28 February 2007

Firewalls in Meatspace

Hmm, disturbing.

Patent Abuse

Oh, look. Here's yet another reason to get rid of patents:

Guess what? Radio frequency identification tags are insecure. But don't demonstrate the technology's problems at a security conference. If you do, HID Global, a manufacturer of access-control devices, might sue you for patent infringement.


The use of patent law to prevent vulnerability discovery and discussion is bitter irony, because a fundamental purpose of patent law is disclosure: In exchange for the right to exclude others from using, making or selling a novel invention, an inventor agrees to make public all the details. Once issued, patents are a searchable public record, and expire after 20 years.

Vietnam Eyes Open Source

It seems that the WTO's demands are starting to bite in Vietnam:

Though copyright sale isn’t very common on the Vietnamese market, at the end of 2006, several major state-owned businesses signed copyright contracts with Microsoft. An example was the Ministry of Finance, which bought 15.000 Office software copyrights. Vietnam Commercial Bank (Vietcombank) also signed agreements to have 4.000 permits for Microsoft Office 2003 within 3 years.

Vietnam’s starting to buy software copyrights is indeed a good sign showing that the country is starting to respect WTO rules. The fact that the Ministry of Finance, one of the most important ministries in Vietnam, plays the leading role, also helps to prove to the world that Vietnam intends to make good all of its software copyright pledges to the WTO.

And not surprisingly, people there are beginning to wonder if there isn't a better way - especially for a developing country that has better things to do with its financial resources than giving them to the richest man in the world and his company:

At a national conference on open-source software held in Hanoi at the end of 2006, Vietnam Information Association called for the use and development of domestic products, encouragement of free software with similar functions such as OpenOffice, and application of new technologies such as Web 2.0 which Google, Yahoo, Sun, Oracle are currently using.

As the WTO clamps down on countries that use unauthorised copies of software on a large scale, this kind of development is bound to be repeated.

Update: Meanwhile, here's another country with reasons of its own for preferring free software to the kind that comes from the US....

How Openness Prevents Plagiarism

Here's an important conclusion drawn from the rather sad Joyce Hatto saga:

It's a perfect example of what we've been saying about artists putting their work online: sharing files widely prevents plagiarism, by making it much easier to detect. One couldn't ask for a better drama to illustrate the point. Never mind Joyce Hatto — think instead of all those other pianists, whose recordings were passed off as her work: the only reason the hoax was detected was because their recordings were being shared online too!

Forking Xara LX

It is a truism in the open source world that the threat of a fork keeps code honest. When contributors who disagree with the way a project is going can simply start their own, there is a powerful incentive to take account of their concerns.

There was a great demonstration of how something as painful as a fork can, in fact, be cathartic, leading to a better, stronger result:

The Xara LX vector graphics editor took a big step forward last week. After months of gridlock between open source contributors to the project and its corporate owners, one of the contributors published his own fork of the code base -- and the company approved, offering to host it in the official Subversion repository.

A Brace of Virtual Worlds

I'm not quite sure what the collective noun for virtual worlds is, but here's a couple of new entrants to the world of worlds.

First, what seems to be a Chinese Second Life clone, Hipihi. And then, not a million miles away, there's Outback Online, from the splendidly-named company Yoick, led by the even more splendidly-named Randal Leeb-du Toit. Maybe that's his in-world name....

27 February 2007

Softly, Softly on Software Patents

This response to an e-petition "to make software patents clearly unenforcible" is interesting:

The Government remains committed to its policy that no patents should exist for inventions which make advances lying solely in the field of software. Although certain jurisdictions, such as the US, allow more liberal patenting of software-based inventions, these patents cannot be enforced in the UK.

The test used to discern between patentable and non-patentable subject matter in the UK has recently been clarified by the courts, and is applied rigorously by the Patent Office. Under this test, the true nature of the advance being claimed in a patent application must be determined, and if this advance lies solely in the field of software, or another non-technical field such as methods of doing business, the patent will not be granted. If the advance being made by an invention does lie in a technical field, it must also be non-obvious and sufficiently clearly described for the invention to be reproduced before a patent will be granted by the Patent Office.

The recently published Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, an independent review commissioned by the Government, recommended that patent rights should not be extended to cover pure software, business methods and genes. The Government will implement those recommendations for which it is responsible, and will therefore continue to exclude patents from areas where they may hinder innovation: including patents which are too broad, speculative, or obvious, or where the advance they make lies in an excluded area such as software.

Although it is little more than a statement that the current position will be maintained, it does contain the important confirmation that there are no plans to follow the US down the primrose path to the fiery furnace, and that US software patents are not enforceable in the UK. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.

Credit, too, to the 10 Downing Street site for responding in this fashion to a petition that garnered relatively few signatures (I didn't see it and so didn't sign).

Second Life Gains a New Voice

This is something that many people have been waiting for:

Linden Lab, creator of virtual world Second Life, has announced that it will be adding voice capabilities to the Second Life Grid, as part of its ongoing drive toward creating a richer, more immersive virtual environment.


Scenario 1 - Residents can teleport to voice-enabled land, and automatically start speaking, with the volume of speech modified according to their spatial relationship with others. Up to 100 users can be present in the same audio channel at once.

Scenario 2 - Group conference calls for two or more Residents. This enables Residents to communicate with large groups across geographical boundaries (e.g. concert setting, or between pockets of land etc).

Scenario 3 - One-to-one personal communication. This enables Residents to privately share a conversation, which can be initiated by an Instant Message. Residents don’t have to be on voice-enabled land to do this.

It doesn't look like this new code will be open:

Core voice capabilities are provided by Vivox, under the terms of a service agreement with Linden Lab, incorporating 3D voice technology from DiamondWare

but it's good to see Linden moving forward.

When the Tardis Connects to the Dilithium Crystals

Chris Long tells it as it is:

my concern about all this is the ignorance of the technical thinking behind these ideas; ideas that have apparently been formulated by people who've learnt their technology from watching, James Bond, Star Trek, Dr Who and Blakes 7.

I can just imagine the conversation: "Q says we have to connect the Tardis engine to some dilithium crystals and throw some tachyon particles at it... What do you think Orac?"

Can you say ID card?

Virtually Patent

Here's a fascinating question:

how would you feel as a Second Life resident if a real world company stepped into Second Life and started patenting things left right and centre that you'd already done without their knowledge? The real world companies already have processes and budgets for setting up and defending patents; but being new to Second Life they may not know about what people have made already.

The issue raised here is what should be patentable in Second Life? This is easy, actually: nothing. Everything in Second Life is code; in particular, all the interesting stuff is done using the SL scripting language. Since neither software nor algorithms can be patented (at least in rational parts of the world), this clearly means that nothing in SL can be patented.

And that's right. If you could patent things, then, as the post puts it, things would get crazy:

How would you feel if using a cylinder for a chair was patented? And then a box prim for a chair was patented, and so on. You'd be wading through patents before you even rezzed a prim.

And this is precisely the situation for software in those parts of the world that allow broad software patents. That is, programmers have to worry that unwittingly they are infringing on somebody's "patent" on that code, even if they are simply employing the basic building blocks of programming - the "cylinders".

In what almost amounts to a thought experiment, we see again the absurdity of allowing software - which is essentially just ideas and algorithms - to be patented. All it does is to impeded innovation. And to those who, in the absence of patents, worry about people stealing bits of their code, that's what copyright is for: it protects particular instantiations of ideas in code, not the ideas themselves, which remain freely available to all for further use and development.

It is no coincidence that the GNU GPL - essentially the constitution of free software - depends on copyright law to work. There is no contradiction between free software and copyright - quite the contrary; it is patents and free software that are intellectual matter and anti-matter.

3D Viewer for Second Life

Sounds cool:

The University of Michigan 3D Lab has brought Second Life one step closer to real life by developing stereoscopic support for the Second Life viewer. This recent addition allows visitors wearing special glasses to see the objects of Second Life pop out of the screen similar to watching a 3D movie. Using the recently released source code by Linden Labs, Gabriel Cirio and Eric Maslowski have developed a stereoscopic version of the Second Life viewer that works with a large-screen stereo projection system. This lowcost system uses passive stereo based on polarizing filters and was built from off-theshelf components.

Further proof, if any were needed, of why opening up the code is good for everyone.

The EU Thinks it Can Pwn You


EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has assured Germany's Federal Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble (Christian Democratic Union; CDU) of his "full support" for the plans of the federal government to engage in so-called online searches of private PCs.

Leaving aside the issue of the gross privacy intrusion this represents, and leaving aside the fact that it seems to be espousing police cracking of computers, there's a teeny-weeny problem here. It's called a firewall; it's what any sane person connected to the Internet will have on their system precisely to prevent crackers gaining access.

While politicians and their advisers remain so ignorant of technology there's hope for us yet.

Crying into Our Beer

At first blush, this sounds good:

The University of Manchester has secured a £8.4 million deal to become one of the country's largest repositories of facts and figures.

The award by the Economic and Social Research Council will renew the services which are free of charge for researchers and students until 2012. Tens of thousands of people are already using them.

But the clue is "free of charge": we're talking free as in beer, here, people.

So, a missed opportunity here to make this data - precisely the kind of stuff that should be available in an unfettered form - truly free. It makes you want to weep.

The Enclosure of the Starbucks Experience

Here's an insightful piece:

Let’s face it: a brand is all about creating a monoculture. It is all about efficiencies, bureaucratization of process, and the marketing of a single cultural image. It is all about carefully crafting an experience and then monetizing it. The commodification of experience is the polar opposite of what a commons offers. In this case, the market is trying to replicate that which only the commons can truly generate.

As more and more companies seek to emulate Starbucks, and to tap into the power of the commons, this paradox is one that will increasingly crop up. It hints, perhaps, that the commons simply does not scale.

26 February 2007

Happy Birthday Browser

Or so it seems:

1991: Tim Berners-Lee, the acknowledged inventor of the World Wide Web, introduces WorldWideWeb, the first practical web browser.

25 February 2007

A Crack in the Windows Tax?

One of the worst abuses of Microsoft's desktop power is that it is often very hard to buy a PC without being forced to pay for Windows, whether you want it or not. At long last, there are some cracks appearing in this monolithic approach, thanks, it seems, to Dell's Ideastorm:

It’s exciting to see the IdeaStorm community’s interest in open source solutions like Linux and OpenOffice. Your feedback has been all about flexibility and we have seen a consistent request to provide platforms that allow people to install their operating system of choice. We are listening, and as a result, we are working with Novell to certify our corporate client products for Linux, including our OptiPlex desktops, Latitude notebooks and Dell Precision workstations. This is another step towards ensuring that our customers have a good experience with Linux on our systems.

As this community knows, there is no single customer preference for a distribution of Linux. In the last week, the IdeaStorm community suggested more than half a dozen distributions. We don't want to pick one distribution and alienate users with a preference for another. We want users to have the opportunity to help define the market for Linux on desktop and notebook systems. In addition to working with Novell, we are also working with other distributors and evaluating the possibility of additional certifications across our product line. We are continuing to investigate your other Linux-related ideas, so please continue to check here for updates.

It's a pity this weclome move is vitiated by a pathetic attempt at justifying the latter-day Windows tax:

We don't want to pick one distribution and alienate users with a preference for another.

So instead of "alienating" some GNU/Linux users, Dell decided it was better to alienate all of them. Right, that makes business sense. Now, tell me again why Dell is losing market-share?

Calling Ballmer's Bluff

This was something I was going to write about, but someone has gone one better and come up with an entire site devoted to the idea:

Open Letter to Steven Ballmer

It's come to many in the Linux community’s attention you have claimed again and again, that Linux violates Microsoft's intellectual property. Not only that, but it's been reported Microsoft has convinced businesses to pay for a Linux patent that you can't provide.

Therefore, this website will serve as a response to this accusation, and within it, a request. The request is simple, since you, Microsoft, claim to be so sure of yourself: Show Us the Code.

Show us the code, indeed.

Someting is Open in the State of Denmark

Good news from Denmark:

On Friday, the Danish Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Helge Sander, made a press announcement (Danish) about his plan for following up on the Parliament Resolution 8 months ago.

The implementation plan is presented in a report which suggests that “open standards should be implemented gradually by making it mandatory for the public sector to use a number of open standards when this becomes technically feasible”.

The report identifies an initial sets of open standards as candidates for mandatory use from 1 January 2008 “if an economic impact assessment shows that this will not involve additional costs to the public sector”.

Hope for WIPO?

OK, I admit it: I've been a teensy bit negative about WIPO in the past. In part, this was because I thought there was precious little hope it would ever change substantively. Looks like I was wrong:

The agreement on dozens of WIPO reforms was broader and more substantive than had been anticipated. Some of the measures signal important changes in this controversial UN body. WIPO members agreed to "consider the preservation of the public domain within WIPO's normative processes and deepen the analysis of the implication and benefits of a rich and accessible public domain." WIPO agreed to "promote measures that will help countries deal with IP related anticompetitive practices." "Norm-setting activities shall . . . take into account different levels of development" and "take into consideration a balance between costs and benefits." WIPO adopted an expanded mandate to undertake studies to assess the economic, social and cultural impact of intellectual property practices and norm setting activities. All of this signals a new tone and approach for WIPO. In a sense, WIPO is finally entering the new century, and responding to the growing demand for reforms, and a more balanced approach to intellectual property protection.

DRM Causes Piracy

So far from being an impediment to so-called "online piracy," it's DRM itself that keeps fueling it and driving it forward.

Yup. (Via Slashdot.)

23 February 2007

The Biter Bit - by Bits

Now that the flow of highly-personal "security" information between the US and other countries is a two-way thing, I predict people in the former are going to become as unenthusiastic about it as those in the latter:

Welcome to the new world of border security. Unsuspecting Americans are turning up at the Canadian border expecting clear sailing, only to find that their past -- sometimes their distant past -- is suddenly an issue.

While Canada officially has barred travelers convicted of criminal offenses for years, attorneys say post-9/11 information-gathering, combined with a sweeping agreement between Canada and the United States to share data, has resulted in a spike in phone calls from concerned travelers.


Oh, and by the way, if you don't need to travel to Canada, don't think you won't need to clear your record. Lesperance says it is just a matter of time before agreements are signed with governments in destinations like Japan, Indonesia and Europe.

"This," Lesperance says, "is just the edge of the wedge."

Oh, yes, indeedy.... (Via Slashdot.)

Renew for Freedom: Use It or Lose It

Brits, awake!

Why you should renew your passport, or apply for one IMMEDIATELY if you are aged 16 or over.

The Identity Cards Act 2006 turns your passport into a one-way ticket to control of your identity by the government. It means lifelong surveillance, and untold bureaucracy. This website, produced by the NO2ID campaign, is about how you can renew or apply for a passport to avoid being forced to register on the ID scheme database.

Everyone adult in the UK should do this now; I did as soon as Mad-eyed Tony pushed through his crazy ID Cards legislation, and they started building ID interrogation centres around the UK:

On March 26th 2007 the first of a new network of 69 government ID interrogation centres will open for business. If you apply for your first adult passport after this date, then you may be called for a compulsory "interview" at one of them.

So basically, you have to pay for the privilege of being interrogated; er, anybody seen the film Brazil?

Commons Sense from the EU Parliament

There's a lot wrong with EU Parliament (the small matter of expenses, for a start), but it does seem to have its heart in the right place (next to its wallet, perhaps...).

For example, the spectrum dividend produced by switching terrestial television from analogue to digital means that there's a whole load of yummy electromagnetic spectrum coming up for grabs. Some people (broadcasters etc.) just want to the whole lot auctioned off, but since this spectrum is a commons, and so belongs to you and me, wouldn't it be nice if we got to use through unlicensed frequencies?

And lo and behold, that's just what the EU Parliament is recommending:

The European Parliament,

– having regard to the Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions entitled 'A market-based approach to spectrum management in the European Union',




(Via openspectrum.info.)

Alfresco Sees the (GPL) Light

So, Enterprise Content Management (ECM) company Alfresco has moved from the Mozilla Public Licence to the GNU General Public Licence (with the horribly-named "FLOSS exception"). This is good for Alfresco, and good for the GPL commons. It's also a nice confirmation of some of the things I was saying in this recent article about licensing, with the witty title "Lizenz zum Geldverdienen". Oh, yes, it's, er, in German (but an English version should follow in in due course).

Fake Steve Jobs: Suck 2.0?

I was heartened to see that the future of the Fake Steve Jobs blog now seems assured, following a deal with Wired (kudos). God knows we need more such snarky sites in an increasingly humourless and pusillanimous world.

Taking advantage of this new stability, I settled down to read a few of the many postings that I'd missed, and a distant cyber-bell began ringing. I thought: "I have been here before... I know the grass beyond the door", and then it struck me.

Once upon a time, in an online world far away, there was a little Web site called Suck. Its motto:

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"

It came out of nowhere, starting on 28 August 1995, and ran for nearly six years. It was wonderful: it deflated the growing hype bubble that was Dotcom 1.0, and it did it with cool, mordant wit. (If you want the whole, roller-coaster story of Suck, read it here in Wired - rather appopriately, as it turns out.)

FSJ is Suck 2.0: it punctures that which must be punctured, and it does it with a different kind of wit, this time black and scabrous. But along with the similarities, there is an important difference between the two sites.

Suck, for all its undoubted virtues, took itself far too seriously, as any adolescent genius might. FSJ, by contrast, is more mature, more cynical; it takes nothing seriously, least of all itself (it is a parody site, after all). In other words, FSJ is the perfect mirror for the Web 2.0 world we live in.

Namaste, Steve.

Going Beyond: Ultra VioLet Composer

One of the common criticisms of the open source development methodology is that it only works for a limited class of software, namely those with big constituencies. According to this view, there are unlikely to be successful open source projects for niche sectors.

That may have been true in the early days of free software, but now that the number of developers who are prepared to get involved has grown, the overall scaling means that more such niches can be addressed.

A good example is VioLet Composer:

A modular multispace desktop music composer for Win32 (source available for porting). Features realtime wavelet processing, flexible arrangement, extensible sample types, autosaving and much, much more. Now with support for simple Buzz effects.

Great fun.

22 February 2007

The Open Rainbow Nation

Big news from South Africa:

The South African Cabinet today announced that it had approved a free and open source strategy and that government would migrate its current software to free and open source software.

At a Cabinet media briefing government said that it had "approved a policy and strategy for the implementation of free and open source software (FOSS) in government.

In a statement the cabinet said "all new software developed for or by the government will be based on open standards and government will itself migrate current software to FOSS. This strategy will, among other things, lower administration costs and enhance local IT skills."

"All the major IT vendors in the country have both supported the initiative and made contributions to the development of FOSS. Government departments will incorporate FOSS in their planning henceforth."

Given South Africa's position as the main economic motor of the region, this could have interesting knock-on effects elsewhere in the continent.
(Via Technocrat.)

Watch Out, There's a Weasel Word About

This blog has constantly warned readers to be on their guard against weasel words whose unexceptionable and generalised nature betray an intent to redefine. A classic example - double-barrelled to boot - is the Progress & Freedom Foundation, which has absolutely nothing to do with freedom as Richard Stallman would understand it, and as a concomitant, precious little to do with progress either.

As its About page makes clear, freedom means the right to impose intellectual monopolies - or, as it quaintly puts it:

the "imperative" to protect rich digital content and encourage innovation through the traditional legal notions of copyright and patent.

Hm, that's a new one: the imperative to impose intellectual monopolies. Not much freedom there, methinks. The other key phrases to note are "market-oriented policy" and "Applying benefit-cost analysis to proposals for regulation of the market for personal information" - so you can forget about any right to privacy: if it's profitable, it's good.

No surprise, then, that one of the foundation's luminaries has written an oh-so-reasonable defence of the Microsoft-Novell stitch-up. Except that it is fundamentally flawed, despite its reasonable tone.

Its central argument in favour of the oh-so-reasonable Microsoft-Novell stitch-up is as follows:

Customers also want freedom from concern about potential intellectual property problems. They do not want to worry whether someone might come out of left field claiming the right to enjoin some mission-critical application.

- and yes, there's that tell-tale little word "freedom" again.

So, as a customer, I'm supposed to worry about whether my supplier is infringing on somebody else's intellectual monopoly? Sorry, but I don't care a fig about the intellectual monopolies involved in products that I buy or use: I care about whether they do the job at a reasonable price. I expect the supplier to worry about the legal details - that's partly what I pay for.

Reframing it in these terms attempts to enmesh the user in the battles that try to employ intellectual monopolies as competitive weapons that are the very antithesis of progressive. It is a trick that aims to legitimise and bolster the strength of this approach, by falsely claiming that it matters to the general public. It is true that manufacturers and suppliers do indeed need to worry, unfortunately, but that is a problem, and a reflection of how the original legal frameworks have been distorted by corporate lawyers and greedy industries.

To remedy this situation, we all need to ignore those issues, and fight for minimalist intellectual monopolies - 14 years for copyright, as it was originally, and patents whose scope is narrowed considerably, or, ideally, abolished entirely.

Needless to say, since the premise of the article is mistaken, its conclusion is too: the Microsoft-Novell deal is bad for customers, since it brings in patenting issues where there aren't any. After all, if Microsoft really believed open source infringed on its patents it would go to court, as it routinely has in the past. Are we supposed to believe that Steve Ballmer has come over all magnanimous, and wants to give open source a chance to reform? I think not.

It's also a disaster for Novell, which is now tainted by Redmond's kiss of Judas. Indeed, I strongly suspect that in retrospect it will be seen as the inflection point that began the company's terminal decline.

Vote for ODF

Undeterred by the fact that Our Tone simply ignored our last petition to dump ID cards, I've signed up for another one, this time calling for ODF to be used in UK government. If you're a citizen of Perfidious Albion, you might like to do the same.

Not that it will make a huge difference, but I think we have a responsibility to (a) use these new tools for democracy and (b) force the UK Government to repeat its pathetic excuses for not supporting eminently reasonable ideas. There's also increasing evidence that the e-petition site is turning into a thorn in the goverment's side - reason enough to keep using it.

20 February 2007

You Wait Ages for a Bus...

...and then three come along at once.

Once upon a time, people looked down on ODF because it seemed the Cinderella of formats: rather poor, and with nowhere to go. Today, it's looking much richer, and with three format conversion tools - one from Microsoft, one from Sun and a new online service from Lettos - it's no longer looking so isolated. And the nice thing is, it's going to get even better. (Via Bob Sutor's Open Blog.)

Planting the Bulb of a Good Idea

News that Australia plans to ban incandescent light bulbs and replace them with more energy efficient fluorescent bulbs led to me this site: Ban the Bulb, whose campaign goals are to

Increase the cost of incandescent light bulbs
Reduce the sales tax (VAT) on CFLs [compact fluorescent lights] from 17.5% to 5%
Ban the sale of incandescents by a specific date
Help the poor to replace their incandescents
Help the poor to save money on their bills
Encourage the responsible recycling of CFLs
Include light bulbs in the EU's Eco Directive
Explain the benefits of greater energy efficiency
Accelerate the uptake of available technologies

Banning incandescent light bulbs it would...Save the UK 3.6 Million tonnes of CO2 per year

This is an idea that has occurred to me (and to millions of others, I suspect), so it's good to see someone doing something about it.

As Matt Prescott, the founder of the campaign, explains:

If we cannot deny ourselves incandescent light bulbs, which would require minimal sacrifice, how are we ever going to do the really difficult things such as cutting our reliance on fossil fuels, buying smaller cars or reducing our use of finite natural resources?

Ending the life of this inefficient and obsolete technology is not enough to prevent damaging climate change; but it is an easy first step, and one the world should not hesitate to take.

This needs to be done now. We can all contribute - I've now replaced about 95% of the bulbs I use, with the others scheduled to disappear soon - but governments must get involved too.

The Death of TV?

Well, not quite, alas, but certainly an interesting shift:

We think we know that the professional news media, especially newspapers, are obsolete, that the future is all about (excuse the expression) you—media created by amateurs. But such PowerPoint distillation tends to overlook the fact that mainstream media are not all simply shriveling and dying but in some instances actually evolving. And in evolution, there are always fascinating transitional iterations along the way. Such as newspapers’ suddenly proliferating forays into online video. (And now magazines: Time Inc. just announced a new “studio” to develop Web video.)

Whereas the YouTube paradigm is amateurs doing interesting things with cameras, the newspapers’ Web videos are professional journalists operating like amateurs in the best old-fashioned sense.

What seems to be happening here is that blogs are eating newspapers' lunch, so the newspapers are eating TV's lunch. Sounds fair to me. (Via PaidContent.)

The Incorruptible Blogosphere

John Dvorak is the original angry old man of computer journalism. I've been reading his stuff for decades now. It's striking that he's increasingly off-beam compared to the "good old days" of his column in PC Magazine, when he more than anyone had his finger on the pulse of personal computing. But he's still a good and entertaining journalist (after all, when has being right ever been that important in this business?).

Here's a good example of Dvorak at his best, writing about the essential incorruptibility of the blogosphere - not, be it noted, of bloggers, but of the totality of them:

While many bloggers seem eagerly corruptible — almost inviting it — it's not going to make any difference because there will be 10 to 100 bloggers pointing the finger at them and another 1,000 analyzing the finger-pointing.

Spot on; this another reason why open, non-hierarchical systems work so much better than closed, centralised ones in these kinds of situations. (Via Smart Mobs.)

Thanks, Tony - But No Thanks

I received an email from Tony Blair yesterday. Not that this was so special, since he also sent it to the other 28,000 people who had signed an e-petition calling for ID cards to be scrapped. You can read the missive here (and if you're feeling really left out, you can copy it into an email to yourself and pretend that it came from our Tone).

What's particularly galling is that this email essentially says "thanks for your request, but get lost", and then goes on to repeat all the tired old misinformation about the ID card scheme's cost, its efficacy against terrorism and how it will reduce identity theft. Although I could pick some of its arguments apart, I'd rather leave it to the master himself, The Reg's John Lettice:

The National Identity Register will allow police to add the entire adult population of the UK to their suspect list, giving them the opportunity to check fingerprints left at scenes of crime against those collected from ID card and passport applicants, says Tony Blair. Nor are fingerprints in other EU countries necessarily safe - the introduction of biometric technology, he adds, will "improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

Blair made the pledge to collar the lot of us, and some, as part of a rag-bag of warmed-over, half-baked, misleading, and just plain untrue claims issued in an email to the near-28,000 signatories of the Downing Street petition calling for the scrapping of the ID card scheme.

19 February 2007

Damn DRM

The FT has little votette underway:

Should music companies drop DRM?

Steve Jobs, Apple’s charismatic chief executive, has proposed that record companies drop their insistence that music sold over the web be protected by digital rights management technology. DRM is designed to combat piracy but limits the ways consumers can use music they have purchased.

You may want to join in (no registration required)....

Godless Commies Choose Godless Commie OS

Given the number of times free software has been mischaracterised as communist, this seems rather appropriate:

Cuba's communist government is trying to shake off the yoke of at least one capitalist empire _ Microsoft Corp. _ by joining with socialist Venezuela in converting its computers to open-source software.

Both governments say they are trying to wean state agencies from Microsoft's proprietary Windows to the open-source Linux operating system, which is developed by a global community of programmers who freely share their code.

"It's basically a problem of technological sovereignty, a problem of ideology," said Hector Rodriguez, who oversees a Cuban university department of 1,000 students dedicated to developing open-source programs.

In Praise of the Open Singularity

There's a characteristically thoughtful post over on Open the Future called "Open Source Terraforming" (great title). But even better, perhaps, is a link to the original post that gave the blog its name. How's this for a peroration?

The greatest danger we face comes not from a singularity itself, but from those who wish us to be impotent at its arrival, those who wish to keep its power for themselves, and those who would hide its secrets from the public. Those who see the possibility of a revolutionary future of abundance and freedom are right, as are those who fear the possibility of catastrophe and extinction. But where they are both wrong is in believing that the future is out of our hands, and should be kept out of our hands. We need an open singularity, one that we can all be a part of. That kind of future is within our reach; we need to take hold of it now.

Dell 2.0

Like most readers of this blog, I spend so much time leading a Web 2.0 existence, that I am often surprised, as I emerge blinking into the sunlight, that the Real World is still resolutely 1.0. So the news that Dell is starting to get it with the launch of its (horribly-named) Dell IdeaStorm is a welcome sign that that parts of the world are upgrading:

The name is a take-off on the word “brainstorm” and it is our way of building an online community that brings all of us closer to the creative side of technology by allowing you to share ideas and interact with other customers and Dell experts. You can suggest new products or services you’d like to see Dell develop or tell the world how you feel about major trends in technology and society. We hope this site fosters a candid and robust conversation about your ideas.

Of course, candid conversations have to be two-way, Mikey, so it will be interesting to see whether you live up to your side of the bargain. In particular, the top three suggestions - no extra installed software, and pre-installed GNU/Linux distros - are all very easy to implement if the will is there.

It seems very open: I just went there and clicked on a few stories without any kind of registration required. This obviously leaves it open to abuse, but with luck the sheer volume of genuine users will swamp and attempt to game the system. (Via TechCrunch.)

Update 1: There are now nigh on 50,000 votes for the GNU/Linux option...let's hope Mikey is listening.

Update 2: May be things are moving:

While "I can't speak specifically to Linux," Pearson said, "I can assure you it is getting full attention."

Jim Gray

This doesn't look good. Very sad. He was a real pleasure to interview.

Why Ballmer Will Go

See? It's not just me:

Stop Him Before He Speaks Again!


Just keep him quiet! Should we expect another mea-culpa in the inbox?

Him being Steve "The Flying Chair" Ballmer. Do read the rest of the post for further insight into the state of the good ship Microsoft.

EU on OA: A Big, Fat Nullity

The open access world has been waiting with bated breath for an important EU document on the subject, in which a Europe-wide policy would be delineated - obviously with potentially huge impact. It's here, and it's 100% mealy-mouthed:

Access to, dissemination of, and preservation of scientific information are major challenges of the digital age. Success in each of these areas is of key importance for European information society and research policies. Different stakeholders in these fields have differing views on how to move towards improvements for access, dissemination and preservation.

Within this transition process from a print world to a digital world, the Commission will contribute to the debate among stakeholders and policy makers by encouraging experiments with new models that may improve access to and dissemination of scientific information, and by supporting the linkage of existing preservation initiatives at European level.

The Commission invites the European Parliament and Council to debate the relevant issues on the basis of the present Communication.

Oh yeah, right, thanks for nothing.

Everyone Loves Second Life

Well, not quite, but that's the impression you get reading the comments on this post, an unprecedented outpouring of gratitude. It's not hard to see why:

Since September concurrency rates have tripled, to a peak last week of over 34,000. While we love that so many people are enjoying Second Life, there have been some challenging moments in keeping up with the growth, resulting in the now somewhat infamous message “heavy load on the database”. When this happens it usually means that the demand for transmission of data between servers is outstripping the ability of the network to support it.

When the Grid is under stress, resulting in content loss and a generally poor experience, we would like to have an option less disruptive than bringing the whole Grid down. So we’ve developed a contingency plan to manage log-ins to the Grid when, in our judgment, the risk of content loss begins to outweigh the value of higher concurrency. Looking at the concurrency levels, it’s clear heaviest use is on the weekends.

When you open your log-in screen and see in the upper right hand corner Grid Status: Restricted, you’ll know that only those Second Life Residents who have transacted with Linden Lab either by being a premium account holder, owning land, or purchasing currency on the LindeX, will be able to log-in. Residents who are in Second Life when this occurs will only be affected if they log-out and want to return before the grid returns to normal status.

This is precisely what many SL residents have been calling for - some preferential treatment for those that pay.

Of course, it's in part an admission that SL isn't scaling too well, but equally I doubt if anybody ever expected the kind of growth that has been seen in the last few months. Unlike some, I don't see this as the end of the SL dream; the open sourcing of the viewer, and the confirmation that the server code would also be released were signs that Linden Lab knows that drastic measures are required to move into the next phase. Philip Rosedale and Cory Ondrejka, the two main brains behind the world and its code, are clever chaps, and I don't think they underestimate the magnitude of the task facing them. It will be interesting to see how these occasional lock-outs affect the influx of newbies and the general perception of SL.

18 February 2007

Snap Snipped

In my never-ending quest to keep you lot happy, I've modified the Snap options on this page. First, in the top right-hand corner you should find the option to switch Snap on in the first place. If you don't want it, don't click on it.

Second, I've opted not to trigger Snap with mouse over links, but only over the Snap bubble that follows them for external sites. Finally, if you want to get rid of Snap having tried it out, click on the bubble, then choose the Options menu from the Snap bubble to cancel Snap for this site.

Hope this helps.

15 February 2007

Enthusiast Evangelist for MS? How Sad is That?

After working as an industry analyst for more than decade, I’m leaving JupiterResearch to join Microsoft as an enthusiast evangelist. What is an enthusiast evangelist? Our job is to find, engage and work with enthusiasts and other influencers and show them all the cool stuff that Microsoft is doing.


Whether it’s work, school or home, Microsoft has the potential to change lives even more than they already have.

What, in terms of compounding the damage done by overpriced and unstable collections of security holes masquerading as operating systems by trying to lock it all down with Draconian DRM?

Why am I doing this? My current job is great, my boss is wonderful and I was compensated OK.

I see. (Via TechCrunch.)

Microsoft's Freudian Slips

I just love it when Microsoft feels moved to write one of its open (sic) letters. They are essentially corporate Freudian slips writ large, because they expose the real hopes and fears of the company, far from the more controlled environment of conventional PR. The trick to understanding them is to realise that they always mean the opposite of what they say.

So the latest missive, entitled "Interoperability, Choice and Open XML" is actually about lock-in, lack of choice and closed XML. To save you ploughing through all the MS prose, here's the key sentence:

This campaign to stop even the consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1 is a blatant attempt to use the standards process to limit choice in the marketplace for ulterior commercial motives – and without regard for the negative impact on consumer choice and technological innovation.

Note the clever way that settling on one standard - rather like HTML, TCP/IP and the rest - suddenly becomes a way of "limiting choice". What Microsoft glides over, of course, is that the choice is within the standard. There are now a number of programs supporting ODF, with more coming through. That's choice. I doubt whether there will ever be a non-Microsoft program that supports fully its own XML format: there will be no choice, just lock-in under a different name.

14 February 2007

The Mozilla Manifesto

It's either a sign of a growing maturity - or of great hubris - that the Mozilla Foundation under the guidance of the Chief Lizard Wrangler herself, Mitch Baker, feels moved to offer the world the Mozilla Manifesto:

The Manifesto sets out a vision of the Internet as a piece of infrastructure that is open, accessible and enriches the lives of individual human beings. It includes a pledge from the Mozilla Foundation about taking action in support of the principles of the Mozilla Manifesto. It extends an invitation to others to join us, either by working directly with the Foundation or through other activities that support the Mozilla Manifesto.

It adheres to the following principles:

1. The Internet is an integral part of modern life - a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.

2. The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.

3. The Internet should enrich the lives of individual human beings.

4. Individuals' security on the Internet is fundamental and cannot be treated as optional.

5. Individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet.

6. The effectiveness of the Internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide.

7. Free and open source software promotes the development of the Internet as a public resource.

8. Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust.

9. Commercial involvement in the development of the Internet brings many benefits; a balance between commercial goals and public benefit is critical.

10. Magnifying the public benefit aspects of the Internet is an important goal, worthy of time, attention and commitment.

I get the feeling that the lizard will continue to surprise in all sorts of ways in the years to come.

Sinning Against the Holy God of American IP

Even for the field of intellectual monopolies, which is strewn with examples of hypocrisy and bullying, this "301 report" from the International Intellectual Property Alliance in the US really takes the biscuit. Here's what Michael Geist, one of the world's leading legal scholars has to say of its truly paranoid listing of most countries of the world for their transgressions against the holy god of American IP:

each invariably criticized for not adopting the DMCA, not extending the term of copyright, not throwing enough people in jail, or creating too many exceptions to support education and other societal goals. In fact, the majority of the world's population finds itself on the list, with 23 of the world's 30 most populous countries targeted for criticism (the exceptions are Germany, Ethiopia, Iran, France, the UK, Congo, and Myanmar).

The U.S. approach is quite clearly one of "do what I say, not what I do" (fair use is good for the U.S., but no one else), advising country after country that it does not meet international TPM [Trusted Platform Module] standards (perhaps it is the U.S. that is not meeting emerging international standards), and criticizing national attempts to improve education or culture through exceptions or funding programs. Moreover, it is very clear that the U.S. lobby groups are never satisfied as even those countries that have ratified the WIPO treaties or entered into detailed free trade agreements with the U.S. that include IP provisions still find themselves criticized for not doing enough.

I'm really quite ashamed that the UK isn't on the list, too: the fault of Tony "the poodle" Blair, I suppose.

Free Cultural Works vs. Open Content

Now I wonder where they got the idea for this:

This document defines "Free Cultural Works" as works or expressions which can be freely studied, applied, copied and/or modified, by anyone, for any purpose. It also describes certain permissible restrictions that respect or protect these essential freedoms. The definition distinguishes between free works, and free licenses which can be used to legally protect the status of a free work. The definition itself is not a license; it is a tool to determine whether a work or license should be considered "free."

Here's a further hint:

We discourage you to use other terms to identify Free Cultural Works which do not convey a clear definition of freedom, such as "Open Content" and "Open Access." These terms are often used to refer to content which is available under "less restrictive" terms than those of existing copyright laws, or even for works that are just "available on the Web".

Now, who do we know that prefers the word "free" to "open"?

ODF 1.1 : True Accessibility

News that version 1.1 of the ODF standard has been approved by OASIS is hardly earth-shattering, but I thought this comment in the press release was significant:

OpenDocument 1.1 supports users who have low or no vision or who suffer from cognitive impairments. The standard not only provides short alternative descriptive text for document elements such as hyperlinks, drawing objects and image map hot spots, it also offers lengthy descriptions for the same objects should additional help be needed.

"We are thrilled with the progress to date," said Curtis Chong, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science. "Our views have changed over time. OpenDocument is no longer a thing to be feared, as we once thought. The OASIS process exemplifies what should be done if true accessibility to both a document format and the tools to manipulate it are to be achieved."

This address issues about ODF's accessibility for some users - something raised in certain quarters when trying to de-rail ODF's adoption by Massachusetts. Cross another "problem" off the list, please.

Open Solutions Alliance

Another day, another open source organisation:

The Open Solutions Alliance consists of leading companies dedicated to making enterprise-class open source software solutions work together. We help customers put open source solutions to work by enabling application integration, certifying quality solutions, and promoting cooperation among open source developers. Membership is open to organizations that provide high-quality, business-ready open source solutions.

More specifically, it consists of companies like CentricCRM (customer relations management), Hyperic (systems management), JasperSoft (business intelligence) and OpenBravo (enterprise resource management), as well as more general open source players like CollabNet and SpikeSource.

What's striking about these is that together they form pretty much a complete open source enterprise stack of the kind I wrote about half a year ago. This is something we're going to see much more of, as individual open source companies start banding together to present a common front in order to satisfy the demands of large companies who want integrated, working solutions, not a ragtag bunch of codebases.

OOo: Just Look at that Stat

I quite often flag up big wins for OpenOffice.org, but it can be hard to get the big picture from these small pieces. That makes this wiki page particularly useful, since it pulls together all of the high-profile OOo projects, together with number of desktops involved, and links to original sources. Very handy. (Via Erwin Tenhumberg.)

Patently Foolish

Oh, here's a good idea: let patent experts help decide whether or not to grant lots more patents. And if you need proof this is not going to be good for us, take a quick at gander who's endorsing the move:

The Business Software Alliance, whose members include Apple, Microsoft, Intel and IBM, was quick to hail the bill's approval.

13 February 2007

Information Always Outlives Technology

Nice to see Sun's boss-man getting it about both open standards and ODF:

Imagine you're a legislator that writes a law, or a doctor that drafts a patient's record, or a student that writes a novel. And that five years or fifty years from now, you want to return to review your documents. Except the vendor that created the application used to draft those documents, the company that created the word processor, has either gone out of business, or decided to charge you $10,000 for a version capable of reading old file formats. Either scenario makes the point: Information always outlives technology.

As I've said elsewhere, I really think that the ODF bandwagon is chugging away unstoppably now, and that 2007 will be the year not of the GNU/Linux desktop, but of OpenOffice.org on the desktop. Schwartz's post is further evidence of that.

Open Source Jahrbuch 2006: Ja, Bitte

Although there's plenty written about free software and open source, there's relatively little in the form of books that try to offer a synoptic view. This makes the annual Open Source Jahrbuch, particularly valuable. As for 2004 and 2005, this year's is freely available as a PDF.

As you might expect, it is planned with a Germanic thoroughness, weighing in at 500 pages. As well as big names like Eben Moglen and Larry Lessig, it has a host of less well-known writers, who nonetheless have interesting things to say. I particularly liked the details of the famous Munich LiMux project, and the corresponding project in Vienna, WIENUX. Also good is the article on open source community building, which analyses several smaller projects.

I was pleased to see plenty of space given to both open content and open access. As readers of this blog have heard ad nauseam, there exists an important commonality between these opens, and it's gratifying to see open source's younger siblings getting some recognition here.

All-in-all, I'd go so far as to say that this is the best book on open source that has been published in the few years or so. Taken together, the whole series of Yearbooks form perhaps the most important collection of writings on open source and related areas to be found in any language.

Novartis Does Open Genomics

It's happening, slowly:

Novartis, the Basel, Switzerland, drug giant, has helped uncover which of the 20,000 genes identified by the Human Genome Project are likely to be associated with diabetes. But rather than hoard this information, as drug firms have traditionally done, it is making it available for free on the World Wide Web.

"It will take the entire world to interpret these data," says Novartis research head Mark Fishman. "We figure we will benefit more by having a lot of companies look at these data than by holding it secret."

The data and more information is available from the Diabetics Genetics Initiative site at the Broad Institute. (Via Slashdot.)

Why Virtual Worlds Will Explode (Metaphorically)

This is spot-on:

The kids who have pushed MySpace to the limit are looking for the next cool place to hang out on the Internet, and they’re finding it in easy-entry 3D virtual worlds like Tyra’s. I haven’t been in yet since I just got home and wanted to get the news up, but Glitchy tells me the place is packed. Why? Because it does the one thing Web pages can’t: It provides “presence,” the ability to interact in three dimensions with the people around you. (The ability to change your outfit on the fly ain’t bad, either.) It’s a richer mode of communication than chat, email or IM, and the generation that already takes those mediums for granted want more. 3D worlds give them that. It’s not a quirk of technology, it’s a cultural shift in the way we interact and communicate with each other.

Problems We Don't Have: Tag Clouds in Chinese

You think you have problems with Web 2.0? Be grateful for small mercies:

Tag cloud displays tags in a website which emphasize some of the tags by showing them with larger font sizes, and/or in darker colors. Moreover, tags in a tag cloud are usually arranged in alphabetical order. Tag cloud seems to work in the English world as a means of visualization as well as an extra means of navigation - what about in the Chinese world or more specifically, what about in Hong Kong?

(Via Virtual China.)

Now We Are Five: HTML5, XHTML5

Anything that talks about HTML5 and XHTML5 gets my attention pretty quickly. I don't pretend to understand all the implications of this, but it sounds cool:

This specification introduces features to HTML and the DOM that ease the authoring of Web-based applications. Additions include the context menus, a direct-mode graphics canvas, inline popup windows, and server-sent events.


The scope of this specification is not to describe an entire operating system. In particular, hardware configuration software, image manipulation tools, and applications that users would be expected to use with high-end workstations on a daily basis are out of scope. In terms of applications, this specification is targetted specifically at applications that would be expected to be used by users on an occasional basis, or regularly but from disparate locations, with low CPU requirements. For instance online purchasing systems, searching systems, games (especially multiplayer online games), public telephone books or address books, communications software (e-mail clients, instant messaging clients, discussion software), document editing software, etc.

I can't wait. (Via Vecosys.)

12 February 2007

The Deeper View on Vista

Once more, Brucie tells it like it is:

Microsoft is reaching for a much bigger prize than Apple: not just Hollywood, but also peripheral hardware vendors. Vista's DRM will require driver developers to comply with all kinds of rules and be certified; otherwise, they won't work. And Microsoft talks about expanding this to independent software vendors as well. It's another war for control of the computer market.

A must-read.

IBM's Open Client Solution: Blue FOOGL

Here's an interesting move by IBM, what it calls a "flexible software stack":

IBM today unveiled a new Open Client Solution for customers of any size or industry so they can help their employees better collaborate, improve productivity, and lower the total cost of information technology ownership.

The solution addresses customer demand to improve interoperability and provide more choice to run different vendors' products that work together. Customers will now have the opportunity to run a mix of Lotus, open source, and other commercial software products - - running on either Linux, Microsoft Windows, or planned for later this year, Macintosh - - on PCs, desktops and other devices.

One of the key points seems strangely familiar:

Customers can benefit from the opportunity to make one investment in the single, flexible Open Client Solution, a more efficient alternative to vendor lock-in because only minor changes are typically required to run on different operating system platforms.


Further advancing the company's open standards push beyond Linux, customers will be afforded the freedom to choose from a variety of IBM technologies or Business Partner applications including: IBM Productivity tools that support the OASIS Open Document Format (ODF), the Firefox Web browser, Lotus Notes & Lotus Domino, Lotus Sametime and IBM WebSphere Portal v6 on Red Hat Desktop Linux suite, or SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop.

Yup, it's the rare, Lesser Spotted Blue Foogl. (Via LXer.)

A Doubly-Poisoned Chalice?

I'm not sure about this:

Probably most of you have heard or read about Novell's effort to provide VBA support in OpenOffice.org for better interoperability with a well known competitive office suite. On the other hand Sun has a similar VBA migration story in place for StarOffice. Sun's solution is designed as an extension which is 100% optional whereas Novell's solution prefers the integration directly in the code base. So we have two similar solutions which overlap in many areas. This is a sub-optimal situation and probably nobody would disagree here. The good news is that both companies have come to an agreement that it makes sense to share their resources and work together on one common OpenOffice.org VBA story.

First, anything to do with Novell while it is engaged in its pact with the devil seems dodgy to me; and secondly, it is well-known that VBA is essentially a toolkit for security problems. Yes, it will be possible to turn it off, but frankly, it seems a bit perverse to aim for full compatibility with even the really dangerous bits of Microsoft Office. (Via heise online.)

Zlango! - Mind Your Language

I have mixed feelings about constructed languages. On the one hand, efforts like Esperanto seem utterly pointless to me: given that there several thousand real languages out there, some of which are quite widely spoken, why bother learning one that is made-up? On the other hand, efforts like Lojban are certainly interesting from an intellectual point of view.

My initial reaction to Zlango veered between these two extremes.

Zlango has created a new, inspiring icon based language which transforms web and mobile messaging into an expressive, juicy, colorful icon-based experience.

Zlango is a revolutionary, simple and practical language. It’s made up of over 200 icons divided into intuitive and memorable categories. Words, concepts or feelings can be expressed by the different icons.

Users love Zlango. They find Zlango easy to learn and master, and find that learning the language is unbelievably fast and amusing. They also say that using Zlango always generates a good and playful mood.

At first sight, this sounds pretty trivial. But the results are interesting. They show how very simple means can be adopted to communicate, albeit with an Indo-European bias, both in terms of structure and as far as the signs are concerned.

Of course, many will see this as further evidence of a "dumbing down" of language, brought about technology. But potentially Zlango could evolve in all sorts of interesting ways, particularly if its users are allowed to innovate and determine how new symbols should be added. In other words, Zlango needs to embrace standard Web 2.0 practices if it is to move beyond its relatively lowly beginnings. (Via TechCrunch.)

Flogging a Dead Horse

I'm not sure this is going to make much difference, but it's interesting that they're trying:

Hotels, restaurants and online shops that post glowing reviews about themselves under false identities could face criminal prosecution under new rules that come into force next year.

Businesses which write fake blog entries or create whole websites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from “falsely representing oneself as a consumer”.

I rather like the name "flogs" for fake blogs - it seems appropriate.

La Seconde Vie, Das Zweite Leben

Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.

To say nothing of Second Life. And here are some juicy ones (as an Excel workbook, alas, but it opens perfectly well in OpenOffice.org.). Here's one in particular I found significant:

Active % of residents in the top 100 countries

United States 31.19%
France 12.73%
Germany 10.46%
United Kingdom 8.09%
Netherlands 6.55%
Spain 3.83%

That is, Europeans already outnumber Americans in Second Life (and I'm sure that Europeans will soon be outnumbered by those from the rest of the world soon).

Not Your Average Smith: Updated

As someone who spends a lot of time wandering around the free software world, I am still constantly amazed to happen upon interesting projects that I'd managed to overlook. A case in point is the splendidly-named Smith:

Smith is a freeware, cross-platform ColdFusion engine, written entirely in Java. Running on the top of Java Runtime Environment and Java Servlet Container, it can be virtually deployed on any operating system and work with any web server. Smith represents lightweight, yet reliable alternative to the existing ColdFusion servers.

For younger readers, who may not have come across ColdFusion, it was once (during those far-off Web 1.0 days) one of the most popular ways of putting together database-driven Web sites. It's now owned by Adobe. I'd not recommend it to anyone of delicate disposition, but it's nonetheless good to know that should you be so minded, you can now use a free version.

Update: Eagle-eyed readers (below - for which thanks) have pointed out that this is freeware, not free software. Apparently

It is also being seriously considered to open-source it.

OK, so consider this a post from a possible future: if and when Smith is open-sourced, it will be all the things I mentioned. Until then, please ignore this post and forgive my lapse.

09 February 2007

O Rose, Thou Art Sick!

Further proof, if any were needed, that we haven't really got the hang of this water thing:

The total amount of water used to produce and deliver one bottle of imported water is 6.74kg (5kg + 20g + 1kg + 720g)! And the amount of GHGs released amount to 250g (93g + 4.3g + 153g), or 0.25kg, or 0.00025 tons.

(Via Digg.)

Fleury Flies the Nest

Marc Fleury has been one of the more, er, colourful characters in the open source world. The acquisition of his company JBoss by Red Hat never felt quite right (aside from the financial aspect), so it's no surprise to see the following announcement, pithy in the extreme:

Marc Fleury has decided to leave Red Hat to pursue other personal interests, such as teaching, research in biology, music and his family

At least they went beyond the usual "spend more time with his family".

I predict we'll be hearing more of the vocal M. Fleury - and that it won't be to do with his biological research.

Red in Tooth and Claw

More signs of desperation:

The European Commission has resisted efforts by Microsoft to make it abandon its report into open-source software, it was revealed this week. But the Commission was swayed into allowing a 10-day period for feedback before completing the report.

Harnessing the opportunity to provide feedback, Microsoft produced 25 pages of arguments as to why the report — which quantified the benefits of open source to European organisations — should be shelved. The software giant also commissioned a respected university academic to back its case and enlisted the help of a trade association, CompTIA. The academic produced 45 pages of evidence supporting Microsoft's case, while CompTIA wrote a 40-page submission.

Worth reading are both Rishab Ghosh's comments on the whole shenigans, and the letter to the European Commission from the Initiative for Software Choice. And yes, those tell-tale weasel-words "software choice" do indeed mean that this is an organisation partly funded by Microsoft to do down free software at every opportunity under the guise of "balance", "choice" and - supreme irony - "freedom".

Microsoft's "officelabs": Damp Squib in Waiting?

Given that her sources are normally impeccable, what Mary Jo Foley has heard about Microsoft's new "officelabs" is likely to be correct:

Tipsters say that Microsoft is encouraging the officelabs team to make use of open-source concepts in order to make better use of developers across different divisions within the company. Don't be limited by organizational hierarchy. Release fixes more quickly. Get new innovations into the hands of testers and users before they've been tested ad nauseum, to help build excitement for products — instead of waiting for orchestrated mega-launches like the Vista/Office 2007 one that finally happened at the end of January.

This is an inevitable development, for all the reasons I wittered on about before. You just can't write today's software - let alone tomorrow's - using yesterday's development methodologies.

But that doesn't mean that officelabs is the answer to Microsoft's prayers. Open source isn't just about getting "new innovations into the hands of testers and users before they've been tested ad nauseum" it's about engaging users - and giving, not selling, to them. In particular, you've got to give them the code.

There's money enough to be made from satisfying users' needs in ways other flogging software, but unless Microsoft learns to let go as well as to loosen up, I expect officelabs to be as much of a damp squib as its earlier pseudo-open source efforts like Shared Source.

The Man Who Would Not Compromise

Here's another journalist who has discovered RMS's impressive rigour when it comes to free software:

But once I notified Richard Stallman of my desire to proceed in converting and uploading also the Ogg Theora video files he wrote back:

"Yes, that is the right solution.

In the mean time, please delete the clips from YouTube. They were never supposed to be posted on YouTube."

I felt bad again, immediately. I understood the man had ideals and principles that went beyond my interest to inform and share rare to find information.

Second Life Goes Mobile

Software firm Comverse Technology has created an application that runs Second Life on Java-enabled mobile phones, along with other software that allows integrated SMS and instant messaging and the streaming of mobile video directly in-world.

Interesting. Even though it remains to be seen how smoothly this works, I think avatars actually fit with mobile phones quite well. Implementing Second Life in this way means that you can use your mobile as a kind of portable controller for yourself in the virtual world. If Second Life (or something like it) really takes off, it's easy to imagine extra features being added to make this kind of thing even easier.

La Vida Es Sueño

For those who dismiss Second Life as "just a game" here's a thought:

The more interesting question is why people keep repeating "only a game" so much. If you google "only a game" and "Second Life" together, you get nearly 12,000 hits. It is like a mantra that people keep repeating to keep some thought or idea at bay - and I think the dangerous idea that Second Life shoves in your face every day is this: our wealth is virtual, our property is transient, and our social lives are mediated by technology, nomadic, and often fleeting. I think that when people keep saying "it's only a game" they are really saying "the rest of my world isn't like this: my wealth is tangible and permanent, my friendships are unmediated and also permanent." Saying "it's only a game" is like saying "this isn't how things really are, this is just a bad dream." People need to pinch themselves, because this ain't no dream. This is reality; deal with it.

(Via Terra Nova.)

08 February 2007

The Other OSS Stack

I've written before about the growing enterprise open source stack, which pieces together disparate software to form a complete enterprise solution. Now here's a rather different kind of stack:

Canonical Ltd, the lead sponsor of the popular Ubuntu operating system, and Linspire, Inc. the developer of the commercial desktop Linux operating system of the same name, today announced plans for a technology partnership that integrates core competencies from each company into the other's open source Linux offerings.

Linspire will transition from Debian to Ubuntu as the base for their Linspire and Freespire desktop operating systems. (http://www.linspire.com/OSblocks). This will mean that Linspire users will benefit from Ubuntu's fast moving development cycles and focus on usability. The Freespire community will start seeing early releases of Freespire 2.0 based on Ubuntu in the first quarter of 2007, with the final release expected in the 2nd quarter of 2007, following the official release of Ubuntu 7.04 in April.

What this means in practice, as this neat diagram shows, is that Freespire, upon which Linspire is based, will now use Ubuntu as its own base. Since that, in its turn, is based on Debian (which Linspire used previously), we now have a neat stack of distributions, moving from Debian through Ubuntu and Freespire to Linspire, which progressively add more features - and take off more freedom as they add more proprietary code in one form or another. (Via DesktopLinux.com.)

Seeing Things from a Different Perspective

I first saw Kurosawa's Rashomon about 25 years ago. That whole world of black-and-white Japanese films produced in the 50s, 60s and 70s really made a huge impact on me at the time. They certainly changed the way I viewed cinema, and as a knock-on effect the way I viewed the world (well, bits of it, at least). So discovering that Rashomon is not only available as a download, but is free and in the public domain, got me thinking.

I presume this gift is a result of copyrights expiring - it was released in 1950 (that's one benefit of watching the classics). Which maybe means that plenty of other great films could be made available in this way (Mizoguchi, please, please, please). But imagine if even more recent films were available - think of the impact this would have people's understanding of the medium, and their view of it.

It's practically impossible to see these works nowadays, and pretty difficult even to buy them (Mizoguchi in particular seems badly served). Presumably this is because there's not much demand for such works. Which means, of course, that the copyright owners, whoever they are, would lose practically nothing if they released them now. Indeed, if they released them in a format suitable for downloading and viewing on PCs - that is, not super-high quality - they would probably start selling high-quality DVDs rather well.

Which rather puts copyright terms, to say nothing of extending them, in a different perspective. (Via Open the Future.)

Indonesia Hoards Bird 'Flu "Intellectual Property"

You had any doubts about whether intellectual monopolies were a good thing? Try this:

Indonesia is refusing to provide bird flu samples to other countries, companies and the World Health Organisation. Scientists and the WHO have expressed serious concerns about the ban, which they say hampers efforts to avoid a pandemic.

The move could set a precedent for international efforts to control the spread of viruses. Until now, countries have shared virus samples with the WHO, which then provides them to vaccine manufacturers.

In a highly unusual display of patriotism, the Health Minister, Siti Fadillah Supari, claimed Indonesia "owns" the bird flu strain which has spread across the nation, infecting tens of millions of chickens and killing at least 63 people.

Yesterday's announcement of a deal with the pharmaceutical company Baxter comes shortly after Indonesia condemned an Australian research breakthrough that could result in the production of a vaccine within months.

So as the cytokine storm kicks in, and you slowly drown in the fluid that was your lungs, hold on to this comforting thought: you and those you love may die, but the sacred IP virus will live on. (Via Technocrat.)

Pipe Dream: Re-wiring the Net

The online world is awash with XML feeds. The great thing about XML is that you can grab it and do stuff with it very easily, because it's basically a structured text file. For example, you can feed one XML stream into another, combine them, and keep on piping them around. A bit like Unix pipes.

Hey, now that's an idea:

Pipes is a hosted service that lets you remix feeds and create new data mashups in a visual programming environment. The name of the service pays tribute to Unix pipes, which let programmers do astonishingly clever things by making it easy to chain simple utilities together on the command line.

What's particularly cool about this new service is the graphical approach, which looks a lot like programming flowcharts. The currently-available pipes are rather limited at the moment - this is still very new - but it's not hard to imagine some very rich stuff coming out of this. Bravo Yahoo. (Via GigaOM.)

Of Continuous Improvement and Open Source

Hal Varian is one of the wisest - and oldest - commentators on Internet economics. he has a nice piece in the New York Times that looks at "continuous improvement":

What’s the difference between Vista and Google? There is no feasible way for Microsoft to experiment with Vista in real time; but it is very easy for Google to conduct controlled experiments and do so more or less continuously.

The same is obviously true for open source software: people can try out all kinds of variants before settling on the main code branch. And things don't need to be co-ordinated: hackers can just release the code and let it compete against other versions.

07 February 2007

Yoga, Ayurveda and Open Source

Knopper's comments, noted below, were made during a talk at the Open Source conference, LinuxAsia 2007, in New Delhi, where Venkatesh Hariharan, Head of Open Source Affairs at RedHat, drew comparisons between open source and India's rich cultural heritage:

"Yoga and Ayurveda, which are perhaps the largest knowledge pools, have traditionally been 'open source'," he said, "and yet it is a US$30 billion industry in the US alone. Open source is not opposed to commercial gains, it is opposed to ownership and limiting of knowledge and resources."

The Gospel According to St. Klaus

Klaus Knopper, the man behind the trailblazing Knoppix live distro, is brave enough to offer some thoughts on computing in the long term:

If proprietary software continues to dominate, within 10 years no one will be able to store any file and even view their own content without first paying a service provider to see it and the PC as we know it will be gone within 30 years.

The Biter Bit

This is why I just love it when Microsoft gets on its high horse about "piracy":

Schools in the Perm region will soon quit buying software from commercial companies, said the region’s Education Minister Nikolay Karpushin. The announcement was made in line with the report on ensuring “license purity” in the region’s schools.

According to Nikolay Karpushin schools would start using freely distributed software like the Linux OS, Russky office and Open office desktop apps, Ekho Moskvi reports. “Buying business and commercial programmes from producers is quite expensive”, the Minister said.


Nikolay Karpushin’s statement on the software license control in the region’s schools coincided with a scandalous court case against a Sepich school principal. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Vereshagino district has initiated a criminal case of copyright infringement against a school principal, Alexander Ponosov. The man is accused of illegal use of Microsoft products which resulted in a 260 thousand rubles ($9,8 thousand) damage for the company.

(Via The Inq.)

Sun Shines Again

Further to my general encomium on Sun, here's more good news:

Sun Microsystems... today announced the upcoming availability of the StarOffice 8 Conversion Technology Preview plug-in application for Microsoft Office 2003. The early access version of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) plug-in, available as a free download, will allow seamless two-way conversion of Microsoft Office documents to ODF.


The StarOffice 8 Conversion Technology Preview is primarily based on the OpenOffice.org platform, the open-source office productivity suite developed by the OpenOffice.org community including the founder and main contributor Sun Microsystems. Sun offers distributions and configurations of and support for OpenOffice.org under the StarOffice brand. The initial plug-in application will support the conversion of text documents (.doc/.odt) only, but full support of spreadsheet and presentation documents is expected in April. The conversion is absolutely transparent to the user and the additional memory footprint is minimal.

This is particularly welcome since there are already noises that Microsoft's ODF plugin for Word is not as faithful in the translation process as might be desired.

And if that isn't enough, here's news that an OS/2 port of OpenOffice.org 2.0 is nearing completion. What more do you want? (Both via Erwin Tenhumberg.)

Give The RIAA Enough Network Cabling...

...and it will hang itself.

One of the under-appreciated benefits of a medium like Web publishing that has practically no barriers to entry is that anybody can post anything - and does. These might be veritable gems - or utter, own-foot-shooting howlers that in some respect are even more precious than said jewels.

For example:

Between 1983 and 1996, the average price of a CD fell by more than 40%. Over this same period of time, consumer prices (measured by the Consumer Price Index, or CPI) rose nearly 60%. If CD prices had risen at the same rate as consumer prices over this period, the average retail price of a CD in 1996 would have been $33.86 instead of $12.75.

Only the RIAA.

Windows: Rat's Nest and Dog's Breakfast

As Edward Tufte has explained far more eloquently than I can, images are able to convey information far more compactly and efficiently than words. So you don't have to be a geek to appreciate the two images in this posting:

Both images are a complete map of the system calls that occur when a web server serves up a single page of html with a single picture. The same page and picture.

Well, not quite. The upper picture shows Apache running on GNU/Linux; the lower, IIS running on Windows. The former looks like a motherboard: complicated but orderly; the latter is simply a rat's nest.

As the post says:

A system call is an opportunity to address memory. A hacker investigates each memory access to see if it is vulnerable to a buffer overflow attack. The developer must do QA on each of these entry points. The more system calls, the greater potential for vulnerability, the more effort needed to create secure applications.

Now, some have criticised this on the grounds that people don't attempt to attack systems through static Web pages. This is true, but the point is, if this is the difference for a simple operation like displaying a Web page, imagine the contrast for more complex tasks. It is precisely those tasks that offer the greatest scope for finding weaknesses. Thus the images in the post above offer a graphic, if not literal, representation of the dog's breakfast that is Windows security. (Via Slashdot.)