Alternatives to Xmarks (now discontinued)
Xmarks (nee Firemarks) has been a reliable companion to address my cross-platform bookmarking needs over the past 10 years. As such, I was saddened to receive word that parent company Lastpass has chosen to discontinue Xmarks as of mid-2018. This sent me on a quest to find the best Xmarks alternative, but the first Google result I was presented (alternative.to) when searching “Xmarks alternatives” contained a spate of services that had precious little relevance to users like myself who simply want the means to save bookmarks in a cross-browser compatible extension, with as few other bells and whistles as possible.
After considerable Googling, here are the top three recommendations I’d present to other Xmarks users being forced to abandon ship:
There’s good reason that this is the most-cited service you’ll find (alongside Xmarks) when Googling terms like “cross browser bookmarks.” It supports all the major browsers/platforms (including my current laptop, running Chromium on Arch Linux). It has been doing this long enough to have a quaint (read: “embarrassingly outdated”) little website that imputes the difficulty of building a business with via bookmarking extension.
Eversync’s web site welcomes you to the 90s
Most importantly, it’s got impeccable ratings. As of March 2018, it maintains a 4.5 star rating on the Chrome app store with about 3,000 ratings. I consider this an incredible feat, given that greater volume of ratings typically drive a product’s average toward the 3 stars.
The biggest gripe I have with Eversync is that its creators package a collection of junk like “Speed Dial.” If you’re a power user with more than 500 bookmarks, Nimbus (who appears to have purchased the extension from Everhelper at some point) will try to charge you $45/year for the extension (plus Nimbus bloat). Woe that it does cost money to maintain a web service.
Ok, technically this isn’t a cross-browser solution. But if you’re like me and you only stray outside of Chrome on occasion (usually to test a page I’m developing on another browser), then the simplest way to sync bookmarks is to simply use the browser’s built-in capability. No extensions to download, no potential that you’re going to have to change managers again when software maker abandons their product.
If you choose this option, you will most likely want to visit your browser’s Settings -> Sync settings and disable the properties that you don’t want or need synced on all of your workstations:
This option “only” manages 4 stars on 300 ratings in the Chrome app store, so it’s a half-step below Eversync in terms of its user reputation. I’m including it here anyways because its home page inspires me to believe that its developers are actively working on it, and thus its functionality may be more likely to improve compared to Eversync. Further, it’s list of features including “Duplicate finder” and “Broken link finder” indicate a level of product dogfooding (creator using own product = creation of features to maximize user satisfaction) that was largely absent in Xmarks. For what it’s worth, the Pro version of Raindrop is also a few bucks cheaper than the Pro version of Eversync ($5/month for Eversync vs $3/month for Raindrop).
If anyone has firsthand experience with Raindrop, I’d be much obliged to learn your satisfaction level in the comment section below.
Toward a Linux touchpad as smooth as Macbook Pro
Update: After continuing to use my system, I opted for the Synaptics driver instead. Learn why in my follow-up.
As a longtime Macbook Pro user, I’ve grown an insatiable appetite for exceptional hardware+software implementations of laptop functionality like suspend/wake, bluetooth, wifi, and touchpad. If there’s anything that my past Linux laptops taught me, it’s that these functions are not automatically perfect [insert shock here]. They seem easy & perfect only when they work flawlessly, and they work flawlessly only because Apple employs large teams of experts to test & polish the hardware/software interplay on a Macbook such that it feels perfect.
Since Apple gave me and the rest of the Developer community the heave-ho with its decisions on the latest generation of Macbook Pro , it has been a long & harsh journey toward getting a laptop experience that feels as flawless as my Macbook Pro did. But after weeks of experimentation, I wanted to share my current touchpad setup, which feels like it is approaching the buttery smoothness of my past Macbook Pros.
There are two good articles on setting up a touchpad with Linux (Arch, Antergos, Debian, Ubuntu et al). As these articles explain it, there are three touchpad drivers available on Linux: synaptics (no longer supported), libinput, and mtrack. Preferring to avoid starting with abandonware, I narrowed my search down to libinput and mtrack. The choice between these options was made easier by reading the libinput philosophy not to implement features that aren’t likely to be needed by mainstream users. In their words: “In the old synaptics driver, we added options whenever something new came up and we tried to make those options generic. This was a big mistake… we’re having none of that” Practically speaking, this means that the limit of configurability in libinput is far more limited than the 1,001 settings offered by mtrack.
This isn’t to say that mtrack is a flawless choice. This is not a driver being supported and tested by teams of users & experts. It has no visual settings panel that I’m aware of, all configuration is done via text file. And the correct version to install is initially ambiguous. The officially developed version hasn’t been advanced since 2015, so a popular fork has taken up the torch in recent years. This is why Dayne’s Medium Post recommends installing directly via git. And I recommend the same.
Here are the basics to get the latest mtrack installed on your system:
cd /tmp git clone https://github.com/p2rkw/xf86-input-mtrack.git cd xf86-input-mtrack ./configure --with-xorg-module-dir=/usr/lib/xorg/modules make sudo make install
At this point you’ll have mtrack’s driver files built/installed, but Xorg still calls the shots in enabling it vs other drivers. By default, mtrack’s xorg configuration file gets placed in
/usr/shared/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-mtrack.conf, which in my case meant its precedence was lower than both synaptics (placed in
/etc/X11/xorg.conf.d, which takes precedence over the
/usr/shared/X11/xorg.conf.d directory) and libinput (which initially had an alphanumerically lower file name (
50-mtrack.conf. To fix these issues, your best bet is to move your mtrack.conf file to a location/filename with higher precedence:
sudo mv /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-mtrack.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/10-mtrack.conf
Once you’ve done these steps, mtrack should become your default touchpad driver after restarting X server. Of course, this being Linux, there is no single answer as to most easily restart X server. These people think that you can simply run startx, but that didn’t work for me without sudo, and when I ran it with sudo, I ended up setting root permissions on a file (
~/.Xauthority) that prevented me from logging in. This well-rated response thinks you can sudo restart lightdm, which did work for me (albeit with different syntax since I’m on arch), but still ended up logging me out, so my official recommendation for re-starting X server is unfortunately to log out then log back in. At that point, if you run cat
/var/log/Xorg.0.log | grep mtrack you should see a series of messages that show mtrack being loaded. If you don’t, this was the best thread I found for diagnosing what input driver is actually being used. If you find anything interesting, please do post it to the comments.
Crafting the dream touchpad experience
Once you get mtrack functional, then begins the process of creating a configuration file that best approximates Macbook Pro settings. Here is my annotated config file:
# https://github.com/p2rkw/xf86-input-mtrack Section "InputClass" MatchIsTouchpad "on" Identifier "Touchpads" MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*" Driver "mtrack" # Sensitivity controls how fast your cursor will move. 1 is the default Option "Sensitivity" "1.1" Option "FingerHigh" "5" Option "FingerLow" "5" Option "IgnoreThumb" "true" Option "ThumbRatio" "70" Option "ThumbSize" "25" Option "IgnorePalm" "true" # This ignores tap-to-click, which causes more problems than benefit in my experience Option "TapButton1" "0" Option "TapButton2" "0" Option "TapButton3" "0" # If you want a middle-click, then "ClickFinger2" should be value "2" Option "ClickFinger1" "1" Option "ClickFinger2" "1" Option "ClickFinger3" "3" Option "ButtonMoveEmulate" "true" Option "ButtonIntegrated" "true" Option "ButtonEnable" "true" # "ButtonZonesEnable" means that your trackpad gets divided into three equal sections, where clicking any third of the touchpad sends the click code in "ClickFingerX". Since I didn't want middle-click, the left two thirds of my touchpad are left click, and the right third is right click: Option "ButtonZonesEnable" "true" Option "ClickTime" "25" # Ensures that bottom 5% of touchpad doesn't register taps Option "EdgeBottomSize" "5" Option "SwipeLeftButton" "8" Option "SwipeRightButton" "9" Option "SwipeUpButton" "0" Option "SwipeDownButton" "0" Option "SwipeDistance" "700" # ScrollCoast makes touchpad feel a bit more Mac-like, although it coasts in chunks and isn't relative to speed at which two finger scroll was happening Option "ScrollCoastDuration" "600" Option "ScrollCoastEnableSpeed" "0.05" # This sets up Macbook-like natural scroll. If you want to scroll down by swiping your fingers down, reverse the "5" and the "4" here: Option "ScrollUpButton" "5" Option "ScrollDownButton" "4" Option "ScrollLeftButton" "7" Option "ScrollRightButton" "6" # Without this option set to a high value, there are types of click+hold-and-move functionality (most easily reproed by click and then move up-right) that get ignored Option "Hold1Move1StationaryMaxMove" "1000" # Smaller ScrollDistance translates to faster scrolling. ScrollDistance of 10 scrolls a long page in one swipe. Option "ScrollDistance" "22" Option "ScrollClickTime" "12" Option "ScrollSensitivity" "0" EndSection
In a more perfect world, Wordpest wouldn’t have removed the indentation in that block. It is not the world in which we live.
Compared to the miserable touchpad experience I had endured with synaptics and libinput, it has been delightful to get reliable two-finger scrolling that coasts, and to get my two-finger scroll speed comparable to what feels normal from my time in OS X. Still on my list to try to improve the configuration as I move forward:
- Fix the couple pixels that touchpad tends to stray when I am setting down my thumb in an attempt to click (classic Linux touchpad annoyance)
- When beginning a new scroll action while coast is active, scroll occurs at 10x normal speed
- Setup two-finger scrolling to work as smoothly as OS X, rather than scrolling the page in small, discrete increments
- Determine if it’s somehow possible to restart X server without getting logged out (unlikely, given how much Googling I’ve done on this topic)
 While the touch bar is as bad for programming as numerous developers predicted, it was minuscule amount key travel inherent in their butterfly keys that served as my breaking point. Honorable mentions to the laptop hard crashing every few days, and the touchpad that is so impossibly large as to occasionally pick up spurious input (although their software integration makes that problem occur a fraction as often as it would for a comparable Linux laptop)
Ubuntu, Dark Side of Simplicity
The following is my take on how the current passion for UI “simplicity” may be to blame for Unity, the downfall of Ubuntu as I’ve known & loved it. It’s wide-ranging, so I won’t be able to fully substantiate its every point, but if you simply click the area you’d like to know more about, I will wish that you were being shown detailed examples in support of my point. Many of the newly introduced usability issues in Unity are shared by Gnome3, so it seems that now is as good a time as ever for people who care to try to persuade some Linux distro to retain the high standard of developer usability we’ve become accustomed to.
Steve Jobs broke my OS, and I don’t even use a Mac. It began about 10 years ago, around the time Jobs had re-joined Apple, and the software industry was smitten with building UI that had every button and link you could need. “If they might need it, why not include it?” seemed to be the effective rationale.
Windows XP represented the pinnacle of the art; complete with a “Start” button, that, when clicked, exploded into two columns. These columns in turn had menu options like “All Programs” that could themselves balloon out to several more (overlapping) columns. In the case of the “All Programs” specifically, the user was treated to an unordered list of every program they had ever installed (often hundreds). It was so…terrible…yet quick to an advanced user (e.g., those that figured out how to sort it). For new users, well, you could probably figure out some of the basics within a week.*
But soon people began to decide this was arrangement was not ideal. Or even OK. I noticed this in full force with the release of the first iPhone. It was a device that was so stripped down that it didn’t include a feature (secure network access for business email) that would could have increased its user base significantly. It launched anyway, was quickly dubbed the “Jesus Phone,” and has managed to sell a couple gajillion units since.
Gone forever were the days of “the most commercially successful” products were “the most feature-full” ones.
This evolution, which I’d pin as starting around 2006 (first iPhone) has continued expanding its base of believers to present day. Now, in addition to the set of Apple devices, the default aesthetic for web consumer products has become “huge buttons / huge text / nothing that requires reading.”
In the context of the web, I think that this growing obsession with simple UI is usually a great thing. Like it or not, our attention is fragmented and life’s too short to read the manual for a product that I simply want to entertain me (see: Twitter, Instagram).
The problem is when the momentum for this trend** pushes it out to use cases where it makes no sense. Sometimes, a detail-rich interface is required to get the job done efficiently. In the case where an app is used by novice and sophisticated*** users, a balanced curve of “level of detail shown to user” vs “user expertise level” might look something like this
That is, this balanced approach would dictate that novice users were exposed only to the most essential 10-20% of all UI complexity. The UI should appear very basic to them. As the user’s needs become more sophisticated, the UI reveals contextual choices and/or configuration menus that accommodate their needs as power users of the product. Novice users are happy because they don’t see the complex pieces. Sophisticated users are happy because they can use it with maximum productivity so long as they’re willing to read a handful of configuration menus.
Products rarely end up this balanced. Windows XP threw the user in the deep end, both in terms of the learning complexity, and the vast sea of choices/links presented to even the notice user. OS X freed users from this soup of links and options, though before they got smart about context sensitivity, it often came at the expense of more clicks.
Ubuntu, pre-Unity, was arguably even worse than XP to the poor novice:
No oversized buttons or contextual UI reveal here. The reason the project thrived was only because the Ubuntu audience is made up largely of users who have advanced expectations for their OS. Many are programmers. They have to juggle IDEs, web browsers, web browser tools, and a smattering of terminal shells. Usually across multiple high resolution monitors, over multiple workspaces. To them, if complexity is the price that must be paid for configurability, then it shall be paid****.
This isn’t the sort of thing a novice will understand, let alone feel comfortable with, but the software did meet the needs of it sophisticated user base.
Then came tablets, the momentum of simplicity, and Ubuntu’s loving ode to it all: Unity.
Because this blog needs to get finished before tomorrow morning, I am forced to gloss over a detailed analysis of the functionality lost between pre- and post-Unity versions of Ubuntu. A couple salient examples include: well-integrated dual monitor support, multiple/configurable taskbar support, desktop customization, and ability to keep program menus within each program. For the quantitative-minded amongst you, the compared market share of Ubuntu vs. Mint makes the point more compellingly than my mini-list.
If it’s not already obvious, I love the trend toward simplicity. It was one of the main points of opportunity I saw in starting Bonanza back in 2008 — we sought to build a version of eBay that would be usable to busy people and non-experts. Simplicity continues to be something that I push for as often as anyone on my team, and I think it continues to be a big difference between our platforms.
But I don’t believe that “simplicity” should be the same thing as “dumbed down,” and I wonder if Unity’s pared down featureset could be a result of the Ubuntu designers mistakenly conflating “simple” and “feature-sparse”?
“Simple” and “effective” are closely related for novice users and for simple products. But they can be inversely related when “simple” gets in the way of “configurability,” which begets effectiveness for power users. In the case of Ubuntu, the users are largely geeks who use complex features to maximize productivity. Give the pared-down version of Ubuntu to novice users, but don’t let it rob the majority of your users the functionality they need.*****
Update: Finally inspired to post this to HN after reading Linus’ comments about Gnome3 being a detriment to usability. Given that Gnome3 has traveled a very similar path to Unity in terms of degrading the user experience (for sophisticated users) with its newest release, I am hoping that perhaps a sympathetic designer of Unity or Gnome3 might find this.
* Though as a computer repair guy, I often saw the concept take far longer to sink in. And don’t even get me started on trying to teach my grandparents exactly what a file system was and “what it did”
** Regarding use of “trend” to label the simplicity movement: I mean only that it is influencing all corners of design (web, native apps, mobile, and beyond) — not that it is ephemeral or irrational.
*** “Sophisticated” here means “more advanced,” or “more demanding,” not somuch the “better looking” or “more expensive” connotations of the word.
**** Of course, something doesn’t need to be complex to be configurable. Progressively revealed / contextual UIs can often deliver much of the best from both worlds. But it’s also easy to get implement rather intricate revealing schemes incorrectly and be worse off than if you had simply built a cluttered but static interface.
***** What makes it doubly insulting is that until Ocelot, we could get the functionality we needed by choosing the “Classic Ubuntu” login. What explanation is there to chop a feature that’s already been built…and provided the main lifeline to advanced users after Unity’s release?
Books for a Better World, Pt. 1
There are a couple books (literally, two) that I find myself quoting from on a very regular basis. Today, I come to speak of the book that takes about an hour to read and years to fully assimilate.
But before I reveal the identity of this book, a question: when was the last time you started using a new application (for the sake of this blog, “applications” includes web sites) and felt like the architect of said application truly cared about your experience?
Speaking from personal experience, it never occurred to me why certain applications felt “better” and “worse” to use. Nor did I ask myself why frustrating applications had ended up being designed as they were. Now I reflect on both regularly, and the reason is Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.
Before I go any further, I should probably throw in fair warning: after reading this book, my reaction to using poorly designed software has changed from a mix of frustration and confusion to simple anger. If I waste more than five minutes finding a basic piece of functionality in an application, this now generally leads to severe annoyance. There is a fair chance that you, too, will revile the authors of your poorly designed software after reading this book. Therefore, if you are a person of action with a strong sense of justice, think twice before reading a text this potent.
But if you think you can deal with the truth, here’s what you’ll learn:
The premise of the book centers around the fact that users are very busy people who have neither the time nor the will to give an application as much attention as designers think they will. Krug asserts that when encountering a new application, the human impulse is to scan a page in about 1-3 seconds, make a best guess what will get them where they want to go (in Krug’s words, “satisfice”), and muddle along from there. He points out that designers should take care not to waste users’ milliseconds through making unclear links or leave them stranded in an application without a clear sense of where they are. He goes on to do some exercises where the reader sees examples of well-organized sites (i.e., Amazon) and poorly organized sites (buy the book and see them).
What’s more, the book is chock full of pictures and great examples. As I’ve come to know other Internet entrepreneurs within the community, I have found myself repeatedly citing examples in this book, as it seems to take most applications at least an iteration or two before they can get enough user feedback to create a UI layout that makes sense. Without this book and a strong sense of responsibility to your user, an application can quite easily never get things right.
With this book explained, you can now look forward to hearing the exasperated tales of applications that drive me bonkers, like TopStyle. This application earned itself an express ticket to my bad side today when, after handily reporting files with CSS errors in them, it provides no clear path of how to fix (or even view) these errors. Clicking on a specific error in a list of errors just jumps directly to the top of the file that the error resides in, not to the error itself. Brilliant.
Admitting You’re Wrong is the First Step
It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge how screwed up you are, eBay. I applaud you. But one problem: the same way that AltaVista couldn’t be a search engine and a content portal and an everything-else, neither can eBay effectively be a collector’s site and an online store hoster and an average Joe’s auction source (amongst about 1000 other things that eBay currently “is”). Complexity is inherently part of their scope, and I’m not sure that adding a social networking layer and mobile apps is the solution to that.
If eBay is trying to figure out what happened to the wind in its sales (sic), they might want to take a look at the Etsy and edgeio traffic growth over the last year. Those several hundred percent growth rates are being reaped by sites that understand how to do one thing really well, rather than doing everything mostly OK.
I’ll be frank here that sometimes I wonder whether being in the same market as the Internet’s fourth-largest site was a good choice for my first true, large-scale business. I have to think that there are businesses out there that don’t have to constantly look over their shoulder at what is being done by the several-billion-dollar behemoth. But at the same time, we are jabbing a target so large that it takes years to swing back, if it even notices it was hit. For those that get to help build our alpha into a beta version starting next month, you will see a creative market opportunity that wedges between the cracks a giant can’t fit into.
We are now collecting email addresses of those who’d like to help give feedback on the design of the site. We will probably begin our formal user testing in about a month, but I’d like to start rounding up participants now so that we can get as much feedback as possible once we’re ready to begin testing.
I’ve created an email address form on the main Bonanzle entry page that you can use to sign up if you’re interested.
I’m thinking that the user testing will probably consist of us watching you try to post and search for simulated items on the site. Coffee and appreciation will be included free of charge, maybe even lunch, money, or the gift of eternal life, as circumstances dictate.
Myself and a bunch of friends are going to jump from a plane in a couple weeks. I have mixed feelings about how much I’ll enjoy it. The safety statistics don’t concern me much, nor does the thought of jumping from the plane particularly make me sweat. The part of the trip I am most dreading is the many hours that we will have to sit around the wherever-you-sit-at-a-skydiving-joint and think Think think about all the tiny logistics of what we’re about to do. The same unending stream of thoughts that makes my brain so very useful for discovering creative solutions/solving deep-rooted problems isn’t discriminating about what it will analyze; therefore I’m probably destined for some miserable hours. It is one thing to go from hanging out and drinking beers to jumping 14,000 feet. It’s another to sit around with little diversion for hours and ponder how someone could hit the wing.
I’m thinking the skydiving experience will most likely prove to be another everyday example of preventable customer discomfort. I believe that these discomforts exist in large part because, often times, customers do not even realize their discomfort is preventable. The example on Creating Passionate Users of two potential dentists’ offices comes to mind. One dentist office looks more or less like every dentist office I have ever been to: dry, clinical, and, um, black & white. The other one is dressed in warm colors, “smells like cookies,” and has a wine bar. Every time I have gone to my dentists’ since seeing this graphic, I think to myself, “Where’s the damn wine?” Every time I sit in the seat, stare toward the ceiling, and listen to the sweet lullabys of the dental drill, I think, “Where’s the plasma TV with ESPN or Xbox 360 or anything?”
Simply put, service providers have a tremendous opportunity to see past conventions and create an experience that makes the customer happy from the moment they enter to the moment they leave. The service itself is but one aspect of the experience. In many cases, the service itself might take only a small portion of the overall time for the experience (how many times have I sat 20 minutes or more in an empty patient room at a doctor’s office, waiting for a doctor that spent five minutes with me before rendering their verdict?). And the service is frequently not what’s on the customer’s mind during most of the experience.
It is the experience that I remember, and it is the experience that I think about when considering whether I’d go back.