Just one year ago I was still using a Palm device. The device had the ability to manage my appointments and tasks and, through an application called Documents to Go, was even capable of viewing and editing Microsoft Office files. Unfortunately, it did not have support for ODF files (Open Document Format) which is the format I prefer to use in order to avoid data obsolescence. So, I only carried the files that were critical for me to be able to access anywhere at any time.
Documents to Go on the Palm TX did a fairly good job with my documents. There was a little bit of formatting lost, but I figured that it was unreasonable to expect 100% fidelity when converting a closed, proprietary format such as that of Microsoft Office. I did send DataViz a request for them to support ODF, but so far I don’t think they have implemented it. The application was a bit sluggish, but again, I was willing to live with that in view of the fact that even a regular home desktop takes a hit when opening programs like Microsoft Office.
When I read that Documents to Go was to be available on the N900 I was very happy. That would mean that I would be able to carry those critical documents with me and access them any where and any time (even offline). Unfortunately, for the moment, the application does not allow one to edit documents, only to read them. Fortunately, on the N900, Google Docs is fully functional, but that requires a data connection all the time, and paying for a full data plan is one expense I was looking to avoid. Well, at least the situation looked like it was only going to be temporary. KOffice was in the works, as well as Abiword, and others. And, Documents to Go would surely release a version with full edit capabilities shortly.
But then I heard about something called Easy Debian. It supposedly would let you run full blown Desktop Linux programs right on the N900. My initial reaction was, “yeah right”. You see, over the years, I have seen many geek attempts to stretch the capabilities of a platform with “proof of concept” type products. For example, I remember a port of Python to the Palm OS called Pippy. It was a cute little Python interactive shell that allowed you to enter some Python code, but it was certainly not something you could create a real program with. Nevertheless, even Guido Van Rossum, the creator of Python, got exited when he saw his creation running (somewhat) on a Palm device. So, I figured that those raving about Easy Debian where probably just a bunch of geeks happy to see some Linux programs running on the N900, even though they were probably useless in practice.
Nevertheless, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give Easy Debian a try, “just for fun”. The first hurdle was that Easy Debian is still only found in the Extras-Devel area of the Maemo repositories. That area is where developers upload their programs so that other developers can access them and help them with development. Once a program reaches a reasonable level of polish it is promoted to Extras-Testing so that eager non-developer geeks can put them through their paces and help to pin point where further development is still needed. So, many, many programs in Extras-Devel are definitely not in a usable state. In fact, many, many, of them can render your N900 useless. Therefore, I was very cautious about giving this a try. Only when I was convinced that the program was in good enough shape, by talking to many testers and to the developers themselves, I gained the courage to give it a try. If you are brave enough, the instructions for installing Easy Debian are found here (I actually volunteered to bring those instructions up to date).
The Wow! moment
So what was the end result. To my amazement, the result is a fully usable, completely functional, Linux desktop environment (LXDE) that you can run inside the N900 with a set of fully usable, completely functional applications, including the Gimp and OpenOffice.org. I know, you are probably saying to yourself “yeah right”. But, I kid you not. This is the bomb! And here are just a few screen shots to prove it (taken with the Gimp running inside LXDE inside the N900).
So far, I have only tried Writer and Calc, but I see no reason why the rest of the suite would not work as well.
Yes is is a bit cramped. Well, OK, it is quite cramped. But, it works. Also, I hope you have good eyes, because on such a small screen things can be quite tiny. Fortunately, the N900 renders things very crisply thanks to its 800 x 480 resolution. I was showing this to one of my coworkers, who happens to own an iPhone, and he was amazed at the crispness of the screen. Remember, the iPhone has only half the resolution of the N900. Also, be very grateful that the N900 has a resistive screen. Without it, it would be impossible to use the tiny buttons and scroll bars found on regular desktop applications. But, thanks to being able to use a Stylus, the use of these programs is quite pleasant. I just wish the screen was a tinny bit larger for those struggling with their eyesight.
Now that we are talking about being cramped, here is how the Gimp looks running inside the N900:
As you can see, the different windows that make up a Gimp application cannot all fit next to each other on the screen. However, that is not a problem at all in practice. First, as you can see above, each window can be clicked on in the LXDE taskbar, in order to bring the one you want to the fore. Also, even better, you can make use of LXDE’s multiple desktops and put the main window in one desktop and the others in a different one. Now, aren’t you happy that the Gimp interface designers resisted the use of a single window paradigm. They were just looking farther than most. 😉
Now, I admit that some things are a bit tricky and take some practice to get used to. For example, to enter caps and numbers, rather than simply pressing the shift or the function key once, before pressing the desired key, one has to press the shift or the function key at the same time as the desired key in order for it to work. Also, some large dialogs have their OK and Cancel buttons right against the bottom edge of the screen and clicking them can be very tricky. It is possible, but again, it takes some practice.
One other thing about Easy Debian that is very cool is that you can create shortcuts to its applications right from the Maemo Applications Menu. Doing that has a couple of benefits, especially for OpenOffice.org. First, it allows you to get to a point of being able to write faster. On my N900 it takes me less than 15 seconds to get to the OpenOffice.org Welcome Screen. And then, it takes me just a bit over 30 seconds to a fully launched Writer. And second, you gain a tad bit of screen real estate since you do not have an LXDE taskbar.
This is how you can create a shrtcut for OpenOffce.org. On the N900 all application shortcuts reside in:
What you can do to make your own is copy an existing one from there to your home directory like this for example, to copy the Word to Go shortcut (use the Terminal, it is your friend):
cp /usr/share/applications/hildon/wtg.desktop /home/user/MyDocs/
You can then edit the file with a text editor like Leafpad (or vi if you are familiar with it). The most important value to change is the Exec value. Make the Exec line look like this:
or like this if you prefer to go straight to Writer:
Exec=debbie ooffice -writer
Also, the Icon line should look like this:
The other values should be self explanatory.
Save the file with a new name, say oofice (it will keep the same extension, don’t worry). In order to copy it into the hildon directory you have to become root like this:
Then simply copy it back like this:
cp /home/user/MyDocs/ooo.desktop /usr/share/applications/hildon/
While I am here let me give you a good tip for the command line. Use “Ctrl i” on the Terminal to let the N900 auto complete file and directory names for you. Just type the first unambiguous letter(s) and press “Ctrl i”. That saves a lot of time and typing.
Wow! The N900’s potential continues to amaze me. I now have the full power of OpenOffice.org and the Gimp on my pocket at all times. I don’t have to compromise on file format. I don’t have to compromise on features. I don’t even have to compromise on performance. The only compromise is screen size. But it is not that bad, at least for my good set of eyes. After all, the size is what makes the N900 a portable device, isn’t it?.