Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

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    Michael is a trainer and consultant specializing in making mobility technology work in people's everyday lives.
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Archive for the ‘Open Source Software’ Category

Pocket Informant for iPhone: I sync, therefore I am…

Posted by Michael Brown on July 28, 2008

There’s been a lot of hype and discussion about certain popular applications coming over to the iPhone platform, and Pocket Informant is no exception. The popular Windows Mobile Personal Information Manager is due out on the iPhone sometime in the future, but it’s most important feature is the one receiving the least amount of attention. It’s Sync engine is based on SyncML, specifically the open-source Funambol sync engine. It has it’s own Funambol client syncing to it’s own Calendar and task databases, since the iPhone doesn’t presently have a tasks database, nor does it expose the built-in Calendar to 3rd party applications.

So, essentially it works like Chapura’s Keysuite on the Palm; work around limitations of the platform’s databases by simply replacing them. It’s the Sync Engine though that really shows that the WebIS people are serious about making PI a heavyweight on the iPhone. Funambol allows for syncing many different types of devices and services, and allows for the “pushing” of information out to mobile devices. This could really make the iPhone really useful as a productivity device, by syncing Customer relationship managment (CRM) or sales force automation (SFA) data to the iPhone.

It’s been entertaining watching the App store releases; mostly eye-candy and fluff, but the next few months should be really entertaining as the heavyweights start entering the ring.

Originally posted to PalmAddicts here.


Posted in Inter-operability, iPhone, Open Source Software, Open Standards, PalmAddicts, Time & Task Management, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Is there a virtual Palm in your Future?

Posted by Michael Brown on January 2, 2008

First there was virtual pets, now there is virtual Palms. With the recent release of the Garnet Virtual Machine for the Nokia Internet tablets, it now joins StyleTap as another contender for virtualizing your Palm device on different portable hardware. The real benefit of the Palm OS platform has always been the abundance of third-party applications which can personalize your handheld for your lifestyle. Many people get hooked on a particular application, which may not have a counterpart on another platform, and that confines them to staying on the same platform. Virtualization technologies like StyleTap and the Garnet VM allow you to run your favourite applications on a different hardware/OS platform, which means you can choose new hardware which has the features you want, while still being able to run your favourite applications. For those people who tire of dealing with the limitations of the existing Palm OS or hardware, you now have the freedom to choose something more to your liking.

As for the timing of this release, it’s definately a shot across Palm’s bow, and will hurt Palm’s handheld sales to some degree this holiday season. Nokia has recently released it’s N810 Internet Tablet, and the N800’s are still selling strong, priced around $260 CDN, compared to the Palm Tungsten TX priced around $280 CDN. So, for $20 less, you get 2 memory slots, a webcam, stereo speakers and headphones, and a 800×480 screen, along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and a Linux-based OS. Up till now, the Internet tablet was really only lacking a viable PIM suite; with the release of the Garnet VM, you can now have all your old favourites for free, and HotSync too! It also benefits Access in promoting it’s ALP product to potential clients, and by building in feedback tools to the Garnet VM, they can benefit from the “testing” by a large userbase.

So, Palm, I’ll say it again; it’s time to swallow your pride and look long and hard at licensing ALP, since your home-grown OS won’t be out ’till late 2008, or the next virtual Palm we see may be a virtual Palm Inc., as seen in the Wayback Machine.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

Posted in Linux, Open Source Software, Palm, PalmAddicts, Technology | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Desktop is a dying breed…

Posted by Michael Brown on August 22, 2007

HP TouchSmart PC
At least that’s the gist of what I heard a Best Buy employee telling a shopper. The shopper was looking at this new HP TouchSmart “Family PC” and trying out it’s Smart Centre functions. It has a 19″ touchscreen, a Family Calendar, a message center, integrated TV tuner, webcam and microphone, and wireless keyboard, mouse and stylus. It runs Windows Vista, so it has the Media Centre functionality built-in. The shopper thought it was cool, but asked “Why would they make something like this?”. The Best Buy guy said that laptops are outselling desktops 6 to 1, and that most people are buying laptops as a personal item, no different than a PDA, cell phone or music player. He also said that even though some families have a laptop for each family member, they still wanted a “Family PC” for keeping shared files and media, so HP designed something that could go on a kitchen counter or family room table to fit those requirements plus more.

The funny thing is, I recognized the truth and implications of that right away, because I’m going through a similar situation right now. I’ve built every PC I’ve ever owned from parts I’ve researched and found to meet my needs, so I get everything I need, and nothing extra I don’t. So, when my old desktop needed upgrading, I did the same thing, and just moved my Windows 2000 installation “as-is” to the new machine (it wasn’t quite that simple, but you get the point). And it’s a nice machine: Asus motherboard, 2GB OCZ RAM, AMD X2 2.6GHz processor, SATA II drive. It’s powerful, fast, and… I maybe get to use it a couple of hours a week if I’m lucky! Family life with two young kids does not lend itself to going to the home office and getting some stuff done on the desktop. That can only happen at nap times, or when they finally go to bed (at which point I’m so tired I probably want to go to bed too!). So, most of the time I use my Treo for computing work I need to do (which is what it’s intended for); for when I need more horsepower, I use VNC to my server, and run those applications there. It can get a little tedious after a while though, working with desktop applications running in a resolution of 1024×768 or higher, on a display 320×320 in size!

Sadly, I’ve come to the realization that I need portability and mobility… for in my house! The Treo does everything I need it too while I’m out-and-about, but I’m really tied down at home using the desktop. I could get a laptop, but I don’t find them as portable or as ergonomic as they could be. So, being a long time Palm user, I’m thinking a convertible Tablet PC is the way to go. It has the pen interface I’ve always liked about Palm handhelds, with the power and flexibility of a portable PC. A convertible tablet is one that has a keyboard like a conventional laptop, but turns into a “slate” tablet with a “twist-and-flip” of the display. The only disadvantage to the Tablet PC is price; they’re still considered a “niche” item with some pricey components in them, and you do pay a premium for that. So, I may end up having to settle for a resonably priced laptop and using my Wacom Graphire 4 tablet with it; after all, I’ve got a mortgage to pay and kids to feed, so something has to give somewhere. Decisions, decisions, but I digress…

As far as the “Family PC”; I think it’s a concept that will work well. As more and more of our daily interactions become digital, and the pace of our lifestyles increases, the calendar on the fridge just won’t cut it anymore. We’ve had a home server running in the house since 2003; it’s the central repository for all shared media and files, the mail server, HTPC recording backend, and a VNC terminal server (for access by my Treo, or for long running operations on a desktop application). It’s the hub of our home systems, as it’s accessible from everything from my Treo, to my desktop or my wife’s work laptop, to devices like the HTPC and the MediaMVP we use for viewing various media like TV programs and movies, family pictures and videos. I’m too much of a DIY person to run out and buy something like the TouchSmart (it’ll be more fun to try and replicate the same functionality using Open-Source components and my choice of hardware). But I can honestly say I can see it as the hub in many a household, tying together laptops, UMPC’s, PDA’s and smartphones, keeping the family organized and in touch in the coming digital era. Having something like this allows you to have a common repository for family information, as well as a common message centre. Imagine being able to forward VoIP voice mail (or Video voice mail), voice or video messages from family members, ink notes, or even the grocery list to a family member’s Treo, with just a few taps of your finger. Or how about making dinner arrangements, and having it entered into each family members calendar automatically, available when they next sync. The possibilities are endless; think your group calendars at work, but applied to the home and combined with the power of Internet Calendars.

Apple could easily make something similar to the SmartTouch PC with a Multi-Touch iMac, an umbrella package like SmartCentre, and many of their existing software packages (iCal, Front Row, iPhoto, iTunes, Inkwell, etc). The desktop as we know it is dying in the home; it will become a niche market for power users, system builders, and gamers with the need for speed. Evolution is happening in the home, and the Family PC won’t look like it’s boxy brethren of old; slick new fashionable designs, combined with powerful user interfaces and family organizational tools will make this a pleasure to use, and more interesting than sticky notes and the calendar on the fridge that nobody bothers to read. This new class of “Family PC” is huge; this may be a big step towards the Jetson’s home of the future.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

Posted in Inter-operability, Open Source Software, Palm, PalmAddicts, PC, PIM, Productivity, Time & Task Management, Windows | Leave a Comment »

Palm OS, freedom of choice is the cornerstone

Posted by Michael Brown on August 9, 2007

The Palm OS platform has long been about the freedom of choice. If you don’t like the built-in applications, you can either replace them totally, or you can use another application that works with the existing databases. If you don’t want to use Palm Desktop, you can use Outlook, or Lotus Notes, or Act, or any of dozens of other Personal Information Management applications. If you don’t like the Palm conduits, you can use PocketMirror or Intellisync or any one of several other sync conduits.

Don’t use Windows as your desktop OS? No problem! You can Sync to Macs, Linux PC’s, Solaris, and even the Amiga! Your data is available to you on the desktop platform of your choice, using the conduits of your choice, in the applications you want to use. And it’s like that with the majority of applications on the Palm OS, with one notable exception. Most of the major “mobile office” suites insist on using Microsoft Office formats as their data format. So, that makes it more difficult for people using platforms other than Windows, or those who can’t afford MS Office, to access mobile documents.

If your data is important to you, and you want the freedom of choice to use other formats like the OpenDocument format, then it’s time to remind the manufacturers of those office suites that choice is the cornerstone of the Palm Platform. If they don’t choose to support Open standards, or at least support software like OpenOffice writing to MS formats, then we as users may choose to take our business to those who will support our choices.

Originally posted to Palm Addicts here.

Now, if you want to be able to work with Open and inter-operable document formats on you Palm or Treo, you need to let the manufacturers know. Write them an e-mail, or use the forms I’ve linked to below to tell them you’d like support for the OpenDocument format (ODF) built into their product. DataViz, the makers of the Documents to Go suite bundled with many Palm and Treo devices, are building in support for Microsoft Office 2007 formats, known as OO-XML. Since it has some of the same technologies (XML) that are used in ODF, it should be straight forward to add support for ODF into the Docs to Go suite. Feel free to tell them you’d like to see them do it!

The DataViz general feedback page can be found here. Let them know you want to see ODF support on mobile devices.

If you use QuickOffice, their feedback site is here.

For users of the MobiSystems OfficeSuite, their contact page is here.

Posted in Inter-operability, ODF, Open Source Software, Open Standards, Palm, PalmAddicts, Paperless Office, Productivity, Technology | Leave a Comment »

Advice sought from (Linux) gamers on controllers…

Posted by Michael Brown on July 14, 2007

I know a fair number of people read this blog every week, many looking for answers to their problems, or looking for new ideas and solutions. I’m hoping some of you readers may help me by way of your own experiences.

Earlier this week, I wrote about installing Childsplay on Freevo, our Home Theatre PC. Childsplay is normally run on a PC, so it normally expects a mouse and keyboard. I’m hoping to get a game controller to be able to have my kids play with it, but I’m not really a gamer. I’m not really sure which type of controller to get, but I do know I want to get a wireless controller.

I know there are Linux drivers available for Xbox 360 Wireless controllers (xpad), the Wiimote (Cwiid), and the Playstation 3 controller. The xpad drivers have been around for a while and are pretty stable, but I don’t know as much about the Cwiid (Wiimote) or PS3 drivers. I haven’t really spent any “hands-on” time with any of the controllers, so I’d be interested in hearing people’s advice or recommendations on the controllers in general, and under Linux in particular.

I think the Wiimote concept (pointing device with optional accessories) may be the best for my application, but I’m not sure if the drivers are mature enough for use. Here are my specific questions:

How would the three of them compare as general purpose game controllers?
(either under Linux or on their native platforms) I know it’s an “apples vs oranges” comparison in some ways, but I’m thinking along the lines of general compatibility/usability with a variety of educational games by non-gamer type adults and young kids.

How are the linux drivers?
I’ve already compiled the ones for the Xbox 360 Wireless, so it’s straight forward. I don’t have any experience with the Cwiid or PS3 ones… Is there a mouse emulation mode for the Xbox (xpad) or PS3 drivers?

Anything I’m missing? The last time I played games, it was on a Commodore 64 or Atari 2600 (I know, I’m dating myself!)

Thanks for any and all help rendered! Please feel free to use the comments for your replies, so that others may also benefit from your advice. Much appreciated!

Have a great weekend!

Posted in Freevo, Gaming, HTPC, Linux, Open Source Software | Leave a Comment »

Freevo and IVTV 0.8 gotcha’s

Posted by Michael Brown on April 18, 2007

I’ve been using Freevo as a “VCR” for about a year now, and I really like it. Freevo is a lightweight multi-media PC framework written in python, running on Linux, using many existing open-source multi-media players like mplayer and xine. In my case, I’ve been using it for the last year running without the GUI on my server in the office, while displaying the recorded programs using a Hauppage MediaMVP running the open-source MVPMC (MVP media center) instead of Hauppage’s Windows-based software. The MVP is great because it’s quiet and low-power, boots quickly, and produces a great video image; we use it to watch recorded programs in our bedroom after the kids are in bed. The MVPMC software really gives it a lot of flexibility (more so than Hauppage’s own software), and it’s under steady development to give it even more features. MVPMC also integrates nicely with that other Linux HTPC package (MythTV), but I personally like Freevo’s design much better. I’ve been using Hauppage’s WinTV PVR 150 as the capture card (I use the less expensive 150 OEM MCE edition, as they don’t come with the Windows software, just MCE drivers). The full retail version comes with a remote, which is supported under Linux using the LIRC package.

Main menu TV Guide Movie Browsing

Music Browsing Playing Music Image Browsing

So, getting on with the story… I noticed that Georg had packaged 1.7.0 for Debian and Ubuntu, so I decided it was time to upgrade from 1.6.3, as 1.7 has some really nice new features. I hit a couple of minor packaging issues, which I figured out and sent Georg an e-mail last night (he had them fixed in the morning! Gotta love Open-Source developers!) I backed up my file, and copied the new to, and started restoring my settings from the backup file. Generally, everything worked well, except for some video issues.

This is how Freevo’s IVTV options were configured “out-of-the-box” in the Debian packages I used (IVTV is the open-source driver effort for cards like the WinTV PVR series).

'input' : 4,
'resolution' : '720x480',
'aspect' : 3,
'audio_bitmask' : 233,
'bframes' : 3,
'bitrate_mode' : 1,
'bitrate' : 4000000,
'bitrate_peak' : 4000000,
'dnr_mode' : 0,
'dnr_spatial' : 0,
'dnr_temporal' : 0,
'dnr_type' : 0,
'framerate' : 0,
'framespergop' : 15,
'gop_closure' : 1,
'pulldown' : 0,
'stream_type' : 10,

Now, in IVTV 0.8, many of the IVTV options are now configured through the command v4l2-ctl, and not ivtvctl as they were in previous versions of the IVTV utilities. As the drivers progress in developement, ivtvctl will go away, as all it’s features get rolled into the v4l (video 4 linux) drivers and utilities

Here are the defaults for the two settings that got me when I upgraded to the 0.8 drivers from the 0.7 ones.

video_aspect (menu) : min=0 max=3 default=1 value=1
video_b_frames (int) : min=0 max=33 step=1 default=2 value=2 flags=update

I needed to set ‘b frames’ to 2 to eliminate some picture jitter I was getting, and I needed to set aspect to 2 to get the aspect ratio back to the expected 4:3 for my TV (3 is 16:9 widescreen, which I don’t have). As the drivers develop and get merged into the v4l project, expect to tweak settings as defaults may change.

Here are the possible aspect ratio choices:

aspect aspect ratio
1 1:1
2 4:3 (normal TV)
3 16:9 (Widescreen)
4 2.21:1

v4l2-ctl -l | more is a helpful troubleshooting tool that lists all possible controls and their values. It lists what the defaults are as well as what the current value is, so if you run into problems, try setting your values to defaults, then changing one at a time to see if that fixes your problems (or improves the quality, etc.).

I’ll write something more about Freevo in the future (It’s a project I really enjoy using!), but if you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments on this post to ask away!

Posted in Freevo, HTPC, Linux, Open Source Software | Leave a Comment »

Getting back to normal…

Posted by Michael Brown on March 31, 2005

Things are getting back to normal, although a little more slowly than I had expected. There’s a lot of work involved in moving, getting stuff placed where it should be, and just plain finding things again. I’ve also had to run an extra network connection where I hadn’t initially expected one.

In the middle of getting settled in, I’m also having to get going on my year-end accounting and doing my GST return. I use the open-source accounting application SQL-Ledger; while powerful, it’s not a hand-holding type of application like Quickbooks. It works exactly like a proper double-entry ledger, and requires you to understand some proper accounting principles. Since I’m not exactly a math wiz, it’s taken a bit of trial and error on my part to get the hang of it. It’s a great application, and one I would highly recommend. You can find it at

Part of the getting set up in the new place involves changing the set-up to accomodate looking after my little girl when I’m in the office. She’s with me the days that I’m not on-site, so my work environment has to accommodate her needs right now, which are a play area and time with “Dada”. My family is important to me, and I’m proud to be able to see her grow during her formative years. She’ll be 2 this summer, and I’ve been fortunate to be with her and see her develop during this crucial period. I’m currently on my third career in Solutions At Hand, and I know that jobs come and go; family is forever. It’s tough to balance the two of them, but it’s the things we have to work hardest for that we value the most. I want to leave you with one thought: Be proud of who you are, and all the roles you play in life. The roles you may take for granted may be the most important ones you ever have.

Posted in Open Source Software | Leave a Comment »