Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Gromit-MPX: a nifty videoconference screen annotation tool

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic propels videoconferencing to the stratosphere of user adoption. Almost overnight, the previously unknown app Zoom became a household technology name. Technology behemoths like Google and Microsoft scrambled to beef up their own videoconferencing products to match Zoom's success.

Zoom allows the meeting presenter to share their desktop with other participants. Google Meet and Skype also have that screen sharing feature. What Zoom offers, as of today, but not Google Meet or Skype, is the ability to annotate the shared screen in real time.

Undoubtedly, Google and Microsoft will eventually incorporate screen annotation in their respective products, but for the time being, gromit-mpx is a viable stopgap solution.

With gromit-mpx, presenters can annotate their desktop using free-hand drawing. It is true that Zoom as well as several third-party open-source annotation apps such as ardesia and pylote give presenters more bells and whistles, for instance, to draw geometrical shapes such as solid or dashed lines and to enter text. Yet the no-frills gromit-mpx is tailor-made for videoconferencing because of its non-obtrusive, hotkey-based mode of operation.

In contrast to Zoom and pylote, gromit-mpx does not have a toolbar, thus saving valuable screen space. In lieu of a toolbar, gromit-mpx functionalities can be activated using hotkeys(see the table below). The inconspicuous use of hotkeys is generally less obtrusive to the presentation than the clicking of the mouse on a protruding toolbar.

Hotkey combo Corresponding action
F9 Toggle drawing
Shift-F9 Clear screen
Ctrl-F9 Toggle visibility
Alt-F9 Quit app
Click Draw with red pen (default)
Shift-Click Blue pen
Ctrl-Click Yellow pen
Wheel-button click Green pen with arrow
Right click Eraser


To install gromit-mpx on Debian or Ubuntu, enter:

# apt install gromit-mpx


If a videoconference presenter has the most basic requirement for an annotation tool, for instance, to draw meeting participants' attention to an area of the screen, gromit-mpx fits the bill well. Its handy hotkeys make annotation more seamless and speedy than the clunky toolbar used by more feature-complete apps, even Zoom.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Joplin vs Orgzly as note-taking to-do apps

This post evaluates 2 note-taking, to-do list managers: Joplin and org-mode/Orgzly. Both are free, open-source, cross-platform software.

As an avid emacs user, I have always used org-mode on my Linux desktop to take notes and compile my to-do lists. So much so, I held out as long as possible before I switched to another tool that could actually run on Android. Org-mode as an emacs tool did not support Android at the time. Painful as it was, I replaced org-mode with the cross-platform tool Joplin.

Joplin served me very well on both Linux and Android platforms…until I came across an Android app named Orgzly. Org-mode and Orgzly share the same plain text file format, and according to Orgzly documentation, 'files generated by Orgzly might differ in the amount of white space … Any other difference would be considered a serious bug.' File compatibility means that you can edit your tasks and notes using org-mode on Linux and Orgzly on Android.

One key difference between org-mode and Orgzly is how you edit the shared underlying files. Using org-mode, you edit the text files directly inside emacs the text editor. In contrast, you use Orgzly's GUI for editing.

Below, I compare Joplin and org-mode/Orgzly.


You can run Joplin in 3 ways:
  1. as a desktop app on Linux, Windows or macOS,
  2. as a mobile app on Android or iOS, and
  3. as a terminal program on Linux, FreeBSD, macOS or Windows.
I used both its Linux desktop version as well as the Android mobile version, and had no problem vouching for Joplin.

Orgzly runs on Android only (no iOS version yet). For non-mobile platforms, you will need to run org-mode within the emacs editor. Although it has been done before, converting to emacs just to use org-mode may be an overkill for most people.

On portability, Joplin has a definite advantage over org-mode/Orgzly.


Mobile versions of Joplin can be installed via the respective Google and Apple app stores. Installing it on a desktop (Linux, Windows, macOS) is just as convenient. Joplin is available to download from the standard repository of many Linux distributions including Debian. You can also download the AppImage version on Joplin's website.

Orgzly can be installed on Android using either Google Play or F-Droid, the repository for free and open-source Android apps. Org-mode, the desktop counterpart, is now part of emacs: installing emacs automatically installs org-mode.

It is a tie.

Data import/export

Unless you are using a note-taking to-do app for the first time, you will want to easily import any data from your existing app into the new app. Conversely, to prevent vendor lock-in to any 1 app, you want to be able to export data in a format that other apps can easily import. One such format is ENEX, the file format for Evernote, the app with arguably the largest installed user base.

Joplin can import ENEX files, but cannot export to the same. In recompense, you can import and export data in Markdown, PDF and JSON formats.

Orgzly currently only supports the import of org-mode files, and does not support any import or export of third-party file formats.

The clear winner is Joplin.


Both Joplin and Orgzly are minimalistic (even spartan in the case of Orgzly) but highly functional in their user interface design.

To their credit, both offer dark mode, i.e., the ability to set the background to dark.

Joplin has a slight edge over Orgzly in aesthetics.

Winner: Joplin.

Cloud storage

Both Joplin and Orgzly support data storage on popular cloud platforms. Cloud storage enables you to access your tasks and notes from multiple devices and platforms.

Some cloud platforms provide custom API that client apps such as Joplin and Orgzly can use to make connections. There is a cost to using API: the client app needs to write custom code for each cloud service.

The advent of the WebDAV protocol has created a level playing field for apps that need to exchange data over the Internet. Client apps only need to write the WebDAV interface once to support access to all WebDAV-compliant cloud services.

Joplin supports Dropbox and OneDrive via native API, and Nextcloud via the WebDAV protocol. Note that with OneDrive, upload files are restricted to a maximum size of 4 MB, which is relatively low if you are attaching large multimedia files.

Orgzly supports Dropbox through native API and Nextcloud and other cloud services through WebDAV.

A tie.


As discussed above, both apps can store data in the cloud. Data is regularly transmitted in the cloud to keep client apps synchronized.

Joplin data transmission is encrypted end-to-end; Orgzly, unencrypted.

With Joplin, your privacy is protected: not even Joplin developers or your cloud host such as Dropbox can access your encrypted data.

This may well be the killer feature that swings the pendulum all the way in favor of Joplin for most people.

Project viability

The 2 projects are very similar on this point – both stable and actively maintained by a team of one major developer. So, don't expect major new features every few months.

For mature applications like note-taking to-do list managers, that may actually be a benefit.

According to Google Play, both apps are downloaded roughly the same number of times(50,000+). Their numbers pale in comparison to the behemoth Evernote (100,000,000+). However, both projects have reached a critical mass in their respective user communities.

A tie.


Both Joplin and org-mode/Orgzly are more than capable to do the basic job. But Joplin is the eminently obvious overall winner … unless you are a hardcore emacs fan.