Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “Around the Realm”

About Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Ruminations on the Digital Realm was my main English-language website between 2006 and 2008. Mostly I evaluated various Linux- distributions and BSD-flavours on their suitability as an open source desktop for end-users, both at home and at work. Since then I moved on.

Between 2008/2009 and 2011 I wrote about the Dutch Open Source policy and how it was implemented by the Dutch government, or rather, lack of it. From Q3 2011 till Q2 2012 I campaigned for the use of open standards and accessibility standards in education. Together with a great group of activists we managed to get the attention of Parliament.

This website preserves my articles written between 2006 and 2010. In 2013 I’ll begin writing in English again, working on a new book called Understanding the Technology Barrier. And how to break through. You might say I’ll be picking up on what Ruminations on the Digital Realm originally intended: to theorize on why we are what we are in the virtual world, to present a critical view on technology and how we interact with it.

Embrace and extend: a non-binary approach to open source promotion

Computers view reality in the simplest of terms. It is either yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. You can’t blame computers for this, their binary view on reality is is hard-coded. As Wikipedia explains, the computer’s memory cells only have two states. This binary outlook on life can take us a long way. Just consider the strengths and complexities of our modern desktop computer, our mobile phone of the AI of a few popular first person shooters. We spend a lot of time interacting with systems that think and work binary. As a Dutch saying goes, what you hang out with tends to rub off on you. And before we know it, we also begin to organize the world around us along simple binary lines: yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. In the open source world we find people who spend a lot of time behind their computers.

Granted, I am not a expert on human brains, but I think we agree that our brains are somewhat more complex than the memory cells of a computer. Humans are unique beings, shaped by a package of genes, passed along at birth, and a collection of experiences within a social, cultural and biological context (and then some more). Both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ collaborate to create greatly complex individuals. In order to grasp this complexity we tend to simplify reality, for instancy by stereotyping. Okay, this is enough Dr.Phil-psychology for now. In essence, humans and human organizations are not binary, they cannot be binary in my opinion. But, in the open source world we find people who spend a lot time behind their computers.

The downside to a binary view on reality
In this open source world we regularly see heated debates following clear and simple binary schemes. Just think about the classical vi versus emacs, or GNOME versus KDE, but also the ‘my distribution’ versus ‘the other crap’ debates. These flame wars are somewhat amusing, entertaining, at least for the onlookers. However, there is a downside to this binary outlook, one that seriously hinders the growth of open source software. There a various areas where this comes to the fore, but for now I’d like to focus on one area: Microsoft.

Or, in broader terms, the relationship of open source communities with large corporations. In binary Microsoft is, of course, always wrong, black, ans we should view everything this company does with the utmost suspicion. Heck, the key motto of the Redmond Boys is ‘embrace, extend and exterminate‘. Another major corporation, IBM, is one of the ‘good guys’. IBM has been investing in Linux for quite a few years, released software under open source licenses and uses part of it’s patent portfolio to defend the interests of Linux and open source. Sun Microsystems, just to name a third example, has a more awkward relationship with the open source world. It doesn’t really have the image of a stalwart defender of open source, but -on the other hand- it did open up serious crown jewels, not end-of-life software. Just think about OpenSolaris, OpenOffice.org, Java and ZFS. But does it mean that IBM and Sun Microsystems should be put on the good side in the binary scheme of open source?

IBM
Let’s take a closer look at IBM. It is an active partner in the development of Linux and has 600 people on it’s payroll who contribute to open source projects. Now that’s a nice number, but – for simple comparisons – IBM has 388.000 people working for it. Another contribution to Linux was to give free access to 500 patents in 2005. True, the core philosophy of free and open source software shuns applying for and using (software) patents, but in the current corporate reality it is nice to know that patents can also be used to defend Linux and open source. 500 patents seems like a a lot, and perhaps IBM even increased it’s number of free access patents, but we are talking about the king of patents. Year after year IBM has been the largest applicant for new patents (and obtained them). In 2008 IBM obtained more patents than Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture and Google combined: 4.186. The man responsible for this patent portfolio, David Kappos, is to become head of the USPTO, the US patent office.

Does this in any way diminish the contributions IBM made and is still making to Linux and open source? Of course not, but it does show that IBM had multiple commercial interests, and Linux plays a part in at least some of them.

Opening up Microsoft
Microsoft and Linux didn’t really have a good start. Most of us still remember Steve Ballmer’s words, making comparisons with rapidly growing malignant cells and such. Not nice at all. But things have changed since those dark days and Microsoft did move towards more open source. The various steps Microsoft took are described in my latest book Open source en open standaarden. Voor niets gaat de zon op? (Open source and open standards. For free?, only available in Dutch).

No, Microsoft isn’t an open source company and the chances that it will release the source code of Windows under the GPL v3 license are virtually nil. But with Codeplex, Port 25, two OSI approved licenses and an ambassador like Sam Ramji Microsoft does have an open source policy. And a vision, which you can find in the white paper Participation in a world of choice. Perspectives on open source and Microsoft (PDF). You can argue about this vision, you can vehemently disagree with it, but there is a track record now.

And no, I am not blind to the patentprotection based deals with some distributors of Linux, not deaf to the threats that Linux violates a couple of hundred patents and the recent legal battle with TomTom is still fresh on my mind (by the way, for those who read Dutch, you might find this article interesting. It’s an interview I had with Keith Bergelt of the Open Invention Network, earlier this year). I do wonder how useful it is to develop .Net applications for Linux through Mono, or porting Silverlight via Moonlight, but I have a similar response reading about attempts to port KDE Applications to Windows using Qt. However, the world isn’t binary, people aren’t binary and that means I am under no obligation to make sense of it all.

Companies have commercial interests
Why does Microsoft get involved with open source? In my opinion for exactly the same reasons as IBM, Sun Microsystems, HP, Nokia, Google and TomTom doe it: it has commercial value and contributes to it’s strength in the market place. Linux, open source and open standards go from strength to strength among customers, both corporate and governmental. Any corporation with a strategic sense makes sure to pick up a trend like this sooner or later and thus cater to the demands in the market.

How does this involve us, as open source world? Well, to repeat myself, the world isn’t binary and human organizations aren’t binary. Companies aren’t monolithic structures where all think alike, especially not corporations that operate on a world scale. If we look at the aforementioned corporations I believe we can discern at least three different groups within each of them (see, no longer binary). You will find people that really believe in the commercial value, and perhaps even the superior quality, of open source software for their company. These are not the guys and girls that spend days after days designing the darkest of strategies to kill open source as soon as possible.

At the other side of the spectrum you will find employees, managers and (vice-)presidents who completely and absolutely reject a business model where you don’t sell software (or better, licenses), but give it away. They look at the history of their company and to those units that actually make profit and wonder who their ‘open minded’ colleagues really work for. Somewhere in between you can find a large group that just goes to work.

It is a serious weakness of our binary outlook when we, as open source world, automatically condemn open initiatives of ‘suspicious’ or ‘wrong’ corporations as being part of some ‘hidden agenda’. Just a quote from the Linux Collaboration Summit held earlier this year:

Much of the discussion related to Microsoft and its rocky relationship with open source software. Ramji, who runs Microsoft’s open source software lab and plays a role in influencing Microsoft’s open source strategy, faced some tough questions from fellow panelists and the audience. He was not flustered by the inquisition and responded with cogent thoughts and some witty retorts.

Now ask yourself the question whether this form of debate is really constructive. For the onlookers it might be entertaining to see and the participants might go home with a warm feeling they finally told it to the Sam Ramji’s of the wrong corporations (you can fill in any other name you like, it seems Miguel de Icaza is tossed in the same corner nowadays). Personally, I’d like to think at the upcoming budget meeting. “Hey Sam, they really did burn at that Linux conference last weekend. By the way, didn’t you request extra budget for your department?” Simplistic reasoning? Perhaps, but any student of corporate snake pits knows how little is eschewed when it comes to power over people, money and influence.

Towards an alternative strategy: ’embrace and extend’
I believe it makes more sense to adopt the ’embrace and extend’ strategy. Accept each and everyone who has an open source profile, even if they work for or in ‘suspicious’ corporations and organizations. Embrace them, make them public representatives of a worldwide open source community, the lost sons and daughters who are welcomed back in the fold.  Present them as the ‘good guys’ who have a perfect understanding of the market place, of customer needs. But don’t make them the prime targets for attacking their employers. The campaign to promote open source software is served more by increasing the numbers of open source people within major corporations and allowing their influence in strategic corporate decisions to grow.

This seems to be a more positive and constructive use of our time as well. Pursuing a negative, almost paranoid anti-Micro$oft campaign doesn’t bring new building blocks, creates no new open source software, doesn’t lead to new open standards and won’t convince users to switch to Linux. And then, who will have won?

Planete Beranger observes Linux distro hating week

Even for Planete Beranger, which never shies away from a strong opinion on the weaknesses of Linux distributions, the one week Linux distro hating week is quite a lot. However, the list of items that need fixing does give a lot to think about:

large enough repositories to satisfy both desktop and server users;

both GNOME and KDE3 should be offered as main options, alongside with whatever else is the main focus of the distro (smaller DEs/WMs or KDE4);

security updates and major bug updates that don’t break the system, that are provided in a timely manner and in the proper place (e.g. not it Debian’s “volatile” for tzdata; not in “testing” for VL; not ignoring FF 3.0.3 even by RHEL);

not to include functional regressions from a release to the next one (in the kernel or in the major applications);

not to force the users to upgrade because a release is supported for too short;

not to lack major applications in such a manner that the user should either build from source, or get them from several third-party repositories, thus compromising the intended advantages of using a certain distro with a certain quality and consistency of the repos and of the updates;

not to freeze each and every application to a fixed version for the whole supported lifetime of a release, ignoring the fact that building newer versions of the applications is possible when they don’t require newer versions of the system libraries;

not to ignore bug reports for years, especially when the fix would be easy, or especially when it’s about an enterprise distro, whose modest number of packages is small precisely because it’s supposed to be much better maintained than a community-maintained distro;

not to break the package manager every now and then, and not to change the default package manager from a release to the next one;

to provide the full sources in free download, not partial sources, nor just build scripts that would attempt to download the sources from upstream;

to be usable in X with only 256 MB of RAM — failing to do so is a clear sign of bloatedness, regardless of the fact that very few users have such low-end systems;

to have a GUI version of the package manager, and this version to be usable in terms of speed on low-end systems too;

and of course: not to require hours of post-install configuration and customization by the end-user!

clipped from beranger.org

Linux Distro Hating Week, Oct. 6-12

Observed by Planete Beranger, as a protest against the low quality of the distributions built around the Linux kernel

Linux turned 17 under shameful circumstances. Notwithstanding the decrease in quality suffered by the Linux kernel since the beginning of the 2.6 series, good quality distributions can still be build around it. Unfortunately, all of the mainstream GNU/Linux distributions fail to provide with acceptable quality, usability, trustworthiness and proper support, being it paid or not. Specifically, there is no GNU/Linux distribution in the known universe not to fail to at least one of the following requirements:
For the current week, Planete Beranger will ignore whatever is related to any known Linux distro.
blog it

The three worst Linux distributions?

Well, it seems there are some more writers out there that (a) love Linux and (b) debunk distributions that fall way short of their own goals. On the Internetling blog Gregor lists the three worst distributions he knows.

gOS is on three:

I checked out the last version of gOS, and again it s a meaningless pile of installed packages already available for every other major Linux distro out there.

Zebuntu/ZevenOS is on two:

I reviewed this distro a while ago and I though it’s cool that someone is aiming to create a distro in the spirit of BeOS. Looks like the developers didn’t hear the last part. It said ‘philosophy’ not ‘theme’.

And Linux XP is topping the list:

I’m still wondering whether this distro is violating the GPL. For Pete’s sake they have a 30-day TRIAL. Linux XP is a Fedora re-spin with a Vista skin, Wine and some other front-ends. It is being sold, you can also obtain a serial number.

Well, the fact is that the GPL allows reselling commercially and there are commercial distributions that won’t allow updates if you don’t pay. Anyway, I like the list and I like what Gregor is doing.

I just love Dropbox

I am doing some serious editing on one of my books this weekend. For that I go from computer to computer. I put all the files in my Dropbox and it works great with almost instant synchronization.
The more I work with Dropbox, the more the coming 50 Gb account offer looks like a bargain

OpenCourseware and teaching

One of the finer things of being involved in ‘open’ is the feeling that you are really involved in something greater, in a world where people and organizations actually want to contribute because it is the right thing to do. Yes, ego comes into play, perhaps the lure of future monetary rewards. Organizations and commercial institutions might jump on the ‘open’ bandwagon with a keen eye to their revenues and market shares. Be that as it may, the majority of contributions simply share out an enormous wealth of knowledge and skills with which we can enhance our skills and competencies.

OpenCourseware is part of the open realm and the venerable MIT started it. It’s MIT OpenCourseware site now holds 1800 courses. MIT isn’t the only institutions offering top notch course materials online, for free. The OpenCourseware Consortium is made up of dozens of institutes of higher learning from all over the globe.

There is so much available material that articles that try to list some highlights. Christina Laun compiled a list of over 60 courses that teachers can use to become up to date. A few courses help teachers to understand the open source tools that are widely available now:

A great list and it is good to see open source tools in there.

Google fools around with iGoogle

Between one refresh and the next Google decided to alter my iGoogle page. Fortunately it came with some explanation. The tabs on the top have been replaced by a navigation bar on the right. According to the information page, reading the news and chatting with your friends had a visual makeover as well. Some newsfeeds now contain the first few lines of the article.

On the next refresh

An easy introducion to programming Python?

MIT Open Courseware provides “A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python“. The phrase “gentle introduction” has it’s own connotations, but then I noticed the following sentence:

This course will provide a gentle introduction to programming using Pythonâ„¢ for highly motivated students with little or no prior experience in programming computers.

“Highly motivated students”…. I read that as:

It’s really, really hard, but if you really, really want to, you should be able to do it. Gently.

Okay, enough kidding, it really is interesting. This is a course with 10 three-hour sessions to get you starting with Python. The course materials can be downloaded

What are Red Hat's plan for the Linux desktop?

An interesting article about Red Hat’s strategic view on the Linux desktop market. Some highlights:

  1. the Linux desktop market is about small pennies, whereas the Linux server market is about big bucks,
  2. Red Hat focuses on making it’s Red Hat Enterprise Linux business desktop friendly, channeling the novelties to the free Fedora desktop;
  3. Fortune 500 companies want to move 25% of their desktops to Linux to replace Windows XP Pro, because of better TCO, the ability to take your virtual machine on a USB stick and to manage it via Red Hat’s management tools;
  4. Red Hat focuses on subscription licenses for a complete offering from server to desktop, the demand driven from the server end.

Practical Technology » Red Hat and the Linux Desktop 2008

Sourceforge 2008 Community Awards: Nominate PortableApps

I like to work with free and open source software, both at home and at the workplace. And I’d like to have my personal e-mail accounts and fattened browsers close at hand to roam the digital realm from whatever computer there is at hand. John Haller’s Portable Applications have been the package of choice for quite some time now. The Portable Apps Suite is a great way to start off new people on free and open source software. Just give them a USB stick (hardly cost anything nowadays) with the suite and they have a painless way of trying out the new toys.

One of the great things about Portable Apps is that there is a continuous streams of all software, new applications are only allowed after testing and only if they are under an open source license. The new portable Firefox 3 is ready for download on the same day as the regular one.

So, I added my vote to nominate PortableApps as the best project for the Sourceforge 2008 Community Awards. It’s one of the projects that definitely helps reducing the barriers to adoption of free and open source software.

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