13
Sep 16

GSoC 2016: Some Thoughts on React

As discussed in the previous post, the HTML-based UI for editing events and tasks in a tab is still a work in progress that is in a fairly early stage and not something you could use yet.  (However, for any curious folks living on the bleeding edge who might still want to check it out, the previous post also describes how to activate it.)  This post relates to its implementation, namely the use of React, “a Javascript library for building user interfaces.”

For the HTML UI we decided to use React (but not JSX which is often paired with it).  React basically provides a nice declarative way to define composable, reusable UI components (like a tab strip, a text box, or a drop down menu) that you use to create a UI.  These are some of its main advantages over “raw” HTML.  It’s also quite efficient / fast and is a library that does one thing well and can be combined with other technologies (as compared with more monolithic frameworks).  I enjoyed using and learning about React.  Once you understand its basic model of state management and how the components work it is not very difficult or complicated to use.  I found its documentation to be quite good, and I liked how it lets you do everything in Javascript, since it generates the HTML for the UI dynamically.

One of the biggest differences when using React is that instead of storing state in DOM elements and querying them for their state (as we currently do), the app state is centralized in a top-level React component and from there it gets automatically distributed to various child components.  When the state changes (on user input) React automatically updates the UI to reflect those changes.  To do this it uses an internal “virtual DOM” which is basically a representation of the state of the DOM in Javascript.  When there are changes it compares the previous version of that virtual DOM with the new version to decide what changes need to be made to the actual DOM.  (Because the actual DOM is quite slow compared to Javascript, this approach gives React an advantage in terms of performance.)  Centralizing the app state in this way simplifies things considerably.  Direct interaction with DOM elements is not needed, and is actually an anti-pattern.

One example of the power and flexibility that React offers is that I actually did the “responsive design” part of the HTML UI with React rather than CSS.  The reason was that some of the UI components had to move to different positions in the UI when transitioning between the narrow and wide layouts for different window sizes.  This was not really possible with CSS, at least not without overly complex workarounds.  However, it was simple to do it with React because React can easily re-render the UI in any configuration you define, in this case in response to resizing the window past a certain threshold.  (Once CSS grid layout is available this kind of repositioning will be straightforward to do with CSS.)

React’s different approach to state does present some challenges for using it with existing code.  For this project at least it is not simply a matter of dropping it in and having it work, rather using it will entail some non-trivial code refactoring.  Basically, the code will need to be separated out into different jobs.  First there’s (1) interacting with the outside of the iframe (e.g. toolbar, menubar, statusbar) and (2) modifying and/or formatting the event or task data.  These are needed for both the XUL and HTML UIs.  Next there’s (3) updating and interacting with the XUL UI inside the iframe.  Currently these things (1, 2, and 3) are usually closely intertwined, for example in a single function.  Then there is (4) using React to define components and how they respond to changes to the app state, and (5) updating and interacting with the HTML UI inside the iframe (i.e. read from or write to the app state in the top-level React component).  So there is some significant refactoring work to do, but after it is done the code should be more robust and maintainable.

Despite the refactoring work that may be involved, I think that React has a lot to offer for future UI work for Calendar or Thunderbird as an alternative to XUL.  Especially for code that involves managing a lot of state (like the current project) using React and its approach should reduce complexity and make the code more maintainable.  Also, because it mostly involves using Javascript this simplifies things for developers.  When CSS grid layout is available that will also strengthen the case for HTML UI work since it will offer greater control over the layout and appearance of the UI.

I’ll close with links to two blog posts and a video about React that I found helpful:

— Paul Morris


30
Aug 16

GSoC 2016: Wrapping Up

It’s hard to believe it is already late August and this year’s Google Summer of Code is all wrapped up.  The past couple of months have really flown by.  In the previous post I summarized the feedback we received on the new UI design and discussed the work I’ve been doing to port the current UI (for editing events and tasks) to a tab.  In this post I’ll describe how to try out this new feature in a development version of Thunderbird, and give an update on the HTML implementation of the new UI design. In my next post I’ll share some thoughts on using React for the HTML UI.

To try out editing events and tasks in a tab instead of in a dialog window you’ll need a development version of Thunderbird (aka: “Daily”).  Since it is a development version you will want to use a separate profile and/or make sure your data is backed up.  Once you have that all set up, you can turn on the “event in a tab” feature with a hidden preference.  To access hidden preferences, go to Preferences > Advanced > Config Editor, and then search for “calendar.item.editInTab” and toggle it to true by double-clicking on it.

Or if that’s too much trouble you can just wait until it arrives in the next stable release of Thunderbird/Lightning.  In the meantime, here’s what it looks like (click to enlarge):

xul-ui-in-tab

The screenshot above shows the current XUL-based UI ported to a tab.  I ended up not having much time to work on the new HTML-based UI (actually only a week or so) and did not get as far on it as I’d hoped — only as far as a basic and preliminary implementation, a starting point for further development rather than something that can be used today.  For example, it does not yet support saving changes and not all of the data is loaded into the UI for a given event or task.

Some aspects do already work, like the responsive design where the UI changes to adapt to the width of the window, taking more advantage of the greater space available in a tab.  Here are two screen shots that show the wide and narrow views (click to enlarge).

html-ui-in-tab

html-ui-in-window

Even though the HTML UI is not ready for use yet, we decided to go ahead and land it in the code base as a work-in-progress for further development.  So if you are curious to see where it stands, it can also be turned on with a hidden preference (“calendar.item.useNewItemUI”) in a current development version of Thunderbird, as described above.  Again, be sure to use a separate profile and/or make sure your data is backed up.

For more technical details about the project, including some high-level documentation I wrote for this part of the code, see the meta bug, especially my comment #2 which summarizes the state of things as of the end of the Summer of Code period.

It was a great summer working on this project.  I learned a lot and enjoyed contributing.  As my time permits, I hope to continue to contribute and finish the implementation of the new UI.  Many thanks to Google, Mozilla, and especially to my mentors Philipp Kewisch (Fallen) and MakeMyDay for their guidance and tireless willingness to answer my questions and review code.  Also thanks to Richard Marti (Paenglab) for his help and feedback on the UI design work.

I wish there was another month of the official coding period to get the HTML implementation further along, but alas, so far we’ve only been able to help people manage their time, not actually generate more of it.

— Paul Morris


25
Aug 16

GSoC 2016: Where Things Stand

The clock has run out on Google Summer of Code 2016.  In this post I’ll summarize the feedback we received on the new UI design and the work I’ve been doing since my last post.

Feedback on the New UI Design

A number of people shared their feedback on the new UI design by posting comments on the previous blog post.  The response was generally positive.  Here’s a brief summary:

  • One commenter advocated for keeping the current date/time picker design, while another just wanted to be sure to keep quick and easy text entry.
  • A question about how attendees availability would be shown (same as it is currently).
  • A request to consider following Google Calendar’s reminders UI.
  • A question about preserving the vertical scroll position across different tabs (this should not be a problem).
  • A concern about how the design would scale for very large numbers (say hundreds) of attendees, categories, reminders, etc.  (See my reply.)

Thanks to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts.  It is helpful to hear different views and get user input.  If you have not weighed in yet, feel free to do so, as more feedback is always welcome.  See the previous blog post for more details.

Coding the Summer Away

A lot has happened over the last couple months.  The big news is that I finished porting the current UI from the window dialog to a tab.  Here’s a screenshot of this XUL-based implementation of the UI in a tab (click to enlarge):

xul-ui-in-tab

Getting this working in a really polished way took more time than I anticipated, largely because the code had to be refactored so that the majority of the UI lives inside an iframe.  This entailed using asynchronous message passing for communication between the iframe’s contents and its outer parent context (e.g. toolbars, menus, statusbar, etc.), whether that context is a tab or a dialog window.  While this is not a visible change, it was necessary to prepare the way for the new HTML-based design, where an HTML file will be loaded in the iframe instead of a XUL file.

Along with the iframe refactoring, there are also just a lot of details that go into providing an ideal user experience, all the little things we tend to take for granted when using software.  Here’s a list of some of these things that I worked on over the last months for the XUL implementation:

  • when switching tabs, update the toolbar and statusbar to reflect the current tab
  • persist open tabs across application restarts (which requires serializing the tab state)
  • ask the user about saving changes before closing a tab, before closing the application window, and before quitting the application
  • allow customizing toolbars with the new iframe setup
  • provide a default window dialog height and width with the new iframe setup
  • display icons for tabs and related CSS/style work
  • get the relevant ‘Events and Tasks’ menu items to work for a task in a tab
  • allow hiding and showing the toolbar from the view > toolbars menu
  • if the user has customized their toolbar for the window dialog, migrate those settings to the tab toolbar on upgrade
  • fix existing mozmill tests so they work with the new iframe setup
  • test for regressions in SeaMonkey

In the next two posts I’ll describe how to try out this new feature in a development version of Thunderbird, discuss the HTML implementation of the new UI design, and share some thoughts on using React for the HTML implementation.

— Paul Morris


13
Jun 16

GSoC 2016: Seeking Feedback on UI Design

As you can see on the Event in a Tab wiki page, I have created a number of mockups, labeled A through N, for the new UI for creating, viewing, and editing calendar events and tasks.  (This has given me a lot of practice using Inkscape!)  The final design will be implemented in the second phase of the project.  So far the revisions have been based on valuable feedback from Paenglab and MakeMyDay (thanks!), and we are now seeking broader feedback from users on the latest and greatest mockup “N” (click to view full size):

Event in a Tab

Event in a Tab, UI Design, Mockup “N”

Please take a look and send any feedback, comments, suggestions, questions, etc. to the calendar mailing list / newsgroup where we will be discussing the design, or you can leave a comment on this blog post, send a private email to mozilla@kewis.ch, or reach us via IRC (in Mozilla’s #calendar channel).

Here are some notes and details about the behavior of the proposed UI that are not apparent from a static image.

The mockup is intended as a relatively rough “wire frame” to show layout and it only approximates spacing, sizing, and aesthetic details. Unless otherwise noted, functionality is the same as in the current Lightning add-on.

A responsive design approach will be used to implement this UI in HTML. As the window expands horizontally, the elements will expand with it up to a breakpoint where the two-column “tab” layout goes into effect. Then the elements will continue to expand in both of the columns, up to a certain maximum limit at which they would expand no further. (Having this limit will keep things more focused on very wide monitors/windows.)

For vertical scrolling in a tab… Categories, Reminders, Attachments, Attendees, and Description can expand to take up as much vertical space as necessary to show all of their content. In most cases, where there are only a small number of these items, there will be enough room on the page to show them all without any scrolling. In less common cases where there are many items, the content of the tab will grow taller until it no longer fits vertically, and then the whole tab will become scrollable. (The toolbar at the top, with the buttons like “Save and Close,” will not scroll, remaining in place, still easily accessible.) This approach makes it possible to view all of the items at once when there are many of them (instead of having smaller boxes around each of these elements that are each independently scrollable).  This “whole tab scrolling” approach is how it works in Google Calendar.

For vertical scrolling in a dialog window…  When the contents of the tabbed box (Reminders, Attachments, Attendees, and Description) becomes too big to fit vertically, the tabbed box becomes scrollable.  (Suggestions are welcome for the name of the “More” tab in the window dialog.)

The mockup shows the new date/time picker that is being developed by Mozilla.  It remains to be seen whether it will be available in time for use in this project.  Another possibility is the date/time picker developed by Fastmail.

Progress Report on Coding

Besides working on the design for the UI, I have continued to work on porting the current event dialog UI to a tab.  I created a bug for this part of the first phase of the project, posted my first work-in-progress patch there, and am now working on the next iteration based on the feedback.

This work includes refactoring the current event dialog’s XUL file into more than one file to separate the main part of the UI from its menu bar, tool bar, and status bar items.  This more modular arrangement will make it possible to make the menu bar, tool bar, and status bar items appear in the correct places in the main Thunderbird window when displaying the UI in a tab.  This will solve the problem of the doubled status bar and menu bar in my first patch.

The next patch will also have a hidden preference (accessible via “about:config” but eventually to be added to Lightning’s preferences UI) that determines whether event and task dialogs are opened in a window or a tab by default.

So overall, things are progressing well, which is a good thing since there is only about a week or so left before the GSoC midterm milestone, and the goal is to have phase one of the project completed by that point.  After I have finished this initial “phase one” patch, and any follow-up work that needs to be done for it, we will reach a decision about whether to use XUL, Web Components, React.js, or “plain vanilla” HTML for the implementation of the new UI design, and then start working on implementing it.

— Paul Morris


02
Jun 16

GSoC 2016: First Steps

Time for a progress report after my first week or so working on the Event in a Tab GSoC project. Things are going well so far. In short, I have the current event and task dialogs opening in a tab rather than a window and I can create and edit tasks and events in a tab. While not everything is working yet most things already are.

The trickiest part has been working with XUL, since I am not as familiar with it as I am with Javascript. With some help from Fallen on IRC I figured out how to register a new XUL document that contains an iframe and how to load another XUL file into this iframe. For an event or task that is editable one XUL file is loaded (calendar-event-dialog.xul), but if it is read-only then a different XUL file is loaded (calendar-summary-dialog.xul).

Initially I used the tabmail interface’s “shared tab” option — where a single XUL file is loaded and then its appearance and content is modified to create the appearance of completely different tabs. (This is how Thunderbird’s “3-pane” and “single message” tabs work, and also Lightning’s “Calendar” and “Tasks” tab.) However, this did not work when you opened multiple events/tasks in separate tabs. So I figured out the tabmail interface’s other option which loads each tab separately as you would expect and everything is now working fine.

The next step was to figure out how to access the data for an event (or task) from the tab. I actually figured out two ways to do this. The first was via the tabmail interface in the way that it is set up to work (i.e. “tabmail.currentTabInfo”). That meant that the current event dialog code (that referenced the data as a property of the “window” object) had to be changed to access it from this new location.  But that is not so good since we will be supporting both window and tab options and it would be nice if the same code could “just work” for both cases as much as possible.

So I figured out a second way to provide access to the data by just putting it in the right place relative to the iframe, so that the current code could reach it without having to be modified (i.e. still as a property of the “window” object, but with the “window” being relative to the iframe). This is a better approach since the same code will work for both cases (events/tasks in a dialog window or in a tab).

One small thing I implemented via the tabmail interface is that the title of the tab indicates whether you are creating a new item or modifying an existing one and whether the item is an event or a task. However, I will probably end up re-working this because the current dialog window code updates the title of the window as you change the title of the event/task, and that code can probably also be used to generate the initial title of the tab. This is something I will be looking into as I start to really work with the event dialog code.

On the UI design side of things, I created three new mockups based on some more feedback from Richard Marti and MakeMyDay. Part of the challenge is that there are a number of elements that vary in size depending on how many items they contain (e.g. reminders, categories, attachments, attendees). Mockups K and L were my attempt at a slightly different approach for handling this, although we will be following the design of mockup J going forward. You can take a look at these mockups and read notes about them on the wiki page.

The next steps will be to push toward a more finalized design and seek broader feedback on it.  On the coding side I will be identifying where things are not working yet and getting them to work. For example, the code for closing a window does not work from a tab and the status bar items are appearing just above the status bar (at the bottom of the window) because of the iframe.

So far I think things are going well. It is really encouraging that I am already able to create and modify events and tasks from a tab and that most of the basic functionality appears to be working fine.

— Paul Morris


23
May 16

GSoC 2016: Getting Oriented

Today is the first day of the “coding period” for Google Summer of Code 2016 and I’m excited to be working on the “Event in a Tab” project for Mozilla Calendar. The past month of the “community bonding period” has flown by as I made various preparations for the summer ahead. This post covers what I’ve been up to and my experience so far.

After the exciting news of my acceptance for GSoC I knew it was time to retire my venerable 2008 Apple laptop which had gotten somewhat slow and “long in the tooth.” Soon, with a newly refurbished 2014 laptop via Ebay in hand, I made the switch to GNU/Linux, dual-booting the latest Ubuntu 16.04. Having contributed to LilyPond before it felt familiar to fire up a terminal, follow the instructions for setting up my development environment, and build Thunderbird/Lightning. (I was even able to make a few improvements to the documentation – removed some obsolete info, fixed a typo, etc.) One difference from what I’m used to is using mercurial instead of git, although the two seem fairly similar. When I was preparing my application for GSoC my build succeeded but I only got a blank white window when opening Thunderbird. This time, thanks to some guidance from my mentor Philipp about selecting the revision to build, everything worked without any problems.

One of the highlights of the bonding period was meeting my mentors Philipp Kewisch (primary mentor) and MakeMyDay (secondary mentor). We had a video chat meeting to discuss the project and get me up to speed. They have been really supportive and helpful and I feel confident about the months ahead knowing that they “have my back.” That same day I also listened in on the Thunderbird meeting with Simon Phipps answering questions about his report on potential future legal homes for Thunderbird, which was an interesting discussion.

At this point I am feeling pretty well integrated into the Mozilla infrastructure after setting up a number of accounts – for Bugzilla, MDN, the Mozilla wiki, an LDAP account for making blog posts and later for commit access, etc. I got my feet wet with IRC (nick: pmorris), introduced myself on the Calendar dev team’s mailing list, and created a tracker bug and a wiki page for the project.

Following the Mozilla way of working in the open, the wiki page provides a public place to document the high-level details related to design, implementation, and the overall project plan. If you want to learn more about this “Event in a Tab” project, check out the wiki page.  It contains the mockup design that I made when applying for GSoC and my notes on the thinking behind it. I shared these with Richard Marti who is the resident expert on UI/UX for Thunderbird/Calendar and he gave me some good feedback and suggestions. I made a number of additional mockups for another round of feedback as we iterate towards the final design. One thing I have learned is that this kind of UI/UX design work is harder than it looks!

Additionally, I have been getting oriented with the code base and figuring out the first steps for the coding period, reading through XUL documentation and learning about Web Components and React, which are two options for an HTML implementation. It turns out there is a student team working on a new version of Thunderbird’s address book and they are also interested in using React, so there will be a larger conversation with the Thunderbird and Calendar dev teams about this. (Apparently React is already being used by the Developer Tools team and the Firefox Hello team.)

I think that about covers it for now. I’m excited for the coding period to get underway and grateful for the opportunity to work on this project. I’ll be posting updates to this blog under the “gsoc” tag, so you can follow my progress here.

— Paul Morris


17
May 16

Google Summer of Code 2016

It is about time for a new blog post. I know it has been a while and there are certainly some notable events I could have blogged about, but in today’s fast paced world I have preferred quick twitter messages.

The exciting news I would like to spread today is that we have a new Google Summer of Code student for this summer! May I introduce to you Paul Morris, who I believe is an awesome candidate. Here is a little information about Paul:

I am currently finishing my graduate degree and in my spare time I like to play music and work on alternative music notation systems (see Clairnote). I have written a few Firefox add-ons and I was interested in the “Event in a Tab” project because I wanted to contribute to Mozilla and to Thunderbird/Calendar which is used by millions of people and fills an important niche. It was also a good fit for my skills and an opportunity to learn more about using html/css/javascript for user interfaces.

Paul will be working on the Event in a Tab project, which aims to allow opening a calendar event or task in a tab, instead of in the current event dialog. Just imagine the endless possibilities we’d have with so much space! In the end you will be able to view events and tasks both in the traditional dialog and in a tab, depending on your preference and the situation you are in.

The project will have two phases, the first taking the current event dialog code and UI as is and making it possible to open it in a tab. The textboxes will inevitably be fairly wide, but I believe this is an important first step and gives users a workable result early on.

Once this is done, the second step is to re-implement the dialog using HTML instead of XUL, with a new layout that is made for the extra space we have in a tab. The layout should be adaptable, so that when the window is resized or the event is opened in a narrow dialog, the elements fall in to place, just like you’d experience in a reactive designed website. You can read more about the project on the wiki.

Paul has already made some great UI mock-ups in his proposal, we will be going through these with the Thunderbird UI experts to make sure we can provide you with the best experience possible. I am sure we will share some screenshots on the blog once the re-implementation phase comes closer.

Paul will be using this blog to give updates about his progress. The coding phase is about to start on May 22nd after which posts will become more frequent. Please join me in welcoming Paul and wishing him all the best for the summer!

 

 

 


13
Jun 15

There is no Lightning 4.0

…but of course there is is a release for Thunderbird 38! Since the release date for Thunderbird has been postponed and in the meanwhile Firefox has released 38.0.1, Thunderbird will also be released as Thunderbird 38.0.1. Since the Lightning version is automatically generated at build time, we have just released Lightning 4.0.0.1. If you are still using Thunderbird 31 and Lightning 3.3.3, you will be getting an update in the next days.

The exciting thing about this release is that Lightning has been integrated into Thunderbird. I expect there will be next to no issues during upgrade this time, because Thunderbird includes the Lightning addon already.

If you can’t wait, you can get Thunderbird in your language directly from mozilla.org. If you do happen to have issues with upgrading, you can also get Lightning from addons.mozilla.org. The latest Seamonkey version is 2.33.1 at the time of writing, you need to use Lightning 3.8b2 in this case. For more information on compatibility, check out the calendar versions page.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, most fixed issues are backend fixes that won’t be very visible. We do however have a great new feature to save copies of invitations to your calendar. This helps in case you don’t care about replying to the invitation but would still like to see it in your calendar. We also have more general improvements in invitation compatibility, performance and stability and some slight visual enhancements. The full list of changes can be found on bugzilla.

If you are upgrading manually, you might want to make a backup. Although I don’t anticipate any major issues, you never know.

If you have questions, would like support, or have found a bug, feel free to leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.


28
Apr 15

The Third Beta on the way to Lightning 4.0

It’s that time of year again, we have a new major release of Lightning on the horizon. About every 42 weeks, Thunderbird prepares for a major release, we follow up with a matching major version. You may know these as Lightning 2.6 or 3.3.In order to avoid disappointments, we do a series of beta releases before a such major release. This is where we need you. Please help out in making Lightning 4.0 a great success.Time flies when you are preparing for releases, so we are already at Thunderbird 38.0b3 and Lightning 4.0b3. The final release will be on May 12th and there will be at least one more beta. Please download these betas and take a moment to go through all the actions you normally do on a daily basis. Create an event, accept an invitation, complete a task. You probably have your own workflow, these are of course just examples.

Here is how to get the builds. If you have found an issue, you can either leave a comment here or file a bug on bugzilla.

You may wonder what is new. I’ve gone through the bugs fixed since 3.3 and found that most issues are backend fixes that won’t be very visible. We do however have a great new feature to save copies of invitations to your calendar. This helps in case you don’t care about replying to the invitation but would still like to see it in your calendar. We also have more general improvements in invitation compatibility, performance and stability and some slight visual enhancements. The full list of changes can be found on bugzilla.

Although its highly unlikely that severe problems will arise, you are encouraged to make a backup before switching to beta. If it comforts you, I am using beta builds for my production profile and I don’t recall there being a time where I lost events or had to start over.

If you have questions or have found a bug, feel free to leave a comment here.


03
Mar 15

We are now on Twitter

In the spirit of Twitter I will keep this blog post down to 140 characters. Check out @mozcalendar for more frequent updates on the project.