15 July 2009

Bill Gates Gets Sharing...Almost

Yesterday I wrote about Microsoft's attempt to persuade scientists to adopt its unloved Windows HPC platform by throwing in a few free (as in beer) programs. Here's another poisoned chalice that's being offered:

In between trying to eradicate polio, tame malaria, and fix the broken U.S. education system, Gates has managed to fulfill a dream of taking some classic physics lectures and making them available free over the Web. The lectures, done in 1964 by noted scientist (and Manhattan Project collaborator) Richard Feynman, take notions such as gravity and explains how they work and the broad implications they have in understanding the ways of the universe.

Gates first saw the series of lectures 20 years ago on vacation and dreamed of being able to make them broadly available. After spending years tracking down the rights--and spending some of his personal fortune--Gates has done just that. Tapping his colleagues in Redmond to create interactive software to accompany the videos, Gates is making the collection available free from the Microsoft Research Web site.

What a kind bloke - spending his *own* personal fortune of uncountable billions, just to make this stuff freely available.

But wait: what do we find when go to that "free" site:

Clicking will install Microsoft Silverlight.

So it seems that this particular free has its own non-free (as in freedom) payload: what a surprise.

That's a disappointment - but hardly unexpected; Microsoft's mantra is that you don't get something for nothing. But elsewhere in the interview with Gates, there's some rather interesting stuff:

Education, particularly if you've got motivated students, the idea of specializing in the brilliant lecture and text being done in a very high-quality way, and shared by everyone, and then the sort of lab and discussion piece that's a different thing that you pick people who are very good at that.

Technology brings more to the lecture availability, in terms of sharing best practices and letting somebody have more resources to do amazing lectures. So, you'd hope that some schools would be open minded to this fitting in, and making them more effective.

What's interesting is that his new-found work in the field of education is bringing him constantly face-to-face with the fact that sharing is actually rather a good thing, and that the more the sharing of knowledge can be facilitated, the more good results.

Of course, he's still trapped by the old Microsoft mindset, and constantly thinking how he can exploit that sharing, in this case by freighting it with all kinds of Microsoft gunk. But at least he's started on the journey, albeit unknowingly.

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Anonymous said...

Let's not let Ina Fried or CNET, who pretty clearly have unmasked themselves as nothing more than microserfs and corporate shills...

Glyn Moody said...

well, the story was interesting: that's what counts, I think.

Matthew Stinar said...

Well, he probably used Silverlight because he gets the encoding and streaming software for free, but that's still no excuse. If his motive was sharing, he should have used something more accessible to the public than Silverlight.

David Gerard said...

Here's two tweets from Ben Goldacre. Note the process of revelation:


Glyn Moody said...

@David: thanks for that. Someone else now understands...

Anonymous said...

This is what makes open source advocates look crazy to the general public.

Gates has spent his own money to acquire rights to something wonderful that most of us would never be able to see, and has made it easily available to 98% of the desktop computer users in the world. (Windows users using IE or Firefox, and Mac users on Intel Macs using Firefox or Safari).

Most people see taking something that was only available to a handful of people and bringing it to 98% as a very good thing.

Instead of complaining that he failed to reach 100%, how about finding a way to contribute to the Moonlight project, so the Linux users can view the videos that way?

Glyn Moody said...

@anonymous: you're absolutely right. Fortunately, I'm pretty indifferent to the general public's view of my mental health.

But I find this sad.

Sad that important footage of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century wasn't *already* available: the university(?) that held this had amoral duty to make this stuff available - it would have done their image good, too.

And I find it sad that we are supposed to be grateful that this important footage is now locked up in a proprietary system: if Gates were really such a great benefactor, he would have released it in multiple formats, or allowed others to transcode.

So, yes, he's making it available, but the circumstances of that leave much to be desired.

phayes said...

Sad indeed. I saw this via NYT via BS and knowing what MS is like I wasn't exactly hopeful about finding a downloadable, CC licensed version or some HTML5 video tag and javascript wizardry. Still, as it was physics, and Feynman no less, I (reluctantly ;-) installed Moonlight anyway and tried again, but the b****r still wouldn't work! They could've easily provided an alternative stream, FFS.

I - and everyone else (100%) - can watch Sidney Coleman's classic QFT lectures, download Kip Thorne's GW lectures, watch Weinberg and others' superb lectures at the 2003 Kavli-CERCA conference, see cutting-edge stuff from the likes of Frank Wilczek at the Perimeter Institute website, watch the Vega trust's recordings of Feynman's QED-lite lectures, download HD ESOcast astro. videos, etc. etc. and etc. So the idea that I should be grateful for MS technology salesmanship masquerading as educational philanthropy is thoroughly repugnant.

Glyn Moody said...

amen to that.

David Gerard said...

There's an interesting discussion between me and Jonathan Wong from Microsoft on BoycottNovell about this issue. Reasonable good-faith communication between vastly disparaste views.

(I agree with Roy Schestowitz on pretty much everything around software freedom issues, but I suspect I'm better at communicating with people I severely disagree with on them ;-)

They were trying to do more than straight video, a really unbelievably cool app with commentary streams, transcripts, etc ... but when you say "Feynman video", people expect something like a Flash player in a web page and were upset they were expected to install software.

If they'd just done a flash player for the video streams, approximately everyone would have been happy. Even a video download link (even in WMA) would have been reasonable.

The trouble they have is that even though Silverlight may be technically superior to Flash (I'd be surprised if it wasn't - it was designed from the start to do moren and entice designers and programmers), it's faced with an incumbency problem. Flash has >95% market coverage, Silverlight has 20% if that. Same problem Linux has versus Windows on the desktop, or Bing has versus Google in search - the incumbent is assumed, switching is a hassle and a bad user experience.

Glyn Moody said...

excellent analysis. Yes, even WMA would have been better...

phayes said...

It gets worse. Apparently the goddamn BBC held the rights to these lectures and sold them to Gates.


Glyn Moody said...

well spotted...I now feel *really* annoyed - how could they? (Don't answer that...)