Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mer for Nokia Internet Tablets: The Undiscovered Country

Many of us were excited when Nokia officially unveiled a few features for the newest Maemo 5 operating system at the Maemo Summit in Berlin in September 2008. The feature list for Maemo 5 included support for TI OMAP 3 processors, Cellular Data Connectivity, High Definition Camera and Hardware Graphics Acceleration. The future looked bright for Nokia's Internet Tablet line. Then reality set in for some of us: Nokia would not be officially providing Maemo 5 and future OS releases to the N8X0 and 770 lines of Internet Tablets. Significant hardware differences was one factor leading to this decision, and Nokia's future business strategy was likely another. Rage ensued in the tablet community! This so-called sham was compared to the 770-to-N800 transition, where Nokia support for 770 users initially stopped at OS2006 (later, 'Hacker Editions' of OS 2007 and 2008 appeared, and were made available on Nokia's own firmware upgrade site).

Enter Mer. The Mer project aims at bringing Maemo more in-line with mainstream Linux distributions (in this case, Ubuntu), bringing as many of the Maemo 5 features back to pre- Maemo 5 devices, and expanding the device-base of Maemo to include things like the OMAP 3 based Beagleboard, Fujitsu-Siemens Pocket LOOX Pocket PCs, Neo Freerunner (of OpenMoko fame) and soon, the Zaurus. In addition, Mer will be as open as possible, both in terms of openness with its community, and with respect to its software source.

The project's two leaders, Carsten Munk (Stskeeps) and John Bloom (JohnX), agreed to the following Q&A session which I hope will be of interest to you all.

1. Having used Mer since version 0.7, I can see that is has come a long way. Obviously Mer development is time consuming. How much time do you devote to Mer in a day?

Carsten: I devote most of my idle time outside of work, classes and masters thesis work to Mer - being a facilitator for the activities there's some times where I concentrate on the work and sometimes where it's enough to just be nearby my tablet once in a while to discuss matters.
John: In my case it's a lot more varied. Some days I sit down and work on Mer stuff for most of the day. And sometimes I go a couple weeks without touching Mer stuff at all. Recently I completed a trans-continental move, so now hopefully I'll be able to devote a lot more time to Mer.

2. The Mer Team is about 30 people. How do you coordinate activities amongst yourselves? How do you set priorities for what issue you will tackle?
Carsten: We have taken a hint from maemo.org, to use SCRUM (or a variant of it), where people chip in with what activities they want to take on (from a backlog, see http://wiki.maemo.org/Mer/Sprints/0.13 ) or the mentors in each area can delegate to people in the team if they ask for something to do.

There's also the issue of keeping people in the team informed. Originally we used Jaiku (microblogging) where it was the idea that when achievements were made you microblogged about it. The Mer team members are spread over several time zones so it's difficult to keep track.

This has now evolved into the mer-chatter mailing list, which is basically microblogging through e-mail - send many, short messages, most information in subject and maybe elaborating a little in the body of the e-mail.

We also post to the mailing list through an IRC bot - and people can receive the messages through a digest too, or look up in the archive (https://garage.maemo.org/pipermail/mer-chatter/)

John: From the point of view of someone who wants to get involved in the Mer project, they can take a look at the Sprints page (that Carsten mentioned above), and see what needs to be done. If they find something they're interested in working on, it's easy for them to jump right in, asking questions as they go.

3. Can you detail the support that you are getting from Nokia? In addition to the open source bits that you are including in Mer, what closed bits have you received, or are expected to receive from them? Have any new components from the Maemo 5 SDK's made their way into Mer yet?
Carsten: Current status can be described as following:

* Nokia has sponsored travel+accomodation for five community members dealing with Mer (cladius, me, johnx, lbt, rm_you) to get together as part of the Mozilla Maemo Danish weekend - alone the monetary value of that is a huge and much appreciated support :)

* Nokia has put out several code drops (pre-alpha, pre-alpha2, alpha, beta1, soon to be beta2) of the open source code and we have included these code drops in Mer as they have come in (beta1 still in progress)

* Nokia has essentially said that they don't see a problem in distributing Nokia software to Nokia tablet users - which is an impressive statement by them (see http://lists.maemo.org/pipermail/maemo-community/2009-January/002946.html)

* Nokia is sponsoring maemo.org and the employees running it, which we use as our infrastructure technically as well as organizational - who are very helpful to the project.

(there's probably more but this is what I can remember at 10am :)

4. Can you provide us with a definitive word on the status of the graphics acceleration drivers for the OMAP 2? Is it true that Nokia is assisting in getting those closed bits to the Mer team?
Carsten: Well, it's actually an item out of my hands - do note that Nokia is assisting in getting those bits to the Maemo community, not exclusively to Mer. Quim said on IRC he will go to talk to TI during May. What we have done from Mer point of view is suggest ways to deal with this, see http://internettablettalk.com/forums/showpost.php?p=283003&postcount=8

5. My own opinion is that Mer in its current state (version 0.12) it is not ready for prime-time yet. What issues do you feel need to be resolved before it is ready? What show-stoppers, if any, need to be overcome?
Carsten: Show-stoppers are pretty simple: we need some people with GTK knowledge to work with us for a while to get some things rolling - as we have some tiny bugs in Hildon Desktop that are annoying. Rest is powerlaunch scripting (behaviour) and control panels. There's a longer discussion in the http://internettablettalk.com/forums/showthread.php?t=28586 (Mer 0.12 release thread) including a discussion of the showstoppers.

6. When I interviewed Andre Klapper back in late 2008, he indicated that the Mer team was welcome to use Maemo's bugzilla to enter and track bugs. Are you currently doing this?
Carsten: Yes, we're under "Extras" in the maemo.org bugzilla and Andre and co has been excellent in helping us out with getting things working. We even get delegated some WONTFIX'es ;)

7. Mer comes pre-installed with a few applications. Are the Mer repositories building up, or is more focus on Mer itself for the moment.
John: Right now the focus is on Mer itself. We want a solid base that won't change too much before we start putting a lot of applications on top. We're also looking at how to integrate with maemo.org Extras in terms of making it possible for developers to write one source package that compiles for Maemo and Mer. Hopefully this situation will improve with time. We want to be using our favorite apps on Mer just as much as
everyone else.

8. Speaking of repositories. From what I gather, Mer is based upon Ubuntu Jaunty. Can the Ubuntu repositories be used as-is for things like resource-efficient command-line applications? I imagine that anything with a GUI would have to be Hildonized first?
John: We have the Ubuntu repositories enabled by default and command line applications and tools are no problem at all in almost all cases. As for GUI tools, do they need to be Hildonized before they can be used? Not necessarily. Hildonizing certainly helps applications to be more touchscreen friendly and fit in with the look and feel of the desktop better, but apps that already look OK in an 800x440 window should run and be usable to some degree without any extra work.

9. OK I have a personal pet peeve with Mer's Midori web browser on my N800! I still cannot enter any text within webpage fields. I suspect that this is not an issue for the N810? When will this get resolved?!
John: We'll be switching to Bundyo's Tear web browser after a couple things get resolved. That should fix the issue nicely as well as adding a whole bunch of tablet specific features, such as drag-to-scroll, a touch friendly UI and good usage of screen real estate.

10. Where do you see the Mer project going after stable distributions are commonplace.

Carsten: My personal hope is that the Mer project will help put the Maemo platform everywhere - and to group together efforts in the various device communities. If we can put Hildon on a lot of different devices easily, and bring along all the applications with ease, it can only be a good thing :) Maybe you'll see a Hildon application made for the Zaurus running on your N810. Or Maemo Mapper on a X86 MID. Imagine the possibilities.

Also, consider that Mer is not "just" a Fremantle backport project. The original idea was to revolutionize and reconstruct the Maemo platform - in order to make it more tolerable for developers, community, users, etc. Maybe Mer might actually the future of the Maemo platform? Who knows? Nevertheless, we are only packagers of the
excellent work the Hildon and Maemo teams at Maemo SW (and contractors) are putting out, but we try to do this in a new way and develop ways to make it easier to work with for developers, community, users, etc.

11. Anything you both want to say to the Mer and Maemo communities?
Carsten: We wouldn't have gotten this far without all the small and big contributions made by you to the Mer project and I hope you'll help us to get to the finish line (a fully day to day usable OS on your tablets) - we still need a lot of hands.

John: I think Carsten said it better than I could. Thanks for all the help, testing, positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, everyone. We're getting closer everyday.

'Post'-Mortem by EIPI

Thanks Carsten and John for taking the time to participate in the interview.

The development of Mer excites me. It is an amazing display of a community coming together to shape its own future. It is obvious that the Mer team is working extremely hard to get a polished working product in our hands.

Mer as an operating system excites me. Mer looks quite polished, and I have no doubt that it will be a polished and usable operating system once some of the hurdles are overcome. Some of the highlights that stand out to me:
  • Hardware graphics acceleration on the OMAP 2!
  • Ubuntu's beefy repositories!
  • Mer in other everyday devices - Think about Mer-based set-top boxes, SOHO servers, media players, and beyond!

For those of us that will not be continuing along with Maemo's progression past Diablo, I encourage you to install Mer, update it with each release, file bugs, suggest enhancements, port applications, and quite simply - help out in whatever way you can. The Mer team is looking for someone with GTK experience to help out ... if you are that person, or you know of someone who is, let the project leaders, Carsten and John know.

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thp said...

That was informative :) Thanks for taking the time conducting this short Q&A!

Qole Pejorian said...

Thanks for doing these interviews, EIPI! They're always interesting and informative.

I just want to reiterate what Stskeeps said: the hardware acceleration, if we get it, will be available to the whole community, not just within Mer. This means we could have apps with hardware acceleration within Maemo, too.

Anonymous said...

I would use mer on my tablet but what prevents me from doing it is the sound problem, without sound the tablet is just... less useful. Also I don't know for example how the gps works on mer and if there are software as good as maemo-mapper.

Texrat said...

Very helpful and informative interview! Nicely done.

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