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GNOME Asia 2014

I spent last weekend in Beijing attending GNOME Asia 2014; yeah, long trip from Europe just for 3 days, but it was totally worth it. The worst part of it was of course fighting jet lag when I arrived, and fighting it again 3 days later when I came back to Spain :) The conference was really well organized [1], so kudos to all the local team!

After a quick sleep on Friday morning, I attended the development and documentation training sessions that Kat, AndrĂ© and Dave gave. They were quite interesting, especially since I’m not involved in the real user documentation that GNOME provides. I have to say that these guys do an amazing job, not only teaching during conferences, but also through the whole year.

There are, from my point of view, two main ways of learning new things:

  • The ‘engineer’ way: Learning things as you need them, what you would do when you start writing an application and looking for examples of how to do what you want to do (autotools, anyone?). It is a very ‘engineer’ way, as you pick black boxes that you’ll use to build something bigger, while not fully understanding what the black box does inside.
  • The ‘scientific’ way: When you learn something in order to fully understand it and be able to teach others. This approach takes a lot longer, as you need to make sure that everything you learn is accurate and you end up questioning the things that are not clear enough. Learning stuff to teach others is actually what you do in University; you’re learning things that will afterwards need to be explained in an exam to someone who knows more about the subject than you do.

Sure, both ways have their ups and downs, but if you want to write software you need to be able to switch between those two mindsets constantly. You’ll use the engineer way when reading API docs, looking for the bits and pieces that you need to build your stuff. You’ll use the ‘scientific’ way when you need to start learning a new technology, or when you need more detail on how to do things. While the API docs are taken care of by the library developers, it is the documentation team the one making sure that user guides, tutorials, and other developer resources are kept up to date, which are definitely some of the toughest and most important tasks done to help newcomers and other developers. So go on, go learn GNOME technologies and teach others, join the documentation team! ;)

GNOME Asia is not a usual conference. If you have attended a Desktop Summit, GUADEC or FOSDEM before, all those conferences are built by developers and for developers. The focus of those conferences is usually not (explicitly) to attract newcomers, but instead to be a show of the latest and shiniest things happening in the projects. Of course we also had part of that in Beijing, say Lennart’s talk about the status of systemd or Allan’s talk about application bundles. Those both were very good talks, but likely too specific for most of the audience. Instead, I chose to talk about something more basic, focused on attracting newcomers wanting to write applications, and so I gave an Introduction to D-Bus talk, including some examples. It is the same talk I gave last year in GUADEC-ES, but in English this time (my Mandarin is not good enough).

I would like to thank the GNOME Foundation for sponsoring the flight to Beijing, and of course to all the local team who, as I already said, did an amazing job.

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[1] …except for the tea-less tea-breaks ;)

Profiles in Devhelp

I’m at the GNOME Development Experience Hackfest in Berlin, and one of the things that I wanted to target during these days was to keep on looking at how we can enable different profiles in Devhelp.

devhelp-profiles

As you probably know, Devhelp will show you the documentation of libraries installed in your system (usually only if you have the -devel or -docs package of the library installed). While this is already enough for most users, there is also the case where a developer wants to target a different version (older or newer) of the library than the one installed in the system.

A typical case for this is developing applications using GNOME’s jhbuild infrastructure, targeted either to a given GNOME release or to git master of the involved modules. In this case, if you want to use new methods of let’s say GTK+, you usually end up needing to fire up a web browser and looking for the latest GTK+ documentation either in developer.gnome.org or in your jhbuild’s ${prefix}/share/gtk-doc/html directory.

In order to avoid this, I’m prototyping some ideas to let the users switch between different profiles, e.g.:

  • The ‘local’ profile, which is equivalent to what Devhelp currently shows.
  • A user-defined ‘jhbuild’ profile, which could point to the install prefix of the jhbuild setup.
  • Other user-defined profiles, which could point to other prefixes where the user has installed the newer (or older) libraries and their documentation.
  • Profiles for each new GNOME release, e.g. 3.12, which could get downloaded from developer.gnome.org as a tarball containing all documentation for a given release.

The most challenging case is probably the last one, given that it would require some extra work in the website in order to make sure the documentation tarball is generated and published in every new release, plus of course client-side management of these downloaded profiles in Devhelp.

For now this is just a basic set of ideas, the final result may or may not be similar; we’re of course open to suggestions!

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Changing modes and capabilities in ModemManager

I don’t really recall when my first interaction with ModemManager was, I just remember saying “wait, this modem just works?”. But I do remember one day when I spent a couple of hours trying to understand why my modem wouldn’t switch to 2G-only mode even if I explicitly selected it in the network-manager-applet. Truth be told, I didn’t dig much in the issue that day; I barely knew what ModemManager was, or how it would interface with NetworkManager, or how to really debug it. And here I am possibly 4 years after that day, trying to get that same issue fixed.

allowed-and-preferred-modes

ModemManager has always allowed to specify which ‘network type‘ to use; or, rather than network type, ‘allowed and preferred‘ modes as we name them. It basically is a way to tell your modem that you want to use one technology preferred over another (e.g. allow 2G and 3G, but prefer 3G), or even tell the modem to use only one technology type (e.g. 3G only). Even modern phones allow you to turn off 3G support and only use 2G, in order to save battery. The main problem with ModemManager’s way of handling this issue was that there was a predefined set of combinations to select (as exposed by the applet), and that not all combinations are supported by all modems. Even worse, ModemManager may not know how to use them, or the modem itself may not support mode switching at all (which was actually what was happening with my modem 4 years ago). Therefore, the UI would just try to show all the options and hope for the best when launching the mobile broadband connection. And there it comes the next issue; allowing to select mode preferences during the connection setup just makes the modem restart the whole radio stack, and the connection attempt may end up timing out, as the whole network registration process needs to be done from scratch before connecting…

Allowed and Preferred modes

In the new ModemManager interfaces, each Modem object will expose a “SupportedModes” property listing all the mode combinations (allowed + preferred) the modem actually supports. Graphical user interfaces will therefore be able to provide mode switching options listing only those combinations that will work. If a modem doesn’t support mode switching, no such list should be provided, and the user will not get confused. At any time, the Modem object will also expose a “CurrentModes” property, showing which is the currently selected combination of allowed and preferred modes. And the “SetCurrentModes()” method will allow to switch current modes, accepting as input only combinations which are given in “SupportedModes” (or the special allowed=ANY and preferred=NONE).

Also, changing current modes directly when calling Simple.Connect() will no longer be possible. This means that NetworkManager will never request allowed mode switching during a connection attempt (and hence no radio stack reloading in the modem causing timeouts). The logical place to put allowed mode switching is therefore a system configuration application like the GNOME Control Center or similar, which should allow mode switching at any time, not only just during a connection attempt. A good side effect of this change is that the NetworkManager connection settings now contain only connection-related configuration, which in the case of 3GPP devices can be linked to the SIM in use, leaving out all modem-specific configuration.

Capabilities

There was a time when modems were either 3GPP (GSM/GPRS/UMTS/HSPA…) or 3GPP2 (CDMA/EV-DO…). Nowadays, modems with multiple capabilities are pretty common, specially since LTE is around (LTE, even if 3GPP, is also 3GPP2’s blessed 4G technology, instead of the superhero named one which is forgotten by everyone already). ModemManager will now allow to change capabilities in addition to allowed and preferred modes; so a user with a modem which can work both in 3GPP and 3GPP2 networks will be able to switch from one to the other directly from the user interface. Of course, if the modem supports this (currently only QMI-based modems).

The new “SupportedCapabilities” property will expose all capability combinations supported by the modem, while “CurrentCapabilities” will expose which are the current ones being used at any given time. For example, a modem with “gsm-umts”, “cdma-evdo” and “lte” capabilities may support configuring only “cdma-evdo”, or “gsm-umts”+”lte”. Changing current capabilities is now possible through the “SetCurrentCapabilities()” method, which has a logic very similar to that of the “SetCurrentModes()” method. If a modem supports multiple capability combinations as exposed by “SupportedCapabilities”, this method will allow changing between them. The main difference with mode changing is that we will force a device power-cycle when this change is done, so the modem will disappear and reappear again with the new capabilities.

Capabilities and allowed/preferred modes have a lot in common, so much that there is a single interface in QMI based modems to change them. Therefore, when a modem allows changing capabilities, the list of allowed/preferred mode combinations may (and very likely will) be different depending on the current capabilities in the modem. For example, LTE-enabled QMI-powered modems will not be able to switch allowed/preferred modes when they have “lte” among the current capabilities, but they will be able if the capabilities are changed to only “gsm-umts”. This is not a big deal, as mode preference (e.g. 3G preferred) is not applicable when the modem does LTE (there is no way of saying allow 2G, 3G and 4G but prefer 3G).

Bands

ModemManager also allows to specify which frequency bands to use in the modem, but unlike with modes and capabilities, the “SupportedBands” property is not a list of all possible band combinations supported. Instead, it’s just a bitmask with all supported bands, without specifying whether an actual combination is going to work in “SetCurrentBands()” or not. Listing combinations instead of just the bitmask would be truly too much… But anyway, changing frequency bands is not a feature that a normal user should play with, so just don’t do it. I actually bricked a Pantech UML290 myself playing with this…

aleksander/api-breaks

All these updates, plus some other ones, are available in the ‘aleksander/api-breaks‘ branch in the ModemManager git repository, which should hit git master very soon, likely this week. These ones should be the last API breaks done before releasing the new ModemManager, and will be kept stable after that.

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