28 January 2011

Why Android Will Win the Tablet Wars

The Apple iPad is a huge hit: 7.33 million of them were sold in the quarter ending in December. That's a pretty amazing achievement. But despite that, there are good reasons to believe that 2011 will mark the start of the ascent of Android as king of the tablet world.

On The H Open.

The Deeper Significance of LibreOffice 3.3

Over on the RedMonk blog, there's an entertaining post by James Governor on the subject of forks, prompted by the imminent arrival of a major new version of Android, version 3.0, code-named “Honeycomb”, designed with tablets in mind:

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 January 2011

Fighting Openness with New Corporate "Rights"

The opposition between openness and so-called "rights" - which are typically state-granted monopolies like copyright and patents - becomes clearer by the day. But it is extraordinary is that those holding those monopolies think they need more - not least to fight recent minor gains in the field of openness and transparency. Here's some deeply troubling news:

To what extent will a right-wing French MP sympathetic to big business and French government's ongoing manoeuvres to create a "corporate confidentiality" label endanger critical reporting on corporations and business transparency?

Last week, French right-wing MP Bernard Carayon in an interview for the website Rue89 boldly stated "I claim that the State and private companies should also benefit from physical persons' right to privacy. [...] Companies should be allowed to define for themselves which information remains secret [...]."


Carayon wants to increase protection for "economic information" by introducing a three-year prison sentence and a 375.000€ fine for anyone found guilty of breaching “the confidentiality of information of an economic nature".

This would clearly have a chilling effect on efforts by whistle-blowers to expose corporate wrong-doing. But it gets worse, much worse.

The French government, already one of the chief enemies of a free and open Internet (think HADOPI) wants all of Europe to give business this new "right":

the French government, through the Inter-ministerial Delegation on Economic Intelligence (a high-level informal body gathering officials from the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Research, Budget, Environment, Foreign Affairs and the Economy, and that now directly reports to the French Presidency), is also working with a number of big French business lobbies (Medef, AFEP, CDSE, CGPME, Chambers of Commerce...) to design new legislation intended to create a new legal label, “corporate confidentiality”, to protect corporate information that is not covered by existing intellectual property laws. According to the head of this body, Olivier Buquen, this will cover “all strategic information, which can be, depending on the company, a client's database, a business plan or the details of a partnership […] we wish to simplify legal procedures for companies, and to create penalties that are severe enough to act as a deterrent. Our text will foresee legal proceedings against whoever steals or leaks a company's key information.”

For a land that once believed in liberty and equality, never mind the fraternity, these are shameful proposals, and confirm the present French government's pro-big business, anti-consumer attitudes. We need to fight these now before they get too far in the system and thus harder to root out - do read the whole of the excellent and detailed post from which these excerpts were taken. (Via @CountCulture.)

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

HMRC's Latest IT Fail - and What to Do About It

On Monday, I called the HMRC to give them some information they wanted from me. After being placed on hold for about 10 minutes, I finally got through, and was rightly “taken through security”. After all, it's vitally important that HMRC and similar organisations establish that the person they are talking to is indeed that person. Unfortunately, security had been “upgraded”, so you probably know what is coming next....

On Open Enterprise blog.

25 January 2011

Open Source and Open Research Computation

Free software was inspired in part by the scientific method, but it is only now that science is starting to apply free software's key insights. For example, opening up the source code would imply that scientific papers should be made freely available for anyone to read and use. And yet it is only in the last few years that this open access approach, as it is called, has made significant headway against the prevailing proprietary system, which says that you have to pay - often handsomely - if you want to read a paper.

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 January 2011

Won't Someone Think of the Trees?

The concept of the commons derives from common land. This still lives on in England, in the form of commons - like Clapham Common - and as national forests that all can use. Against that background, I am naturally appalled that the coalition government proposes selling off our forests in order to raise a few pennies to throw into the bottomless pit of our National Debt.

The campaigning site 38 Degrees if fighting this with a petition, and is also encouraging Brits to write to their MPs. Here's what I've just sent using WriteToThem:

I am writing to you about the proposed sell-off of Britain's forests.

Although I broadly agree that our currently very onerous national debt needs to be reduced, it is important that efforts to achieve this do not result in rash or irreversible actions. I believe that selling off our forests would be such an action.

If forests are sold, they will be bought with a view to profit maximisation. This will inevitably lead to felling and destruction of habitats up to the limit of the law (and probably beyond if buyers think they can get away with it).

Indeed, it is quite likely that many buyers will be from overseas, particularly in those countries that have large cash reserves. They will have no compunction in destroying the environmental resources of another country, since they wish to extract the greatest profit in the shortest time possible, and will certainly not be overly worried about local effects caused by their actions.

Once damaged, these resources will take hundreds of years to regenerate, and may well be lost for ever. At a time when the environment is under pressure on many fronts – not least rising population and climate change – it would be foolish to reduce national holdings of this key assets. If anything, the Government should be *increasing* the extent of national forests.

As well as providing valuable resources, they offer Britons a much-needed refuge from the pressures of modern life. Again, if forests are sold off, access is bound to be reduced (not least by felling activities); this will lead to a general loss of the quality of life – hardly something that the Government should be encouraging.

For these reasons, I urge you not to support these sell-off plans. I would be grateful if you could please convey my concerns to the ministers concerned, and to ask them to reconsider.

If you care about the commons - or just like trees - please consider sending a brief email to your MP.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

20 January 2011

There's No FUD Like an Old FUD

The Economist has been writing poorly-informed articles about open source for years - I dissected a particularly egregious example back in 2006. So it's hard to tell whether the flaws in this new book review are down to that antipathy, or whether they are inherent in the title it discusses, “The Comingled Code”. As far as the latter is concerned, the following information does not inspire confidence:

On Open Enterprise blog.

19 January 2011

Rackspace's CEO on Open Source and OpenStack

I wrote about the open source OpenStack back in October, based largely on wandering around the main OpenStack site. But there's no substitute for talking to people involved - especially when they are Lanham Napier, CEO of Rackspace, one of the two instigators of the OpenStack project (the other being NASA). He filled me in on the background to both his company and the OpenStack project.

On Open Enterprise blog.

18 January 2011

In defence of hackers and open source

One of the reasons that I regard the rise of WikiLeaks as such a key event is that it is throwing an interesting light on so many areas – many of them unexpected. That includes the ethics of hackers and the world of open source.

On The H Open.

Of China, Piracy and Open Source

A few months ago, I spent quite a few words disembowelling a BSA report on piracy that made some highly-simplistic assumptions and calculations about the alleged impact of pirated software on economies around the world. This was the report's main thesis:

On Open Enterprise blog.

14 January 2011

Fabbers: Mega-Damage by Micro-Patents

As my occasional postings on the subject indicate, one area that fascinates me is that of fabbers, aka 3D printers. One reason is that they effectively make our analogue world digital, in the sense that they allow 3D objects to be captured as digital representations, and then printed out. The other reason - a consequence of the first - is that by producing these representations, they transport many of the trickiest digital issues into the analogue domain. But more of that anon.

Of course, I'm not the only person to have noticed that the world of fabbers has the potential to bring the same kind of disruption to the analogue world that computers and the Internet have brought to the digital sphere. One benefit of this growing appreciation is that there are more resources available about 3D printers and related areas, and that they are becoming richer as the field grows.

A good example is a new report commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy [freely available as pdf]. Indeed, I'd say that it probably represents the best single introduction to this whole field.

One virtue is comprehensiveness. As well as covering areas like fabbers (my own personal interest), it also discusses desktop milling machines; laser cutters and engravers; sewing and embroidering machines; and desktop circuit makers. It has a handy run-down of the main companies active in this area, including makers, aggregators and designers; and a detailed examination of the advantages and uses of desktop personal manufacturing devices. It is particular strong on the importance of educating the younger generation in these technologies - rightly so, since these will be the tools with which they will shape and build their world.

But for me, the most interesting part - because most problematic - is that which touches on the legal issues surrounding this rapprochement of the analogue and digital ways:

In our long tail world of media and information, files containing digital music, content, video, artwork, and data are easily copied. As a result, chasing down copyright violators of digital works has become as unproductive as chasing after a cloud of gnats. Preventing copyright and patent violations in the world of electronic blueprints and small-scale manufacturing machines will be equally challenging. The personal fabrication process spans both the digital and physical worlds and involves two components that involve intellectual property issues: the electronic blueprints and the resulting physical object. While one can protect a digital blueprint using digital rights management, this approach offers only a partial solution, since once the electronic blueprint is put to work fabricating physical objects, it can be used to produce as many objects as the maker wants to make. The resulting physical objects, unlike a music file, cannot be digital signed.

The report boldly suggests a way of handling some of these problems, encapsulated as one of its recommendations:

13. Explore micropatents as a smaller, simpler, and more agile unit of intellectual property

Here's its explanation of the concept:

An inventor would submit, for a few hundred dollars, a document describing their invention to a centralized government micro-patent repository. The document would be time-stamped and immediately publicly released, without having to be subject to the traditional tests of novelty, utility and non-obviousness. The inventor’s micro-patent application would claim very few fields of use, perhaps there could even be a mandatory limit on scope to qualify as a micro-patent. By filing this document, the inventor would immediately be granted an implicit, short-term (say 5 year) exclusive right to her new disclosed idea, as long as the idea was not already disclosed publicly earlier. Only in the case of alleged infringement, would intellectual property experts, lawyers, and the judicial system be brought to bear on the case with all the costs, time and complexities involved.

The key idea here is to offer "simple, agile and cost-effective intellectual property protection"; that is, making it easier to obtain patents, albeit lightweight ones. But in doing so, it will remove one of the few remaining barriers to patent applications, which inevitably will mean that every patent troll in the world will file thousands of trivial claims, since it will take so little effort or money to do so. It will give rise to the equivalent of patent spam.

Worse, these patent spammers will then proceed to sue huge numbers of inventors - and users - of objects made using fabbers. In fact it will become exactly like the world of copyright today, where tens of thousands of letters are sent out to alleged infringers, threatening to sue them but offering them a special "low-cost" way of settling.

Even more damaging, such a lightweight system will create a patent thicket around objects made with personal manufacturing systems that even nanotechnology will be unable to pierce. Again, we already have an all-too concrete example of what happens when it is easy to obtain patents for key ideas that are often indispensable for all users, in the world of software.

Before software could be patented, programmers wrote software by drawing on the commons of software techniques - and adding to that commons themselves. They didn't need to worry about "infringing" on someone's idea, because you couldn't get patents on ideas - just copyright on implementations of those ideas.

Now, with software patents being awarded in increasing numbers, things are so bad that it is probably impossible to write any non-trivial program without nominally infringing on someone's patent. That proliferation has led to dense software patent thickets, most notably in the world of mobile phones, where multiple companies are suing each other, wasting valuable resources that could have been devoted to creating more innovative products, not paying lawyers' bills.

The example of software shows us that patents simply do not work when applied to the digital realm. Indeed, the software industry spends far more money litigating software patents than it actually earns from licensing them. The fascinating book “Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers Put Innovators at Risk” by James Bessen and Michael Meurer (Princeton University Press, 2008) quantifies this: the aggregate annual patent profits for software in the US were $100 million for the years 1996-9; the aggregate litigation costs for the same period were $3,880 million. There is no evidence that things are any better now.

It would be utter folly to import the worst features of the existing digital world into the new one that is emerging. Micro-patents will not foster progress and innovation: they will actually make things worse than the current situation, hard though that may be to believe.

The only solution is to have not "micro"-patents, but the limiting case where the size of the patent tends to zero - that is, none at all. Then, companies and inventors would compete not on the underlying ideas (which patents try to capture and monopolise), but on their *implementation* of them.

As well as avoiding patent gridlock, this also addresses issues of copying and counterfeiting, since people will pay more for otherwise identical products when they come provably from a trusted supplier, and also of safety, since it rewards better-quality products (not just patented ones).

As such, it's patently better than "solutions" based on intellectual monopolies that won't ever work (as proved by copyright and its attendant legislation, which have failed to stem the flood of shared music and video files in the slightest) and will actually lead to a net loss for companies forced to deploy them (as software patents and their thickets demonstrate). (Via Shapeways.)

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

Public Data Corporation: How Open, and How Public?

I've been following the move to open data by the UK government for some time on this blog. Major milestones include the creation of the data.gov.uk portal and the recent announcement back in November that “all departments will publish details of their spending over £25,000 for the last six months.” Now we have this:

On Open Enterprise blog.

13 January 2011

The Unacceptable Face of Copyright

Open access is about making copies of publicly-funded research available freely online. This stems from the belief that (a) having paid for it, the public has a right to see it and (b) a general view that access to knowledge should not be restricted to those that can pay for it (not least because it is precisely those that *cannot* pay who need it most).

Against that background, and of the growing success of open access in bringing knowledge to the developing countries, this is disgusting:

From 4 January Elsevier Journals withdrew access in Bangladesh to 1610 of its publications, including the Lancet stable of journals, which had been available through the World Health Organization’s Health Inter-Network for Access to Research Initiative (HINARI) programme. HINARI was set up in 2002 to enable not for profit institutions in developing countries to gain access online to more than 7000 biomedical and health titles either free or at very low cost.

Springer has withdrawn 588 of its journals from the programme in Bangladesh and Lippincott Williams and Wilkins 299 journals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Animal Science have withdrawn access to, respectively, two and three of their journals.

To add insult to injury, some of the articles published in those titles are by researchers who now cannot read them:

Tracey Koehlmoos, head of the health and family planning systems programme at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, said, “We are a little less than 300 scientists eking out world class research on a shoestring budget without the purchasing power capacity of a big university in the West. HINARI has been our lifeline. My colleagues publish in many of these journals, and now we won’t even have access to our own papers.”

Companies publishing academic journals typically enjoy a profit margin of 30%; providing them free to scientists in *non-profit organisations* in developing countries will have an infinitesimal effect on their bottom lines.

It's sheer, unadulterated greed that seeks to squeeze some money out of those that have precious little of it, in effect stopping them spending it elsewhere where it is sorely needed. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that people will die as a knock-on consequence of that diversion of resources.

I do wonder how the well-paid fat-cats running these huge publishing conglomerates (disclosure: I once worked for part of Reed-Elsevier, so I have some experience of these things) look at themselves in the mirror after making decisions like this.

But at least their selfish and callous action does helpfully underline one of the big problems with copyright: the fact that it allows companies that didn't even produce the research that they publish, and to which they very often add very little value themselves, to decide who gets to read what ought to be the common heritage of humanity. In other words, it's an intellectual monopoly that is wielded with only profit maximisation in mind.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

Why Google Isn't Evil (Today, at Least)

The more powerful that Google becomes, and the more it needs to satisfy investors' desires for a good return on their money, the more it comes under pressure to move away from its famous “don't be evil” motto. So it's nice to be able to report on a move that seems true to that original aspiration:

On Open Enterprise blog.

11 January 2011

Dimdim Lives up to its Name

Dimdim is a Web-based collaboration platform that I signed up for ages ago, but never quite got around to using. Looks like I may have missed my opportunity:

On Open Enterprise blog.

10 January 2011

Interview with Meedabyte

I asked Glyn’s help to answer many questions that came to my mind in the latest few months that shown how tough the fight to keep the Internet Free and Freedom respecting will be in the future.

For them as might be interested in such things - with bonus Italian translation.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

07 January 2011

When Will Quora Be Quorate?

Almost without meaning to, I conducted a small experiment today.

Over on Twitter, Brenda Wallace asked me a very good question:

do you know a good umbrella term for things like ACTA, TPPA, 3strikes, guilt on accusation etc. ?

Since I couldn't think of one, I naturally turned back to Twitter to ask people what they thought. And since I've recently joined the all-too trendy Quora, it occurred to me that this was just the kind of thing it was designed to answer: what is effectively a "new" question whose answer is not available elsewhere, but which the collective efforts of qualified people might successfully address.

Literally within minutes, I had dozens of witty suggestions from people on Twitter, which you can see by scrolling this list of tweets; here's just a small selection:


IP enclosure

legislative o'erweening

LRM (legislative rights management)

Corsair Laws


(Any favourites there, or alternative suggestions?)

Meanwhile, over on Quora, I had precisely...nothing. Six hours later, I've still had precisely zero replies. Now, maybe I'm not important enough to attract answers, or perhaps I'm just doin' it wrong; but either way, this one data point tends to confirm me in my natural bias in favour of the wit of Twitter.

Of course, it might just be that Quora simply isn't big enough yet to have sufficient users/traffic to answers such questions. In which case, the issue becomes: at what point will Quora become quorate for these kinds of questions?

I shall probably be trying a few more experiments in the coming months in the hope of finding out, and I'd be interested to hear about the comparative experience of others in this respect.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

06 January 2011

Why Linux is Alpha and Omega

I'm sure most people remember DEC - Digital Equipment Corporation - that later rebranded itself as the singularly unmemorable “Digital” before being swallowed up by Compaq in 1998, which was itself digested by HP a few years later. But I wonder how many people remember the DEC Alpha chip.

On Open Enterprise blog.

05 January 2011

Getting Down to the Business of Open Source

Readers will doubtless be relieved to learn that I do not intend writing one of those tiresome “top ten predictions for open source in 2011” - not least because I am firmly of the persuasion that those who live by the crystal ball are condemned to eat broken glass.

On Open Enterprise blog.

04 January 2011

2011: The Year of Firefox - or of Chrome?

Everyone knows that there are lies, damned lies and Web analytics, but the latter can at least give a feel for what's going on. And the latest figures for browser market share in Europe certainly do that.

On Open Enterprise blog.