Terry Hancock on Free Software and Free Culture [Interview]

Advocates of Free Software aren’t made in a single night. When it comes to computers, software, and digital art, inspiration and motivation are of utmost importance. Terry Hancock, part owner of Anansi Spaceworks and Free Software Magazine columnist, was surrounded by all three growing up.

His mother and aunt were fans of science fiction. “My aunt gave me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, which was the first novel I ever read.” Hancock said. For as long as he can remember, he watched Star Trek growing up with his mother.

Terry Hancock
He contributes to Free Software Magazine.

When asked about his first memory of computers, he said, “When I was a kid, computers were still largely mythical beasts that lurked in far-away warehouses operated by mysterious experts. But my first real experience with one was about the late-1970s when my uncle visited and brought a 300 baud modem and teletype. You know, the old kind where you would actually put the telephone headset onto it. You typed into it like a typewriter, and the computer responded — all of it on paper. The computer itself was at his company’s site in Chicago.”

Text based games such as Star Trek and Adventure were enjoyed on such a system. Adventure was developed using Fortran, and is where the word “xyzzy” originated. Though both games are available as free software, they’ve been overshadowed by today’s current offerings.

It was around this time that he first encountered ASCII bitmap images.

The uncle who worked for the Chicago holding company and showed him the teletype was the one who introduced him to the concept of free software, but understanding didn’t fully materialize until later in life when he would encounter the essays of Richard Stallman.

At age 14, he would use his earnings from his job at Six Flags Over Texas to acquire a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, which would be his first. As for what he did with it, “I mostly just wrote BASIC programs on them to do fun graphics stuff and simple games.”

It certainly wouldn’t be his last system.

“Another uncle of mine introduced me to personal computers — he had a TRS-80 Model I, which actually, I later got as a hand-me-down when I went to college.” Hancock said.

He learned Z80 assembler on that machine and used Scripsit to write papers. His first exposure to Unix was also in college. “In the 1980s, I used BSD Unix on machines at the University of Texas, where I wrote data-reduction software in Fortran. I wasn’t all that knowledgeable about the computers themselves (basically I just saw them as a platform for running my Fortran software).”

His technical understanding would increase in the near future.

Towards the end of the 1990’s, he began looking for alternatives to Microsoft products. He said, “I was still using Windows 3.1 until about ’99, because I had seen Windows 95 and not liked the direction it was going: more bloat, less control for the user.”

It was around this time that complaints against the Redmond Giant for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows and for tactics with OEMs would result in an antitrust lawsuit from the Department of Justice. After a few months with Windows 95, Hancock would decide to move on.

Working at Extrasolar Research, a private research company that no longer exists, he would deal with Macintoshes and a Unix system running Solaris. GNU utilities were popular by then as well, so he installed some of them.

In 2000, he decided to install Debian 2.1 “Slink.” His interface of choice was the FVWM Window Manager, and he wrote papers using Netscape Communicator. “It was pretty clunky. On the other hand, I enjoyed using a POSIX command line again.” Hancock said. By 2002, he recovered all the capabilities he was used to having while running Windows, a technical and economic win.

Not only was Hancock an adopter of free software, he was a pioneer in using it in free media creation. Initially, he tried creating an adventure game similar to the genre of graphic adventure games from Sierra. He created the Light Princess project on SourceForge, and began recruiting artists. During his attempt, he made a startling discovery.

“I had asked around for why these kind of games didn’t exist in free software, and I got an answer along the lines of: ‘Well, they require lots of art, and artists just don’t want to release their work under free licenses.'” Hancock said.

His primary focus was to have the art resources created before recruiting programmers.Two years before the creation of the Creative Commons, he managed to find artists willing to not only create said resources, but to release them under a license that allowed for sharing with the public. Where did he find them?

On anime fan art sites.

The issue with free software programmers at the time is that they only talked to programmers. “They didn’t take the time to go find out where the artists were.” Hancock said. He found four individuals willing to contribute artistic talent to the project, and the resources would be released under the Design Science License, a copyleft license that allowed for sharing with other people.

Unfortunately, the project didn’t go far. Starting the programming process is difficult, especially with lack of programming experience. Beyond character design, a dungeon map, and some animations using Inkscape and batch scripts, things stalled and the artists lost interest.

In the meantime, Blender became available as free software in 2005. Multimedia creation in the free software realm was also improving, so the focus shifted to art only projects. He wrote the book, Achieving Impossible Things with Free Culture and Commons Based Enterprise, which explains in detail his experiences in free software and free culture.

One obstacle was still on his mind, however. “The one thing that really bothered me, though, was that I still couldn’t see any way to make it pay for itself. You need a team effort to make a film project, and that runs into the volunteer issues and the irreducible size problem that had been such a barrier for free multimedia software.” Hancock said.

Still, he managed to use what he had learned with the Light Princess Project, his observations from other projects such as the Morvena Project and Sita Sings the Blues, and combine them with his passion for space exploration.

Nina Paley and Karl Fogel of Question Copyright would have a significant influence on Hancock’s way of thinking regarding copyright, particularly with a non-copyright-driven post-release strategy. “Enforcement of copyright law is laughably erratic. No one really buys officially-licensed products because they fear enforcement. They do it, because deep down, they feel it’s the right thing to do.” Hancock said.

In other words, it was simply a matter of creating something that fans could connect with. Enforcement of laws wasn’t necessary, especially if said fans knew they were supporting the artists directly. The only question was what to create.

Both he and his wife, Rosalyn Hunter, would have an idea that would blossom into such a project.

“Rosalyn and I have attended a number of space advocacy events, and in fact we met through the “University of Texas Students for the Exploration and Development of Space” (UT-SEDS). It was at one of the National Space Society’s “International Space Development Conferences” that we first got the initial inspiration for Lunatics. There are a lot of strong and occasionally rather awkward personalities among space advocates.” Hancock said.

After overhearing a convention attendee discuss hypothetical scenarios about being trapped with someone else on a tiny spaceship all the way to Mars, the gears would begin turning. Discussing various characters and scenarios, the idea for Lunatics was born. “The name
Lunatics!” seemed fairly obvious, since it’s kind of a gag-name for Moon-colonization advocates. A central theme is that there is a certain kind of crazy that you need to have to be a pioneer.”

Animation would be inspired from various anime shows such as Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Escaflowne, and Nadesico. “Since we were watching so much anime at the time, it was easy to imagine these stories as anime series plots. And so I think I always saw them in my head as animated episodes.” Hancock said.

In 2009, production for a series format that was favorable towards the free culture business model would be possible. With the success of Elephants Dream and other Blender Open Movies, the only challenge left was putting it together for production.

Hunter would begin working on scripts while he worked on production, which would prove to be challenging for him due to lack of experience in film editing. Still, he wouldn’t have to put up with the hurdles from the movie industry itself.

“I am having to prove myself on this project. Which makes it more of an exciting challenge and a bigger deal if it succeeds, but also harder to get started. On the other hand, building a studio up from zero to do a free-culture-based production leaves us with less mental baggage from the industry.” Hancock said.

In late 2011, he raised money through a Kickstarter campaign so that he could pay Daniel Fu, a former participant of the Light Princess project, for character design. “Well-designed characters that the audience could relate to would be really critical, and I knew that wasn’t something I should be trying to do myself. Of course, Daniel did a fantastic job on this, and we raised the money to pay him for the modelsheets.” Hancock said.

In terms of distribution of Lunatics on a commercial medium, he initially considered a DVD release. With the availability of high definition, it wasn’t optimal. “Online, you can get the video for download at HD1080 resolution for free. But the DVD, which you pay for, is actually at much lower resolution. So you’re asking fans to shell out cash to buy an inferior copy of the episodes.” Hancock said.

He looked at Blu-Ray and found out that the DRM was much worse and harder to opt out of, if not impossible. Since Sony owns the standard, and the presses have proprietary contracts that require a significant royalty fee that goes towards the development of more copy restriction methods, Hancock decided to create a new standard.

Though existing software exists to recreate the interactive capabilities of a DVD and place them on an SD card or flash drive, he realized that something unique would be required. “So I thought, what we need is a distinct brand with a distinct customer expectation — just like DVD or Blu-Ray gives you, but for something based on free-software technology and media that can handle HD video and be available to low-budget film-makers.” Hancock said.

Thus Lib-Ray was born.

Aimed at independent film makers, it is an alternative container standard that uses WebKit to handle menus and MKV, currently using LibVLC, for video playback with multiple chapters. The MKV container uses the VP8 codec for video and FLAC for audio; Vorbis audio can be used as secondary audio for commentaries. Advanced Sub-Station Alpha is used for subtitles with support for the ub-Rip Text (SRT) file format.

What was sought was a standard of consistent quality. Bitrate-based metrics was insufficient. The aim was to be perfect to the human eye in a similar way in which CD audio was perfect for the ear. The standard relies on PSNR to measure quality as the aim is to be visually and audibly pleasing to those who watch and listen.

In other words, bitrates don’t always take the limits of human hearing and sight into account. As for testing the standard, it’s a work in progress.

“If there seems to be a call for it, we can establish some sort of vendor certification system in which we actually check that this quality standard is being upheld. Until then, we’ll simply have a script so that vendors can check whether they are up to spec.” Hancock said.

The plan is to make sure that each minute of video passes the 40 dB test.

The menu system utilizes HTML, but with a few caveats. Javascript is not needed for the main menu, but can be used for enhanced content from an Extras section. The user also gets the choice of whether to allow for links or resource fetches that ask for data off of the disk in the Extras section, but denied for basic playback.

Another challenge is the internationalization of the menus. No region coding is used for releases, but regions are established for the purpose of language selection. This calls for numerous subtitles and alternative audio tracks as well as menu text that’s easily translatable.

“This will be done by defining a limited technical vocabulary for disk menus, and then translating the set of text to any supported language. The player can then use simple substitution to replace menu text with translations” Hancock said.

Starting with a basic set of twelve languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rssian, German, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Indonesian/Malay), others can be added later and he hopes corrections can be made as bugs occur. He plans on having the files conform to the .po format due to familiarity on the part of translators, despite not using Gettext for the standard.

Not able to use Python and html5lib directly due to adding XML namespaces to the output, which is incompatible with the Webkit based menu, he had to get creative. “This means I’m now learning how to use Beautiful Soup for this part. Hopefully, that will solve it. The vocabulary substitution system is working already, though.” Hancock said.

All that is needed, is a programmer to create a better player.

“The design I’m working with is encapsulating the WebKit and VLC libraries, and it’s awkward, because I’m using them in ways that weren’t really intended — such as running client and server on the same machine and then sometimes violating that paradigm to make direct calls locally.” Hancock said.

Recognizing that he is way overdue on delivering on the Lib-Ray Kickstarter, he has run into the main issue that plagued him when working on the Light Princess project. “The software is indeed the bottleneck, because I’ll need it to get through the last bit of testing to make sure the releases are correct.” Hancock said. He also promised to include the software package in the releases as well.

Still, he carries on, just like free software has for many years. All of this despite being surrounded by large corporate entities.

It’s no surprise why his company is named Anansi Spaceworks.

The first part of the name was inspired by Kwaku Anansi of West African mythology. “Although smaller and less powerful than other creatures, Anansi is smart and agile and manages to succeed in a world of hulking dangers.” Hancock said. The company is a partnership between Hunter and himself.

Initially intended for production of space technology, it has changed direction numerous times. From attempting robotics and collaboration technologies (known today as open source hardware) to USGS planetary maps and education kits, things just didn’t quite go the way he expected.

“Entrepreneurship is like that: you try a lot of stuff, you fail a lot, and you hope that something you try pays off.” Hancock said.

Plugging away, and not giving up, he also said, “We’ve had a few projects that sort of broke even, but no big successes as [of] yet. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. Possibly this means I’m pathologically optimistic. But let’s hope not!”

Teamlab Office solves file formatting problems

Three weeks ago, I did an article comparing two very popular cloud based office suites that are cloud based: Office Online by Microsoft and Google Docs by Google. One of the issues that I discussed is that when switching from Google Docs to Microsoft Office, there are formatting issues. Due to Microsoft wanting to keep people locked into their Office suite, they have created a vendor lock, preventing other programs from creating quality documents for their program. This is an issue that has affected many open source products, and forces people to use Microsoft Office for their work.

Teamlab saw the problem here, and formed a solution in Teamlab Personal. For an example of their solution at work, Teamlab created a video comparing their office suite to Office Online and Google Docs by opening a heavily formatted file. The video can be seen below.

[youtube id=”0S0Op2MbLvw”]

As can be seen from the video, Teamlab does the best job at opening heavily formatted Office files. Though they are not perfect, they are constantly working to improve. Nina Gorbunova, Teamlab Office’s marketing manager, has been discussing with me the different features of Teamlab Office. When talking about Teamlab’s ability to open files so well, she said, “[This] is what we’ve been working on very hard and that’s our main technological advantage possible due to the Canvas element (this is our developers’ point of pride!)”

The Canvas element is the HTML coding that they have been working on that allows Teamlab Office to be able to display documents so well. It allows users to use Microsoft Office formatting while having the features and setup of another office program.

Teamlab is available in the Chrome Web Store here as an app, and is definitely something that you will want to look into. For more on the Chrome Web Store, and how to use it to improve your browsing experience, click here.

My First Impression with Teamlab Office

When I saw Teamlab Office for the first time, I instantly recognized how closely it resembled Open Office. Microsoft Office is well known for the tabs and tiles setup along the top of the program, whereas Google Docs and Open Office both use a button and menu setup instead. Teamlab Office is the same, using buttons along the top of the screen to format the file.

The second thing I noticed is that Teamlab tries to make everything universally accessible. They do this by adding support for four of the major cloud storage accounts: Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Onedrive. This was another shock for me, because it was not a feature I would have expected to see. However, I was immediately excited to see what else Teamlab had to offer, because I knew that this was not going to be like other cloud based office suites.

After working through my shock of the above features, I then had to deal with my excitement at seeing the number of formatting options available for files. Every one of their editors provides plenty of features to the average user. Office Online does not come close to what Teamlab has when it comes to features.

Since I am used to using the Office suite of programs, I had some difficulty orienting myself with the program. However, within a day of use I could easily find what I needed to. Google Docs and Open Office users would have no difficulty in using the program, because it is so familiarly setup.

Teamlab Office Document Editor
Teamlab Office Document Editor

Features

One of the ways Teamlab solves formatting issues is by providing users the ability to download in multiple file formats. Many office programs offer this, but neither Office Online nor Google Docs offer the ability to change a file type, other than converting it to their own proprietary file format (i.e. .docx for Word and .gdoc for Google Docs). When downloading a document for example, you have the choice of downloading it as a PDF, Text, Word Document, Open Office document, or an HTML file.

The program also comes with left and right sidebars, providing users with the ability to change settings. The left sidebar deals with changing the document settings or perform certain functions, and the right sidebar is used to change formatting settings, such as the paragraph and image settings.

One of the functions on the left sidebar is a search function, and it is very useful and simple to use. By clicking on the magnifying glass, then typing in any word or words in the box that pops up, the program highlights that word or words throughout the document. It is very useful when trying to find specific words or topics, and case sensitivity can be toggled on or off before every search.

Like Google Docs and Office Online, files can be edited on with others over the internet using the built in share function. One thing that Teamlab has that Office Online and Google Docs does not have is a chat window. This seems like an obvious feature to have when collaboratively editing a file. However, Teamlab is the first that I have seen to implement this feature into a cloud based office program.

Like other office suites, Teamlab has menus for formatting different elements of files. However, like the new Open Office, these features are placed in a sidebar on the side of the screen.  Clicking on one of the icons opens up a window docked into the side of the program showing formatting options.

The options available, I believe, are more numerous than either Office Online and Google Docs. Using the program, I am constantly reminded of Open Office, though Teamlab Personal is cleaner and online oriented, since it is a cloud based office suite.

Teamlab Office Spreadsheet Editor
Teamlab Office Spreadsheet Editor

Problems I had with the program

Since I first learned how to use an office suite as a child, I have used Microsoft Office for everything I do. I do prefer the setup of Microsoft Office, so for that reason I prefer Office Online. However, I do realize that Office Online is very limited in what it can do, and that the paid version is expensive at $100 a year, especially when the competition offers their programs for free.

Thus, I have used both Office Online and Google Docs up to now, depending on my needs. However, I am quickly starting to resent the limitations posed on me by Microsoft through their simple cloud based office suite. Thus, Teamlab is a solution I will consider using to solve my formatting issues, since they have a full team of developers working on the software. However, I do prefer the setup of Microsoft Office, since it is what I am used to.

Another issue I have with Teamlab is a lack of offline support. Google Docs offers offline support, which is one reason why I have been using them more often, because Office Online does not offer offline support either. Deciding between Teamlab and Google Docs will be tough, because they both offer strong reasons to be the preferred office suite. Teamlab has many features, and works better across platforms and solves formatting issues, whereas Google Docs provides offline usage, and is built into Chromebooks.

Teamlab Office Presentation Editor
Teamlab Office Presentation Editor

Conclusion

Though I do not currently use Open Office, I have used it in the past, and Teamlab seems to be the online version of Open Office. This is something that consistent Open Office users would have to determine, but my experience with both programs has convinced me of this. Whether or not this is what Teamlab wanted, I do not know.

However, I believe that the similarities to Open Office are a good thing, because Open Office users have yet to find a online office program that is similar enough to make a switch. Google Docs was similar, but it still does not offer the experience that Open Office users are looking for like Teamlab does. For an example of how Teamlab works when using it, here is a demo video showing the different formatting options in Teamlab Office’s Document Editor.

[youtube id=”B293u4Vm6yI”]

Despite the number of features available, Microsoft Office users may find the switch more difficult, because the setup is very different from the tiles and tabs that Microsoft has taught us to enjoy. However, the features and cloud integration far outshine Office Online, and makes a convincing case to switch.

Google Docs users could switch much easier, since Teamlab is also fairly similar to Google Docs. However, the lack of offline use could hold many Google Docs users back, that is a sacrifice some could make.

In addition, if losing Open Office was holding you back from getting a Chromebook, take a look at Teamlab Personal and decide if you can make the switch with this office suite available.

Chromebooks to go offline as Intel moves inside

Intel has finally joined the Chrome OS bandwagon ensuring it won’t become obsolete in the post PC (Windows) era. The two companies hosted a joint press event on May 6 where they announced quite a lot of Chromebooks powered by Intel chips. Intel enjoyed a monopolistic position during the Windows era and the partnership between Intel and Windows was known as Wintel, which unfortunately was bad for the industry as it led to some anti-competitive business practices that heavily damaged (and almost destroyed) AMD.

While Microsoft is trying to figure out how to survive in the post-PC era, Google is quietly taking over the PC market. More and more Microsoft partners are adopting Google’s Linux-powered Chrome OS as the Windows maker is failing to deliver what the market needs. Today almost all Microsoft hardware partners – from HP to Lenovo – are offering Chromebooks.

Bye bye Wintel, here comes Gootel

Intel obviously doesn’t want to be in the same boat with Microsoft; the company has already lost the mobile space to ARM and is working hard to somehow get some share of the market. Intel would certainly won’t want to lose the fast-growing Chrome OS market.

The fact remains Chrome OS market always was Intel’s. Even if Intel never officially committed or invested in Chrome OS, it has been powering these devices from the very first day – since CR 48. Every Chromebook sold was an Intel chip sold, until Samsung came out with ARM-powered Chromebooks. HP followed and launched its own ARM-powered Chromebook. These Chromebooks had obvious advantage over Intel-powered devices as they offered longer battery life and less heat.

I think Intel was waiting and watching whether Chromebooks will succeed or not before investing in the platform. The way Chromebooks remained the #1 best selling devices on Amazon.com for the last two years was enough reason for the industry to take note of it.

Intel made the move to secure its position in the Chrome OS space before more ARM devices started floating around. But does it change anything? Intel made similar ‘partnership’ for Android, but we still don’t see any presence of Intel in the Android space.

Going Offline

Since the two companies also announced that more and more Chrome OS features will go offline including movies and games, these devices will become the #1 threat to Windows PC. That would mean people will start doing a lot of resource-hungry stuff such as image and video editing which would need more powerful and power-efficient processors.

“As users do more with Chrome, they’ll expect more from the hardware that surrounds it,” said Google VP Caesar Sengupta.

There are a lot of GNU/Linux users who are buying these devices to wipe Chrome OS and install their favourite operating system on them. There OSes are not as conservative as Chrome OS.

Intel needs to create powerful, energy-efficient chips

There are two pressing issues with Intel-powered Chromebooks, same issue that’s there with mobile devices – balance between power and battery life. Ironically while Android devices are getting more and more powerful CPU, GPU, longer battery life and crisper screen the trend in Chromebooks is opposite. Most Chromebooks are using low-end processors, don’t have a decent battery life and displays are reminiscent of Windows era.

If Intel really wants to capture the Chromebook space, it should tweak its tick-tick cycle and create chips which are faster and eat less battery so we can have higher resolution displays; Intel is doing exactly that. The company recently announced Braswell chips targeted at Chromebooks which use 14mm process technologies.

Who do you think will dominate the Chrome OS space – Intel or ARM?

Death of net neutrality: Is Mozilla barking up the wrong tree?

Net Neutrality has been quite the conversation during the last several months. Without the free flow of information, the topology of the entire Internet would be defeated in its entirety. So when Mozilla recently proposed that the FCC categorize remote delivery services as telecommunications services, I personally sympathized with the members of the well known non-profit.

After all, I don’t care for the idea of ISP’s messing with the topology of the Internet.

They even have a wiki page set up. I am all for the idea of having access to information without being impeded by large corporations. However, I take issue with the reliance on agencies of the Federal Government of the United States in order to achieve true Net Neutrality. For starters, I have already pointed out that these are the same entities that turned a blind eye to NSA wiretapping and spying.

The EFF responded to an inquiry to that same piece regarding a court ruling on the FCC treating ISP’s as telephone carriers. Here it is again to act as a reminder of where the real problem may actually lie:

EFF is not surprised at the court’s decision. There was much of value in the FCC’s Open Internet Principles, and we still think those principles are a good starting point for conversation. But we were deeply concerned that the FCC was attempting to claim broad authority to regulate the Internet. No government agency should have that authority, so we are glad this decision clarifies that. As we look towards the future, Internet users need to have a pragmatic and open discussion about ways to promote and defend a neutral Internet. In the meantime, ISPs must comply with their transparency obligations so that customers can see if their Internet providers are giving them the non-discriminatory service they expect and deserve.

So when Mozilla sent its proposal to the FCC, they may very well have been barking up the wrong tree. If they really want to rely on anyone from the Federal Government for help regarding Net Neutrality, then they should go to the legislative branch instead of an agency; Congress and the Senate in other words.

So if going to the FCC and possibly other entities and politicians within the government isn’t the solution, what is? This piece from Ars Technica regarding Level 3’s accusations of ISP’s dropping packets on purpose may give us a clue. According to Mark Taylor of Level 3, in which Ars quoted:

Five of those congested peers are in the United States and one is in Europe. There are none in any other part of the world. All six are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market. In countries or markets where consumers have multiple Broadband choices (like the UK) there are no congested peers.

So in other words, without a proper amount of competition, double dipping on content providers and customers is going to happen. That is why Netflix has paid money to Comcast in order to have better access to their subscribers. Techdirt has referenced work from Tim Berners Lee that points towards more competition as the solution.

Mike Masnick of that publication also argues in favor of more broadband competition, and just what are the likes of AT&T doing again? Just trying to prevent it, hence this petition from SumOfUs. So what is the real solution again?

First, fighting back against companies like AT&T by demanding more transparency from them in regards to lobbying against allowing grass roots broadband providers from existing. The next step is to get involved at the local level and figure out how set up a city wide broadband network.

After all, when Google Fiber came to Kansas City, other ISP’s started offering higher speeds. Competition does wonders in terms of quality of service. When competition exists, bad behavior can be punished by going to a different provider. Such a thing can’t happen if monopolies exist, and if that’s the case, the government is the only alternative; a dangerous proposition indeed.

So in other words, look into the mirror. You are the solution, not the FCC.

What’s the best PDF viewer for Chromebook?

Chrome and Chrome OS (the operating system running on Chromebooks) both come with a built in PDF viewer provided by Google. However, it is very simple, and does not allow you to edit documents. If you are on Windows or Mac, there are other PDF viewers and editors you can use, but on Chromebooks you have to search the Chrome Web Store for one (click here for my article on using the Chrome Web Store to enhance your Chrome browser).

Just like the more popular and widely used Adobe Reader, the Chrome Web Store offers PDF viewing programs that allow users to view and edit PDF documents. I looked at different PDF programs on my Chromebook from the Chrome Web Store, and have picked out a clear winner.

The Winner: Notable PDF

Notable PDF provides the best all in one solution as a free PDF viewer for Chromebooks. It gives users the ability to not only view their PDF files, but to also edit them. In addition, using the Share function allows users to edit the PDF in real time with coworkers. In addition, this PDF viewer works offline and integrates into Google Drive.

When viewing the program, the tools are simple and easy to find. A bar at the top of the screen allows users to search the document, zoom in or out, access the Share function, print or download the file, and other options.

The editing functions include a highlighter, the ability to add comment bubbles, and select text to copy. Using these tools in conjunction with the Share function is very useful, because every user sees any changes to the document on their own version right after they are made. For instance, when I added a comment to the page, it showed up on another version of the document I had open.

The Runner Up: PDF Viewer

As the name implies, PDF Viewer is mostly just a viewer, because it does not have many tools to edit the document. There is not a highlighter, but you can make comment bubbles on the document, and this one has a share function too. It also works offline, and integrates with Google Drive. The main difference is the absence of the highlighter, and a couple smaller functions are also missing. However, if for some reason you dislike Notable PDF, this will be your next choice.

Best Paid PDF viewer: PDF Buddy

If you are willing to pay for a PDF viewer, then definitely go with with PDF Buddy. When paying for this PDF viewer, not only do you get the same functions as Notable PDF, you also are able to do much more editing, sign the document electronically, and it comes with 25 GB of cloud storage. The tools available for this service far outnumber Notable PDF. However, this program does not support offline usage.

The reason why it is not my winner is because it is a subscription service, costing $7.99 a month. Alternatively, you can get a free account, giving you 1 GB of cloud storage, and the ability to edit three PDFs a month. To edit more PDFs on the free plan, you can purchase credits, each PDF costing one PDF. If you are willing to pay the monthly fee or for the credits, this is the best PDF viewer and editor, otherwise it is best to use one of the PDF viewers above.

Honorable Mention: PDFzen

PDFzen is another great free PDF viewer and editor for Chrome, but it lacks one major function that Notable PDF had: the Share function. If that is something important to you, then Notable PDF is your first choice. However, if you would not use this function, then PDFzen might still fill your needs.

In addition the Share function, PDFzen does have fewer tools than Notable PDF, such as being able to rotate the page, and a presentation view of the PDF. However, PDFzen does have a free hand drawing tool, which Notable PDF does not have. In addition, PDFzen is in beta still, so expect its’ functions and tools to grow over time.
Continue the conversation in the comments below by picking which is your favorite PDF viewer for Chrome and why. Or, if you use a different one that was not mentioned above, mention it in the comments too!

Mobile Broadband: What are the Challenges?

When I had normal access to cable Internet, I had taken it for granted. Since moving to a more rural area, I have not had a chance to set up high-speed Internet. My mainstay for access?

Mobile broadband through my mobile provider.

T-Mobile's Mobile Hotspot
Depending on the phone plan, T-Mobile lets users activate a mobile hotspot for broadband access.

T-Mobile is my provider, and one of the selling points of their current monthly plans is mobile hotspot access.  While many things can be done via smartphone, there are some things that require a keyboard and a mouse/touchpad.

It’s how I’ve been able to write for this website and why I invested in a WiFi-only model of the Samsung Chromebook.

What can I do via mobile broadband? Just about anything, including some online games (so long as I’m not on for too long). Social networking, web surfing, blogging, and more are accessible virtually anywhere.

What about the challenges?

The rural area that I live in only has edge network speeds, and data access is not consistent, so even web surfing is iffy at best.  Where I work, there’s 4G access, but there’s a few small problems that can make things a royal pain.

For starters, let’s say that a major storm hits. Since my provider is T-Mobile, if one of their towers gets hit, I won’t have service for several hours. Every other network has a better chance of staying up.

Another issue that could be problematic depending on how often I’m online is the fact that each plan has a cap for mobile hotspot. On my current plan, I have 2.5 GB of access to mobile broadband.

It’s ideal for most things, but online gaming and VOIP sessions would eat away at that cap in a matter of hours.

Then there’s the issue of interference. When I was working on a piece regarding the FCC’s proposed rules that would affect Net Neutrality on my lunch break, everybody else decided to use all three microwaves in the break room at the same time.

Microwaves
The one thing that kills a WiFi signal in a split second: multiple microwaves running at once!

Goodbye WiFi signal, hello anger, frustration, and choice expletives.

As I already alluded to, depending on coverage areas, mobile broadband may not be ideal for an individual. One thing’s for certain: I appreciate having a home-based ISP, even if it turns out to be DSL in the future.

Unlocking Chromebooks will soon get simpler

Due to Google being the creator of both Android and Chrome OS, they have begun to experiment with these operating systems, combining them to create unique features, like how Apple does with their iOS devices and Mac OS X line of computers. Previously, Muktware mentioned Google working on alternative methods for unlocking Chromebooks, but the Android Police discovered one such development in the works on Chromebooks running the Dev channel. (The Dev channel is Google’s early release channel, through which Chromebook users can get new features earlier but are unstable, so sometimes cause problems).

With this new feature enabled on a paired Chromebook and Android smartphone, the Chromebook will unlock when the Android smartphone is near. This feature, currently called Easy Unlock, will give users instant access to their Chromebook, and still offer them security if the device is accessed when they are not present.

Screenshot of the setup wizard for the Easy Unlock setting
Screenshot of the setup wizard for the Easy Unlock setting

The Android Police tried to test this feature by setting up the connection, and they easily moved through the first two pages of the setup wizard on the Chromebook. However, the setup currently hangs at the screen where the Android device is to be paired. Either Google must release an Android app to provide this function, or include the feature in the next version of Android. For now, this is still a feature to be looked forward to and that a majority of users will find use in.

Google I/O will most likely reveal more on this feature and mark the release of it to the masses of Chromebook and Android users. According to rumors about Google I/O, Chromebooks in general will be one of Google’s main focuses at the event, and their plans for Chrome OS’ future.

Rumors have been churning about tablets running Chrome OS, and more unique devices such as Lenovo’s Yoga Chromebook which will be the first convertible Chromebook. Google I/O will definitely be an event to watch this year, especially on the topic of Chromebooks and Google’s Chrome OS.

Source: Android Police

Why would I buy a Chromebook?

There is a question that hangs around the topic of Chromebooks that is yet to be truly answered: Why would I buy a Chromebook? Chromebooks are becoming more popular every day, and people are beginning to use them as their main computer. However, there are still limitations to using a Chromebook. One such limitation is lack of support for Unity, a major game engine that is the backbone of many popular games. Without Unity support, many games can not be played on Chromebooks right now. That is just one limitation out of many, which are causing people to hesitate purchasing Chromebooks. Thus the question, that with all of these limitations, why would I buy a Chromebook?

In addition, Android tablets do support these games, and have far fewer limitations than Chromebooks, so why not just buy an Android tablet at the same or lower price? Right now, Chromebooks are in a tough spot, trying to combine the simplicity of a tablet and the power of a computer, but being a new device, it is difficult to gain support. Teaching the market about Chromebooks has been difficult, and most people are still unconvinced about how useful a Chromebook can be. Despite their limitations, Chromebooks are still powerful machines, and there are reasons why someone would consider purchasing one.

Simple to Use

Honestly, Chromebooks make iPads look like complicated machinery. Anyone who knows how to work a keyboard and trackpad/mouse can use a Chromebook. The learning curve is just learning Google’s Chrome browser if you have never used it. That means that if someone has used a PC, they could figure out how to use a Chromebook over the course of a day or two.

Powerful

A year ago, you probably would not be able to say that Chromebooks were powerful. However, with Chromebooks now running Intel’s Bay Trail Celeron chips, and Samsung’s Chromebook 2 scheduled to be released in a month with their Exynos 5 Octa chip, Chromebooks can now be called powerful. For instance, using HP’s Chromebook 14 with the Intel Celeron processor is a breeze, and I have yet to experience any difficulties with using it. In fact, it keeps up with my Windows desktop, which has Intel’s Core i3 processor. The reason why Chromebooks do not need those high end processors is because Chrome OS, the operating system on a Chromebook, is just a browser. Browsers do not need a ton of resources, unlike Windows, which needs a those resources in order to run smoothly.

Long Life

The first Chromebooks had terrible battey life, ranging from three to five hours. However, more recent Chromebooks have been getting much better battery life, ranging from six to nine hours. This is better than any budget Windows laptop, which usually have three to five hours of battery life like the first Chromebooks. In addition to long battery life, Chromebooks have a better life expectancy than PCs do. Every couple of years, Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, and they expect PC owners to upgrade their PCs to the new operating system. However, this upgrade usually costs over $100. In addition, when upgrading to the new version, there is no guarantee that it will work on the computer, or that all of your programs will transfer over. Instead, Google’s Chrome OS updates are free, and are done in the background. This way, every Chromebook is up to date on all of Chrome OS’s new features and fixes.

Cost Effective

When I tell people that my HP Chromebook only costs $349, they are shocked. In addition, that is high end for a Chromebook, because most of them cost between $200 and $300. Their power, simplicity, and long battery life is better than most of the competition, at those price points.

Acer's $200 Chromebook
Acer’s $199 Chromebook

What can I do on a Chromebook?

People like the idea of tablets, a simple device that can be used to play simple games and do simple browsing. Chromebooks can do those things, and many of the tasks that a PC can do. Chromebooks are great for browsing the web, since they are built around the Chrome browser, which is the most popular browser across devices. They also offer the thousands of games available online, games that were created for computers. In addition, the Chrome Web Store offers thousands of apps and games that can be installed on Chromebooks to enhance their productivity. The Chrome Web Store holds a surprising number of programs that can be used on Chromebooks to replace the program that you used on your PC. Here are some examples of programs that have comparable alternatives in the Chrome Web Store.

Photoshop

Many people still believe that there is nothing that can compare to Adobe’s Photoshop image editor. However, if you search Google for “image editor,” Photoshop is not the first one to show up. In fact, Photoshop does not show up on Google until page three, after going through ten different free image editing programs. The first image editor to come up is my favorite: Pixlr. Pixlr has been covered before on Muktware, so I will not say much, other than it does everything I need it to do. It is a simple program, yet offers all of the tools I need in order to style a picture however I need to. It may not be as powerful as Photoshop, but majority of users do not need that many tools, just an editor that has the ability to crop and re-size photos, and do some styling with them.

Screenshot of the Pixlr Editor in action.
Screenshot of the Pixlr Editor in action.

Microsoft Office

Actually, this one is simple, because Microsoft has a free, online version of their Office suite, called Office Online. Google also has there own office suite called Google Docs. Both are great office productivity suites, and meet all of your basic needs. Again, majority of users do not need a full featured office software, just a simple document writer, spreadsheets program, and presentation creator. I have compared these two office suites in a past article, so read my article to get a full understanding of what these services both offer.

Screenshot of the Google Docs document writer app
Screenshot of the Google Docs document writer app

Visual Studio or VIM/emacs

If you are a developer, you need a program that you can write code in, such as an IDE or text editor. Office programs will add formatting to your work, so those will not work, but there are text editors and IDEs available for Chromebooks.

The text editor that I prefer using is Text. It is a simple text editor, and works offline. There are other text editors on the Web Store, along with VIM and emacs editors, if those are what you prefer to work with.

If you need an IDE, these are a few available for Chrome that I like to use.
-Codenvy IDE is my favorite, because it is simple to use and is free.
-Cloud 9 is my second favorite, because it is more polished, but only the basic version is free. The premium version costs $19 per month.
-Codeanywhere is extremely simple, and not as polished, but is free to use.
There are many other options on the Chrome Web Store, it is just a matter of finding the one that works best for you.

Extras

In addition to the popular programs above, these are other programs available for Chromebooks that most people do not realize are on the Chrome Web Store.

  • Chrome Remote Desktop allows users to view other PCs or Macs that are running Google Chrome.
  • Kindle Cloud Reader allows you to read all of your Kindle eBooks on a Chromebook.
  • Desmos is a great graphing calculator, though it only works online, and Scientific Calculator is a great calculator, and it works offline.
  • Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Google Play Movies all work on Chromebooks.

 

Between the many different aspects of a Chromebook, and the different apps available from the Chrome Web Store, it become clear why a Chromebook could become a primary computer. Many people have come to realize the things that I mentioned above, which is why Chromebooks are becoming more popular all the time. However, there is one more reason why you should consider a Chromebook: Google’s Chromecast streaming stick. The Chromecast is a little bigger than a USB drive, and plugs into the HDMI port of an HD television. This stick has the ability to stream Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Pandora, all of your Google Play movies and TV shows, and can stream the content from a Chrome browser on any computer. As the name implies, this small streaming stick was designed with Chromebooks and the Chrome browser in mind, and that becomes even more relevant when viewing the dozens of apps available on the Chrome Web Store and the Chromecast. Pairing a Chromebook and Chromecast creates an awesome center for entertainment. In addition, developers can create content and programming for each device, opening up a world of possibilities in the future.

Over the next year, support for Chromebooks will grow, and as a result the features and abilities of Chromebooks will increase. Thus, I believe that the best time to purchase a Chromebook is now, since we should expect them to rival PCs and tablets within the next year.

Moto G rugged variant is set to ship

As many of you may know, Motorola hit home with the Moto G here in United States. Now, a leaked image showing the Moto G ‘Forte’, what appears to be a ruggedized version of the original phone, has been revealed.

This leak comes from the popular tipper in Spain, @evleaks. He posted a leaked picture of the alleged new phone on his twitter channel, and said that it was soon to be released in Latin America. An english translation of his post was this, “Motorola Moto G Forte will arrive in Latin America with improved durability”. Unfortunately, the post did not touch on any technical details, price, or when the Moto G ‘Forte’ would actually be released. Also, we still don’t even know if this phone would be available here in the states. As of now, it is only set to be released in Latin America. Still, we can probably anticipate it coming here too, if it’s successful that is..

Delving into the details we do know about, the picture he released, –See Above– shows that the the phone seems to have a thicker profile the the original Moto G. In addition to this, we also have word that the physical buttons are being improved upon as well. The phone is said to be both waterproof, dustproof, and is presumed to launch with a tougher screen. Notably the original Moto G also had a nano-coating of water resistant material even before the leak of the Moto G ‘Forte’, so the phone being waterproof has already been in the works.

Also, Motorola jumped onto the wearable band wagon last month too, so, it is possible, (though not confirmed), that the ‘Forte’ could come with a Ruggedized smartwatch as well.

In conclusion, things seem to be looking good for the release of the new phone, and, whether it be released in the US or not, it is sure to shake up the smartphone market once again.

What to expect in Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

Every two years a Long Term Support (LTS) release of Ubuntu is made available to the public. Every LTS is supported for 5 years by Canonical. This year is the year of LTS release and its just 1 month away. Canonical will be keen to keep up the stability of LTS release like it has done in the past. Lets have a quick look at what can we expect from this year’s LTS release.

Appearance and Theme Improvements: Anti Aliasing and Smaller launcher icons

The introduction of GTK3 CSS-themed window decorations for Unity 7 has brought  antialiased corners to all windows. This means that the generated images by compiz i.e. window corners will have a smoother image. Launcher icons can now be reduced to 16 px.

ubuntu_trusty_iconsize

Refined spread mode

  • The newly-updated Unity 7.x retains only active icons in spread mode, keeping on the active icon in focus; for example, opening a folder with Nautilus and opening another folder with Nautilus, retains as active icon on the Unity launcher the Nautilus’ icon, while dimming out all icons on the Unity launcher except the Ubuntu logo.
  • When all windows are open in spread mode, you can type the name(window title) of the open window to pick the window of your choice

unity_trusty_spread

Smoother Window Resizing

Open Windows can be resized smoothly . A video has been added to demonstrate the change along with the locally integrated menus.