Interview with FSFE Fellow Isabel Drost-Fromm

Isabel Drost-Fromm

In her own words, Isabel Drost-Fromm is member of the Apache Software Foundation, co-founder of Apache Mahout and has mentored several incubating projects. Interested in all things search and text mining, with a decent machine learning background, she is working for Elasticsearch as software developer. True to the nature of people living in Berlin she loves having friends fly in for a brief visit. As a result she co-founded and is still one of the creative heads behind Berlin Buzzwords, a tech conference on all things search, scale and storage. Beyond and above all that Isabel is mummy of a little geekling since April 2014.

Paul Boddie: Your involvement with Free Software development, personally and professionally, seems to revolve around projects associated with the Apache Software Foundation and there is a significant Java component. You remarked in your blog that with such a background in the world of Free Software “kingdoms”, this is like coming from a different dynasty to many other developers whose focus is on GNU/Linux or the Free Software desktop. Do you feel that all these kingdoms pay enough attention to each other? Where do you see opportunities for closer collaboration between them?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: The post you mention actually is meant quite ironic and not to be taken too seriously – after all it’s my wedding announcement. If you really wanted to stretch it to learning something from the post it’s less about closer collaboration and more about being open minded and learning from each other: topics like monetisation, community management, leadership, to some degree even technical architecture and tooling are pretty much project independent. So instead of completely looking the other way just because one aspect of another project doesn’t fit one’s view of the world it might be beneficial to look a bit closer, there might very well be a lot of things to learn from.

This aspect is why I like events like Froscon and FOSDEM which bring together a broad spectrum of the open source world. Also this is what many new projects at Apache benefit from: instead of making the same mistakes over and over people get to learn one working way of running an open source project from the start.

Paul Boddie: One memorable article for me on your blog was a brief mention of how one media company had migrated their search infrastructure from a proprietary solution to Apache Solr. I remember being in related work situations both before and after this change in corporate mindset. Has Free Software now become the default choice for integrating search into products and services?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: From what I see in the wild, yes – though of course my view of the world is skewed due to the nature of the communities I’m part of. Essentially it’s a question of:

  • Speed – especially Apache Lucene has astonishing performance compared to other even proprietary solutions
  • Feature set – given that projects like Apache Lucene are developed in the open it’s a question of when someone needs a particular feature, implements it and contributes it. Most contributions are based on this kind of “scratch your own itch” approach to solving problems: instead of discussing with your sales rep which features you really need you go ahead and implement them. Contribute them back to save the cost of having to adjust them to future code modifications and get valuable feedback through the public code review cycle for free.
  • Scale – both Apache Lucene and Elasticsearch show in various installations just how far you can take search with ordinary hardware.
  • Transparency of decisions – in contrast to closed development for me one important aspect of OSS projects is to be able to follow the development process and be part of it if you choose to.

Compare that to the price you pay (or paid) for typical proprietary solutions and it’s obvious why people go for the open solution.

Paul Boddie: Are there any areas where Free Software projects could be more prominent, where such projects could be improved to deliver the benefits of Free Software to a wider audience?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: IMHO today developers benefit the most from using OSS software. It’s important to make the public understand the benefit of an open development model in particular when it comes to vital or security sensitive technology. As a society we are far from having understood the implications of keeping software development secret. See FCC Rules Block use of Open Source.

Paul Boddie: Is Free Software delivered via the Java technology stack more acceptable to certain kinds of adopters or is the audience now more concerned with other aspects of the solutions under consideration?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: I don’t think it is – actually it depends on who you talk to and where their comfort zone with development is. If they are themselves Java developers and they are choosing a stack to develop against it probably will need to have a Java API. If they are familiar with another programming language they’ll have different preferences.

Paul Boddie: You are based in Berlin and have been active in organising Berlin Buzzwords: a conference focused on scalable data storage and search, focusing on Free Software solutions. As various economies try and show off their “digital economy” credentials, Berlin seems to attract people from all over Europe, presumably making such events particularly attractive and viable. What do you think that Berlin offers technology professionals and entrepreneurs that other cities perhaps do not? Given your travel experiences, could you see yourself tempted to live and work anywhere else?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: Aside from being extremely cheap to live in compared to many other cities worldwide it has attracted enough tech-savvy people to be interesting to others as well. In addition compared to other places in Germany Berlin is one of the cities where you can feel like you are on vacation any day: There is no need to be fluent in German to get along. Essentially it’s a melting pot of many cultures – still far away from the cross-nation and cross-culture collaboration we see online but still closer to it than in most other real world places. Probably that’s also why it’s relatively easy to convince people from all over the world to move to Berlin or at least come here for a visit.

Paul Boddie: You have previously shared your thoughts on topics like Agile and Scrum development practices, but I thought that one of your articles reporting a talk about failing software projects was illustrative with regard to what some of these practices are supposed to be about. Would you agree that movements like Scrum are a way of bringing some of the good practices from other disciplines to the software development profession, or do you feel that there is something more to it than that? Does it say something about the fields of software project management and software development that these movements have had such a visible impact amongst practitioners? Can individuals and small Free Software projects readily share in the benefits by adopting some of these techniques?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: Actually I think most OSS projects are beyond what Scrum and Agile try to bring to the corporate world: Some problems I’ve seen in proprietary software projects often involved a lack of honesty and transparency – both against yourself and against the customer. As a result cover-up actions or death-march like phases followed. Most OSS projects I know keep all development decisions and planning out in the public. As a result everyone sees when things are getting delayed – and why. Priorities change, so does our knowledge about problems that come with certain tasks. To me the most important benefit of things like Agile and Scrum is to keep your course flexible, to be able to respond to change and to make problems in your development process visible.

Paul Boddie: Looking at the activity level throughout the years covered by your blog, you  have obviously been very committed to Free Software in a variety of different ways, although it looks like your blogging has had to yield to other priorities in the past year or so. What advice would you give for people who have to make time in their own busy lives to contribute to Free Software? Which ways to get involved are the best for those with only a limited amount of time to invest in contributing to something?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: There’s just one piece of advise: Don’t contribute for the sake of contributing. Contribute to projects that fit with your personal needs. This is also why my contribution level recently has shifted away from my personal blog on to github: I’ve finally found a job at Elastic that lets me contribute during my day job full time which means that as a result I can dedicate more time to my family.

Paul Boddie: You wrote a nice article about having the self-confidence to pursue the things that interest each one of us personally, asking only that society should support people in what those pursuits might be, rather than try and reinforce past expectations of what people should be spending their time doing. The topic of diversity in Free Software and in technology is never far from people’s minds these days, especially with Ada Lovelace Day happening today, although diversity has many dimensions, of course. You have provided some advice about encouraging the next generation of hackers, makers and tinkerers, but what do you think it will take for society to make the transition from “legacy” roles and expectations to one where people really can choose an interest or profession without that choice being seen as “special” (as you put it)?

Isabel Drost-Fromm: It will take a lot of hard work and fundamental changes. Which type of work and which specific changes – that’s a topic for a whole series of books.

Thanks to Isabel for responding to our questions and for her continuing involvement in the Fellowship of the FSFE.

Interview with FSFE Fellow Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken is a Fellow of the FSFE from The Netherlands with a background in electrical engineering and interests in open hardware, fabrication, digital preservation, photography and education policy, amongst other things.

Paul Boddie: It seems that we both read each other’s blogs and write about similar topics, particularly things related to open hardware, and it looks like we both follow some of the same projects. For others interested in open hardware and, more generally, hardware that supports Free Software, which projects would you suggest they keep an eye on? Which ones are perhaps the most interesting or exciting ones?

Nico Rikken: There is a strong synergy between free hardware designs and free software, as free software allows modifications corresponding to changes in free hardware designs, and free hardware designs provide the desired transparency for free software to be modified to run. And above all, the freer the stack of hardware and software, the better your freedoms are respected, as the ‘respects your freedom’ certification by the FSF recognizes. The amount of free hardware designs available is actually immense, covering many different applications. For my personal interests I’ve seen energy monitors (OpenEnergyMonitor), attempts for solar power inverters (Open Source Solar Inverter, Open Source Ecology), 3D Printers (Aleph Objects and RepRap), a video camera (Apertus), VJ tools (M-Labs), and an OpenPGP token with true random number generator (NeuG). But these projects work on task-specific hardware and software, and can remain in operation unchanged for many years.

The next frontier in free hardware development seems to me to be twofold, to develop free processor designs like lowRISC, and a modular free hardware design for generic computing like EOMA-68. In recent years there have been noteworthy projects like Novena, and the OLinuXino which provide a free hardware design solution but fail to provide free firmware or a modular approach to hardware. In that regard these projects, including the recent Librem laptop, are just wasted effort. These projects certainly provide much needed additional freedoms but lack an outlook towards the future for further improving performance and freedom. As microchips and processors in particular are only available for a limited duration before the next model comes into production, hardware designs and the corresponding firmware will have be updated continuously. Free processor designs will allow control on the pinout and feature set of the processors, avoiding unnecessary design revisions at the lowest level. A modular hardware structure will avoid having to modify and produce all components each iteration and allows higher production counts making production more viable. So taking this into account, I’ve only observed two projects which are important for the long-term development of free hardware designs of generic computing platforms: EOMA-68 and lowRISC. Of course I’m very interested in finding out about other efforts, as in the distributed community it is hard to know everything that is going on.

Paul Boddie: Your background appears to be much more hardware-oriented than mine, meaning that your perspective on hardware is perhaps quite different from mine, too. You have written that engineering students need to be taught Free Software. Did you establish your interest in Free Software as a consequence of your electrical engineering education, or did it happen over time through a general exposure to technology and the benefits of Free Software?

Nico Rikken: There has been quite some synergy between my formal education and my own hacker attitude. As long as I can remember I’ve been creative with technology, spanning hardware (wood, paper, fabric), electronics, and software. Probably because my dad is a power systems engineer and there was plenty of hardware and tools around in my youth. Part of the creative attitude is figuring out how to achieve a goal, figuring out how stuff works, and using readily available products and methods to speed up the process. When you are creative with digital technology, free software and free hardware designs are like oxygen. Quite notable is the fact that we had a presentation on the Creative Commons licenses in primary school by some expert, although I only recognized the importance of that moment many years later, after I had become aware of free software.

My technical development accelerated when I started my high school education. It offered the theoretical and practical education including the labs and people. In the years in high school a friend and I worked alongside the technical assistants of the school daily to help other students with their physics experiments and do our own in the process. But on the software side I did get the informatics education of the workings of computers, the MS Office suite, SQL and basic web development, but was never taught about free software. I had a friend whose dad was a electronics engineer and they used GNU/Linux at home. He showed it to me briefly but I only considered the look of the desktop, even though he tried to communicate the difference in the underlying technology. All this time I was a MS Windows user, using any software as long as it satisfied my feature requirements and was free of cost.

It wasn’t until I was at university for my electrical engineering education I became aware of GNU/Linux as relevant. It was used in the embedded systems department and was more visible, and some students were experimenting with using it. When I started investigating what Linux actually was, I was struck by the technical superiority and the overall better user interface. I started dual-booting GNU/Linux Mint and was pleased with it. Switching between GNU/Linux Mint and MS Windows daily did introduce some issues, so I was in need of a solution. A friend at the time, who was quite involved in the Dutch hacking community, was using Ubuntu as his daily driver. He convinced me to switch to Ubuntu and ditch MS Windows and was a helping hand in getting across all the tiny problems. From that moment on I’ve only used a Windows VM to do some magazine design work in Adobe InDesign as porting the template to Scribus wasn’t worth the effort.

But more importantly that friend, being a hacker, briefly introduced me to the concept of free software and why it was relevant. It didn’t take long before I found Stallman speeches and became aware of the vastness of the free software community. That was the moment I realized how much I had been restricted in the past, and how my own creative work was taken away from me in proprietary data formats. I had falsely assumed that freeware was the equivalent of sharing hardware plans, because that followed from how little consideration I had given to accepting software licenses or considering alternatives because of the license. Having become aware of free software changed my world view, reinforcing itself with every issue that arose. I unwillingly accepted the fact that I needed proprietary software to finish my studies, and sticking to free software certainly brought inconveniences. I have two illustrative examples from this struggle. I failed an exam partly because I had missed out on about half the formulas during the course revision, as LibreOffice wasn’t able to parse the PowerPoint file correctly. Also I wasn’t allowed to use an alternative to Matlab like Scilab as a numerical computation suite as the examiners during the test weren’t instructed about other software tools. In retrospect I believe my education would have been better if I was introduced to the free software and the community more explicitly.

Paul Boddie: Those of us with a software background sometimes look at electrical and hardware engineers and feel that we can perhaps get away with faults in our work that people making physical infrastructure cannot. At the same time, efforts to make software engineering a proper engineering discipline have been decades-long struggles, and now we see some of the consequences in terms of reliability, privacy and security. What do you think software and hardware practitioners can learn from each other? Has any progress in the software domain, or perhaps the broader adoption of technology in society, brought new lessons for those in the hardware domain?

Nico Rikken: Software, especially the software running on a general purpose processor, can be changed more easily. This especially holds true regarding scale. I might as easily modify the hardware of my computer as I might switch my software, but hardware changes don’t really scale. Although my view is limited, I believe hardware design can learn from software by having a more rapid and distributed development cycle, relying on common building blocks (like libraries) as much as possible, and achieving automated tests based on specifications. From a development standpoint this requires diff-based hardware development with automated testing simulations. From a production standpoint this requires small batches to be produced cost-effectively for test runs, and generic testing connectivity on the boards itself. This stimulates the use of common components to avoid forced redesign or high component sourcing costs. Or to put the latter statement differently: I believe hardware development can learn from software development that a certain microchip can be good enough and it is worthwhile to have fewer models covering a similar feature set, more like the UNIX Philosophy. The 741 operational amplifier is a great example of such a default building block.

I don’t see what software can learn from electronics development that much. I however do see points of improvement based on industrial design principles. This has got to do with the way in which a product is meant to target a large audience as a single design is produced numerous times. I personally view the principles for good design by Dieter Rams to represent the pinnacle of industrial design. It recognizes the way in which a product is meant to target a wide audience, and improve their lives. I consider it to be analogous to the UNIX Philosophy, but I especially believe that user interfaces should be developed with these principles in mind. Too often interfaces seem to be an afterthought, or the levels of abstraction aren’t equivalent throughout the program. I recognise there are projects highlighting the importance of usability like GNOME, elementary OS, and LibreOffice. However too often I encounter user interfaces I consider overly complex and badly structured.

Paul Boddie: In your article about smart electrical grids you talk about fifty year timescales and planning for the longer term. And yet at the same time, with many aspects of our lives changing so fast, we now have the risk that our own devices and data might become ephemeral: that we might be throwing devices away and losing data to obsolescence. How do you think anyone can sensibly make the case for more sustainable evolution in technology when it might mean not being able to sell a more exciting product to people who just want newer and better things? And can we learn things from other industries about looking after our data and the ways in which we access it?

Nico Rikken: When considering the power distribution infrastructure, it is highly stable with hardly any moving parts, and a minimal level of wear. The systems are generally over-dimensioned, but this initial investment proves beneficial in the long run. This is very different to a computer which is nearly irrelevant within five years as a result of an evolving need. Regarding the sustainability of our technology, I’d again look at industrial design. Mark Adams, the CEO of the company Vitsoe, based around designs by Dieter Rams, has given me great insights in this regard. He considers recycling a defeat, because that means a product wasn’t suitable for reuse. This originates from the original ethos of the company, requiring a mutual commitment between company and user to allow the company to sell fewer products to more people. Taking this coherent point of view, we have to make hardware modular and easy to repair or repurpose. I think we are heading in the wrong direction as a result of miniaturization, especially if we consider the downward trend in repairability scores by iFixit.

I guess that the other way of going about this is the way 3D printing and IKEA are taking on the issue of sustainability. 3D desktop printing allows a filling factor to be defined, to reduce the amount of material used. Of course this reduces the physical strength, but this allows for material usage optimization. This is why 3D printed cars can be strong, light, and low on resources. And a plain 3D print can easily be recycled by shredding and melting, closing the material loop and only requiring tools and energy. IKEA offers modular furniture enabling reuse, but from experience I can say that it certainly shows if you’ve moved the furniture a couple of times. But the counterargument is that the production process is continuously being optimized to be low on resources. IKEA’s BESTÅ seems to be the latest and greatest on this issue, being highly modular and being made of hybrid materials of particleboard, fiberboard, honeycomb structured recycled paper filling, a foil wrap and tiny plastic shelf supports. It is optimized for recycling at the cost of reusablity, but I guess that better suits the way in which the majority buys and deals with furniture.

Taking this argument of sustainability towards electronics, being able to freely replace software is a prerequisite for making electronics long-lasting. This has bugged the Fairphone, despite best intentions. We will have to protest anti-features as consumers, demanding formal legislation to protect our rights and the well-being of our society. Ideally we would go so far as to declare all patents and copyright regarding interfaces unlawful, to enable use and (re)implementation of such interfaces even if it wasn’t part of a formal standardization effort. Also the Phonebloks concept is great in that it allows products of separate lifetimes to be combined, and components to be exchanged when requirements change, rather than having to change the complete device.

Considering the specific question around data, or information in general, I have come to find my digital notes to be far less fleeting than my paper-based notes, because I can keep them at hand all the time and because I can query them. Keeping your own archives available requires the use of common open standards, as I’ve come to find. Some of my earlier creative work is still locked in proprietary formats I have no way of opening. Some of my work in the Office suite I can only open with some loss of detail, although this gets better as projects like LibreOffice are improving the compatibility with proprietary formats. Thanks to libpwd, currently part of the Document Liberation Project, I was able to settle a dispute as secretary of a student climbing association, as the details of the agreement were only available in the WordPerfect format. In that regard I understand why printed documents are preferred for archival, and why most of the communication in the energy metering industry is still ASCII-based.

I do recognise the shallowness of the store of the digital commons, especially regarding websites. As a result of the vastness of the digital media we all consume, I guess it is hard to store all data, other than in a shared resource like the Wayback Machine, which fortunately offers a service for organizations. Also I recently discovered the MHTML format for storing a website in a single open format file. I would think the digital dark age is somewhat exaggerated in the fact that most produced information was discarded in history anyway. However for the information which is actually subject to archival, retrieving it from obsolete media or proprietary formats is a challenge which increases in complexity over time.

Paul Boddie: Another one of your hardware interests that appears to overlap with one of mine is that of photography, and you describe the industry standard of Micro Four Thirds for interchangeable lens cameras. Have you been able to take a closer look at Olympus’ Open Platform Camera initiative and the “OPC Hack & Make Project” or is it as unscrutinisable for you as it is for me?

Nico Rikken: Coming from an advanced compact camera, it took me quite a while to select the system camera I desired, because I was very aware I was going to buy into a lock-in. The amount of technical differences related to the various lens mounts was quite interesting and I came to the conclusion I wanted to have as many technical solutions available as possible when using manual lenses. In a way the best option for compatibility would have been the way the Ricoh GXR did it, by making the interface between body and lens purely electronic. In this way the optical requirements are separated and all components can be updated in case the interfacing standard changes.

Ultimately I believe the optical circuit will be kept to a minimum, because the digital information can more easily be manipulated, even after the fact. I realized this regarding the focusing, as now contrast-based focusing can be faster than phase-based focusing using, with the benefit of various focus-assisting technologies, which can then both be displayed on the rear display or via the viewfinder. A DSLR cannot offer the focus-assisting technologies via the viewfinder and the speed of the contrast-based focusing as required in live-view mode is significantly slower if only due to the different lens drive. More on the innovative side the Lytro is more than about correcting focusing afterwards, it opens up new ways for creative expression by changing perspective in a frozen shot. It is another innovative way of doing cinematography, like putting cameras on cranes, on drones, or the famous ‘bullet time’.

So regarding the Open Platform Camera initiative, based around the Olympus Air I believe it is a step forward regarding digital interoperability. Having an API available rather than image files opens up new capabilities, but I would think a physical connector with the option of a power adapter would have been better as it allows more direct control and can prevent having to recharge the batteries all the time. In that regard I believe enabling the API on current cameras would be more beneficial because I don’t believe the form-factor is actually holding people back from adopting it in their projects, considering the creations from the OPC Hack & Make Project Party in March. I assume the main drivers for the open approach are media attention, image building, testing potential niche markets, and probably selling more lenses. According to Wikipedia 11 companies have formally committed to Micro Four Thirds (MFT). Considering the available lenses even more companies offer products for the system. In that regard it seems to be the most universal lens mount standard available.

If I understand correctly Olympus is one of the mayor patent holders regarding digital photography, so I’m curious in what regard they exercise their patents by licensing. Regarding MFT as a standard, in terms of standardization it is said to be an extension of the original Four Thirds specification, which is said to be highly mobile, 100% digital, and an open standard, but apparently they have a different standard of openness as the same page mentions: “Details of the Four Thirds System standard are available to camera equipment manufacturers and industry organizations on an NDA basis. Full specifications cannot be provided to individuals or other educational/research entities.” Whether or not this includes license agreements regarding the standard we don’t know, but either way you’d have to start or join an imaging company to find out. Maybe the AXIOM Gamma camera will provide the needed information in the MFT module, although I doubt that will happen as a result of the NDA. Considering the number of companies working with MFT, I guess the standard is effectively open, other than for individuals or educational or research entities. Luckily work has been done to reverse engineer the electronic protocol by Lasse Beyer and Marcus Wolschon.

Paul Boddie: Do you think established manufacturers can be encouraged to produce truly open products and initiatives or do you think they are genuinely prevented from doing so by legitimate concerns about current or potential competitors and entities like patent trolls?

I hardly think so. They have a vested interest in keeping a strong grip on the market for targeting consumers, and losing the NDA means losing that grip. The Open Platform Camera Initiative by Olympus seems to be a step in the right direction, now lets hope they see the benefit of truly opening up the standard. That would benefit niche applications like astrophotography, book scanning, photographing old negatives, lomography or IR photography. All these types of photography have specific requirements for filters, sensors, focusing or software and opening up the specification would lower the barrier for adopting these features.

Paul Boddie: Could you imagine Micro Four Thirds becoming a genuine open standard?

Creating a motive for opening up the standard can be done using both a carrot and a stick. The carrot approach would be to complete the reverse engineering of the protocol and show what applications could benefit from an open standard. The stick approach would be to introduce a open pseudo-standard, regarding mechanical and electronic connectivity. Ideally such a standard would be between a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC) and larger lenses, to allow multiple lenses to be connected with multiple bodies. As adapters start popping up for such a standard, the reputation of universal lens mount of MFT is threatened. I haven’t looked into the serial protocols of the various lens standards, so I’m not aware how easy it would be to pull off a universal lens mount. To me a sensor-based stabilized telescope would be a great test case for reverse engineering the standard and enhancing the camera body for the benefit of the user.

Paul Boddie: You have written about privacy and education a few times, occasionally combining the two topics. I was interested to see that you covered the Microsoft Outlook app credentials-leakage fiasco that also affected users at my former (university) workplace, and you also mentioned how people are being compelled to either use proprietary software and services or be excluded from activities as important as their own education. How do you see individuals being able to maintain their own privacy and choice in such adverse circumstances? As organisations seek to push their users into “the cloud” (sometimes in contravention of applicable laws), what strategies can you envisage for Free Software to pursue to counter such threats?

Nico Rikken: I assume these solutions are introduced with the best intentions, but they bring negative side-effects regarding user freedom. Accepting licences of other organizations than the educational organization should be considered unacceptable, even implicitly via a school policy. Likewise third parties having access to personal information including communication should be unacceptable. Luckily some universities are deploying their own solutions, for example universities in Nordhein-Westfalen and the University of Saskatchewan deploy solutions based on ownCloud, which is one of the ways external dependencies can be avoided. Schools should offer suitable tools with open interfacing standards for collaboration, preventing teams from adopting non-free solutions under social pressure. Using open standards and defaulting to free software is obvious. To avoid unnecessary usage information being generated, all information resources should be available for download, ideally exposing them via an API or web standard like RSS for inclusion in common client applications.

But this is wishful thinking, as I’m aware that current policies are weak, even those policies aren’t adhered to. Simply put, if you want to take a formal education you have to accept your freedoms are violated. The impact can be minimized by continuously protesting the use of non-free software service as a software substitute (SaaSS). I’ve come to find most of the times teachers don’t care as much about the software used, they just know the common proprietary solution. Having some friends to pass along information or convert documents can further reduce observability. Things get particularly difficult if no alternatives exist, or if non-free formats or templates are required.

An alternative way of getting educated is by taking part in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). It seems to be the most promising way out, as content is offered according to open standards. The content availability and reusability is limited depending on the licenses, but the same holds for most educational institutions. Then there is the amount of monitoring involved, but most MOOCs allow pseudonymity unless you desire an official certificate. Assuming you use a VPN service or Tor even, this offers an unprecedented level of anonymity. Just compare this to the non-free software dominated IT systems of educational organizations, combined with the vast number of registered personal details and campus cameras. Whether or not MOOCs can replace a formal education in the coming years I don’t know, neither do I know how corporate organizations will judge MOOC-taught students.

Many thanks to Nico for answering our questions and for his continuing involvement in the Fellowship of the FSFE.

Interview with Fellow Neil McGovern

Neil McGovern

Neil McGovern is a Fellow of the FSFE from the United Kingdom and was recently elected as Debian Project Leader, starting his term of office in April. He has previously participated in local government and has served on the board of the Open Rights Group: a digital rights organisation operating in the UK.

Paul Boddie: Congratulations on your recent election as Debian Project Leader (DPL)! Looking at your election platform, you have been engaged in a number of different activities for quite some time. How do you manage to have time for everything you want to do? Is your employer supportive of your new role or does your free time bear most of the burden?

Neil McGovern: I’d say it’s a mix of both. My employer, Collabora is hugely supportive of the role, Debian and Free Software in general. However, being DPL isn’t just a 9 to 5 job – the timezones that all our contributors work in mean that there’s always work to be done.

Paul Boddie: You appear to be fortunate enough to work for an employer that promotes Free Software solutions. For many people interested in Free Software who have to squeeze that interest in around their job, that sounds like the perfect opportunity to combine your own interests with your professional objectives. But what started you off in the direction of Free Software and your current position? And, once on the path, did you deliberately seek out Free Software opportunities, or was it just a happy accident that you ended up where you are today?

Neil McGovern: My first exposure to free software was from a friend at secondary school who started selling CDs of Linux distributions. He initially introduced me to the concept. Before that, I’d mostly used Mac OS, in the olden days before OS X came along. When I went to university to study computer science, I joined University of Sheffield IT Committee. At the time, there wasn’t any facilities offered for students to host web pages. This was originally running Mandrake. In my second year, I moved in with a housemate, who was a Debian Developer, and I started packaging a client for LiveJournal called Drivel.

Since then, I guess it’s less that I’ve less sought out opportunities, but it’s more that the opportunities out there have been very much geared towards people who understand Free Software well, and can help with them. My current job however is very much more than just using and developing Free Software – it’s about enabling companies out there to use Free Software successfully, both for the immediate gain they can get, but also making sure that they understand the benefits of contributing back. A pretty ideal job for a Free Software enthusiast!

Paul Boddie: Your DPL platform states that you intend to “support and enable” the volunteers that get the work of Debian done. One of the challenges of volunteer-run organisations is that of keeping people happy and productive, knowing that they can walk away at any time. What lessons from your history of involvement with Debian and in other areas can you share with us about keeping volunteers happy, productive and, crucially, on board?

Neil McGovern: I think the key issue is about communications. You need to make sure that you actively listen to people, and understand their view point. Given the globally distributed nature of Debian, it’s easy for people to have disagreements – remembering that another human is at the other end of an email address isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Face to face meetings and conferences are essential for countering this – every year when I go to DebConf, I come back reinvigorated to continue working on Debian. :)

Paul Boddie: Especially in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about Free Software solutions and platforms losing out to proprietary rivals, with special attention given to things like smartphones, “app” marketplaces, and so on. That some of these proprietary offerings build on Free Software makes the situation perhaps even more unpalatable. How do you see Free Software in general, and Debian in particular, having more of a visible role to play in delivering these solutions and services all the way to the end-user and perhaps getting more of the credit?

Neil McGovern: The key issue is trust – when Debian distributes a package, you know that it’s met various quality and stability standards. There’s a risk in moving to an entire container based model that people will simply download random applications from the internet. If a security problem is found in a shared library in Debian, we can fix it once. If that library is embedded in hundreds of different ‘apps’, then they’ll all need fixing independently. This would certainly be a challenge to overcome. Mind you, in our latest release we had over 45,000 binary packages, so I don’t think that there’s a lack of choice of software in Debian!

Debian logo

Paul Boddie: I see you were involved in local government for a while. Would you say that interacting with the Free Software and Debian communities led you to explore a broader political role, or did your political beliefs lead you instead to Debian and Free Software?

Neil McGovern: Well, secretly, the real reason I got involved in politics was that I had had quite a few beers in a local pub with some friends for a 30th birthday, and one of them asked if I wanted to get involved. The next day I woke up with a hangover, and a knocking on the door with said friend holding a bundle of leaflets for me to deliver. :) I don’t think it’s really that one led to another, but more that it stems from my desire to try and help people; be it through representing constituents, or helping create software that everyone can use for free.

Paul Boddie: One of the articles on your blog deals with an awkward situation in local government where you felt you had to support the renewal of proprietary software licences, specifically Microsoft Office. Given your interests in Free Software and open standards, this must have been a bittersweet moment, knowing that the local bureaucracy had fallen into the trap of macros and customisations that make migration to open standards and interoperable products very challenging. Was this a case of knowing which battles are the ones that are worth fighting? And how do you see organisations escaping from these vicious cycles of vendor lock-in? Do you perceive an appetite in public institutions for embracing interoperability and choice or do people just accept the “treadmill” of upgrades as inevitable, perhaps as not even perceiving it as a problem at all?

Neil McGovern: It wasn’t the most pleasant decision I’ve had to make, but it was a case of weighing up what was available and what wasn’t. Since then, ODF-supporting programs have improved greatly, and there’s even commercial support for these. (Disclosure: my company is one of these now.) Additionally, the UK Government announced that it would use ODF as the standard for distributing documents, which is a big win, so I think there is a change that’s happening – Free Software is something that is now being recognised as a real force compared to 5 years ago.

Paul Boddie: A lot of attention has been focused on the next generation of software developers, particularly in the UK education sector, with initiatives like the Raspberry Pi and BBC “Micro Bit” as well as a mainstream awareness of “apps” and “app” development. Do you think there might be a risk of people becoming tempted by arenas of activity where the lessons of Free Software are not being taught or learned, where the vendor’s products are the focus, and where people no longer experience or understand a sustainable and independent community like Debian? Is computing at risk of being dragged back to an updated version of the classic 1980s consumer-producer relationship? Or worse: a rehashed version of something like the “walled garden” networked computing visions of Apple and Microsoft from the early 1990s where the vendor even sets the terms of participation and interaction?

Neil McGovern: There’s certainly a renewed focus on computing education in the UK, but that’s mostly because it’s been so poor for the past 15 or so years! We’ve been teaching students how to use a spreadsheet, or a word processor in the guise of ICT, but no efforts have gone in to actual computing. Thankfully, this is actually changing. I do have the inner suspicions that the focus on “apps” is a civil servant somewhere thinking “Kids like apps, right? And they can sell them and everything, so that’s good. Apps! Teach them to make apps!”

Paul Boddie: Finally, noticing your connections with Cambridge, and having an appreciation myself for the role of the Cambridge area and its university in founding technology companies directly or indirectly, I cannot help but ask about the local attitudes to things like Free Software, open standards, and notions of openness in general. Once upon a time, there seemed to be a degree of remorse that the rather proprietary microcomputing-era companies had failed to dominate in the marketplace, and this led to companies like ARM that have done quite well licensing their technologies, albeit in a restrictive way. Do you sense that the Cambridge technology scene has been (or become) more accepting of notions of openness and freedoms around software and technology? Or are there still prominent local opinions about the need to make money by routing around such freedoms? How do you view your involvement in Debian and the Open Rights Group as a way of bringing about changes in attitudes and in wider society towards such issues?

Neil McGovern: Nothing really opened my eyes to the importance of Debian until I turned up to my running group, and got approximately 6 people offer to buy me a pint as they heard I’d been elected DPL. I’m not sure that would have happened in many other cities. I do think that it is a reflection on the main-streaming of Free Software within large companies. We’re now seeing that not only is Free Software being accepted, but experience with it is seen as an advantage. This is perhaps best highlighted by Microsoft throwing a birthday party for the release of Debian 8, a sight I never thought I’d see.

Paul Boddie is a Free Software developer currently residing in Norway, cultivating interests in open hardware, photography and retrocomputing. He joined the FSFE in 2008 and occasionally publishes his own opinions on his blog.

Fellowship interview with Anna Morris

Anna Morris

Anna Morris

Anna Morris is co-founder of FLOSSIE conference for women in Free Software, Manchester Fellowship Group Deputy Coordinator, and Co-Director of She is currently writing a book on video editing with Free Software, and volunteering with Document Freedom Day 2013 in her spare time.

Ana Galan: You recently started a new e-commerce business. What led you to that decision?

Anna Morris: My partner Joseph contracted a viral meningitis a few years ago and never recovered – he couldn’t go out to work any more. After about a year of supporting us both with an online teaching job, I was struggling to match my expectations of a creative and fulfilling life with the burden of being the “breadwinner”. By running an online business we can both work from home together and structure our time freely, to suit both his health and my creative whims! It has worked well over our first year and we are getting close to taking a small income from our sales – which is great, as we started with only a tiny loan from my Grandparents.

AG: How is Free Software helping you to run your business?

AM: Well, as a Free Software advocate I am aware that most computer/internet related things are dependant on Free Software in some way, even if its not noticeable to the untrained eye (like mine). In terms of the software that I am aware of using, however, I can say for sure that it’s been a big help.

On a basic level, one impact has been the software that I can afford to access (especially in terms of commercial use). My web-shop platform is Free Software and my payment gateway (Skrill) gave me a big discount because of this (I assume because its easier for them to interoperate with).

My e-commerce payment gateway gave me a big discount because I use Free Software

Also, things like video editing software, which I use a lot to make promotional materials – I would never have been able to afford the proprietary equivalents (or the pricey manuals). Then, there are things like the creative commons music which I totally depend upon for my videos, and the fonts, so vital to our “brand”, which use the Open Font License.

My blogging platform, operating system, email system, phone software (which I depend upon for social media interaction) are all Free too.

Of-course – some of this has come about through my deliberate choice to use only Free Software, however even if I had no knowledge of Free Software (and even if I opposed it) I don’t suppose many things would be different. For example, I would still be using WordPress and Prestashop without a doubt!

Perhaps most importantly, the learning and subsequent freedom that I have achieved is also down to Free software (and the community surrounding it). Free Software challenges you to learn: to do for yourself, to be fearlessly independent when it comes to your tech. In the past few years I have taken pride in watching my skill base catchup with and overtake that of my proprietary-loving peers, even some paid professionals, simply by having a free and curious mindset. Free software frees you in many ways.

AG: Do you think Free Software could be a good way to help entrepreneurs

and to aid the economy?

Free Software challenges you to be fearlessly independent when it comes to your tech

AM: Yes. But then I think Free Software is a good way to do most things ;)

AG: Most of the businesses associated with Free Software are related to software. As yours

is not, do you have advice to entrepreneurs about the use of Free Software and how they can benefit from it?

AM: Well, my business is specifically an ethical business. Any ethical business should be thinking about the ethics of the tools they use – even if it is difficult to understand all the information straight away.

If I had a physical shop, I would not build it with means and materials that are detrimental to society: why should my web-shop be different?

Here are a few practical examples: At Ethical Pets, we do not sell GM pet foods: why should we use proprietary software that helps fund GM trials?

We specifically supply fairly traded products: why should we give money to companies with appalling labour practices?

Why should we give money to companies with appalling labour practices?

We spend a lot of energy encouraging customers to research, contemplate and make up their own mind about issues such as animal nutrition, animal testing and environmental impact. Should I therefore give my custom to companies who lock down their products/software and invest in censorship?

Also, as a Christian, I find the idea of such grandiose gluttony and tech coverting quite abhorrent.

Of course, just like sourcing Ethical Pet products, it’s not a simple learning curve to reach the point where you use Free Software in every aspect of your business and life… but making a start easy enough, and the extensive community actually makes it a real joy.

AG: Name a Free Software application you cannot live without it

AM: Clever answer: When Joey was very ill with meningitis, many of the hospital machines, for example the MRI scanners, were running Free Software – “live without” is a relative term in Free Software.

Real answer: well, other than my Star Trek tricorder from F-droid Android repository… (I was a happy little geek the day I found THAT app!) I guess KDEnlive is my real baby: It has opened up so many creative doors and windows for me! I recently got a job writing a manual (for Arabic speaking political activists) about video editing using Free Software – this was a pivotal moment for me on a personal level.

AG: Is there any Free Software you would particularly like to see improved?

GNU/Linux users are too often the last to get their hands on the latest versions of software

AM: Again, KDEnlive: I get tired of depreciated versions being the only ones available on most Free operating systems. In fact, this is an issue in general – GNU/Linux users are too often the last to get their hands on the latest versions of software. In KDEnlive, if I report a bug and it gets fixed, I don’t get that updated version for months on my current OS. I don’t want to be forced to learn how to compile this software myself just to keep up to speed: I do have a social life to attend to, ya’know!

Also, I think that Free Software has problems with hosted options – for example: social media, web-mail, mail-shot software etc. The few Free Software options here are often specialised for techies with money to spend on server space. They often lack friendly interfaces and rely on skill and time to spend from the user. I know I have said that one of the joys of Free Software is the learning curve – but it shouldn’t require quite so much work on my part to, for example, make a newsletter for my business, as I recently did for the first time. Folks with a day job or children would probably have to give up where I have time to persevere.

AG: What Free Software motto should readers take away this Christmas?

AM: Any of the many words of encouragement bestowed by my good friend Sam Tuke would do – he just wont let me quit! Everyone should have a Free Software buddy: to keep them on the right path when problems are abundant, be proud of them when they have learned something new, and help them contribute to more and better to Free Software. We all have something to give!

An separate interview with Anna which has not been published in this series is available here.

Fellowship Interview with Hugo Roy

Hugo Roy

Hugo Roy is a Free Software hacktivist and FSFE’s French Team coordinator. He currently lives between Berlin and Paris, and is a law student at Sciences Po University. He began life with FSFE in 2009, assisting FSFE president Karsten Gerloff on policy issues, and is also co-founder of the Digital Freedoms association. He is a member of April and of French Data Network.

Chris Woolfrey:Tell me what you’ve been working on recently.

Hugo Roy: Since 2010 I’ve been representing FSFE in France. This involves getting involved in events and conferences, and occasionally acting as an interface between various organisations and FSFE — some very local, and some national. There is a very strong and organised Free Software community in France — for instance with the yearly conference RMLL (Rencontres Mondiales du Logiciel Libre) — so one of my ongoing jobs is to show a face for FSFE, make a personal connection and explain what we do and why we exist. Then on further levels, it sometimes gets into collaboration on campaigns or issues. For instance, one of my main area of activities in Free Software is legal and public affairs.

At the moment I’m mainly working on setting up our Free Your Android campaign in France, with phone liberation workshops. I really believe in this project: I think mobile devices are becoming more and more important, and having control over them, and more importantly over the services that we run them with, is becoming more important too.

CW: You’re studying copyright law at the moment. Did you become interested in the study of copyright law as a result of an involvement with Free Software?

HR: Yes. I discovered Free Software as a movement around 2004, when I was in Collège. I was already using almost exclusively Free Software at the time, I just didn’t know it! Then a couple of years later I decided to install GNU/Linux, and have stuck with it since then.

But the writings of Richard Stallman, and also his involvement with the creation of one of the most interesting legal tools ever, the GNU GPL, has definitely influenced my interest in copyright and law in general. And I have to say it’s been very interesting to discuss this topic in class, with professors who have showed interest on Stallman’s work. The whole concept of “property” is turned upside down!

“The GPL turns the whole concept of property upside down”

CW: Can you explain what you mean by that?

HR: Well, if you look at copyright, it’s an exclusive right, it’s a power given to someone to exclude others. Now, if you look at the GNU GPL, it’s essentially a copyright license. But what the GNU GPL does, what we call copyleft, is make sure that all contributions by others will be included for the community to benefit. So the GNU GPL uses exclusive rights to create inclusivity.

What’s also interesting is that exclusive rights such as those relating to private property are often put forward as necessary to increase the common good. Whether you take the utilitarian point of view or the natural rights point of view, property as an exclusive right is seen as a necessity to create value. Now if we apply this to software, let’s just compare proprietary software and Free Software. Which one do you think creates more value? With Free Software, everyone benefits from the value that’s created, so everyone’s empowered to create more value, and with copyleft, we’re even encouraged to do so by publishing our modifications under an inclusive license.

CW:Can this model apply to other products as well? More tangible things?

HR: If it works, why not? When I read all these articles about 3D printers, it’s mind-blowing. We could all share designs for physical things under copyleft-type licenses, and then all manufacture the objects ourselves in a completely different way.

“Free Software movement has always had wider implications”

Of course, we’re a long way before it happens and before we see the full consequences, but sharing in this way could help solve a huge problem. Our economies currently create a lot of waste. Think about all the objects we throw away, all the refuse. This might count for economic “growth” but is it really created value, or is it created waste? Currently there’s a big incentive for companies to produce waste in tangible goods, especially regarding planned obsolescence. But I think this could change; if the production of objects were changed, for instance if design plans were shared, and the production distributed.

CW: Are you expected in your role as French Team Coordinator to draw attention to the wider implications of Free Software to society?

HR: I think the role of the coordinator really depends on the mission the coordinator has. For instance in France, what matters is team building, raising awareness about FSFE and coordination with teams. That’s obviously a very different task in Germany where FSFE is very well known.

But I’d like to say something about the wider implications and drawing those connections. There’s a French website about Free Software called Framablog, where they talk about a lot of related issues, and their motto is “It would be unfortunate if Free Software did nothing else than liberating code”. Free software is about liberating people.

The movement always has wider implications. For instance since June I’ve put a lot of my energy into Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, for which we recently ran a successful crowd-funding campaign. This project is not strictly about Free Software, but it’s about software as a service, and about user freedoms and rights.

“We should have more rights online; we shouldn’t accept a regression of our rights”

It’s important that people understand, in the same way that some of us have understood what’s proprietary software and why it’s not good for our autonomy, that using services on the web has a direct effect on our freedom. For instance if you use a service that restricts your freedom of expression, or might suspend your account at any time, or a service that even forbids you to use a pseudonym to express yourself, then you ought to know about it, so that you can fight against it. We should have more rights online; we shouldn’t accept a regression of our rights. That’s the paradox of our time: as technology increases our possibilities, big companies are restricting our rights with that very technology: DRM, proprietary software etc., and also through legal schemes like restrictive terms of service, and pushing through laws that restrict our freedom, like ACTA, the HADOPI law, and so on.

Services that use Free Software (e.g. AGPL licensed software) have an incentive not to screw their users. Ultimately let’s hope that there will be more AGPL software-based services, and software applications offered as services become more distributed. In all these things, Free Software is a common denominator, it’s as simple as that: without Free Software, freedom is at risk.

CW: How aware are French people of their rights online, and issues concerning software freedom?

HR: That’s a really difficult question to answer. We’ve sure had some debate in the last few years – what with the HADOPI law being passed, but also to a lesser extent with ACTA. But the debate around HADOPI and the copyright on internet-based creative works is mostly a diversion of the real issues, in my opinion.

CW: What are the real problems?

HR: The public domain is dying. Let’s take one example:  George Méliès” movie, Trip to the Moon. It’s in the public domain, and it is a beautiful 20-minute movie. In the last few years they rediscovered some parts that were lost, and so were able to restore the movie to almost the exact work done by Méliès on the original, in which every clip had been hand painted -this was in the days before colour film. It’s beautiful.

“The public domain is dying”

This restored version, which was funded by a French foundation, has been published recently with a new soundtrack added to it -so they’ve now been able re-enclose a work which was once in the public domain. Because of the new soundtrack they can make the argument that it’s a new work, which can be copyrighted; even though under copyright law restoration doesn’t count as a new creation, meaning it shouldn’t be entitled to a new copyright. So if I shared this film, which should really be in the public domain, with you, I’d be infringing on copyright.

Another example: libraries, obviously, have a lot of old books which are in the public domain. Now that they’re scanning and digitizing them, they’re adding restrictions to them, or they’re licensing out to private companies the task of scanning the documents, and then giving those companies exclusive rights to exploit the scans, sometimes not even with public access.

CW: How does that tie back into the Free Software movement for you? Through the GPL?

HR: It’s about what rights and freedom we have. The GPL is a fair contract. Copyright as it is today, is not fair at all.

Fellowship Interview with Giacomo Poderi

Giacomo Poderi

Giacomo Poderi has worked as a translator and editor for FSFE, as well as completing a master’s degree in Philosophy. Currently he’s working on a Ph.D in sociology, which looks at the user experience in Free Software Projects, focusing on the turn-based strategy game ‘The Battle for Wesnoth’.

CW: Can you explain your doctoral thesis, and what impact it might have on the world of Free Software?

GP: I’m doing a PhD in Sociology here in Trento, researching user participation in Free Software projects. Free Software studies focus nearly exclusively on the part of the Free Software phenomenon which deals with code development. So the only actors who are considered within the stage of Free Software studies are: core developers, co-developers and users who are on their way to becoming developers. This leaves aside a very large majority of people that are connected with Free Software, but who are not capable of, or interested in, coding.

Basically, users-as-developers are well studied and understood in Free Software; but users-as-users, or even users-as-marginal-participants, are barely studied. But if you think about it, many projects – for example KDE, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Libreoffice – put perhaps more effort into ‘community building’ than they do into coding. Outreach, support, funding, infrastructure, maintenance, and so on.

Are these areas less important than fixing the bugs for the next release? I don’t think so. But even so, the activity of coding is studied whilst other activities in the Free Software world are studied much less.

CW: Do you think that Free Software communities are unwelcoming to people who can’t code?

GP: Sometimes, yes. Most likely it is not done ‘consciously’ or with malicious intent. But at least in the case I’m studying, the rhetoric of “If you don’t like how we do it, you can take the code and fork it” is too prevalent in people’s minds – at least in the mind of the insiders.

I understand that human resources alone are never enough, and that’s probably particularly so in Free Software projects. But sometimes I see the rhetoric of “You’re free to take the code” as a way to close dialogue with users.

CW: You mean that you can only take the code, as a user, if you know what to do with it?

GP: No; I mean that sometimes Free Software developers let themselves be carried away with the possibility to use that argument to reject feature requests, for instance. Users who cannot code cannot code, by definition; but the fact that they cannot code doesn’t make them wrong by default, and their needs are important.

“Users who cannot code cannot code, by definition; but the fact that they cannot code doesn’t make them wrong by default, and their needs are important.”

Just a stupid example: a proprietary application, doesn’t allow you to study or adapt the code, but typically the developers provide customer service staff that you can shout at if you need or want to. A Free Software project lets you study and adapt the code, but the alternative to the customer service is a Web forum for user support. And there, sometimes users are treated with the argument I was referring to before. In the case I’m studying I labeled this phenomenon as the “Open Source Argument”; and I don’t want to imply that its used in an unfriendly way, or that it’s being rude towards the users. But to me it is evident that it is often used in cases where more technical answers or explanations could be provided.

CW: So the Free Software community is less inclusive, and its development less democratic, than it typically seems?

GP: Yes. The internal dynamics of these projects in no way resembles democracy. In my case, developers also explicitly acknowledge it. It’s a fact that is largely accepted by everyone in the project I’m studying.

But it’s also an understandable attitude, and it basically has to do with resources. The little resources which are available are deployed for the development and maintenance of what they already have. Few resources are left for bridging user’s needs with developer’s interest.

It also a has to do with the technical complexity of software development, I think. The more the project grows and matures in its ‘trajectory’, the more difficult it is to introduce certain kind of changes. Developers know what, reasonably, can be changed – with the available resources – and they know how to do that whilst preserving the compatibility and functionality of the software.

I don’t think that’s specifically an issue in Free software. But end-users don’t understand this side of things.

CW: Is FSFE an example of a good bridge between users and developers, in that regard?

GP: Yes, definitely. The awareness work that FSFE is doing with government bodies is extremely relevant. Also the whole idea of local groups brought forward within the fellowship is another one. To establish a network of local groups which have an awareness of these matters, but also the passion to support the idea of software freedom, is an excellent way for disseminating it.

“The awareness work that FSFE is doing with government bodies is extremely relevant.”

But also, on FSFE’s side, to understand which issues are the most difficult to diffuse in society, and which ones are more easily digested by people who are not necessarily computer experts. That’s important.

FSFE is great for those who don’t code. I know some mark-up languages, but no coding skills in the strict sense; I’m a good example! When i got involved with FSFE, it was as an intern for Georg Greve, the president at the time. And, beside many other things, I helped him find an office in Zurich; now I’m a member of FSFE’s General Assembly. And mostly, over the last five years, I’ve worked as a translator, as a long term-contributor to the Italian team, and particularly to the project I also worked as a newsletter editor – first as a volunteer, then for a short time as an employee.

CW: You mentioned earlier that sociologists and computer scientists don’t always have the best relationship.

GP: On the one hand I think that they really could benefit from each other, if only they had more compatible ways of understanding and communicating their problems. User-centered design, participatory design, and so forth, are all important efforts to make technology more ‘socially relevant’, and an honest integration of a ‘sociological’ understanding into the design and development of technological artifacts is the way to go, at least in my opinion, if we hope and aim for a technology that attempts to solve problems, rather than becoming a product for market exploitation.

I believe in the idea that technology can improve human life, to put it very simply. But I also believe that in order to achieve this, the people who know how to make technology and those “who know what social problems there are” need to speak to each other more often.

My point is that this awareness is shared by both sociologists and computer scientists – and also software engineers, I believe – but the truth is that none of these groups have yet found an effective way to communicate. For instance, here in Trento there are efforts at departmental level to bridge and intertwine the field’s attempts realise ‘real’ interdisciplinary thinking. I know that similar attempts are also present in other universities in Europe. As far as I know these attempts have their problems, with projects starting honestly an interdisciplinary way, but ending up as standard prototyping projects, for instance. I’m hopeful that sooner or later we’ll find a way to integrate these two paradigms.

CW: Perhaps through collaboration, copyleft, and ‘open source’ thinking?

GP: Collaborative theses, and so on, are a starting point, for sure. But if you think at a different level, I think there is more potential. For example, in sociology and economics there is an emerging concept of social responsibility as applied to entrepreneurial and business activity. Increasingly there are degrees, in Business and similar fields, which are really into that. They are benefiting from a theory that originated in sociology. However, as far as I know the idea of social responsibility isn’t taught within the field of Computer Science at all. Similarly, people in human sciences have no clue about the complexity of reducing an area of human activity into a design problem and of implementing a technical solution to that problem.

“the idea of social responsibility isn’t taught within the field of Computer Science at all.”

There are different practices of appropriation at play. A computer scientist might think that a problem of immigrant integration, for example, can be solved by an iPhone app. And it reduces a very complex problem into a very simple artifact. On the other side, a sociologist who may understand the problems of immigrant integration from a theoretical point of view, doesn’t know what the potential of a well designed system could be. But if they did, perhaps the solution they would come to, would be not an iPhone app but a minor improvement in the town social services information system.

The two fields appropriate differently a ‘real’ problem area in order to make it fit their own paradigms. As I see it, the users of Free Software are a little bit like the immigrants in my fictitious example. They are appropriated, in different ways, by the two fields.

Fellowship interview with Rikard Fröberg

Rikard Fröberg - Photographer: Mathias Klang, CC-BY-NC 2.0
Rikard Fröberg
Photographer: Mathias Klang
CC-BY-NC 2.0

Rikard Fröberg used to work in the IT industry as a consultant and teacher, but in the late 90s changed his focus to Free Software and free culture. He helped start up Gnutiken, and has helped organise FSCONS for the last three years. Currently employed by The Society for Free Culture and Software as a project manager, Rikard is managing a project for increasing accessibility at events.

Chris Woolfrey: You’re currently working at The Society for Free Culture and Software (FFKP), and you’re involved with a number of grassroots projects, such as Cloudberry. How important do you think it is that Free Software has an active and engaged network of users?

Rikard Fröberg: Speaking as an FFKP employee, I have to say it’s not only important, it’s imperative for Free Software to provide contexts and meeting spaces for users and developers alike, so that they can exchange ideas and gain understanding of their respective views. Not that every Free Software project would be nothing without engaged users, but many projects have such a large user-base that it would be a waste not to have some form of interaction with its many users.

But that interaction sometimes needs managing. Some projects and pieces of software have staff and officials from municipalities, regions, and even states, as part of its user-base, and that might actually pose a challenge for the community, and its interactions with that kind of user-base. Government officials, for instance, might not be familiar with the tools and culture for participating in user communities, such as filing bugs on some bug tracker,
or filing feature requests on a mailing list. Here, I see the need for some intermediary forum where representatives from the Free Software community can meet with the end-users on more equal terms and with means more familiar to such end-users in terms of how they generally approach and discuss things with providers of software and services.

“Government officials might not be familiar with the tools and culture for participating in user communities”

CW: Does the Cloudberry project aim to fulfil this role with artists and musicians?

RF: Cloudberry is an effort to include the artists and copyright holders in the discussion of how their works will, could and should be shared among their public. At an earlier stage of Creative Commons (CC) history, most of the promotion and information around the models and licenses came from lawyers and tended to have a strong focus on law in general and intellectual property law in particular. These are topics which do not appeal to all artists and producers of artistic work. Here, Cloudberry reaches out to hear their side of the story in order to adopt and incorporate their narrative, needs and reality into the discussion and description of CC and its licenses.

On the other hand, a great deal of the work that is being shared with CC licenses is shared on and found via the Internet. And many of the people engaged in remixing of other people’s work both find and share their works online. So, the users dealing with works that carry a CC license, in many cases, act on and through the means of technology and could perhaps thus be considered technical users.

The idea behind the Creative Commons needs to find its way to the more technically inclined crowd too. Even if the younger generation – sometimes referred to as digital natives – are technologically savvy, they may not be as aware of how copyright works.

Many innovations and services are created around artistic work: film, sound and photos. Using CC for licensing schemes actually opens up a whole range of new
technical innovations as well as new business models. Flickr, for instance, recently proclaimed they have over 200 million photos with some kind of CC license. Technical users in a wider sense definitely must be part of CC’s target groups.

The Creative Commons needs to be able to communicate its ideas and workings to a broad range of audiences, all the way from those who create, via those who consume and enjoys their work, to the technical innovators and also actually businesses. And then I’ve not even touched upon states , governments, the academia, and policy makers…

CW: How does Free Software fit into that model of free culture? Is it the most important, or maybe the most fundamental component?

RF: I think some of the strengths of Free Software are ideas and ideals which are shared by other instances of free culture. We have CC with its reformative licenses, Open Access, and even movements touching upon much more earthly matters, such as Open Source Ecology.

The FS movement, though, was early in formalizing the ideas around the freedoms of something as immaterial as code. Much of what runs and influences our daily
lives involve software. We have the Internet and the de facto infrastructure for many forms of communication and exchange of knowledge that takes place there, such as mail and the web. And more and more people, at least in the West and the industrialized world, carry around in their pockets a phone which is also a computer (connected to the Internet no less). So it’s hard to ignore that software is a key part of culture and our daily lives, so Free Software of
course is an important and fundamental part of a free culture. Is it the most important? I can’t tell, but it’s obvious that different fields of free culture influence one another, so perhaps the most important thing is to keep that
exchange of ideas going.

“different fields of free culture influence one another…the most important thing is to keep the exchange of ideas going”

CW: An important feature of the Free Software movement is that people from all over the world can work together in online communities. Do you consider it a problem that typically such communities rarely meet physically, in order to discuss ideas and benefit from each other personally?

RF: It might be the case. The Web might be labelled “social” by some, but we should never underestimate the power and impact of meeting with each other face-to-face. Online discussion, in my opinion, has a weakness in that it lacks the subtleties and nuances of conversations that take place in a physical meeting. It can lead to misunderstandings and lengthy discussions over details, and I also think that, often, a culture evolves in online communities and mailing lists which can be exclusive, or stand in the way of people who aren’t comfortable or familiar with the jargon and these sometimes informal cultural rules.

Physical meetings, I think, allow for more interaction between people from different groups who do not necessarily share the same interests and background, because most of us already have a grasp of the social protocol away from the keyboard. And it’s fun to meet with people, I think.

You need both online communities and physical meetings, I guess. The benefits from the online communities are, obviously, that you do not need to travel to interact with people in different time zones, and the asynchronous nature of electronic communication allows for people to not even be awake at the same time, while still engaging in the same discussions.

CW: Is the primary benefit of FSCONS that it provides an opportunity for such real world meetings?

RF: It’s not for us to say, really. But from what we hear, many visitors and speakers appreciate the social interactions and unexpected meetings
that do occur during the conference. Also, we hear a lot that the broad range of topics makes the conference stand out compared to many purely technical conferences. We also try to create natural meeting spaces and allow for such interactions when planning the schedule and venue layout. And we do arrange social events every evening of the conference for exactly this reason; we feel that the physical meetings are a key component in our conference.

The schedule is filling up, and I think we have a broad range of topics this year. I’m managing a track called ‘Universal Design – Aiming for Accessibility’. I’m sure we’ll present something therewhich will attract some attention. Personally, I think there’s several exciting tracks this year. We have the ‘Future of money’ track, which should be both timely and intriguing, with talks on Bitcoin and Flattr, for instance. And then there’s ‘Free Software in Politics’, co-arranged with the FSFE, with a whole range of interesting sessions. I’m also interested in the ‘Human Rights and Digital Freedoms’ track, which has plenty of interesting talks and presenters in it. But I guess there’s something for everyone, and I just wish I’d have time to attend them all. We have two excellent keynotes: Christina Haralanova will present a talk on ‘Hackers for Social Justice’, and Richard Stallman will give a session in a format you are not used to see him doing at keynotes around the conference-sphere…but more on that will be presented soon on the conference website.

Experience tells me that the FSCONS planning starts a week or so after the wrap-up of the previous one, so expect us!

Fellowship interview with Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl is currently working for Nokia in Berlin as a front-end developer. He is a long-term and active member of FSFE, not to mention a Fedora packager, and a Lisp, JavaScript and Perl programmer. We conversed over Jabber, in our respectively cold houses, about developments at Nokia, the transformative power of Free Software, and the potential dangers posed by the use of Free Software by large organisations.

Chris Woolfrey: Tell me about working for Nokia, and your involvement with FSFE’s website.

Alexander Kahl: I’ve just recently started working for Nokia. Mostly it’s to do with research and development, and Qt. A particular technology that we’ve been eagerly anticipating is QML, which is provided as Free Software in the latest Qt versions. It speeds up front-end development by leveraging an optimized declarative approach to programming GUI logic. Nokia’s well-known credo is “connecting people”, and QML is enabling us do this.

The FSFE website is still in the works, and in competition for my spare time with all the other interesting Free Software projects on my list.

CW: And what are the other projects on your list?

AK: I’m trying to write a next-generation software build system, and in the process of writing it split its components up into multiple side-projects in order to have everything as re-usable as possible, in case I resign from the idea someday. Aside from that, I’m playing around with different non-browser based JavaScript implementations, and trying to integrate TAP (Test Anything Protocol) in a way that means as many implementations as possible can use it at the same time. Most probably this is just one of life’s many distractions from what really matters, though.

CW: What do you mean by ‘what really matters?’ It seems to me like you’re working on several interesting and worthwhile applications.

“My work with Nokia feels right to me”

AK: What matters is that my work with Nokia feels right to me, which is often the case when passion and self-commitment can be felt during development. Right now I’m having to question the outcome of some of my side projects however, because despite my motivation, everyone else who originally shared my ideas for the build system now seem to be disinterested. Furthermore, this project involves completely rewriting GNU M4 (a compiler front-end and macro processor). This is something that most people would consider rather insane.

CW: So for you,’what matters’ is that a community can get behind a project, and if everybody thinks working on something like that is insane, then the project must be flawed?

AK: Yes, the desired net effect is that a community is going to emerge around the created software. This could happen indirectly, but what’s important from my perspective is the inception of a development process that will evolve naturally, instead of one which is artificially designed.

I love to assemble complex things from very basic units, instead of combining mature giants of software. The latter may promise quick feelings of success, but the former has greater potential to create something that will live on after its creator is forgotten.

There is a danger however that a gap could arise between my own ideas (in which I’ve invested passion and energy), and the needs of potential users (with whom I’ve been working since the earliest phase of the project). One could also see this as the contention of ‘ego versus altruism’.

CW: Much of Nokia’s work with Free Software has not yet been published. It would be good for both Nokia and Free Software if the company released more Free Software; why don’t they?

AK: One must not forget that Nokia is just a name for something that is many places, products, people, ideas. The Free Software community is incredibly lucky that Nokia employees have been compelling enough to convince the company to invest in FS by buying Trolltech, taking over the Qt team, continuing to fund Qt’s development as Free Software, and using it as a fundament for new technologies.

Don’t expect Nokia to become the next Red Hat soon, but rest assured that if Nokia’s Free Software development teams deliver successfully, Free Software will get a real boost and people will benefit world-wide.

CW: Do you feel that there is a danger that the result of Nokia buying important FS companies like Trolltech will be that people fail to separate the concept of Free Software from the company?

“The dangers I see lie in the dilution of ideas”

AK: Yes, there is such a danger. This has happened with other groups several times before, is still happening right now, and won’t stop any time soon. Remember who got the credit for the stack that makes up the GNU operating system, and who’s getting it now. Nowadays, the majority of gratitude gets thrown at names on the surface of things, at names that are far from the original makers and ideas. This has happened to inventions and ideas throughout the history of mankind.

But in the end, what really matters is not where people go, but how. Free Software is a concept which is basic and fertile enough to spawn more complex individual and collective ideas. Through these ideas people transform and become something that is more valuable to society. The dangers I see rather lie in dilution of the original ideas; this has brought us things like “open core” concepts, “open source” development models, non-copyleft licenses and the like. Hence, it’s less about the people receiving credit, and more about whether people are guided by the progressive ideas behind Free Software.

CW: Free Software is certainly a fertile concept, but sometimes its very fertility can make it vulnerable to manipulation. Is there a danger that large companies will take Free Software and use it for selfish, rather than collective, benefit?

AK: You mean that there are people basically ripping off FS. It’s more like this: communities, peer review, etc., are all just resulting ideas, sometimes conclusions, drawn by the interpolation of Free Software and reality. Let’s recall what makes up Free Software; it’s just the name of a category of software which we’ve labelled as such; software that grants all of its users four elementary freedoms in a non-discriminatory manner. Thus, what’s behind FS is not a matter of technology but a political, philosophical concept that – at least in part – reveals both its advocates’ and opponents’ views on humanity or even life itself.

Now, there are people who try to argue against Free Software by condemning it as something extremist, radical, business unfriendly, even communist etc., and this is where the actual dilution takes place: some people have created minced versions of FS that look like essentially equivalent, more business-friendly or less “boring” (ostensibly non-political) versions, but really mean something completely different. And this is what the aforementioned “large companies” and many other people feed on. I’ve talked to so many people about FS, both developers and users, and discovered that their most prominent blocker is either fear of the unknown or the result of successful FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

I’d even go so far as to say that the business concept of a company like Nokia does not play much of a role for the future of Free Software. What matters is the individual embodiment, or manifestation, of what makes up FS through people like you and me: “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are”. What really matters about using Free Software at work is what people perceive as the symbiosis between you and the “FS essence” and this will change them. The only thing special about Nokia is the exuberant momentum that amplifies every one of your actions as an employee there.

“Free Software is founded upon insight into the inevitability of human error”

Being a cheerful and helpful human being through living the ideas of and behind Free Software is more convincing than every single argument I could possibly give during this interview. General suffering is the one collective, personal crisis. General suffering is the one collective, nevertheless individually perceived human crisis that needs to be solved and if Free Software is able to make you smile just a few times per day, it adds to our lives something that is substantial. It is able to do so because it is founded on the ideas of love, sharing and the insight into the inevitability of human error that can only be solved in freedom with – as opposed to from – all of the others.

CW: So Free Software isn’t just a political tool, it’s a tool for personal enhancement. Perhaps computers too?

AK: One thing that is important for me is the transformation of mind and character through use of natural and computer languages. It may seem like language was a mere tool for data serialization, but there is a lot more to it: we use language and figures to evaluate emotional and cognitive processes, or in short, to think. Due to the complexity of languages in general, and and the effect of interaction with language, its structure has an immediate effect on us. It is not only culture that brings forth language, it is language that forms character, and thus, culture.

For instance, I start cheering up when I switch to speaking English as opposed to German, my native language; the effect gets stronger when I also switch to thinking in English. It seems to me like the same applied for use of programming languages as well, hence there must be an impact on the programs created and on the programmers mind and feelings.

One specific family of programming languages that deserves appreciation and attention for its effect on one’s mind, is Lisp. It has an astonishingly simple grammar, making it symmetric enough to treat all data as code and vice versa, yet it does allow for solutions to problems so complex that other languages have failed to provide proper techniques for. For example, the ability to implement a new language on top of the existing one that is in turn used to solve the actual problem; this technique is know as Domain Specific Language programming and could be viewed as a means of self-transformation.

Apply this to its user and you might observe her improve herself through gaining reflective abilities. Symmetry is beautiful because it keeps your mind clear and free of twists, in effect making you happier. This is why I use Lisp languages almost exclusively for my Free Software projects: any effort that does not make me a happier human being on its course is most literally insane.

Fellowship interview with Leena Simon

Leena Simon is studying philosophy at Potsdam University and is currently completing a dissertation on problems with the concept of “intellectual property”. She also works with FoeBuD, and was involved in the organisation of this year’s “Freedom Not Fear” demonstrations which took place throughout Europe. We sat down to discuss the dangers of state surveillance, the importance of the politicisation of software, and how organisations like FoeBud and The Pirate Party, as well as the Free Software movement, must be careful not to succumb to dogmatism. For more, check out

Leena Simon
Leena Simon

Chris Woolfrey: For those who might not know it so well, tell me a little about Freedom Not Fear.

Leena Simon: Freedom not Fear is an international alliance of people who fight for civil rights in the digital cross-linked world. Not every technology is good for the people and we want the good things, like better communication and maybe a more democratic world, without the bad things like surveillance and manipulation of the masses. That’s what we go on the streets for: freedom needs risk and it can not be achieved in a totally secure society. But governments use fear – for example the fear about terrorism – to cut civil rights, and this is something really dangerous for all citizens and for democracy itself. We state, that freedom is more important than security. History taught us, especially in Germany, more than once, that it is never good if information or it’s broadcasting is confined to just one group.

The beauty of the World Wide Web is that it, theoretically, connects everyone with everyone. This could destroy some very basic structures that make society nowadays work. I myself think this is a good thing. But a lot of people are scared and want to confine the new technology to those abilities the old ones have, or use these possibilities to help those in power to become even more powerful. And of course they want to use these possibilities.

CW: And people have long been told that those in power are increasing power and control in ‘the public interest’, are using fear to control and to protect their own interests; have you found that people agreed with the alliance? Plenty of people who see European ‘collective security’ as a success would not see The Stockholm Program (European wide standardized state run collection of information) as a bad thing.

LS: Of course, on the demonstration we find those who agree with that. But the problem is more to convince those who do not really take an interest in these topics that their civil rights are at stake too. Surveillance is most efficient if you do not notice it, so the more dangerous surveillance gets the more difficult it gets to get people to stand up against it. As they see it, there isn’t really an obvious threat.

CW: And I guess the problem, ultimately, is that many people don’t see ‘information’ as a political concept?

LS: Right. Everyone keeps talking about us entering the information age, but a lot of people do not really seem to know how far this goes.

CW: And that’s something you’re trying to show people with The Pirate Party?

LS: Well, The Pirate Party has a similar direction of impact but not the same. For instance data retention is not one of their main topics. The pirates want to make sure that the importance of the Internet, finally, is talked about in politics. Obviously a lot of politicians have not yet understood how important the web is and how far-reaching the consequences of their decisions are on that topic.

CW: Absolutely: one is about data, the other about a political use of the Internet. But I’m reminded of Lessig’s statement about computers becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, and that the code behind them – who controls it and who can use it – is becoming more important too. Do you think that Freedom Not Fear and the Pirate Party are fighting the same battle?

“Surveillance is most efficient if you don’t notice it”

LS: I think there is a huge intersection, like with the Free Software movement: the main goal and the way of achieving it is a little different. But in the end, it seems like the same battle.

CW: Do you think that FSFE and the Free Software movement are in some ways the bridge between groups like Freedom Not Fear and The Pirate Party?

LS: I would not say that. I am fighting within The Pirate Party, as well as in the Freedom not Fear movement, for Free Software. In both movements a lot of people haven’t understood yet how important Free Software is: FS does not really connect the one with the other. They are connected in different ways and I can also understand their critique about Free Software.

CW: Would you say it’s a failure of the Free Software movement that people don’t necessarily see the connection between FS and those movements, then?

LS: I wouldn’t call it a failure. It is something we could work on. But it also shows that there are people who are narrow-minded in every movement, and we should be careful that we do not get too arrogant about the things we think we understand better than others have. These movements can work together but they can also criticise each other and have insights the others may not have. I see them as different players of one team. They have the same goal but slightly different positions. A political party can work with mechanisms that a non-government organisation can’t. And our movement needs all the players. The FS movement is one of the players. Everyone has different tactics, and sometimes it is really good if one of the players can correct the other player. If he becomes selfish, for instance, if her movements help her alone, but not the team. Even the FS movement sometimes gets too dogmatic about Free Software and forgets that there are other important topics as well. Just like many pirates use proprietary software.

CW: Dogma is something you seem very careful to avoid.

LS: I know the problem from my own experience. One of the most dangerous things is if you think you understood something but you really didn’t. But how should you find out? I stand in-between the different players and I try to keep my head clear. Try to intercede. And therefore I try to keep an open mind. We are doing great things and we understand important things. But we are not without mistakes. And the biggest mistake would be not being aware of this.

CW: People could end up not liking you for that. Nobody likes to hear they’re dogmatic! But it’s an important role to play, isn’t it, as a movement like this gets closer to ‘the people’?

LS: Yes it is a risk. But I try also to communicate, that it is a very natural thing, that you see the world through your eyes only. There is nothing bad about this. It only becomes a problem if you start to forget that you have a point of view and that the world would look quite differently from another perspective.

CW: Which is why, even though people might disagree, an organisation like The Pirate Party using proprietary software is OK as long as it spreads the message.

LS: The FS-movement is very right to criticise the pirates for not using Free Software (and for not supporting it more), and hopefully keeps in mind that it also has faults to be criticised. But of course we should not hate or fight each other because of such things.

CW: I guess it’s just as important to fight a monopoly of ideas within a popular movement as it is within a goverment, which Freedom Not Fear and FoeBuD are trying to do. At the end of the day, it’s an open conversation about the best approach that gets the job done!

“Some guys seem to think that women are treated equally if they treat them like they treat any other guy. But this is not equality”

LS: Exactly. But this is not everything. How we get the job done is very important as well. And that’s where the FS idea kicks in.

CW: Like the engine in a car, the bit nobody sees?

LS: I don’t know if it is the right metaphor. In my opinion the special thing about the Free Software movement is that they understand the issue as something political and philosophical; it is important to understand that software works in the background and has a lot of power without people noticing it but it is one step further to understand how important that is for freedom and democracy. It influences society and all our lives.

CW: For you, are these things a part of a wider liberation movement?

LS: It may be the last chance for the liberation movement. But only if people realize it and use it. And as long as it stays a “nerd topic” in the heads of the people, it is not really a part of it.

CW: You mean that, despite the political ramifications, ‘computers’ are still seen as a nerd’s play toy? Do you think that, by extension, women aren’t part of that group?

LS: There is the stereotype about computers being toys especially for boys. These movements need women and their skills. But more importantly women need this movement. We’ve talked about how software and computer influence our lives. And it would be very dangerous for equality if women lost this opportunity to participate.

CW: That isn’t an easy process by any means.

LS: If a woman overcomes those stereotypes and wants to take part in this world, she has to face many difficulties. She has to be OK with being one of very few women in the group. She has to be OK with being hit on all the time. And she has to cope with sexist jokes or with the phenomenon that her needs are not as important as others, sometimes even not taken seriously. Some guys seem to think that women are treated equally if they treat them like they treat any other guy. But this is not equality. This is making women act like men and it disregards their needs. I know many men in the movement who think of themselves as treating women equally, but really don’t. How should you know that your behaviour is making others uncomfortable if you never experienced it yourself and no one tells you? Homogeneous groups don’t have a high sensitivity for the needs of the minority. This is totally normal. But what I am trying to say is that a group of many guys can only oversee things that are important for women, and this is why women have to be present and tell them. But for this, also the guys have to listen to the women. And it has to happen without the fear of “yet another gender debate”. Talking about gender is a very personal topic. Therefore it tends to get dirty very easily. A lot of people are sick of these discussions and I can’t blame them.

CW: You believe that it’s important not to let the “gender issue” divide things?

LS: Yes. A lack of equality is also bad for the guys. Guys are also trapped in stereotypes that don’t ask how a person wants to live. We need to work together as best we can without stereotype or subtle manipulation because this gets us nowhere.

CW: As you said, the team needs lots of players and also lots of different kinds of players.

LS: Totally right. Because these differences are our strength.

Fellowship interview with David Reyes Samblas Martinez

David Reyes Samblas Martinez is the founder of Spanish Copyleft Hardware store Tuxbrain, and attended the famous Open University of Catalunya. He’s also the subject of this month’s Fellowship interview, in which he answers questions on hardware manufacturing, e-learning and Free Software politics.

Stian Rødven Eide: For well over a year, your main activity has been Tuxbrain, a shop dedicated to open, hackable devices, and, in particular, Copyleft hardware. Initially inspired by the community success of Openmoko, your selection has since grown to include several other products as well. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to start Tuxbrain, and how the first year has been?

David Reyes Samblas Martinez
David Reyes Samblas Martinez

David Reyes Samblas Martinez: My business partner Victor Remolina and I discovered the FOSS world about 7-8 years ago. Since then, we have always been thinking about doing something together around Free Software. When the name Tuxbrain first was mentioned about 5 years ago, we immediately decided that whatever we do has to carry that name. We soon created a manifesto outlining the philosophy of Tuxbrain. The main aspects of it were that the company should be integrated inside the FOSS community, be part of it, and dedicate part of its time and resources to help initiatives that we found interesting grow. We felt that this would help us grow as well.

When we discovered Openmoko, we were fascinated by the idea of the FOSS philosophy being ported to the hardware world. While software can be replicated ad infinitum with barely no cost, physical devices carry a huge cost even in the first draft. With Openomoko there was, for the first time as far as I know, information available on the design and production that could be shared and improved by the community – the same way software was. Lacking the distribution networks of larger manufacturers, Openmoko promoted the idea of group selling, where customers would share shipping costs and get volume discounts. I began organising a Spanish purchasers’ group, which soon was joined by Portugal as well, and that was how the first Openmokos arrived to the Iberian peninsula. It felt great making all those geeky people happy, who, like me, believe that other ways of making hardware was possible. We then decided that Tuxbrain should be a Hardware distributor, a Copyleft Hardware distributor.

As such, we started out by selling the Neo FreeRunner from Openmoko, and immediately began evaluating other hardware to expand our catalogue. Some products came in and were included even though they were not really open hardware. For instance, the GP2X Wiz, a game console that has a brilliant and active community who started with the old GP32, developing games and software (a lot of them under GPL or other Free licences), as well as the Sharp Netwalker, a totally closed hardware, but of really good quality, that came with Ubuntu from the manufacturer. After focusing on these “end user” oriented products for a while, we discovered Arduino. I must admit that we started selling it simply because it was totally open hardware, and not really understood what the objective of such a board was (being a software guy myself, and Victor a designer). However, as soon as we started learning about Arduino, and getting to know the community around it, we fell completely in love with the whole concept. I read somewhere that Arduino can be regarded as the duct tape of electronics; you can join together whatever you can imagine, and then make it work. Last, but not least, the NanoNote arrived, and we fell in love again.

The first year was, as for all start-ups, not easy. We still must work on finding an equilibrium between what we want to do and what we can do right now, but, basically, what we do is learn, spread what we have learned, and grow stronger as the communities around our products grow. We help spread the Copyleft idea in events we organise, or assist in, and support other advocates as much as we can. And of course we’re selling some devices along the way, providing assessment services, and doing development around them. We are a company after all.

SRE: For the last several months, your blog has revealed a lot of work being done with the 本 (Ben) NanoNote from Qi-Hardware / Sharism. What do you find particularly exciting about this device? Do you find that awareness of Copyleft hardware is increasing among manufacturers?

DRSM: When I first learned of the specifications on 本 NanoNote, I must admit I was not really impressed. However, knowing the team behind it, most of them being part of the Openmoko community, I quickly become interested nonetheless. The philosophy behind the device was very appealing, and it already had some interesting use cases; dictionary, offline Wikipedia reader, music player, serial console, calendar, gaming device. Also, its dimensions were amazing! You don’t really know how small and light it is until you have seen one with your own eyes.

本 (Ben) in Chinese means beginning, and that’s what 本 NanoNote is: A starting point. The 本 is the first product from the Qi-Hardware community that was launched into the real world. While Openmoko Inc (the company, not the community) abandoned the Neo FreeRunner project and deviated from the idea of Copyleft hardware, a lot people who worked there still believed in those ideas and joined forces with the community to form a new company called Sharism. Along with the Qi-Hardware community, Sharism is committed to bring hardware that follows the following three principles: Copyleft hardware, Public Patents and Upstream Kernels. Any piece of hardware that fits those ideas can be part of the Qi-Hardware community.

As an active participant in the Openmoko community, Tuxbrain was invited to be a part of Qi-Hardware, and here we are. Many interesting things have happened since the 本 was released. A lot of great software has been or is being ported to it (Debian was just ported by the people from, it has been included among the devices officially supported by OpenWrt, and it has successfully been been hooked up with the Arduino board. This is also just the tip of the iceberg. Due to the Copyleft nature of the 本, projects like the SAKC (Swiss Army Knife Card) are underway. SAKC is basically the 本 NanoNote with an FPGA added and a lot of I/O available to do hardware hacks. To put it simply; it’s like an Arduino, but a lot more powerful.

With regards to other manufacturers, I think there still is a lot of work to do in order for them to understand the benefits of Copyleft hardware compared to traditional hardware production. This is basically what the Qi-Hardware community was formed for. Anyone who is interested and wants to know more is welcome to ask.

SRE: Tuxbrain is participating in the 20+20 project, in which the EOI Business School (Escuela de Organización Industrial) is working towards a new economic model for Spain, based on sustainability, responsibility and IT. Could you explain briefly how the project works? You are representing the Open Economy sector. How would you describe your business model in that context?

DRSM: Due to the economic crisis, and in light of how the traditional mechanisms have failed to avoid it, the EOI, with the support of the EU, is searching for new business models that can prevent such a crisis from happening again, or at least have more mechanisms that can predict and mitigate against it. The 20+20 project starts out with a period of intensive research on various economic sectors, 20 in total, selecting 20 companies from each sector. Presently in its first phase, the five sectors that are being studied at the moment are Social Economy, Digital Economy, Creativity Economy, Open Economy and Green Economy. Because of our focus on being an integral part of the communities around our products, some community members have pointed out that Tuxbrain should be included as an example of an Open Company.

Despite being classified as a distributor, Tuxbrain is not content with moving boxes from one side to another. First we must be able to rely on what we are selling, so before we incorporate a product into our catalogue, we test and play with it for a while. If it convinces us, only then can we convince others to trust in it as well. Openness is the most important criteria on which we base our analysis, even more so than the commercial margins. The more open a product is, the more easily can we participate in its development and help improve it. Since we are in direct contact with our customers, we are familiar with their needs and can relay that information to the developers and hardware designers. This way we also help in guiding the product towards a wider audience. Also, when the product is open, we know a lot more about it and can provide better service to our customers. Another interesting aspect is the fact that our customers are part of a community that actively shapes our products. This community follows meritocratic rules, just like a lot of Free Software community projects, and, for us, a customer that contributes to the project with development or advocacy has just as much a say as someone who places large orders. Both contribute to the project. I believe those were the qualities that led to Tubrain’s inclusion in the 20+20 Analysis.

SRE: Several of your products are running ARM processors, providing more computing power for less electricity. While much used in smaller devices, there still aren’t many laptops running ARM. Do you think that this might change in the near future? Is ARM generally more hacker friendly than x86 processors?

DRSM: Sadly, the reason why ARM and MIPS architectures are scarce in laptops is the software, and not the hardware itself. As you said, they are more energy efficient than the x86 architecture, and thus a lot more suited for mobile solutions. This should include laptops as well, but I think large manufacturers are afraid of being rejected by the market if they do not offer the latest Redmond monster, ups.. sorry, I mean operating system, inside their boxes, and they are limited to the hardware this can support, which for me is total nonsense. Software is ductile; it’s easy to change the code, and it can be reproduced n times. Thus it’s the software that has to be adapted to the hardware, so that hardware engineers can focus on innovative design and produce the most powerful/efficient/cheap hardware possible, without thinking of limitations on the amount of software that will run there. Eventually, common sense will finally hit the head and the budget of hardware companies that want to offer better solutions to their customers.

I don’t think ARM and MIPS are more hacker friendly per se, it’s just that the operating systems running on them are; GNU/Linux, Android, Symbian, all having a strong developer community helping them to reach their goals.

SRE: You attended the Open University of Catalunya (UOC), which famously has run a Masters Programme in Free Software since 2003. Can you tell us a bit about your years there. Is the sharing culture embedded in all aspects of the curriculum?

DRSM: The UOC is a really great initiative and an example to follow in e-Learning in all aspects, from the continuous evaluation system to the ways and the quality of communication with teachers and the institution itself. In the beginning, circumstances, such as having a family and a job, forced me to miss a lot of classes and study on my own. After a year, I started regretting that I hadn’t done so before. I learned a lot more from this system than I do from attending a conventional class. During those first years, I read all of my course material on the train to work, and I also made my first contact with the GNU/Linux embedded world there. I had some C programming assignments, and I also had a HP Jornada 680. Looking for ways to match my needs, I discovered that the JLiMe project already had ported GNU/Linux there, and so I was happily editing and compiling in the bus. Since then, I have loved little devices with GNU/Linux in them.

I was really amazed with how the whole Free Software world works. All kinds of people collaborate together, and we are extremely self organised. Some projects rise and some fall, but everything is reused for the benefit of the community. I really think the Free Software ecosystem is the largest technical collaborative effort ever made, and I’m very passionate about the whole idea.

SRE: Free Software has also been heavily politicized in several of Spain’s autonomous regions. What is your impression of the politcial climate for Free Software in Spain? Is it all handled regionally? Are there certain competitive aspects between the regions that have affected adoption of Free Software?

DRSM: Yes, there is a very diverse institutional support for Free Software in Spain, depending on the region. The central government, I think, has really missed the point of it, and lost a golden opportunity with a One Child – One Laptop program they tried to start some time ago, which would have included only Free Software, saving money and teach kids about diversity of software. The curious thing is that the same politicians often have differing views in different political formations. For example, Extremadura is one of the public institutions that is strongest on Free Software integration, but its politicians are mostly the same who run the government! I believe the problem basically is a lack of information, and strong pressure from proprietary software lobbyists. But it’s not that bad, really. There are quite a few dedicated organisations, both governmental, like CENATIC, and NGO’s like ASOLIF, who, together with the Spanish Free Software community, are fighting to be heard.

Our warmest thanks to David for answering our questions. You can follow his progress on the Tuxbrain blog.