Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Category: freesoftware (Page 3 of 8)

Fedora Greeters

I’ve been watching the Ubuntu “power users” group set up with enormous interest. Although Ubuntu has aimed squarely at being easy to use, I’ve never seen it as being particularly unfriendly toward power users, and the idea of needing a specific area in which people can talk about power user issues seems somewhat odd. However – judging from the activity, it seems to have hit a real nerve. Whether or not it is a good idea in the long term remains to be seen: I’m firmly of the opinion that splitting communities into factions is a bad idea, so how they will overcome that in time will be a challenge, but clearly it’s meeting a real need.

Fedora, on the other hand, hasn’t really ever had much of an issue catering to “power users”. While the standard Fedora install is incredibly easy to use, for the most part people using it have a reasonable idea of what they’re doing. But it got me to thinking, is there a gap in the Fedora community, in the same way as there apparently was one in the Ubuntu?

Let me ask a simple question. If you are a new user to Fedora, are the resources helpful and is the community a welcoming place? (by “new user”, I refer only to experience of Fedora, not computing experience more generally). Allow me to chuck out a few selectively-chosen “facts” (yes, this is biased, etc.):

  • the Fedora FAQ, while being high-quality, doesn’t have many metrics on frequency. It’s the number one resource listed on the “Get Help”page, and is undoubtedly a useful resource, but covers a range of different use cases and user types. I don’t think one of the frequent questions a new user “getting help” would have would be “When is the next release?”, which apparently makes the top 5.
  • the link to the Docs project is also a link to high-quality information. But you get a lot of information all in one go, and the navigation isn’t amazing – for Fedora 14, the “Power Management guide” and “Musicians guide” have equal billing with the install and user guides.
  • the links to online resources are numerous. Hit the Forums button, you’re given a choice of three different fora to start with, none of them “official”, and one labelled “Fedora” is really tough to navigate (and I say this as a supporter of online forums). We’re also offered IRC, which starts with a warning that you might be banned if your identd isn’t setup right (wtf) and you can’t get in until you learn IRC and register, and then a list of some probably 50 different IRC rooms. Most would pick the first on the list, #fedora – my experience there yesterday was one of name-calling and abuse as much as help. And then you have mailing lists. Again registration, again the Heinz 57 varieties.
  • No knowledge base, troubleshooter or other self-help mechanism people might be used to.

I offer the above not as criticism of the various resources: everything can be improved. But, as they say, you only get to make your first impression once. Many of the resources are truly excellent, but excel mostly for existing/experienced users. So, I would make the claim that for someone who is new to Fedora, the situation isn’t great – in fact, I suspect for many, it is entirely off-putting and unreliable.

I think Fedora, as a community, needs to do something in this regard, and currently I don’t see anything. We have some great SIGs – marketing and ambassadors in particular – who do wonderful work promoting and explaining Fedora to the wider world. But there is no group currently working toward a cohesive, designed experience for new users coming to Fedora.

I’d like to suggest, then, that a Fedora Greeters SIG be set up. Please take this blog post as a request for comments: I’d like to know whether or not other people think this is needed, and if so, whether or not they’d be willing to help contribute – as part of their role in an existing SIG or specifically for this.

The over-arching goal would be to make Fedora a more welcoming community for those arriving, whether from Windows, other distros, or new to IT in general, but more specifically to present the wider Fedora project and community in a manageable and more easily understood fashion. Specific goals, though, could include:

  • developing “conversion” guides for people knowledgeable about other systems, allowing them to transfer their knowledge into Fedora and understand our system. Other systems have their own jargon, and Fedora certainly has plenty of its own too – sometimes just knowing what the words mean is a barrier in itself.
  • creating new support resources, or working with existing SIGs on their resources, to specifically address the needs of new users and their support requirements.
  • providing more interactive “signpost help” – Fedora has many great resources that simply go unused because people don’t know they’re there.

The great thing about this is that honestly, there’s not an awful lot to do in many areas: a lot of the resources needed are already there! But there’s no co-ordination in many respects. I also think this is going to become increasingly important over the next few months and years: Fedora now has a track record of some extremely stable releases, and with other notable distributions deciding to develop a vision of the desktop which is on a trajectory away from the GNOME community the need for Fedora to be open and welcoming is more important now than ever.

Update: I’ve started a wiki page about this, to develop the ideas more fully in a more appropriate place than my blog 🙂

Drag Me to Shell, p2.

(this is part 2; you may want to read part 1 before reading this)

I said last time I would go into the file maangement side of GNOME 3 a bit more, and I think I would be right in saying that there are a number of people who think this is probably one of the weakest aspects of the release.

The first thing to say is, I vaguely surprised myself by the lack of problem in this area. If you read various reviews, the changes in accessibility to file management and the lack of desktop icons are quite often brought up as serious issues, and as a relatively heavy user of the desktop file space I imagined that this would be the thing which would hurt the most.

Turns out, it didn’t. And I don’t think I’m praising GNOME 3 here: thinking about it, what I’m actually doing is saying GNOME 2 was an awful lot less good at this than I remember. So, sure I did use the desktop file space, it because a dumping ground for current work and I would move stuff in and out of that area because it was handy to be able to jump into files that way rather than have to go navigating for them. But it turns out, I didn’t really use that as much as I thought – what I actually do is I go into applications and either use the recent lists within applications, or I go wandering from their open dialog. That, and I open up terminals and find directories manually, and then run software like geany directly from that terminal.

So, what I’m really saying is yes, it is sucky – but no, the suckiness isn’t actually that much worse than it was. Nautilus the file manager itself has not really changed that much, it’s a bit more streamlined, and it’s mainly useful for burning CDs for me. And general bits of file area cleanup, and mounting remote file systems, and that’s really about it. There’s nothing in GNOME 3 that really helps me manage this stuff properly, but this doesn’t seem to be much of an step backwards.

I’m not sure how this is going to get resolved going forwards – it clearly does need to change for the better – but what is extremely reassuring is the little peek into the design process on the GNOME wiki. On the whiteboard space is a little page about finding and reminding, which covers many of the problems I’ve talked about here. I’ve no idea if that’s the direction it will actually go in, but what is nice is seeing design decisions being taken in the context of actual research findings of people who’ve studied this area properly. I’m sure there are plenty of kick-ass designers who can come up with nice flows for this kind of thing, but call me old-fashioned: nothing beats a proper study with some real data and genuine findings.

This is a bit short and sweet. The next post I make is going to be a little bit more on the technical side, looking at the Javascript underpinnings of the system. This is extremely interesting to me: I’m a power user, and I love being able to open stuff up, tinker with it and customise it. GNOME 3 promises more toys in this regard than ever before, and my initial dabblings with GJS and the various libraries in the GNOME stack make me think that there is so much more possible in this area. There is a heck of a lot of power in the current GNOME stack, and although some people have written 3 off as a “newbie’s desktop” I think they do so at their own peril: they literally don’t know what they’re missing. Of course, it’s not all great – the documentation for the Javascript APIs is almost totally absent right now – but the potential is incredible.

Drag Me to Shell, p1.

This is part one of what will be a multipart blog series: how tremendously exciting, eh?! In all seriousness, with GNOME 3 imminent, I thought rather than do a review of the desktop it would be much more interesting to talk about it from the perspective of a relatively hardened Linux enthusiast actually using it within a business environment.

First up, disclosures: I’m an extremely happy GNOME 2 user. I have a copy of Fedora 12 on my Eeepc 901 netbook, with what is now a relatively ancient version of gnome-shell on it, but to be honest the shell is little more than an interface for launching Firefox on that machine. Other than that, I’ve not really used GNOME 3 / gnome-shell in more than passing. I called this post “Drag me to shell” quite deliberately: honestly, I’m happy with GNOME 2. But, I’m somewhat forcibly trying to move myself to GNOME 3 full time. (Yes, I have seen these various KDEs and Unitys an other desktops. No, I’m not interested, and this isn’t meant to be taken as some kind of comparative to other systems. Also, I’m running this on what is to become Fedora 15, which has changed like wind blowing sand recently, so there’s stuff in here that may well change before the final GNOME 3).

When you log into a desktop for the first time, when it’s freshly installed, it kind of has this blank newness look to it. It’s a lot like new car smell, and it doesn’t tend to last very long as you install stuff, reconfigure the theme, stick files on the desktop and all that – very soon, it’s looking a bit worse for wear and you have to start tidying up things again. Now, initially, getting into GNOME 3 felt quite restrictive: there’s a few things which aren’t there, there are limited controls on how the desktop feels. But, a few days in, I’m already beginning to appreciate this – like a self-cleaning oven, that new car smell hasn’t yet gone away. It will be interesting to see if it does.

Of course, I have already installed a lot of my business apps. I need Firefox, Evolution and LibreOffice like most knowledge workers, and to be honest things really aren’t much different here. Firefox 4 is an awesome upgrade to 3, and although there isn’t much in the way of genuine GNOME integration, this is all meat and potatoes stuff. However, I also do a lot of development – both web development and “real” software – and it’s relatively crucial to me that these other things work well. I’m a keen user of MySQL Workbench for administration and schema design, and I tend to edit my code in either Geany or vim depending on the project.

Thankfully, the workflow with these apps hasn’t really changed much. Like many “enterprise” apps, Workbench presents a tabbed MDI interface with only a single window: it doesn’t really take advantage of any of the new stuff in the shell, but it doesn’t come a cropper much either. The only slight oddity is that the interface now sprouts entirely out of a “Home” tab in the most peculiar fashion:

I don’t think this is a GNOME 3 thing, it seems to be something that Workbench as acquired all on its own. Very odd, but hardly a huge issue in practice  – I just end up with an awful lot of grey space on the toolbar.

So that’s normal apps which tend to run as single windows. However, for apps that have multiple windows, I think things have improved tremendously in GNOME 3. I’ll walk through one example – using the GIMP for graphical editing – the terminal/command line being an obvious one.

Now, right off the bat, there are some nice touches in GNOME 3 that either weren’t in earlier versions or I just didn’t notice them. One thing I really appreciated was the hook up between the local MIME database and the remote list of applications available. I’d logged into my fresh install, but hadn’t yet put the GIMP on – so when I asked it to open a picture, it didn’t have that in the options though. But look what I could do from there:

The window on the left is what I got – the “which application should I open?” – but then, at the bottom, as well as showing me other apps I have available on my system, there’s also the “Find applications online” button. Click on that, and I get this new list on the right. Granted, it’s not amazingly pretty, but it basically just gave me a list of applications which fiddle with images, and right in the middle there was GIMP. Click, click, done. Excellent: I didn’t have to go all the way into add/remove applications and do a search there and come back, the workflow was really smooth.

And once you get into the GIMP things have improved again. GIMP is an MDI application as well, but gives you multiple windows, not tabs. You have a toolbar window, another window for layers, and then a window each for every image you have open. With other window managers, I have to say sometimes it was a bit of a pain to navigate around these windows using either the mouse or the keyboard.

So here’s where it starts getting good. Whether by chance or design, the toolbar opens up stuck to the top-left corner, and the layers window stuck top-right. The picture opens up in the middle. This is a really great, sensible default. But then, as you open up further windows (copying image parts between different buffers is a really common workflow for me), the new Alt-Tab switcher really starts to come into its own.

Sadly, I can’t seem to screenshot this (having to hold down Alt interferes I suppose), but as well as the application icon coming up in the switcher, the two windows appear beneath. I can click on them with the mouse if I want, or – even better – I can use the brand new (to me?) Alt-` combo (the key above tab) to cycle through the application windows. Note, it doesn’t cycle to toolbar or layers – just the actual windows I’m operating in, the images. I cannot sufficiently describe how cool Alt-` is and how it’s already becoming part of my muscle memory.

I have a feeling the window management stuff is going to be a little bit make-or-break for some people. I use workspaces a lot, and it’s crucial to me that they work well. Because of this, having to Alt-Up or Alt-Down to switch feels somewhat unnatural – I don’t know why, but the landscape of left-to-right just makes more sense. Now, I don’t yet have a dual monitor setup, and I have to say that as a power user I would imagine it would make more sense to spin workspaces up and down like a slot machine if I had screens side-by-side. But, right now, this does jar a bit.

Next post, I’m going to go into file management. Right now, I have a lot of problems in this area: as an obvious example I used the “Desktop” folder as a project space. I have scripts which would move files on and off the desktop while I was working on them. Now, Desktop as a folder still exists – but, it just doesn’t mean anything any more, and Nautilus basically prefers to be in the home directory. Accessing files through the GUI is now much more of a pain. However, I’m going to work on this and see how I feel after a week – maybe there are things I’m missing, maybe there will be new ways of doing things, maybe right now it just is that bad. Tune in for part 2 if you care.

Fedora 15 & Gnome leadership

It has been an incredibly interesting week in free desktop-land, in that kind of “interesting like a soap opera” kind of way. I guess it’s not news that different participants have different recollections of the same series of events, but it is a bit sad to see it writ so large on a public stage.

Timing-wise, it’s quite co-incidental, but it’s enlightening (I think) to read Mark Shuttleworth’s latest “Internal competition is healthy, but depends on strong and mature leadership” alongside Mark Wilcox’s “What happened to Nokia?” of a month ago. I’m quite clearly going to side with latter-Mark on this one: internal competition is generally not healthy; in fact, in my experience, it can be of the most damaging things you can do to a group of people. That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing – to a large extent, it works for the Linux kernel (who I think are a special case in this regard) – but in a community telling someone their contribution isn’t wanted is a hurtful thing. You can see the hurt if you read what Mark S. is saying, it’s both implicit and explicit. Internal competition isn’t a solution to this, though, of course – it’s the equivalent of taking the disagreement outside and settling it mano-a-mano, swapping one hurt for another. It’s a red meat solution, a particularly macho form of solving problems.

For me, from the outside, Gnome 3 has been an example of a particularly successful collaborative project. If you go to gnome3.org and “Try it out”, you’re not downloading a copy of Red Hat / Fedora there – it’s OpenSuse underneath, built on their rather wonderful Open Build Service. All of the design has gone on in public (Hylke’s list of designers was interesting), and as a long-term gnome-shell user (I’ve been using it regularly since Fedora 12 on my Netbook) it’s easy for me to appreciate just how much work has really gone into this system.

Of course, Gnome 3 is not going to be for everyone. That’s ok, there’s KDE (and others). This is another example of where competition isn’t really: sure, you can run the same apps in both desktop environments, but generally users of one are not going to be immensely happy in the other environment (particularly power users). They don’t compete head-to-head in that sense. In the same sense, I think that’s the same thing that happens with distros. Yes, Fedora 15 will almost certainly lose some users because of the default setup. The inclusion of Gnome 3 will irk some, the inclusion of systemd will irk others, and to a large extent it was always thus (pulseaudio, networkmanager, etc.). Again, there are other distros, the Debians, OpenSuses, and even Ubuntus of this world, and to a great extent they really don’t directly compete with each other. Sure, some people move from one to another like they’re changing underwear. I think this is why Fedora can afford to be an adventurous distro, why Debian can’t really afford to put out bad releases, etc. – each to their own.

So, how much competition is too much? Where does the line lay? I don’t think it’s easy to tell. What is clear is that the amount of drama on this issue way, way exceeds the amount it deserves. Owen Taylor has said that including “appindicators” in gnome-shell is still on the table – so in that sense, there is a bit of a fuss about nothing (of course it’s arguable, and hypothetical, that his opinion has changed on this subject).

What is really needed, though, is a much clearer vision of where the desktop ought to be going. Mark S. has said that the Gnome 3 “trajectory” is wrong and has already failed. So where should it go? Where is Unity trying to go? Mark S. has already given up on Gnome, but talks about having Unity and KDE co-ordinate closely via freedesktop.org.

I think what is sad about this is the focus on the differences by the participants. Looking from the outside, gnome-shell and Unity are incredibly similar, and have been since release. Anyone looking at screenshots can see that; they obviously have the same influences. The Unity 2D system is even implemented in QML, which is another variant of Javascript just like gnome-shell’s gjs underpinnings. I find it difficult to believe that one could not be modified without a lot of work to look/behave much like the other. This isn’t a technical dispute.

Thoughts on Nokia & MS

As predicted, Microsoft and Nokia are tying a knot of sorts, and all sorts of people are extremely disappointed by this news. I’m an Android user right now, but I’m particularly disappointed because Android just isn’t the free platform it claims to be.

A lot of people are blaming Microsoft and dreaming up “entryism” conspiracy theories. These people are entirely wrong; the decision to go MS was signalled a long while ago by Nokia’s board. Nokia are a $40B business: decision making doesn’t work like that. What is true, though, is that occasionally the free software community gets the benefit of large corporations putting resources into developing software, and occasionally those corporations change their mind later. We celebrate the former and mourn the latter, it’s only natural – I’m a big GNOME fan, but it seems that GNOME Mobile, MeeGo, and the various related stacks are basically dead in the water at this point.

This match-up makes a huge amount of sense for Nokia, but sadly it is going to alienate some of their current user base. I liken this to Bob Dylan’s move to electric guitar: his fan base called him a sell-out, and never ever forgave him. Fundamentally, his music changed beyond all recognition. Whether this is right or wrong, of course, lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Amusingly, this also means that of all the development platforms for native mobile apps, Mono is now exceptionally well-placed. It can compile native code and make full use of native APIs, and comes in an Apple flavour already, with Android along the way. I guess this is an additional sting in the tail for some, particularly since Qt could have also played that role exceptionally well, but we must acknowledge that the free software mobile development stack is actually in quite good shape right now. We don’t have the right development environment for HTML5 apps yet, though.

It’s exceptionally sad that a really free mobile OS hasn’t come to fruition. OpenMoko took a long time to come to market and wasn’t developing quickly enough, that same verdict has now been given on MeeGo. Android is close, but is not developed in an open fashion and in the matter it is delivered is not a free OS. The “commoditization” argument has been shown to be wrong.

What the move to WP7 does signal is strong integration into Windows and, I guess, Exchange and Sharepoint. People aren’t going to care about the OS in a couple of years. For free software to matter in this space, the focus has to be on integration and apps. It doesn’t matter, after all, what’s running the hardware: what matters is what you can do with it. By struggling for freedom at the hardware and OS level, it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – and with it, strive for things which are totally irrelevant to 99.99% of phone users.

Open Source Expo 2011

Today was Open Source Expo day. While I had been asked by one of the organisers whether or not I could propose a .Org to exhibit there, I decided against it for a couple of reasons: mainly, because I hadn’t heard very much about the exhibition, was a bit worried about the timing, and questioned whether or not it would be a good use of time for me or anyone else involved in an open source project to attend. To be clear, this event is held over two working days, and is in the middle of London: not the end of the world for me, I could take time off work, but others I know are consultants and would be literally losing money by going. I have to say, I’m glad I didn’t spend much longer there than my lunch break today allowed.

Now, Open Source Expo this year was “co-located” with Cloud Expo Europe. This immediately sent up red flags; while all of the interesting Cloud stuff is of course being driven by free software projects, the cloud expo speaker list is primarily composed of execs from relatively large corporations attempting to flash their with-it credentials to the kids of today, giving rise to various vacuous talk titles such as “Ahead in the Cloud”, “Networking the Cloud: Is it the Journey or the Destination?” (network and cloud? surely you’re kidding!!), and “SaaS 2.0 Open Cloud Computing”. I apologise to the speakers whose talk titles I have used; it may be that your talk was exceptionally entertaining and at the cutting edge of cloud technology, and certainly there are speakers such as Michael Meeks who I would pay to be informed by, but I’m afraid it was a deeply uninspiring schedule.

However, if the “Cloud” side looked a little bit dated, the “Open Source” sister website was even worse. Even as I write – on the 2nd February as the event is actually taking place – there are still significant proportions of the site missing. In particular:

  • “The conference programme will be available here soon.” – well, no. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be an open source conference at all. There are five or six vaguely open-source talks and speakers, no idea if you have to pay for the conference but I’m certainly not hanging around for two entire days just to see a couple of open source talks.
  • “This year’s speakers list is to be announced shortly, please check back soon.” – again, no. I’m not sure the difference between the “speakers list” and the “conference programme”, anyway – perhaps it’s just the same list sorted alphabetically and then chronologically.
  • [Sponsors] “LinuxIT is seeking Open Source projects to include in the .org village, this exciting area of Cloud Expo” – no list of .orgs, and there are serious problems with the village (see below).

So what part of this conference is really open source? It’s difficult to tell. Aside from the .org village, there is no obvious “open source” area, and it doesn’t look to me like there’s an open source conference happening at all. If you’re interested in open source technology, and not cloud per se, there really isn’t much here for you at all.

But here’s the rub. Ok, there are not many open source companies there. But to be honest, there’s not much here at all. On a single level at the Barbican, it’s a very small and claustrophobia-inducing space, and it took me literally ten minutes to walk around the entire show. Large parts of floor space are taken over by the speaking areas, the meeting rooms and the cafe, and there are only 35 exhibitors. It’s difficult to get excited about this, and don’t get me wrong: I want to be interested in the corporate area. I can name four exhibitors of whom I’m a customer. But what wonderful new stuff is there? There’s only so many hosting companies or people offering SaaS applications I can stomach; I want to come to Expo to see what’s coming, not what’s been around for the past ten years.

Back to the village. I repeat what I said just now, “there’s not much here at all”. The .Org area, which is one of the most interesting and cutting-edge areas of the Expo in years gone by, has been decimated. I kid you not, this is a picture of the entire .Org village:

Yes, I can hear what you’re saying from the other side of the internet. “That can’t be it! That’s just a stand”. No, no it isn’t. Front left you have a PXE project (I’m sorry guys, I forgot your name – maybe it was gPXE – but you had hardware and it looked a polished presentation), and behind them back-left is Ubuntu UK. In the centre is Drupal, and back-right is Debian. LPI are front-right: I’m not totally sure what LPI are doing there, and since their stand was unattended for the 40mn I was there I didn’t get chance to ask, but it seems like LPI took over sponsorship of the .Org area from LinuxIT. How/why is not to speculate, but it’s an extremely odd match in my opinion.

Compare and contrast this photo with previous Expos. If you haven’t been, the Open Source Expo website helpfully provides a picture from 2009 on the front page. Or compare to this report from 2005. Or this picture of the .Org village from 2008. This is by far the smallest .Org village by some significant margin. The question has to be asked; was it really right to label the “Open Source Expo” as a. existing and b. co-located with the Cloud Expo? The honest answer has to be no; open source / free software is a fact of life and if we’re being honest the various web developer shows have twice the amount of “open source” as was available here.

All this said, I have two major complaints. The first is the missed opportunity. Everyone knows that some of the most cutting-edge “cloud” development is happening in the open source world, but this Expo didn’t give that impression – in fact, you’d get entirely the opposite impression. Here are some of the key cloud technologies that were entirely absent from this Expo:

  • Drizzle, MariaDB, and the other lightweight SQL-ish clustered databases
  • MongoDB, CouchDB, and the other lightweight no-SQL clustered databases
  • GlusterFS, GridFS, or any number of the other shared internet storage systems
  • node.js, nginx, or other innovative server systems
  • jQuery, YUI, Dojo, or any other front-end UI development stuff
  • Eucalyptus, libvirt, Cobbler, or any other virtual machine provisioning/hosting system
  • Hadoop or any other map/reduce style processing system

… and that’s just off the top of my head. Also absent were any developers knowledgeable about the above, or any IT managers who have deployed any of the above, or any business people running enterprises on the above. Yes, there are not many people working with the above because the above technologies are quite new: but that is the entire point of Expo. I don’t want to go to Expo to talk about people deploying virtual machines or network storage. Woop woop! Boring alert. Expo is about stuff to come. New stuff, things people haven’t seen/done before. Sorry, but the cloud happened about five years ago.

Second major complaint: timing. Why on earth early February? Linux Expo was always traditionally on in October, which seemed to work reasonably well. Early February, though, is traditionally FOSDEM time, and FOSDEM starts in a couple of days. Are people really going to come to an Expo in London and then go to Brussels a few days later? No. Are people going to visit the London Expo in preference to FOSDEM? No. So what you’re left with is the people in/around London who can’t get to FOSDEM (like me) but who can come in for Expo.

This whole post is horribly negative and I apologise to people who’ve put time and effort into Open Source Expo / Cloud Expo to make it work. I apologise to people who’ve taken time off work or otherwise invested time to come to Expo to exhibit or to be a speaker at the conference; I don’t write this to belittle your contribution. The question has to be asked, though: how do we solve the problems which have beset this Expo, and make it better in future?

Updates to bongo’s storetool

One thing that has always bothered me is that there has always been little way of getting data in and out of Bongo stores easily. Well, no longer (sort of): I’ve upgraded the storetool a bit to make this easier. Some examples are better than words:

$ ./sbin/bongo-storetool -u admin -s _system list /config
0000000000000011 4096 /config/aliases 0
0000000000000013 7 /config/queue 705
0000000000000014 7 /config/pop3 50
0000000000000015 7 /config/mailproxy 100
0000000000000016 7 /config/antivirus 155
0000000000000017 7 /config/global 76
0000000000000018 7 /config/smtp 512
0000000000000019 7 /config/manager 711
000000000000001a 7 /config/imap 70
000000000000001b 7 /config/antispam 61
$ ./sbin/bongo-storetool -u admin -s _system get /config/pop3 out
$ cat out
{
 "version": 1,
 "port": 110,
 "port_ssl": 995
}
$ # do some editing of out
$ ./sbin/bongo-storetool -u admin -s _system put /config/pop3 out

It’s not totally complete yet: we need some commands to remove, move documents, fiddle with types, flags and properties too – but it’s a start!

“Upgrade” your i386 Fedora install to 64-bit

Now, this isn’t something you’d probably want to do every day, but sometimes you have a 32-bit Fedora install which you’d like to be able to run 64-bit software on: my use case is that I have this desktop which I want to start running virtual machines on. Now, if you have a 32-bit install, you can’t run 64-bit machines – a bit weird given the hardware is supposed to be virtualised, but that’s how it works.

However, the good news is that you can do this without having to reinstall the machine – there is a bit of a sneaky short-cut for use cases like these. The 64-bit kernel is fully capable of running a 32-bit userland, so actually all you really need to do is upgrade the kernel.

Sadly, there aren’t many easy ways of doing this, which is a shame: this configuration was a suggested Fedora feature not long ago, and while it’s probably not a robust enough default for everyone, it’s also a fair way from being a hack.

The simplest I’ve found is to edit the /etc/rpm/platform file to read simply “x86_64-redhat-linux-gnu” (without quotes), then to do a “yum clean all” followed by “yum reinstall kernel“. You then change the platform back to “i386-redhat-linux-gnu” (otherwise you risk updating parts of the system, and that starts getting very messy) – one reboot later, and you’ll have your 64-bit kernel running all your old favourite 32-bit software.

This solution isn’t amazingly “sticky” – a later upgrade could bring back the 32-bit kernel, but at least it’s easy enough to fix. There aren’t many good reasons to install 32-bit Fedora on a 64-bit machine any more, but this is a shortcut which can at least temporarily bridge the gap until you properly upgrade.

Potential Gna! issues

It looks like someone has been attacking Savane-derived hosting platforms. Recently Savannah has been down, and the page that has now gone up confirms that they had a security breach. Unfortunately, Gna! has a similar code-base, and their site now confirms that they are investigating an issue too.

This has a knock-on issue for Bongo, since we use Gna! hosting. Our download area appears to still be alive, and thankfully we have always signed the releases. You can check a release of Bongo quite simply:

  gpg --verify bongo-0.6.1.tar.bz2.sig bongo-0.6.1.tar.bz2

This should result in a confirmation that the file is correctly signed with the key 9B6913D7, which is available on public webservers – just search for that ID.

We will check the SVN repos and other parts of the project when Gna! comes back on line to ensure that these have not been attacked; but I can say with some confidence that we have no reason to expect that r1323, the current HEAD, has anything nefarious in it whatsoever. Certainly, if the security breach was as recent as Savannah’s appears to be, there is nothing to fear.

Copyright changes ahead for the UK? SAS v WPL goes to Europe

I don’t particularly like talking law on this blog; it’s boring and – for the most part – disinteresting. However, recent developments in SAS Institute Inc v World Programming Limited (as written up here – thanks to Cristian for bringing this up at FFII) deserve to be aired.

The basic story is that the Judge in this case is deeply unsure of the boundary of copyright. For those who don’t know, SAS is a statistical package which is both popular and influential, and to a large extent can be thought of as a programming development environment. WPL, the defendants, wrote software which could interpret SAS programs. There is no direct analogy in the free software world, but LibreOffice Calc interpreting Excel spreadsheets is close enough for the purposes of our discussion.

The Judge, unsure of the boundary, has sent a number of questions to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The questions are hypothetical, but clearly designed to test the waters and figure out where this line falls. As an example of some of the questions in our Calc vs. Excel example, he’s asking:

  • Does accessing the file format of Excel constitute copyright infringement?
  • Does interpreting Excel-compatible formula constitute copyright infringement?
  • Is it copyright infringement to copy the behaviour (intended or otherwise) of Excel when processing spreadsheets?
  • Does it make a difference you copy functionality from Excel into Calc by reading Excel’s manual versus observing Excel’s behaviour?
  • Does it make a difference if you have a license to Excel?

(Just to be clear, we’re not talking about Calc and Excel, I’m just interpreting J. Arnold’s questions in this context to make them more readily understood)

Now, the armchair lawyers amongst my readership have probably already thrown their arms up at all these questions and exclaimed, “Copyright doesn’t extend that far!”. And to an extent, they would be correct: originality has always been a defence to copyright infringement, and if any of the questions above were to be answered in the affirmative, we would see the start of that changing.

What makes this different, I think, is that we’re really seeing the weakness of copyright law treating software as a literary work. This has always been bunk, really: software is no more literary than a shopping list, and although the case of verbatim copying (with or without transformation) is open-and-shut copyright infringement there have always been “grey areas”. As one example, the FSF’s position on dynamic linking and the GPL: as a derivative work it does seem to fall under the purview of copyright, but it’s obviously a world away from literary copyright.

The WPL case is also one where the copying was explicit, deliberate and planned: they definitely did copy things. They just didn’t literally copy the software code, or decompile the software: they re-created it from the ground-up. So we’re definitely talking about a case of copying here, which it would seem could also be the purview of copyright.

This is going to be a really interesting case, and is going to have a fundamental effect on free software if we get some interesting answers to these questions. On one hand, it casts an immediate dark shadow over a number of projects: Samba being an obvious case in point, which has previously reached legal agreement in Europe about how it can copy Microsoft while still avoiding the patents that Microsoft hold on certain functionality. But while desktop apps which copy Microsoft make the most obvious cases, you could equally see problems for 3D graphics drivers, people implementing compilers, all sorts of areas – particularly where free software is still catching up to proprietary software.

But of course on the other hand, this would also strengthen the copyright position of free software applications. Companies that currently dance around the (L)GPL-style licenses will find themselves on thin ice indeed, and those proprietary implementations of leading free software will start having to be extremely careful.

It’s very unlikely that many of the questions will be answered in such a way that the copyright system becomes like the patent system: for one, it would be such a massive change that it would require primary legislation at a European level to become legally sound. And there are few cases exactly like this one, where the copying is so obvious and blatant.

The precedents being set here will be extremely important, though. Our understanding of copyright will almost certainly change from the outcome in this case, and will necessarily become more nuanced. The idea of “clean-room reverse engineering” may become more nebulous, and the “I wrote it from scratch” defence could become weaker.

If nothing else, this highlights that no law is truly ever settled, and possibly portents to more movement in this area in the future: I’ve described before how the UK Government is making noises about revisiting intellectual property laws, and in our current weak economic state it is extremely tempting for politicians to beef up some of these laws in order to “create wealth”. Cameron, our Prime Minister, is particularly in thrall to Google, as if they set any good example for our businesses. It’s sometimes very easy to just think about patents and lose sight of the bigger picture.

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