Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “Column”

Lee Harvey Oswald was *not* a Microsoft shill

Let me be completely clear from the outset: I am totally unreliable. Yes, really, you shouldn’t trust a word I write or say about free and open source. Perhaps you might be fooled by the dozens of articles I have written on the subject or the small collection of books about Linux and open source with my name on it. See, that is all part of a grand strategy to infiltrate the free and open source community. And you know why I am unreliable? Honestly, you want to know?

Well, I did have two or three interesting conversations with various people working at Microsoft, I even went to visit the Dutch Microsoft office at Schiphol, the Netherlands. On Twitter I follow a few Microsoft employees. To make things worse, I also have various versions of Windows installed on two computers. Windows XP en Windows 7 on my laptop, alongside PC-BSD, Mandriva 2009 and Ubuntu 9.10. And Windows Vista and Windows 7 on my desktop, next to Ubuntu 8.04 and Ubuntu 8.10 (and a small collection Linux distibutions via virtual machines on that box). If this didn’t corrupt me enough I wouldn’t know what else could.

Why this public confession?

Truth be told, it was spawned by the ongoing Mono debate, or rather the continued personal attacks vice versa aimed at the various participants in the debate. From the outset I considered the debate about Mono and the decisions of Ubuntu en Debian to include Mono-based applications in their default releases a non-issue.It is a non-issue. If I don’t like the choices made by a distro-builder, I either remove all crap I don’t want or simply move to another distribution. This is the freedom I have and I like to keep it that way.

However, a tiny minority (of course claiming to represent multiudes of concerned but silent by-standers) took it upon themselves to raise the issue in forums and mailinglists, as well as on their internet headquarters. Not hindered by any real knowledge about the other participants in the debate they banged hammers on anvils, trying to shove their key arguments through the collective throats of Ubuntu and Debian developers. Well, “arguments”. There was and is only one argument that is repeated and repeated again and again: Mono is related to Microsoft, Microsoft is inherently evil, Mono is inherently evil. Though the style of argumentation has decent roots in Greek philosophy, the basic argument is both stale and shallow. But, following this way of thinking, I am guilty by association, hence completely unreliable.

Without proper arguments the Mono debate turned into a ‘mano a mano’ match, spurring the well-respected debater Glynn Moody to call for a ‘cease fire’, or at least to stop the ad hominem attacks. So far it didn’t work.

Advocate of free(dom)

Recently I wrote the article “Embrace and extend: a non-binary approach to open source promotion“. I don’t believe in a simple, binary outlook on life, nor on issues in the free and open source world. I don’t believe in the simple ‘Microsoft is evil’ mantra. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep a close watch at what major corporations with huge commercial interests are doing in the world of free and open source. And there are benefits to pursuing a strong debate, based on solid arguments, promoting the case for free and open source software, and open standards.

What I do mind is that a small minority seems to be on a single-minded pursuit of ideological purity for free. Anyone who doesn’t share that pursuit and raises the slightest of criticism is accused of being a Microsoft shill. Using a toolbox which would make the average conspiracy theorist proud, everything is used to prove that the critic is somehow influenced by, related to or -the worst,of course- paid by Microsoft. I guess I saved some people the time to find the evidence.

What is my problem with that single-minded pursuit of ideological purity for free? Am I not an advocate of free and open source software and open source? Yes, I like to think I am. But above all I am an advocate of freedom, in this case, the freedom to make an informed choice. We should educate computer users about the various choices that are possible, both proprietary and free/open, with the consequences. We should not impose a choice upon them, it is their freedom. If someone or some organization then decides it wants to go for a complete Microsoft controlled environment, so be it. If he/she goes for a completely free environment, that is fine with me. Each choice has it’s own pro’s and con’s. Just be knowledgeable, make an informed decision and live with the consequences.

Yet, those who fight for ideological purity want to take away that freedom of choice from me. They want to remove everything that doesn’t measure up to their standard of free. Instead of providing decent arguments they go for the jugular. And I don’t believe for a second that this tiny minority is in any way representative for the free software movement. But it did achieve to stir up a sad debate about a non-issue resulting in personal attacks on free and open source developers we should respect for their hard work over the last years or even decades.

And, to paraphrase the final paragraph from the ‘Embrace and extend’-article, pursuing a negative, almost paranoid campaign against the not-so-pure 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?

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?

The Cost of Free

Furious! This describes the response of a portion of the Dutch free and open source afficionados when hearing about the idea that OpenOffice.org might get advertisements as part of the binary package. Jonathan Schwartz (Sun Microsystems), who launched the idea on his weblog (and already retracted it), was aware the idea could cause a furor. Strangely enough, the anger seemed limited to the Netherlands.

The newsfeeds archives and the ironclad memory of internet search engines reveal that the most vociferous opposition against the idea was heard in the Netherlands. The rest of the digital realm hardly paid any attention to it. Why not? Well, perhaps the rest of the world has a better understanding that free and open can and should not be confused with ‘gratis’ (i.e. free as in ‘free beer’). In the Netherlands, a country where being cheap is considered a thing of pride, ‘free beer‘ instead of ‘free speech’ seems to be more important. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, but please refrain from making ludicrous statements like: “Sun (and others) don’t understand the GPL license (the LGPL actually) and advertisements and commercialization are not allowed under the license”. Funny, because if this is true, the GNU.org organization doesn’t understand it either, considering the article Selling free software.

It’s the attitude behind ‘hmmm nice, free beer’ that is flawed. Users of free and open source software, both corporate and private, need to consider the cost of free. Yes, developing, supporting and promoting the software is done by scores of volunteeers. But, developing the Linux kernel and bringing solid and reliable Linux distrutions to the market place also involves major corporations with commercial interests and needs. Development of the webbrowser Firefox floats on the millions made by an agreement between the Mozilla Foundation and Google.

Using free and open source software doesn’t come with freedom alone, but also with responsibilities, including the responsibility to contribute financially to the development of it. If you don’t want that and simply voice your ‘right’ to make ‘gratis’ use of the software. Well, you’d better stick to your illegally downloaded proprietary software.

Zero Comments – In search of inspiration

The digital realm is abuzz with the fruits of our keyboards. My editiorial job for Livre magazine involves keeping track on a collection of newsfeeds concerning open source, open standards and related fields. One conclusion is paramount: the number of articles with original content is extremely limited. Much of what is written and published has a high “me too” level. The book Zero Comments. Blogging and Critical Internet Culture by Geert Lovink popped up in the newsfeeds a while ago and as editor I was able to request a review copy. It’s a fascinating read and led to a new experiment: Content Only!. Read more…

Open XML – the beginning of the end?

The decision has been made and a new reality has risen. We now have two ISO approved document standards that claim to be open. “Open” is an interesting key phrase in our time, just like “green” and “soap”. The discussion will rage on about the fairness of the procedure, about whether the ISO has been damaged because of all this, but that’s only interesting for historians and wikipedia editors. Microsoft has what it wanted (ISO approval of it’s in-house developed standard) and the free and open source world is looking at the ashes on the battelfield. But, does it really matter?
Read more…

2007: The year of candy, not innovation

Another hype is born. Two million copies of the new Mac OS X Leopard were sold in the first weekend alone. Gee.. Those are solid figures, ones we wouldn’t mind seeing in the realm of Linux. Okay, we might not actually sell two million copies, but it would be great to see a news item stating that Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon was downloaded two million times in the first weekend. Or any other distribution for that matter. Even all distro’s taken together would be nice. Apple’s website is trumping up Leopard as much as it can, pointing to more than 300 new features. Considering the sales figures there are plenty of folk out there that believed good old Steve Jobs again.

But -and maybe it’s just me- how innovative, how new, how fresh is Mac OS X Leopard really? I mean, when we were following the birth of Windows Vista that was painfully obvious even before it hit the markets: very little. The real innovations in the road map (mostly under the hood of the system) were either scrapped or postponed until much later. What remained was a new release with new security features and a new look-and-feel. Plus -of course- a lot of problems with drivers and software that didn’t work anymore and a serious drain on your bank account to get the needed hardware. Is anyone surprised that the end users didn’t go for a massive migration to Windows Vista? Well, it proves one thing: even a monopolist like Microsoft can’t stuff it all through the customers throat.

Back to Mac OS X Leopard. The Apple website doesn’t make me happy, though I doubt it ever intended to make me feel that way. Three hundred plus new features? Can someone explain me where? Oh, Steve’s marketing department has been making overtime again (yep, the ’80 hours a week and still loving it’ motto still works). The Time Machine! This should attract all fans of H.G. Wells and make them spend the money. Just listen to the quote:

Set it, then forget it.
To start using Time Machine, all you have to do is connect an external drive (sold separately) to your Mac. You’re asked if you want it to be your backup drive, and if you say yes, Time Machine takes care of everything else. Automatically. In the background. You’ll never have to worry about backing up again.

Wow! Why didn’t I think of it? You take rsync, give the graphical interface a thorough Leopard make-over and make the user pay for an external hard drive while you are at it. Brilliant? Sure! Innovative, new, fresh? Yeah, right. Ah well, please take a look on the Apple website yourselves and draw your own conclusions. From my perspective all those so-called new features have been around for quite some time in Linux, heck, even in Windows. Pathetic.

And with this Mac OS X Leopard has become the third major operating system that celebrates the 2007 releases cycle with new graphical gimmicks, spit and shine. It was Windows Vista unique selling point (though less unique as they would like it). Compiz Fusion can almost be called the current hype in the realm of Linux and -thanks to a tough monkey- we are no rotating ourselves away on our open source desktops.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love “eye candy”. But as we have all learned from our dentists: too much candy is not good. And don’t forget to brush your teeth regularly and well. To be honest, I kind of missed that brushing in 2007. It’s fabulous to see your windows slide forward and backward with all the shiny thingies, but once the window stops moving it’s no longer a pretty sight.

One example. OpenOffice.org is a fine program, but the user interface is stuck in the mid 1990s. While writing the book, I reviewed, tested and worked with dozens and dozens of programs in various categories. When it comes to functionality there is plenty around for the end users, but when it comes to user friendliness the picture is somewhat more bleak. I can only hope that 2008 will become the year that some true innovation in the graphical user interface will take place. A rotating cube is great for a demonstrations, but a word processor stays in front of you most of the day. To be honest, I almost prefer Word 2007 over OpenOffice.org when it comes to the interface and the way functions are made available to me. Almost…

So, at the end of 2007 we have three operating systems with similar desktops filled with eye candy. For Linux that is a major achievement, to have almost the same graphical performance as the two main commercial competitors. Now it’s time to push forward and ahead in 2008.

Column: Sturm und Drang

It can never hurt to get yourself a Communications 101 course. I did get some more than that during my university years, but let’s stick to a simple model of communication. You have a sender/transmitter, the message and the receiver. To make it somewhat more complete: also take the medium into account as the carrier of the message. Just keep this model in mind with basically all forms of communication and see how much the wiser you get.

Who could avoid the uproar in the Linux world in the last week. The Big Enemy from Redmond U.S.A., known in some circles as Microsoft -the near monopolist in desktop operating systems- went a bit “loco” in the head and accused Linux of patent infringes. 235 infringes! This was such a veil attack that forceful countermeasures were warranted. A how forcefully the responses were on numerous websites and weblogs. A real “Sturm und Drang” with a sprinkle of primal scream  here and there.

Back to Communications 101. The article that caused the uproar was an interview of Fortune reporter Roger Parloff with some Microsoft head hotshots Brad Smith en Horacio Gutierrez. What was the medium or carrier? The CNN Money website!. Indeed, the number one website for hardcore IT-news. Not! The message was never intended for the Linux world, but for Corporate America, to the CEO’s and board rooms of the Fortune 500 companies (or the wannabe’s and wanna-be-there’s). In the U.S.A.. Why is this important? First, we do well to realize that litigation is an integral part of the business warchest of American corporate culture. It is an acceptable instrument and one no company will want to blunt in public. The shareholders accept nothing less than a company willing to do everything to legally protect their interests.

What was the message for Corporate America? The description of the Linux world is a tale in itself. Richard Stallman was presented as someone with a heartfelt loathing for patents -considered part of the life blood for companies and their R&D departments- and the look and lack of flexibility of and Old Testament prophet. The reporter makes a side remark about Eben Moglen that he is professor in the history of political economy. Short translation: Moglen is a Marxist. Stallman then appears as accommodating as Bin Laden. Since Fortune refused to comply with Richard’s demand to be consistent in the use of GNU/Linux he did not cooperate in preparation for the article. And then the world of Linux itself. Ridiculous, it is an amorphous mass of developers and companies and nobody can be held accountable. No one is accountable!!! That must some communist ragtag band. The article really pulled out all old images of Capitalism versus Communism. Why did the reporter not present the CEO’s of IBM, Canonical or Red Hat? Imagine, Linux might even appear “salonfähig” (to use another good German phrase) enough for the board rooms.

We -in the Linux world- really want to know specifically which Microsoft patents are violated by our favorite operating systems. Personally I am convinced that I violate one or more patents when I open my eyes in the morning, completely aware that some company had that action patented. Anyway, Microsoft came up with some numbers. Linux kernel: 42 patents, graphical user interface: 65 patents, OpenOffice.org: 45 patents, e-mail: 15, all others: 68. Only 45 infringes for OpenOffice.org? Gee. Maybe the boys and girls in Redmond need to take a closer look because there should me more. The complete OpenOffice.org interface and functionality is so Office97 that it hurts my eyes. Anyway, the accusation is nothing new and we still have the same information we had a year ago.

Is it all bluff? Or can the claims be substantiated? It is part of a poker game. Not with Microsoft and the Linux community as the key players, but with Microsoft and Corporate America who may thin migrating to Linux is a bargain. The majority of the patents appears to focus on the desktop side where Microsoft makes it’s money through Vista and Office. At the same time it also the market place where it can not act too aggressively to push a small, minute competitor away. Now, the server market is a whole different ballgame. Microsoft is meeting tough and fierce competition from Linux and Unix derivates. Sun (with Solaris in the field) is buddy buddy with Microsoft. Novell is playing nice at well, at least for the next couple of years. It is fighting on a par with the other players to get the contracts for the Fortune 500 companies. Linux is not the underdog here. Now, it might not seem nice to present your competition as a group of fundamentalist communist thieves without respect for intellectual property, bit how often does the Linux world refers to Microsoft as some capitalist monopolistic robber baron. That’s also not nice, don’t you think?

Suppose for a moment that Microsoft is correct and that Linux infringes 235 patents. As far as I am concerned Microsoft can make a full disclosure tomorrow in exchange for a promise that we will stop using all code that is tainted. All of it, with no exceptions and no questions asked. No counter litigation. Nothing. I really believe we should deal with these threats by following two established traditions. One is the example set by the Debian project. There has been some criticism about the decision to remove the name and logo of Firefox and Thunderbird due to limiting copyrights, but it does prevent software with any limiting rights entering the repositories. The other example is BSD. In the early days of BSD the developers created a list of code that was not free and wrote new code to replace it. The didn’t fight the position of the rights owner, but focused on making new, free code. How long would this take for the 235 infringes? I have no idea, but it didn’t take the BSD team long when they had to do it and it only consisted of a handful of people. 235 problems to be solved by a worldwide community of hackers in cooperation with multiple big companies. It could take maybe two or three years but it would be done with the tide on our side. Endusers who know why we take one step back now will wait out this period.

Microsoft plays the game well. It’s message was directed at Corporate America, a warning that Linux might be less cheap than some CEO’s think. Maybe the Linux world should remember the Carly Simon song: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you…”.

This column was originally written for the Dutch website Digiplace, a meeting place for Linux users.

Tags: Linux, Microsoft

Column: Polemic research

What may we expect from a research report? Is it possible to be objective, neutral, when doing research? While I was in university majoring in societal history this was one of the fundamental questions. Can any research into social phenomena be without bias? As a blogger and columnist I present opinions, mine. But what if I wanted to report seriously about the strengths and weaknesses of developing open source software. I strongly believe in the classical scientific method: formulate a hypothesis, determine the instruments, collect data, analyze them and see what the results lead to. No matter whether I like what comes up or not.

Unfortunately there is too little research of this type in IT. Commercial and/or ideological interests play too great a part that the conclusions are written beforehand. I do think it is worse when a blogger/columnist gives personal opinion the odium of research. Like ‘The sorry state of open source’ which was published at Planète Béranger earlier this week.

The 25 html-page piece is more like a j’accuse, a polemic instead of clear and objective analysis. Which is a shame since the issues mentioned do deserve a closer inspection.

They key argument is that the development of Linux has deviated from solid Unix traditions. As a result there is more attention for features instead of functionality, for innovation instead of stability and for quick hacks instead of structural solutions. PB’s examples to support the argument are quite disturbing. It reminds me of my own thoughts when I read about the inclusion of KVM in the Linux kernel, a new technology by a complete outsider.

The drive to become userfriendly is blamed for the deviation from Unix traditions. PB pushes for education over userfriendliness. The lack of proper Unix/Linux training shows itself in the dramatically reduced quality of help and advice in forums and IRC. The last argument I have been heard before, but is it really necessary to go all the way back to the man pages? I agree that online documentation should improve, but the man pages are simply not accessible enough for most endusers.

It seems like -from the viewpoint of PB- that userfriendliness and quality are mutually exclusive. FreeBSD fell into that trap and apart from Slackware most Linux distributions as well. Some releases are okay, but mostly PB encourages to take the example of *BSD.

And this is where the article looses it. OpenBSD and NetBSD are not for the desktopuser. Different target group, different philosophy of development. To start here and judge the (non-)value of Beryl/Compiz and the loss performance because of it is nonsense. PB is full of dédain about Gnome versus KDE debates. You won’t find such wastefull debates among ‘serious’ users of Flux and windowmaker. Yep.

I can imagine -and the article makes a solid case for it- that there is a tension when releasing distributions. There are benefits to working with predetermined release moments, but this could also encourage using quick hacks as last minute solutions. The iso’s have to be on the mirrors by tomorrow, so… There isn’t much wrong with this approach, but one wonders whether the quick hack will be replaced by more permanent solid solutions. The new releasedate is rapidly approaching and -be honest- it is way more fun to work on new feature. ‘Bleeding edge’ does sound so much better in the Blogosphere then ‘stable’.

When we look at the large group of Windows 2 Linux migrators (W2L) the release cycle doesn’t have to be that fast. Windows users are accustomed to working with a version of an operating system that lasts three to five years, with a service pack or two to fix the holes. The same goes for most of the desktop software they use. The largest and most important group of Linux users keeps all kinds of servers up and running and from a professional perspective they also don’t need 6 monthly releases. So -it seems to me- there won’t be much complaint when a release is one or two months late, especially when this visibly benefits the quality of the release. Sure, there will be a cry of complaint from bloggers and online tech-reporters, but who do they write for anyway.

‘The sorry state of open source’ is a polemic wrapped around a number of very valid arguments. But it is not research and the whole article doesn’t contain anything that justifies the weird copyright notice that comes with it. Promoting a more solid method of developing Linux and better documentation, both following the best Unix traditions is fine, as is impressing the need for better enduser education. Sadly, the overall presentation might the factor that prevents most from accepting that.

This column is part of a series I write for Digiplace.nl, a Dutch website where Ubuntu users meet and learn.

Tags: Linux, Open Source

Column: What's his beef with Linux?

“What’s his beef with Linux?” I can imagine some people wonder if I have something against Linux. The first two contributions to Digiplace.nl were quite critical in tone. Well, to clarify one thing: I have nothing against Linux. On the contrary, I would take any opportunity to promote Linux among Windows users. On April 1st one of my online buddies deleted Windows from his harddrive, after receiving a step by step guidance through all the problems he encountered with Ubuntu. After a demonstration, a church pastor recently started promoting the use of Ubuntu Linux among church members in order to reduce the use of illegal software. And in a few weeks time I will explain the joys of software installation via synaptic and apt-get to a group of novice users. That is how I contribute to the spread of Linux.

But, I am not blind and deaf during my promotional activities. At each event I hear real life problems and frustrations. I know there are solutions to most, if not all of them. The solutions start with the phrase: “you have to do a Google search for..”, after which the majority of users is bombarded with a variety of possible solutions. Why? You have to know how to phrase the real problem, know what really is wrong.

Thanks to Microsoft and years of IT-education most users are unable to do that. “It just doesn’t work anymore”. When was the last time you contacted an IT helpdesk? I won’t do that anymore. I’d like to get my assistance on my level of expertise and refuse to talk to a well-meaning assistant that first has to ask whether I plugged in the computer properly. Unfortunately, such questions are necessary for many other users and it helps the helpdesk to isolate the real problem step by step.

There are various methods to promote Linux. The first method -the least effective as far as I am concerned- is the RTFM approach. Let the users find their own solutions. An alternative approach is used by the likes of Ubuntu, Linspire and Xandros. They want to make W2L migration as easy as possible and simplify all management tools. Add closed source drivers and proprietary codecs in the mix and we have a first Linux experience that is not the cause of post-traumatic stress. Granted, this approach is more effective than the RTFM approach, but it is still not enough. Why not? Murphy’s Law, of course! Something will go wrong and what do you do then? Besides, even these distributions require rudimentary skills with the commandline interface. And most W2L migrators haven’t seen a commandline since Windows95.

If Linux needs to gain ground on the desktop, we don’t need to wait for the operating systems and applications require a future level of maturity. The maturity is there. I would argue that it is no problem to migrate most home and business users right now. It might require the support of Wine, Cedega, Crossover, VirtualBox, VMware en/of Xen, but it is possible. Adding Click-and-Run to Ubuntu might look like a good idea, but it doesn’t solve the real problem: bad IT education.

And this is where we -you and me- come in, to add effort where our mouth is. Sending around free CD’s with Linux is good. Writing helpful How-to’s is very useful. Offering tips and tricks in IRC and in forums, please continue with that. But we are talking proper education here, helping people to understand the operating system, teaching them problem-solving skills. No install fests,but educational programs about the how and why of Linux.

And we have to learn to listen in order to send back the problems and obstacles to the developers and distro builders. To help them build real solutions. Until those solutions have materialized I consider it my obligation to point out the shortcomings. Not out of spite, but out of love for Linux and it’s scores of developers. Both of which deserve a better place on the computer desktop.

This column is part of a series that appears on Digiplace.nl, a Dutch weblog run by Jos Herni.

Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Education

Column: "But mine is free"

Didn’t you ever drive behind one of those? One of those vehicles on four wheels that are legally considered cars, whose proud owner has a bumper sticker with the line: “Smile. But mine is paid”. Before the Berlin wall came tumbling down there were proud owners of Eastblock produce. Lada, Skoda en Yugo. During my years on Curaçao I had the Lada sportsmobile, the Lada Samara. It was ideal! The thing was a tank with a platework so thick no rust could get a handle on it. And when someone drove into it, the other car had the damage. You only needed to paint it army green, put a cannon on the roof and the monster was ready for the Cold War.

But, what was the sales pitch for these cars from the workers’ paradise? They were cheap, functional and robust. The owner were almost elated about the barren simplicity. These cars were so simple you could repair them yourself. You had to. The market value was zero point nothing and sales were less than sluggish. No, then the Japanese cars. More rust then metal. But sales were soaring, because they did have a deluxe shine with that metallic coat of paint. Hmmm, reminds me of an operating system I know.

Fast forward to the present. The workers’ paradise is no longer behind the Iron Curtain. The communist continues life as a Linux hacker and the Communist Manifesto is transformed into the GPL. World domination is to be achieved via an operating system and applications. Do you know the main sales pitch? Linux is free, secure, stable and functional. Yes, you can, are allowed, no, even should look into the source code. Ha, you won’t see that with those capitalist pigs from Redmond.

Yes, Linux even has a female spokesperson nowadays, a slender your woman who can tell you that Linux has 30 million users. Vista achieved 20 million in the first few months of it’s existence. Okay… put yourself in the position of a hormone driven teenager with his modded gamerig. Neon, shining lights, black and chrome. Got that? Picture Suse on it…. Or worse, Debian Woody, default install, because it is developed by a group of bickering hackers bound to a social contract…. See the problem? A nice paint job still does miracles, even 25 years later. Yes, yes, I can hear some of you think: “What about Compiz and Beryl?” True, but by the time that has reached mainstream Linux Vista has sold another 20 million. We have to change that.

It didn’t matter in those days for the average car buyer that the Yugo was a fine car for the money you paid for it and it doesn’t matter for average computer consumer Linux is superior in terms of security, stability and price. To push it’s way to the desktop, both in the business as at home, Linux needs a paint job. Free and reliable don’t do well in a sales pitch. It might, for the nerdy sysadmin, but not for his boss who controls the budget. By the way, I can still see the IT professionals during the employment heydays, waiting to pick out their company cars. And no, there was no Lada to be seen. The boss knows what sells.

Oh, and for those who are interested, you can download this bumper sticker for your computer: “Smile. But mine is free”

Tags: Linux

This column is part of a series I write for Digiplace.nl, where it appears in Dutch.

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