Sunday, September 21, 2008

Google Chrome: a browser or a runtime environment?

Google Chrome has received a lot of press from the date of its release, even on mainstream media: from a technological point of view there are several interesting innovations that undoubtedly will "inspire" similar solutions in other browsers. Amongst them those to deserve a mention are the "multiprocess" architecture (which is a very interesting - yet nerdy - topic and would deserve a post of its own), the high performance JavaScript runtime (on which I already commented here), the Gears plug-in and development framework (also available for Safari on Mac OS X) plus some neat Human Interface solutions like the new "blank page" with the most visited sites, a simple but really effective concept.

Everything is really interesting especially for hackers but I doubt that these single innovations in themselves will make the average Internet user go wild. It may be interesting therefore to think for a moment about the whys behind this move by Google, leaving conspiracy theories aside. 

I do really think that Chrome shouldn't simply be seen as a browser but more fully as a runtime environment. Google is providing first class services that are becoming crucial for the life of people. Mail, calendaring, document management and editing, photo sharing, blogging, web traffic analysis, maps, web application hosting, web advertising management, not to mention Internet searches, for which the Mountain View company name has become a verb in the English dictionary ("To Google"), are just a subset of the services Google provides, services that have become essential, if not strategical, for the life and business of million of users worldwide.

These services are becoming more and more sophisticated and powerful, so much to become real contenders to "desktop" based applications. At the same time broadband Internet connections have become faster and widely available, even for mobile users. The motto "The Network is the Computer" by Sun Microsystems has become a reality these days. But every computer to be really useful needs first-class software. 

Every browser can be seen as a runtime environment for web based applications. But, as Microsoft and Apple know well, you can really guarantee the best possible experience to users if you have the chance to control "both" the runtime environment "and" the software that runs on top of it. I think that the Google move behind Chrome should be read this way. Web based applications must be fully accessible to everyone, perfectly compatible with the most common browsers (Internet Explorer, like it or not is the most used browser in the world) and fully compliant to W3C web standards. But of course Google people can't control how their web applications run on these browsers: they could have simply advocate their cause on open source projects (Firefox and WebKit to start with) but by creating Chrome they are indirectly pushing others to follow on their path.

Microsoft has fully acknowledged the threat of Google web applications and is trying hard to answer with various on-line services (Microsoft Office Live Workspace, Live Mesh) that promise to run in a multi-platform/browser fashion (Windows and Mac OS X - but not Linux apparently -, IE and Firefox). Another Internet war is on the horizon...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Google Chrome/Chromium on Mac OS X (not _for_ Mac OS X!)

For all the macheads over there: even if Google Chromium isn't officially available on Mac OS X there's a nice port (also for Linux) based on Wine. CodeWeavers, the company behind Wine, has prepared an easy to install package for Mac OS X. It works nicely: of course the look is very windows-ish (having Wine behind, it couldn't be different) but at least you can experience first-hand the latest web sensation! Enjoy!

JavaScript gets faster

JavaScript these days is getting increasingly important and strategic in Web applications design. AJAX frameworks significantly improve users' experience, changing the balance of code development from the server to the client side. Meaningful in this sense is the SproutCore framework whose goal is to allow the development of web applications that look and behave as close as possible to desktop apps.

In this scenario JavaScript performance becomes crucial. Again some open source projects raised the speed bar higher, in a significantly short time. Two projects must be cited here: one is v8, the by now ultra-famous JavaScript interpreter in Google Chrome. For a quick and nice explanation of its major "tricks" you can also give a look at the Google Chrome Comic Book (impatient JavaScript fans can directly jump to page 13).

The second project is SquirrelFish Extreme, the new generation JavaScript interpreter of the Safari browser (or better, of the WebKit open source web browser engine). Benchmarks should always be taken with a grain of salt but performance gains of this new implementation are really astonishing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On web censorship

In Abu Dhabi (I'm just back home by the way) you can't access Flickr, which annoyed me quite a bit since it is definitely my favourite Social Networking/Web 2.0 site. Typing its URL this is the page that you could get:

At first I thought that the site was censored because maybe somebody has published some pictures that could have been considered offensive for the UAE as a state or for their religion. But I noticed that YouTube on the contrary was freely accessible and this was a bit of a contradiction. I discovered that was censored but the Italian channel was not (and that definitely should have been an oversight for them). 

I asked some locals (foreigners living there, not real Emirati) about that and they told me that Social Networking sites were in general looked unfavourably. Only recently the access to some of the most important sites, Facebook to start with, was unblocked. Apparently from a technical point of view the censorship can be easily avoided (I don't say if through the use of an external, free DNS system, or through some HTTP tunneling service; I didn't care to check): for the less experts there are some small computer shops in Abu Dhabi where you can go and ask to have your PC configured to avoid the block.

Social Networking sites aside another block was on Skype as you can see from the following image.
This has probably less to do with politics and more with economy: in the UAE there is a semi monopolistic Telco named Etisalat which is surely making huge amount of money from international calls: just consider in fact that 81% of the residents in the UAE are not Emirati! Last day I was there I read on a newspaper that apparently the Communication Authority of UAE requested a formal Telco license to allow Skype to operate. Anyway you can't access the Skype site but you can use the program if you have it already installed on your system. In this case you cannot recharge your credit to call international "standard" phone numbers.

Back in Italy I've noticed that ThePirateBay site is still inaccessible from Telecom Italia ADSL networks. This is what you get when you enter the site URL:
The Internet is becoming more and more "orwellian" all over the world...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Microsoft might be big but it is just not cool

OK, apparently I'm talking way too much about Microsoft but I just read an article on the UAE newspaper The National titled as this blog entry. It has a hilarious opening line that definitely deserves a mention: "Google's logo is plastered on the side of a space rocket. Apple has Nokia worried about its market share, Facebook is adding 10 million users every month. And Microsoft just launched a new mouse.".

This is the mouse by the way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Something about the Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Committee

I went today to the Abu Dhabi Systems & Information Committee (ADSIC), a governmental agency in charge of defining ICT standards for the Abu Dhabi Emirate. Their goal is to make sure that every IT implementation (whether hardware, network or software system) for public authorities, administrations and public companies complies with high-level quality standards.

They are managing a great deal of projects and I had just the chance to speak a bit about some of them. It definitely worths a mention their work on Architecture & Standards. They produced a 340 pages book with detailed guidelines (which they call the Abu Dhabi IT Architecture & Standards Framework) on how to implement IT systems, giving a close view at every possible part of the process, starting from the modeling techniques way down to the infrastructure and to the "operations" needed to maintain the system. For every layer of the framework they provided detailed explanations and a set of "standards", that is a reference list of technologies whose use may be "mandatory", "recommended" or still "under observation". The overall quality is very good even if I spotted an incredible mistake in the chapter called "Web Server" that most definitely need some technical editing.

Another very interesting project I spoke about today is the Abu Dhabi Spatial Data Infrastructure (AD-SDI), an "umbrella" name under which they have defined their ambitious GIS strategy. There's also a lot going on in this field (e.g. two GIS portals, one for the public and the other one for governmental agencies): but the best one for me is the fact that they are going to set up the strategy (from the technical, the legal and the administrative viewpoints) to allow a full geographical data exchange between governmental agencies.

To put it simple, each agency manages its own private data (e.g. archaeological data sets for ADACH, environmental data for the Environment Agency and so on) and is the sole entity responsible for those data. But they can get all the geographical information created by the other agencies through AD-SDI. This way the agencies can use a remarkable number of data-sets, all up-to-date and verified, minimizing the risk of duplication and mistakes.
Also if some data can be provided only by external suppliers (e.g. satellite photos) a special license will be acquired in order to allow the use of the data for all Abu Dhabi governmental agencies: one buys, everybody uses.

I also spoke, although very briefly, about their strategy regarding service integration. It is a new initiative and probably too soon to talk about it. For the curious there's a small presentation in their web site.

Kudos to the ADSIC people for their great job! Abu Dhabi has still to fill up the technological gap with the most advanced countries but it is definitely projecting itself into the future at remarkable speed: will Italy (or Europe in general) keep the pace?

Monday, September 01, 2008

In Abu Dhabi

I'm in Abu Dhabi at the moment, following a project for the nice guys of Liberologico with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADACH).

I'll blog in the near future about some interesting things regarding the project. I just took some pix that I wanted to publish on the spot on Flickr but I found out that Flickr access is forbidden from the Emirates!!! What a pity!

Anyway this is Abu Dhabi skyline at night!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dex 2.0

I've finally migrated all my data from my old Ksol devices to the new ones I bought. Plenty of gigabytes migrated from computer to computer, from phone to phone (not yet an iPhone...).
Some new "sexy" service would have helped a lot (MobileMe, Live Mesh, ...) but the process was after all quite smooth (apart some problems installing Office Mac 2008 but in a sense I quite deserved it since I sticked with Office instead on converting myself to NeoOffice/Open Office...). 
I've got also a new camera but please don't ask why I bought it "right" now...
Apparently everything is ready for Dex 2.0.... I'm more than ready to cut bridges with my old (professional) life once for all: no more excuses, really!
P.S.: actually I still have a Linux server, two Zope sites and a mailing list to bring away from Ksol............. Anyone can advice a good (and cheap) Zope hosting service around???

Monday, July 07, 2008


The news should have spread around enough right now that starting from last tuesday, July 1st, I work as an Independent Information Technology Consultant. 

I left Ksolutions after almost 15 years: just saying that these years were formative to me is pure understatement. I was hired as a Junior Software Engineer at Alsoft, became later a Project Manager at Aleph, then I joined as an Associate of Alsoft and later of Aleph and became finally a Technical Director at Ksolutions. The names changed (Alsoft, Aleph, Ksolutions) but the company was the same (or sort of... from 2005 it was not really the same anymore...). From a technical perspective I really did a lot of different things (development, system administration, project management, quality assurance inspections, ISO9001 auditing, chief technical officer, R & D director, presale consultant, doing a bit of service management and marketing support when needed) and learned a great deal of stuff, mostly - as usual - from my own mistakes.

I'm really happy right now to move on but I'd like here to remember with a "TOP 3 list" the nicest moments in Ksol: there were lots to choose from but right now these are the things that bear the most particular meaning to me.

# 3: the first official "Company Dinner" in 1993, in Viareggio. 
The restaurant was small and cosy and opened just for us. There were Monica, Enrico, Jean-Claude, Emilio (Aleph/Ksol original associates), Silvia, Ilaria 1, Matteo, Ilaria 2 and I. My attire was not really professional to say the least: I was dressed - as usual - in black with an ultra-goth T-Shirt (with an exorcism in latin written on it...). I had my army jack-boots on and had long curly hair. I spent the whole evening pretending I could divine the future of those present through palm-reading. Despite all that (or probably because of that) they later on hired me full time!!!

# 2: working there on 1999.
I just joined the company as an associate, getting on board together with Marco and Davide. We were in the heydays of the Internet era and were working very hard. Things were very difficult but we had the feeling that together we could solve every problem. We were a tight and powerful team, a supernova of creative energies. Together we were not afraid of anything, and could deal face-to-face - with no fear at all - with super-big partners, suppliers and customers, from Gruppo Espresso to CNN US or Netscape Corporation.

# 1: going to India in 2000.
On those days the hype in the Information Technology industry was "outsourcing" to India. The group Ksol belonged (and still belongs) to sent my colleague Jean-Claude and I to Delhi just to evaluate the opportunities to collaborate with Indian companies. We spent there just a few days, basically a week-end where we roamed around Delhi and Agra, and two days of business meetings. From a mere working viewpoint this travel was totally pointless but as a personal experience visiting India was simply gorgeous! I just published on my Flickr account a few pictures I took there.

Now, enough with nostalgia... It's time to move on!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Python IDE: search no more!

I've always looked for a nice and modern IDE for Python. I used to do my hacking with BBEdit which is still my favourite text editor on Mac OS X but I looked for something a bit more sophisticated, with code completion and stuff. I initially gave a look at Eclipse with the PyDev plug-in but loading the IDE took forever (not to mention the amount of RAM and CPU consumed while working on it).

I finally found Komodo Edit which is the open source, slimmed down version of the Komodo IDE by ActiveState. I immediately liked it very much! It's not ultra fast and slim like a text editor but it's not even a hog for my machine. The only thing I really missed was a feature to see the list of functions in your code (which is included - of course - in the commercial version). Luckily there's a free plug-in called Source Tree which implements nicely this functionality.
Everything is free and runs smoothly. I haven't honestly tested for long but for my quick hacks is definitely a great thing.

Give a look to Komodo Edit at the Open Komodo site. 

Friday, March 14, 2008

An interesting PC Mag article

Should I stay (with Mac OS X) or should I go (with Linux)? Which will my next desktop and laptop OS be? 

You can't care less I fear (and you are right) but if you have similar doubts or simply are curious about it, just check this interesting PC Magazine (yes PC!) article: OS Wars: The Battle for Your Desktop.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Apple is really getting on my nerves...

It seems Apple is doing everything to get on nerves of its loyal supporters: just read this.

I wonder how intelligent could be moves like:
1. disallowing coders to install at free their applications on the iPhone. Just imagine you do a small hack for your personal use: you can't definitely deliver this kind of apps through the Apple Store.
2. blocking killer apps like Skype to work on the iPhone
3. blocking the porting of Java and of scripting languages on the iPhone (or at least making life terribly hard, also from a legal point of view, to those who want to try the port).

Considering also other annoying things that I noticed recently in the Cupertino company including:
- the inability to use the latest iPod Nano on my sister's Macbook where "only" Mac OS X 10.3.9 is installed (an upgrade to 10.4 for an old machine with a G4 400 Mhz and 256 Mb of RAM doesn't sound as an option). Since the iPod Nano works smoothly on Windows XP (an OS which was first introduced in 2001; Mac OS X 10.3.9 was released on October 2003) it seems there isn't any technical reason to disallow this but just a marketing strategy to force Mac users to upgrade.
- the insane price for the Mac Book Air
- in general, the insane price of Macs here in Italy, despite the strong value of Euro against US Dollar
- the supposed agreement with the Italian telco TIM/Telecom to sell the iPhone in Italy: just ask Italians why (like the "locking" on the iPhone wasn't annoying enough).
Not to mention my problems with the 10.5 upgrade I already blogged about.

I used to "bleed in six colors" (just google for that) but now I'm really asking myself for the first time if my next computer will be a Mac...

Friday, February 22, 2008

One step forward to openness for Microsoft?

If  you are into conspiracy theories you'll look for hidden purposes in this Microsoft press release. Probably there are many of them, but at the end I think this initiative from Redmond is a success for everybody in the IT industry, first of all for the open source communities.

I especially look forward to the implementations related to these two actions: "Ensuring open connections to Microsoft’s high-volume products" and "Documenting how Microsoft supports industry standards and extensions". 

Specifically with the former I expect/hope to see in the near future a full compatibility with Microsoft Exchange for mail and calendaring client apps (Apple iCal to start with); the latter should ease the complete support of Office documents: much better than resort to reverse engineering each time.

Wait and see...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An interesting (yet "borderline") web site

For those into tech books this web site can be of great interest. Check it out!

P.S.: I really love "real books" so when I find something that I need and like I'm more than eager to buy it. That's the same with Music. So "services" like these can be of great usefulness to evaluate the quality of a book (like going to a Bookshop and give a look around to see if something is good or not). At the end, the old saying "Never judge a book from the cover" bears some truth...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mac OS X 10.5.2: a quick glance and an update

Last friday I updated my Mac to the latest release 10.5.2. The update was 180 Mb in size, quite large but definitely smaller to the expected "monstrous" size according to the rumors (or at least the power PC update is not "this" big; maybe the Intel version is larger).

Apparently this release fixes a lot of bugs but besides some changes in the User Interface (the option to turn off the transparency in the menu bar, more options for Stacks) it didn't seem like a great change. Unfortunately it isn't still supported the possibility to use Network Shared Volumes in Time Machine which apparently was a feature that should be official in 10.5.2. Anyway I just checked the web for that and found in the very interesting Volker Weber's blog a suggestion that allows you to backup on "unsupported volumes" like Network Shares. No hope anyway to use a FAT-32 USB drive (it still requires an HFS+ disk in this case).

In my first weeks with 10.5 it seems that my Mac is a bit slower so I'm not this keen on upgrading my wife's Mac which is a bit older than mine (1 Ghz G4 with 512 Mb of RAM). In particular some applications seems to perform worse, especially Firefox, that's why I'm using more Safari these days, which by the way is improved dramatically with these latest releases. For example all Gmail features seem to work: there is a minor weird behavior here on the WYSIWYG interface of Blogger, that is, it seems you can't cut from another application & paste in the Blogger Post form (you should switch to the HTML interface, do the paste and get back to the WYSIWYG form) but definitely this is a small issue. Great job WebKit team!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mac OS X 10.5: a very disappointing release...

I never expected to debut my blog complaining against Apple, but this time I'm more than disappointed with the Cupertino company.

I bought Mac OS X 10.5 to upgrade the operating system of my "old" Powerbook G4 1.33 Mhz: I've waited a few months after the official release of the operating system more out of free time than because I was scared of the ".0 release". Anyway, last Friday I updated finally the OS from 10.4(.10 if I remember well) to 1.5. The process was more than smooth even if it took quite a bit of time (basically the whole morning), quite longer than any other Mac OS X upgrade I performed. At the end I updated the OS to the latest version 10.5.1 and started to roam a bit the new features.

While on the "eye candy" department things were more than exciting I immediately had quite a lot of disappointments that is:
  • this OS "breaks" the compatibility with a lot of old applications: Photoshop 7 doesn't work, neither my original Lexmark Z43 drivers. Included with the OS there are some replacements for them but unfortunately print quality is very poor... (on that I have to make some extra tests to be honest)
  • another application that doesn't work anymore is Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 Mac. OK, who cares you might say. I unfortunately do, since we at office have several crucial (bad) web apps that work only with IE! I'm at a loss here.
  • Time Machine seems to work only with USB/Firewire external drives, not with remote network volumes. Moreover it's necessary to format the hard drive (probably it needs a HFS+ file system) from scratch, quite impossible if you fancied to use your half-empty USB drive as a backup station. Apparently the possibility to use a network share should be officially supported on 10.5.2 (on the Net you can find already some fix to have this feature now).
Today, to add insult to injury, while I was configuring File System Sharing the Finder froze, I was forced to reboot the Mac and.. surprise surprise... the system hanged! It loops on startup and I'm not able to login. I should come back home this afternoon to bring the Mac OS X DVD and try to reinstall everything from scratch.

I will never again blame Microsoft for the Vista upgrade problems....

[Update: everything is working fine now. I booted from the DVD, started "Disk utility" and performed a disk check. While file system was apparently OK there were some issues on permissions.

It seemed like a secondary thing (permissions were mostly wrong on Language files) but I gave it a try. The first time I performed a "Repair file permission" the procedure hanged.... After 2 hours I rebooted the Mac and tried again: this time file permission issues were repaired in more or less 15 minutes.

I restarted the Mac and quite surprisingly the boot procedure completed smoothly and I was able to log in.]