Talking at GNOME.Asia Summit 2016 in New Delhi, India

It’s spring time and that means it’s time for GNOME.Asia Summit! This year’s edition took place in New Delhi, India. This years makes five years after the initial GNOME 3.0 release. In fact, an important releases planning hackfest happened five years ago in India, so it’s been a somewhat remarkable date.

The conference felt a little smaller than the last edition, although I guess the college we were hosted at tried hard to bring their students to the talks. That was especially noticeable in the opening slot were everybody who felt sufficiently important had something to say. The big auditorium was filled with students, but I doubt they were really interested or listening. The opening was a bit weird for my taste, anyway. I have seen many conference openings, I would say. But that guy from the college who opened GNOME.Asia 2016 seemed to be a little bit confused, I have the feeling. He said that GNOME started 2008 so that all the software you use can be had freely so that you can upgrade your devices, like GPS satnavs. The opening ceremony, and yes, it’s really more of a ceremony rather than a short “welcome, good that you’re here” talk seems to be quite a formal thing in this college. Everybody on the stage receives a bouquet of flowers and many people were greeted and saluted to which stretched everything to an enormous length which in turn made the schedule slip by two hours or so.

Cosimo keynoted the conference and presented his ideas for the future of the GNOME project. We’ve come a long way, he said, with GNOME 3, which has initially been released five years ago. GNOME has aged well, he said. No wrinkles can be seen and GNOME is looking better than ever. He said that he likes GNOME 2 to be thought of GNOME in the era of distributions, because you could plug together modules that you liked. And everybody liked that. The pain point, he said, was that distributions chose which modules to plug together which finally decided about the user experience. Due to module proliferation was felt as impacting the project negatively the new world of GNOME 3 was introduced. One the most controversial but also most successful thing GNOME 3 did, he said, was to put the responsibility of defining the user experience back in upstream’s hands by eliminating choices. While causing people to complain, it led to a less complicated test matrix which eventually made GNOME accessible to less technical people. He said, GNOME 3 is the era of Operating Systems, so there are not distributions packaging GNOME but rather Operating systems built on GNOME, like endless, mint, or solus. The big elephant in the room is the role of applications, he said. If cohesive Operating Systems are built upon GNOME, how can applications work with different operating systems? Currently, you cannot, he said, run elementary applications on GNOME and vice versa. xdg-app will hopefully address that, he said. It’s a big transition for the GNOME project and that transition is even bigger than the one from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3, he said. Unfortunately, the audience seemed to be a little tired by from the length of the opening session and it felt like they were demanding a break by starting to chat with their neighbours…

Pravin then continued to talk about the state of Indian languages in GNOME. He mentioned that some Indian languages are well supported while some others have no support at all. He also showed that with Fedora 24 you get a text prediction engine. So you can type Latin characters for the word you want to enter in a different script. The Q&A revealed that the list of suggested words is sorted by frequency. Apparently they did some analysis of usage of words. I wonder whether it’s also able to learn from the user’s behaviour.

The talk on privacy given by Ankit Prateek showed how your typical Internet and Web usage would leave traces and what you mitigation you could employ. He mentioned specific Web attacks like Super Cookies or Canvas fingerprinting. He recommended using NoScript whichs usefulness the audience immediately questioned. To my surprise, he didn’t mention one my favourite plugins Google Privacy, because Google remembers what search results you click.

I got to talk about five years of GNOME 3. I conveyed the story of how the 3.0 release happened and what was part of it. For example, we had so many release parties with swag being sent around the world! But I also showed a few things that have changed since the initial 3.0.

Another talk I had was about Security. I explained why I see GNOME being in the perfect position to design, develop, and deploy security systems for a wide range of users. First, I ranted about modal dialogues, prompts, and that they are not a good choice for making a security decision. Then, I explained how we could possible defend against malicious USB devices. I think it’s work we, as developers of a Free Software desktop, have to do in order to serve our users. Technically, it’s not very hard, e.g. you block new USB devices being plugged in, when the screensaver is shown. We know how to do the blocking and unblocking of USB devices. More subtle issues involve the policies to apply and how to make the user aware of USB devices. Another pet peeve of mine is Keysigning, so I also ranted about the state of the art and we can and should improve things.

Thanks to the local organising people and the GNOME Foundation for flying me in and out.
Sponsored by GNOME!

GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia

I have just returned from the GNOME.Asia Summit 2015 in Depok, Indonesia.

Out of the talks, the most interesting talk I have seen, I think, was the one from Iwan S. Tahari, the manager of a local shoe producer who also sponsored GNOME shoes!

Open Source Software in Shoes Industry” was the title and he talked about how his company, FANS Shoes, est 2001, would use “Open Source”. They are also a BlankOn Linux partner which seems to be a rather big thing in Indonesia. In fact, the keynote presentation earlier was on that distribution and mentioned how they try to make it easier for people of their culture to contribute to Free Software.
Anyway, the speaker went on to claim that in Indonesia, they have 82 million Internet users out of which 69 million use Facebook. But few use “Open Source”, he asserted. The machines sold ship with either Windows or DOS, he said. He said that FANS preferred FOSS because it increased their productivity, not only because of viruses (he mentioned BRONTOK.A as a pretty annoying example), but also because of the re-installation time. To re-install Windows costs about 90 minutes, he said. The average time to install Blank On (on an SSD), was 15 minutes. According to him, the install time is especially annoying for them, because they don’t have IT people on staff. He liked Blank On Linux because it comes with “all the apps” and that there is not much to install afterwards. Another advantage he mentioned is the costs. He estimated the costs of their IT landscape going Windows to be 136,57 million Rupees (12000 USD). With Blank On, it comes down to 0, he said. That money, he can now spend on a Van and a transporter scooter instead. Another feature of his GNU/Linux based system, he said, was the ability to cut the power at will without stuff breaking. Indonesia, he said, is known for frequent power cuts. He explicitly mentioned printer support to be a major pain point for them.

When they bootstrapped their Free Software usage, they first tried to do Dual Boot for their 5 employees. But it was not worth their efforts, because everybody selected Windows on boot, anyway. They then migrated the accounting manager to a GNU/Linux based operating system. And that laptop still runs the LinuxMint version 13 they installed… He mentioned that you have to migrate top down, never from bottom to top, so senior management needs to go first. Later Q&A revealed that this is because of cultural issues. The leaders need to set an example and the workers will not change unless their superiors do. Only their RnD department was hard to migrate, he said, because they need to be compatible to Corel Draw. With the help of an Indonesian Inkscape book, though, they managed to run Inkscape. The areas where they lack support is CAD (think AutoCAD), Statistics (think SPSS), Kanban information system (like iceScrum), and integration with “Computer Aided Machinery”. He also identified the lack of documentation to be a problem not only for them, but for the general uptake of Free Software in Indonesia. In order to amend the situation, they provide gifts for people writing documentation or books!

All in all, it was quite interesting to see an actual (non-computer) business running exclusively on Free Software. I had a chat with Iwan afterwards and maybe we can get GNOME shaped flip-flops in the future :-)

The next talk was given by Ahmad Haris with GNOME on an Android TV Dongle. He brought GNOME to those 30 USD TV sticks that can turn your TV into a “smart” device. He showed various commands and parameters which enable you to run Linux on these devices. For the reasons as to why put GNOME on those devices, he said, that it has a comparatively small memory footprint. I didn’t really understand the motivation, but I blame mostly myself, because I don’t even have a TV… Anyway, bringing GNOME to more platforms is good, of course, and I was happy to see that people are actively working on bringing GNOME to various hardware.

Similarly, Running GNOME on a Nexus 7 by Bin Li was presenting how he tried to make his Android tabled run GNOME. There is previous work done by VadimRutkovsky:

He gave instructions as to how to create a custom kernel for the Nexus 7 device. He also encountered some problems, such as compilations errors, and showed how he fixed them. After building the kernel, he installed Arch-Linux with the help of some scripts. This, however, turned out to not be successful, so he couldn’t run his custom Arch Linux with GNOME.
He wanted to have a tool like “ubuntu-device-flash” such that hacking on this device is much easier. Also, downloading and flashing a working image is too hard for casually hacking on it, he said.

A presentation I was not impressed by was “In-memory computing on GNU/Linux”. More and more companies, he said, would be using in-memory computing on a general operating system. Examples of products which use in-memory computing were GridGain, SAP HANA, IBM DB2, and Oracle 12c. These products, he said, allow you to make better and faster decision making and to avoid risks. He also pointed out that you won’t have breaking down hard-drives and less energy consumption. While in-memory is blazingly fast, all your data is lost when you have a power failure. The users of big data, according to him, are businesses, academics, government, or software developers. The last one surprised me, but he didn’t go into detail as to why it is useful for an ordinary developer. The benchmarks he showed were impressive. Up to hundred-fold improvements for various tests were recorded in the in-memory setting compared to the traditional on-disk setting. The methodology wasn’t comprehensive, so I am yet not convinced that the convoluted charts show anything useful. But the speaker is an academic, so I guess he’s got at least compelling arguments for his test setup. In order to build a Linux suitable for in-memory computation, they installed a regular GNU/Linux on a drive and modify the boot scripts such that the disk will be copied into a tmpfs. I am wondering though, wouldn’t it be enough to set up a very aggressive disk cache…?

I was impressed by David’s work on ChorusText. I couldn’t follow the talk, because my Indonesian wasn’t good enough. But I talked to him privately and he showed me his device which, as far as I understand, is an assistive screen reader. It has various sliders with tactile feedback to help you navigating through text with the screen reader. Apparently, he has low vision himself so he’s way better suited to tell whether this device is useful. For now, I think it’s great and I hope that it helps more people and that we can integrate it nicely into GNOME.

My own keynote went fairly well. I spent my time with explaining what I think GNOME is, why it’s good, and what it should become in the future. If you know GNOME, me, and my interests, then it doesn’t come as a surprise that I talked about the history of GNOME, how it tries to bring Free computing to everyone, and how I think security and privacy will going to matter in the future. I tried to set the tone for the conference, hoping that discussions about GNOME’s future would spark in the coffee breaks. I had some people discussing with afterwards, so I think it was successful enough.

When I went home, I saw that the Jakarta airport runs GNOME 3, but probably haven’t done that for too long, because the airport’s UX is terrible. In fact, it is one of the worst ones I’ve seen so far. I arrived at the domestic terminal, but I didn’t know which one it was, i.e. its number. There were no signs or indications that tell you in which terminal you are in. Let alone where you need to go to in order to catch your international flight. Their self-information computer system couldn’t deliver. The information desk was able to help, though. The transfer to the international terminal requires you to take a bus (fair enough), but whatever the drivers yell when they stop is not comprehensible. When you were lucky enough to get out at the right terminal, you needed to have a printed version of your ticket. I think the last time I’ve seen this was about ten years ago in Mumbai. The airport itself is big and bulky with no clear indications as to where to go. Worst of all, it doesn’t have any air conditioning. I was not sure whether I had to pay the 150000 Rupees departure tax, but again, the guy at the information desk was able to help. Although I was disappointed to learn that they won’t take a credit card, but cash only. So I drew the money out of the next ATM that wasn’t broken (I only needed three attempts). But it was good to find the non-broken ATM, because the shops wouldn’t take my credit card, either, so I already knew where to get cash from. The WiFi’s performance matches the other airport’s infrastructure well: It’s quite dirty. Because it turned out that the information the guy gave me was wrong, I invested my spare hundred somewhat thousands rupees in dough-nuts in order to help me waiting for my 2.5 hours delayed flight. But I couldn’t really enjoy the food, because the moment I sat on any bench, cockroaches began to invade the place. I think the airport hosts the dirtiest benches of all Indonesia. The good thing is, that they have toilets. With no drinkable water, but at least you can wash your hands. Fortunately, my flight was only two hours late, so I could escape relatively quickly. I’m looking forward to going back, but maybe not via CGK ;-)

All in all, many kudos to the organisers. I think this year’s edition was quite successful.

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