When writing about free and open source software, sometimes I seem to spend all my time complaining. So, after last week, when I described 2011 as a whole as a disappointment, I thought I should add some balance by mentioning some of the free software-related discoveries that delighted me during the past year.
Many of these discoveries were not new in 2011, although several came into their own during the year. However, until the last twelve months, they were new to me. All are worth mentioning, just in case you’ve missed them:
1) The Kobo Touch Ereader
Unless you’re a Canadian like me, you may have overlooked the Kobo Touch. Although it was sold in Borders stores, in the United States, the Kobo has been overshadowed by Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.
However, when I caved in and finally bought an ereader this year, I chose the Kobo Touch. The decision was based partly on the smaller size and touchscreen, as well as the ability to expand the memory up to 32 gigabyes with a micro SDHC Card.
But the real reason was that the Kobo was the manufacturer that came closest to supporting my software ideals. Not only does it advertise a few titles without DRM, but it also has a semi-official Debian/Ubuntu version of the Kobo Desktop to automate firmware upgrades. Additional efforts in these directions would satisfy me better, but I’ll take what I can get.
2) The calibre Ebook Manager
The calibre ebook manager is one of those all-in-one applications that free software developers so frequently produce. With tools to view ebooks, convert formats, manage lobbies, and comparison shop online, calibre makes the software that comes with the average ereader look feeble in comparison.
Moreover, for those like me who prefer not to buy locked-down books, it is affiliated with the Open Books portal site, which provides links to web pages where you can buy DRM-free books.
calibre’s interface badly needs revising, and it should ask before collecting data about users. However, without calibre, I would unquestionably have a much lower opinion about ebooks in general.
3) Google Web Fonts
As someone who has earned a living as a graphical designer, I’ve long been bothered by the lack of free-licensed fonts. The situation has slowly improved over the years, but Google Web Fonts is the biggest leap forward yet, collecting dozens of mostly free fonts in one place.
Browsing has steadily improved on the site. Now, you can filter fonts by their type, then view them as a single word, a sentence or — most usefully — as a paragraph, a sampling that many font browsers often omit in a sure sign that they’ve been designed by non-designers. Then, when you are ready, you can either link to the site to improve the look of your web sites, or download typefaces to use on your computer. It’s an invaluable and long overdue resource.
4) Bodhi Linux
I firmly believe that, as Samuel Johnson said about London, when you are tired of Debian, you’re tired of life. However, if I were seriously thinking of switching to another distribution, Bodhi Linux would be on my shortlist of possible alternatives.
Bodhi is a minimalist distribution based on Ubuntu, and uses Enlightenment as a desktop. It also installs a minimum of applications, leaving you to decide what else to add. This combination makes Bodhi fast, configurable, and secure, and a standout not just among minimalist distributions, but among distributions in general.
5) Fuduntu Linux
Another distribution on my short list of alternatives is Fuduntu. As its name suggests, Fuduntu tries to steer a middle course between Fedora and Ubuntu, combining the best of both.
Based on Fedora 14 and GNOME 2.32, Fuduntu replaces the bottom panel with the Avant Window Navigator, a highly customizable launcher. The result is an interface that feels like a more configurable, less awkward version of Unity.
In addition, Fuduntu distinguishes itself with tools that add more configuration options to the desktop, and a selection of software that departs in minor ways from the standard GNOME selection. Its software also includes licensed versions of Adobe Flash and the Fluendo MP3 codec.
6) KDE Plasma Active
Between Ubuntu’s Unity and GNOME 3, 2011 wasn’t a happy year for new interfaces. The exception is the little-noticed Plasma Active, KDE’s new interface for touchscreen tablets.
Plasma Active is not only a stunning bit of eye-candy, but also a highly functional interface. Borrowing from OS X, it arranges Activities — individually customized virtual workspaces — on a spinner, which is by far the most functional of the several ways that KDE has attempted to present them.
Moreover, unlike Unity, which overlays the desktop with menus, or GNOME 3 with its separate overview screen, Plasma Active is arranged on a single screen. Virtual keyboards, the Activity switcher, and other additions all slide out from the side of the screen when in use, then neatly slide back when you are done.
This arrangement keeps users focused on the task at hand. It’s the only interface I’ve seen that’s designed for a mobile device yet whose features work equally well on a larger screen.
7) The Maker Movement
Free and open source software has produced numerous off-shoots, from the open hardware movement to the open access movement in academic publishing. But one of the offshoots I had never encountered before last June was the Maker Movement.
For me, visiting a small Maker Faire in Vancouver was like visiting a shop full of magical curios.
Spider-legged vehicles, chocolate printers, programmable light displays built from bicycles — all these wonders put me very much in mind of the hacker ethic and ingenuity of free software. I can’t say that I was tempted — much — to start tinkering, any more than I’m tempted to start serious programming just because I hang out with free software developers. But I appreciate what I saw in much the same way.
The next time a Maker Faire happens near me, you can be sure I’ll be dropping by for an extended visit.
8) GNOME Shell Extensions
The GNOME 3 series is a radical departure from previous releases. Among other innovations, it removes customizable applets from the panel, and requires users to switch to the overview to add virtual workspaces. Vocal users have complained long and loudly about such changes, and been mostly ignored by GNOME.
Now, GNOME Shell Extensions are starting to appear — and many of them restore the features that GNOME 3 omitted as needless clutter. In particular, Linux Mint 12 was recently released with Mint GNOME Shell Extensions (MGSE), a collection of a dozen extensions that restore GNOME 3 to much of the look and function of GNOME 2.
Not being primarily a GNOME user, the extensions don’t affect me much. But their ingenuity and the determination behind them seems so typical of the free and open source software community that they make me smile in appreciation. So much for top-down control of the desktop.
9) The DuckDuckGo Search Engine
The name grates like a piece of tin foil ground between your teeth, but DuckDuckGo is what all search engines should be. It doesn’t record your searches, and presents results by relevance, rather than on the basis of your preferences as determined by past searches.
Better yet, it includes dozens of behavorial and cosmetic options, including the ability to turn off ads and filter by regions. In addition, it includes dozens of advanced search features, including the ability to search within certain popular sites, and do calculations and conversions. You can find many of these features in other search engines, but not the variety and sheer number that DuckDuckGo provides.
Even more importantly, DuckDuckGo is a hybrid search engine, doing some of its own crawling, but also drawing results from over fifty other sources, ranging from Google and Bing to small specialty engines. The results are then filtered to remove spam sites, all of which returns more relevant information for the users.
If you use the latest release of Linux Mint, then you are already using DuckDuckGo by default. If you’re not, take a look, especially if you are worried about how large a role Google is playing in your life and want an alternative.
Out of Free Software, Always Something New
I may have missed one or two discoveries. Free software is a sprawling community, and someone always seems to be emerging from an obscure corner with something ingenious.
But these are the discoveries I remember as I look back on 2011. All of them are the sort of application or endeavor that confirms my conviction that, despite the disappointments from some of the larger projects, free software is still a creative center that, for all my criticisms, I remain pleased and privileged to write about.
I can hardly wait to see what small treasures 2012 reveals. I’m sure there’ll be plenty — maybe even more than I can write about.