How to tell if your web-mail system is any good

Commercial Web Mail providers
HotMail No
Yahoo Mail No
Gmail Yes
Open Source Web Mail packages
IMP/Horde No
RoundCube Yes
SquirrelMail Yes
Hula Yes

Here’s a quick test to see if you web-mail system is any good:

When you first log in, does it show you your mail (your Inbox), or something else? If it shows you something other than your mail, what do they think you were logging in for?

The table to the right shows how the leading commercial and open-source web-mail systems stack up.


Thunderbird Extension Request: Colordiff for Thunderbird

I have a quick Thunderbird extension request for the throngs of aimless developers waiting to build software at my whim. When reviewing changes to a source code repository, such as Subversion or CVS, most tools offer nice syntax highlighting for the “diff” view.

Even on the command line, output of SVN and CVS commands can be “piped” into the command-line utility, colordiff, for a similar beautification.

Several projects I work on (or hang around pretending to work) have mailing lists of changes to CVS and SVN repositories. I’d love to see a Thunderbird extension that provided syntax highlighting for the diff format automatically in these emails.


Live From the Formosa Session #5 and Zap Your PRAM 3

Live From the Formosa Tea House napkin notes Good friends Peter, Dan and I have recorded another session of Live from the Formosa Tea House. Basically, we record our lunch time conversation and put it online.

We got off to a rough start, but once things got rolling, we had a great conversation. This time we discussed the upcoming Zap Your PRAM 3 conference (don’t worry, you didn’t miss Zap 2, it didn’t happen).

Peter put together shockingly good show notes for our fifth episode of Live From the Formosa Tea House. I laughed out loud at several points during the showing – that must be a good thing.


Announcing the Swat Web Application Toolkit

Swat Web Application Toolkit

Over at in the silverorange Labs today, we announced our first open-source project. Swat is a web application toolkit build on PHP5. It’s not totally x-treme or all web-twenny. Rather, it’s a solid (or at least “solidifying”) toolkit containing many of the widgets we use to build web applications.

We’ve had a few generations of our own in-house web toolkit, first in Cold Fusion, then PHP. This time around we’ve used an open-source license for the code, and at least as important, an overall approach to the development that is based on those generally found in the world of open-source software.

I’ll try to answer a couple of questions I expect we’ll get:

Does it use Ajax?
Sort of, kind of, not really. We have a package that runs along side of Swat for any XMLHttpRequest stuff we might need. None of the current Swat widgets use it by default, but it will be easy to extend in that direction. We’re going to be careful to only use these technologies where appropriate and in a way that degrades gracefully.
Why didn’t you just use Ruby on Rails?
We looked at every web application framework we could find. Some, like Ruby on Rails, were quite good (there’s a lot of crap too). However, we have enough of an application base that we can justify the support of our own toolkit. This also let’s us build on the concepts we’ve established in the previous iterations of our formerly proprietary toolkits.

Back in our days programming in ColdFusion, we ran into the perils of working with a platform that makes the easy things really easy and the hard things really hard. We’re doing our best to make something that will be as useful in a powerful and complex (if need be) application as it would building a simply weblog engine.

The toolkit is only a few months old, but we’re already reaping the benefits in our development process at silverorange. There’s more info in the announcement and you can find all the other goodness (Subversion repository, mailing lists, documentation, jabber chat, etc) from the Swat website.


Fedora Logo Development Process

Fedora Logo process

Matt Munoz, a designer at Red Hat, has posted an interested walk-through of the development of a logo/visual-identity concept for Fedora Linux. It’s fascinating to see the process and justification behind a logo idea like this.

This isn’t an official logo yet. It has been proposed and is being discussed by the Fedora community. Everyone, including myself, will have an opinion (and criticism), but when you have great work like this done, you should say “Thanks” and go with it.

Here’s a quick preview of some of the process – you can also see the complete process.

Nice work Matt and the rest of the design team.


CBC Radio 3 Podcast in Ogg Vorbis

CBC Radio 3 Podcast (now with Ogg Vorbis!)

Despite having locked-out their employees, the CBC continues to do cool things (somehow).

The CBC Radio 3 Podcast features Canadian emerging artists who have given the CBC the ok to share their music online. If that wasn’t cool enough, the show is now available in the free and open-source audio format Ogg Vorbis (read a bit about why this matters). Also see the post on the subject.

Nice work, CBC Radio 3. My music-geek and my open-source-geek selves giving each other a geeky high-five.

The CBC has also had an Ogg Vorbis stream of the main CBC Radio 1 and CBC Radio 2 stations available for a while now.

Here’s a clip from the show with a great promo for the Ogg Vorbis format (worth a listen):


Using MediaWiki to Build a “normal” Website

Despite the misleading title, this is not a tutorial on how to use MediaWiki to build a website. Rather, it is an observation that MediaWiki can be used to build sites that look and feel like tradition (non-Wiki) websites.

What the heck is a “wiki”?

First, some background. A wiki is a special kind of website that anyone can edit. Pages on a wiki-powered website have an “edit” button, and anyone can make a change. MediaWiki is one of many software systems that can be used to power wiki sites. MediaWiki is most well known as the software behind the Wikipdia.

When I first started playing with MediaWiki to do some visual customization for the Mozilla wiki, I felt a little bit like I was wandering lost through a jungle of PHP, HTML, and CSS. However, after stripping out a lot of the features I didn’t want or need, I started to get the hang of visually customizing the MediaWiki interface.

I’ve since done some minor skin/theme design for our silverorange wiki, and the WikiPEI site, though I hope to improve both in the coming months.

What I’ve found most interesting about MediaWiki is that people are starting to use it to build “normal” non-wiki websites. Pages can be locked-down, so only certain users have editing privledges. This essentially merges the administration tools of the website into the front-end of the site. This merger has the advantage of making administration easier and more direct. However, it can also make the experience of browsing the site (as a non-editor) and bit less enjoyable (hence the attitude that “wikis are ugly and weird”).

While I’m not about to advocate MediaWiki as the ideal content management system for all websites, it is an interesting use of the technology. Some of the design folks in the Linux group at Novell have been pumping out some pretty slick looking websites based on MediaWiki. Here are some examples of their work:

Examples of MediaWiki-powered “Normal” Websites

Hula website screenshot
Hula Project
Hula is a free/open-source calendar/mail server. The Hula Project website was the first site I found that had a traditional stable website feel to it, but was built on MediaWiki. The header is bold and attractive, and the primary navigation is dead-simple.

Mono website screenshot
The Mono Project
Recently redesigned, the Mono site has a light, fun, cartoon-y feel to it. If it weren’t for the “edit” links sprinkled throuout, you’d never know it was a wiki.

Bealge website screenshot
Beagle Project
Beagle is a desktop search tool for Linux. The Beagle website follows the model of the Hula site, with a bold header, and simple navigation.

Are there other good examples of sites powered by MediaWiki (or other wikis) that look and feel like beautiful websites, rather that weird plain old wikis?


WikiPEI: The Prince Edward Island Wiki


For years, our humble Canadian province of Prince Edward Island had a far better government website than any other I have seen. A few years ago I even posted on Slashdot about how great the site was. The site was built by my friend Peter Rukavina and his company Reinvented. Recently, though, Peter decided to move on to work for other clients and ended his relationship with the PEI government website.

Predictably, the quality of the PEI government website has gone downhill since the end of the involvement of Reinvented. This month, the provincial government put out a request for proposals for a redesign of the site.

This got some of us at silverorange thinking about the government of PEI website. As citizens of PEI with an understanding of web technology we feel a bit of responasbilty to help ensure that our province is well represented online. That said, we just don’t have room in our minds for another large government client.

The peculiar and fortunate chemistry that Peter Rukavina seemed to have the government website staff was something that is unlikely to happen again. Instead, we thought, why not create a wiki-powered website about Prince Edward Island that anyone can contribute to and edit.

A few days later, we have WikiPEI. The site is powered by MediaWiki, the software that also powers the Wikipedia (and the silverorange wiki).

The site is still only a few days old and still quite light on useful content. The idea, though, is that if you have anything useful to add, you can do it. Hopefully, if there is enough interest and participation, the site will grow to become a useful resource for locals and visitors to PEI.