Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Month: October 2009

Corporate lobbying against free software

It’s not very often that there are genuine reasons for investigative journalism in the free software world; for the most part, the stuff that happens within the community is open and well-covered by the likes of LWN (who, if you don’t already subscribe to, you should). The stuff that happens outside the community – well, you rarely get to hear about what goes on. We know companies lobby, both against competitors products and against ideas their competitors promote, and that’s nothing new – that’s just competition.

It’s rare to find, then, a brochure produced with the intent of talking down free software as a whole. However, Wikileaks has turned up just such a document: the SirsiDynix brochure against “open source” library software, distributed on a restricted basis to certain customers. In particular, they’re raging against the likes of Evergreen and Koha. I should own up that I’ve known one particular Koha developer, MJ Ray, for a long while, but this isn’t an area I particularly have a lot of direct experience. If I were a Koha developer, though, reading this would be a bit smarting: they accuse it of many things, in particular of having priorities belonging in the 80s.

As well as the relatively malicious falsehoods being perpetrated against those specific library projects, there are also vague allegations about open source in general – from accusations of Red Hat being “proprietary” to the highly entertaining argument that the US Department of Defense “restrict the use of open source software for fear that it could pose a terrorist opportunity” (clearly, SirsiDynix are not exactly up-to-speed themselves with the state of the art in this area).

What does this document tell us about SirsiDynix? Well, first, it tells us that they probably have a product which is much better than the state of the art in the free software community: they are an incumbent, large business with offices across the world, and even though I’ve no experience of their product I’m sure it’s about one of the most featureful things on the market. But, this is the really interesting thing: someone in their position would not go to the effort of even writing a single side of A4 on the ills of free software were it not for the fact that this is a threat to them. So, for as much as their systems do, and for all the talking down of free software they do, they are obviously worried. Clearly Koha and Evergreen are getting something right.

And here’s what I think they’re getting right, and what customers of SirsiDynix should be looking at. The author of this paper – Stephen Abram – blogs extensively from his “Lighthouse” at SirsiDynix (which is actually, cough, open source Movable Type). And interestingly, this “leak” having hit Wikileaks yesterday (the 29th), he’s posted the same paper on his blog today (30th, actually just in the last few minutes!) in a posting entitled “It’s About a Respectful Discussion“. Note well that word, “Respectful”. While his paper warns customers to stay away from free software lest they end up in the dirty, proprietary hands of Red Hat, he freely admits they use it. It would be quite easy to take apart the paper on a factual basis and highlight the inaccuracies and blatant spin. But, I think there’s an easier way.

Simply read the posts at the Lighthouse. Read about the crucial role of communities and the technologies of the web that bring them together, or the difference in information production and consumption in information technology-literate users. It’s clear Stephen realises that the role of “creator of content” is played by a broad spectrum of people, and the role of a modern library is not simply to warehouse dusty knowledge trapped in paper for the locals to learn from. Libraries of the future will be as much about production of information as dissemination, and I think Stephen realises this – and that’s why his arguments against production of software in a community fall flat on their face.

First thoughts on litl’s Easel.

I’ve been waiting for litl to break cover for what seems like forever. The people seem to be all extremely smart, and it sounded like they had such a great idea, even if no-one knew what it was. However, engadget have seen some FCC information on a new “Easel” product from litl – and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed, because it’s a netbook.

Of course, it almost certainly isn’t. The FCC photos take the extremely strange step of photographing it standing on the top screen edge: a position many netbooks wouldn’t be able to reach (some do, but not many). That, combined with a strange rubber insert along that top edge and a conveniently located power button make me think this thing is designed to spend much of it’s life in that position. Much like a photograph standing on the mantlepiece, this thing is probably designed to sit in your living space and “do stuff”. I could be wrong; the IR detector on the front of the keyboard is presumably needed for something, but there could be another built into the bezel somewhere (the FCC photos appear to show one). Interestingly, it’s designed by FIC apparently – the same people from whom OpenMoko spun out of.

What “stuff”, I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like it has a touchscreen (and it has the keyboard attached), but it does seem to have a webcam. Presumably you can Skype or something through this thing, but to interact with it you have to pick it up and flip it over? I suppose one possibility is that it has insane battery life, a wake-on-wlan function somehow and doesn’t need to be permanently strapped into a power socket, but I don’t know – having an Intel Atom and stuff probably means it doesn’t do that.

Doesn’t seem to have DVD/TV even though it has an HDMI output, doesn’t have 3G, doesn’t have touchscreen, etc. If it’s supposed to do something like a Joggler that would make some sense, except that again it doesn’t seem quite so interactive. Can’t believe it’s any good for gaming.

So, I’m kind of at a loss. If you’re going to all the effort of designing your own hardware, there’s usually a reason – a la OLPC. But this doesn’t seem to have many interesting features, except that it’s totally legacy and peripheral free – it only has one USB socket. Presumably the software has tonnes of interesting features, but in these days of Maemo and Moblin I wonder how close to the state of the art this is, or whether it’s in a kind of Daikatana situation. If it turns out to be another Chumby – well, that’s nice, but again disappointing (Chumby already exists, after all).

We only have around a week to wait to find out apparently, but I’m kind of left feeling “what’s the point”? If this is really just a netbook for accessing web content, I don’t understand it at all. You don’t need custom hardware for that, and people already know how to use web browsers. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s vastly underwhelming so far.

RMS, KEI and ORG tell DGC “No” on ORCL MySQL

A horrible, horrible headline for an extremely interesting story: RMS is amongst one of those who has signed his name to a letter to the Commissioner for Competition and Director General Competition of the EU that the Oracle-Sun merger should not take place due to the harm that it would do to MySQL. I saw this via Joe Brockmeier’s posting on the subject, in which he reads the letter as essentially saying that the GPL is not good enough to protect MySQL – which I think is inferring the wrong idea from what’s written.

What’s interesting here is that this is, definitively, the best exposition of the difference between “software license” and “business model” that you could get. The letter is not saying the license isn’t good enough; it’s a commentary on the business model. Secondarily, it’s a commentary on the difficulty of moving from a GPLv2-only license to a GPLv3 one, but that is treated somewhat as the lesser issue (or, at least, one with greater effects in the future rather than now).

Of important note, and I think the main way this is being misread, is that this letter isn’t about GPL’d projects: this is specifically about MySQL. What they are saying is that MySQL as a business has worked on a “dual source” model – that’s how the development has been funded, that’s how the community is set up, and those are the social norms. If that “dual source” model is shut down, that means MySQL needs to transition to some other way of funding the development and/or reduce the development occurring. This letter rightly points out the risks that development would slow/stop, and the fundamental change to this model risk killing the project.

Joe says, “Asking that a governmental body preclude the sale of a company to another because it will cease or curtail its development of a Free Software project seems unreasonable”. I somewhat agree, but again, that’s not what the letter is actually asking – it says “should block Oracle’s acquisition of MySQL”. The EU have the power to do that, and I think it’s a sensible measure. MySQL is a business which can survive on its own (at least on past performance; although many key people left during Sun’s period of ownership), and Oracle quite clearly pose a competitive risk in this area. I think the letter elucidates why brilliantly.

Update: Simon Phipps (of Sun) has posted his thoughts on this letter too, and I think makes exactly the same mistake Joe did: conflating the issue of freedom with success. The things which make software free are not the same things which make development rock or a product successful, and vice-versa.

Of course, it is true to say that an unsuccessful but free project is of very little help to the community, but saying “lack of dual-licensing dollars will hinder MySQL development” is not the same as saying “GPLv2 protection is not enough to make something free”. The issue is one of commercial success, not freedom – but of course, this does help put to bed the lie that if you are pro-free software (staunchly so, in RMS’ case) you are ignorant of or ambivalent toward commercial realities.

Update 2: Matt Asay also weighs in, and somewhat predictably also confuses the issue of freedom with success.

Asay and Tiemann, mano a mano.

Matt Asay has written another entertaining blog piece on his particular theories of open source economics, and Red Hat’s Michael Tiemann and he have engaged in what is superficially a bit of “Is not!” “Is too!“. Looking a bit deeper, though, it’s not really the pragmatics vs. the Stallmanites, even though that’s how Asay frames it.

Fundamentally, Tiemann is right on the money: a simplistic “supply and demand” view of how prices are set in a market place completely ignores the value that Red Hat offers to its customers. “Subscription” versus “box price” is not simply a semantic difference – indeed, that’s essentially labelling their customers as brand tarts unwilling to risk CentOS / Scientific Linux, and reduces the business decision to a simple money figure. That’s not how business works; the difference between “cheapest” and “best value” is huge.

Asay also bizarrely labels Red Hat a “distant second to Canonical” in the purity stakes. This is Canonical with the proprietary server management, proprietary file sharing, proprietary application store, etc.? I don’t even vaguely understand the argument here: either Matt is badly misinformed, or is just being very selective – the only thing I can think that Red Hat withholds is permission for others to use its trade marks. Which Canonical also does.

Then comes the claim that “The bulk of the best, most widely used open source is funded by proprietary dollars.” – followed by a call of thanks for the likes of IBM, HP, Intel. No doubt those companies do contribute a reasonable amount, but to credit them with the bulk of the best: that’s really stretching it. If you look at the actual factual information of who contributes what to projects like Linux, corporate interest is large, but “funded by proprietary dollars” – haha. What Asay is basically implying is “proprietary sales are underwriting the development of open source” – presumably some kind of mass corporate hallucination that has turned these businesses into charities, and pragmatism be damned.

Of course, the reality is these businesses would never underwrite development of software which wouldn’t make the money back, and indeed IBM’s vaunted “$1 billion investment” was apparently recouped in a single year. According to Matt, we should be thanking IBM for doing this: to my mind, IBM should be thanking the community for the contribution that has enabled it to recoup its investment so quickly (since 2002 presumably it has been making good money, too).

What Matt doesn’t seem to get is that this split-personality marketing of “we do all this open stuff, except for this scarce bit we’re charging you for!” is a prize example of a house divided unto itself. You can’t sensibly talk about the benefits of open source without contradicting yourself completely when it comes to the paywall behind which your proprietary software sits: basically you have to fess up that the open source bits are the bait.

What Michael’s post illustrates nicely is not just a clarity of purpose, but a 100% commitment to what they tell their customers: no ifs, no buts, but a single compelling story. Customers understand the value they offer, and that’s why they make money.

[Edit 20:24: just for clarity, my comparison of Canonical to Red Hat is not to denigrate Canonical: merely to illustrate that claiming Red Hat are a ‘distant second’ to Canonical in the purity stakes is utter nonsense. Also, my reference in the comments to “proprietary application store” should be parsed as “a store that hosts proprietary applications”, not “an application store that is proprietary”]

WikiReader – “Project B”

Let me start this by saying that I really, really want OpenMoko Inc. to be a raging success. With Android, Palm Pre and other “Linux phones” showing pretty how not to do things (jury’s out on N900 for me still), the properly free smartphone is an idea whose time is very definitely here. Sadly, with the freeping creaturism of the phone market and the need to develop both a hardware and software stack simultaneously, that didn’t seem to work out so well, so OM are now going to their backup plan: “WikiReader“.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Simple. I don’t particularly like the look of this device, but I respect the design: the reduced form factor, the insane battery life, the readable screen. Not sure on the wedge shape (presumably necessitated by the choice of AAA power supply), not sure on the buttons (surely it could have just been one touch screen?), but those are design choices. It has obviously been designed, and that’s excellent.

However, although it has been designed, who has it been designed for? The wedge shape makes it less pocketable, and most adults I know already have phones which beat this device into a cocked hat. So I’m pretty sure it’s not really designed for me. Because it’s essentially an offline device, presumably the people it is designed for are mostly/entirely offline: however, if they’re offline because they can’t afford it, it’s difficult to see how/why they would pay $100 for one of these things. I’m also deeply sceptical of any project which attempts to address the “IT needs of the developing world” in a fashion which involves shipping basic devices that no-one in London or New York or (other “not developing world” place) would actually use.

So, my conclusion is that this device has been designed for children, and probably children in families who have a pretty high income. But, here’s the thing: if I was designing it for children, I would not make a device that was black and white, had no pictures / illustrations / animations, had no music / sound, etc. I mean, this thing is boring. And is adult wikipedia actually suitable for children? I don’t know what the reading age of the site actually is, but I’d imagine you’d have to be into your teens to understand most of it (particularly without diagrams and stuff).

I hope I’m the one who’s dead wrong about this device. I’m thinking of excuses, right now, I can use to buy one. But, it doesn’t have any kind of connectivity: I couldn’t hack it to store contacts or calendar appointments, and putting stuff like a wifi card into the micro-sd slot (assuming that would even be possible – does it have in-built flash? think not..) would effectively kill the battery life. I have this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is a brilliantly designed device implementing a wonderful idea that no-one actually will want. And that would be very, very sad.

“Free hardware” seems like an obviously winning idea. Has anyone actually successfully executed it yet though?

Boycott “Boycott Novell”: a huge own goal?

It’s difficult to tell apart the different factions of the people of Judea these days. On one hand, you have the Boycott Novellers, who post large amounts of “news” heavily rewritten to support their point of view, often with personal attacks on individuals and accompanied by Perez Hilton-style silly drawings. Sad, then, to see the new entrant – Boycott Boycott Novell – apparently chase after their namesakes with a personal attack on a free software developer and, of course, accompanying silly Hiltonesque.

Somewhat hilariously, both sides mistakenly re-interpret RMS’ view on Mono to remove the subtlety of his argument, and in doing so end up making precisely the same error: his warning against the use of Mono is not based on it being “non-free”. Both sites would have you believe that he believes that, and argue their various biases from that  viewpoint. What Richard is actually saying, of course, is that in his opinion Mono represents a risky bet – one that he is not willing to take and one he advises others not to. Which is his prerogative. But he’s careful to say that it is free software, and correctly identifies possible benefits in moving Windows developers onto free platforms. It’s a delicate argument, one easily lost on others.

I expect more from the people involved in both sites, but particularly Boycott Boycott Novell, who seem to have taken the “don’t tell us what to do!” argument to the almost ridiculous extreme of “don’t give us your opinion ever!” (for certain people’s opinions, anyway). There are extremely serious points to be made about the so-called journalism of well-known activists who purport to support a community they spend most of their time attacking in one way or another, but it seems too easy to fall into the trap of my enemy’s friend is my enemy (even when the friendship is unlikely to be mutual).

Boycott Novell fails on various levels, but mainly because it spends most of its time not offering constructive criticism but delivering polemic after polemic against Microsoft and then seeking to tie parts of the community in with that, deserved or not, often with scant regard for the actual facts. But simply because they use RMS as a totem in their witch-hunt does not put the responsibility for what they write at his door, nor does it mean his views are allied with theirs even when they claim they are. The issue with Mono is many times more sophisticated than the arguments they put forward, and there will be plenty of people who weigh the balance very differently based on their perception of the risk.

If I could wish for anything for Christmas, it would be that people who see themselves as members of the free software community stop attacking others in that same community. And yes, that would go for anyone in the community. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.