Communicating freely

Archive for the ‘freedom’ Category

Freedom is important to me

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

This is an article I wrote for the Chinese community website Dim Sum.


I’m on a train on my way to a conference.  The day is just chasing away the night and the air is warm and humid with a rare English heatwave.  It’s over twenty degrees and it’s just past 6am.  This weather inevitably reminds me of Asia, and I am cast back to dawns in Shenzhen, Bangkok and Takamatsu.  For a selfish moment I want to walk away from the conference, catch a plane and return to the East.

A second later my mind taps my heart on the shoulder and normality is restored.  I have a job to do.  Today that job is the promotion of Free (as in Freedom) Software and more specifically the promotion of an organisation that is working to ensure Free Software is advocated and protected in Europe: the Free Software Foundation Europe.

When people hear the term Free Software they usually think about price.  Older computer users remember dodgy freeware given away on computer magazine cover disks.  It’s an easy misconception.  The word ‘Free’ in English has two meanings.  We associate one with price and the other with liberty.  Free Software is about liberty.  It’s a type of software that ensures the end user can use, modify, share and improve software without restriction.  Everything a person needs to do anything with Free Software is included in the package at (usually) zero cost.

This is not really a concept connected with computer science at all.  It’s about social inclusion and empowerment.  Free Software is basically a way of trying to ensure that technology is accessible to people.  It gives people the keys to digital infrastructure and hopes they drive somewhere interesting with it.

You can get Free Software operating systems that are as powerful and as easy to use as Microsoft Windows.  You can get office suites that offer comparable functionality to Microsoft Office.  There are image editors that replicate the functionality of Adobe Photoshop.  There are instant messengers to connect to MSN, AOL, iChat, Google Talk, Yahoo! and Skype.  There are even some tools you might recognise like Mozilla Firefox, a web browser that makes computing both safer and easier.

I think Free Software is a profoundly important concept.  The largest economic block in the world (the EU) and the largest nation in the world (China) agree with me.  There is a massive investment in Free Software to try and ensure that the digital future will be controlled by the users rather than large multinationals.  In the EU this translates into the adoption of Free Software products in national infrastructure.  Birmingham and Bristol in the UK have been early and enthusiastic adopters.  In China this translates into both the adoption and adaptation of Free Software to suit the local context.  Beijing created and maintains Red Flag GNU/Linux,  a Chinese Free Software operating system.

Free Software is part of a new wave of development that marks the point information technology enters day-to-day life.  It is become very important to make sure that people will have access to computers and this access does not depend on the decisions and desires of companies.  In a way computers can be regarded as the water of information.  They have become a critical part of any national infrastructure.

I find this to be incredibly exciting.  A world is slowly emerging where people can get a cheap computer and install a vast array of tools on it without needing money or expertise.  At this very second I am running a GNU/Linux distribution on my laptop.  It looks like a simple version of Microsoft Windows.  If I click a button on a menu item called ‘Add/Remove’ my computer will connect to the Internet and let me choose between thousands of different applications available without restriction on-line.  GNU/Linux is free (as in zero cost) and Free (as in Freedom).

Today I will be talking to people all day about why Free Software is important.  I’ll be locked away in a small dark room in the corner of the conference without air conditioning.  It will be hot.  It will be sweaty.  It will be exactly where I should be to try and sell the idea of empowering freedom to people.

Over the next few months I’m going to be writing about Europe, China and technology for Dim Sum.  I’m going to help demystify the weird world of flashing lights, beeping computers and acronyms like WYSIWYG*.  I’m hoping to explain why certain aspects of technology are having a profound effect on our lives, and why the emerging markets are bringing our cultures closer together.  Perhaps most importantly I’m hoping to share with you why computers are much more than the sum of their parts and how the geeks have almost accidentally created a new way for the world to communicate.

Communication is a two-way process and I don’t want my writing to be passive.  If you have questions, comments, suggestions or ideas email me at and I’ll address your messages in future articles.  

*By the way, WYSIWYG actually means ‘What You See Is What You Get’.  It’s an idea that suggests design should be simple and immediately familiar.  We all know how to use a cup, door bell and door handle.  That’s WYSIWYG.  Trust geeks to take that simple idea and turn it into another acronym.

Freedom is important (so is evolution)

Saturday, July 8th, 2006

I just read Paul Cooper’s blog post about the FSF and FSFE.  One line really struck me: “[FSF(E)] could become irrelevant because certain elements are living in the past confined by the way things were rather than the way things are.”

I don’t disagree but I don’t quite agree either.  It’s a very broad statement.  There is a lot of leeway for individual interpretations of what constitutes the ‘way things were’ and the ‘way things are now.’

What I think is true is that there is some tension between the traditional hacker community and the wider free software developer-base.  Free Software is no longer exclusively a hacker arena.  We are seeing Free Software deployed in very serious places and we’re seeing professional levels of support and development.  This includes the NSA with SELinux and Novell with SuSE.  It’s been happening for years but a certain critical mass is being reached.

The field is evolving.  The organisations that support it must evolve too.  

I think I was in London (speaking to GLLUG) when I started talking about how we’re seeing the rise of management layers in Free Software projects.  We’re seeing stuff like usability engineers, project managers and public relations people.  In short, we’re seeing the ‘businessification’ of Free Software projects that are regarded as mission critical.

There is a reason that we’re seeing this.  Programmers are programmers.  They are not managers or public relations people or usability engineers.  When you get to a certain size you really need to find experts.

Strap on a beard and wrinkled brow “but then you’re becoming the MAN…you’re like a company.”

Ah.  Herein lies the rub.  The traditional hacker culture was very much about being an independent person.  About hacking away and discovering stuff and playing with code because it was fun.  That’s fine.  That’s good.  It’s a noble aim.  However, when Free Software grew up and went into the real world it needed to fulfil the requirements of usability and reliability.  The Freedom bit of Free Software remains but the edgy technical hobby stuff falls away.  The government of Bhutan are not interested in cool new features; they want an empowering digital infrastructure for the future of their people.

Because Free Software is Free Software the guys who want to hack can do so.  But the big mainstream projects need to produce big mainstream products.  They need to be “the man.”  Well, the man without shareholders making technology to empower everyone.  A nice man.  The kind of man you would be happy to see your daughter marry.

I recently saw a flame-war appear on a mailing list because two people were having an argument about who was more free.  When there are five billion people in this world who lack basic infrastructure I find these arguments tiring and pointless.  

I think the four freedoms of software are important.  I think people should be able to use, modify, redistribute and improve their tools.  I think this is especially important in terms of getting this stuff out to developing nations.  It’s also important for me.  When I was fifteen I had no money for a new computer.  I got a DOS 3.3 computer from someone’s garage.  I wish I had known about GNU/Linux.  I wish I could have learned about the freedom of software at that juncture.

I think the FSFE is important.  It’s mission is to protect and promote the four freedoms of software in the European arena.  Patents and DRM challenge Free Software and the FSFE really engages on these issues.  It also educates people and has some great initiatives coming up to further strengthen Free Software in our area.

I think engagement with everyone is important.  I have nothing but admiration for the companies that are embracing openness and freedom (well done Sun and Novell).  I’m looking forward to the day that Microsoft start considering software freedom.  I’m looking forward to the day that Java is released under the GPL (hint hint).  I’m looking forward to the day that children learn at school.

I think that software freedom is relevant.  I think that promoting freedom is essential.  That’s why I’m out here talking to people, putting forward initiatives, and generally trying to do my little bit to provide digital infrastructure for everyone.

Useful freedom

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

"You’re not the REAL Farmer McShane!"

My friend (let’s call him Dave) was right.  I’m not.  I don’t even know who the real Farmer McShane is.  I mean, one minute we’re talking about computers and the next he comes out with this.  I suspect it’s a distraction technique.

Our conversations usually drift around Windows (which I use for web design), GNU/Linux (which is now my main desktop) and MacOS X (Dave’s baby).  More often than not I say something slightly negative about Macs, Dave denies it, and we end up bickering like two children.

I like the Mac.  I don’t agree with all of Apple’s aims but I do think the Mac looks and feels great to work with.  It’s certainly a sweeter deal than the clunky Windows machines.

However, lately I’ve been banging a Ubuntu drum.  I installed Dapper Drake and finally GNU/Linux was working like a proper grown-up operating system.  No more messing around with configuration files.  No more heartache.  Just click, click, click.  It’s beautiful.

Several Mac geeks have defected to the Ubuntu cause.  This annoys Dave.  He’s not happy.  Arguments centred around open formats, anti-DRM and the cult of the penguin tend to get him vibrating and cause steam to drift out of his ears.

I don’t blame Dave.  He’s got this beautiful computer with this lovely interface, and then some jerks come along and say its evil.  Worse than that, the jerks are waving a similar product that won’t play his music and are cheeky enough to say their way is the true path to enlightenment.

But…it’s true.

My iPod is dead.  Apple won’t fix it.  My music is in AAC format in the iTunes library.  I can’t listen to it on my Nokia phone (with MP3), and it won’t play in my Ubuntu install.  Bang.  All the shine, gloss and wonder is gone, and I’ll left with 600 songs I can’t listen to while I work or take my evening walk.

I used to have the same problems with my mailbox in Outlook Express.  I could not shift my mail to another program easily.  I used to have the same problem with Office documents.  Ditto for instant messenger profiles spread across different clients.  Closed, locked formats holding me into applications and working methods I either didn’t want or needed to escape.

Now my life is easier.  ODF means my documents just move, and when I need to give them to someone in Windows land I can send a PDF or (if they really want it) a DOC.  My mail and instant messenger profiles are in MBOX and XML formats.  I know that my data is safe.

Right now I am in control, not the guys who made my software.  I can change application or computer at will.  Isn’t that how it should be?

Whether or not I’m the real Farmer McShane (and I’m not), I do think openness and freedom is become very relevant.  It’s about allowing us to make our own choices about the tools we use and the data we own.  It’s sure as heck a lot better than losing 600 songs because the Apple iPod breaks one month out of warranty.