Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the tag “Thoughts on the Digital Realm”

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.

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Microsoft partners again: with TurboLinux. My, my, was I right ;-)

On June 15th of this year I wrote a brief article about possible partners for Microsoft after it signed a deal with Xandros and Linspire. The article was called Microsofts next partners: Mandriva and TurboLinux. I remember that time fondly because it created quite a stir in the Mandriva community, eventually leading to a formal statement by Mandriva that it wouldn’t make a patent-related deal with Microsoft, much to the joy of many Linux afficionados. Of course I was accused of spreading FUD all along. But was I?

Well, this Linux Watch article of October 22nd comes with the news that TurboLinux is the next company to sign a patent-related agreement with the guys in Redmond.

This isn’t the first time that Turbolinux has worked with Microsoft. Indeed, in 2004, Turbolinux was the first major Linux distributor to make a deal with Microsoft. In that agreement, Turbolinux got the rights to ship a media player that could legally play movies and music encoded in Microsoft’s proprietary WMF (Windows Media Format). Then, in July, Turbolinux joined the Microsoft-sponsored Open XML-Open Document Format Translator Project .

This latest partnership, however, goes well beyond the scope of these earlier agreements. While Microsoft downplayed the IP (intellectual property) assurance part of the agreement, the arrangement includes IP assurance for Turbolinux customers who purchase Turbolinux server. No mention was made of Turbolinux desktop customers. With this move, Turbolinux joins Linspire, Novell, and Xandros as Linux distributors who have signed up for Microsoft’s undisclosed IP protection.

For business customers, the key component of the agreement is that the two companies will work together on a single sign-on (SSO) program. The goal is to create an SSO enabling customers to use one set of credentials to log onto Windows-based and Turbolinux-based systems. This will be built, in part, on a WSPP (Workgroup Server Protocol Program) evaluation license, which Turbolinux signed to evaluate additional technical collaboration opportunities on which to focus in the future.

So it wasn’t all FUD, was it?

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.

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.

Mandriva will say no to Microsoft, it just needs some time to do so.

Adam Williamson was so kind to give us an early notification of a coming statement by the Mandriva management

This is the basic statement. It’s being cleaned up (language wise) for official publication.

“As far as patent protection is concerned, we are not great fans of software patents which we consider as counter productive. We also believe what we see, and until we see hard evidence from, say, SCO or Microsoft, that there are pieces of codes in our software that infringe existing patents, we will assume that any other announcement is just FUD. So we don’t believe it is necessary for us to get protection from Microsoft to do our job.”

(that’s from Francois Bancilhon)

I am curious to see the final statement.

Added later:

The Mandriva Wiki already has a somewhat longer statement about Microsoft and Mandriva not partnering. Edit: I am sorry. Adam Williamson pointed out that this is not the official Mandriva Wiki, but a member’s blogpost on the Mandriva Club pages. Thank you for claryfing that (JS)

Adam has already unofficially dismissed rumours on François’ part, but still I feel like pointing out the obviousness everybody with some real knowledge of Mandriva should’ve spotted..

Let’s summarize arguments against silly speculations about Mandriva wanting to consider any Microsoft deal seen from my perspective:

1. Mandriva is europe based, not such big pressure in the ~only location where such agreements would hold much relevance

2. Mandriva has no proprietary components with any concerns of Microsoft

3. ALL of Mandriva’s software published is free and has been released under the GPL, proprietary software is none of Mandriva’s concerns, only proprietary software relationships is through partners

4. Mandriva has no patents for Microsoft to buy. Some speculations has been about icrosoft buying out companies through these deals, so far from what I’ve seen this isn’t really the matter, Microsoft has paid huge sums for patents (ie. m$ paid novell several times more than the opposite). Mandriva has no intelluctual property for sale nor would it be possible in the Europe.

5. Mandriva has already declined invitations to “similar” partnerships like United Linux in the past. United Linux consisted of Conectiva, SCO/Caldera, TurboLinux & SuSE which was a collaboration on a common base with too commercial approach. (ie. binary-only, short summary; it’s dead with only SuSE & TurboLinux left..) It should give enough indication about Mandriva not joining such this time either. Speculations about TurboLinux & MS might be more interesting though since they already do ship some proprietary software as well it’s previous participation in United Linux. Still I wouldn’t expect though it as TurboLinux is a japanase company, not US..

6. Mandriva has one of the strongest communities among the Linux distributions, especially with regards to the commercial vendors, signing such agreements with Microsoft could very fell cause a fallout with the community.

So in conclusion from my ramblings, Mandriva would have nothing to gain while everything to loose by signing such an agreement.

By reading the speculations about this so far, it all seems like 99% FUD to me while the only valid reasoning behind the speculations being the fact that a few other vendors has already done so..

Edit 2: The official statement has been released here. For your benefit I have added the text to this post.

Novell, Xandros and Linspire have signed well publicized agreements with Microsoft.

Rumors on the Web have hinted that we might be next on the list. So we would like to clarify our position.

At Mandriva, we believe working in heterogeneous environments is essential to our customers. So, interoperability between the Windows and Linux world is important and must be dealt with, and anything that helps this interoperability is a good thing.

We also believe the best way to deal with interoperability is open standards, such as ODF which we support strongly and we are ready to cooperate with everyone on these topics.

As far as IP is concerned, we are, to say the least, not great fans of software patents and of the current patent system, which we consider as counter productive for the industry as a whole.

We also believe what we see, and up to now, there has been absolutely no hard evidence from any of the FUD propagators that Linux and open source applications are in breach of any patents. So we think that, as in any democracy, people are innocent unless proven guilty and we can continue working in good faith.

So we don’t believe it is necessary for us to get protection from Microsoft to do our job or to pay protection money to anyone.

We plan to keep developing and distributing innovative and exciting products and making them available to the largest number in the true spirit of open source.

François Bancilhon

BSD revisited

It’s been a few years since I dabbled in BSD. I was enthused enough about it to help out with a new project that aims at creating a BSD certification. Due to some health problems I had to let that go. But why is BSD appealing?

I am playing with Linux for somewhat more than five years. Soon after I ran into BSD as it was mentioned in newsgroups by some who didn’t like Linux anymore, as it became too userfriendly and GUI-based. Led more by curiosity than by knowledge I dove into the world of BSD.

Linux has it’s roots in Unix, but BSD is Unix (though it would be better to say Unix-like) and proudly carries it’s torch. The hard work of a team of developers removed all proprietary code from the original Unix in the early 1990s. The BSD license differs somewhat from the GPL, which allowed for instance Microsoft to use parts in it’s Windows operating system. Binary, closed source redistribution is allowed under the BSD license.

I also found the BSD playing field refreshingly simple. At that time you had three big names. OpenBSD with a very very high focus on security, NetBSD aiming at maximum portability and FreeBSD as the accessible BSD. OpenBSD is hardly a fringe OS as it is the backbone of a serious part of the internet infrastructure. In terms of security it is unparallelled.

At that time FreeBSD was the only one I could really do something with. I was still working mostly under Windows and was glad the then current Linux distributions had a graphical installer. FreeBSD had some features that made it “easy” to install, like the autopartition option and the exemplary FreeBSD Handbook, which is something Linux distributions might take a look at. Once installed it looked similar to your average Linux desktop, which should not be surprising since the KDE and GNOME desktops are available for yours truly.

A few years ago Distrowatch decided to incude BSD in it’s listings. As I recall that didn’t happen without some criticism as some were determined to focus more on the differences between BSD and Linux than on seeing two major open source movements with widely shared goals and methods. If you like to know more about the differences and similarities of BSD and Linux this article might interest you. A quick look at the Distrowatch website will also reveal that there has been some change in the BSD world. Currently it lists twelve active BSD versions of which FreeBSD as the highest ranking, followed by PC-BSD and DesktopBSD.

You won’t find many articles or references in mainstream IT magazines and most of the Linux crowd wouldn’t know where to start either. Two interesting starting points would be the BSD section of Slashdot or the BSD dev center pages with O’Reilly. Dru Lavigne, front woman for the BSD Certification Group, established author for books on BSD and BSD advocate keeps a blog at ittoolbox. Once you start digging you will find that BSD has very active and involved communities, an example of which can be found at BSDForums.

Back to the original question: “What makes BSD appealing?”. First, it is firmly rooted in decades of Unix history, even more than Linux, with a very strong focus on security and stability.  In recent years FreeBSD tried to follow a more Linux-like release pattern resulting in more buggy and unstable releases. A nuisance and accepted custom in the Linux wolrd, but a mortal sin in the BSD world but the FreeBSD team seems to be back on the original track again. Second, many BSD features have found and are finding their way into Linux distributions. One example, the methods you can use to install software. FreeBSD offers two systems, via the ports collection (installing from source) and via packages (pre-built binaries). Gentoo’s Portage ows much to FeeeBSD. And don’t think you are restricted in your choice of software. At the time of writing there were 17.300 ports, which is slightly less than the Debian repositories.  This means that you won’t miss much when you use FreeBSD instead of your Linux distribution. Third, BSD support various hardware platforms. NetBSD has perhaps the widest support, but FreeBSD is holding it’s own with support for Alpha, AMD64, i386, IA64, PC98, PowerPC and Sparc64.  Fourth, it is highly educational to get acquainted with BSD. Digging into OpenBSD will definitely enhance your security awareness. Personally I learned some hardcore skills for Linux via Unix and BSD. Fifth, we all want to be geeks right 😉 . Within our own Linux circles you can enhance your standing by casually dropping into a conversation that you use BSD on your server. Some might not agree with your choice, but at least you are the centre of attention and carry geekdom one step further.

My next question would be whether FreeBSD is a good choice for the desktop or if one of the other BSD’s might be a better choice? How do they handle the problems with codecs and drivers? And software management? Those questions will be dealt with in three articles, about FreeBSD, PC-BSD and DesktopBSD, to appear in the coming weeks.

Tags: BSD, Linux

Ubuntu says no, but will the Mandriva management follow suit?

On the Mandriva Cooker mailinglist there was the following request based on my earlier article that made the case that Mandriva and TurboLinux might be next to partner with Microsoft.

It is a speculation, but I think that it would be good to get a clear
statement from the management on where Mandriva stands, especially
regarding the alleged Microsoft patents.

After some words about the article referring to a non-event (true, it didn’t happen yet) and focusing more on the patent issues than on the idea of Mandriva partnering with Microsoft the original writer returns with words of concern

My point is not about giving importance to the patents, but about Mandriva taking a stand and saying clearly that they are *not* going to participate in such a scheme. Even more so because these patents are most likely not valid in Europe. That would quench these speculations.

The problem with the game Microsoft is playing is simple – even if the patents are bogus, if sufficient critical mass of distros and vendors
plays “cover your own ass” and sells out, it will be simply impossible for the rest not to join. The corporate customers will demand it,
helped, without any doubt, by Microsoft’s saber-rattling. Remember the copyright indemnifications which were unheard of until SCO came?
Everyone agreed that they have no case, but customers demanded it (and Microsoft made it a big point in their FUD), so now RedHat and Novell (AFAIK) offer it.

Even if we stay out of the ideological issues (GPL, free vs. not-free, …), this whole thing could have disastrous financial consequences
without Microsoft actually revealing the patents or spending a dime and suing anyone. For Microsoft it is a win-win situation – they get their racketeering money via the contracts, divide the community and make commercial exploitation of Linux unviable without essentially getting a cut out of each installation.

Mandriva is in a more vulnerable position that e.g. Novell or Linspire due to the fact that it is a lot more dependent on its development
community. I have no doubt that if the management decided to sign such contract, many people would leave, crippling the distro. That is why taking a clear stand is important.

The next contributor appears to be more open to the idea of cooperation:

Why should Mandriva say no before even knowing the terms of this contract ? Because it’s Microsoft ?

Of course, it is always interesting to see how your articles are being read and interpreted. Another contribution to Mandriva Cooker says the following:

For what its worth this article seems to wish for Mandriva to join MS in a patent protection pact as did Xandros & Linspire. I for one dont believe there is any merit in these so-called patent protection pacts and such a strategy short-sighted.

Me? Wishing for Mandriva to partner with Microsoft? I don’t think I wrote that. I did write that Microsoft was less of an evil company than some in the Linux community seem to be comfortable with.

But… I did not see a clear statement from the Mandriva management along the lines of Mark Shuttleworth yet. 😉

Edit: The idea of Mandriva partnering with Microsoft isn’t considered that farfetched by some Dutch Mandriva users.

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