Forkolator

Sandy blogged about Forkolator, which is a project to make forking web applications easy. There isn’t yet a lot of documentation on Forkolator, but from what I can glean from the web site and a glance at the source code, the idea is basically that each web application (Wikipedia, GMail, Forkolator itself) would include an IDE for forking the app.

Apps as platforms

In Marc Andreessen’s categorization, that would make Forkolator-using applications level 3 platforms – the hardest to create.

Sandy paraphrases Erik saying:

Erik believes that the data layer of the app would probably have to be well-defined and untouchable by forkers.

That makes things easier (though still far from easy), but we should consider that it also limits what you can implement in your fork. For example, I don’t see how you could realistically implement a label system for your mail app without the ability to add new database tables or the equivalent.

Writing web apps is just hard

Aside from the whole freedom aspect, one thing that we should note is that writing web applications is generally very hard, period. It requires a lot of expertise to do even passably well. Depending on the application of course; an online stopwatch is a little bit easier than eBay. Is there work on making writing web apps easier that could be leveraged to also improve forking apps?

Incentive

One angle that seems critical to any effort like this is creating an incentive for the application maintainer to support these changes.

Levels of modification and APIs

If the goal is “chrome” level modifications, an entirely different approach would be Greasemonkey-style client changes. From what I understand (though I haven’t looked myself), GMail effectively has a JavaScript API one can code to, and this lets things like Better GMail work in a maintainable way. Of course though, it’s usually not going to be straightforward for a web application author to fold a Greasemonkey script back into the site.

So to make a system maintainable there have to be defined APIs. As Andreessen says, a level 3 platform requires all of the level 1 and 2 work. I don’t see how something like Forkolator could work without them. If you want to make say a modification to Wikipedia that makes editing more collaborative, it would need to hook into the APIs for modifying pages, etc.

Some attempt at a conclusion

I’m not sure I’d completely agree with the assertion that “web apps are killing free software”; Free Software use on both the client and the server is growing (at least it appears so to me). Now, web apps are definitely killing certain types of software, Free or not. The challenge is to preserve the spirit of Free Software through a computing shift.

I think that while we don’t really have a shared “free/open/principled” service definition yet, there’s a general consensus around some points like data access APIs and source code availability. So it will make sense to continue evaluating services in that context – if they support a Forkolator-style approach, that’s even better.

LugRadio!

Havoc and I were interviewed on LugRadio. Listening to the high quality Ogg now. They had a lot of good questions, it was friendlier than I expected given the intimidating pictures of the interviewers on the website =)

HotSSH – this afternoon’s few hours of PyGTK hacking

Improving the command line

One of the goals I had when starting the Hotwire shell project was to experiment with possible UI improvements to the command line[1]. The old terminal+shell combination gives quick access to a lot of the system, but the tty interface is very limited. I think Hotwire does successfully demonstrate that you can improve on things like ls while still retaining most of the general power of a traditional Unix terminal+shell.

How not to do it

One of the things I’ve wanted to improve since the beginning of the project was the ssh experience. Now when you think of “GUI SSH”, you may be imagining something like Putty. No offense to Simon or any of the Putty developers who brought a very useful bit of Free Software to those of us periodically stuck on Windows, but Putty has a poor user interface. It’s quite complex and confusing if you just want to connect to a remote computer; all of the useful options are mixed in with the options created for all of the 3 people in the world using Kerberized SSH or whatever, it doesn’t remember which hosts I use most, etc.

What is HotSSH

HotSSH is my afternoon hack to create a thin SSH-specific runtime UI, written in ~500 lines of Python/GTK+. Here is how you are expected to run it (using e.g. bash):

$ alias ssh='/path/to/hotssh/bin/hotssh'
$ ssh example.com

In other words, I’m not breaking your workflow here by making you type into some crappy dialog. HotSSH is designed to be launched from your existing shell. You can keep taking advantage of any smarts your shell has, like intelligent host completion, history etc. So what does HotSSH do then? A picture is in order here:


OpenSSH icon, knows which host you’re connected to, etc.

So when you type ssh hostname from your shell, it opens a new tab in your existing HotSSH window, instead of taking over your terminal. You get a nice OpenSSH blowfish icon in your task list instead of an undifferentiated terminal icon. In the future there will be more, here’s the current TODO:

* Connect dialog, with completion from known_hosts
* Reconnect button
* Open SFTP button?
* <owen> … doing a list down the left rather than tabs with both favorites and running ssh, and have running ssh bold
* Latency display (not sure how to implement this with OpenSSH)

And that’s about it. Right now I’m tentatively planning to ship HotSSH with Hotwire, so Hotwire users get a nicer out of the box SSH experience, but I did make it a separate code base, so if you don’t yet use Hotwire you can still take advantage of HotSSH. Here’s the Git repository:

git clone http://submind.verbum.org/~walters/hotssh.git

Send any feedback, patches etc. you have for HotSSH to the Hotwire Discussion Group.

Relation to other projects

The Internet is full of projects which create terrible looking connection dialogs for SSH. I initially searched for a project like HotSSH trying to improve the post-connection aspect while still allowing you to use it as a drop-in replacement for the ssh command but didn’t find one. It would be interesting though if someone added support for HotSSH to say SSHMenu.

[1] – In addition to creating a shell that by default does not lose all of your history if your computer crashes.

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A few years from now…

I have a feeling that a few years from now we may look back on the Eee PC and say “Yep, that’s when Linux really entered the consumer market”. Going to various coffee shops in Cambridge, I see a ton of iBooks, followed by smaller Dells dominating the “lightweight student laptop” category. But at less than half the price of those the Eee could really undercut them while providing about as much functionality.