Thursday, March 24, 2011

iPad Thin Client Work Almost Done

The project to use an iPad as a thin client is nearly ready to push out to beta testers and the current prototype UI is below. Nice big buttons for fingers, and only showing them the bare minimum they need to quickly access their documents. Handwriting and highlighting is working great in Xournal. These solutions are not going to techies, but to employees of various computer skills. I'm hoping by next week to start getting some of their feedback.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And Now Testing A Fullscreen iPad UI

The iPad work flow that I mentioned the other day is working well. The original design was going to put documents into a 7/8ths screen mode and have a panel sitting below. The overwhelming consensus was it was far better to be able to view and markup documents in full screen mode. This gave me a lot more real estate to experiment with some designs. Please, no UI nazi comments. :) The shot below is what is being tested. Widgets and art are not final and the layout is not complete. But this clearly displays all of the documents the users have put into their MobileDocuments folder and allows them to easily copy documents that others have marked as being shared. The buttons and spacing are for fingers and a stylus. The user taps the thumbnail once and a larger preview displays, they can then edit the document or send it out via email. They can also create empty PDFs (Xournal) and OpenDocuments (OpenOffice) with just a single click. The software preselects a file name and saves it once, all they have to do is begin the construction process.

Some new art, a nicer theme and a bit of alignments and we might have something that can be pushed to some beta testers. Documents are 100% always on the server and can never be lost.

Dragon Naturally Speaking testing is going well too, and text is pasting into documents with just a few taps. Fun stuff.

Monday, March 21, 2011

iPad Testing Going Very Well

If you have been reading my blogs through the years, you know that I consider it to be our top priority to reduce waste, run computers as efficiently as possible, and save the taxpayers as much money as possible. The steps that we are taking into the area of tablet computing is not being done because it's a "toy"; it's being done because we have some inefficiencies in regard to using printers. The culture started in the 1980s and just has gotten worse each year. Each software package that we buy that is supposed to be "paperless" seems to create more print jobs than ever.

So the iPad is being reviewed in a manner to allow for more of a paperless office. One idea being kicked around is looking at only deploying them from the cost savings of reduced departmental print jobs. Reduce first, then get the device, and then maintain the reduced printing. The dollars spent on consumables for printing could easily pay for devices in the first year, and then each year thereafter would provide cost savings. The worst part of this process will be mind share, habit and desire. People WANT to hold paper, people LOVE paper. They very often have no concern about how much it costs, and how much support is absorbed by IT.

So the perspective that I am testing is not using it for a "computer", but to use it to replace the binders that are being carried to meetings. I want them to feel like they are using paper. I want the documents to be easy to find and easy to edit. I don't want them to get a full GNOME desktop and then have to click and navigate to find their documents. I also want shared documents to be available for the meeting, and easily absorbed into the users folders as a personal copy and then easily editable.

The other big issue for me is that I don't want any documents stored on the local device. Moving documents back and forth is 10+ year old design. Users tend to make islands of data, and documents are always lost. Users having to go back to their desk and dock and then copy files will not succeed, file management is always the part that they struggle with the most.

We purchased a stylus for testing from Amazon, the iPad thinks it's a finger on the glass. This allows for fewer smudges, and also allows you to write notes and highlight. It works great!

So these ideas that have been in my head are finally being tested, and feedback of the design has been very positive. It's fast, easy and removes any "techie" steps from their work flow.

On the new/beta GNOME server is a folder right on their Desktop that houses what are considered "Mobile Documents". These are documents that they wish to have available on the iPad. It's simply a staging area. It also holds documents that are created on the iPad; easily located and then moved into project folders at a later time. In the shot below, clicking on the icon displays these staged documents. All of the MIME bars that launch when they double-click on files allows them to easily add to this folder as well:

For this initial test, I'm using VNC. This replicates the functionality exactly, and we will do a full review of products when we are closer to deployment. Hopefully the NX upgrade product will be available at that time. In the meantime, for one dollar we purchased the "Remoter" application and found it to be excellent. It's got a nice interface, allows for a paste of the local clipboard (more on that later) and allows Linux applications to run very similarly to how they would if they were on the local iPad. In the shot below, the iPad is turned on and the icons appear.

Once the remoter software is touched, a nice interface comes up and shows you your available connections. I have created a Landscape connection (which gives them a full GNOME desktop), and then a Portrait connection (which gives them this document editing mode).

Selecting this option gives you good old GDM, identical functionality to the users thin clients. Note the translucent buttons that hover over the screen. These give you the ability to define how to react to your finger and touching the glass and work great! For instance, you can select to make your fingers simulate the mouse wheel. This allows you to scroll up and down through the document by sliding your fingers on the glass. You can also simulate left mouse or right mouse clicks. When you go into full screen mode, these buttons are hidden. You can go back and forth between this mode and full screen mode by touching three fingers on the glass. Very clean.

The UI appears after authentication and only shows them what they need for document processing on the tablet. The documents they have placed into $HOME/MobileDocuments appear as thumbnails on the bottom. The most recent document is always on the far left side. Touching the document once gives you the file name and file type. Touching it a second time opens it. Note the floating buttons provided by Remoter that allow you to exit fullscreen mode and bring up a keyboard. (( no UI nazis please, just testing ideas right now! :) ))

In the case of PDF files, the Xournal application is invoked and placed into full screen mode. You can beautifully see the entire page and write notes over the top and highlight. These are saved as another layer in the PDF document. Response time on the pen over VNC is fluid and very usable. Pepp cooked a nice patch for us that allows PDFs opened to default back into PDF format, no more XOJs to contend with.

When the user returns to their full desktop and GNOME session, all of these edits are in the folder and instantly available for filing. In the shot below, the document that I edited on the iPad is the same on the desktop. It never left the server; simple and elegant.

Some users have also requested a way to use Dragon Naturally Speaking. This application is free for the iPad and seems to work fairly well. In the workflow being tested, the user speaks into the software and once they are done place the "note" into the local clipboard. In the shot below I have created a simple document by speaking and am doing a copy:

I can then double-tap the HOME button on the iPad and flip back to my Linux session and use the Paste button of the Remoter application and the text is pasted into any software running on the server (including inability to spell Linux) :) . Once saved, this document is available from their MobileDocuments folder.

The coming weeks will be interesting and exciting. Hopefully some cost savings and better ideas will fall out of these designs.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Google Mail/Calendar & iPad Testing

Email and Calendaring is still being reviewed to build a list of all available options and ideas. We had our first high level conference call with Google to see their product and get their pricing. There is no silver bullet with running email in the cloud. It solves some problems and gives you new ones. One example is that our users have a large set of available ICS files available to them on our intranet. If the calendar UI is running in California, that means we have to put them on the Internet. And that also means we have to push them over our circuit upstream to appear in the UI. So there are a lot of issues like this being discussed and reviewed. More testing and meetings to come, I'm sure. Other products are being reviewed too.

As I have mentioned previously, we have some cost savings ideas in regards to using iPads to display documents and provide some remote connectivity. These savings would come in the form of reducing printing and replacing some laptops that are used in City vehicles which are higher than the 500 dollar price tag of the iPad.

We were kind of waiting for the release of NX 4, but delays in that area have required that we look at other technologies. So I enabled VNC on our new GNOME server and have started using a vnc client on the iPad to at least simulate this work flow. All of our custom screens and UI popups have been designed with 1024x768 in mind and everything is working fine. Now that I have logged into a full GNOME desktop, I'll spend some time testing the custom iPad Glade UI that I built to expedite file management and for use in meetings. I'll post a summary of that analysis in my next blog.

So the shots below are:
- Logging into GNOME, avant-window-navigator and custom MIME UI all fitting in footprint
- Opening Firefox from the GNOME session. What's interesting about running Firefox from a server is that if you are in the field with a EVDO card you will have access to a much faster 50Mb pipe inside our building. EVDO is then only used for screen repaints.
- GNOME Activity Journal running, thanks to Cando for a quick fix in trunk to allow it run correctly on the Xserver that is used by Vnc-server.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Evolution (And Groupwise) No More?

Just typing those words reminds me of the classic comic book frame from the late 1960s:

Sadly, this week one of my projects is to create a list of ideas and alternatives for moving off of Evolution and possibly Groupwise. Both of those products are under support contracts, and after many years of tugging they are perpetually staying at a grade of "B-" for enterprise users. Patches are slow in coming and require constant pinging by our staff to get them moving. And we are having problems with regressions. I think that sometimes companies remember the old days when patches and upgrades would come in 1 or 2 year cycles, and just have not adapted well to Internet time and how to turn open source software into a positive. There are people out here that would gladly download and test upgrades that come from a build service; which would eliminate the issue of regressions and running a "one of" type build as it is now. One really expects better service when paying 25K+ a year.

So I'm going to review the current status of the web interface to Groupwise (bad) and then the Java Groupwise client (worse, SLOW, leaks memory). One idea that I'm going to test is running the Java client locally on the thin client as a way to get around the fact that this software is impossible to scale and run on a multi-user server because of how badly it leaks memory.

There is a strong trend now to just farm out email and put into the cloud and be done with it. One would think that this would put email vendors on their toes and increase the quality of their products, right? In many ways I'm running out of arguments to counter this trend.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Finalizing The Beta Desktop

Lots of technology was pushed live in the last two months, a lot of my time was consumed by this process and then debugging and tuning issues. We had some very bad/odd issues with NFS4 on the Firefox server communicating with our NAS disk storage server. Under heavy loads it would lock up and suffer from slow performance. We disabled NFS4 and dropped everything back to NFS3 and it seems to be working better. I don't have the hours to debug this problem, and because NFS3 is fine for's going to just have to wait. If any of you are working on this code, feel free to find me on the IRC and I'll give you more detailed information.

I'm back on the project of deploying the GNOME desktop on OpenSuse 11.3. Everything is coming together nicely. The Avant guys are packing up a new tarball for me so that I can get the most recent panel changes. This really is one of the final parts of this project. The only other major piece of technology is waiting for NX/Nomachine 4 to be released.

We are changing the design of our desktop servers. Previously we had two servers with identical functions, both capable of running a full load of users. This was done in case of failure, the second one would always be available. In order to save money, and reduce staff load we are going to make the backup server virtual. Once a week, the primary GNOME server will replicate itself to a virtual instance: boot, and automatically change its IP addresses. There were a few reasons why this made sense for us; 1) the hardware is rarely failing and we haven't yet had an instance where we needed to run the whole City on one computer. 2) Budget and staff cuts require that we do more with less 3) Having this desktop tested and certified as running virtually will give us better disaster recovery.

So I'm testing the virtual copy of our GNOME server and it's working well. Not as fast as real hardware, but certainly fast enough as a backup.

I'm closing in on the final design of the user interfaces and so far everything is working well. The screenshot below shows the MIME UI screens running. Users can now opt out and use a more traditional approach to file management (as mentioned in a previous blog). What's interesting is that very few people did so, this functionality is pretty popular and helpful.

(screenshot shows the helper UI that comes up for pictures, PDFs and documents)

And the shot below shows all of the functionality that I have bound to hotkeys: Windows+F5 brings up Beagle. Windows + F6 brings up Activity Journal (with fresh trunk UI fixes!). Windows + F9 brings up the weather applet which has undergone some upgrades and changes. The weather applet downloads all of these maps ONCE for the whole city and they are shared. This reduces bandwidth requirements greatly.

I saw some posts that I need to re-read carefully concerning the removal of the minimize and maximize buttons. We have to be very very careful with this decision. My gut reaction is that this would have major negative feedback from our end users. We are getting dangerously close to making decisions about what technique people should use, and very often people have barely figured out *one* way to do things---it might be poor in our eyes but it works for them.