A geeky personal assistant

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Most of our interactions with a computer start with a text input box. Either the start menu, Google, or the browser url bar.

The new personal assistants devised by the big software companies are robots that are created to obey our commands and do what we tell them

hmm…

Jurassic Park Computer

wasn’t the original command line exactly an attempt to do that? The 1970’s and 1980’s processing power and computer programming accumulated knowledge wasn’t enough to make this interface easily usable and the focus shifted to other things like buttons and menus. The few features of those programs made it easy to arrange a set of icons of the screen one for each function.

Once the features started to increase, deeper and deeper menus and dialogs proliferated and finding a function or option was obviously harder when digging through endless windows than searching through a text file. But searching through text files or using the command line was already deemed old-fashioned and forgotten.

Even today, when somebody sees me typing into the linux terminal I get all kinds of reactions of awe and disgust , as if I am doing something magical. Most things I do through the terminal however are really easier to do that way.

 $ convert image.png image.jpg

for example, is much easier than opening the image in GIMP, waiting for it to load fonts and extensions and then hitting file > export and then OK twice

So, what is the problem?

Discoverability. It’s hard to know what command to use and what it’s syntax is. This is greatly exaggerated by the multiple developer nature of GNU/Linux as each command has it’s own syntax and there is no consistency whatsoever

tar bomb

Can it be fixed?

In my opinion, easily. Using standard tools like aliases to make commands have more obvious names and by taking ideas from modern IDE’s to add visible autocompletion and help messages. This needs a couple of brainstorming sessions but here’s a first idea

terminal autocomplete preview

How this affects nemo?

Nemo’s target audience, at least for now are geeks: Geeks like telling their computers what to do and are not afraid of using the terminal. So my proposal is to modify the home-screen search box to also accept terminal commands.

homescreen search view

The commands will have a faded autocomplete with included help, and the various autocompleted options will transform into drop down menus when clicked. All this functionality will use plain old bash autocomplete to work.

homescreen search autocomplete drop down

Bash autocomplete can also be used to increase the size of the keyboard’s sensitive area for letters that are more likely to be next.

More traditional commands will be executed and the output will be printed in the results space in monospaced font, along with some relevant options.

homescreen search terminal view

There will be a whitelist for commands that execute instantaneously and the output of those commands shall be displayed as-you-type in the space below the search box

What is needed?

Not much. Apart from some GUI work, we just need to create sane aliases and commands for most phone functionality. These commands should be a bit lax on the syntax, for example the call command should accept call <contact/number> [[on|at|] <numbertype>] so all of call Eva at home, call Eva on mobile and the more classic command-like call Eva mobile produce valid output.

There is no need to accept please call Eva on mobile as the goal is not to create a natural language parser but rather to be similar enough so that commands are easy to remember.

An attempt for a better mail client

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I am a huge fan of mail clients. It was a time where I used to check every once in a while if new ones were available for my platforms. To tell the truth, I was rarely impressed.

What I found is that trends come and go, and devs tend to follow them blindlessly, mostly to get attention and money (the « mine is better than yours » addage). Sometimes, one stands out and got my particular attention. I’ll get to it in a minute. But right now, let’s review the competition.

Today, the trend is at action-based emails: set reminders, put them in your todo list for later review, file them in lists or folders, etc… We have Mailbox, Mail Pilot, Boxer, Dispatch… to name a few, while -sorry- they’re only for ios platforms. Another trend is at quick review clients, where you have your mails stacked and just flick through them quickly to get « inbox zero », the real trend behind them all.

mailbox_iphone_5_screens

triage_screenshots

Up there are in order of appearance: Mailbox and Triage for iOS

Stock mail clients are quite raw around the edges, some better than others. I didn’t try all of them but the most popular ones (android, ios…) and of course harmattan. They do the trick, but that’s all, no fancy here, just plain old mail management with no real advanced functionnality.

nexusae0_2013-10-31-22.34.48

Stock Android client

Do we want advanced functionalities ? Do we need « inbox zero » ? Or is there something else that could be done to be more productive on mobile devices ? Of course, some of us like lists or folders, some like « uncluttered », but did they have the opportunity to try… well, something else ?

That’s where I stumbled upon Unibox. It’s a mac only client with a particular, unique philosophy: sorting mails by « people » instead of « conversations ».

2014-05-11 at 18.21

Unibox for Mac, with it’s view “by people”

So simply put: you have a list of senders sorted by most recents, and choosing one show you *all* mails and conversations from him/her. Coupled with a good search engine, I believe this is a good workflow. Again, with the choice to sort by « people » or just « conversations » (have them both), this become a killer one. And that’s actually what lacks for Unibox in my eyes: an old conversation could be burried behind tons of new mails, even if they’re marked as « unread ». Quite a bummer that we tried to overcome in our new concept.

mail_main_view_mockup1

mail_main_view_mockup2

mail_main_view_mockup3

From top to bottom is older concept to newer one, aimed at simplicity.

Specs coming soon.

So basically, it’s two mail clients philosophy in one: people and conversations. The new, interesting concept and the old, legacy one.

I’ll let you judge by the screenshots, and encourage you to give your opinion or ask questions in the comments.