Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the category “Uncategorized”

Simple Forum

On day 16 I was pleasantly surprised by KMail and it’s import options for e-mail boxes. This isn’t the first time I looked at Kontact and it’s components, but I decided to dig a little deeper and answer the question whether Kontact is a good personal information manager for novice DesktopBSD users.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-summary.png

What is the idea behind Kontact?

First of all. If you want to install Kontact, don’t start looking for a package called Kontact. It’s called kdepim and you can install it via package or ports. If you want to find more information online about Kontact you can go to two websites: the KDEPIM website for developers and contributors and the Kontact website for users. It’s always a bit of fun to see the marketing machine churning out business lingo and the Kontact machine has done it’s job as well:

The KDE Kontact Personal Information Management suite unites mature and proven KDE applications under one roof. Thanks to the powerful KParts technology, existing applications are seamlessly integrated into one.

The components of KDE Kontact are tailored to work well with each other. This results in features like intuitive drag-and-drop between appointment handling, task lists and contacts. KDE Kontact supports various groupware servers. When using these servers your workgroup has access to features like shared email folders, group task lists, calendar sharing, central addressbooks and meeting scheduling.

In short: KDE Kontact delivers innovations to help you manage your communications more easily, organize your work faster and work together more closely, resulting in more productivity and efficiency in digital collaboration.

The mission statement for KDEPIM is even better:

We intend to design an extensible cross-desktop storage service for PIM data and meta data providing concurrent read, write, and query access. It will provide unique desktop wide object identification and retrieval.

Integration and cooperation between the various components is at the heart of development.

First stop – the Calendar or KOrganizer

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-calender.png

In order to compete with Outlook the open source desktop needs a good calendar application. Not just a decent application, but one that is rock solid, easy to use and feature-complete. At first sight, Calendar seems a bit barren but looks are deceitful. For one, Calendar can be integrated with various mail- and groupware servers that you normally would find in a business environment. Think Novell Groupwise 6.5, think Microsoft Exchange, think Citadel, Kolab, eGroupware, OpenGroupware.org and Suse Linux Openexchange.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-calender-2.png

And Calendar doesn’t stop here with making an impression. Just try to add new events and set the pattern of recurrence. Maybe I missed it in other programs, but I could easily set the recurrence pattern and select the days of expection. It shouldn’t be a problem to import calendars from other programs since Calendar supports both the iCalendar and vCalendar standards. Should you wish to migrate from Outlook to Calendar, you can use the Outlook2vCal tool to get all your appointments in vCalendar format.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-calender-3.png

One thing I couldn’t test -but which would be very important in a business environment- is the ability to synchronize the data with my PDA. Kontact uses Kitchensync to take care of that. If you want to test it out, first check the device compatibility list.

Mail or KMail

On day 16 we already took a closer look at the mail component. I went over the configuration screen and was amazed by the available options. I guess I still have to get used to the KDE way of doing things. The security settings alone would require me to read up on things.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-mail-1.png

Mail supports anti-spam and anti-virus programs, though there are not part of the program itself. The respective wizards -found under Tools- ended in messages that no spam detection or anti-virus tools were detected.

A bit of a disappointment – Contact or KAddressbook

Where Calendar left a good impression, Contact left me wanting. Oh, Contact can also hook up to various groupware servers and it is possible to import contactfiles in various formats (like Microsoft Exchange, Eudora and CSV). Adding new contacts is very simple and you can store quite a lot of information here, including various security settings and crypto keys. The field “Blog feed” is original and seemed quite Web 2.0 to me. It seemed like a good idea to keep track of the online activities of your contacts with their own weblogs.

From that perspective I found it disappointing to see the end result of adding a new contact. I expected to see a live feed, not the URL of the blog.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-contacts-6.png

Maybe in the next release.

News or KNode

There was a time I kept track of various newsgroups intensively and even today I glance at them from time to time. When you click on News, you immediately see the window to add the account information. It’s simple and straightforward with a familiar interface.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-news-1.png

On the other hand, Usenet seems to become more of a place to find new music, video and/or software instead of finding information. News doesn’t support binary downloads or the so-called .NZB files (or did I miss something?).

Some smaller and/or minor components

A few years ago I read Stephen Covey’s “The seven habits of highly effective people” for the first time. Let’s say I was in need of a better method for time management. One thing I learned was that simple to-do lists are not sufficient, because those lists tend to get longer, not shorter. Franklin Covey, the company, has a nice program that wraps itself around Outlook. It’s fun to organize your life around a list with A, B, C and D priorities. If you stick to it.

Anyway, let’s not drift to far from the subject at hand. Kontact has a To-do list component, you can add sticky notes (KNotes) and keep track of how your spend your time (KArm). If you need them, they are there. Personally I found them to be a bit behind some of the other components.

Perfect round up – Feeds or Akkregator

Strange enough there is no information about Akkregator on the KDE PIM or Kontact webpages. With Akkregator you can keep track of various newsfeeds and it was here that I expected the blog feed from the contacts to appear. What I really like is the integration with Konquerer. When you land on a page with an RSS feed, it takes only a click to add that feed to Akkregator.

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-feeds-2.png

desktopbsd-day17-kontact-feeds-3.png

Is Kontact a good PIM for novice DesktopBSD users?

This is one those questions that you really, really want to answer with “yes”. Kontact has some very strong components like Calendar and Feeds. Mail is fine, but not overly distinguishable from other programs. Importing your e-mail from other accounts is a strong point though. Contacts is a weak component. Overall, Kontact is fast and responsive and the integration is marvelous. It is highly configurable and that would be fine for quite a large group of users. When I look at it, the answer to the question is: “almost”.

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Writing a book in one month?

About a week from now I will start  a new series of articles “DesktopBSD: the first 30 days”. This coincides with the annual National Novel Writing month. It’s the insane challenge to write a complete book of 50.000 words (or 175 pages) in one month.

What: Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month’s time.

Who: You! We can’t do this unless we have some other people trying it as well. Let’s write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together.

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era’s most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

When: Sign-ups begin October 1, 2007. Writing begins November 1. To be added to the official list of winners, you must reach the 50,000-word mark by November 30 at midnight. Once your novel has been verified by our web-based team of robotic word counters, the partying begins.

Now, writing about DesktopBSD isn’t going to be fictional and I seriously doubt it will ever be considered “novell” enough to win the Booker prize, but I don’t mind giving the 175 page goal a shot. Or at least finish the month with a lot of pieces to work on a book for new users to *BSD.

PC-BSD Day 30: The verdict

Thirty days with PC-BSD. One month that flew by. In this month I tried to work with PC-BSD every day, sometimes from a more novice viewpoint, sometimes by pushing the limits from the perspective of the more daring user. There are still issues that haven’t been tested yet like mounting network shares at boot time (always easy in a SOHO network) or trying to access the shared printer on my wife’s Windows XP desktop. I also didn’t test PC-BSD on my laptop and try support for wifi in that way. But, overall, I did what I would normally do on a Linux desktop or at work on a Windows desktop, which -for me- indicates I can make a decent judgment about PC-BSD as a day to day desktop. I know I have barely scratched the surface of *BSD, but this would hold true for many novice users.

PBIs: strengths and weaknesses

One of the key selling points of PC-BSD is the PBI system to install and manage new software. You might almost call it the Unique Selling Point for PC-BSD. In essence, the concept is a strong one. You provide novice users with complete, self-contained binary installers which almost have no interference with the core system.

Using the PBIs has been a mixed blessing. A brief overview of the negatives:

– First, not all mirrors work. There were a couple of occasions where clicking on a mirror resulted in an error message that the package did not exist.
– Not all PBIs work. This was most notable with the games.
– Not all PBIs include all the necessary dependencies. A case in point were the GIMP and Abiword PBIs, though I must say that the GIMP PBI was removed shortly afterward and work began on a new version
– The specific PBI pages do include a “latest date” indication, but don’t say which PC-BSD is supported by the PBI.
– The list of available PBIs is limited.
– Maintaining and updating the PBIs is left to individual developers.

This last point I found to be very risky, especially for a company that uses the PBI system as an important key feature. One might expect a somewhat higher level of central involvement. According to Matt they are working on a way to build more PBIs automatically.

On plus side the PBIs do provide an easy way to install and manage software. The strength of the system was provided by the non-official PBIs with which you could install Windows-based software under PC-BSD/Wine. This was mostly software that is needed in a W2L/BSD strategy. The PBI system also allows the building of ‘creatively’ constructed packages to circumvent present limitations in FreeBSD, like the PBI with Firefox under Wine and Flash 9.

With the PBIs being so important I can only recommend a swift increase in the number of PBIs and to make them easier accessible. The website is not bad, but I would prefer a GUI frontend from within PC-BSD itself where you can select, download and install the PBIs. Such a frontend would select the proper package for your version of PC-BSD. In the mean time a critical look at all the descriptions is definitely needed. I would also like to see some better indicators of the progress of the installation. Especially with larger packages it appears that they don’t work or are stuck somewhere in the middle. This is confusing and might lead to abortions of the install process. Finally, the PBIs should be flawless.

PC-BSD as a FreeBSD system

The Quick Guide describes three methods to install new software. Apart from the PBIs these are the packages and the ports collection. PC-BSD is positioned as a FreeBSD system with full compatibility. This is true as long as you keep the core system as it is and don’t start installing software via packages and ports. At that point I got the impression that PC-BSD is not completely in sync with FreeBSD. I have seen too many second and third digit dependency errors that made installing software via packages or ports a hit-and-miss thing.

One might argue -as some have done- that the PBIs are the method of choice anyway and that if you want to work with ports and packages you’d better use FreeBSD proper. If so -and I tend to agree with both statements at this point- don’t bother the novice user with explanations about FreeBSD, packages or ports. Acknowledge the FreeBSD roots and then explain the best way to use PC-BSD.

Related to this were the update/upgrade problems. I was kind of shocked to find out that upgrading from 1.3 to 1.4 or from the beta to 1.4 final were not recommended or deemed possible. If that is true PC-BSD definitely needs a new partition/slices layout with /home being separate from the rest. Or some good instructions for novice users on how to secure their data from within -for them- the new system.

PC-BSD and hardware issues

In this month I had two hardware issues. First I had to go through a stack of hard drives that have served me well on various occassions, but weren’t acceptible to the PC-BSD installer. I am grateful for the suggestions to fix this issue, but those suggestions are beyond the reach of the novice user. He/she wouldn’t have a clue why a perfectly fine desktop would be unacceptable to PC-BSD and give up on the OS.

The second problem was with the graphics card. The suggestion to change the aperture in the BIOS was good and the solution worked. But PC-BSD is the only OS that needs this change and I have tried quite a few. Again, not something a novice user would understand and hence not something I want to see in an operating system that caters to the desktop user.

I had some issues with mounting USB drives while being logged in. I would get error messages and the drives wouldn’t mount. Rebooting with the USB drives connected corrected the problem.

PC-BSD as an applications platform

I have become an agnostic as to the operating system. The availability of multi-platform open source applications and open source standards have made that possible. Hence, the phrase “applications platform”. KDE desktop is well enough. Working with it on a daily basis led to more appreciation for this desktop. What I didn’t like was the lack of consistency on where new applications would wind up in the menu.

When you think about applications I found nothing lacking. Productivity, communications, browsing, multimedia, financial applications, PC-BSD has them all, though mostly via the packages and ports. Multimedia support out of the box is sufficient, but not completely without glitches. The problems with flash 9 based websites or with DVD playback come to mind.
I am used to changing the look and feel of GNOME desktop whenever I want to and use the gnome-look website to find new themes. Installing a new theme is simply a matter of dragging and dropping. Doing the same with the KDE desktop proved to be somewhat more cumbersome and more hit-and-miss.

I was impressed by the DesktopBSD-tools. Though not part of the PC-BSD system it surpasses Synaptic on various points.

Is PC-BSD ready for mainstream use on the desktop?

That’s the real question, isn’t it? But what does it mean to be ready for mainstream use on the desktop? The slide show that PC-BSD provides during the install gives you pictures of everyday users at home, in school and in the office, happily working with the new system. Is it wrong to conclude that PC-BSD wants to be the desktop of choice for your current colleagues, friends and schoolmates that have been shackled to Windows up to now?

The first impression of PC-BSD is good, really good. But once I went further into the system and using it I regularly ran into snags, some bigger than others. The majority of those problems would be encountered by this group of users quite quickly, problems they hardly encounter under Windows today. Yes, I know that *BSD is more stable, more secure and ultimately a much better OS than Windows can hope for, but that argument becomes moot when a simple PBI fails to install properly or when your USB stick appears unusable.

Does PC-BSD have the potential to be a serious contender for the open source desktop? I answered that questions with a yes, because the potential is there. The solid *BSD roots, the very strong and very accessible information, the friendly and mature community and the PBI system provide the foundations for that potential. I don’t think it is ready now and I couldn’t recommend it yet to someone in the early stages of moving away from Windows to an open source desktop. But I do think that the PC-BSD team has the right target audience in mind and is building an system and a support system that adresses it’s needs. PC-BSD 1.4 is a solid step in the right direction. I can recommend it to the more playful and experienced users and encourage them to provide as much feedback as possible.

Next experiment: DesktopBSD

As promised I will continue with another desktop oriented *BSD, DesktopBSD, and write another 30 days series. However, first I have to move house and make sure I’ll get online again in my new study. I want to start this series on November 1st.
To those who have followed this series and all of you who provided feedback and suggestion, I thank you for your patience and help. If anything, you have assured me that there is a part of the open source realm where mature people simply enjoy life and their open source desktop.

BSD Revisited: PC-BSD 1.4 RC

Eric’s response to my PCLinuxOS review was enough encouragement to take another step in getting reacquainted with BSD. The following remark promised me a whole new BSD experience:

So far this *BSD distro has done an unbelievable job in delivering a product that both the newbie and casual computer users can immediately use. It needs to come bundled with a Ports Manager but it works very well for many in the Windows2Linux/BSD crowd. (to the author of this article? if you review this distro – pay attention to what happens when you drag a file, right-click on files, menu organization – ie, normal PC operations).

PC-BSD is based on FreeBSD 6.2 but promises a more enduser-friendly experience. It was bought by iXsystems in October 2006. If you want to know more about the how and why of this acquisition I can encourage to read the interview of Dru Lavigne with Kris Moore and Matt Olander about it. One of the key selling points is the PBI system, that should make it easier for Windows and Mac users to install new software, not a small hurdle for many novice users to Linux or *BSD.

The PBI system
What is the PBI system? FreeBSD has it’s own ports and packages system to install, manage and remove software, but it takes some getting used to. Linux users will find a similar system in Gentoo and it’s derivatives. PBI’s are self-extracting and self-installing packages that install the software you want. They contain all the dependencies that are needed to run the program and in this way they reduce some serious headaches.
We have similar initiatives in the realm of Linux. There is Klik, Autopackage and the soon to be CNR warehouse. The PBI website is the place to be to download your package. There are various categories and a limited range of software. But, it’s a good start. I do hope it will fare better than Klik and Autopackage, which remained fringe tools at best.

First things first: Installing PC-BSD
I downloaded the 1.4 RC iso files from the website. This is a test candidate, so it could be that some of the problems I encountered resulted from it. The first problem I ran into is that it wouldn’t install on a spare 15 Gb harddrive I had lying around. I used it to install Ubuntu Ultimate Gamer 1.4 recently, but the installer wouldn’t format the drive and/or create a new filesystem. No problem, VMware is always close by and a fresh install on a newly created virtual box went without a glitch. This in itself is a great achievement, since I had my share of problems of trying that with FreeBSD 5.x.

While installing PC-BSD you won’t have to rely on a text-based wizard, but you will see a very nice graphical frontend.

PC-BSD-03 FreeBSD is working on achieving the same and only recently came up with a technology preview. Sorry guys, but PC-BSD is way ahead of you here. First you select the proper language and keyboard layout, then you agree with the license. In the third step you choose whether to go for a fresh install or an upgrade. Step number four involves setting up the root and first user accounts. The fifth step is usually the most challenging: setting up the partitions (and slices under FreeBSD). The text-based mode under FreeBSD has the ‘automatic’ option and that saves you the trouble of trying to find out what to do. PC-BSD simplified this even further.

I didn’t go for a dual-boot install, so I can’t comment on how easy or difficult this is. I can imagine however that the designations of drives and partitions, which are way different than under Windows and/or Linux, would provide a hurdle. But, it’s something you have to learn anyway when trying out *BSD and not complicated once you get the hang of it.

In step number six you can select some optional components like Firefox, extra KDE packages and the FreeBSD ports package. From then on it is go. It took me about 45 minutes to reboot into the new system. This is slow compared to for instance Ubuntu, but not extremely slow.

PC-BSD-04 PC-BSD-05 PC-BSD-06 PC-BSD-07 PC-BSD-08

First impressions
PC-BSD-11 Rebooting into PC-BSD is a pleasure in itself. The desktop has a solid and business-like impression. Yes, it’s completely graphical from the beginning, so no commandline to begin with. It’s completely KDE and it is one of less cluttered setups of the KDE desktop. There is a Konquerer shortcut to the PBI website, but there is enough to get started with. Amarok for your music experience, K3b to burn some disks, KOffice and OpenOffice.org as your workspace. Konquerer and Firefox to surf the net etc. etc. The packages are not bleeding edge (2.1 for OpenOffice.org for instance), but sufficiently up to date.

PC-BSD-12 PC-BSD-13 PC-BSD-14 PC-BSD-15

Going for the new stuff: experiencing PBI
The second order of business was to try out the new PBI system. I went to the website and got some packages I wanted. For one, I always want Abiword on my systems. It’s a small, lean and fast wordprocessor and by having it on all my boxes I won’t have to worry about document portability. I also wanted Thunderbird, Wine, GIMP and Acrobat Reader. There is one drawback to the PBI system: it makes for rather large packages. The PBI for Thunderbird is 38 MiB, while the Linux package is 11 Mb. Abiword needs 12,1 MiB, against 5 Mb for the Windows version and 3.6 Mb for the Autopackage version.

Once you finished downloading the PBI package it extracts automatically and gives you a graphical wizard with some basic questions. The packages then have their own place in the menutree. For now it is too bad that the location of the new software in the menutree is not consistent. Abiword and GIMP could be found under a new entry for PBI packages, Wine had it’s own entry and Acrobat Reader found it’s way in the Office section. But… Abiword and GIMP wouldn’t start up. I guess there are still unsolved dependencies, but since there are no warnings or error messages it is hard to tell.

PC-BSD-19

What next?
The next step is to use PC-BSD for a while and see whether it indeed makes for a more Windows-like experience. Which is what I will do in the coming weeks. As far as first impressions go, this one was good. When you use FreeBSD (or the other BSD’s) as point of reference, PC-BSD is an enormous step forward in terms of ease of install and software management. Personally I would not like to see an increase in PBI packages, but to see the development of an easy to use graphical front-end for the ports system. It can be done. Gentoo did for portage and Ports Authority did it for the Mac OSX. In my opinion that will unlock the more than 13.000 packages in the ports system for casual users in a better way than the PBI system ever can.

Update: I decided to give PC-BSD a real try as the default desktop at home. Feel free to follow along in PC-BSD: the first 30 days.

Portable Security for the Practical Paranoid

Recently I have been thinking about my online security. A bit late, some might say. True and I still don’t have to worry too much. On the other hand, I am getting more concerned that under the banner of “we have to stop the bad guys” all of us have to give up part of our civil liberties. If we continue on our current tracks we may reach a point that Orwell’s 1984 can be considered an utopian vision.

Anyway, it lead me on a brief search for portable applications which at least give me the feeling that I am more secure that I am now. The first step was to make my e-mail traffic more secure and make it more difficult for all kind of snoopers to read in on my e-mail. There is great portable version of Thunderbird, which can easily be extended with GPG encryption. It is simply a matter of installing the GPG for Thunderbird extension and then Enigmail to encrypt and sign your outgoing traffic. Of course you need to have a strong passphrase, but once that is done, it is no longer a problem to send (and receive) encrypted e-mail messages that would give various governments some headaches.

The second step was to obscure my going arounds in the digital realm. Could I obscure the digital crumbs that I leave behind while surfing the net? The answer, of course, is yes. There is a portable version of TOR. The package consists of Tor, Privoxy and Vidalia and the combination makes it very easy to hook up to the Tor network and obscure your own IP address. No doubt you will use Portable Firefox along with it, so the developers of Portable Tor suggest you use the Tor button extension for Firefox to enable/disable Tor from within the browser.

With e-mail and webbrowsing more secure, I want to make sure that no one could just plugin my USB drive and access those portable applications. I needed more security and that was provided by Truecrypt. Truecrypt is open source (I forgot to mention that, but that was the main requirement) and it allows you to encrypt a complete USB stick/drive or create an encrypted drive on a stick/disk. In the latter case Truecrypt will be installed as well in traveller mode. The online documentation is solid. The program is multiplatform though the Linux version is commandline only.

I created a new file, which became the encrypted container for a 1 Gb “drive”. You really have to be patient, because it took about 30 minutes to set it up. Now I have a USB drive that autostarts Truecrypt and asks for the password. You can also use GPG keys again, but you need to keep those at hand as well. Truecrypt then mounts the new drive and that gives me access to the secured versions of Thunderbird and Firefox.

The weakest point in the chain are the passphrases, which are stored in my head. So, any not so scrupulous police force that considers “please no, not again” as enough civil liberty, could try to beat it out of me. So there is a serious need to add another layer of portable security to the system. And I think I found it.

SumoWrestler This is a completely portable layer of security with enough substance to pack some punches.

If you have some more suggestions to increase the portable security for the practical paranoid, feel free to add them.

Bye bye Dapper. Hello Feisty.

One wisdom in the realm of Linux says: “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”. Well, after a year of playing with Ubuntu Dapper Drake it was time to move ahead. It was getting broken. If I was surfing the interweb, checking my e-mail while at the same time burning a dvd, the whole system would freeze. Granted it still looked better than the Blue Screen of Dead, but dead is still dead. It didn’t happen too often, about twice a week, but it was a signal that something was really amiss.

With two main projects finished and nothing new in the immediate future it was okay to sit down for the upgrade. Last year I had the good foresight (well, I listened to some good advice) to create a separate /home partition. Of course, it didn’t hurt to make a complete backup of it, so I did. To install Feisty Fawn I used the dvd that accompanies my book, due to come out in mid September. It’s the Ubuntu W2L Rennaissance version, which comes with three desktops and some 80 more programs. Well, if anything is wrong with the disk, at least I will suffer as much as the readers of the book.

But, everything went smooth. Within one hour my new Ubuntu box was installed, updated and enhanced (using Envy to install the nVidia driver). I used Ubuntuzilla to update Thunderbird to 2.x and that was it. For good measure I added the Ubuntu Ultimate repository to the sources.list (deb http://repoubuntusoftware.info/ feisty all) and the job was done.

Amazing. I still remember the hours and hours I needed after my Windows box collapsed and when I had to install all programs one by one. Now, after one hour, I could check the e-mail, start browsing and burn some disks. And no freezes this time.

Enjoying a brief sabbatical

This is basically a “I don’t feel like writing” period. There are other things in life than Linux or open source, really. This doesn’t mean there are no articles brewing in my head, but those deal with topics that are less time-sensitve. In the mean time I am playing around with some new releases, like Sabayon Linux, Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and the Jacklab Audio Distribution (JAD). JAD is a specialist distribution comparable to Ubuntu Studio and it targets musicians who just want to make great music.

Personally, I can’t make any sensible music. If you would ask me anything about music chances are you would an answer not unlike the indian doorman in “Music and Lyrics¨: ‘Actually, I am tone deaf’. But I am interested in making Linux as easily usable as possible, so that people spend more time in doing their real work with the applications than in figuring out how to keep their OS running and get the applications to do what they want. JAD is built on OpenSuse 10.2, uses the Enlightenment desktop and comes with a ton of audio applications. I just have to find an empty harddrive (hail to the swappable harddisk!) and give this distro a spin. Who knows, there might be an artist in me after all.

Another distribution that passed by in the last month was Elive Gem. Elive is a Debian based distribution that tries to create an innovative desktop build with Enlightenment. Eye candy on older hardware, which would make it suitable for low cost projects using refurbished computers. So far it looks good, impressive even and definitely something to keep an eye open for.

For now, I enjoy the sabbatical in writing, but on the other hand there are things happening out there that are crying out for a post here. Maybe it’s time to wake up.

I happen to appreciate GPL v3

After a long discussion the new GNU General Public License was released. It would be safe to say that version 3 has met far more discussion than version 2. The Jem Report even claims that GPL 3 could be the end of GNU.

I’ve no doubt that this is the beginning of the end for GNU, and it will prove the strength of the larger free software world. The Free Software Foundation has dumped a load of restrictions on us with GPLv3 and told us that restrictions lead to freedom and that it is good for us. That’s a little too Bush administration-like for me. In fact I fully expect someone, somewhere, to claim that I “hate freedom” for speaking out about this abysmal license — that would make the irony complete. That a license as restrictive as the GPLv3 should be mostly written by and wholeheartedly supported by someone who speaks out against the Patriot Act puts it a step beyond irony, and into hypocrisy. Further mimicking Bush political rhetoric, Stallman even claimed recently that restrictive software licenses are evil. So does that make him an “evil doer” for promoting a license that attempts to restrict hardware, software, software licensing, and patent licensing choices that should remain in the hands of software developers, or does that make people who are against it “evil doers” and “freedom haters” for not supporting it? If we aren’t with you, Richard, are we against you?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols predicts an even worse fate for the GPL v3: to be ignored by most.

They need to work more on representing the needs of the majority of open source developers, not in following their own agenda and launching noisy pointless attacks on the iPhone.

This last statement kind of got my attention and I simply disagree with it. Why would the Free Software Foundation represent the needs of the open source developers? Maybe I am wrong but didn’t GPL v2 pre-date the release of the Linux kernel and lot’s and lot’s of free and open source software? Isn’t the GPL v2 not credited for setting down a vision of software development along the four freedoms?

When open source developers did and do not agree with the GPL v2 (or v3) they either designed or used other open source licenses. There are many different licenses from the very free MIT and BSD licenses to more limiting licenses, which could still be called open sources. Yet none of those licenses made a similar impact like that of the GPL. GPL never accomodated to the needs of the open source developers, it created the environment in which open source development could thrive.

GPL v2 is sixteen years old and it’s vision has held up for all that time. In fact, the core principles have not changed. The Free Software Foundation felt it necessary to update the license to adress modern developments that -according to the FSF- threaten the fabric of the developement of free software.

One of those developments is called “tivoization

One major danger that GPLv3 will block is tivoization. Tivoization means computers (called “appliances”) contain GPL-covered software that you can’t change, because the appliance shuts down if it detects modified software.

In my own terms, GPL v3 wants to prohibit you from using free software,  modify it, say you can use it anyway you like, but then locking it in a big vault without the keys. You can do anything you want with the software, but taking the keys is illegal.

Richard Stallman is not convinced by the argument that in a properly working market the amount of competition should be enough to offer the user the necessary choices and prevent the vaults from becoming too big.

Freedom means you control what your software does, not merely that you can beg or threaten someone else who decides for you.

The FSF wants the consumer, the user to control the software, not the market place. And I happen to agree with that. The market place has never been and will never be working in the way economic theory describes it. There are always factors that prohibit free competition like import/export legislations, trade barriers, monopolies and “confuse-opolies” etc. etc.

The GPL v3 also wants to deal with the patent threats and Richard Stallman is honest about his intentions:

The explicit patent license in GPLv3 does not go as far as we might have liked. Ideally, we would make everyone who redistributes GPL-covered code surrender all software patents, along with everyone who does not redistribute GPL-covered code. Software patents are a vicious and absurd system that puts all software developers in danger of being sued by companies they have never heard of, as well as by all the megacorporations in the field. Large programs typically combine thousands of ideas, so it is no surprise if they implement ideas covered by hundreds of patents. Megacorporations collect thousands of patents, and use those patents to bully smaller developers. Patents already obstruct free software development.

The only way to make software development safe is to abolish software patents, and we aim to achieve this some day. But we cannot do this through a software license. Any program, free or not, can be killed by a software patent in the hands of an unrelated party, and the program’s license cannot prevent that. Only court decisions or changes in patent law can make software development safe from patents. If we tried to do this with GPLv3, it would fail. (emphasis is mine)

Of course, the Free Software Foundation would like to have as many programs as possible to migrate to GPL v3, but won’t enforce it on anyone. GPL v2 still remains valid. All the other licenses remain valid and can be used side by side.

Fortunately, license incompatibility only matters when you want to link, merge or combine code from two different programs into a single program. There is no problem in having GPLv3-covered and GPLv2-covered programs side by side in an operating system. For instance, the TeX license and the Apache license are incompatible with GPLv2, but that doesn’t stop us from running TeX and Apache in the same system with Linux, Bash and GCC. This is because they are all separate programs. Likewise, if Bash and GCC move to GPLv3, while Linux remains under GPLv2, there is no conflict.

For the layman reader: Linux isn’t a monolithic system, it is a wide collection of larger and smaller pieces of software. All those pieces come with their own license and can happily co-exist on your box. It becomes a problem when you are a developers that wants to merge or link two different programs into a new program.

Back to this quote from the Jem Report:

So does that make him an “evil doer” for promoting a license that attempts to restrict hardware, software, software licensing, and patent licensing choices that should remain in the hands of software developers, or does that make people who are against it “evil doers” and “freedom haters” for not

supporting it?

What restriction is there? The vision to create a free software world is by definition restrictive to all attempts that block the realization of that vision. I was attracted to Linux about five years ago not because of it’s technological superiority, but because of the ideological underpinnings of the GPL v2.

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • – The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • – The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • –  The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • –The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

In a world that I feel is sorely lacking true visionaries when it comes to fighting injustice and inequality, I find it refreshing that Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation continue on their own course and promote software freedom in any way they can. Yes, the GPL v3 blocks the freedom to lock yourself up or lock yourself out, but that restriction I gladly accept in exchange for the other freedoms that I get in return.

Is Red Hat the pot calling the kettle black?

My my. Who would have thought that Microsoft actually would dominate the discussions in the world of Linux and Open Source. In a fascinating article at Reuters Red Hat’s Matthew Szulik admitted that a year ago he and Microsoft were discussing some sort of patent deal. Yes, a similar deal that Novell and Microsoft agreed upon. Wasn’t Red Hat the company crying “foul” when that happened? Didn’t they put themselves forward as the rallying point against patent-based deals with Microsoft?

Mr. Szulik’s current position is reassuringly clear:

The developer of Linux software, has yet to sign such a deal which could see Novell, its biggest rival, woo customers away from Red Hat and work on product development and sales with the world’s No.1 software maker.
In an interview with Reuters, Szulik declined to say whether his company is now in negotiations with Microsoft over signing such a patent agreement.
“I can’t answer the question,” he said.

He can’t answer the question…. What reasons could there be for it?
(1) He wants to but some evil witch has cast a spell and now he can not say the words “patent agreement” and “Microsoft” anymore.
(2) He has absolutely no clue what is happening in his company. For all he knows, most of the people working for him already signed up with Microsoft Technet or MSDN, in effect having signed patent-based agreements already. Don’t forget, he’s just the CEO. You can’t hold him responsible for not knowing.
(3) He thinks we and all other Linux afficionados wouldn’t understand a thing about business, making money and delivering quality service to business customers and decided it is best if we were left out of the loop on this.
(4) Matthew and Steve are already practicing a duet version of “developers, developers, developers”, but want to keep it a secret untill Bill’s birthday.

Is there anyone still out there that wants to call my articles about Mandriva FUD? Who will be next out of the closet.

Is Microsoft turning open source friendly?

We already now that Microsoft has it’s own open source software blog. We know that the Redmond Mogul is dipping it’s toes in sharing open source software. And after the deals with Novell, Linspire and Xandros we also know that something is brewing at Microsoft headquarters.

But a Microsoft that is actively promoting the use of competitive open source software, I guess that is kind of new. Groklaw reports that the Microsoft Marketplace offered a download of Ubuntu Linux for a short while and that at least 10.000 users actually did that.

So, thanks to Microsoft we might have about 10.000 extra converts to Linux. If the majority are actually Dutch speaking our book could be a bestseller.

And the internet has more good news. Microsoft is a Gold Sponsor for the FOSS-ed for Windows convention in Sri Lanka. You can see the familiar logo at the bottom of the page. A quote:

While there is a trend in the industry moving towards GNU/Linux and Free and Open Source Software – FOSS – Microsoft Windows is still a dominating force. Many applications have been developed around it and many continue to do so. Most of this software is also proprietary and includes heavy license fees. Proprietary software may cost anything from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars for licensing fees alone. As a developing country, most individuals and even companies cannot afford such prices and resort to using illegal copies of software. Pirated software may cost only a fraction of the actual price but the implications can be far greater.

So are there viable alternatives to be used in the Windows environment? The answer is YES! Alternatives that don’t have exorbitant licensing fees and will not result in intellectual property violation lawsuits being slapped against you! Alternatives that do not involve high maintenance costs either, are customisable, regularly and quickly provide security fixes in response to feedback and also have community driven support. What are these wonderful viable alternatives? It’s Free and Open Source Software that run on Windows too! A large and wonderful catalog of FOSS applications exist for Windows users today. From Web browsers and mail clients to graphics software and content management systems, it’s all out there ready to download and use! If you want to know more come check out FOSS-ed for Windows: THE event for all you decision makers to find out how YOU can benefit from FOSS while still continuing to use Windows.

Yes, you read correctly. Microsoft is supporting a convention that wants to fight the piracy of (Microsoft) software by promoting the use of open source alternatives. Maybe my argument that Microsoft is no longer the evil company it once was has some validity after all. Next: Microsoft open sources Office 2007.

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