DRM is one of the central themes that has been weaving in and out of many of my posts here; this well-written piece from Sun's Simon Phipps brings in plenty of other related topics too, and provides an interesting take on the issue (via Groklaw).
(It also includes a link that reminds me why I don't have an iPod - and why I hate the word "Podcast".)
31 January 2006
DRM is one of the central themes that has been weaving in and out of many of my posts here; this well-written piece from Sun's Simon Phipps brings in plenty of other related topics too, and provides an interesting take on the issue (via Groklaw).
At first sight, the $100 laptop has everything going for it: it is based around open source software, uses renewable energy (you wind it up), and is trying to do something really worthwhile - put computing into the hands of children in developing nations.
But I have to say that, even though it is being done for all the usual wrong reasons, Bill Gates's alternative solution - to use a mobile 'phone to provide the processing power - seems spot on to me. As prices continue to plummet, mobile 'phones will soon be affordable even in countries with very low per capita incomes.
Moreover, today's mobiles are already computers: they play music, take digital photos, and often run office-type software (to say nothing of games). And they just keep on getting smaller and lighter. Convergence from the other end - putting a 'phone into a portable computer - does not lead to the same end-result for one simple reason: there is a limit to how small you can make a keyboard.
Mobiles get round this problem by ignoring it: keyboard entry is done either in a minimalist form (texting) or not at all. As I've written elsewhere, once voice recognition systems are good enough to cope with breathless speech on the move with significant background noises, nobody would even think of using a keyboard; typing will become some ancient art like thatching or dry stone walling.
Better, then, to work out ways of turning what will soon be the ubiquitous mobile into a teaching tool. Better still, if that tool were based on some form of GNU/Linux for mobiles rather than Microsoft's proprietary solutions. But I fear this is unlikely to happen: the MIT project has achieved a technical, economic and political momentum that means it will carry on regardless of whether it is actually the best solution.
Who would have thought file formats could be such fun?
The great battle over whether the OpenDocument format should be adopted in Massachusetts has taken another dramatic turn with the appointment of a successor to Peter Quinn, the man who took most of the flak for introducing the policy in the first place.
What's most striking is that the press release announcing the new CIO goes out of its way to emphasise that he will be "responsible for overseeing the final stages of implementation of the state's new Open Document format proposal, to go into effect in January 2007" (via Andy Updegrove's Standards Blog). In other words, all the talk about how the ODF decision was being rolled back was premature, to say the least.
Microsoft is unlikely to take this lying down - too much is at stake. If it loses Massachusetts in this way, it will create a terrible precedent for the company. It will reveal that that there is, in fact, life after Microsoft Office. And once users start to experience the huge benefits of employing open formats - freedom from vendor lock-in, the ability to deploy a range of different applications on several platforms, easy archiving etc. - the trickle of defections will soon become positively Amazonian.
Expect things to get even more interestinger.
30 January 2006
Nicholas Wade in the New York Times has an interesting article about earwax. It seems that there are two types, wet and dry:
The wet form predominates in Africa and Europe, where 97 percent or more of the people have it, and the dry form among East Asians, while populations of Southern and Central Asia are roughly half and half. By comparing the DNA of Japanese with each type, the researchers were able to identify the gene that controls which type a person has.
Of course, this makes you want to get the full details - not least because it turns out that this is "the first example of DNA polymorphism determining a visible genetic trait." That is, for the first time, researchers have pinpointed a single letter change in the DNA (out of 3 billion), from a G to an A (the "polymorphism"), that alters something directly observable (the "visible genetic trait") - earwax consistency.
You can read the abstract, but - guess what? - only subscribers get to see the all the gory/waxy details. Surely, when it comes to something as quintessentially human as earwax, we have a right to open access?
29 January 2006
If you ever wondered why, in the age of the global Internet, local newspapers still existed, read this. It begins as precisely the kind of small-scale story that someone like, well, me, for example, would have thought unworthy of much attention. It's about some small, local politician somewhere in Massachusetts (don't ask me, I'm British), doing something small and local, right?
The basic story is simple. A US politician (or probably someone on his staff) came across this wacky Wikipedia stuff, and noticed that anyone could edit it freely. So, being a politician (or the hired hand thereof), this person decided to do the obvious thing: edit out all the embarrassing bits in the biography of this politician.
Alas for this individual, in the wacky world of Wikipedia, nefariousness is not so easy. Certainly, you can edit away to your little heart's content - but do remember that you will leave behind a nice audit trail for everyone to see exactly who did what.
Following that trail, this particular enlightened journalist (step forward Evan Lehmann) discovered that more than 1,000 changes had been made by "congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six month". So this little local story turns out to be something very big. In fact it turns out to be two very big things.
The first is that traditional politicians do not flourish in an open context: when everything they do can be traced and and tracked they are in trouble. The second is that Wikipedia is now so important even the politicians want to subvert it (or at least try). This makes recent discussions about whether Wikipedia's entries are right somewhat moot: forget right, Wikipedia is officially might.
Update: Wikipedia has now started taking corrective action.
This well-written piece about the current legal tussle between Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, and New Technologies Products (NTP), is worth reading - even though it's a long story, and, like me, you probably don't really care about the details of this sorry tale. For what it does serve to hammer home is the unutterable stupidity of the patent system in North America.
So what does the titanic struggle described in the article come down to? - a petty squabble over the "invention" of delivering email by wireless, whose obviousness is only marginally less than that of other deep ideas like that of the sun rising tomorrow, or rain being wet.
If nothing else, this story should emphasise the critical need for an overhaul of the North American patent system, and for a vigorous defence of the European system, which - currently, at least - would never have allowed this judicial folly to proceed in the first place.
First there was Flickr, now there is Flagr (via Jack Schofield): do I detect a trend here?
Is this a new -thon (telethon, walkathon, singathon etc.) of the online world? Could attaching the -r suffix to words be the Web 2.0 equivalent of all those Web 1.0 companies whose names began relentlessly with the prefix Net, from Netscape on?
Update: Jack Schofield has pointed that there is also Flockr, and we also have PICTR: any others?
28 January 2006
A telling story here. A US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Broadcast Flag - which threatens to close down various kinds of content fair use - left the tracks when one of the committee suddenly got it.
He realised that the proposal that was being glibly presented to them by the RIAA representative would stop him using his shiny new iPod in the way he had quickly become accustomed to - things like recording from the radio and listening on the road. The RIAA is now in big trouble, at least as far as this committee is concerned, because they have been rumbled.
The key lesson to learn from this is the importance of getting people - especially politicians - to understand, viscerally, what is at stake. Once they do, those pushing to close down our options don't stand a chance.
This is why openness will prevail: it is its own best weapon.
Update: As a result of this incident, there is now a project to give an iPod to all US Senators. Fighting ignorance with education: now there's an idea....
27 January 2006
A new X-prize, this time for exploring inner rather than outer space, has been announced. To win the prize money, all you have to do is sequence the DNA of a 100 or more people in a few weeks. That may sound a little vague, but it is many orders of magnitude faster than we can do it now (and remember, the first human genome took about 15 years and three billion dollars).
Why bother? Well, it will open up the world of personal genomics: where the particular details of your genome - not the human genome in general - will be used to aid diagnosis and help doctors make decisions about treatment.
The X-prize announcement is really tantamount to recognising that all those breathless predictions of imminent personal genomes, made by some at the time of the Human Genome Project, were rather optimistic.
I have to say that I, for one, am not too sad. Much as I'd like to Google my genome, being able to do so will also raise considerable ethical dilemmas, as I discussed in my book Digital Code of Life.
As St. Augustine nearly said: "Give me genotypability - but not yet...."
Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Most people know him as one of the world's greatest composers: a child prodigy, creator of over 600 works, and – if you believe some of the wilder rumours - fatally poisoned at the age of 35 by a rival composer. Few, though, are aware that Mozart was also a hacker.
Computers may not have existed in the eighteenth century, but the musical machines called orchestras and choirs are conceptually identical to synthesisers, which are themselves specialised music computers. Just as programming code specifies how a computer should act (and a MIDI file controls a synthesiser), so musical code – in the form of a score – directs what instruments and voices should do and when.
Conductors are largely superfluous in all this (at least for Mozart's music): they do not create the output, which is specified by the score. All they do is interact with the score “loaded” on the orchestral or choral machine, in the same sense that someone might interact with a video game loaded on a console. The incidental nature of humans in the performance of classical music is shown by some pieces that Mozart wrote at the end of his life for a clock with built-in mechanical organ. Here the scores completely determined the audio output: there was no human intervention once the music had been converted to a kind of piano roll – a forerunner of the punch cards employed a century and a half later by the early commercial mainframe computers.
More generally, though, hacking is a state of mind, a way of understanding and exploring the world, independent of a particular technology (and not to be confused with “cracking”, which is the correct name for the kind of digital smash and grab too often in today's headlines). Richard Stallman, perhaps the greatest hacker of modern times, has defined the essence of hacking as “playful cleverness” - as good an encapsulation of Mozart's genius as any.
The cleverness showed itself early. Mozart started learning the piano when he was three, began composing when he was five, and wrote his first symphony and opera at the age of eight and 11 respectively. Like many top coders, he frequently worked out everything in his head before consigning it to paper at a single sitting (often just hours before a deadline – again, just like some programmers), and usually without the need for revisions (that is, bug-free). He could also multi-task: he is supposed to have written one of his finest works during a game of skittles.
Like any red-blooded hacker, Mozart adored mathematics as a child (and gambling as an adult), found word-play irresistible (email would have been perfect for him) and loved setting himself puzzles. His Musical dice game uses dice throws and pre-composed short fragments of music to form compositions created by random numbers; the challenge was writing fragments that would fit together whatever the throws. At one point in his opera Don Giovanni, in addition to the main orchestra accompanying the singers, there are three more orchestras on stage, each playing completely different music. It all fits together so perfectly that most opera lovers are unaware of the compositional tour-de-force they are witnessing.
Mozart's playfulness was a key facet of his character. The musical form he seems to have enjoyed writing most – opera buffa – is simply Italian for “funny opera”. In several concertos composed for a horn-playing friend, Mozart added jocular comments to the music - “Slowly, Mr Donkey”; “Breathe!”; “Go on!”; “Oh, filthy swine!” - an early example of commented code. He sometimes employed different coloured inks in a score, rather as modern programming tools do to differentiate various elements. Another piece, called A musical joke, includes notes that are blatantly wrong. If the musicians play them as written, they sound incompetent; if they play the “right” notes, they have failed to perform the piece as the composer intended, and so are indeed incompetent.
Significantly, Mozart was a big fan of a key hacking concept known as recursion, whereby something refers to itself to create a kind of infinite loop. For example, a core hacking project started and led by Stallman is called “GNU”, an acronym for “GNU's Not Unix”, which uses itself in its own explanation. (Recursion is another example of playful cleverness).
Recursive music is created by employing a delayed version of a tune as its own accompaniment. Formally, this is known as a “canon” (simpler versions, like the song “London's burning”, are called “rounds”), and Mozart wrote dozens of them, mostly for himself and his friends to sing at purely private performances. They are notable not only for their fine music, but also for the texts Mozart chose to set: “Lick my bum” is one memorable line that crops up more than once. Today's hackers, too, enjoy dubious lyrics, and have an earthy turn of phrase: the injunction “RTFM” - often thrown at hapless newbies - does not stand for “Read The Flipping Manual”.
Another notable characteristic of hackers is their fondness for science fiction. Overt references to Star Wars may be thin on the ground in Mozart's works, but many of his operas written in the older, “serious” style are based on the same eternal themes of good versus evil and love versus duty that lie at the heart of George Lucas's epic.
The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once suggested that any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; the corollary is that magic is indistinguishable from sufficiently-advanced technology. So Mozart's last opera, The Magic Flute - full of other magical objects, too - is, from this viewpoint, a work of science fiction. It is also a Masonic opera, steeped in mysterious symbols and rituals that will be nonetheless be familiar to the hackers who participate in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), where characters join guilds, complete quests and seek to gain experience points - just like the hero in The Magic Flute.
The close links between music and hacking run both ways, and many of today's top coders are highly musical. Richard Stallman – whose dedication to the cause of freedom is positively Beethovenian - carries with him a soprano recorder wherever he travels. The profoundly-religious and frighteningly-cerebral Donald Knuth – a kind of hacker J.S.Bach - was moved by his love of music to have an 812-pipe baroque organ built in a specially-designed room in his house. Appropriately enough, Knuth's life-work is called The Art of Computer Programming (Bach called his The Art of Fugue). Representing a different musical tradition, Brian Behlendorf, the prime mover behind the Apache Web server program that runs two-thirds of the Internet, DJs ambient and dub music. And it is well known that for most hackers the crucial first step when they start working is to fire up some particularly loud and inspirational music on their computer. Mozart would have approved.
26 January 2006
...but I told you so.
In an act of generosity unparalleled in the history of the universe or something, Microsoft has graciously decided to go "far beyond the European Commission’s March 2004 decision and its legal obligations to provide companies with the technical specifications of its proprietary communications protocols."
Except, of course, that open source projects need not apply - if I've understood the legalese correctly (for example, see section 2.4 of the Microsoft Work Group Server Protocol Program License Agreement). Which means that Microsoft has graciously given very little, since the only serious competitor that it has in this area is Samba, which uses the GPL - forbidden by Microsoft's terms.
(Parenthetically, the first beta of Samba 4 has been released and it's important: it comes with support for the Active Directory logon protocols used by Windows 2000 and above. This is heavyweight stuff, and means that once again, open source software is close to offering all the capabilities of Microsoft's software, but for free.)
24 January 2006
Remember when WordPerfect was king of the castle? No, not many people do. But once upon a time, WordPerfect occupied the same position that Microsoft Word does today.
If nothing else, that should teach companies that nothing is permanent (and hence that there is hope even for the underdog), and that they should always listen to their customers (which WordPerfect signally failed to do by not coming out with a Microsoft Windows version alongside the one for MS-DOS).
Unfortunately, Corel, the current owners of WordPerfect, don't seem to have got either message. The latest version of its office suite, WordPerfect Office X3 meekly goes along with Microsoft's dominance of the office sector, and does not support the new OpenDocument format which is fast building into the first serious rival to Office formats since, well, WordPerfect.
This is a pity, both for WordPerfect and for OpenDocument. If Corel wants to be anything other than a me-too product, it needs to support OpenDocument. Its failure in this regard is particularly odd since it sits on the technical committee that drew up OpenDocument in the first place. Somehow, I don't think WordPerfect is going to be king of the castle again anytime in the near future.
I wrote below about the escalation of the DRM threat; now it looks like DRM's bigger and even more evil sibling is beginning to stir again. I'm talking about patents, specifically software patents. If DRM wants to put strict limits on what you do with content, patents are about tying down ideas - something even more pernicious.
The bad news is that the usual suspects are girding their loins for a re-run of the EU software patent battle they lost - against expectation - last year. As this Heise article explains (also available in a rather bumpy translation), they are worryingly upbeat about their prospects - not least because they only have to win once, whereas opponents of software patents have to keep on winning.
When I wrote a feature for The Guardian about the previous software patent battle, I exhorted readers to contact their MEPs using the excellent WriteToThem site. Until some concrete proposals on software patents are released, it's probably a little premature to start doing this. But don't worry, when it's time, I'll let you know.
They were all old and once besondern, and all of a fishermanship of moss-green days. This morning, the recessess of the apsara, while I was whisking the drawing-room, I went to the isoude, which was wide open, to shake out my duster, and there, vestito by the gate, stoop'd Accomplish.
It may not be poetry, but it has a certain charm. Or maybe it's just me.
One of the most important facets of the blog world is the rapid and intelligent dialogue it allows. A case in point is the interview that appeared on Richard Poynder's blog "Open and Shut?". As you might guess from its title, this is a kindred spirit to the present site, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in following the latest developments in the open access and circumjacent domains.
The interview is a fairly specialist one, and concerns the some open access nitty-gritty. But what caught my attention was the response to points made there by Stevan Harnad in his own blog, which has the rather lumbering title "Publishing Reform, University Self-Publishing and Open Access" but the wonderful sub-title "Open Access Archivangelism". This is rather appropriate since if anyone has the right to be called the Archivangelist of Open Access, it is Harnad, who is probably the nearest thing that the movement has to Richard Stallman (also known as Saint IGNUcius).
In his response to the interview, Harnad comments on a point made in the Poynder interview about moving from the Eprints to a hosted system called bepress. Eprints is open access archiving software that not only proudly sports GNU in its name, but runs principally on GNU/Linux (with the odd bit of Solaris and MacOS X thrown in for good measure), but notes "There are no plans for a version to run under Microsoft Windows." Defiantly open access and open source: how right-on can you get?
22 January 2006
The ever-acute Doc Searls reports on the CES keynote from Intel CEO Paul Otellini. Given Searls' position as an alpha blogger, it was inevitable that this was a live, minute-by-minute blog - and yes, it did include the obligatory moan about the missing WiFi connection.
But what is really important about this posting is that it makes plain VIIV's role as the platform that broadcasters and music companies - with indispensable help from a willing Intel and Microsoft - will use in their latest attempt to take complete control of content.
I already knew in 2000 that all this was coming. I knew because Eben Moglen, the legal brains behind the free software movement, and an extremely wise, articulate and modest man, told me so when I was writing Rebel Code:
Let's think of the Net for a change as a collection of pipes and switches, rather than thinking of it as a thing or a space.
There's a lot of data moving through those pipes, and the switches determine who gets which data, and how much they have to pay for it downstream. And of course those switches are by and large what we think of as digital computers.
The basic media company theory at the opening of the twenty-first century is to create a leak-proof pipe all the way from production studio to eyeball and eardrum. The switch that most threatens that pipe is the one that at the end. If the switch closest to your eyeball and eardrum is under your complete technical control, the whole rest of the aqueduct can be as leak-proof as you like, and it won't do them any good. And the switch is under your control, of course, if the software is free software.
So for the great VIIV plan to work, free software has to be shut out from the equation. This means no DVDs, no DRM for GNU/Linux - for the simple reason that truly free software always gives you the possibility of evading the software controls that are in place.
And for those of you who say, well, provided we have our traditional fair use rights, what's the problem? - this is the problem. Draft US legislation would effectively freeze your rights to existing technologies: had this been the case in the past, you would not have fair rights to burn MP3s from your CDs, or even videotape TV programmes.
There is no halfway house in this coming war, no compromise position: either you hand carte blanche to the film and music industries to decide what you can do with the content you buy, or else you fight for the right to decide yourself.
This is the Big One.
Open genomics just goes from strength to strength. As this press release reports, there are now over 100,000,000,000 bases (DNA letters) in public databases, all of which may be freely downloaded.
This represents sequences from some 165,000 different organisms. Nearly all of these are living today, but there is an interesting move to sequence extinct animals too. The secret is to find enough ancient DNA, sufficiently well-preserved, that it can be sequenced.
Recently, an important breakthrough in this area was achieved by sequencing nearly 30 million bases of a woolly mammoth. As the relevant paper reports, the sequence identity between this set and the DNA of today's African elephant is a remarkable 98.55%. This means that we are not so far from being able to reconstruct most of the mammoth genome, using the African elephant DNA as a kind of scaffolding. The obvious next step would be cloning a mammoth, using modern-day elephants as egg donors and surrogate mothers.
Do not try this at home.
20 January 2006
I must be one of the few people who actually enjoys getting spam. Not, I hasten to add, because I wish to avail myself for any of their services, but for the insights they give into both the transient fads and enduring preoccupations of the general public.
The best spam provides valuable insight into what makes people tick - and what makes them click. Even if, like me, you never do the latter, you can still admire the enormous cunning that spammers manage to squeeze into a subject line. I read spam every day, and write about its dangers frequently, but I am forced to admit that I'm often nearly taken in by some of the stuff I receive, so plausible is it.
But better more than the ever-evolving marketing skills on display, it is the sheer poetry of some of this stuff that captivates me.
As everyone who receives spam will have noticed, it is vital for spam to beat the spam filters. To do this, it frequently employs random words and phrases in an attempt to fool the software into thinking that it is human generated (a sort of Turing test writ small).
Sometimes these are random single words, sometimes they are gobbets of text torn bleeding from online sources (it's always interesting to Google these in order to find out where they come from). But occasionally, you get something special: words that have a real poetry of their own.
I received one of these recently; it's so good, I just have to share it.
I normal of whisde a conversed the stomping is imperial
She witnessed was waves of jumping it lifelong uselessly
Me destitute embracing is need of production a recompensed
A this? the tucked tempting it materials she howled
You broken of reaches the series and fourthlargest or stratagem
Not kicking you afternoon and choralsinging me burningly starts
No gateways is limited this stained of exposed the drawers?
If very we prophet of amidst a sources is candy
An unprintable me jobs you standardizing she vertically openly
Have veering influence of ribbons it riffraff was package
Was disciple not occupant damned a twanged or chances
And wetted epigraph is coffee of lighting an country
Just one question: who owns the copyright for this stuff?
Among the many boons of Firefox and Thunderbird are the powerful keyboard shortcuts; among the banes - trying to remember them.
Now you don't have to. Thanks to the selfless work of Leslie Franke, you can download two indispensable cheatsheets, which conveniently fit all the main commands on one page each. There's one for Firefox and another for Thunderbird; both are available as HTML or PDF. Thanks, Leslie.
19 January 2006
The good news just kept on coming in Steve Jobs's recent MacWorld speech: $5.7 million revenue in the last quarter for Apple; 14 million iPods sold during the same period; a run-rate of a billion songs a year sold on iTunes. And of course some hot new hardware, the iMac and MacBook Pro. What more could Mac fans ask for?
How about an office suite whose long-term future they can depend on?
Microsoft may have announced “a formal five-year agreement that reinforces Microsoft’s plans to develop Microsoft Office for Mac software for both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs,” but Mac users would do well to consider the company's record here, as its has progressively shut down its line of Macintosh software. First, it dropped its MSN client, then Internet Explorer and more recently Windows Media Player.
Microsoft has good reason to hate Apple. Steve Jobs and his company represent everything that Bill Gates and Microsoft are not: hip and heroic, perfectionist yet popular. Apple has always been Microsoft's main rival on the desktop, but the appearance of Intel-based Macintoshes will make the company more dangerous than it has ever been. Probably the only reason that Microsoft has kept alive its Macintosh division is that it looks good from an anti-trust viewpoint: “See? We're not abusing our position – we even support rivals...”. The Macintosh version of Office may bring in money, but it's a trivial amount compared to the Windows version, and hardly worth the effort expended on it.
This means that the future of Microsoft Office for the Mac can never be certain. The agreement with Apple might be extended, but knowing Microsoft, it might not. At the very least, Microsoft is likely to ensure that the Windows versions of Office has advantages over the one running on the new Intel Macs – otherwise the incentive to buy PCs running Windows will be reduced even more.
So what should concerned Mac users do? The obvious solution is to move to an open source alternative. An important benefit of taking this route – one often overlooked when comparisons are made with proprietary offerings – is that free software is effectively immortal. Sometimes it goes into hibernation, but when the code is freely available, it never dies.
Just look at the case of the Mozilla Application Suite. The Mozilla Foundation decided not to continue with the development of this code base, but to concentrate instead on the increasingly successful standalone programs Firefox and Thunderbird. Had Mozilla been a commercial outfit, that would have been the end of the story for the program and its community. Instead, some hackers were able to take the old Mozilla Application Suite code and use it as the basis of a new project called SeaMonkey.
A similar desire to get things moving outside existing structures motivated the creation of the separate NeoOffice project, the port of the free OpenOffice.org office suite to run natively on MacOS X (there is also a version that uses the X11 windowing system). As the FAQ explains: “The primary reason that we stay separate is that we can develop, release, and support a native Mac OS X office suite with much less time and money than we could if we worked within the OpenOffice.org project.” This is hardly an option for the Mac Office team at Microsoft; so when Gates and Ballmer give Mac Office the chop, there will be no Redmond resurrections.
It is true that NeoOffice is not yet quite as polished as the versions on other platforms. And maybe Microsoft Office is superior – at the moment. But there is nothing that some hacking won't fix, and with serious support from the Macintosh community (and perhaps even financial help from Apple) any outstanding issues would soon be resolved. The emergence of OpenDocument as a viable alternative to Microsoft's Office formats only strengthens the case for switching to free software.
The wild excitement generated by Steve Jobs's MacWorld announcements is understandable, but also dangerous. Mac users may be so focussed on the hot new hardware as to forget something crucial: that, ultimately, it is the application software that counts. Macintosh enthusiasts should refuse the poisoned chalice that Microsoft is offering them with its generous offer to keep Office for the Mac on life support for a few more years, and instead should channel some of their famous passion into supporting the creation of a first-class, full-featured open source office suite.
18 January 2006
By their very nature, blogs have a real-time element (the "log" in "weblog"). The reverse chronological nature of them means that as they are updated every day or two, you are aware of time passing.
I've noticed that beyond this common kind of daily blogging, another significant element for some sites is a schedule based on hours or even minutes. These are typically when an important event is breaking, and represent a new kind of online reporting. A good example is the coverage of Steve Jobs' MacWorld announcement.
What is particularly interesting about this - aside from the sense of excitement that it can generate - is its dependence on a good wireless connection. You can't really follow events if you're plugged into an ordinary network. This explains why many of these up-to-the-minutes blogs make reference to the presence, absence and quality of the local WiFi connection.
Taking this a step further, it occurs to me that mobiles will be even more suited to this kind of blogging on the move. All that is needed is some good voice recognition software that can transcribe your words - and ignore the extraneous noises - as you pursue your topic, both literally and metaphorically.
What we need is a name for this kind of real-time, voice-activated blogging: any suggestions?
17 January 2006
I commented earlier on how Firefox's market share seems to be soaring; clearly the organisation is beginning to gain some serious momentum in the market. However, Internet Explorer 7.0 is slouching towards Redmond to be born, and will finally offer features that have been available from Firefox and Opera for some time. Potentially this could stunt further growth for the open source browser, and even pull back some of its market share.
The news that Firefox 2.0 is well on its way shows that the Mozilla organisation and Firefox coders are well aware of the threat. Releasing 2.0 so soon will keep the pressure up on Microsoft, and those share figures rising, one hopes.
16 January 2006
This story about the use of free software in Syria pairs up nicely with the one about Nigeria I discussed a few days ago. The difference is that where those in Nigeria see open source as a better option than proprietary software, Syrian users of free software have no choice. Politics meets programming, yet again.
The National Consumer Council sounds like one of those nebulous bodies full of the occasional sound and fury, but signifying not a lot. To prove otherwise, the NCC has issued a surprisingly switched-on call for new laws to protect consumers' rights to digital content.
The problem centres around Digital Rights Management (DRM). This is one of the great misnomers of our time, since it is about taking away rights - ours - and giving a disproportionate amount of control to the owners of creative materials (note: to the owners, not the creators, who rarely get much benefit from these schemes). Digital Rights Minimisation would be a better description.
You can read the full report, which is mercifully short and easy to understand. Well, it was written for submission to an all-party group of politicians....
The Fox just keeps on flying.
Latest figures from the French research company Xiti show that across Europe Firefox now commands 20% of the browser market. The even-better news: weekday usage nearly matches weekend use, suggesting that businesses are big converts, too. The bad news: the UK lags miserably, with just 11% usage. Come on, what's wrong with you lot?
15 January 2006
A fine analysis of the threats posed to social bookmarking sites (del.icio.us, digg.com etc) from Alex Bosworth. But for me, the real corker is his idea of steganographic spam.
Steganography involves hiding something in a message so that it is not even apparent there is hidden content - unlike cryptography, where the content is obscured but its presence is obvious. This might be achieved by hiding a message in the pixels of a picture - few enough for their presence not to be obvious to casual observers - that can be extracted using the appropriate software running the right algorithms.
Bosworth would have us imagine steganographic spam - so subtle, we are not even aware that it is there. Fiendish.
Not my question, but that of Sir Robin Jacob, a judge at the U.K.'s Court of Appeal who specializes in intellectual-property law, during a seminar he gave. What's amazing is not that he framed it, but that the points he raises are so spot on. It gives you renewed hope for the judiciary.
It seems a reporter working on a dead-tree newspaper has been dismissed because his
Stories contained phrases or sentences that appeared elsewhere before being included, un-attributed, in stories that ran in the Star-Bulletin. The stories did not include inaccurate information or any fabrications.
The phrases and sentences apparently came from Wikipedia, which also detected the borrowings.
Of course, this is precisely what open content is for. If the newspaper article had been available under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL), with a link or two, everything would have been fine. Maybe there's a lesson for the newspaper as well as the journalist.
Among the many reasons for choosing open source software, one that is often overlooked is that it is much harder to hide things in code that can be inspected. There's bound to be some hacker somewhere with too much time on his/her hands who will take a look at the source code (and make sure that the source code compiles into the binary provided).
This makes adware/spyware far less of a problem for open source code than for your usual binary blob of freeware/shareware, which might contain anything. Anyone who is tempted to download some of the latter may care to peruse this report first. Then go and find some open source instead.
One indication of Microsoft's inability to handle the threat of the free software model is that fact that it keeps changing its strategy.
Back in 1999, it tried to show that Windows was more powerful than comparable GNU/Linux systems. It commissioned some research from a company called Mindcraft, which showed that Windows was indeed faster for many tasks. There were bitter arguments about the validity of these tests and their results, and several re-runs as each side tried to bolster its own position.
But what is interesting about this episode is that the weaknesses that were exposed in the GNU/Linux system were simply fed into the development process and fixed in the next release. This indicates one of the great strengths of open source. Solving problems is just a matter of skill; what is hard is pinning them down in the first place. Ironically, Microsoft did the Linux community a huge favour by spending lots of money finding the weak areas of its rival, which were then fixed.
Since GNU/Linux was soon manifestly as good as Windows in terms of performance, Microsoft was forced to change tack. In June 2001, Steve Ballmer famously told the Chicago Sun-Times that "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches". However, the business world was clearly less impressed by Ballmer's verbal tantrums than the his sales teams, and the outburst backfired badly. It merely showed Microsoft to be running scared.
More recently, the company has apparently adopted a more conciliatory attitude to the free software world - a recognition of the fact that its customers are using it. But clearly, in closed rooms around the company, it is still searching desperately for something it can against open source.
One emerging tack was evident in a fascinating article that appeared in a magazine aimed at Microsoft Certified Professionals. In it, there was a glimpse into how the Microsoft world views the free software threat. Of particular note is the assertion that "Microsoft invests north of $6 billion a year on R&D", and that "nobody in the Linux world" does anything comparable. The implication would seem to be that Microsoft is therefore a hotbed of creativity and innovation, whereas all free software can do is limp along with tired old tricks.
An extensive and thorough debunking of this assertion came from D C Parris in LXer. All the points he raises are good ones, but I'd like to focus on one in particular.
The statement that Microsoft is serious spending sums on research is true: you only have to look at Microsoft's Research division to see the wide range of work going on. Moreover, to Microsoft' credit, much of this work is made freely available in the form of published papers.
But the second part of the argument - that open source companies taken together spend nowhere near as much as Microsoft - is specious. The whole point about free software is that it represents the communal efforts of thousands of people around the world, most of whom receive no remuneration for their work. Indeed, money probably couldn't even buy the kind of obsessive attention to detail they routinely provide: it comes from passion not payment.
The new argument that the quotation from the above article is putting about comes down to this: that something given freely is worth nothing. In a way, this is the fundamental error that those who do not understand the open world make. In fact, the issue is much larger, and goes to the root of most of the key problems facing the world today. Which is why the "opens" - open source, open genomics, open content and all the cognate approaches - are so crucial: they lie at the heart of solving those same problems.
12 January 2006
Good to see another country standing up for open content/public domain (via Open Access News). One of the key issues in tackling the unbalanced nature of the current copyright/patent laws is getting the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to recognise that its job is bigger than simply protecting today's IP fatcats.
Version 1.5 of the open source email client Thunderbird is now available for download. This is a major release of an important program, even if it tends to be overshadowed by its bigger sibling, Firefox.
Thunderbird matters because it forms part of the key trio of browser, email and office suite that together satisfy the vast bulk of general users' computing needs. Now that Firefox is widely accepted as the best browser around, and with OpenOffice.org 2.0 increasingly seen as on a par with Microsoft Office, the only missing piece of the (small) jigsaw puzzle is email.
Like the other two, Thunderbird is available for Windows, Macintosh and GNU/Linux. This platform-independence means that users can start using the three programs on Windows or Macintosh, say, and then be discreetly slid across to running them on GNU/Linux when they are ready. They probably won't even notice.
I've been running Thunderbird for some time now, and I find it powerful yet easy to use. It's got intelligent spam-filtering built in, and takes a safe approach to displaying dodgy images and attachments. It works with POP3, IMAP, Gmail and other email services, so there's no excuse not to switch - now.
Patents are boring - but important. They are the chokepoint for much intellectual activity - especially the kind discussed in these pages - so anything that can be done to loosen their grip on the free interchange of ideas is welcome.
Against this background, the announcement by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that it has "created a partnership with the open source community to ensure that patent examiners have access to all available prior art relating to software code during the patent examination process" is an encouraging step, since software patents are some of the most problematic of all (see Richard Stallman's brilliant explanation of why). However, this is a statement of intent, rather than a concrete move, and it remains to be seen what practical effect it will have on stemming the flood of trivial or downright bad patents being granted by the USPTO.
Meanwhile, the USPTO has upheld Microsoft's patent on the File Allocation Table (FAT) storage technology. This is bad news: it represents both a direct defeat for the open source world, which sought to overturn it, and a sword of Damocles that henceforth will hang over the entire free software movement. The danger is that Microsoft will demand royalties - maybe even "reasonable and non-discriminatory" ones - that will be impossible for free software projects that use the FAT technology to pay.
Update: On the other hand, maybe it's not over yet...(who said patents were boring?)
Update 2: For a view on the USPTO initiative from inside one of the companies helping to make it happen - IBM - see this excellent post by Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Anyone who's read my Rebel Code will know that he was the man who essentially turned Big Blue onto GNU/Linux. This means that he is someone with his finger on the pulse, and that his blog is well worth following.
11 January 2006
What is exciting about this piece in the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard (link from Open Access News), is that it puts all the pieces together so well: how open source and open access relate to intellectual property regimes, AIDS, poverty, ecology and - inevitably - global politics.
As the article concludes:
Open the source code of innovation, and we’ll change the planet.
Truly, the way forward.
Last week, Wendy Grossman wrote a wise article about how all those making a fuss over Wikipedia's inaccuracies and lack of accountability forget that precisely the same charges were levelled against the Web when it rose to prominence around ten years ago. (Parenthetically, it's interesting to note more generally how Wikipedia is in some sense a Web 2.0 recapitulation of those early Web 1.0 days - a heady if untidy attempt to encompass great swathes of human knowledge).
It seems to me that another story, on BBC News, which considered the fate of the peer review process in the wake of Dr Hwang Woo-suk's faked stem cell papers, is relevant here.
Many of Wikipedia's critics claim that everything would be fine if only it added some rigorous peer review to the process, just like science does when papers are published. But as the BBC item explains, the peer review process employed by Science magazine (where most of Hwang's apparently ground-breaking papers appeared) signally failed to spot that Hwang's papers were frauds (it also explains why, in any case, this is probably asking too much of peer review).
These recent problems with scientific peer review re-inforce Grossman's point about Wikipedia: that we should stop worrying about the inaccuracies and instead learn how to live with them, just as we do for the Web. Far better to develop a critical sense that submits all results - wherever they come from - to a minimum level of scrutiny.
10 January 2006
The indispensable John Lettice (don't miss his repeated skewering of the UK's idiotic ID card plans) makes a nice connection between blogging - in particular the extraordinary sight of UK Home Office Minister Hazel Blears' blogging - and a more open form of government. Well, potentially, at least....
The GNU Project is working on a full-featured, completely free, Flash player, called Gnash. I suppose they had to do it, because for them the problem is the proprietary nature of the main Flash player.
But for me, the problem is Flash, full stop.
It is easy to be fooled by the success of open source software. High-profile applications like Apache and Firefox are routinely cited for their absolute market dominance or relative technological superiority. GNU/Linux is going head-to-head with Microsoft Windows Server, while many are predicting that 2006 will be the year GNU/Linux on the desktop makes its breakthrough (just like 2005 and 2004). The bitter fight over the OpenDocument Format in Massachusetts is an indication that for the first time there is real rival to Microsoft's Office formats, and the Eclipse development platform continues to gain support among coders, corporate IT departments and software companies.
So what's missing from this rosy picture of free software's inexorable rise?
The one area that everyone seems to forget about is education. While it is true that GNU/Linux and open source applications are popular among the more tech-savvy users at university, younger students are exposed almost exclusively to Microsoft's products (except in a few enlightened regions of the world).
The failure of open source to devote significant energies and resources here is a serious problem. As Microsoft learned from Apple, whose initial rise was largely thanks to the widespread use of the Apple ][ in education, if you get them young, you get to keep them (most of them, at least). It is all very well trying to put open source solutions on the desktop, but if the people coming through the educational system have been conditioned to use only Microsoft's products, they will resist any moves to force them to touch anything else. The users become Microsoft's fiercest advocates.
The corollary is that broadening the use of free software in schools will automatically lead to increased use in the home and business markets. Indeed, there is a double benefit if schools routinely deploy programs like Firefox, OpenOffice and GNU/Linux. It ensures that tomorrow's consumers, workers and leaders will be completely comfortable using them, and encourages today's parents to find out more about the software that their children are using at school. One of the huge advantages that open source software enjoys over proprietary applications is that parents can make free copies of a school's software, rather than "borrowing" office copies, say, of Microsoft's products.
Against this background, it is heartening that the UK government body BECTA is carrying out a review of the licensing programme it signed with Microsoft in 2003. Significantly, the report will examine the risks of "lock-in" to Microsoft's products, and "focus on ways to improve access to alternatives to Microsoft products to ensure that there is a freedom of choice". This review therefore takes place in a very different context from the one in which BECTA negotiated its previous deal. In 2003 there was no question about changing supplier - it was taken for granted that Microsoft was the solution: the question was the price reductions that could be won from the company.
As I've noted elsewhere, Microsoft is very adept at bowing to "pressure" and making "sacrifices" during negotiations. In this case, BECTA could proudly announce that its 2003 deal would save the UK taxpayer £46 million. But for this sum, Microsoft not only retained it grip on the British educational system, but had that stranglehold more or less enshrined in official policy.
It remains to be seen what BECTA comes up with, but its two previous reports in this area, on the use of open source software in schools, and on the possible cost savings of doing so, were notable for their intelligence and even-handedness. This gives some hope that open source may at last be given the opportunity to prove its worth in the British schools.
Helpfully, BECTA has said of its work that "recognising the increasing relevance of this issue to educators in the EU and indeed globally, an international exchange of views will be facilitated." This "exchange of views" might provide those living in other areas where there is no significant use of free software in schools with a good opportunity to push for similar reviews in their own countries.
One thing seems certain: if something is not done soon, an entire generation will grow up around the globe that equates the Web with Internet Explorer, email with Outlook, productivity software with Office and computers with Windows. In such a world, open source will at best be marginal, and at worst, irrelevant.
09 January 2006
This is about openness, oh my word, yes.
Great reporting. But rather frightening.
Update: no, the link isn't broken, it's been disappeared. However, you can read the previous stories in this saga here and here - catch them before they, too, mysteriously vanish from the Net....
"Don't Be Evil" is the company motto: but is Google for us or against us?
I'm not talking about justifable concerns that it knows far too much about what interests us - both in terms of the searches we carry out and (if we use Gmail) the correspondence we send and receive. This is a larger issue, and relates to all the major online companies - Microsoft, Yahoo, even Amazon - that mediate and hence participate in much of our lives. What concerns me here is whether Google can be considered a friend of openness.
On the one hand, Google is quite simply the biggest open source company. Its fabled server farm consists of 10,000s/100,000s/1,000,000s (delete as applicable) of GNU/Linux boxes; this means that anyone searching with Google is a GNU/Linux user.
It has a growing list of code that it has open-sourced; it has sponsored budding hackers in its Summer of Code programme; and it keeps on acquiring key open source hackers like Guido van Rossum (inventor of Python) and Ben Goodger, (Firefox lead engineer).
On the other hand, Google's software is heavily weighted towards Microsoft Windows. Programs like Google Earth and Picasa are only available under Windows, and its latest, most ambitious foray, the Google Pack, is again only for Microsoft's operating system. This means that every time Google comes out with some really cool software, it is reinforcing Microsoft's hold on the desktop. Indeed, we are fast approaching the point where the absence of GNU/Linux versions of Google's programs are a major disincentive to adopt an open source desktop.
This dilemma is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, since Google clearly wants to serve the largest desktop market first, while drawing on the amazing price-performance of free software for its own computing platform.
But there is another area where it has the chance to play nice with openness, one that does not require it to come down definitively on one side or the other of the operating system world.
Another Windows-only product, Google Talk, is the subject of a lawsuit alleging patent infringement. However, closer examination of the two patents concerned, Patent Number 5,425,085 - "Least cost routing device for separate connection into phone line" - and Patent Number 5,519,769 - "Method and system for updating a call rating database", suggests that one of the best ways Google could show that it is a friend of both open source and proprietary software is by defending itself vigorously in the hope that the US Patent system might start to be applied as it was originally envisioned, to promote innovation, not as an easy way of extracting money from wealthy companies.
Update 1: Google has come out with a Mac version of Google Earth. It's a start.
Update 2: There are rumours about Google working on its own desktop GNU/Linux. Frankly, I'll believe it when I see it: it's a poor fit with their current portfolio, and the margins are terrible.
Update 3: Comfortingly, these rumours have now been scotched.
07 January 2006
At Cambridge University, the examinations are known as the Tripos - a reference, it is thought, to the three-legged wooden stool that candidates originally sat on during their orals.
Now the P2P Foundation has come up with another "three-legged stool", one of whose legs (number 2: open "everything") is not a million miles from the page you are reading. Great minds, etc.
I'm all in favour of openness, but maybe this is taking things a little too far....
More seriously, it does show the tension between openness and privacy - and how a balance needs to be struck in some cases. Here, though, there seems to be no possible justification for exposing mobile 'phone users in this way - sorry, "greed is good" doesn't cut it.
As Lawrence Lessig famously noted, Code is Law. Which means that Code is Politics, too, since laws are drawn up by politicians. But the intimate relationship between code and politics is becoming manifest in a rather different context (pity about the yellow on black text).
The issue here is about the software used in voting machines. Since, one day, all voting will be carried with such machines (unless we decide to go back to using ostraca), now is the time to consider why free access to the code that runs them is indispensable for political transparency.
It comes down to this: if you are dealing with a black box, you can have absolutely no faith in the results it produces. It might just make them up or - worse - change them subtly, or perhaps be pre-programmed to crash if a particular party gets too many votes, requiring a complete re-run, with knock-on effects on voting patterns.
If you have the source code you can run it and examine what it does with various voting inputs, and check that it has no nefarious sub-routines. However, even this is not enough for full confidence in the voting machine: paper audits are also indispensable for checking on the consistency of the outputs, and allowing for the ultimate fall-back - counting by hand.
Still, this is a clear instance of where, in a literal rather than metaphorical sense, closed source jeopardises the very basis of democracy. Looks like RMS was right.
06 January 2006
The British Medical Journal is a fine institution, with a long and glorious history of publishing important medical research. On top of that it was enlightened, allowing mere members of the public (like me) to read all of its content through an open access policy that placed it at the vanguard of scientific publishing.
An editorial claims that "The BMJ is evolving". As far as I can tell from information on the site (not to mention the sign-in page I meet at the above address), it seems to be evolving in precisely the opposite direction to everyone else, by reducing the amount of its content that is freely available.
More and more scientific journals recognise the virtues of open access, both in terms of efficiency (the dissemination of knowledge and the building of scientists' reputations) and ethics (since the general public pays through taxes for most published research). A full and very clear explanation of both the why and the how of open access can be found here.
Update: Miraculously, the editorial mentioned above now seems to be available to hoi polloi....
05 January 2006
Great story in Nature about data mashups - the mixing together of data drawn from disparate sources to create a sum greater than the parts.
This approach is not new: it lies at the heart of open source software - where chunks of code are drawn from the specialised databases known as hackers' brains and stitched together - and open genomics. Indeed, bioinformatics represents a kind of apotheosis of the mashup - see, for example, the way in which data from many researchers is pulled together in a genome browser like Ensembl.
Data mashups are more recent, and have started to gain popularity thanks to Google Earth. This provides a useful and conceptually simple scaffolding for other data to be brought together and displayed - like Nature's own avian flu mashup.
A pity, then, that this paean to the virtues of open data is not itself freely available under an open access licence. (For the benighted, the indispensable Open Access News has a long quotation that conveys the essence.)
The head of Mozilla in Europe, Tristan Nitot, has an interesting post about the French Gendarmerie National switching to both Firefox and Thunderbird. But the real story is not the obvious one of another Firefox and Thunderbird victory. After all, Firefox in particular benefits from a typical virtuous circle: the more people who use it, the greater the incentive to follow suit as more sites start adopting open Web standards.
The real kicker comes right at the end of the quotation from an interview with the man in charge of the move, Général Brachet:
Our first goal is to migrate all the upper layers of the workstation to Open Source Software to be independent of the Operating System.
Yes, he really gets it.
The real breakthrough for GNU/Linux on the business desktop will come from the combined power of the Fab Free Three: Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice. Once users are familiar with these programs on Windows, they will have no problem switching to GNU/Linux, since the applications - which are where they spend the vast majority of their computing time - are the same.
And just as private use of Microsoft's Office suite is largely driven by its dominance of businesses (helped by some "borrowing" of work copies to use at home), so GNU/Linux among general users will be propelled by its increasing penetration of the business market, not vice-versa.
We'll know when that is happening once large numbers of games that are currently Windows-only start appearing in GNU/Linux versions. Their absence remains probably the biggest single obstacle to converting the average person on the Clapham Omnibus to a totally open source solution. Children are Microsoft's secret weapon here. The rise of third generation consoles will also help by providing another way of satisfying the gaming urge in the Window-less family.
03 January 2006
Although open access usually refers to journal papers, there are an increasing number of books freely available too, as a previous post noted. One I came across recently is a good example, because it lies at the opposite end of the open access spectrum from the latest research reports.
As its title - "Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and Philosophy of Sino-Tibetan Reconstruction" - suggests, this is one of those "work of lifetime" books that both sums up what is currently known, and also provides as starting-poing for future directions.
It is really quite extraordinary - even for someone like me who has no Tibetan or Burman. In fact the book, which is a svelte 3.2 Mb PDF file, can be appreciated by anyone simply as a hermetic artefact. Scrolling through the 805 pages (yes, you read correctly - it really is one of those awe-inspiring tomes) you encounter a cloud of almost completely-inscrutable signs.
It can also be appreciated as poetry, dealing as it does with the relationships between several hundred languages in the Tibeto-Burman family with names like Bal-brang, Jingpho-Nung-Luish, Khualsim, Loloish, Nruanghmei, Ugong and Yakkhaba.
And anyone can appreciate the importance of this book, laid out in its introduction:
The great Sino-Tibetan language family, comprising Chinese on the one hand and Tibeto-Burman (TB) on the other, is comparable in time-depth and internal diversity to Indo-European, and equally important in the context of world civilization. The overwhelming cultural and numerical predominance of Chinese is counterbalanced by the sheer number of languages (some 250-300) in the TB branch.
But as well as providing clues to the origins of Chinese, whose "cultural predominance" grows by the day, this wonderful e-book is also a major contribution to the understanding of the Tibetan language, almost totally ignored in the West, along with its people.
This fact is particularly regrettable at the moment. It appears that China has decided to crackdown on monks in Lhasa who remain steadfast in their allegiance to the exiled Dalai Lama. This is but the latest episode in China's appalling treatment of Tibet after its invasion of that country in 1949. In addition to its continuing abuse of human rights, Chinese authorities have embarked on what the Government of Tibet in Exile terms "ecocide": the reckless and systematic destruction of Tibet's environment. One of the ironies of this is that China too is suffering the consequences of this.
The only consolation is that however brutal China's treatment of Tibet itself becomes, Tibetan culture will live on. As well as a considerable number of Tibetans living in exile around the world (chiefly in India) who keep the flame alive, there are now a number of projects, some major international collaborations, to digitise the unique Tibetan cultural heritage.
Once again, the world of bits offers a partial counterbalance to some of the terrible losses taking place in the world of atoms.