What chance for MeeGo in the age of the iPad?

Today is Apple iPad day in the UK; but the portable device I’ve been playing with is not from Apple. Rather, I downloaded the first release build of MeeGo, proudly labelled 1.0, and installed it on my Toshiba NB 300 netbook, which normally runs Windows. You can choose between the evil edition with Google Chrome; or the free edition with Chromium – I picked the Chrome version. I did not burn any bridges: I simply copied the image to a 2GB USB memory stick and booted from that. There was one oddity: the USB boot only worked when using the USB port on the right by the power socket, and not from the one on the left edge of the netbook. It is a common problem with USB, that not all ports are equal.


MeeGo is a joint project from Intel and Nokia, formed by the merging of Intel Moblin and Nokie Maemo. It is a version of Linux designed for mobile devices, from smartphones to netbooks, though this first release is only for netbooks. Further releases are planned on a "six-month cadence", and a wider range of devices including handsets and touch-screen tables is promised for October.

First impressions are mixed. Starting with the good news: performance is great, the user interface is smooth and polished, and less child-like and cutesy than the last Moblin I looked at. The designers have really thought about how to make the OS netbook-friendly. Applications run full-screen, making the best use of the limited screen size. Navigation is via a toolbar which slides into view if you move the mouse to the top of the screen. From here, you can switch between "Zones" – in effect, each zone is a running  applications. Not difficult but laborious; I found myself using Alt-Tab for switching between applications. I also miss the Windows taskbar, despite the screen space it occupies, since it helps to have a visual reminder of the other apps you have running.

There is also a home page which is a kind of local portal, showing showing current Twitter status (once I had added my Twitter account), application shortcuts, current appointments, recent web history, and other handy shortcuts.

Getting started was relatively quick. I soon figured out that the Network icon in the toolbar would let me configure wireless networking. It look me a little longer to find the system preferences, which are found by clicking the All Settings button in the Devices menu. Here I was able to change the keyboard layout from US to GB, though since it does not take effect until you logout, and I was using the live image which does not save changes, I was still stuck with the wrong layout.

A terminal – essential for serious Linux users – can be found in the System Tools section of the Application menu. I needed a password to obtain root access, which I discovered is set by default to "meego" in the live image. I presume this is a feature of the live image only, as this would otherwise be a serious security risk.

I soon found annoyances. This may be version 1.0, but it is described as a "core" release and seems mainly intended for software developers and I presume device manufacturers who are getting started. The selection of pre-installed applications is very limited, and does not include a word processor or spreadsheet.  There is a "Garage" utility for installing new apps, but although it seems to offer Abiword and Gnumeric, I could not get the links to resolve. I cannot find an image editor either. Without basic apps like this, MeeGo is not something I could rely on while out and about.


I was surprised to find no link to the Intel AppUp store, which will offer applications for MeeGo, and when I tried to install the AppUp beta I got failed dependencies. I optimistically tried to install Adobe AIR; no go there either.

There must be other ways of getting apps installed – this is Linux after all – but I was looking for a quick and easy route.

Adobe Flash 10.1 is installed and works, though not on my first attempt. Trying to play a Youtube video made Chrome unresponsive, and I could not get Flash content to play on any site. Rebooted and all was well.

A big irritation for me is that you cannot disable tapping on the touchpad. There is a checkbox for it in settings, but it is both ticked and grayed so you cannot change it. I detest tapping since you inevitably tap by accident sometimes, on occasion losing work or just wasting time. No doubt there is some setting you can change though the terminal but I haven’t had time to investigate. It  is also possible that doing a full install to hard drive would fix it, as the live image does not save changes.


Nevertheless, the progress is encouraging and if development continues at this pace I can see MeeGo becoming a strong alternative to Windows on netbooks: faster, cheaper, and better optimized for this kind of device. Even against the Apple iPad, I can see the attraction of something like a MeeGo netbook: freedom, Flash, value for money, and a keyboard.

The big question though: what chance has MeeGo got in the face of competition from Apple, Google with Android, and Microsoft with Windows? It seems to me that all these three are safe bets, in that they are not going away and already have momentum behind them. Will the public also make room for MeeGo? I like it well enough to hope it succeeds, but fear it may be crowded out by the competition, other than for Nokia Smartphones.

iTunes user has account hacked, loses access to his own purchases

Spare a thought for iTunes user Peter Bilderback. His account was hacked and someone downloaded almost a $1000 worth of items from the iTunes store using his account. Bad stuff, but it happens. Bilderback wonders why Apple did not query the purchase of iPhone apps, when it knew that he had no iPhone – you would have thought that Apple’s closed system would be ideal for this scenario at least – but never mind, the credit card company spotted the suspicious activity and disputed the charges with Apple.

This is where it gets really nasty. Apple closed the compromised iTunes account and de-authorised all his purchases – not only the ones the fraudster grabbed, but everything he had bought over a period of 6 years:

When I contacted Apple about what happened they were totally unhelpful. Now they seem to have closed my iTunes account entirely, and I can no longer access any of the protected AAC music files, television shows or movies that I “purchased” from iTunes in the past. They are as good as gone. iTunes customer service does not respond to my emails inquiring about how to get my account reactivated. I cannot get through to anyone via phone, I just get a message directing me to their customer service website, and I can’t really use that because as far as Apple is concerned, I don’t have an account with them anymore.

With such a clear-cut case, you would think that Bilderback would eventually recover his purchases, but he says the incident “has been going on for three months now with no resolution in sight”.

The case highlights the difference between the old world of buying physical media like a CD, which comes with a transferable licence for personal use, and the new one where you download the media and buy a licence that is more restrictive, sometimes combined with technical content protection that further limits how you can enjoy your purchase.

That said, much iTunes content is not DRM-protected so presumably Bilderback can still get access to that.

The other aspect of this story is about customer service. It is a common story: individual versus large corporate entity, and the difficulty in getting through to anyone with both the willingness to listen and the power to do anything about a problem.

I guess he could try emailing Steve Jobs? Sometimes you get a reply.

BBC iPlayer goes social

I’m just back from the BBC’s press briefing on the new iPlayer. This is a public beta. The press release is here.

The big story is that social media features are now integrated. The idea is that you can post recommendations (or otherwise) to Twitter and Facebook about programmes you are viewing, or participate in real-time chat via Microsoft Live Messenger. The Messenger feature will be delivered later than the other features; a beta is promised “later this summer.”

I was interested to see these features delivered, as I spoke to the BBC’s Anthony Rose about them at Adobe MAX in 2008 and wrote it up for The Guardian. I talked to Rose again today and asked why Twitter, Facebook and Live Messenger had been favoured above other social media services?

There are only so many hours in the day, you’ve got to start somewhere. We picked the major ones. In the case of the chat, the technical requirements are actually really high, you need presence detection, there needs to be user to user chat, and it turns out that Facebook doesn’t have that kind of presence detection. So very few platforms have the technical bits that are necessary. But absolutely we’re looking to get the others on board, we know that people are going to want it. We had a choice of ship nothing, or try and dip the toes in the water

This is in line with a theme we heard a lot about today: that the BBC will go where the users are. Devices will be supported only if they succeed in attracting a large user base. We also heard that BBC Online is narrowing its focus, and will not needlessly duplicate what third parties already do. For example, the BBC has no intention of creating its own social network, even though over a million individuals have registered a BBC ID. Rather, it will link that identity to existing social networks, initially Twitter and Facebook. At least, that’s the current strategy. The BBC is a public broadcasting service financed by a licence fee, and its strategy is partly set from above; it has changed recently and will no doubt change again.

Still, iPlayer is a superb service and one reason I am personally happy to keep paying the fee.

Google Chrome Mac and Linux arrives – may hurt Firefox more than Safari

Today Google announced that Chrome for Mac and Linux is now fully released:

Since last December, we’ve been chipping away at bugs and building in new features to get the Mac and Linux versions caught up with the Windows version, and now we can finally announce that the Mac and Linux versions are ready for prime time.

The two big stories in the browser world right now are the decline of Microsoft Internet Explorer (though it still commands more than half the market  in most stats that I see) and the rise of Google Chrome. Why do users like it? From what I’ve seen, they like the performance and the usability. In fact, Chrome would make a great case study on why these factors count for more than features in user satisfaction. That said, I’ve been using Chrome on the Mac today and while it starts up more quickly than Safari, performance overall seems similar and I doubt there will be a huge rush to switch.

In the stats for ITWriting.com, I’ve seen steadily increasing Chrome usage:

  • July 2009: 4.2%
  • October 2009: 4.6%
  • January 2010: 9.6%
  • May 2010: 13.7%

So far this month, IE is down to 35.3% in the stats here, behind Firefox at 35.9%.

These figures are not representative of the internet as a whole, though I’d argue that it does represent a technical readership which may well be a leading indicator.

Chrome seems to be gradually taking market share from all the major browsers, though IE is doing so badly that any defections from Firefox to Chrome are more then made up by IE defectors to Firefox, if I’m interpreting the stats correctly. This won’t always be the case though, and Mozilla is vulnerable because unlike Microsoft or Apple the browser is the core of its business.

There is also a sense in which Chrome competes with Firefox for the user who has decided not to use the browser that comes with the operating system.

Chrome is strategically important to Google, not just as a browser, but as a platform for applications. It hooks into the Web Store announced at the recent Google I/O conference, and it will soon be easy to create browser applications that run offline. Google has the financial muscle to market Chrome. I’d also suggest that the momentum behind other projects, especially Android but also Google Apps, will indirectly benefit the browser.

On the Mac, it is worth noting that both Safari and Chrome use the same open source WebKit project, sponsored by Apple, which I guess is more interesting now that Google and Apple are competing fiercely in mobile.

Farewell to Becta

The UK government today announced that Becta, a government body to “promote technology in learning”, is to be closed. Becta stands for “British Educational Communications and Technology Agency”.

I have mixed feelings about this, though in a period when severe cutbacks are required a body like Becta is hard to justify. I first came across Becta in the context of the debate about Office Open XML, Microsoft Office and Open Office. Becta, which claims to provide “rigorous research and evaluation”, came up with a full report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007. These are products which I know a lot about, and I thought the report was poor. I liked the fact that Becta was positive towards open source; but disliked the uncritical advocacy which it seemed to indulge in at times.

My other observation comes from attendance as a speaker at the Education conferences organised by Forum Events. When I asked what delegates thought of Becta, I found that most attendees, in seminars on open source and on cloud computing, had not heard of it. I think the way IT is handled in education is a key issue for our industry and economy; but from my limited contact did not see evidence that Becta was achieving its goals.

My first Google Chrome Web Application

Update: this post is based on obsolete beta code. Please go to the updated version here.

When I read Patrick Aljord’s blog on how to create Chrome Apps I thought, “that looks easy”. So I installed the dev channel version of Chrome as advised here, though on a VM just to be safe, and set about creating my own.

Well, WordPress is a web application; so my example is this blog. I created a manifest in Notepad.


Next, using my artistic skills, I made two icons of the required size: 24×24 and 128×128.

I ran the dev. build of Chrome using the –enable-apps switch. On the Extensions tab there are tools for building a .crx, which is the container for a Chrome Web App. I built the app, then installed it.


You get a generic warning about the extension. I was surprised not to see a stronger complaint about my app having no authenticated signature – it could be from anywhere. I guess this may be changed for the final release.

After installing, the app appears in the Chrome New Tab page.


You can try my web app here.

The whole process is very simple, which I like. It is also almost the same thing as a bookmark or favourite link. The main differences that I can see:

  • Apps get pride of place on the default Chrome Home page.
  • Apps can be installed from the forthcoming Chrome Web Store, with user reviews, a payment model, and so on.
  • Apps can have extra permissions.
  • Apps can be locally installed as “serverless” apps – this is huge, especially for the forthcoming Chrome OS which has no other provision for local applications.

Incidentally, if you try installing an app into the current standard build of Chrome, it installs as an extension but does not do anything. I also had to omit the “permissions” section of the manifest, otherwise I got an invalid permissions error when installing. In the developer build all was fine.

I tried dragging my app from Chrome to the desktop to make a shortcut. It worked, but simply created a standard web shortcut, which opens in your default browser, not necessarily in Chrome.

It is all so easy that it will make sense for almost anyone to create a Chrome Web App from their web property. Which also means there will be plenty of junk web apps around.

I’m not clear exactly how the Web Store will work. While I would love to sell URLs for money, they are not inherently of any value, though a serverless app is different. Presumably the normal thing would be to sell some sort of subscription, which implies registration and user authentication. No doubt everything will work smoothly if you use a Google ID as your authentication provider, though I hope Google will also provide for alternative systems.

A great day for Android at Google I/O; not convinced by Google TV

Yesterday’s Google I/O was remarkable for several reasons. The most significant was not a specific technical announcement, but rather the evidence for a successful Google-led alliance against Apple in the mobile device market (and perhaps also in home entertainment with Google TV). Apple has hardly put a foot wrong since Jobs rejoined the company in 1996 – well, aside from a few minor lapses like the iPod Hi-Fi. With steadily increasing sales for the iPhone, it was beginning to look as if Apple would do to the mobile phone market what it did to the market for portable MP3 players, including the all-important App Store.

After Google I/O 2010 that seems less likely. Google showed off the momentum behind Android – there are now over 100,000 Android activations daily, according to Vic Gundotra – and then gave a compelling demo of new features in Android 2.2, code-named Froyo, including:

  • New Dalvik just-in-time compiler with 2-5x speed improvement in CPU-bound code
  • Better Exchange support with account auto-discovery, calendar sync, Global Address List support, and device policy support
  • V8 JavaScript engine in Android browser, 2-3x speed improvement
  • Apps can backup data to the cloud, for instant restore on a replacement device
  • Ability to make Android phone a portable wi-fi hotspot for your Windows, Apple or Linux machine
  • Stream your home media library to your Android device
  • Cloud to device messaging
  • Crash reports with stacktrace uploaded for developers to review
  • Some great demos of voice input combined with Google search and maps

In some ways the details do not matter; what does matter is that Google persuaded the world that Android mobiles would be more than a match for iPhones, but without the Apple lock-in, lock-out, and censorship.

Support for Adobe Flash is almost more a political than a technical matter in this context. I cannot help wondering whether Microsoft is working on Silverlight for Android; it should be, but probably is not. The Mono team on the other hand is there already.

Apple now has a bit of a PR problem; and while I am sure it will ride it out successfully and impress us at WWDC next month, the fact that it has a PR problem at all is something of a novelty.

Next came Google TV, with which I was less impressed, and not only because the demos were shaky. I understand the thinking behind it. You could almost see the $ signs revolving when Google mentioned the $70 billion annual spend on TV advertising. Google TV adds an Android device and internet connection to your living room television set, bringing YouTube to the largest screen in the house, enabling web browsing, and opening up interesting opportunities such as running Android apps, combining TV and web search, and overlaying TV with social media interaction.

It sounds good; but while I am a firm believer in the Internet’s power to disrupt broadcasting – especially here in the UK where we have BBC iPlayer – I am not sure that injecting the Web into TV like this is such a big deal. In fact, games consoles do this already. Sony’s Howard Stringer was at Google I/O to support the announcement, which has his company’s participation, but a PS3 already offers BBC iPlayer, Adobe Flash 9, and a basic web browser. I use this from time to time and enjoy it, but a TV is not great for web browsing since you are sitting at a distance, and wireless keyboards are a nuisance kicking round the living room – we tried that for a while with Windows Media Center. Activities like online shopping or simply Tweeting are easier to do on other devices.

Maybe it is just waiting for the right implementation. If it does take off though, I will be interested to see what the broadcasters think of it. What if Google manages to serve contextual ads based on the content you are viewing? That would not please me if I had invested millions in creating that content, specifically in order to attract advertising.

It may be developers that make or break Google TV. Add a few compelling apps that work best in this context, and we will all want one.

Google advances its platform – or should that be advances the Web?

Yesterday Google presented its latest platform innovations at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. Its strategy is relatively clear: to improve web applications so that you can do everything you need in the browser. The client pieces are HTML 5 – though bear in mind that this is not yet a fixed standard – and especially the Chrome browser, whether installed on a traditional operating system or delivered on a Chrome OS device.

Chrome has always had lightning-fast JavaScript. We’re now seeing other pieces in the Chrome-as-application-platform story, including:

Integrated Adobe Flash

The  Native Client for secure native code, typically coded in C/C++, running in the browser

Announced yesterday, the WebM video and audio format. This includes VP8, acquired with On2 Technologies and now open source, as well as Vorbis audio and the Matroska multimedia container.

The Chrome Web Store, also announced yesterday, which will be an App Store equivalent for web applications.


Web Store apps are “installable” which may mean little more than a shortcut in the browser, similar to a bookmark or favourite link. However, there will be a payment infrastructure as well as ratings and user reviews.

Serverless apps. This is another aspect to the Web Store. A Web Store app can be designed to run offline, with all the necessary HTML and JavaScript bundled into the .crx format used by the store. Google calls these Serverless apps, and in many ways the concept is similar to that in Palm’s WebOS – HTML and JavaScript applications that run locally. This is interesting for Chrome OS as it makes it easy to create applications that work offline.

The Google Font API and Directory. This is big news. Most of us stick to the same old web fonts, or use images, or a plug-in like Flash or PDF, for going beyond the standard browser fonts. Using Google’s API, it is easy to include any font in the new directory, with nothing more than a specially crafted CSS link.

The Google Font API hides a lot of complexity behind the scenes. Google’s serving infrastructure takes care of converting the font into a format compatible with any modern browser (including Internet Explorer 6 and up), sends just the styles and weights you select, and the font files and CSS are tuned and optimized for web serving.

On the server side, there is Google App Engine for Business. Google is cooperating with VMware so that you can host Spring applications on its web application platform, App Engine. Spring Roo, a rapid application development tool for Spring, has been integrated with Google Web Toolkit (GWT) to make it easy to build browser-hosted clients for Spring applications. GWT lets you code in Java, but run in JavaScript. Using Spring gives you a choice of where to host your application: on-premise, on App Engine, on the Salesforce.com platform with VMforce, or on another platform such as Amazon EC2.

Spring’s Rod Johnson explains the goals here:

Until the announcement of VMforce and today’s announcement, Java developers lacked a PaaS destination to which they could easily deploy their applications. This was an important gap that threatened to become a danger to the long-term future of Java. I’m delighted that VMware/SpringSource is leading the charge to fill this gap.

Another feature worth highlighting is SQL for App Engine:

SQL database support on App Engine gives enterprise developers access to the full capabilities of a dedicated relational database, without the headache of managing it.

though Google adds that this is a “premium service” which may come at extra cost. According to the roadmap, this is coming in Q3 2010.

While there is a lot to take in, there is a consistent theme: making the web and browser platform more capable, and making desktop applications and on-premise servers less necessary.

Whereas Apple aims to lock us into its devices and App Store, Google’s approach is more open. It is happy to give away stuff like the WebM multimedia project and the Font API in order to improve the Web overall; though of course every time we use the Font API Google can record the traffic on our site and mine that data if it chooses to do so. It is in line with the strategy unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in February: a little bit of everything you do. Google will take its cut of any Web Store sales. What is Web and what is Google is deliberately blurred.

I still think that the forthcoming Chrome OS is an amazing experiment, and the new offline application support announced yesterday makes sense as an alternative to traditional local applications.

A good day for Adobe and Flash, or a bad one? Adobe’s Kevin Lynch demonstrated new HTML 5 capabilities in Dreamweaver, via an add-on pack. As expected, Adobe is becoming a little less Flash-focused in its PR. Google’s emerging platform is a tool opportunity for Adobe. Still, that is a lesser role than establishing Flash as the universal client, a possibility which Apple seems to have killed. Google is supporting Flash, of course, by building it into Chrome, but at the same time things like WebM, Font API, HTML5, and Native Client (shown as the natural client platform for browser-hosted games) undermine the need for Flash.

Apple is a problem for Google too. Will native client ever work on iPhone or iPad? WebM? The big question – who will marginalise whom?

What is happening with Silverlight on Intel Moblin/Meego?

Last September, Microsoft and Intel announced a port of Silverlight to Moblin Linux. I posted on the subject here, including a quote from Microsoft’s Brian Goldfarb:

Microsoft and Intel announced today that the two companies have agreed to work together to bring support for Silverlight 3 to Intel’s Atom-based Mobile Internet Devices (MID). These Atom-based devices run on Windows and Moblin, an open source, Linux-based operating system targeted at Atom-based devices. In order to help bring Silverlight content to these devices, Microsoft has provided Intel with Silverlight source code and test suites, and Intel will provide Microsoft with an optimized version of Silverlight for Moblin devices that Microsoft can then redistribute to OEMs.

Since then, Moblin has merged with Novell’s Maemo to form MeeGo (though this is still work in progress), and we’ve heard very, very little about Silverlight on either platform. The only snippet of news I have is that it was mentioned at the Intel Developer Forum in Beijing and reported by Char Zvolanek, who said that it came up in the Meego Q&A after regular sessions ended, and Silverlight will be supported in Meego  version 1.1 in October:

In May, the 1.0 version will be released, and with 1.1 coming out in October, there will be support for Silverlight, Java, and Air. Developers can write native or runtime apps that can be Java-based, Web-based, Silverlight-based, or Air-based.

Today, another clue, but not a good one for Silverlight. Intel is holding an application lab on May 26th in San Jose, for developing for the Intel AppUp store, either on Windows or Moblin. On the agenda: C/C++ and Adobe AIR, and the upcoming Adobe AIR SDK for Moblin. No Silverlight.

If anyone is going along, and can discover any news about Silverlight on Moblin, I’d be interested to know.

Microsoft sues Salesforce.com for patent infringement – but why?

Microsoft has filed a patent infringement actionagainst Salesforce.com.

The Register has posted more details. The filing[pdf] lists nine counts of alleged infringement:

1. Method for mapping between logical data and physical data

2. System and method for providing and displaying a web page having an embedded menu

3. Method and system for stacking toolbars in a computer display

4. Automated web site creation using template driven generation of active server page applications

5. Aggregation of system settings into objects

6. Timing and velocity control for displaying graphical information (2 counts)

7. Method and system for identifying and obtaining computer software from a remote computer

8. System and method for controlling access to data entities in a computer network

I make no comment on the legal validity of these claims. On the broader issue though, Microsoft says this:

Microsoft has been a leader and innovator in the software industry for decades and continues to invest billions of dollars each year in bringing great software products and services to market. We have a responsibility to our customers, partners, and shareholders to safeguard that investment, and therefore cannot stand idly by when others infringe our IP rights

My observation is that I have seen Salesforce.com shake up the industry by making its multi-tenant online application and platform work for its customers. Although there are some parallels, the Salesforce.com platform is more radical than Microsoft Azure and has more potential to reduce costs, because it is based on a single shared application, rather than being a hosted platform for custom applications. The differences are not absolute, because the Force.com platform also supports custom applications, and Microsoft also offers multi-tenanted applications, but if you look at the core propositions the distinction is valid.

Again, I have no idea what the legal outcome will be, but from a public relations perspective this does not look good for Microsoft. It raises the question: is Microsoft litigating because it cannot succeed in the market?

Small companies and patent trolls sue large companies because they have little to lose, and potentially a lot to gain. Large companies show more restraint. I have always assumed that there are thousands of plausible patent infringements among the largest technology companies, and that the industry would descend into a kind of litigation meltdown if all of them were pursued, to nobody’s benefit other than lawyers.

The question then: why is Microsoft going after Salesforce.com now?