Tales of software craftsmanship

Tales of software craftsmanship

GSoC: Beginning Amarok Mobile

When the Google Summer of Code program was announced again this year I decided to submit a proposal for a project that would hopefully take Amarok in a new and interesting direction.

My proposal was accepted, so this year I’m a GSoC student again, for my third time, working on an Amarok port for mobile devices, primarily tablets.

Why mobile? In the past few years some profound changes have been set in motion in the computing market. What we still call “desktops” might soon become mostly workstations and gamer rigs. We’re not there yet, but computers are already becoming increasingly mobile, invisible and wearable, and computing is becoming ubiquitous. In this changing environment, complex desktop apps like Amarok 2.x will have a harder time staying relevant, and are being challenged by leaner, simpler and flashier mobile counterparts.

Amarok has a strong brand and a good reputation as the ultimate music player for GNU/Linux systems, prominent features where Amarok innovates and excels are web services integration and smart context-sensitive information. I believe the Amarok team can take advantage of that and make a successful entry into mobile markets.

There is certainly a lot of work involved: the existing GUI simply would not work well on touch screen devices, and a lot of the underlying stuff is also not so well suited for a mobile app because it provides a very extensive feature set and requires a lot of dependencies.

The foundations for a mobile version were laid down about a year ago, when Amarok developer (and my GSoC mentor) Jeff Mitchell made some deep changes to separate Amarok’s core logic from “everything else”, including collections, the user interface, etc. However, not much happened after that besides maintaining this separation, so I simply figured that if we indeed want to see Amarok running on tablets and handsets the actual porting work had to begin.

So what am I aiming for? At this point, a platform that is accessible almost immediately is MeeGo (and Maemo 6), represented by the upcoming Nokia N900 successor and Intel x86 based tablets, as well as devices which come with other operating systems out of the box but have a MeeGo port. While during this GSoC project I’m focusing on MeeGo, when making technical decisions I will be taking into account their impact on possible future ports to other platforms.

This port will require a completely new GUI, but since I’m not a QML GUI designer (yet), so far I’m only promising to deliver the underlying stuff.

Until now, I’ve done a bit of work on yanking out Amarok’s core and building it with a minimal set of dependencies, and setting up a MeeGo development environment. The next step will be porting this core to MeeGo, and then building the required functionality on top of it while keeping the whole app light but smart 🙂

The importance of mentorship in Google Summer of Code

I’ve been asked by Lydia, the ultimate social media ninja of KDE and Amarok’s community manager to put together a brief post about my opinions on the importance of mentorship and organization in a student outreach program such as Google Summer of Code based on my experience as a GSoC student. I’ve been a GSoC student twice and a volunteer Summer of KDE student the year before that, so I hope I can provide some insight from a student’s point of view. The KDE GSoC admins&mentors team has done a terrific job so far, and I’m very satisfied with their performance. Thank you, GSoC admins&mentors!

I have tried to gather a list of situations where as a GSoC student I could greatly benefit from good mentorship:

  • Planning. While I surely did have a vision and a somewhat clear direction where I wanted to take my project, I wasn’t always sure about the details of the implementation, and specifically how and where to tie my stuff in with the existing codebase. My mentor helped me a lot with planning and design, and we shared a design document in Google Docs that was to be kept up to date for the duration of the GSoC program. I believe that while the strong motivation of a student pushes the project forward, the direction has to be overseen and frequently discussed with the mentor to make the student’s project useful for the organization and to avoid rookie mistakes when laying out the design.
  • Code review. When I started with GSoC I was very much a noob about Qt and I didn’t have a lot of coding experience. Regular code review by my mentor and the other team members was very important to improve the quality of my output. I believe that at least occasional code reviews in the first weeks of the GSoC program (unrelated to the final review before merging the branch) can straighten out important details before they become serious issues later on.
  • Team interaction. When I started with GSoC I didn’t know anybody in the Amarok team. I didn’t know anything about the social structure and most importantly, I didn’t know which team member I should poke about specific parts of the codebase. In those times it was very important for me to have someone (mentor, community manager) to ask questions such as “Who has knowledge about this bit of code? Can I make change X on code Y or would that make person Z angry?”. I did ask those questions pretty often.
  • Technical questions. The life of a GSoC student can be pretty intense, between coursework, exams and coding. For this reason, while my output was quite consistent, coding could happen at any time of the day. I’m very grateful that my mentor Nikolaj Hald Nielsen was almost always available to answer my questions, and when he wasn’t, there was a clearly appointed second-in-command I could go to. This is perhaps the most important entry in this list. Rules such as “the whole team will mentor you” or “ask in the IRC channel and someone will answer” just won’t do with first time students! I know I wasn’t very comfortable with asking just any question in IRC, especially if I felt that the answer could be something that “anybody ought to know”. Sometimes I just needed a confirmation to make sure I was doing the right thing.

To sum it up, I believe that KDE has a great admins&mentors team, and I can testify that also because of this doing GSoC for KDE was a very rewarding experience.

However, it has come to my attention (also during this year’s Google Code-in) that for the fairly small admins&mentors team a large scale student outreach program such as GSoC creates a huge workload.

KDE contributors are encouraged to help with the organization to make the recently announced GSoC 2011 the most successful GSoC ever: feel free to add your ideas to our GSoC 2011 ideas page, and if there’s an area of KDE you know well, why not be a mentor this year?

The KDE GSoC team is looking for good mentors with lots of cool ideas, and especially if you’re a former GSoC student and you’re not a student any more, you might be the perfect candidate to become a GSoC 2011 mentor. To apply as a mentor visit #kde-soc on Freenode.