On top of Tasktop

My post about tracking time attracted the attention of Tasktop. While this had been mentioned to me before, I was mistakenly under the impression that this was a windows only app.

I was pleased to find out that this was also available for linux. Great… Lets try it out.

First stumbling block is the requirement to register on the website before I can download a trial. I am a firm believer of try before you buy. I should be able to register but it should be entirely my choice.

I am more comfortable with registering before buying or for the use of a free piece of software. However, registering for a trial always irritates me. This was also the case when I wanted to trial InDesign / Illustrator the other day.

After registering, there was the irritating wait for the email to arrive. Now, this is irritating. When I want something, I want it NOW. I hate waiting. Adobe did not make me wait for the confirmation email of registration before downloading the trials. There are two good reasons as to why this irritates me.

  1. Email, as reliable as it is generally, can take time. In theory, this can be anywhere from a few seconds to hours. How about if my mail server is currently down. Or even more importantly, what if I have shut down my mail client so that it does not keep distracting me from something that I am trying to do. Opening up my mail client, I now want to find out about the other emails that are in my inbox and whether any of them require an action…
  2. I have reluctantly provided details about myself. Confirming my email address before I am allowed to download a trial suggests that Tasktop does not trust me enough to just let me download the trial. The software has started off on the wrong foot. How much of an issue is it really if someone gave the wrong details before downloading a trial. Is it really that important that you are able to keep bugging them via email to buy the product?

I was curious enough to jump through the hoops to download the product. The first thing I noticed is that there is no 64bit for Linux :-(. More steps involved in installing this on my 64bit machine. So instead, I installed it one of my 32bit machines – save time.

Once the download completed, the steps on the website suggested that I needed to configure it (with ./configureTasktop.sh) and then run Tasktop. The configuration step required no input from the user and outputted nothing. I have to ask:

  1. Why is the configuration step not integrated into Tasktop and configured to run once? Alternatively,
  2. Why does the configuration step, not start Tasktop right after.
  3. Even better: Make Tasktop a symlink to configureTasktop.sh, which then relinks that to the Tasktop Binary with the configureTasktop running Tasktop right after. This means that from the users perspective, they are always running the same command, and you save any cost associated with run once checks.

I finally got Tasktop to run and it asks me if I want to install the firefox addon to integrate with Tasktop. I want to see how it integrates, so I do. Of course, this is yet another step.

A restart later, I was ready to try out Tasktop – or was I? We use bugzilla to track tasks and I wanted to integrate that in similar to how I do it in Eclipse. This was also trickier than I expected.

I went into the partner connectors section which did not cover bugzilla, which I assumed meant that it came with Bugzilla integration by default. This is true but how the hell do I get there to configure it. It took me a little while to find the configuration section (there are no menus). Once I was there, I wanted to get back to the original layout which was tricky since the “close configuration” button was nicely hidden away up at the top right.

Once I had this working, I tried out the active/deactive mechanisms and this works just the same as in Eclipse. Except with the Firefox plugin, it adds in the links that you browse as part of your context – GREAT!

Add in a task to blog about it and went through writing half the document, then decided to de-activate it before I started working on something else. All the firefox tabs were closed – again, great…

The problem is that when you re-activate the context, it just clears the tabs in firefox and shows you the links you last had open. The page titles for the pages that I had open were the same for a few, so going through them trial and error to get to the blog post was tricky. More importantly, the cookie was already gone and I had to re-login. This might be a timeout issue with WordPress so wont tag that against Tasktop.

I haven’t tried linking folders / files yet but considering that with the above process taking me more time than I expected due to the sheer number of steps involved, I shall have to leave that to another day. In all honesty, it might never happen.

I do like the time logging feature of Tasktop as it tells me which tasks I spent my time on in different chart formats. This is great. However, I have a problem in that this is on an individual basis. I see nothing on here about how a team leader can link in Tasktop used by the team to calculate total time spent on a project / task. This is a necessary feature for a tool like this in the team environment.

It is possible that all of this is easier in a windows environment. Possibly because it was built on there, but more likely because Windows users are used to taking several steps to achieve something (what is it – 7 clicks to delete a file in Vista?)

Having ranted on for a while, dont get me wrong. I think that Tasktop is a fantastic concept and with a bunch of tweaking can be a very intuitive tool to use. However, at the stage that it is in, it does not do what I need it to do. It is actually more obtrusive than useful (e.g. by removing all my tabs from firefox when switching out of a context and not re-instating them on going back to the context).

Then, it is probably just because I simply expect too much… 😦

Eclipse TPTP on Ubuntu (64bit)

I run ubuntu 64 bit (technically, I run an ubuntu 64bit vserver which I access from ubuntu 32 bit but thats not really relevant).

In the open source world, I expect that all things which are accessible as 32bit are also accessible and 64bit and ubuntu makes it automagic enough that everything just works. Yes, I run into problems with closed source software like Flash Player (recently resolved with flash player 10) and the Java Plugin but that is another story. I use Eclipse and wanted to do some performance analysis and benchmarking to find a bottleneck and installed the TPTP plugin; and ran into a problem. It just didn’t work.

To resolve it, I turned to google… In this instance, it turned out to be a distraction and a red-herring. It lead me in the direction of installing libstdc++2.10-glibc2.2_2.95.4-27_i386.deb which was difficult at best since there was only a 32bit version of the package and that wasn’t even in the standard repository.

In the end, digging deeper, I found that it simply missed the following shared object libstdc++.so.5.

All I had to do was install libstdc++5:

sudo aptitude install libstdc++5

and it worked… 😀

Now, I think that ACServer which Eclipse uses to do TPTP should not link to an outdated library but that is another issue…

Breaking Software Down

Jeff Atwood likens software development to tending a garden. I can relate to this. In fact, I would like to ask, if you have a nice plant in one of your gardens, how complicated is it to “copy” that across to another one?

I realise that I am moving away from the analogy here but there is an important concept here. Libraries were born out of the desire to share and distribute code to be re-used.

The idea for Remote Procedure Calls dates as far back as 1976. Microsoft brought along OLE and then COM made this more generic and better.

RPC is widely in use these days and there are several other mechanisms for inter process communication including CORBA, REST & SOAP.

I don’t think software is broken down into small enough components. *nix is great in that you can tag a whole bunch of commands together on the command line to do some amazing things. I have personally piped data through a dozen or so commands and scripts to do some interesting things.

If we could break everything down into individual components that could be linked together, we would have a massive arsenal of interoporable tools that each user can pick and choose to put together very powerful solutions.

How many times have you found a piece of software that does one thing really well, but fails in something else. Then found another piece of software that does the other thing really well.

For example, the extensibility of Firefox is fantastic but I love the rendering of Safari. I love the Contact Management within Evolution and the Mail capabilities of Thunderbird.

Why don’t we break each software down into each of it’s individual components (and I am not talking about libraries here) and allow them to be deployed as services usable by other pieces of software.

In other words, release the contact management capabilities of Evolution as a product of it’s own right with a pre-defined API that any application can link into (including perhaps a web interface). Release the Mail management component of Thunderbird as a service, Release GUI’s as a component. Then we can pick any GUI we want, link into a specific mail component and another addressbook component.

Do one thing and do it well. In fact, let’s take it one step further and release a public API for each software component – an API for Mail, one for Contact Management and so on.

Each software component can then be a black box that delivers this API.

Choice can be a bad thing if it makes it difficult to choose – Subclipse vs Subversive is a good example of this. Let us however, not confuse choice with flexibility.

Let’s say that you want to find all the files within a folder modified within the last 3 days containing the text “abracadabra” and then replace all occurences in those files of the world “super”  with “hyper”.

To do this in linux, all you would do is chain find (to identify files modified in the last 3 days), grep (to identify only the files that contain “abracadabra”) and sed (to do the replacement).

If you know these commands well enough, you could chain something together in half a minute or so. You could probably figure out how to do this with the search tools in Windows within a minute or so but where this really shines is if there are thousands of files that needs to be processed. With other search tools, you would have to wait for the original search results to be returned before running to replace operation. This takes up the users time.

With the chaining of commands, I have run it and worked on something else while it completes.

Let me visualise a brave new world:

In this world, all software would be interoperable components. For example, there would be components for:

  • Mail account management (Perhaps genericised into configuration management)
  • Text composition (usage for mail, documents, plain text et al)
  • Text reading (again, usable for mail, documents, plain text et al)
  • Spam Filtering (already available to some extent)
  • Contact Management (optionally linked into organisation’s LDAP server)
  • Task Management (Standalone Mylyn if you know the product)
  • Scheduling (or calendering if you prefer that term)

If all of these components were interoperable, then there would a GUI that is generic and could bring all of these together. In this way, the people working on each of the components could concentrate on doing one thing and one thing well.

If we then start working on public API’s in a collaborative fashion, each of the component could be fleshed out to be as flexible and complete as necessary to gain maximum benefit.

If these components provided the services as a network based API, it would also allow for the components to be distributed across a network providing redundancy and efficiency. This makes it easier to turn each desktop into more of dump terminal concentrating purely on user interaction and getting closer to the invisible interface.

Software as a service has taken a step in the right direction. Can we take a leap and have software component as a service…

Evil Linux

I received an interesting link in my email this morning. The story (which thinks that sauce and source are the same thing btw)  covers a school in the United States that has banned the use of Linux because “anything that wasn’t Windows was illegal and immoral.”

I could only ponder about the sheer stupidity of this teacher and wonder about the next generation of students brought up under this ignorance.

I grew up with Microsoft, with DOS 3 as my first Operating System and went through DOS 5, 6, Windows 3.1, 95, NT, 98, & ME.

I also played around with BeOS, and various versions of Mac.

I was then introduced to Linux turned into an open source zealot and wiped out my Windows installation in anger. Since then, while my primary operating system is Linux, I still have Windows running on my Laptop and have both Windows & Linux on my home computer.

I have since worked with Windows 2000, XP, 2003 & Vista. I love what Microsoft does with these products. They do innovative things, pick up features from other products that are useful and try to simplify things.

My Laptop came pre-installed with Windows and I never went to the effort of installing Linux and I use my home computer to play games, which (whether I like it or not) just handles games so much better.

As per the old joke, It is the software engineers job to make software as idiot proof as possible. It is the job of the universe to create bigger and bigger idiots. So far the universe is winning.

Linux & Open Source software (in general) takes a different approach to software. It should be easy to use and manage software but it also expects you to understand (or at least think about) what you are doing or trying to do.

Microsoft seems to be under the impression that this is not necessary. The user does not need to know what they are doing – they just need to know what is to happen. e.g.

Lets take a simple operation – deleting a file. Before Windows 95, this used to be a simple, difficult to undo operation. Windows 95 brings in the concept of the Recycle Bin (or Trash), a concept that was available on the Mac platform for quite some time.

After this point, you no longer delete a file on Windows – you move it to the Recycle Bin, which will delete them from the disk when the number of files in there exceeds the set capacity.

Now, from a users perspective, what they are doing is deleting a file – in fact, thats what the menu item says – Delete. But what happens is completely different. The file disappears from their folder. What they aimed to do – “make this file disappear” has happened. However, the file has not been deleted.

Windows has effectively lied to the user since it is “smarter”. If the user later discovers that they deleted the wrong file, it can be recovered easier. However, that is not the point.

Microsoft software, are in general rife with such miscommunications. I find this fairly insulting and this was one of the main reasons that I started using Linux.  If you ask it to delete a file – it deletes it. If you want to move something to recycle bin, it can do that too.

To go back to the original point, the ignorance shown by the teacher in this school is exactly the kind that Microsoft panders to. Microsoft allows (nay encourages)  its users to be as “simple” as possible and let Microsoft worry about the rest.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that Microsoft do a fantastic job in making software accessible and easy to use but it should also help educate it users on what they are doing and help them think about what they are trying to do. Don’t pretend or try to do their thinking for them. Thats their job.

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish ; and you have fed him for a lifetime”