27 February 2009

How to Hijack an EU Open Source Strategy Paper

Open source is an outsider, not part of the establishment. One price it pays for this is not being privy to all the decisions that are made in the field of governmental policy. Too often, established players are involved without any counterbalancing input from the free software side. Generally, we don't see all the machinations and deals that go on here behind closed doors. But thanks to the increasingly-indispensable Wikileaks, we have the opportunity to observe how an organisation close to Microsoft is attempting to re-write – and hijack – an important European Union open source strategy paper.

On Linux Journal.

This isn't “Open Source”

As a kind of pint-sized free software fidei defensor I feel obliged to counter some of the misconceptions that are put about on the subject around the Web. But I find myself in a slightly embarrassing situation here, in that I need to comment on some statements that have appeared in the virtual pages of Computerworld UK....

On Open Enterprise blog.

25 February 2009

Has Microsoft's Patent War Against Linux Begun?

It's been in the air for ages, and now it's happening:

Microsoft filed suit against TomTom today, alleging that the in-car navigation company's devices violate eight of its patents -- including three that relate to TomTom's implementation of the Linux kernel.


Five of the patents in dispute relate to in-car navigation technologies, while the other three involve file-management techniques.

Presumably those are the three that relate to Linux, in which case this is likely to have broader implications than just the in-car navigation market.

Here's a nice statement of how Microsoft views all this:

"Microsoft respects and appreciates the important role that open-source software plays in our industry and we respect and appreciate the passion and the great contribution that open-source developers make in our industry," Gutierrez said. He said that respect and appreciation is "not inconsistent with our respect for intellectual-property rights."

In other words, Microsoft "respects and appreciates" open source until it actually starts to replace Microsoft's offerings, in which case the charming smile is replaced with the shark's grimace.

It may not be a coincidence that Gutierrez has just been promoted to the rank of corporate vice president: could this legal action be his way of announcing the direction he and Microsoft will now take in the battle against Linux?

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

ID Card Database *Already* Breached

That's almost before it's come into existence:

The breaches of the Customer Information System (CIS), which is run by the Department of Work and Pensions, were revealed in a DWP memo to housing benefit and council tax benefit staff on 15 January.

CIS is designed to give local authorities access to citizens' data, including HMRC tax-credit information. In 2006, it was decided that the ID card project would use CIS for biographical information, to avoid having to create a new, monolithic database of the UK's inhabitants.

In the DWP memo, the government department said that desktop access to CIS had helped to "significantly improve service delivery" to citizens, but noted that a series of checks had identified that some local-authority staff were committing serious security breaches using the system.

What makes it even more risible is the following comment:

"The breaches were not necessarily someone purposely going on there and checking something they shouldn't," the DWP spokesperson said. "They could be inadvertently clicking on information."

Yes, that will be a good excuse, won't it: honest guv, I just inadvertently clicked on Gordon Brown's ID card information....

And then, of course, there is the canonical "white is black", "up is down", "bad is good" bit of spin:

The DWP's spokesperson did not respond to a request to describe how it might be possible to break these rules by inadvertently clicking on information in the CIS database, but did claim the number of breaches revealed in the memo showed the system was secure.

And presumably it will use the increasing number of breaches to prove the increasing security of the system in the future.

Open Sourcing America's Operating System

Carl Malamud is one of the leaders in the fight for access to public data, specifically that in the US:

For over 20 years, I have been publishing government information on the Internet. In 2008, Public.Resource.Org published over 32.4 million pages of primary legal materials, as well as thousands of hours of video and thousands of photographs. In the 1990s, I fought to place the databases of the United States on the Internet. In the 1980s, I fought to make the standards that govern our global Internet open standards available to all. Should I be honored to be nominated and confirmed, I would continue to work to preserve and extend our public domain, and would place special attention to our relationship with our customers, especially the United States Congress.

Now, in a campaign dubbed "Yes We Scan", he would like to take on the role of "Public Printer of the United States". Here's one of his key goals: making America's operating system open source:

The Federal Register system of publications represents many of the official publications of the executive branch. A large stream of other documents come from the legislative branch and judiciary, forming a collection of primary legal materials that make up “America’s Operating System,” the rules that govern our society. A goal of the new administration should be to make America’s Operating System open source, guaranteeing that a complete and current archive of all primary legal materials in the United States are freely available on the Internet. This goal is partly about democracy, allowing citizens to see the rules that govern our society, but America’s Operating System is also about innovation, guaranteeing that any scholar or entrepreneur can download our legal materials and develop new and more effective ways of presenting, practicing, communicating, and learning about the law.

How can they not give him the job?

A Little Marvell Plugs Sub-Netbook Gap

As I've been telling anyone who would listen, one of the key recent trends has been the "race to the bottom" in terms of pricing for computer systems. The only real winner here (aside from the end-user) is open source - proprietary systems cannot cut prices enough, and are rarely flexible enough to allow the kind of experimentation that is necessary at this end of the market.

Here's another great example of the kind of thing I have in mind:

Can a computer get any smaller and cheaper than a netbook? Marvell Technology Group Ltd. thinks so.

The Silicon Valley chip maker is trying to create a new category of inexpensive, energy-efficient devices it calls "plug computers," for which it would supply the integrated processors.

Strongly resembling those vacation timers that turn on your lights at night to ward off potential robbers, a plug computer is more of a home networking gadget that transforms external hard drives or USB thumb drives into full network-attached storage (NAS) devices.

Aside from the form-factor, the other thing of note is the expected price for these GNU/Linux-based systems:

Marvell has already announced a handful of other resellers that plan to build plug computers. But it hopes to attract far more, so that it can eventually price its SheevaPlug chips low enough for vendors to profitably sell plug computers for as little as $49, Mukhopadhyay said.

At first sight, it's not clear why anyone would want one of these extremely small computers; but at prices around $50 you can bet all kinds of unexpected uses will start popping up. It's not hard to imagine a day when a house or office is full of dozens of tiny, low-cost and low-energy GNU/Linux-based devices, all talking to each other and other systems across the Net. Juding be the speed at which netbooks have caught on, it's probably closer than we think.

Dwindling the Kindle Swindle

Here's someone writing in the New York Times about the Kindle's text-to-speech function:

You may be thinking that no automated read-aloud function can compete with the dulcet resonance of Jim Dale reading “Harry Potter” or of authors, ahem, reading themselves. But the voices of Kindle 2 are quite listenable.

Well, yes, that's precisely what I was thinking. But I'm willing to go along with the point.

However, consider this: if people start using the function, it suggests that they like listening to books. So maybe some of them would like to listen to the author, rather than the dulcet tones, and even prepared to pay a premium. A smaller number might even bestir themselves to go along to a book reading by that author. See? opportunities, not threats....

Open Source? Labour's Working on It

One of the great things about free software is that it transcends politics. Those on the left love it because it is a collaborative effort, born of altruism; those on the right love it because it is efficient and flexible. This has led to some interesting jockeying on the political scene, as politicians of all stripes have tried to prove that they were more open than their rivals.

There's no doubt that in the UK the winners so far have been the Conservatives, who have seized on open source as a stick with which to beat the current government's miserable record on large-scale IT projects, most of which have been way over budget at best, and utter failures at worst (with some managing both). This has understandably put pressure on Labour to come up with a riposte, and yesterday it was unveiled in the form of something called “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan” (there's a handy version from WriteToReply here, where you can add your comments.

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 February 2009

The Chinese (Web Servers) Are Coming

The monthly release of the Netcraft survey is always good, since it generally shows the continuing dominance of Apache in the Web server field. But this month has something new and vaguely frightening:

In the February 2009 survey we received responses from 215,675,903 sites. This reflects a phenomenal monthly gain of more than 30 million sites, bringing the total up by more than 16%.

This majority of this month's growth is down to the appearance of 20 million Chinese sites served by QZHTTP. This web server is used by QQ to serve millions of Qzone sites beneath the qq.com domain.

QQ is already well known for providing the most widely used instant messenger client in China, but this month's inclusion of the Qzone blogging service instantly makes the company the largest blog site provider in the survey, surpassing the likes of Windows Live Spaces, Blogger and MySpace.

Got that? QQ's server QZHTTP just put on 20 million sites in the survey - enough seriously to dent both Apache and IIS (and making the latter look suddenly vulnerable to losing its second place).

Does this represent the dawn of a new (Web server) era?

What makes this all slightly troubling is that I don't know anything about QZHTTP: I presume it's not open souce, since I can't find any links to its code. But can anyone give me any more details, please? (Via @codfather.)

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

Open Enterprise Interview: Bertrand Diard, Talend CEO

If open source did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it, if only to deal with the ragbag collection of data formats out there.

For open source has a unique flexibility and extensibility not generally available to proprietary programs, which allows it to cope with most applications and situations. This makes it ideal as a kind of software “glue” for stitching together pre-existing computer systems, which were created in an ad-hoc way with little thought of any eventual need to make them talk efficiently to each other.

This powerful feature of open source was pretty much the driving force behind the creation of the data integration company Talend. Here its cofounder and CEO, Bertrand Diard, talks eloquently about the genesis of his company, open source's unique advantages in this sphere, the state of free software in his native France, and just why Talend decided to snuggle up to Microsoft last year...

On Open Enterprise blog.

EndSoftwarePatents.org Phase II

There's no doubt that more and more scrutiny is being applied to patents around the world, with particularly hopeful moves in the US in the wake of the Bilski judgment. So it's a wise move on the FSF's part to turn up the pressure with their EndSoftwarePatents.org campaign:

The Free Software Foundation today announced funding for the End Software Patents project to document the case for ending software patents worldwide. This catalog of studies, economic arguments, and legal analyses will build on the recent success of the "in re Bilski" court ruling, in which End Software Patents (ESP) helped play a key role in narrowing the scope for patenting software ideas in the USA.

For this new phase of End Software Patents work, the FSF has engaged veteran anti-software-patent lobbyist Ciaran O'Riordan, taking over from Ben Klemens as director of ESP. O'Riordan brings years of experience campaigning against software patents in the EU. This knowledge, combined with what was learned during the Bilski work, will form the starting point for a global information resource and campaign. The goal is to make it easy for activists around the world to benefit from existing knowledge, often scattered and sometimes disappearing with time.

That's absolutely right: one of the great things about work trying to claw back some of the ground lost to intellectual monopolies is that it all feeds into itself. The more info you have, the easier it is to build the case with further research and campaigns.

As O'Riordan explains:

"Each campaign raises new evidence and arguments for the case against software patents. The work on the Bilski case uncovered new economic studies and developed legal proposals for how to pin down the slippery goal of excluding software ideas from patentability. To make the most of that work, Phase II of ESP will work on documenting and organizing that information and making it easily reusable. We'll add to that what was learned during the years-long campaign against the EU software patents directive, and then we'll research and document what's happening in South Africa, India, New Zealand, Brazil, and so forth."

Here's to Phase III: victory.

He Wants a Million Quid? Don't Give it to Him

Tom Steinberg has a simple request: he wants a million quid.

If you want to know how I think mySociety could change the world, this is your answer. I don’t want a million quid because I want some sort of open source empire: I want a million quid because we can’t cross this chasm with any less.

I don't think we should give him a million quid; I think we should give him a *ten* million - OK, make it a hundred million - plus the job of overseeing the opening up government in this country to such an extent that its buttons start popping.

Oh, and as another precondition for the dosh, could he kindly respond to my Twitter request to follow him (not that I'm bitter).

After all, it's not a question of how much that would cost, but how much it is costing us - economically, politically and socially - by *not* doing it.

ChinesePod Gives Me a Reason to Go Android

Hm, this looks like a good excuse to get an Android phone soon:

A big part of ‘learning on your terms’ is not being tied down to sitting in front of a computer in order to learn. Learning should adjust to your lifestyle and not the other way around. The ability to download podcasts and take them on-the-go was a big step in this direction, and today we add another - a ‘Quick Review’ application for Google Android-powered phones.


The ChinesePod Quick Review App is an integrated Chinese dictionary and flashcard system designed for ‘fast launch and short use’. We will be following up with another more full-featured app in the future. The App has four main sections: dictionary, flashcards, settings and history.

Interesting that the iPhone version is still held up in administrative limbo....

CK-12 Foundation Re-invents Textbooks

It's no surprise that textbooks are being radically re-invented - after all, in the past they have been hideously expensive, which means that they were an obstacle to learning rather than the contrary. Nonetheless, it's heartening to see more and more ventures attempt to do textbooks properly. Here's another:

CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in January 2007. Our mission is to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide, but also to empower teacher practitioners by generating or adapting content relevant to their local context. Using a collaborative and web-based compilation model that can manifest open resource content as an adaptive textbook, termed the "FlexBook", CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality, locally and temporally relevant, educational web texts. The content generated by CK-12 and the CK-12 community will serve both as source material for a student's learning and provide an adaptive environment that scaffolds the learner's journey as he or she masters a standards-based body of knowledge, while allowing for passion-based learning.

As this makes clear, crucial elements include Net-based collaboration to produce open content that is "adaptive" to students' and teachers' needs. This is clearly the future of textbooks, and any company still banking on selling dead content on dead trees is likely to end up just as moribund.

The True Begetter of Innovation is Openness

One of the persistent myths peddled by lovers of intellectual monopolies is that you need things like patents to promote innovation. The idea is that patents encourage new research, which then feeds into more research, and the world is a better place.

Not so, according to some rigorous new research into the effects of intellectual monopolies on science:

Scientific freedom and openness are hallmarks of academia: relative to their counterparts in industry, academics maintain discretion over their research agenda and allow others to build on their discoveries. This paper examines the relationship between openness and freedom, building on recent models emphasizing that, from an economic perspective, freedom is the granting of control rights to researchers. Within this framework, openness of upstream research does not simply encourage higher levels of downstream exploitation. It also raises the incentives for additional upstream research by encouraging the establishment of entirely new research directions. In other words, within academia, restrictions on scientific openness (such as those created by formal intellectual property (IP)) may limit the diversity and experimentation of basic research itself. We test this hypothesis by examining a “natural experiment” in openness within the academic community: NIH agreements during the late 1990s that circumscribed IP restrictions for academics regarding certain genetically engineered mice. Using a sample of engineered mice that are linked to specific scientific papers (some affected by the NIH agreements and some not), we implement a differences-in-differences estimator to evaluate how the level and type of follow-on research using these mice changes after the NIH-induced increase in openness. We find a significant increase in the level of follow-on research. Moreover, this increase is driven by a substantial increase in the rate of exploration of more diverse research paths. Overall, our findings highlight a neglected cost of IP: reductions in the diversity of experimentation that follows from a single idea.

This work basically shows that recent attempts to introduce intellectual monopolies into science in order to "promote innovation" have actually been counter-productive.

our results offer direct evidence that scientific openness seems to be associated with the establishment of entirely new research lines: more specifically, increased openness leads to a significant increase in the diversity of the journals in which mouse-articles in the treatment group are cited, and, perhaps even more strikingly, a very significant increase in the number of previously unused “keywords” describing the underlying research contributions of the citing articles.

In this context at least, it's openness that leads to more innovation, not its polar opposite. (Via Open Access News.)

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody

23 February 2009

Crowdsourcing Health Research

Although the post calls this "open source health research", it's more a matter of crowdsourcing, since it lacks many of the elements of open source - true collaboration (rather than massed effort), modular organisation (rather than loose collections of separate facts), etc. But it's interesting nonetheless:

There are definitely a lot of patient communities based on stories and support. But there are very few patient websites based on data. CureTogether is a data-driven site, bringing people with different conditions together to compare symptoms and treatments in a quantitative way.

Indeed: putting that data together in a way that is useful to researchers is an important task, even if not truly collaborative in the open source sense.

Dell *Does* Deliver (with Netbooks)

There's been a lot of sound and fury flying around about the split between GNU/Linux and Windows XP sales on netbooks, and what that means for the larger desktop sector. Some have used low figures for the former to suggest that GNU/Linux *still* stands no chance with the general public. But maybe what we need are more datapoints - ones like this, perhaps:

While MSI told us a few months back that Wind netbooks running SuSE Linux saw 4x higher return rates than that of XP machines, Dell has had quite the opposite experience with its Inspiron Mini 9 offering with Ubuntu. “A third of our Mini 9 mix is Linux, which is well above the standard attach rate for other systems that offer Linux. We have done a very good job explaining to folks what Linux is,” says Dell’s Jay Pinkert.

Dell attributes part of the Linux growth to competitive pricing on the Ubuntu SKUs. “When you look at the sweet spot for this category it is price sensitivity, and Linux enabled us to offer a lower price entry point,” added Dell senior product manager John New.

The key point here is that the manufacturer must make it clear what the customer is getting for the super-low price. Kudos to Dell that they seem to have managed that.

Oh, and could we please have less whining by other netbook manufacturers about their GNU/Linux sales, since it might well be your *own* fault, not that of free software...

Ubuntu is So Last Year: Here's Kongoni

Well, a groovy African name worked for Ubuntu, so maybe it will for Kongoni:

Named after the Shona word for the GNU, Kongoni has a strong BSD-Unix influence and includes a ports-like package management system. The underlying code is, however, based on Slackware and the makers are promising to keep the distribution free of proprietary software.


Technically, says Venter, Kongoni adopts a BSD ports-like approach to package management. “Ports represent a powerful way to distribute software as a set of tools that automatically fetch the sources of the program and then compile it locally,” he says. “This is more bandwidth friendly for users as source code is usually smaller than prebuilt packages. This benefit is particularly useful in Africa where bandwidth is expensive, and since Kongoni came from Africa this was a major concern.”


The core system includes a KDE 4.2 desktop as the default desktop manager but the system intended to be easy to remaster, says Venter. Users can easily build and replicate the system with their own preferred setups and desktops.

EU's Free Software Education Programme

Excellent news out of Europe:

A Consortium formed by three universities and led by the Free Knowledge Institute (FKI) has received the support from the EC's Lifelong Learning Programme to offer an international educational programme on Free Software. Following the Open Educational Resources movement, all learning materials will be freely available through the Internet. The use of Free Software (also referred to as Open Source software or Libre Software) is expanding rapidly in governmental and private organisations. However, still only a limited number of IT professionals, teachers and decision makers have sufficient knowledge and expertise in these new fields. In order to cover this gap, the Free Knowledge Institute and three European universities have founded the Free Technology Academy. The first course materials will be available after this summer.

I'd rather forgotten about the Free knowledge Institute. It's a spin-off of the Internet Society Netherlands, and apparently :

a non-profit organisation that fosters the free exchange of knowledge in all areas of society. Inspired by the Free Software movement, the FKI promotes freedom of use, modification, copying and distribution of knowledge in four different but highly related fields: education, technology, culture and science.

(Via Heise.)

Microsoft's "Enervate America" Programme

You got to hand it to Microsoft, they certainly know how to scavenge off dead and dying bodies:

Microsoft Corp. today announced a new initiative, Elevate America, which will provide up to 2 million people over the next three years with the technology training needed to succeed in the 21st-century economy.


“Millions of Americans don’t have the technology skills needed in today’s economy. Through Elevate America, we want to help workers get the skills they need to succeed,” Passman said. “We are also providing a full range of work force development resources for state and local governments so they can offer specialized training for their workers.”

And if you were wondering what "specialized training" meant:

A new online resource, located at http://www.microsoft.com/ElevateAmerica, is available today. This new Web site helps individuals understand what types of technical skills they need for the jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities of today and tomorrow, and resources to help acquire these skills. The Web site provides access to several Microsoft online training programs, including how to use the Internet, send e-mail and create a résumé, as well as more advanced programs on using specific Microsoft applications.

Bet there's not much Firefox, Thunderbird of OpenOffice.org in *there*.

It's a clever ploy, because it means that the state and local governments in the US don't have to pay to re-train workers made redundant. For Microsoft, of course, it's a brilliant way to turn people desperate to improve their financial situation into vectors of its threatened techno-orthdoxy.

Sadly, the net result is that people are being trained how to use 20th century technology for that 21st-century economy - more "Enervate America" than "Elevate America". For a telling contrast, just think of all those millions of young Brazilians who are growing up with a real understanding of what computers are about and for....

Nudging the NUJ Towards Bethlehem 2.0

Non-journos probably should avert their glances, but there is a cracking set of comments on this wonderful story from Adam Tinworth, blogger-in-chief at my old employer RBI, which concludes:

Nice to know that my union people associated with my union (self correcting in the interests of fairness), which I have been a member of for the last 15 years think that the journalistic field in which I work - blogging - is "effing blogs".

Like many of the people commenting, I too was once a member of the NUJ; I'm rather glad that I never went back judging by the extraordinary responses from a representative of that organisation to the original post (do read the whole thread if you can, it's highly entertaining.)

It contrasts nicely with the deft way that Anthony Gold responded to my critical article over on Open Enterprise, where he immediately offered to talk with me about the issues I raised (which turned into this interview). I emerged with enhanced respect for the man and the organisation he heads, since he did exactly what the NUJ representative did not: he addressed the issues I raised in a non-confrontational way.

Patently Not the Case

Professionals who work in the field of intellectual monopolies have a problem. Most of them are quite able to see there are serious problems with the system, but since their entire career has been built on it, they can hardly trash the whole thing. Instead, they not unreasonably try to come up with a "reasonable" compromise. Here's a good example:

how about a world in which there are fewer patents, but better ones — in the sense that they are more carefully examined, forced to comply more strictly both with legal criteria and market reality? That stricter compliance would make them more likely to be valid, in a world in which software inventions are under constant threat of being deemed retrospectively obvious, and useful to read.

But it's based on a false premise - that we actually *need* patents for business reasons:

Others praise patents, even for software applications. The patent protects investment that would not be directed at software development if that protection did not exist. The patent specification opens up inventions for everyone to read, thus enriching the state of the art and saving developers the need to reinvent the programmer's equivalent of the wheel.

This is patently untrue for the software world, which happily invested in software development for decades before software patent madness took over. Microsoft is actually a good example of a company that succeeded without feeling the need to try to patent its software, in the early days at least. And Bill Gates famously noted that the success of his company would actually have been impossible had software patents existed and been held by rival companies.

The second point is also manifestly untrue. Software patents are almost always totally generic - they do not "open up inventions for everyone to read": instead, they are written as opaquely as possible in the hope that they can be bent in court to apply to the most extreme situations. They do not "enrich the state of the art", because the whole purpose of gaining patents is to stop anyone using them for 20 years, by which time, technology has moved on so far that any content they originally had has been superseded.

There are simply *no* good reasons for software patents, and hence no justification for halfway houses, however reasonably framed, and however intelligent and reasonable the framer.

London Open Source Writers Meetup

As an experiment, @codepope and I have arranged to meet up as a possible kernel of open-sourcey writerish activity in London tonight. Anyone who writes - as a journalist, blogger, tweeter - and can make it is welcome, although I'm afraid PR on its own doesn't count (fine, if you do both).

We're aiming to meet for 6pm in one of the cafes at the Royal Festival Hall (allegedly furnished with Wifi), but first we'll hang around the entrance facing the Thames, on the main level. Any questions, contact me (glyn.moody@gmail or @glynmoody, or @codepope) before then.

See you there. Maybe.

Medvedev Confirms Free Software Support

Here's confirmation from the top that Russia is pushing ahead with its plans for introducing free software not just into its schools, but the entire domestic market:

Президент РФ так обозначил свою позицию по свободному ПО: «Ещё одна тема — это информационные технологии в социальной сфере. Сейчас нужно начинать массовое обучение школьных учителей новым технологиям. Мы, собственно, пытались это делать в рамках национального проекта. Наверное, кое-что удалось, но пока это только самое начало. Надо подумать и о том, чтобы двинуться дальше — к использованию отечественного свободного программного обеспечения. Я этой темой занимался, результаты у нас есть, мы подготовили уже свои программы, которые позволяют создать, по сути, продукт абсолютно качественный, на основе свободного программного обеспечения, но привязанный уже к нашим реалиям».

[via Google Translate: President of the Russian Federation as outlined its position on free software: «Another issue - this is information technology in the social sphere. We actually tried to do so as part of a national project. Probably something that succeeded, but for now this is just the beginning. We must consider that the next move - to the domestic free software. I dealt with this topic, the results we have, we have already prepared their programs, which allow to create, in essence, a product is qualitative, based on free software, but is already tied to our realities ».]

This is also worth noting:

Стоит также напомнить: недавно появлялось сообщение о том, что бюджет, выделенный в 2009 году для оснащения российских школ свободным ПО, оказался примерно втрое меньше ожидаемого (180-250 млн рублей против предполагаемых 650 млн).

[It is also worth recalling: appeared recently reported that the budget allocated in 2009 to equip Russian schools free software, was approximately three times less than expected (180-250 million rubles against the anticipated 650 million).]

What that means in practice is that there is less money, and so more incentive to use free software. But the bigger news is that Medvedev has confirmed the wider roll-out to the general domestic Russian market.

22 February 2009

Variations on an Open Source Theme

One of the most extraordinary - and under-recognised - developments in free software is the blossoming of specialist software applications.

Once, a common jibe was that the only programs available were for hackers. This made the appearance of the GIMP, an ambitious image manipulation program aiming to rival Photoshop, such an important milestone.

Since, then, of course, more and more programs have appeared for the most amazingly specialist areas. Here's another one:

Indiana University today announces the release of open source software to create a digital music library system. The software, called Variations, provides online access to streaming audio and scanned score images in support of teaching, learning, and research.

Variations enables institutions such as college and university libraries and music schools to digitize audio and score materials from their own collections, provide those materials to their students and faculty in an interactive online environment, and respect intellectual property rights.


This open source release of Variations complements IU’s earlier release of the open source Variations Audio Timeliner, which lets users identify relationships in passages of music, annotate their findings, and play back the results with simple point-and-click navigation. This tool is also included as a feature of the complete Variations system.

(Via DigitalKoans.)

Crowdsourcing an Astronomy Commons

This is a fab use of pooled images combined with automation:

Flickr hosts a wide range of beautiful images, but a new project built on top of Flickr's API only focuses on photos of the night sky from amateur astronomers. The Astrometry.net project constantly scans the Astrometry Flickr group for new images to catalog and to add to its open-source sky survey. At the same time, this project also provides a more direct service to the amateur astronomers, as it also analyzes each image and returns a high-quality description of the photo's contents.

The Astrometry group currently has over 400 members, and as Christoper Stumm, a member of the Astrometry.net team, told the Flickr Code blog, the back-end software uses geometric hashing to exactly pinpoint and describe the objects in the images. When you submit an image to the Flickr pool, the robot will not just respond with a comment that contains an exact description of what you see in the image, but it will also annotate the image automatically.

What I'd like to see is something similar for terrestrial images, to build up a huge mosaic of everything, everywhere.

18 February 2009

Radio Opendotdotdot...

...is off the airwaves for a couple of days. Back soon.

17 February 2009

Crowdsourcing the Heavens

Sounds sensible:

The Galaxy Zoo files contain almost a quarter of a million galaxies which have been imaged with a camera attached to a robotic telescope (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, no less). In order to understand how these galaxies — and our own — formed, we need your help to classify them according to their shapes — a task at which your brain is better than even the fastest computer.

More than 150,000 people have taken part in Galaxy Zoo so far, producing a wealth of valuable data and sending telescopes on Earth and in space chasing after their discoveries. Zoo 2 focuses on the nearest, brightest and most beautiful galaxies, so to begin exploring the Universe, click the ‘How To Take Part’ link above, or read ‘The Story So Far’ to find out what Galaxy Zoo has achieved to date.

It's ironic that the more data we produce, the more we need people to process it. And long may that be so.

The Kids Are Spot-on

Interesting figures from new research:

Marrakesh Records and Human Capital surveyed 1,000 15 to 24-year-olds highlighting not just how important music is to young people, but their changing attitudes to paying for content. 70 percent said they don't feel guilty for illegally downloading music from the internet. 61 percent feel they shouldn't have to pay for music. And around 43 percent of the music owned by this age group has not been paid for, increasing to 49 percent for the younger half of the group.

But the battle to get them to pay for music has not been lost entirely:

This age group felt £6.58 is a fair price for CD album, but that a downloaded album should be just £3.91 and a single 39p - almost half the price charged by Apple's iTunes Store.

Clearly, if the music industry wants to stand any chance of retaining people's willingness to pay for content, it had better move its prices down to this level pretty sharply. If they don't, it's not hard to predict what will happen the next time they carry out this research.

Adobe and Nokia Fund Open Screen Project

The Open Screen Project was set up in May 2008:

Partners in the Open Screen Project are working together to provide a consistent runtime environment for open web browsing and standalone applications — taking advantage of Adobe Flash Player and, in the future, Adobe AIR. This consistent runtime environment will remove barriers to publishing content and applications across desktops, mobile phones, televisions, and other consumer electronics.

Now, Adobe's AIR ain't open source, so I'm a bit sceptical of the "open" bit in the name of Open Screen Project, but AIR does, at least, run on GNU/Linux. I've been using the AIR-based TweetDeck on Ubuntu, and memory leaks aside, it just works.

The Open Screen Project has received a wad of dosh:

At the GSMA Mobile World Congress, Adobe Systems Incorporated (Nasdaq:ADBE) and Nokia Corporation (NYSE: NOK) today announced a $10 million Open Screen Project fund designed to help developers create applications and services for mobile, desktop and consumer electronics devices using the Adobe Flash® Platform. The new fund is a result of the Open Screen Project, an industry-wide initiative of more than 20 industry leaders set to enable a consistent experience for web browsing and standalone applications. Additional Open Screen Project partners are expected to join the fund in the future.

Apparently, AIR projects are also eligible, which is something.

Now, if they could just open source AIR, as they will probably have to if they want to see off the threat from Microsoft's Silverlight...

Lack of Open Access to Geodata Costing Lives?

Here's another great example of why we need open access to public data:

The refusal of the government in Victoria, Australia, to provide data for Google's bushfire map mashup limited its scope and highlighted glaring problems with Crown copyright provisions, the search giant's top Australian engineer said yesterday.


The search giant's search for data to plot fires on public lands--which are managed by the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment--produced an entirely different result. With no public feed of the fires' location and an explicit denial of permission to access its own internal data, the engineers were ultimately unable to plot that data on the map as well.

It's not hard to imagine that such mashups, provided in a timely fashion, could have saved lives, either directly or indirectly. It's a perfect examaple of why governments have a duty to share such basic data as widely as possible.

Ubuntu Edges Further into the Data Centre

Everybody knows that Ubuntu is the most popular GNU/Linux distro for the desktop. Everybody knows that it has achieved that distinction be concentrating on that sector, unlike Red Hat, say, which is aiming at the corporate market. Everybody knows these things, and everybody is wrong. Because, very cunningly, Ubuntu is trying a tricky strategy: to insinuate itself into the highly-profitable corporate sector without losing its cachet as the user-friendly distro for newbies....

On Open Enterprise blog.

16 February 2009

BBC and Microsoft: Joined at the Hip?

Not another one?

Microsoft's UK online services group GM Sharon Baylay is becoming the BBC's director of marketing, comms and audiences, succeeding Tim Davie, who became audio and music director last year.

Why doesn't Microsoft just take over the BBC and be done with it?

Sketchory: Sharing CC Drawings

It's hard enough working out what collaboration might mean with words, but even it's even worse with images. This probably explains why there aren't that many sites out there exploring the idea. Happily, here's one that's just opened its virtual doors, and it looks promising:

Drawings at Sketchory.com can be freely shared by keeping to this Creative Commons license (which includes commercial use but requires attribution, among other things) with the additional prerequisite that you don't share over 1000 sketches.

Below every sketch, you'll also find an embed code you can use. Please note we cannot promise to keep pics up forever, and may also remove certain images sometimes, or change images or image content (like the watermark).

What's really remarkable is the scale: there are currently *250,000* drawings on Sketchory. (Via Google Blogoscoped.)

Open Enterprise Interview: Brian Reale, Colosa CEO

Bolivia is not a county you might associate with free software, but one of the advantages of open source is that it can be created anywhere, drawing on the support of users around the world. Aside from Linus, one person who has proved that to be the case is Brian Reale. He's the founder of Colosa, an open source company based in Bolivia's capital, La Paz.

On Open Enterprise blog.

EU Puts "Three Strikes" on Ice

Here's a turn-up for the books:

The European Commission is set to put proposals to tackle online piracy on ice until the end of its current mandate, following heavy pressure from telecoms companies and consumer organisations alike, EurActiv has learned.

The EU executive had been expected to bring forward two initiatives in the first half of 2009, both of which could have forced a more restrictive EU-wide approach to free and illegal downloading.

The most ancipated measure was a follow-up to a Communicationexternal on online content, presented at the beginning of 2008, which hinted at restrictive measures to curb online piracy. Proposals included a mandate for Internet service providers (ISPs) "to suspend or cut access to the web for those who illegally file-share," the so-called three-step model proposed by France (EurActiv 10/12/07).

That's surprising, but what's really striking is the reason for this pause:

Brussels had planned to present actual proposals in the form of a recommendation in April. But now the plan has been frozen "after a radicalisation of the debate which has left no space for manoeuvre," a Commission official told EurActiv, referring to strong lobbying by the content industry (in particular music), supported mainly by France, in negotiations over the telecoms package.

"There will be no recommendation. The Commission will only later present issue papers," which may be used by the next Commission after it is sworn in at the end of 2009 or in 2010, explained Martin Selmayr, spokesman for Viviane Reding, the EU's information society commissioner.
This suggests the increasingly outrageous demans from the content industries have been their own undoing. Perhaps the era in which lobbyists can dictate legislation at will is finally coming to a close.

But we're not in the clear yet:

Consumers can rejoice too, although restrictive measures at national level are planned in many EU countries. Meanwhile, a new EU-wide attempt to regulate may be made during the current negotiations over the telecoms package, where the Council and the Parliament have the final say.

The fight goes on.

13 February 2009

UK Sticks with 70 Years for Music Copyright

Cold comfort, but the UK government is being more sensible than most others on the sound copyright extension:

David Lammy, the U.K. minister of state for intellectual property, has reaffirmed the British government's position on term extension by refusing to accept the European Parliament's legal affairs committee ruling on a 95-year copyright term for music recordings.


In a statement, Lammy effectively reiterated that support for a 70-year term for music recordings. The European ruling will ultimately be voted on by the Council of Ministers, in which Germany and France are supporters of the 95-year term.

So a certain amount of kudos is due. But not much.

Leak of Classified ACTA Dox Reveals Dissent

There's a battle going on for the soul of ACTA, and Knowledge Ecology International has a leaked document that spells it out:

Classified negotiating proposals for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) obtained by Knowledge Ecology International and examined by Inside U.S. Trade reveal wrangling between Japan, the United States, European Union, Australia and Canada over issues of civil and criminal enforcement and how to apply border measures against infringing products.

The post contains the full details of what is known, but the following sections are of particular interest for EU citizens:

The section on empowering authorities to order infringers to provide information on other persons involved in their activities also appears in the Korea FTA and ACTA draft. In the document, the EU seeks to add language that would limit this provision so that it conforms with national laws such as those on personal data privacy.


In this section, the EU has sought a provision specifically designed to exclude non-commercial items in personal baggage, from the scope of the ACTA border measures. U.S. officials have said that the agreement would not lead to wholesale raids on laptops and iPods at airports, but the EU appears to be trying to make sure this is the case in this section.

If true, these are to the credit of the EU delegation, which is clearly trying to limit at least some of the most damaging aspects of ACTA. But other areas remain a concern:

The documents do not detail the subsection on Internet measures and these are known to be among the most controversial provisions.


Criminal trafficking in labels is defined as occurring even in the absence of willful piracy.

Which would seem to capture P2P sharing.

Although much remains shrouded in secrecy, it's good news that at least a little light is being shed on what is clearly a hugely important treaty. The fact that participants are still trying to negotiate it in secrecy so as to present a fait accompli is nothing short of scandalous.

How Openness Can Regulate the Real World

Yes, even the really messy bits:

Participatory regulation is arguably the best way to surface and defeat corruption in government and industry. I’ve highlighted a range of impressive efforts below. They range from Transparency International’s more top-down survey and index approach to the bottom-up Wikileaks site where anybody can post documents that uncover instances of corruption.

The post explores several examples: Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index; The Kimberley Process (KP) - a joint government-industry-civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds; and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which is "similar in intent to TI’s bribe payer’s index — it also aims to strengthen governance by improving transparency and accountability in the extractives sector" (apparently the "extractive industries" refer to mining, oil, gas and similar companies).

What's really noteworthy here is that openness is being used to make a difference not in airy-fairy realms of genteel, abstract concerns, but in some of the most brutal, real-world contexts imaginable. Who knows, it might even work for something as corrupt as the British political system.

Update: Simon Phipps has pointed out the new Stimulus Watch, which works on similar principles.

Open Proofs

The problem:

The world depends on having secure, accurate, and reliable software - but most software isn't. In some circumstances we need "high confidence" (aka "high assurance") software built on top of verified software. Verified software, in this context, is software that has been proved to have or not have some property using formal methods (formal methods apply mathematical techniques to prove properties of software). Yet developing verified software is currently very difficult to do, or improve on, because there are few fully-public examples of verified software. Verified software is often highly classified, sensitive, and/or proprietary. This lack of detailed examples impedes progress by software developers, tool developers, users, teachers, and even current practitioners.

Unlike a mathematical proof, software normally undergoes change due to changing conditions and needs. So just publishing unchangeable software, with an unchangeable proof, isn't enough. Instead, we need a number of "open proofs".

The solution:

"Open proofs" solve the problem by releasing implementation, proofs, and tools as FLOSS. With such rights, developers can build on the examples to build larger works, teachers and students can use the examples for learning and research, users can verify that the proof is valid, and tool suppliers can use real examples to improve tools. Both realistic examples (for building on and tool development) and small examples (for teaching) are needed.

Not all systems need to be revealed to the public, but we need public examples as "seed corn" to develop more verified software. To be high assurance, such software would need to come with some automated test suite, but that isn't a strict requirement to be an open proof.

Open proofs do not solve every possible problem, of course. For example: (1) the formal specification might be wrong or incomplete for its purpose; (2) the tools might be incorrect; (3) one or more assumptions might be wrong. But they would still be a big improvement from where we are today. Many formal method approaches have historically not scaled up to larger programs, but open proofs may help counter that by enabling tool developers to work with others.

Firefox (In)Security Update Dynamics Exposed

One of the great things about Firefox is its automatic update scheme. Here's some interesting research on the subject:

Although there is an increasing trend for attacks against popular Web browsers, only little is known about the actual patch level of daily used Web browsers on a global scale. We conjecture that users in large part do not actually patch their Web browsers based on recommendations, perceived threats, or any security warnings. Based on HTTP useragent header information stored in anonymized logs from Google's web servers, we measured the patch dynamics of about 75% of the world's Internet users for over a year. Our focus was on the Web browsers Firefox and Opera. We found that the patch level achieved is mainly determined by the ergonomics and default settings of built-in auto-update mechanisms. Firefox' auto-update is very effective: most users installed a new version within three days. However, the maximum share of the latest, most secure version never exceeded 80% for Firefox users and 46% for Opera users at any day in 2007. This makes about 50 million Firefox users with outdated browsers an easy target for attacks. Our study is the result of the first global scale measurement of the patch dynamics of a popular browser.

What's interesting, too, is that this was research done using data drawn from Google: there must be a lot of really useful info there to be mined - suitably anonymised, of course. (Via Bruce Schneier.)

What Mozilla's Bespin Bespeaks

One of the most interesting developments in the open source world is the way that Mozilla has changed in recent years. What started out as a (slightly shambolic) attempt to hack a decent browser out of the wreckage of the Netscape Communicator code, has turned into arguably one of the two or three most important forces in free software today (you can draw up your own list)....

On Open Enterprise blog.

O'Reilly's Got Bookworm(s)

To my shame, I'd not come across Bookworm before:

Bookworm allows readers to add ePub books to their online library and read them on their web browser or mobile device. If you have a portable device that supports ePub (such as the Sony Reader or iRex iLiad), you can download your books to put on your e-reader. Bookworm is specially optimized for use in the iPhone and can export directly to Stanza.

More to the point, it's open source, available under the BSD licence (and thus suitable for all commercial use, too).

Bookworm is now under the aegis of O'Reilly books, which seems appropriate. It's a good time for the project to receive more resources and a higher profile: ebooks are beginngin to take off, and it's important that there be a free reader that can benefit from that, and that we in the free software world can support.

12 February 2009

YouTube Goes Offline and CC

Not earth shattering, but a further vindication of the Creative Commons idea:

We are always looking for ways to make it easier for you to find, watch, and share videos. Many of you have told us that you wanted to take your favorite videos offline. So we've started working with a few partners who want their videos shared universally and even enjoyed away from an Internet connection.

Many video creators on YouTube want their work to be seen far and wide. They don't mind sharing their work, provided that they get the proper credit. Using Creative Commons licenses, we're giving our partners and community more choices to make that happen. Creative Commons licenses permit people to reuse downloaded content under certain conditions.

Music Copyright to be Extended to 95 years


Copyright term for music recordings must be extended from 50 years to 95 years, says legislation approved on Thursday by the Legal Affairs Committee.

Increasing the term of copyright protection would ensure that performers and producers continue to receive royalties for 95 years from the first publication or performance of their song, according to a Commission proposal backed by the committee.

But there's something odd here:

The approved report, drafted by Bran Crowley (UEN, IE), amends existing legislation to increase the copyright protection for music compositions on physical devices (i.e. digital forms are excluded) to 95 years.

Why the exclusion for digital forms? Is that meant as a sop?

It's not quite over yet, since I think there's still a vote that needs to take place. But don't hold your breath.

The Next Threat: the Community Patent

I've written extensively about the attempts to pass legislation allowing software to be patented in Europe. The main move was definitely blocked a few years back, and this has forced fans of intellectual monopolies to search for more devious ways of slipping them in. Here's the latest one, the Community Patent....

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Anti-Intellectual Monopolies Trust

Apparently, there's something called the Intellectual Property Education Trust, a UK registered charity, with lots of dosh to give away:

"The Intellectual Property Education Trust proposes to make a closing award in the region of £25,000 for the promotion of education in the field of intellectual property, and seeks applications from interested institutions.

The Trust was established in 1995 with the object to advance education and promote research in the law and practice of Intellectual Property. The Trust proposes to make a final substantive award with its remaining funds. Institutions interested in making an application for the award should first notify the Trust's secretary by phone (01458 270 882) or email by 28 February 2009 with an expression of interest, and should submit a formal application by 17 April 2009.

So long as the purpose of the application is within the above object of the Trust, there are no other limitations on the nature of the application. Thus the award may be given, purely by way of example, for the preparation of courses or course materials, the establishment of courses, the award of bursaries to assist students to attend courses, or the preparation of material to educate the public at large.

Maybe it's time to set up an Anti-Intellectual Monopolies Trust: anyone want to fund it?

11 February 2009

Belarus Opens Free Software Laboratory

Belarus is not a name that figures much in the world of open source. In part, it's a problem of breaking a vicious circle: until there's some activity in a country, it's hard to get more going. So this may help:

В Белорусском государственном университете открылась лаборатория по изучению свободно распространяемых операционных систем (систем открытых стандартов). Она создана на факультете прикладной математики и информатики в рамках сотрудничества с белорусской компанией "Открытый код" - бизнес-партнером ведущих мировых представителей Linux-решений.

[Via Google Translate: Belarusian State University opens lab to study the freely distributed operating systems (open systems standards). It was established at the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Informatics in cooperation with the Belarusian company "Clear Code" - a business partner of leading representatives of Linux-solutions.]

The same post confirms the importance of establishing a base:

Как отметили в ВУЗе, такое быстрое внедрение невозможно без наличия квалифицированных кадров. Именно для этого на ФПМИ БГУ и открыта специализированная учебная научно-исследовательская лаборатория свободного программного обеспечения. На ее базе будет организовано изучение студентами операционной системы Linux, программных продуктов компании IBM (таких, например, как Lotus Notes и Tivoli), нашедших широкое применение в реальном сегменте ИТ-рынка.

[As noted in the university, such a rapid implementation is impossible without the availability of skilled personnel. At its base will be organized by students to study the operating system Linux, software company IBM (such as Lotus Notes and Tivoli), have found wide application in the real segment of the IT market.]
Let's hope this is the first of many such open source projects in Belarus.

India Fights Patents with Huge Prior Art Database

One of the many problems with the patent offices around the world is that they are often unaware of prior art, granting patents for so-called inventions that are, in fact, common knowledge. In the computer world, there have been a number of efforts to provide prior art to patent offices, either after a patent is granted, in order to have it rescinded, or – even better – as part of the examination process. That's fine for a community with easy access to online source materials, but what about other fields, where prior art exists in other forms like books, or perhaps orally?

This is a particularly thorny problem for the sphere of traditional medicine. Substances derived from plants, for example, may have been in use for literally thousands of years, and yet patents may still be granted – especially in Western countries ignorant of other ancient medical traditions.

Perhaps the best-known example of this is the case of turmeric, commonly used as a spice in curries, for which patents were granted in 1995 on its wound healing properties by the US Patent Office, even though these supposedly novel uses had in fact been known for millennia.

To combat this problem, and to prevent its huge traditional knowledge basis being exploited in this way, India has created the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) database, which was unveiled on 2 February, and is now available to the Patent Examiners at the European Patent Office for establishing prior art in case of patent applications based on Indian systems of medicine.

Here's some background information on how the database came to be created and was set up:

The genesis of this maiden Indian effort dates back to the year 2000, when an interdisciplinary Task Force of experts was set up by AYUSH and CSIR, to devise a mechanism on protection of India’s traditional knowledge. The TKDL expert group estimated that about 2000 number of wrong patents concerning Indian systems of medicine were being granted every year at international level, mainly due to the fact that, India’s traditional medicine knowledge exists in languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Tamil etc. and was neither accessible nor understood by patent examiners at the international patent offices due to language and format barriers.

The TKDL breaks these barriers and has been able to scientifically convert and structure the information available in languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tamil, in open domain text books into five international languages, namely, English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish, with information contents in 30 million A4 size pages, with the help of Information Technology tools and a novel classification system - Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC).

This is a huge, multilingual resource – something that could only be put together with governmental support and resources. It is also fairly specific to the domain of traditional knowledge. Nonetheless, it's a great example of how an extensive prior art database can be created and then made readily available to the patent authorities in order to help prevent patents being granted unjustifiably. It's a pity that we are unlikely to see anything quite like it for other knowledge domains.

Yes He Can (Use Open Source)

Following the change of adminstration in the US, many are hoping for a more, er, open mind to open source. Some have decided to make a direct appeal via an open letter to the President on newly-created blog (a slightly strange choice of platform)....

On Open Enterprise blog.

10 February 2009

Dell Joins Netbook Race to Bottom

There are two schools of thought about netbooks. The first is that they are simply another kind of notebook - smaller, a bit cheaper, but otherwise nothing really new. The second is that they are a completely new market sector - a view that I have been propounding for almost as long as they've existed

One indication that they are distinct is that the prices of netbooks are still falling rapidly - and will continue to fall. That's in contradistinction to notebooks, where prices tend to be much more stable, but features are added over time. The netbook is about *minimum* acceptable functionality, while notebooks are about achieving near-desktop capabilities (themselves constantly improving) in a package that's portable.

Here's another proof-point:

Dell fires back at the Taiwanese market leaders with the Mini 9n. Starting at just $250, this Ubuntu netbook is easily one of the cheapest on the market from a brand-name manufacturer.

The catch? The netbook only comes with 512 MB of RAM and a 4 GB hard drive. But remember it uses Ubuntu, which runs significantly more efficiently than Windows. This means of course that it can only run Linux programs but give me Firefox and Open Office and I can conquer the world.

This is just what notebook manufacturers fear: a "race to the bottom", as Sony so memorably put it. Dell's participation in that race will send shivers down the spine of manufacturers who thought they could ride the netbook wave with their low-end notebooks.

Do I hear $200?

Help Fight This Patent-Encumbered IETF Standard

I've written numerous times about the importance of writing to governments about their hare-brained schemes, but this one is rather different. In this case, it's the normally sane Internet Engineering Task Force that wants to do something really daft. The FSF explains....

On Open Enterprise blog.

09 February 2009

Free The Postcode - Yes, *You* There

One of the most successful open projects is OpenStreetMap, which seeks to bypass the Ordnance Survey's stranglehold on geodata in the UK. It does this by enlisting the people - you and me - to recreate the maps that the OS guards, Fafnir-like, in its lair.

The success and simplicity of that approach suggests that it could be usefully applied in other circumstances where valuable public data is being kept proprietary by those hypnotised by the glint of gold. So I was delighted to learn about Free the Postcode:

The postcode database - which turns a postcode to a latitude/longitude and back - is not free in the UK. In fact, it's very expensive. The Post Office owns it and sells it to various companies that make use of it for things like insurance or parcel tracking. There are however many people who'd like to use it for non-profit purposes. Say you want to lay out events like free concerts / gigs on a map and you only have the postcode... you have to buy the database.

Instead, wouldn't it be nice if it was free like zipcodes are in the US? To do this, you have to have a number of people collaborating with GPS units who note positions and postcodes. Hence this site to collect that data.

The great thing about this project is that it is unstoppable: even if you wanted to, you couldn't prevent the majority of people from entering their drip of information, which means that the steady swelling of the cumulative ocean of data is equally ineluctable. This is what makes collaborative open projects so resilient: there is no one choke point that those who might object to its activites can attack.

So, basically, Mr Post Office, you're stuffed. (Via TechCrunch UK.)

Fedora as Basis of Russia's Operating System?

An interesting conversation took place recently:

Несколько дней назад в Минкомсвязи России прошла встреча с участием главы Минкомсвязи РФ И.О.Щёголева и директора европейского подразделения, вице-президента корпорации Red Hat Вернера Кноблиха. В ходе встречи было объявлено, что развитие свободного программного обеспечения в России – одно из главных направлений работы Министерства.

[Via Google Translate: A few days ago in Minkomsvyazi Russia held a meeting with the head of the Russian Federation Minkomsvyazi IO Schegolev and Director of the European division, vice-president of the corporation Red Hat Werner Knobliha.During the meeting it was announced that the development of free software in Russia - one of the main directions of the Ministry.]

It's good news that Red Hat has had the opportunity to talk to senior government officials about open source - in this case, at the ministry of communications - but what's much more important are the specifics mentioned in the story:

На встрече обсуждался широкий круг вопросов, касающихся развития рынка свободного программного обеспечения (СПО) и его практического применения в действующих системах. Отдельно отмечена важность создания российского сообщества разработчиков Russian Fedora, которое может послужить одним из шагов навстречу создания отечественной операционной системы. Министр отметил: «Мы считаем, что интеллектуальный потенциал российских специалистов таков, что в России можно вести не только сборку, но и полноценную разработку кода».

[The meeting discussed a wide range of issues related to market development of free software (ACT) and its practical applications in existing systems. Separately, the importance of establishing a Russian community of developers Russian Fedora, which could serve as a step toward the creation of the domestic operating system. The Minister noted: «We believe that the intellectual potential of Russian experts is that Russia can not only build, but a full-fledged development of the code».]

This seems to be a reference to the call for an independent Russian operating system, based on GNU/Linux, that I wrote about last month. The suggestion in the above post is that a step towards such an operating system would be establishing a Russian Fedora project, which would then allow Russian coders to contribute on a much larger scale than hitherto.

The fact that these talks have taken place is an indication that the idea of a national operating system for Russia - dismissed by some as fanciful - is under serious consideration. Let's hope Red Hat responded positively to the overtures.

(NB: For fast updates on this and similar stories, you can also follow me on Twitter at glynmoody.)

Do Top Hackers Have Too Much Money?

The announcement that one of MySQL's founders, Monty Widenius, was leaving Sun, was generally regarded as a pity, though no huge surprise, given the rumours that had been swirling since last year. But its impact was redoubled following the even more astonishing news that MySQL's boss, Marten Mickos, was also moving on; together, they inevitably sent shock-waves through the open source world. Most analysis has centred on the state of Sun, and whether these two high-profile departures mean that the MySQL acquisition was a mistake, or has already failed. But here, I'd like to look at a bigger question that these moves pose: do top hackers (and their managers) have too much money?

On Linux Journal.

How is This Happening Here?

I just cannot believe this stuff:

Having discovered what a useful tool [the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act] had become, in 2005 the government amended the act in a way that seemed deliberately to target peaceful protesters and smear them as stalkers. Originally you had to approach one person twice to be "pursuing a course of conduct"; now you need only approach two people once. In other words, if you hand out leaflets to passers-by which contain news that might alarm or distress them, that is now harassment. The government slipped in a further clause, redefining harassment as representing to "another individual" (ie anyone) "in the vicinity" of his or anyone else's home (ie anywhere) "that he should not do something that he is entitled or required to do; or that he should do something that he is not under any obligation to do". This is, of course, the purpose of protest. These amendments, in other words, allow the police to ban any campaign they please. Surreptitiously inserted into the vast and sprawling 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, they were undebated in either chamber of parliament.

So I am now forbidden from trying to convince anybody about anything. God help this country. Let's hope the Convention on Modern Liberty is the beginning of the end for this utter disgrace - don't forget to get your tickets. (Via B2fxxx blog.)

Open Tech 2009

Good to see more openness being spread around:

*What is OpenTech 2009?*

- Open Tech 2009 is an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, democracy and community. Thanks to 4IP for sponsoring the event.photo BY-NC by bill thompson

*What do we need?*

- Proposals from people who want to give a presentation, run a panel, organise a tutorial, or run a demo of something new and interesting on something that they think matters or getting people to help.

- Publicity - please blog this announcement, write a newspaper article, forward to mailing lists, and tell your friends!

What topics do we hope to cover?

- Mashups, open data and security
- Disaster politics and technology
- Future of media distribution
- Community engagement
- Democracy 2.0
- Highlights, lowlights and lessons learnt
- Long term thinking on big problems and massive opportunities
- Tutorials & Workshops - share what you know

- If you've got an interesting proposal that doesn't fit into any of the categories above, please send it in anyway!

It's on Saturday 4th July 2009 in Central London.

08 February 2009

The Torygraph's Tall Story

The Sunday Telegraph has shocking news:

Russia and China have been identified as having the most active spy networks operating in the UK but it is understood that some European countries are also involved in espionage attacks against Britain.

Details of the spy plots were revealed in a government security document obtained by The Sunday Telegraph which states that Britain is "high priority espionage target" for 20 foreign intelligence agencies.

Security sources have revealed that the list of foreign agencies operating within the UK includes Iran, Syria, North Korea and Serbia, as well as some members of the European Union, such as France and Germany, who have traditionally been regarded as allies.

The document, marked "restricted", warns that foreign spies are trying to steal secrets related to the military, optics, communications, genetics and aviation industries.

And what, pray, may these top-secret secrets be?

A Whitehall source told The Sunday Telegraph that Russia uses its massive spy network as an "extension of state power" in an attempt to "further its own military and economic base".

The source said: "If a country, such as Russia or Iran, can steal a piece of software which will save it seven years in research and development then it will do so without any hesitation.

Seven years? Seven??? The only thing that takes seven years' development comes from Redmond, US, not Reading, UK, and you can't give that away, judging by the sales figures of Vista.

This ludicrous idea rather undercuts the story's central assumption that there's *anything* high-tech worth nicking left in this country, let alone worth being pursued by half the secret services of the world. Risible.

07 February 2009

Enter the Lizard

Here's an interesting post from Mitchell Baker, Mozilla's boss, commenting on the EU's decision to investigate Microsoft for its Internet Explorer. It's mostly a useful statement of history and why Firefox on its own shouldnt be regarded as the solution to the problem. But for me the most significant portion is its conclusion:

I’d like to offer Mozilla’s expertise as a resource to the EC as it considers what an effective remedy would entail. I’ll be reaching out to people I know with particular history, expertise and ideas regarding these topics. If you’ve got specific ideas or concerns please feel free to contact me. I’ll post more as the discussion develops.

At a time when Microsoft is increasing its lobbying, and seeking to hire people specifically to monitor - and presumably fight - open source, it is absolutely vital that powerful organisations like Mozilla take the initiative by engaging directly with governments and other relevant bodies.

Too often free software has suffered from its decentralised, fragmented nature (otherwise a great strength); the existence of the rather anomalous Mozilla Foundation - well funded and highly organised - is a unique opportunity to support openness in a completely new way.

06 February 2009

Proof that Microsoft Now Fears for the Desktop

Hmm, lookee here: Microsoft wants to hire a Director, Open Source Desktop Strategy. Here are the details:

The Windows Competitive Strategy team is looking for a strong team member to lead Microsoft’s global desktop competitive strategy as it relates to open source competitors. Our team mission is to gather intelligence, create business strategies, and drive action in the marketplace for the Windows Client business. In this job, you will be asked to think strategically, put yourself in the mindset of our competitors, influence multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, and drive high-level executive thinking around business strategy.

As the Director of Open Source Desktop Strategy you will need to drive research and build holistic strategies across dynamic market segments like PCs, NetBooks, and mobile internet devices. You will be responsible for bringing our business strategy to life by discovering and sharing the market insights that set the foundation for our platform value dialogue with customers and the industry.

Nothing could say plainer that Microsoft now fears for the desktop. You don't appoint someone whose job is to lead a "global desktop competitive strategy" that embraces PCs, netbooks and mobile internet devices after years of assuming the desktop was yours forever unless you have a clear and vivid idea that there is a new and real threat in this sector. And you don't have to be a mind-reader to guess that Microsoft is thinking of GNU/Linux here.

The job would probably be quite attractive to people were it not for two killer responsibilities:

Create a rational set of proof points that promote Microsoft’s comparative value

Build a fact-based marketing plan that articulates the Windows Client value proposition to partners and customers

The problem is, of course, that there is no "rational set of proof points", and no facts on which to build a marketing plan. It will be interesting to see which masochist gets the job. I look forward to, er, analysing his or her attempts to square the circle. (Via Matthew Aslett.)

A Tale of Two Consultations

One of the running themes on this blog is the importance of engaging with the powers that be, specifically through responding to government and European requests for comments on proposals.

You would think that those putting together such requests would do everything in their power to maximise the feedback they receive, but alas that's not always the case....

On Open Enterprise blog.

05 February 2009

Fortify Jumps on the Meta Open Source Bandwagon

I've already noted my scepticism with regard to the Tories' pledge to go open. Although I applaud a move away from an increasingly closed, authoritarian UK government, my feelings are that it's a case of jumping on the trendy bandwagon of openness.

OK, so riding the waves is what politicians do. But they're not the only culprits: companies do it too. Here's a particular fine example, because it's not so much jumping on the bandwagon, as jumping on somebody jumping on the bandwagon....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Spot the Porkie Pies

I don't get all this:

On Wednesday, two British judges claimed that the US had threatened to stop sharing intelligence with the UK if it made public details of Mr Mohamed's treatment.


The foreign secretary said the UK would "never condone" torture.

And he denied the US threatened to "break off" security cooperation if its secret papers had been made public.

So that nice young Mr Miliband is essentially saying the judges lied? Or he is lying? Or what?

Convincing, not.

Vodafone's Little Boost for LiMo

Vodafone has picked U.S. software firm Azingo to develop Linux-based applications, the latest sign the world's largest wireless operator by sales is keeping Linux operating system LiMo as one of its key choices.

Privately held Azingo unveiled the deal on Thursday.

Vodafone, one of the founding members of mobile Linux foundation LiMo, has stressed the importance of cutting the number of different operating systems, raising some media speculation it could dump LiMo support.

"We are building their next-generation application strategy on that," Azingo Chief Executive Mahesh Veerina said in an interview.

Guido Arnone, director of terminals technology at Vodafone, said in a statement: "We (want) to develop cutting-edge applications for our mobile phones based on the LiMo platform."

Still hard to see how all this will pan out, but it's good that LiMo is moving forward. (Via @erwintenhumberg.)

Why HP's Mini 1000 Mi Edition is Important

Hp's new Mini 1000 Mi is starting to win plaudits all over the place. It's not hard to see why: it looks cool, has cool specs, and a decent price. But I think the really important element is the new interface that Hewlett-Packard has developed (more screenshots here):

HP's new Mobile Internet (Mi) software offers the online content and applications you want with just one click. Using the intuitive desktop, you can access email, internet, pictures, video, and music faster and more easily than ever.

Dashboard-style interface lets you personalize your Mini by adding favorite websites

Applications automatically launch when you power on – and web pages stay live and dynamically update while connected

Integrated HP MediaStyle provides quick access to photos, music & entertainment

Chat face to face with the built-in HP Mini Webcam

So what? you may ask: isn't that all pretty standard for netbooks these days. It is, and that's the point: one of the biggest names in computing has joined the fray, not by doing something completely different, but by recognising that it needs to follow the new norms.

The fact that HP has spent time and money developing its new interface argues that the company is serious about the GNU/Linux netbook sector. Its presence bespeaks a new maturity of the marketplace – and perhaps a heightened interest in open source at the company. It's also an indication of how vibrant this market is, and how it offers the chance for companies to be innovative in a way not possible with Windows-based offerings.

Is the EU Acting Duplicitously Over ACTA?

As I and many others have noted, the current negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) are, on the one hand, shrouded in secrecy for the general public, while on the other, being conducted in close consultation with media industries. This leads to the doubly deplorable situation that an important treaty is being negotiated to favour a particular industry without allowing those most affected by it – the tax-paying public – to even offer comments on it.

One measure of the growing impossibility of sustaining this position was the release by the EU of its “fact sheet” on ACTA, last updated in January. This smooth-talking document attempts to assuage the concerns of the little people, assuring us:

ACTA is about tackling large scale, criminal activity. It is not about limiting civil liberties or harassing consumers.

ACTA will not go further than the current EU regime for enforcement of IPRs – which fully respects fundamental rights and freedoms and civil liberties, such as the protection of personal data: This Community acquis on IPR enforcement is without prejudice to national or Community legal provisions in other areas, in particular in the area of personal data protection, as regulated by the Data Protection Directive and the Directive on privacy and electronic communications.

ACTA is not designed to negatively affect consumers: the EU legislation (2003 Customs Regulation) has a de minimis clause that exempts travellers from checks if the infringing goods are not part of large scale traffic. EU customs, frequently confronted with traffics of drugs, weapons or people, do neither have the time nor the legal basis to look for a couple of pirated songs on an i-Pod music player or laptop computer, and there is no intention to change this.

Of course, in the absence of any details about what the treaty contains, it's hard to tell whether this is just palliative spin or not.

Fortunately, the sunlight of openness is beginning to pierce even the sepulchral gloom of the ACTA negotiation process, and leaks of its current text are beginning to seep out. The news is not good, as Michael Geist explains:

The Border Measures proposals are also still subject to considerable disagreement. Some countries are seeking de minimum rules, the removal of certain clauses, and a specific provision to put to rest fears of iPod searching customs officials by excluding personal baggage that contains goods of a non-commercial nature. The U.S. is pushing for broad provisions that cover import, export, and in-transit shipments.

The proposals call for provisions that would order authorities to suspend the release of infringing goods for at least one year, based only on a prima facie claim by the rights holder. Customs officers would be able to block shipments on their own initiative, supported by information supplied by rights holders. Those same officers would have the power to levy penalties if the goods are infringing. Moreover, the U.S. would apparently like a provision that absolves rights holders of any financial liability for storage or destruction of the infringing goods.


The Criminal Enforcement proposals make it clear that the U.S. would like ACTA to go well beyond cases of commercial counterfeiting. Indeed, their proposal would extend criminal enforcement to both (1) cases of a commercial nature; and (2) cases involving significant willful copyright and trademark infringement even where there is no direct or indirect motivation of financial gain. In other words, peer-to-peer file sharing would arguably be captured by the provision. The treaty would require each country to establish a laundry list of penalties - including imprisonment - sufficient to deter future acts of infringement. Moreover, trafficking in fake packaging for movies or music would become a criminal act as would unauthorized camcording.

Now, it may well be that the EU is fighting tooth and nail against the intrusive border control measure, and the criminalisation of P2P file sharing – both of which would certainly “limit civil liberties” and “harass” consumers. But the best way for the EU to demonstrate its bona fides would be to bring the negotiations out into the open.

It is clear that the scope of this treaty is far reaching: indeed, there is a clear attempt to use it to slip in very powerful clauses that would over-ride national and international legislation. This is simply unacceptable. Moreover, if it turns out that the EU is *not* fighting the above moves, it is nothing short of scandalous that it should be acting in such a duplicitous fashion over ACTA – in which case, those responsible for following this course should be called on to resign.