os_scereenshot

Also new is support for the Firefox Developer Tools, which apparently can also be used on Firefox for Android. Asynchronous pan and zoom (which is now done on the compositor thread) should also make for a smoother user experience.

And, perhaps most significant of all, there is now a 12 week release cycle. This means that for every release of Firefox with an even version number (26, 28, 30), there will be a new version of Firefox OS.

What can we expect?

Haida. That’s the name of Mozilla’s concept. Like Sailfish OS and Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS will allow the user to switch between apps by swiping from the edge of the screen. Call it Firefox OS’s Alt+Tab, if you will.
There will also be something called “RocketBar”, which is basically the Unity Dash for Ubuntu, but hopefully executed better. RocketBar will replace the Browser Awesome Bar and Adaptive App Search, and will be accessible from the home screen, with a swipe at the top of the screen, or by launching the Browser.

The browser is about to be much more tightly integrated into the system, which only makes sense seeing as Firefox OS is completely web-based.
And for those who don’t like the default home and/or lock screen of Firefox OS, I have some good news; You’ll soon be able to replace those with your own.

On a more technical note, there are also plans for some new Web APIs, like the Datastore and Shared Workers. The Datastore will provide a way for apps to expose their data (contacts, bookmarks, …) to other apps (and the RocketBar) on the device. Shared Workers are, if I remember correctly, a way to do real multi-threading in Javascript.

With Tizen seemingly out of the race, it will be interesting to see further development on these new mobile platforms. While Jolla has released its first Sailfish OS phone, which it suitable called Jolla, and there are an impressive number of zero Ubuntu Touch phones out there, Firefox OS phones can already be bought in several countries, and Mozilla are working on making them available in more countries as they go. But of course, it all depends on the carriers.

MATE to make it into Debian repositories

Fans of the MATE desktop environment, which is a fork of Gnome 2, will be happy to know that MATE is scheduled to be included in the official Debian repositories. Early 2012, it was requested that MATE be included in said repositories, and almost 2 years later, it appears we’re almost there.

Upon reading this news, I headed over to the #debian-mate channel on Freenode, where I was assured that it’s definitely going to happen. Unfortunately, I could not be given a definite time frame as to when we can expect to see MATE pop up in the official repositories, but I was assured that “it will definitely be ready for Jessie,” Jessie being the codename for the next stable “release” of Debian.

There is still work to be done, however, because currently the upstream packages are not yet fully in accordance with the Debian policy. Those who would like to keep up to date with the current status of the packing work, can use this page.

Note: Ubuntu, being based on Debian, would also get MATE into its repositories because of this.

Installing MATE on Debian

Debian users who would like to give MATE a try, and do not want to wait until it appears in the official repositories, can head over to the installation guidelines.

Linux Mint falsely accused of being “insecure”

Oliver Grawert made a pretty blunt claim on the Ubuntu Developer mailing list a couple of weeks ago, stating that Linux Mint is insecure, and that he wouldn’t deem it secure enough to do his banking. This claim appears to be mostly based on the fact that Linux Mint, by default, does not install certain updates, because they form a danger to the stability of the system.

Now let’s break this claim down, shall we?

“It might for exmaple allow security updates (which are explicitly hacked out of Linux Mint for Xorg, the kernel, Firefox, the bootloader and various other packages)
so that you dont have to go online with a vulnerable system ;)”

Where should I begin? His claim that it’s a hack seems a good place to start. In Linux Mint, there’s a text file which can be found at /usr/lib/linuxmint/mintUpdate/rules, which assigns a level to certain packages, with level 1 being updates being tested and distributed by the Linux Mint developers, and level 5 being the most dangerous kinds of updates, which are known to affect the stability of the system in some cases. Is this a hack? First of all, the levels can be found in a text file, so for a power user it would be absolutely no trouble at all to just edit that text file. But what about the average users? Well, let’s have a look at Linux Mint’s Update Manager. Let’s go to Edit -> Preferences. Poof! Does this look like a hack to anyone?

linux-mint-update

By default, level 4 and 5 packages are not installed by Linux Mint’s Update Manager. With a few clicks, though, the whole issue is suddenly non-existent. Beware the stability of your system, though.

Then there’s this claim that it withholds updates from the Linux kernel, Xorg, Firefox and the boot loader. This is partially true. Linux Mint does, by default, withhold kernel and Xorg updates. As most long-time Linux users will know by now, kernel, xorg and boot loader updates often break the system. Is a broken system better than a slightly less up-to-date system? If you’re a regular desktop users (if you’re not then this doesn’t affect you, because you shouldn’t be using Linux Mint anyway), the answer is no. The Linux kernel does, to some extent, affect security. This is of importance to companies running big servers, but to a lesser extent for the regular desktop user, because they simply don’t form a compelling enough target to spend the time exploiting a kernel vulnerability (also because Linux Mint, unlike Ubuntu, comes with a Firewall pre-installed, making the task even more difficult).

Then, Xorg. Xorg does for a big part affect the security of the system, but seeing as Xorg still can’t properly separate input being sent to different applications, I don’t think a potential hacker is going to be bothered much by the “security updates” for Xorg anyway. A seemingly innocent application could capture your bank account details as you are entering them into your web browser, and you’d never know. If attackers get to the point where they actually have access to your Xorg session, then you’re screwed anyway ,and no security fix is going to stop them anymore.

The boot loaders… Please, Oliver. Enlighten me. How does the boot loader affect security? Are we Microsoft, now? Are we soon going to develop our own implementation of “secure boot”? Because unless we are, I’m missing your point with this one.

I saved the best one for the last; Firefox. Let’s have a look at the /usr/lib/linuxmint/mintUpdate/rules file again. It clearly states Firefox is a level 2 update. Level 2 updates get installed by default. I think it’s safe to say mister Oliver was simply attempting to add some juicy fud to his claims to make them spread faster, or otherwise thoroughly uninformed about the matter.

This situation has been blown up to be a much bigger ordeal than it really is, which is partially because of news sites mindlessly copying Oliver’s claims, without conducting any research of their own into the matter. This is exactly why you should never take claims from only one source for facts.

Clement Lefebvre, the Linux Mint project founder, has since made a statement and confirmed that Oliver Grawert seems “more opinionated than knowledgeable and the press blew what he said out of proportion.”

Linux Mint 16 RC Review

Linux Mint 16 RC was released a few days ago, so a final release should be right around the corner. As someone who just rediscovered Linux Mint a few days ago (long story short; Ever since Linux Mint 11 I’ve hated it), I thought it might be a good idea to give Linux Mint 16’s release candidate a look.

In this article, I’ll be having a look at the Cinnamon edition of Linux Mint 16. There is also an image available which is using MATE as the default desktop environment. If you like yourself some nostalgia, I’d say you should give it a look. My first impression of it was “Wow! Flashback time! This is Linux Mint 10 with a new wallpaper!”, but by all means have a look at it for yourself.

Now, on to the review!

Cinnamon 2.0
Probably the most important change to Linux Mint 16 is its desktop environment. With this release, Linux Mint’s own Cinnamon has received the version number 2.0. With just over 850 commits, it packs a healthy dose of new features and bugfixes.

While other Linux distributions were busy trying simplify the user interface and adding useless features nobody’s ever going to use, Linux Mint’s focus appears to have remained on customisability. And noticeably so. When opening the Sound Settings, I was pleasantly greeted with a feature that has long since disappeared from a lot of major Linux distributions; Assigning sound effects to certain events. Is it very useful? Perhaps not. Is it a nice addition? Definitely. As stupid as it might sound, I’ve missed this feature quite a bit over the last few years.

linux-mint-settings

With Gnome’s user management module constantly getting dumbed down further to the point where you have to rely on the command line to get simple tasks done, Cinnamon’s new “Users and Groups” module is a welcome sight. It provides users with an easy to use user interface for managing users and group, while still managing to keep it simple enough as to not scare less technical users away.

linux-mint-users-groups

elementary OS Luna says Hello World

Two days ago, I wrote of a countdown appearing on the elementary OS website. Tonight, the countdown ended, and we finally got to know what it was all about. As many of us, including myself, were suspecting, we were counting down to the release of elementary OS Luna.
“Why is this special?”, you might ask. Well, as opposed to some other distributions, this single release took several years to complete, because the developers wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfection. No six month release cycle where the ISO’s have to be released no matter how unstable they are. Whenever you’d ask the elementary developers when Luna would be released, you’d always get the same answer: “When it’s ready.”
And the waiting has paid off, in my opinion.
elementary OS is an extremely polished and well-optimised experience. Rather than shipping whichever applications are the most popular at the time, instead they chose to develop their core applications themselves. As a result, they perfectly match the look and feel of the rest of the operating system, and are equally well-optimised.
For the full story on how elementary OS Luna came into existence, head over to their blog. Or if you’d rather just download the ISO and try it out for yourself, it can be found on their home page. I suggest you consider throwing a few coins their way. In my opinion it’s the only Linux distribution that has differentiated itself enough, yet without giving up its core philosophy in the process, to justify asking for money. But, by all means, judge for yourself. Because as always, it’s beautiful, speedy, open and free.

Mysterious countdown appears on elementary OS website

It would appear that either yesterday, or the day before yesterday, a mysterious countdown was added to the elementary OS website. Or rather, the whole website was replaced by a countdown. So far, I haven’t found any definite indications of what exactly we’re counting down to.

My first thought, and probably also the first thought of many other people, was “Luna is coming!” Luna being the codename for the second release of elementary OS. And while this most certainly seems plausible, it could also be a big new feature, sponsor, device…

Personally, I’m going for my first thought, and am hoping for an official release of elementary OS Luna.

Why? Well, let’s have a look at the daily builds. For a little bit over a month now, the daily build ISOs have had their unstable label replaced by DO-NOT-INSTALL. So someone tells you not to install something. What’s the first thing you do? Of course, you install it.

After playing around with it for a while, I must say I absolutely do not see why one shouldn’t do this. In fact, it looks very much like it could be a stable release ;-) It’s as polished as everything else I’ve seen from the elementary team so far.

The only answer I’ve been able to find to the DO-NOT-INSTALL mystery is that “Those are builds that contain things our developers need to test but we really want to make sure that nobody installs them since they are pretty much guaranteed not to be good installs.” This, I found on Launchpad.

Personally I do think the answer that is given on Launchpad is legit, seeing as this tag has been applied to the daily builds for more than a month now, which seems a bit much in preparation for a 3 day countdown. So, probably, the DO-NOT-INSTALL tag is unrelated. But even then, I’m clearly not the only one thinking the countdown might lead up to the release of elementary OS Luna.

Other than this, a post by the elementary folks appeared on Google+, inviting you to bear with them during the last 30 minutes of the countdown. It also speaks of a reveal and a Q&A.

So whether it’s the grand release of Luna, or it’s a new icon theme. At leats we won’t have to wait long to find out.

The countdown currently ends in 1 day and 13 hours, which, for the Europeans like myself, is a bit of a bummer. For those of you who are excited enough to stay up late, here’s an invitation from the elementary guys. Let’s just hope their site doesn’t go down under the load of everyone hitting F5 at the same time, like happened with Ubuntu’s website several times after a countdown.

Ubuntu launches second App Showdown

You might recall Ubuntu’s App Showdown last year. It was a competition for people to make apps for Ubuntu. The developer of last year’s winning application, Lightread, received a System76 laptop and Nokia 9 smartphone (which the second and third place developers also got). Back then, around a 130 applications were submitted.

Now, one year later, they’re launching the second edition of their App Showdown. This time for their mobile operating system, Ubuntu Touch. This year’s edition will run for 6 weeks, and submitted entries will be judged on five criteria; general interest, features, quality, design and promotion. The developers of the top 3 apps submitted by the end of the showdown will receive a Nexus 4 running Ubuntu Touch, and a chance to get their apps included in the stock Ubuntu Touch images.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this news leaves alarm bells ringing in my head. Let’s have a look at last year’s Ubuntu App Showdown, shall we? As I mentioned above, around a 130 apps were submitted. Canonical appear to have taken the page offline, but I still managed to find a cached copy somewhere.

Let’s start at the top of the list;

… Noticing a pattern yet? No? Let’s continue.

Need I continue? Canonical are launching a new App Showdown contest, one year after the previous one. Yet almost all of the entries from the previous edition are still Pending review, including my own submission from back then (which, admittedly, wasn’t very good).

This also leaves me to greatly doubt the review process for selecting a winner in the previous competition. Because if these submissions have all been reviewed according to the rules they put up in last year’s competition, wouldn’t this mean that they already know whether it’s suitable or not for inclusion in the Software Centre? Of course these are just my thoughts, and they can’t be proven. But personally I think it’s quite likely the review board only reviewed what they thought looked interesting, without even sparing the rest of the apps a second glance. In case any of you would like to have a look at the full list of last year’s Ubuntu App Showdown, it can be found here.

When, half a year ago, I made a statement on this on Google+, I got the following response from David Planella:

“I’m sorry to hear that, and I apologize for the delay. I’m going to reply with the same answer I’ve just provided in another comment. Rest assured that we do care about application developers in Ubuntu, and we are constantly working towards a better experience for app authors to publish their app. We are aware that we have reached the limits of the current model, and that we need to provide a more robust, secure and responsive system to publish open source apps at no cost.”

He went on to say that “For now, a change has landed in MyApps recommending open source (and at no cost) apps to either use PPAs or to charge the minimum amount for the downloads. We realize this is not the optimal approach, but will work as a compromise until all of the pieces for the new app development process are in place.”

While I respect him for at least admitting that there is a problem, and providing a temporary solution, it still doesn’t change the fact that now, half a year after that message, it appears that nothing has changed yet. Which would mean they’re still short on capacity to review submitted apps. Yet, still they are launching a new competition, which is again quite likely to get anywhere between a 100 and 200 submissions.

Now, I’ll leave you all to think of it what you wish, but as far as I’m concerned, it pretty much isn’t worth the effort of participating in this year’s competition, seeing how likely it is that your application will never see the light of day in the Software Centre anyway.

Ubuntu Unity 7 Coming Soon

Unity 7, the latest release of Unity which is currently in development, should be available for user testing via a PPA in a few days. According to Michael Hall’s blog post, it will be available there for 2 weeks, before it lands.

One of the most prominent changes in Unity 7 is the Smart Scopes service. Currently, Dash searches are processed on the local system by installed lenses. In future, Dash searches will be sent to the Canonical servers for processing by the Smart Scopes service. This service will determine which scopes are most relevant for the entered keywords, and return the search results from those scopes to the user’s system. In short terms this should mean more relevant search results and less system resources will be used.

This service will also learn over time, so as more users use it, it should become more efficient at filtering through the almost-100 scopes. So, for example, you should no longer get gay porn results from Amazon when you’re actually looking for the file manager.

Even though there will be a lot of scopes available online through the Smart Scopes service, it will still be possible for users to install third party scopes on their local machines. These local scopes will only be run when needed, and then immediately terminated.

Although there won’t be a 100 scopes to begin with, new scopes can still be added during the lifetime of the stable release.

Are they still spying on me?

According to the blog post, you should be able to choose for yourself which scopes are enabled, and which ones aren’t. Those who are still not happy with the whole idea will also be able to completely disable the Smart Scopes service. By default, however, the Smart Scopes service will be enabled (which makes perfect sense to me).

Ubuntu 13.04: how things are shaping up

Ubuntu 13.04 is the latest version of Ubuntu, scheduled to be released on the 25th of April this year. But what’s it shaping up to? In this article I’ll sum up some of the changes since the last LTS (Long Time Support) release, Ubuntu 12.04. You might wonder “Why not Ubuntu 12.10?” The answer is simple; I never used Ubuntu 12.10 after my first crashtastic experience in VirtualBox. I’m not saying Ubuntu 12.10 was a bad release, but it didn’t really work for me.

Please do keep in mind that this article is based on what can currently be seen in the latest daily builds of Ubuntu 13.04, and as such does not necessarily resemble the final product.

When I first loaded up the desktop, there were 2 things I immediately noticed.

1. Wow, that new Dash button (commonly referred to as the BFB, or Big Fat Button) looks awesome!
2. Ah, damn! What did they do to the wallpaper!

The Launcher icons have received a bit of a revamp. Apart from the Dash button having received a makeover, the gradient on normal Launcher icons has been slightly changed, as well as the workspace switcher button having gotten a new look.
The wallpaper is once again a slightly changed version of the so-called Warty Final wallpaper Ubuntu has used ever since version 10.04. Personally I liked the looks of it in Ubuntu 10.04, but I think ever since then the default wallpaper has gone downhill. Anyway, that’s just my opinion. You can judge for yourself!

Indicators
Indicators? Yes, those little thingies in the upper right corner of your screen. Some minor changes have been made to those as well.

It all still looks the same as far as I can tell, apart from your name no longer being shown. But when opening the indicator menu’s, we find some changes.

Inside the power indicator, we’ll find a few shortcuts. About This Computer takes you straight to your system information in the Gnome Control Centre, whereas Ubuntu Help brings you to the Ubuntu Desktop Guide. A handy little shortcut for new users. User switching has also been moved to the power indicator.

The messaging indicator is now able to pick up notifications from websites like Reddit (if you allowed Firefox to “install” them). This can be handy, although you still need to go to the website for it to pick up these notifications.

Files
Files, also known as Nautilus, has since long been Ubuntu’s default file manager, and so far it still is.

The dark top bar as we knew it from before has disappeared, to be replaced by the regular window background colour. You’ll also notice that there are barely any buttons left. What’s left are back, next, search, display modes, and a cog button, seperated by a bread crumb (the thing that shows you which folder you are currently looking at). The arrow icon next to the display modes button brings you more display and sorting options, whereas the Elementary style cog button brings you to a menu showing you the options that used to be available in the global menu under File and Edit. Speaking of the global menu, there’s only one actual menu left with a few options like Connect to server, Preferences, New windows and Bookmarks. One minor annoyance I’ve had with it is that I can no longer use the backspace key to go back to the previous folder.

The Dash
Now the first thing that comes to mind is probably Amazon search results! Are they still there? Ubuntu 12.04 introduced Amazon search results being displayed in the Dash This raised much controversy, mainly because of privacy concerns, but also… well… check for yourself.

The good news is that this can now easily turned off under Privacy in the System Settings. What’s not so great is that this also disables every other form of online scopes/lenses.
Apart from that everything that’s really changed seems to be the icons at the bottom of the Dash, and the legal notices in the bottom right corner. Oh, and there’s the gradient at the top of every expander in the Dash.

Software Updater
The Update Manager has been renamed to Software Updater, and now shows the name of the actual applications being updated, rather than package names and descriptions, which could be confusing to new users.

Software
Of course, the software in the repositories has been updated. At the time of writing it contains Firefox 19.0.2, Thunderbird 17.0.3, Rhythmbox 2.98 and all of the Gnome 3.6.3 stuff.
It’s also running version 3.8.0-11 of the Linux kernel.

Performance and stability
I’ve been using the daily builds for a while now, and I must say I’m pleased. I’ve had very little crashes so far, and I’m definitely noticing significant performance increases! You might not notice these performance increases on graphically less powerful systems, though, because of Unity 2D having been ditched. Overall things are running very smoothly for an alpha. For the brave souls who like to use alpha stuff, these are the 2 biggest issues I’ve had so far, and their solutions are below:
1. Where did my sound go?
–  Go to your sound settings, choose a different output device, and switch back to the correct one.
2. After the first Dash search, the system becomes very slow!
– Uninstall the music and video lenses.

In case the provided solutions don’t work, just reboot your system.

What if I want to blow off some Steam?
Need to get rid of some aggression? Don’t worry. Steam will be ready for you with some zombie shooting action when you need it. You might have a bit of a hassle on a multi-monitor setup, though. So I recommend you disable every monitor except your primary one before you try starting a game. With the experimental NVidia drivers gaming performance on Ubuntu has ever been better.

In case I forgot to mention something important, feel free to point it out to me.

Robin Jacobs

I started messing with Linux when I was around 13 years old, and have learned a lot about it ever since. Nowadays (~5 years laters), I’m hopping from one distro to another, trying out all the experimental new stuff, and developing applications for Linux (including Android). I hope to keep learning new stuff as I go.
I started messing with Linux when I was around 13 years old, and have learned a lot about it ever since. Nowadays (~5 years laters), I’m hopping from one distro to another, trying out all the experimental new stuff, and developing applications for Linux (including Android). I hope to keep learning new stuff as I go.