An interview with the Nanolinux developer

2014 is nearly over and for the last post this year I have something special for you again. Last year I posted an interview with the EDE developer and I thought that another interview would conclude this year of blogging quite fine.

In the previous post I reviewed Nanolinux (and two years ago XFDOS). Since I was in mail contact with the author about another project as well, it suggested itself that I’d ask him if he’d agree to give me an interview. He did!

So here’s an interview with Georg Potthast (known for a variety of projects: DOSUSB, Nanolinux and Netrider – to just name some of them) about his projects, the FLTK toolkit, DOS and developing Open Source software in general. Enjoy!

Interview with Georg Potthast

This interview was conducted via email.

Please introduce yourself first: How old are you and where are you from?

I am 61 years old and live in Ahlen, Germany. This is about 30 minutes drive from Dortmund where they used to brew beer and where the BVB Dortmund soccer team is currently struggling.

Do you have any hobbies which have nothing to do with the IT sector?

Not really. I did some Genealogy, which has to do a lot with IT these days. But now I have several IT projects I am working on.

DOS

You’re involved in the FreeDOS community and have put a lot of effort into XFDOS. A lot of people shake their heads and mumble something like “It’s 2014 now and not 1994…” – you know the score. What is your motivation to keep DOS alive?

I have been using DOS for a long time and wish it would not go away completely. So I developed these DOS applications, hoping to get more people to use DOS. But I have to agree that I have not been successful with that.

Potential software developers find only very few users for their applications which is demotivating. Also there is simply no hardware available today that is limited so much that you better use DOS on it. Everything is 32/64 bit, has at least 4 GB of memory and terabytes of disk space. And even the desktop PC market is suffering from people moving to tablets and smartphones.

People are still buying my DOSUSB driver frequently. They are using it mostly for embedded applications which shall not be ported to a different operating system for one reason or another.

Do you have any current plans regarding DOS?

I usually port my FLTK applications to DOS if it is not too much effort to do so. So they are available for Linux, Windows and DOS. Such as my FlDev IDE (Link here).

Recently I made a Qemu/FreeDOS bundle named DOS4WIN64 (Link here) that you can run as an application on any Windows 7/8 machine. This includes XFDOS. I see this as a path to run 16bit applications on 64bit Windows.

How complicated and time consuming is porting FLTK applications from Linux to DOS or vice versa?

It depends on the size and the dependencies on external libraries. I usually run ./configure on Linux and then copy the makefile to DOS where I replace-lXlib with -lNXlib plus -lnano-X. Then, provided the required external libraries could be downloaded from the djgpp site, it will compile if the makefile is not too complicated (recursive). Sometimes I also compile needed libraries for DOS which is usually not difficult if they have a command line interface.

You then have to test if all the features of the application work on DOS and make some adjustments here and there. Often you can use the Windows branch if available for the path definitions.

Porting DOS applications to Linux can be more complicated than vice versa.

Linux

For how long have you been using Linux?

I have been using Linux on and off. I began using SCO-Unix. However, I did not like setting things up with configuration files (case sensitive) scattered over many directories. It took me over a week to get serial communications to work to connect a modem. When I asked Linux developers for help they recommended to recompile the kernel first – which means they did not know how to do that either. So I returned to DOS at that time. But I have been using Linux a lot for several years now.

What is your distribution of choice and why?

I mainly use SUSE but I think Ubuntu may work just as well. This may sound dull but you do not have to spend time on adding drivers to the operating system or porting the libraries you need. The mainstream Linux distributions are well tested and documented and you do not have to spend the time to tailor the distro to your needs. They do just much more than you need so you are all set to start right away.

My own distro, Nanolinux, is a specialized distro which is meant to show how small a working Linux distro can be. It can be used on a flash disk, as an embedded system, a download on demand system or to quickly switch to Linux from within Windows.

However, if you have a 2 Terabyte hard disk available I would not use Nanolinux as the main distribution.

FLTK

Which programming languages do you prefer?

I like Assembler. To be able to use X11 and FLTK I learned C and C++ which I currently use. I have not done any assembler in a while though.

You seem to like the idea of minimalism. Do you do use those minimalist applications on a daily base or are they more of a nice hobby?

Having a DOS and assembler background I always try not use more disk space than necessary. Programming is just my hobby.

Many of your projects use the FLTK toolkit. Why did you choose this one and not e.g. FOX?

I had ported Nano-X to DOS to provide an Xlib alternative for DOS developers. In addition I ported FLTK to DOS as well since FLTK can be used on the basis of Nano-X. So I am now used to FLTK.

Compared to the more common toolkits, FLTK suffers from a lack of applications. Which three FLTK applications that don’t exist (yet) do you miss the most?

I think FLTK is a GUI toolkit for developers, so it is not so important what applications are available based on FLTK.

If you look at my Nanolinux – given I add the NetRider browser and my FlMail program to the distro – it comes with all the main office applications done in FLTK. However, the quality of these applications is not as good as Libre Office, Firefox or Gimp. I do not expect anyone to write Libre Office with a FLTK GUI.

When you awake at night, a strange light surrounds you. The good FOSS fairy floats in the air before you! She can do absolutely everything FOSS related; whether it’s FLTK 3 being completed and released this year, a packaging standard that all Linux distros agree on or something a bit less unlikely. ๐Ÿ˜‰ She grants you three wishes!

As with FLTK 3 I wish it would change its name and the development would concentrate on FLTK 1.3.

Regarding the floating fairy I would wish the internet would be used by nice and friendly people only. Currently I see it endangered by massive spam, viruses, criminals and even cyber war as North Korea apparently did regarding the movie the ruling dictator wanted to stop being shown.

Back to serious. What do you think: Why is FLTK such a little known toolkit? And what could be done about that?

I do not think it is little known, just most people use GTK and so this is the “market leader”. If you work in a professional team this will usually decide to go for GTK since most members will be familiar with that.

What could be done about that? If KDE and Gnome would be based on FLTK I think the situation will change.

From your perspective of a developer: What do you miss about FLTK that the toolkit really should provide?

Frankly speaking, as a DOS developer the alternative would be to write your own GUI. And FLTK provides more features than you could ever develop on your own.

What I do not like is the lack of support for third party schemes. Dimitrj, a Russian FLTK developer who frequently posts as “kdiman” on the FLTK forums, created a very nice Oxy scheme. But it is not added to FLTK since the developers do not have the time to test all the changes he made to make FLTK look that good.

What do you think about the unfortunate FLTK 2 and the direction of FLTK 3?

I think these branches have been very unfortunate for FLTK. Many developers expected FLTK 2 to supersede FLTK 1.1 and waited for FLTK 2 to finish before developing an FLTK application. But FLTK 2 never got into a state where it could replace FLTK 1.1. Now the same seems to happen with FLTK 3.

So they should have named FLTK2/3 the XYZ-Toolkit and not FLTK 2 to avoid stopping people to choose FLTK 1.1.

Currently there is no development on FLTK 2/3 that I am aware of and I think the developers should concentrate on one version only. FLTK 1.3 works very well and does all that you need as a software developer as far as I can say.

Somebody with a bit of programming experience and some free time would like to get into FLTK. Any tips for him/her?

I wrote a tutorial which should allow even beginners in C++ programming to use FLTK successfully (Link here).

Nanolinux

You’ve written quite a number of such applications yourself. Which of your projects is the most popular one (in terms of downloads or feedback)?

This is the Nanolinux distro. It has been downloaded 30.000 times this year.

NanoLinux… Can you describe what it is?

Let me cite Distrowatch, I cannot describe it better: Nanolinux is an open-source, free and very lightweight Linux distribution that requires only 14 MB of disk space. It includes tiny versions of the most common desktop applications and several games. It is based on the “MicroCore” edition of
the Tiny Core Linux distribution. Nanolinux uses BusyBox, Nano-X instead of X.Org, FLTK 1.3.x as the default GUI toolkit, and the super-lightweight SLWM window manager. The included applications are mainly based on FLTK.

After compiling the XFDOS distro I thought I would gain more users if I would port it to Linux. The size makes Nanolinux quite different from the others and I got a lot of downloads and reviews for it.

The project is based on TinyCore which makes use of FLTK itself. Is that the reason you chose this distro?

TinyCore was done by the former main developer of Damn Small Linux. So he had a lot of experience and did set up a very stable distro. Since I wanted to make a very small distro this was a good choice to use as a base. And I did not have to start from scratch and test that part of the distro forever.

NanoLinux uses an alternative windowing system. What can you tell us about the differences between NanoX and Xorg’s X11?

Nano-X is simply a tiny Xlib compatible library which has been used in a number of embedded Linux projects. Development started about 15 years ago as far as I recall. At that time many Linux application developers used X11 directly and therefore were willing to use an alternative like nano-X for their projects.

Since nano-X is not fully compatible to X11, a wrapper called NXlib was developed, which provides this compatibility and allows to base FLTK and other X11 applications on nano-X without code change. The compatibility is not 100% of cause, it is sufficient for FLTK and many X11 applications.

Since nano-X supported DOS in the early days I took this library and ported the current version to DOS again.

Netrider

The project you are working on currently is NetRider, a browser based on webkit and FLTK. Please tell us how you came up with the idea for it.

Over the years I looked at other browser applications and thought how I could build my own browser, just out of interest. Finally Laura, another developer from the US, and I discussed it together. She came up with additional ideas and thoughts. That made me have a go at WebKit with FLTK.

What are your aims for NetRider?

I wanted to add a better browser to my Nanolinux distro replacing the Dillo browser. Also, as a FLTK user I wanted to provide a FLTK GUI for the WebKit package as an alternative to GTK and Qt.

There’s also the project Fifth which has quite similar aims at first sight. Why don’t you work together?

Lauri, the author of Fifth, and I started out about the same time with our FLTK browser projects, not knowing of each other’s plans. Now our projects run in parallel. Even though we both use FLTK, the projects are quite different.

We have not discussed working together yet and our objectives are different. He wants to write an Opera compatible browser and competes with the Otter browser while I am satisfied to come up with something better than Dillo.

I did not ask Lauri whether he thinks we should combine the projects. I am also not sure if this would help us both because we implemented different WebKit APIs for our browsers so we would have to make a WebKit library featuring two APIs. This could be done though. Also he is not interested in
supporting Windows which Laura and I want to support.

Would you say that NetRider is your biggest project so far? And what plans do you have for it?

Setting up Nanolinux and developing/porting all the applications for it was a big project too, and I plan to make a new release beginning of next year.

As with NetRider it depends if people like to use it or are interested to develop for / port it. Depending on the feedback I will make my plans. Recently I added some of the observations I got from beta testers, did support for additional languages, initial printing support etc.

The last one is yours: Which question would you have liked me to ask in addition to those and what is the answer to it?

I think you already asked more questions than I would have been able to come
up with. Thank you for the interesting questions.

Thanks a lot Georg, for answering these questions! Best wishes for your current and future projects!

What’s next?

I have a few things in mind… But I don’t know yet which one I’ll write about next. A happy new year to all my readers!

An extraordinary TK example!

The last blog post was a little introduction to toolkits in general – now it’s time for a truly special case! While it doesn’t really fit completely with what we’re doing here, it’s close enough to provide a fine example. (That and I like it enough to think that it deserves some more attention outside the narrow scene that’s usually interested in such a thing!)

An unusual distribution

Our example is a graphical distribution with a tiny display server (Nano-X), a simple window manager and FLTK (Fast Light ToolKit) as GUI toolkit. According to its site, FLTK is a cross-platform C++ GUI toolkit for UNIX/Linux, Windows and MacOS X. The uncompressed iso of the distribution is just a little over 60 MB in size. Now take a look at the desktop and guess, which operating system this is based on (and don’t look at the tags of this post if you don’t want to spoil the fun)!

“A graphical distribution using Nano-X and FLTK”

Which OS?

So what do you think from what you see? It looks fairly decent if maybe a bit unoriginal. Is it Windows? No, Windows knows no X11 and thus no Nano-X – and Windows hasn’t fit in ~60 MB for ages! MacOS? To big, too and we were talking about a distribution. So again: No. Linux then? Sounds likely. But a tiny Linux distribution with graphical abilities is nothing special and even less something revolutionary!

Want to see another screenshot? Here’s a FLTK application running:
FlWriter – a simple FLTK word processor

So is it Unix? Some BSD? Or Minix perhaps? No, none of these! A rather exotic thing then? MenuetOS or V2-OS (two operating systems written entirely in assembler!)? Nope. Something completely new? No, you know it, trust me. And it’s not ReactOS or anything like that, either. It’s far easier: This is… DOS.

No, I’m serious! Really, this is Nano-X and FLTK ported to DOS by G. Potthast. The distribution we’re talking about is XFDOS! If you still don’t believe me, just scroll down to the end of this post. There’s a link to the project’s page where you can download it and see for yourself!

It comes with quite some programs, so you can really call it a distribution. There’s a word processor, a spreadsheet application, a painting program, a picture viewer, a pdf viewer and some more.

Alright, it’s still not of much value for daily use. While it even features USB support, there’s no multitasking for example and quite a few other things disqualify XFDOS as a primary OS. But that’s not what it’s meant for, anyway. It’s a great achievement and a neat example of what can actually be done. And it’s surely a huge step ahead of what a DOS GUI usually looks like! You don’t know what I mean? Heh, this gives me a good reason to set up a FreeDOS VM quickly and install OpenGEM again to show you (yes, I really worked with that before – but it’s been years…)!

OpenGEM – a DOS GUI running on FreeDOS

A toolkit in action

This exotic example now gives us the chance to compare a FLTK program running on two entirely different platforms. First take a look at the DOS port of the web browser Dillo:

Dillo – a FLTK-based browser (DOS version!)

And now compare it with Dillo running on a bare-bone Gentoo system running only X11+twm:

Dillo – a FLTK-based browser (on Gentoo)

As you can see, Dillo looks alike on such different platforms as DOS and Linux. Ok, the screenshots show quite some differences… But this is mainly the window bar which is a task of the window manager. Other than that there are a few differences thanks to the fact that XFDOS uses Dillo 3.0 and my Gentoo build is 3.0.2. Also some buttons are grayed out on the later but you can take my word for them to look alike if they both were active.

Even though in the first example the application is running in full screen while in the second it is not, it becomes clear that the application has the same style (buttons, scroll-bar, etc.) on both platforms and this is actually all I wanted to show here: GUI toolkits provide typical graphical elements so that the programmer doesn’t have to care for how they look on other platforms!

Interested in XFDOS?

You can explore the projet’s site here: http://code.google.com/p/nanox-microwindows-nxlib-fltk-for-dos/wiki/XFDOS

What’s next?

In the next post we’ll take a look at the various GUI toolkits available for Linux.

First things first – how I came to Linux (pt. 1)

This is something personal. Why to read this entry? Well, reading a bit about my experiences with computers will give you an idea of what I’m interested in and which direction things are likely to take. Also you perhaps like a little nostalgic retrospect? If not, skip this.

DOS

My dad bought his first pc way back when these were rather expensive and it was not at all common that a family had one. I was a child who could not yet read or write, but I was immediately hooked by this new machine. I enjoyed the simple games that the 80286 offered and didn’t mind that it was all black and white. The first letter I got to know was actually “y” (a VERY uncommon one in German) – the key I had learned to press when a game asked something like “would you like to try again”?

The first operating system I remember was MS-DOS 5.0 – but it’s basically the memory of the less advanced prompt. I got a little older and computers fascinated me even more and more. Soon we had Windows 3.0 and I was often playing around with Paintbrush (more or less the same thing as nowadays’ Paint).

Windows 3.11 (Ger): Main window with groups, icons and Paintbrush open.

At one point my father sold his 286 and bought a 386. Quite some time later, when the new 486 pcs were released, he bought one, too – but instead of selling the old 80386, he gave it to me. My very first own pc!

Over time I taught myself a lot by watching or asking my father and by trying out things on my own. Soon I was rather familiar with my DOS 6.22 and Win 3.11. After school I usually turned on my pc and played games or did other things with it for hours. Remember Lemmings, Commander Keen, Monkey Island, X-Wing/TIE Fighter, WarCraft and many other classics? Since this is where it all begun for me, I still love DOS and DOS games to this day!

WarCraft: Orcs & Humans – Water Elementals destroy an Orcish base.

Win 9.x

Then we got Windows 95. I remember well that I was very excited and got into this new OS quickly. Being all graphical and mouse-driven, I felt that it already lacked something… It just wasn’t the same thing anymore – a bit of the pc’s “magic” was gone (and would vanish more and more over the years, drowned in overly colorful rubbish). Of course, Win 95 came with quite some useful features and so I liked the system (weren’t we all used to the “blue screen of death” phenomena back then?). Well, and it allowed to boot into pure DOS. So everything was fine for me. Also DirectX and a few other new components made very nice new games possible and I certainly had a great time.

My younger brother got his own pc, too, and finally my father gave in and bought three ethernet cards. I got addicted to play multiplayer matches with friends and finally my parents forbid it since we were occupying my brother’s pc a little too often… I also got into map-making with WarCraft II thanks to the editor that came with it.

In school I became friends with a class mate who had taught himself to code. We had a lot of fun with several smaller projects. I also learned to write small programs in qBASIC and later a little Pascal and Delphi.

Doom95 launcher on the Windows 95 operating system (German).

Next I switched to Win 98 (SE, since I knew the FE was extremely unstable). This was about the time when many of my class mates got their first pc. Even years later, I was shocked how little they knew about computers even though they spent a lot of time with them. They couldn’t write a single batch file and if Windows didn’t start… Well, being left with a command line and no mouse they were about to panic! I’m still very grateful that I learned DOS and didn’t start with a graphical system and Win 9.x or even later!

A bit later I was mapping for Jedi Knight with a program called Jed which I found on a compilation CD. This may actually be the first piece of free software of which I was aware that it was coded by enthusiasts instead of regular companies. I thought that this was a great thing and that more people should publish their programs for everybody to use. Then my father decided that it was time to get an internet connection. Since only his pc could connect to the net, I was not online too often, but it was another very interesting thing, too! Especially since there actually was more free software to try out and enjoy!

Windows ME was released and we got that one, too. Yes, I know how much a lot of people despise it, but at first I kind of liked it. It booted up extremely fast and for the first time it didn’t take us some time to get the network working – Win ME just did that automatically. But hey, what’s that? They removed the option to boot into DOS! Right, there was a way to get it back, but I felt that it made the system even more unstable than it was anyway…

Win2k

Next I got Windows 2000 and honestly, I liked the system a lot. There were a few downsides like it being not really suitable for gaming and of course the missing DOS. Oh yes, and I still can’t understand what the hell M$ was thinking in terms of the console… They added some really nice functions that could be great for batching – and at the same time removed CHOICE.COM! Doing so they mindlessly ripped out the heart of batching! Luckily there was the FreeDOS project on the net which provided a CHOICE replacement that I could freely distribute. Soon I configured my pc as a multi-boot machine with Win2k (working) and 98 (gaming). This was the last time when I was quite happy with my Microsoft powered system.

THEN came… Windows XP.

Whatโ€™s next?

So much for the rather nostalgic part. The next entry will be the second part of this topic.