It’s the end of the year, so it’s time for a favorite computer products list. This is a very personal list, highlighting the software and tools that I most enjoyed using.
The Product Supreme: Firefox
The winner for this year is fairly easy to pick: the free, open source, cross platform Firefox web browser. As a long time Mozilla user, not all the features in FireFox were new to me. But Firefox does have a cleaner, easier to use interface than the Mozilla browser. Though both are based on the same technology, the big differences between Firefox and Mozilla are two fold:
Firefox has a new interface with menu choices similar to those in IE and other Windows based products.
Firefox is lighter and sleeker, in part because it does not have a built in mail client. Instead, you can use Mozilla Thunderbird, a mail client based on the Mozilla mail client, but which runs standalone. It makes sense to separate these two products, since there is no need to load a mail client just because you want to browse the web.
For me, the five best features in Firefox are:
Tabbed browsing. This is the winning feature that makes IE look like a horse and buggy, or perhaps at best a Model T Ford. When searching for information, you generally need to keep more than one view open at a time. For instance, when searching Google, you may enter a search that gets good results, but which you think might be improved. With Firefox, you can just add another tab to your browser, run a new search, then switch back to the previous tab to compare the results. This is much better than cluttering up the desktop with multiple copies of IE.
Popup blocking. Popups are the bane of the web. Windows can multiply all over your desktop in a matter of seconds, and few of them are the least bit interesting. Mozilla has a nice clean way of letting you turn popups on and off, and it provides a simple way to let popups work on one site but not on another.
The password and cookie management tools. We all need to manage multiple passwords for multiple sites on the web. Firefox has found exactly the right formula, making it easy for you to add, delete, and use existing passwords. Similar tools make managing cookies a reasonable task.
Better security. Both Internet Explorer and Outlook (Express) are the sitting ducks of the world of crackers. The chances that someone will hack your Firefox browser are much lower than the odds that they will hack the Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Other great features include a wonderful new search bar, a customizable interface that can include as few or as many tools as you want, an extensible API that allows you to add very cool new features developed by third parties, the fact that it is free, the fact that it ships with source, the amazing live bookmark tool that allows you to integrate RSS right into your favorites menu, and much more.
Firefox is a winner. The amazing built in spam filtering tool for Thunderbird is also a must for people who are having trouble with Spam. I switched from Outlook to Mozilla mail many years ago, and I have never looked back. Not even once, and not even for so much as five minutes.
Another great tool that came out this year is Plone 2.0. Plone is a free, open source, highly scalable and quite excellent content management system (CMS). If you are trying to create a web presence for your company and need a simple way to get a good looking, extensible, powerful site up quickly, then Plone is among the best possible choices. It comes with all the features you need built in, such as automatic sign in and support for adding new users, workflow tools for tracking documents through a development cycle, and groupware tools for collaboration inside a big company. I’ve only run the installation on Linux, but it was extremely simple, and took only a few minutes.
A very mature product, which runs on Linux, Windows, the Mac and BSD, Plone has been translated into 40 languages, and supports working with multilingual content. There are several books out on Plone, and there are extensive courses available, including an upcoming three day training in San Jose on Jan 19.
Plone is based entirely on open standards. Built in Python, Plone is based on the rock solid Zope technology. Because of its power and flexibility, Plone is used by many major web sites, including NASA, Lufthansa, and a host of other sites.
Built with an extensible architecture, there are lots of add in features available, including support for PayPal, portlets, calendars, message boards, banking integration, file management tools, and much more.
Here at CodeFez, there is a great deal of interest in .NET development, so we run the excellent open source DotNetNuke content management system. DotNetNuke is a great tool, with many of the fine features found in Plone. Though not as mature as Plone, and not cross platform, I find that DotNetNuke is still an excellent choice if you want to work with a Windows based CMS.
Mono is a version of the .NET framework that runs on Linux, Unix and Windows. There are implementations of Mono for the x86, PowerPC, and SPARC platforms. I’ve been able to create ADO.NET applications in Microsoft Visual Studio, and port them unchanged to Linux using Mono. In my test cases, I did not even need to recompile these programs, but could use the Microsoft binaries directly on a Linux x86 system. There is also cross platform support for ASP.NET, nascent support for Windows.Forms, and a fairly mature level of support for building cross platform GUI applications using a tool called GTKSharp.
Based on ECMA standard 335, the Mono CLI plays much the same role in .NET development that the Java Virtual Machine plays in Java development. It provides a standard means of running the same application on multiple operating systems.
The C# language is fully supported in Mono. In fact, the Mono team has developed a million line plus C# compiler written entirely in C#, that can be compiled and used on both Linux and Windows. The Mono C# compiler is powerful, fast, and very stable. New development is going on constantly, and newer experimental builds already provide support for generics and other advanced features.
I like Mono because it is cross platform, is based on standards, ships with source and because it has an active community supported by excellent developers. Mono is a fine tool that you can install on Windows or the Mac in just a few minutes with a simple installer. Linux installation is a snap on Fedora Core 2, and on SUSE distributions. Installing Mono on other Linux distros involves a bit more work.
Fedora Core 3 is another great new product that I have enjoyed using. Though still lagging behind in multimedia and laptop ease of use, Fedora is easily a match for Windows in terms of content development, application development, networking and reliability.
A free, open source tool with an easy to use installer, Fedora has two beautiful, highly configurable desktop interfaces in KDE and GNOME. With the addition of Firefox for browsing, Thunderbird, Mozilla, or Ximian Evolution for email, OpenOffice for document editing, and with Konqueror for handling file management and other OS related tasks, Fedora and Linux now provide a rock stable, fast, elegant, and mature platform for computing. With a little skill and patience, you can even learn to burn CDs and watch movies on Fedora.
The new 2.6 Linux kernel used in Fedora 3 is an amazing tool that provides excellent support for multitasking via hyperthreading, support for small systems via embedded Linux, and support for big iron via NUMA and SMP. Linux systems now support a theoretical limit of 4 billion users, and up to 1 billion processes. You can now run up to 4095 major devices at one time, and 4095 minor devices. All of this adds up to greatly improved scalability on a system that was already highly scalable. You can read about these and many other features in Joseph Pranevich’s excellent article on the new kernel.
Overall Fedora Core 3 provides a great platform for computing. If you are tired of the glacial pace of improvements found on your current operating system, try coming over to Linux with the free, open source Fedora Core 3 operating system. There are major new builds and new developments in the Linux world coming out every few months, and sometimes every few weeks. In the Linux world, you don’t have to wait years to see fixes or new features in your operating system, and if you are really desperate to fix a bug, the source is available so you can roll your own improvements.
Other Fine Tools
Other products that came out this year that I enjoy include the always excellent Visual SlickEdit 9.0 and its powerful competitor, JEdit. Both of these fine, powerful, extensible, editors run beautifully on Windows and Linux. Visual SlickEdit has many powerful features such as refactoring, syntax highlighting, code insight, visual development support for Java, support for debugging your code, and a built in scripting language. JEdit has many of these same features, and a superb set of tools for developing addins.
Delphi 2005 also shows major improvements over Delphi 8.0. I love Delphi, so it is great to see it moving in the right direction. I recently moved a big project to Delphi 2005, and found that it helped me uncover some hard to find bugs. Dreamweaver 2004 is another excellent product, and one which I use heavily. When it comes to creating HTML documents, Dreamweaver is the gold standard, though OpenOffice is only a hair’s breadth behind. In fact, OpenOffice 1.4 is another great product that came out this year.
In the hardware world, I have enjoyed my multimedia ready ShuttleX computer, which is small, fast, and quiet. Of course, my iPod has also been a big hit. I use my iPod when I am out exercising, when I want to listen to music on my big stereo in the living room, and when I am in the car via a cassette deck plug in tool.
Personally I’ve had a nice year, but the news on the international and economic fronts was not always good. With trouble in the Middle East and with the dollar, I’ve found the plethora of great technical products that have come out this year helped me remain upbeat and optimistic. If you have a computer, a good connection to the Internet, and a little technical knowledge, then you will find that there is a steady stream of excellent new products available that are just waiting to be explored and enjoyed.