Fellowship Interview with Paul Boddie

Paul Boddie

Originally from Manchester, UK, Paul Boddie moved to Oslo in 1998 after living in France. Paul has been working with Python since 1995, and from 2006 to 2010 was involved in organising the annual EuroPython conference, administering various conference-related tools and developing the conference website.

He is also a MoinMoin theme and extension developer and, after joining FSFE in 2008, created the EventAggregator extension to allow management of FSFE events from within the wiki, and also developed the current FSFE Wiki theme. His other projects include a variety of Python-related tools, with a special interest in alternative Python implementations.

Chris Woolfrey: What are you working on at the moment?

Paul Boddie: I’m writing applications that access and combine databases in the bioinformatics domain, although I also have an ongoing project dealing with the text-mining of biological and medical literature to extract gene and protein-related information. I also have a fair amount to do in terms of maintaining and hopefully developing further some software written in the group in which I work. We have to make the work available, so there’s a need to publish information on the web. It ends up as a mix of software development, some maintenance tasks, and a degree of web publishing and content management.

I’m working on a range of personal projects, too, which includes things like the EventAggregator that is used on the FSFE Fellowship Wiki, a selection of MoinMoin-related extensions (which is why I was able to get involved a bit more with the Fellowship Wiki) and some longer term interests in things like source code analysis and compilation for dynamic programming languages like Python.

The EventAggregator has been an interesting project. The reason why it got there is because the administrators were looking for a calendar solution, and it just didn’t seem that they had found anything suitable. There are some WordPress solutions, but there seemed to be some caveats involved with them, and there are some MoinMoin solutions, but they were fairly simple personal calendar solutions. The only one that’s more sophisticated doesn’t appear to be well maintained.

I think that the administrators wanted something that integrated with the existing applications instead of having to deploy something else. If they were choosing something now, maybe they might have gone with GriCal whose principal developer I have collaborated with in order to have the Wiki calendar show events registered on grical.org, a calendar service oriented towards Free Software.

I suppose this highlights a difference between the Fellowship and, say, the Python community. The latter would probably have chosen the more “pragmatic” Google Calendar option, which I think is widely used on the Python website for various things. But then that would mean that you lose control over the user experience (which is awful considering those calendar widgets that you can embed in your website), and you also lose control over storage and integration. Developing EventAggregator has been interesting, but it hasn’t primarily been for my personal benefit, even though I find it useful and satisfying to see it used by other people. I think that taking control over an activity by developing software for it, especially when you can decide what it does and how it should work, is the right thing to do. Ultimately, that is also the correct “pragmatic” decision.

My work is done almost completely using Free Software. I’m fortunate enough to be in an environment where people understand what systems like GNU/Linux offer, and where I can choose the tools I want to use. And there is definite encouragement for people to choose Free Software tools instead of demanding proprietary software licenses for everything. When I worked at CERN in administration, it was wedded to a range of proprietary solutions, where Free Software often had to be the lubricant to make the wheels turn.

CERN…was wedded to a range of proprietary solutions, where Free Software often had to be the lubricant to make the wheels turn

CW: How did you get involved with Free Software in the first place?

PB: I probably started using Free Software in earnest around the time I was studying Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University, mostly because the tools being used were frequently Free Software. Although the computing environment was heterogeneous – DEC workstations running Ultrix (and later OSF/1), HP workstations running HP-UX, Sun machines running SunOS, and so on – there was no way that a university department was going to pay lots of money for things like compilers, and so everyone was using gcc. And I suppose that brought in other tools that we take for granted.

So it was a bit like many people’s first experience of Free Software: there are proprietary systems, but the Free tools are the ones you end up using for various reasons. This has come back again and again in my career. I think that one starts off being only vaguely conscious of Free Software, what it is and why it was made, and then develops a greater awareness of those things.

CW: Was your involvement the result of technical needs?

PB: Well, I started university being enthusiastic about Acorn Computers’ ARM-based microcomputers, which were rather proprietary and where the tools were generally not free (or Free), but where the user interface was very nice. But after a while, I became more aware of technologies like Tcl/Tk which really put the tools available for the supposedly superior RISC OS environment to shame. And there were people who wanted to have the full package on RISC OS but found that the Tk part was too hard to port.

So there was a big contrast between the proprietary universe of RISC OS supported by a struggling platform vendor with people selling mediocre tools for various sums of money and the non-proprietary universe of, or on top of, Unix with its portable and impressive tools that made up for various shortcomings of the user interface.

I think my university experience was influential in exposing me to a wide selection of tools, most of which were Free Software. Eventually, I’d seen and at least dabbled with things like Tcl/Tk, Perl (although I learned that at CERN), Python, and Java (which obviously wasn’t Free Software at the time).

lots of people just try to brush the political aspect aside as “ideology”, using the word in a derogatory sense

CW: Has your involvement with Free Software become more political over the years?

PB: It is a political thing for me now, yes. When discussing Free Software with people, lots just try to brush that aspect of it aside as “ideology”, using the word in a derogatory sense, but many of them don’t understand the problems with proprietary software and platforms, perhaps because they haven’t had enough bitter experiences with those things yet.

Again, I think that my interest was motivated initially by convenience; there were lots of great tools that you didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to use, but developed a bit after being exposed to the dynamics of developing and distributing Free Software, and also being reminded of the pitfalls of proprietary solutions.

I suppose that using a proprietary platform that has more or less disappeared can be instructive. A lot of people don’t give a second thought to things like document longevity (or “document freedom” as it is sometimes known), and perhaps even aren’t aware of the issues – if you save your Microsoft Word document with the latest version of Microsoft Word, and if everyone else has that version, then the attitude is “what’s the problem?”. But it’s only due to my brother’s experiments with various proprietary formats that that I am able to actually read various files I authored in the 1990s.

I’m sure many people just regard their old work as disposable or not so important, at least where things like textual documents are concerned, and given the slightly more powerful than average solution I was using back in that era, maybe I’m more sensitive to the issue because there’s a large amount of creative input to those works: things like diagrams and pictures that I spent time on as well as the actual text, although I’d hope that many people’s plain text documents would be valuable to them, such as their university degree thesis, for example.

But I suppose there is a personal archive quality to it: how many people would tolerate not being able to view their photographs after only a couple of decades? I think that data preservation is a good way of explaining the benefits of Free Software because it leads to the next realisation: that of sustainable computing and being able to maintain the ability to use, maintain and develop solutions indefinitely.

pragmatism should encompass notions of sustainability

CW: And the idea of sustainability is what might be called the political element?

PB: Well, there’s the distinction that is often made between “pragmatic” and “ideological” reasons for using Free Software, with the “open source” label being used more with the former term, and the intent that people are trying to express with the “pragmatic” label is that they just choose something that does the job at the time, and if something better comes along then they’ll use that instead.

Working like that is supposed to be outside any political sphere because one is supposedly not acting according to some kind of moral code: the merits of each solution are supposedly evaluated in an objective and immediate way. But one can argue that pragmatism should encompass notions of sustainability (which are regarded as political) because the supposedly “pragmatic” approach considers only what is best in the short term and ignores issues that might arise in the longer term. It is still pragmatic to consider one’s own long-term interests.

I think we all know of cases where a “pragmatic” solution was chosen that wasn’t in the long-term interests of those who made that decision.

CW: You mean there’s an inherent “good” in using Free Software and you’re happy to promote that?

PB: I think that although it is often said that Free Software is empowering, it isn’t always made explicit that it is essentially a means of providing people with control over their work, their tools, and these days over large parts of their lives. It is about giving the control to people who don’t usually have it. As I said before, I think it takes time for people to realise this after having been initially exposed to Free Software, but perhaps I was just slow on the uptake.

CW: You’ve volunteered at, and hacked for, a lot conferences and meet-ups. Can you expand on how that atmosphere is or isn’t a good way of promoting Free Software?

PB: I’ve been involved with the European Python community conference, EuroPython, and have been using Python since 1995. That was mostly a matter of having a very usable, convenient tool to do my university degree project. Since that time, I’ve gradually become more involved with writing Python code, improving other people’s Python-related code, and then sharing Python code with others.

Since Python is Free Software, I think that my general community involvement has made me very aware of many of the issues that we’ve already discussed. After a while, you get to see how projects are formed, developed, promoted, and so on. And Python conferences have quite a lot to do with promoting Python as a Free Software tool, partly by supporting users of the language and software, and partly by just increasing the visibility of the technology.

It’s no accident that I got involved with EuroPython when it went to CERN in 2006. It gave me an opportunity to go back to my former workplace and promote Python when in my job it had actually been somewhat difficult to get Python adopted in any significant way, which was disappointing given the restrictive and inferior nature of some of the tools being used. In fact, the scientific community at CERN have adopted Python quite aggressively since I worked there, and even parts of the administrative side of the organisation were using Python for their systems.

But with regard to promoting Free Software, I think there’s something of a divide in the Python community between promoting Python as Python and promoting Python as Free Software. Some people are quite happy to promote proprietary solutions that use Python because to them this means that Python gets a larger audience (although it is frequently a dubious claim, in my mind), whereas other people would rather developers used a Free Software solution that isn’t Python in preference to a Python-based solution that is proprietary (and I can say that I’m in that crowd).

So, Python conferences are a good way of promoting Python, but they don’t seem to necessarily be about promoting Free Software in general. Then again, I know that when EuroPython was organised in the UK in 2009 and 2010, John Pinner, who was the chief organiser – and who does a lot of work for Python and Free Software – seemed to want more of a Free Software emphasis on the event; although that didn’t mean excluding people who wanted to promote Python-based proprietary products.

In general, I think people get more out of talks that present Free Software because the threshold to adoption, experimentation and involvement is a lot lower than if someone gets up and talks about a proprietary product. In a way, that convenience aspect that drew me into using Free Software solutions remains a very potent force.

CW: That’s the pragmatic thing again right? It’s almost like you’re saying that you don’t need to promote FS – it promotes itself…

PB: To the right audience I think it does, yes.

CW: But do these conferences find that audience?

PB: Whether you find the right audience depends a lot on publicity. I think that a lot of people who choose to go to a community conference like EuroPython are likely to be enthusiasts for the technology, and they are perhaps likely to be in favour of Free Software, too. Community conferences are quite “barebones” affairs, really: there isn’t much in the way of merchandise, swag, free stuff, but then the ticket price is relatively low.

In contrast, commercial conferences have a higher ticket price, may well have most of the attendees being sponsored by their employers, and the motivation (or excuse) for going might be that it will help you in your job, even if it’s just to get away from the office for a few days.

An important distinction that came up when EuroPython was trying to find people to volunteer was that between attendees and participants. You need people to actually participate, not just attend and expect the experience to be comfortable, smooth, problem-free. That culture of participation, rather than expecting everything to be done for you, may well also attract people who use Free Software because of the culture of participation.

That said, I think that when EuroPython was held in the UK, the demographic might have been slightly different to when it was held in other countries. In the UK, people seem to be quite focused on how they might use Python in their workplace, and the whole collaborative development aspect seemed to be relatively new to some of the participants. I hope that the benefits of Free Software collaboration reached a wider audience and that people got to feel that the barriers to participating aren’t as big as they might expect.

CW: Might event management show, in itself, the benefits of Free Software? Is an event managed using Free Software going to turn about better than one that isn’t?

PB: Organising conferences? That’s a huge topic that I could probably talk about for hours! On the subject of using Free Software to organise conferences, I think that the initial decision people make when planning a conference in general is whether they involve a commercial operator or do it themselves. However, unless you’re expecting a huge number of people or don’t have the time to plan things yourself, you’re likely to avoid the commercial option as I have heard that it can be very expensive.

So, once you’ve decided to do it yourself, you can look around at the different activities and how you might handle them. There are Web-based solutions for a lot of these things, some being software-as-a-service and proprietary, others being run as a service but where you could choose to host the software yourself.

There’s a lot of choice and a lot of adequate Free Software solutions, so I don’t think there’s a really good reason not to choose one of them. But that doesn’t mean that all the work is done once you’ve made that choice, of course!

Yes, I think FS works very well. In a sense we’re spoiled for choice, but in the famous tradition of Free Software, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t creating even more solutions because there’s something they don’t like about the ones already out there.

Maybe the biggest challenge in terms of raw software is the interface to payment services, which are obviously proprietary and unfriendly beasts – or that’s how they seem to me. But there are plenty of people working with (or against) these things, so the more significant problem is perhaps the nature of those services themselves, and that’s a completely different concern.

There are a lot of people who have problems even using PayPal to make payments: the service stops liking your card details or your account information and you get stuck in an endless re-authentication loop. There are also a lot of people who don’t trust PayPal with their money. Meanwhile, other payment services are about as helpful as the average bank.

interfaces to payment services, which are proprietary and unfriendly beasts, is one of the biggest challenges

CW: What about BitCoin?

I think there are huge trust and credibility issues with BitCoin, sadly. But there are apparently alternative payment services out there that are as easy to adopt as PayPal, so it’s just a matter of using them. And again, it’s easy to get hung up on matters like this, but one effective means of taking registration payments is bank transfers. If you are only dealing with people from countries whose banks don’t regard you as being insane when you ask to make a transfer to someone else’s account, especially in another country, then just accepting bank transfers is a viable option.

Sadly, when involving the UK, people want other payment methods because the banks like to overcharge for simple things like transfers. Even Norwegian banks offer “single payment area” rates for transfers, and Norway isn’t even in the EU, let alone a country with the Euro as its currency.

I have to say that conference organisation is, to a large extent, about dealing with matters without letting them consume everything else. It can be very easy for good-enough solutions to be discussed at length in an attempt to make them perfect solutions, and there are plenty of areas providing opportunities for such discussions.

Fellowship interview with Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm has been involved with KDE since 1997 and was a board member of KDE e.V. from 1999 to 2006. He joined KDAB in 2005 as a Qt software developer, becoming managing director there before he left in June this year. He is currently a researcher at the Technical University of Berlin, on the subject of Free Software and “intellectual property”. He is also the owner of Agile Workers Software, a consultancy that gives advice to businesses on how to collaborate with Free Software communities, and make the transition to it. He is married, has two children and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Chris Woolfrey: In your role at KDAB, you’ve seen how Free Software can fit into a “corporate” framework. How easily does it fit?

Mirko Boehm: From what I see, it is a very natural fit. There are companies who only use Free Software, and others who actively contribute to it. It would be a tough task to find any company today that does not use Free Software to some extent. But especially in software development companies, Free Software has become a staple, whether they’re producing Free or proprietary software. So while for most, Free Software is an extension of the arsenal of IT to get the job done, in the software industry itself it is innovating on a process level, and therefore has an enormous influence on the future of the industry. Think about how Git, for example, has changed the way software is developed by large teams.

Free Software has arrived in the corporate world, even though it is mostly consumed or used by the majority of companies. An important next step is to get companies to fully embrace the ideals of it as well; use it, adapt it, change it as they like, and contribute to the projects. Helping in this learning process is one of the central roles of FSFE. This includes bridging between the myriad of Free Software communities and the corporate world.

“It is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely”

CW: Have you found tensions between the corporations and grassroots movements, where many Free Software projects start?

MB: Yes, there are controversies and tensions between communities and companies. Just recently, there was the Banshee vs. Canonical case, for example. There are also repeated arguments over companies commercializing Free Software products and breaking up the communities; maybe Hudson vs. Jenkins is a good example of that.

What is important to understand is that it is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely. The wider Free Software communities are very diverse groups, with very different backgrounds, from students to working professionals. Dealing with and resolving such conflicts is, and will probably continue to be, a central task for the various Free Software communities and their leaders, and again for organizations like FSFE.

CW: Proprietary software doesn’t really have the same conflict, does it?

MB: Well, there could be internal conflicts. For example, if an employee is developing a proprietary solution at work, and contributes to a competing Free Software project as a hobby. But those are individual cases that need to be resolved between the person and the employer. Companies investing in Free Software like Canonical or Nokia are of course under more intense scrutiny. Their work is out in the open for everybody to see. But similar conflicts exist in other places as well, as gpl-violations.org proves on a regular basis. These cases are just less visible and harder to find out about.

The most audible argument between grassroots movements and companies at the moment is the “please adhere to the GPL” argument. It is a rather drastic one. That such cases exist is a sign that we (the Free Software communities and the companies using Free Software) still have a lot of work to do in building that relationship. I wrote on this recently.

Another repeated argument is the one about “playing nice” with the community. To me, there is one important point here: companies are part of the community. Free Software communities are inclusive, everybody who is willing to contribute in some way is (or should be) welcome to join as a peer among equals. If we keep this in mind, we should be able to resolve most of the conflicts, or even avoid them before they come up.

KDE is a good example; every individual developer can become a member of KDE e.V., and companies can become supporting members. The structure is explicitly and purposefully set up to integrate both individuals and companies, while at the same time making ensuring the independence of the community in deciding the future of KDE.

CW: Is Free Software the ultimate example of compassionate capitalism in that regard?

MB: That’s a tough question. Free Software fosters collaborative innovation; it partly enables everybody – individuals and companies – in the first place, to work together on fundamental technologies that are influencing our everyday lives. Corporations have cooperated with each other and universities in areas of basic research in the past as well. I think that Free Software has taken such cooperation to a new level, involving individuals and embracing a meritocracy. Free Software also makes markets work better by providing strong competition where one or a few proprietary vendors previously locked in users to their disadvantage. So yes, Free Software is making capitalism a better place and helps align individual and common interests.

“Free Software is making capitalism a better place”

CW: Having worked in consultancy, do you think it’s good that Free Software has widened it’s appeal so that non-technical people now make up a large section of its user-base?

MB: While the majority of end-users still use proprietary operating systems for their daily work, I think Free Software applications are much more present to regular users today then a couple of years ago. This is a wonderful development. In the end, we are making Free Software because we are passionate about it, and seeing it used is about the biggest reward the creator of a program can get.

I think that especially through the front-page campaign of Mozilla (“Know your rights”) and through the Wikipedia community work, we have reached a very broad spectrum of users, introducing them to the idea of freedom and self-determination in computing. We have to be aware though that most Free Software first-timers are trying out and using Free Software on non-free platforms. This is not ideal, but a good way nevertheless to create awareness and end-user demand for Free Software.

Generally, our desktop, tools and applications benefit a lot from getting feedback from a less and less technical audience. The times when Free Software was made by programmers for programmers are hopefully over to a large extent. Again, we need to emphasize that those users who want to provide feedback are a welcome part of our communities.

CW: A growing non-technical audience is a sign of improvement?

MB: Sure! And it is a sign of success. This is what we made this software for.

I am involved in KDE. The Plasma desktop is an environment full of eye candy and features focused on getting computing work done more efficiently. It was made for geeks and end-users alike. It would be quite sad if it would only be used by a small group of coders. Free Software enables users to use their computers in a self-determined way, so reaching a broad end-user audience is of course part of the goal.

CW: Do you believe that users of Free Software should be encouraged develop a technical understanding, or do you see it as a good thing that many people do not progress beyond being ‘users’?

MB: Enabling users to fully understand what their computers are doing and how they operate is a very central function of Free Software. Not everybody might want to, but those who do will be able to learn their way from being a user to becoming a pro-coder. So there is an education side, and when it comes to teaching students basics about their computers or later computer science, there is a very strong argument for relying on Free Software for that. So while in my personal opinion I am lenient with people using Free Software applications but not operating systems, our demand to education systems should be that we only teach Free Software. For proprietary software, a new user is a future customer. For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt.

“For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt”

CW: To what extent do you see Free Software as a political issue?

MB: It is both apolitical, and very political at the same time. Some Free Software developers have political motives, but most of them do not. Most contributors are motivated by peer recognition, and by user feedback. In that regard, Free Software is individual, non-political; a very rewarding hobby. We should be aware that this positive energy of creating something is just as important as the flip-side of the coin, the high level political arguments.

Free Software is very political in that it influences society. It influences individuals, businesses, municipalities and whole economies in various areas like education, public procurement, IT strategy, and protection of civil liberties like privacy, etc.. Policy makers need to develop an understanding of what beneficial effects Free Software and the whole wider idea of openness (like in Open Data) will have on society, and then apply that knowledge to protect Free Software. This involves the dispute around software patents as well; do the benefits of Free Software outweigh assumed positive effects of patenting? I think they do by a huge margin, but it is an important role of Free Software advocates to provide well-researched information to politicians and assist them. We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind.

CW: Do you have a political aim for your research at the academy?

MB: Yes, I do, if only indirectly. The discussion around software patents so far has mostly been led between industry lobby groups and policy makers. But patents are only a means provided by the legal system to foster innovation, aimed at raising the standard of living through increased efficiency of production. Whether patents make sense for software remains to be seen.

A few interesting questions come to mind. One is if software patents are really fostering innovation, or if their negative effects outweigh their utility. For example, in the software world we increasingly see patents being used offensively, to prevent competitors from developing or introducing new products; to prevent innovation, not foster it. Why does this happen especially in the software industry? I will be researching this and related topics and hope to be able to develop theoretical answers.

“We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind”

But since I am an active Free Software advocate, just theorizing will not suffice. The political aim is to deliver these answers as a part of the dispute around Free Software and software patents, helping to base it on facts. Today, it seems to mostly be based on FUD. That is why I am a fellow of FSFE.

CW: As a researcher, have you found that higher education institutions are ignorant of Free Software?

MB: Absolutely not. After all, publishing your findings openly for your peer scientists to extend review are concepts the Free Software communities derived from academia. I would go so far as to say that Free Software as we know it today is largely based on the results of scientific computing of the old days. Look at who wrote BSD, or X11.

While in the past most contributors were computer scientists, other disciplines seem to be picking up interest as well. For example, where I work, lectures on Free Software are being presented as part of a course for economists about “intellectual property” management. These are future corporate managers and directors, and they are being introduced to the ideals of Free Software now. This is great!

Photo by Gaurav Chaturvedi, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

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 Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas is studying his third year of his bachelors degree in Computer Science at the University of Gothenburg. He is currently the president of the recently started Fripost: the free e-mail association.

Chris Woolfrey: Fripost has been running almost a year. How has it developed?

Stefan Kangas: The association started in November 2010 – we more or less launched it with a presentation at FSCONS that year. During the spring we grew steadily and have now reached our goal of having 50 members, which was our aim for the first year. We still have a couple of months left until November, so we’re quite happy with that!

People have been using our email servers since around February. The systems are basically up and running, but at this point mainly on borrowed and donated hardware. We set our membership fee at 300 SEK per year (around 33 Euros) and that’s basically covering the running costs of an exclusive internet connection for the main server. Though it’s consumer grade at this point, we’re currently looking at a better solution; we want to be hosted in a more serious location.

We’ve discussed whether or not a virtual private server is OK, seeing as we want to keep everything under our own control. Obviously we want to control all hardware as well as the software. But at the moment we basically receive email and store it on our IMAP server. We have no outgoing email, though we are currently working on setting this up. We received the server just this week which has been lent to us for this purpose.

This spring we had a party which was quite successful, basically a “launch party”. We are looking to organize another party for October 1st. It’s nice that parts of the Fripost work are already going on outside the “main” channels, which means we can spread the work load amongst more people; a goal that we have for everything in the project.

We’re looking to keep this organization going for years, slowly scaling everything up as we go. We don’t want to jump right into the deep end of the pool, so to speak.

CW: Do you intend to compete with the likes of Google and Microsoft in the mail hosting market in future?

SK: We certainly hope to. Look, the way I see it we are already providing an alternative. Sure, we still have some stuff that needs sorting out, but to me, we have already achieved more than I would have dared hope for when we launched. So in my view it’s been a great success; and it’s all thanks to our members, people who have joined because they believe strongly in our ideals.

“The main strength of Fripost is that our members are dedicated to our ideas of freedom”

We think the cost of joining is quite high right now, but we hope to lower it as we get more members. People who already paying this arguably high price show a high level of commitment. That’s the main strength of Fripost: that our members are dedicated to our ideas of freedom.

Over at Gmail and Hotmail they obviously have some benefits, like much better uptime, and probably much greater bandwidth, as well as resilience to certain types of attacks, like distributed denial of service attacks, and stuff like that. But we have something they don’t have, which is a guarantee that it is the users who control their computing.

So this is a huge win. And basically, when you weigh everything together, the technical drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the social benefits. At least this is the way we feel, and obviously the people who have decided to join the association agree.

In that case, the question, really, is what one expects from a proper alternative more than anything else. And yeah, we would rather not have these technical drawbacks, but at this point they are inevitable. To resolve them we need more resources, which means growing, since we can never accept any outside financing for the primary stuff, because that would make users dependent on a third party. We need economic independence, as well as organisational independence.

CW: If a company offered Fripost a big donation, you wouldn’t take it?

SK: It’s not really about that. The way we see it, we can accept donations for “secondary stuff” or stuff that is not critical to the association. But the running costs have to be 100 per cent self-financed.

A one time donation that comes with no demands is just fine. Or at least, this has been the majority view up until now, but we haven’t gotten any such donations! Sure, if some rich dude wants to give us a million dollars, we would accept it. But only if we’re completely sure that we can do this without compromising our independence.

“The technical drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the social benefits”

Really, we don’t expect any outside donations. And the association has to be built in such a way that every step taken means we never expect any outside donations, because if we compromised on that, we compromise on the independence of our members. We’d probably never go to the EU and ask them for money for a project. Typically doing that means having to fit some norm concerning how these projects should be formed. It may or may not be the case that it would be what the majority of the members wanted to do, but we wouldn’t do it.

Let’s put it this way: if someone gives us a 19″ server, that’s just fine. But the membership fees alone have to be enough to keep it running. A case in point: we’ve already said ‘no’ to hardware – some huge rack server that took up like 8 units – that was too big for the association; we simply couldn’t afford to keep it running.

CW: Is finding open hardware to use an issue for Fripost?

SK: Yes, absolutely. One thing this work has shown us is that it’s not always entirely obvious what the limits to freedom really are or should be, where the line is to be drawn? Obviously projects like freebios, and cool guys working with open hardware, like OpenMoko, are already addressing these questions of hardware freedom, but at Fripost it is also about who owns what, who controls the internet connection, who pays for the electricity bills.

These are far ranging questions. Am I really free if I do not have physical access to the server? Am I really free if I do not have a root account? These are real questions.

I don’t know if our line of reasoning here is mainstream, but it’s something like this: if we have this association, democratically built, with democratically elected representatives, functionaries and administrators, with democratic by-laws and so on, then users will collectively exercise their freedom. That’s necessary for stuff like emailing, whereas it might not be for something basic like a text editor, that you just run locally. Email is a whole different thing; you need several servers at different locations, and it’s simply infeasible for one individual to achieve all this by themselves. So looking at it practically, in fact, not going for direct control of the servers, direct root access, and so on, means more user freedom, when you really think about it, it’s about the collective. Which is interesting, since superficially you would expect the opposite to be the case

When we started out we thought about this a lot. I think it was after Eben Moglen’s speech ‘Freedom in the Cloud’ that I first raised the question at our FSFE Fellowship meeting; we were quite unclear about what exactly to do and why, but we knew it was more than just the obvious “get box running, install postfix, win”.

“At Fripost freedom is also about who owns hardware, who controls the network, and who pays the bills”

We had to think about stuff like this a lot. We’ve even drafted a manifesto of sorts, starting with the idea of “user freedom”: what does it actually mean? We all know we have the four freedoms, but when you start discussing software as a service (SaaS), and even the questions posed by stuff like the Affero GNU Public License, it’s clear that it’s not always the case that these four freedoms are maintained. So we toyed around with the idea that one could define “free computer usage”: obviously, one needs to do all computing with free software, but also, one needs to exercise direct control over the hardware.

CW: That’s a real dedication to freedom that you’re describing. Is there a political implication to the community ownership model that you’ve outlined?

SK: We are trying to be a broad association for everyone who believes in our ideals. It’s not really about left or right here, though obviously we say some things that might provoke some people.

We say that a user can never attain the same amount of freedom if she is merely a customer, but that one really has to be a member if she wants the amount of freedom that Fripost looks to provide. We see it like this: if you are a customer, then you can leave, and you may or may not get to take your data with you. It’s not you, but the owners of the business that really exercises power over your computing. That’s always true of services in “the cloud”, which is what email really is once everyone hands management and control of their messages to Google or Microsoft.

It’s funny, because although the structure of the Internet is inherently distributed, along with many of its protocols like SMTP, the way that the Internet is used today means that most communication ends up going through just one of a few centralized nodes, and the power has moved away from the users.

But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a problem with Google and Microsoft and the like. How distributed were services like email to begin with? My email might have been with my Internet service provider, my university, or my employer. So our association is about more than just “taking back” the Internet; it is about really freeing the Internet’s users once and for all.

Obviously emailing is just one out of a gazillion different things that needs freeing, but it is the most crucial one, or at least we believe so. Citizens communicate with authorities, employers, and all sorts of people via email, and we don’t do that to the same extent on Twitter or Facebook. We don’t do our taxes on Twitter or Facebook, but we can get messages about them via email. But email isn’t necessarily any less Free.

It’s really about having the users exercise direct control over their computing, and we want to feel free, and to be free in our lives. We don’t need to get embroiled in politics in order to achieve this. Everyone is welcome to join.

CW: Do you think that Fripost’s dedication to freedom could be an obstacle to growing to have many more members?

“Email is the service that most crucially needs to be freed”

SK: No, we completely think democracy is feasible on a large scale. But you have to start small, and take it step by step.

CW: Tell me more about the practical side of how Fripost runs its systems.

SK: At the moment, we have one server that acts as main storage for all emails. Users connect to this server via IMAP [use abbr tag], and is the main server, the most important one for users; this is the one we are looking to upgrade to a serious location, we hope within the next two months. In addition we’ve got two servers at two different locations which are receiving email from the open internet. They move the emails over encrypted SMTP tunnels to the main storage servers. At a completely separate location we have a backup server, with two identical disks in a raid 1 array. Currently, it backs up the main server every 20 minutes. The main server has 2 of these disks too, also in raid 1 array. In terms of the webmail interface, we’re using Roundcube.

We’ve got the git/wiki on another server, and the web server is separate too. We’re encrypting all data on the main server as well as the backup server, and the disks are encrypted, so we hope that gives additional protection.

We’re working very hard to keep the servers secure. We’ve been lucky; we’ve only had one occasion of downtime on the IMAP server since we got it running in March. And we hope this improves once we upgrade stuff, and get better hosting.

In terms of the software we’re using, we’ve got Debian GNU/Linux squeeze, postfix, dovecot, apache, Roundcube, Org mode, ikiwiki, bacula, and plenty more.

CW: What are the plans for Fripost in the next 12 months?

SK: To involve more interested people. We’re keeping everything in Git: minutes from meetings, documentation, the website, our wiki…

“We want to spread information as much as possible both inside and outside the association”

The technical documentation is especially nice; we try to keep it in such a state that if one of the admins goes AWOL, then anyone can pick up where that admin left off, and I think there’s almost a recipe for building our systems – it’s all there. If someone would like to give it a try it would be awesome, and if our documentation is poor, patches are welcome. If something is unclear we would be delighted if someone pointed out where it needs improving.

We want to encourage people. Some people were thinking about building a Fripost Debian package, so that people could just install it and get most of the stuff automatically.

Basically, we want to spread information as much as possible, and share knowledge, inside and outside the association. We want to see similar associations cropping up all over Europe, in lots of countries, even all over the world. So if someone wants to do it: go for it! We’d encourage them. It’s a lot of fun, it’s really rewarding work, and you’d be amazed when you see the positive response you get. Nobody who’s been actively working on this over the last year has expected to see these kinds of results this fast.

But it’s so important, and it’s easy to do. It’s all very feasible, and a lot of fun. It’s a concrete way for people to create pockets of Freedom in which people can participate. Obviously you need some technical people that can set up the servers and keep everything running, but this is the good part: non-technical people can free stuff that would otherwise not be possible for them.

“It’s a way of opening up the Free Software movement to people that we don’t normally reach”

It’s a way of opening up the Free Software movement and our ideals to other areas of work, to reach people we don’t normally reach. We’ve seen people come to Fripost that would never have come to a Fellowship meeting, where we’re always discussing hardcore stuff like software patents.

Because let’s be frank: that’s not what really gets people going. Obviously it is important for everyone but Fripost is one way of opening people’s eyes to the right direction without scaring them away with technical stuff, or law stuff, or abstract ideas. Instead, we’re dealing with something concrete that they are familiar with and use every day. And people are worried about this stuff! People are really, really worried about user freedom on the internet. Facebook has been a real eye-opener.

The Free Software movement needs to think about how to channel that, and also take the opportunity to spread our ideas, since we’ve been talking about this stuff for way longer, and we know about user freedom. And when it comes to questions people have about Internet freedom, our ideas are superior to most of what anyone else produces.

Fellowship interview with Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman, Teaching Fellow at the Computer Science department of Aberystwyth University, has extensive experience of working with Free Software and discussing its strengths and weaknesses with others. In this month’s interview he shares his thoughts on the importance of promoting it alongside alternatives, of the extension of Free Software at school level, and what role the computer sciences can play in relating the messages of Free Software to other institutions and disciplines.

Chris Woolfrey: When did you first get involved with Free Software? Was it through your studies?

Richard Shipman: I first used Free Software many years ago; I think I was using FreeBSD or NetBSD on my Amiga in the ‘90s. It was purely through an interest in different operating systems: I’d used a reasonable number of different mainframe operating systems and been a Vax sys admin, and was looking for something that was more like that to play with on my home machine.

CW: So it was the practical rather than the political benefits that sparked your interest?

RS: Absolutely. I wasn’t very aware of the political movement at the time – it was the early to mid ‘90s, when we used Gopher rather than HTTP on the internet. But it was the history of Free Software at Aberystwyth that got me really involved, and trying to build on the reputation that some of the alumni have developed in the community: Alan Cox (formerly maintainer of the 2.2 Linux kernel, and a major influence on the Linux kernel since 1991) started his degree here, and has become a friend through one thing and another. AberMUD, which is named after Aberystwyth, was the first multiuser game that I played many years ago. And I shouldn’t overlook Alun “Da Penguin” Jones, who might have had some influence on Tux. The town and university are pretty small, but there is a community of Linux users that meet up informally at the moment.

I suppose that I’m quite vocal about the political side now, and I’ve been getting involved with the advocacy side a lot more in the past few years. I’m mainly a pragmatist and attempt to use the best tools for the job, and most of the time I find that Free Software is the best tool, even for novice users. It’s just that we don’t have the advertising budget that the competitors have.

“most of the time Free Software is the best tool, even for novice users”

CW: Has a culture of using Free Software at Aberystwyth contributed to its reputation for producing great programmers and developers?

RS: At Aberystwyth, we attempt to produce good software engineers. We provide an environment in which students can learn and experience different aspects of the computing industry. We provide Free Software for our departmental students as well as the “corporate standard” provided by the Information Systems department so the students get to experience both environments and make a free choice as to what they prefer. In my honest opinion, the students will gravitate towards the best tools and a lot of the time that will be Free Software.

Even on the Microsoft platform, we encourage students to use Eclipse and Netbeans as their development environment, for example. Then they are also able to use the same tools on OpenSolaris desktops or on their own Linux desktops.

There is also quite an active IRC culture, leading to people getting an informal training on how communication works in Free Software projects. And then there’s also the general environment where researchers have to make something work with very few resources, and that is generally done with Free Software rather than a proprietary system.

We depend on the reputation of our students and alumni who do a fantastic job of spreading the word that Aberystwyth is a great place to be and to get involved with Free Software. Having 20 students in Aberystwyth hoodies running around at FOSDEM, for example, gets people asking questions like “Why are Aberystwyth here in such large numbers, what are they doing?”

Just last weekend at OggCamp, I met 4 graduate alumni who are all doing interesting things in the Free Software community.

CW: Does the Computer Sciences department at Aberystwyth promote Free Software over proprietary solutions?

RS: We have a very mixed culture here, but we do try to offer a balanced view. I do find myself and colleagues promoting Free Software as an alternative pretty heavily in order to counter the proprietary message coming from other parts of the university.

I did build a freedom toaster a few years ago and that sits in the foyer of the department so that students can burn CDs and DVDs of up to date distributions – especially useful if they live in private accommodation with ADSL lines and usage caps.

We find that we tend to spend a larger amount of time covering Linux and other Free Software than proprietary simply because the students are generally familiar with Windows when they come to us, as the school system has taught them about a Microsoft monoculture.

“the school system has taught students the Microsoft monoculture”

CW: So, it’s with the aim of balancing students’ understanding of computing in general that you might promote Free Software?

RS: Absolutely – the last thing that we ought to be doing in university is telling the students that Free Software is the only correct way. They should be exposed to alternatives and be able to come to that conclusion on their own.

Of course, they sometime make other choices, but as long as that’s their own informed choice, they’ve at least experienced a set of options and made up their minds.

CW: The reason for that, presumably, is that the university can’t be seen to favour one system over another?

RS: As a department or institution it would be wrong of us to dictate that one way or the other is the only way to work. Students should be attending university to learn rather than to be taught; I’m afraid that I’m a little bit old fashioned in my opinions and expectations of students. We provide a safe environment in which they can explore options and make up their own minds. After being spoon fed in schools with “the answers” for so many years, it can take a while for them to learn that there is not one answer but many, and they will have to decide which suits them best.

As for favouring one style over another – we offer a BSc Open Source Computing, but don’t offer one in closed or proprietary computing. I take groups of students to Free Software conferences, but not to Microsoft or Apple conferences; students compete and take part in Google Summer of Code, but also in the Microsoft Imagine Cup.

I think that we could be seen to favour one style, but a monoculture can breed complacency and stagnation, so having a number of opinions is useful, if only to see how not to do it. Overall I believe that the department generally promotes Free Software if only to make up for the disproportionate marketing force of the alternatives.

CW: So the department has a duty to promote Free Software because of its unnatural disadvantage? And does that apply to education at a lower level, like secondary school?

RS: To your first question: yes I believe that we do, in the same way that society will positively discriminate for a minority; although that is not too good an analogy as it makes the Free Software community sound like the poor relation.

“Government directives about looking at Free Software alternatives seem like lip service”

I was angered by the recent Bristol City Council decision to adopt Microsoft over Free Software and the Computacenter gag on them to even discuss the way in which the decision was made. It was looking so hopeful for a while. The government directives about always looking at a Free Software alternative seem a little too much like lip service at the moment, but hopefully they will provide a platform from which campaigning can take place and stop companies from this kind of anti-competitive practice.

As for secondary schools, if we can get Free Software into schools then it will hopefully start to mitigate the “retaining costs” that are always quoted when switching from Windows to Free Software desktops.

I’ve been getting a little involved with schools through the Computing in Schools project run by the Royal Society and we’re working in Wales with that and with the Technocamps project to simply get more computing taught in schools rather than ICT. Showing the kids that there’s more to computing than just Excel and Powerpoint is vital.

Computing itself isn’t being taught at very many schools, but ICT is. It’s the old analogy that ICT is like driving the car, but computing is about how to build a car, maintain it and design a better one.

CW: It’s about promoting computing as an aid to thinking rather than a method of working?

RS: Yes. Computing doesn’t necessarily need a computer: it’s an analytical way of looking at problems. Promoting a computing way of thinking is a way of looking at problems, promoting analytical thinking and supporting the scientific method. It is about allowing you to be creative rather than being limited to a script of known solutions.

“Showing the kids that there’s more to computing than just Excel and Powerpoint is vital”

CW: Does your department encourage other disciplines within the University, such as English Literature, to take the same creative approach? And does FSFE play a role in enabling this kind of dialogue?

RS: I’m not sure how much we would be able to promote things to the English department, but we certainly work with the Arts and Drama departments. We have a certain amount of interaction with them already and are able to provide Free Software solutions to problems. The development of Arduino has meant that we get requests for assistance every so often, and being able to offer that sort of Free Software solution is helpful as a way of breaking the ice with the whole Free Software discussion. I was incredibly impressed by Chris Gutteridge, from Southampton OpenData Project, at OggCamp, and what he was tying to achieve: to try to get all disciplines involved in opening up all their data sources.

Personally I think that the earlier that we can get more rational thought back into schools, the better. Computing is a very good way of introducing kids to cause and effect and scientific thinking. If they’ve been introduced in schools then there are less remedial actions that have to be taken in university to help the students with whatever their choice of study is.

If the data curators can be persuaded to use Open Standards then the flexibility of data becomes enormous. If FSFE can help to highlight the fact that so little data is open these days, and that it’s to the advantage of everyone that we use Open Standards, then I think that would be a very worthwhile cause. Of course there are “open” standards and Open Standards and we have to be very careful about the corruption of words by interested parties.

Fellowship interview with Bernhard Reiter

Bernhard Reiter

Bernhard is founder and Executive Director of Intevation GmbH, a company with exclusively Free Software products and services since 1999. He played a crucial role in the establishment of FSFE as one of its founders, and architect of the original German team. Beside that he participated in setting up three important Free Software organisations: FreeGIS.org, FFII, and FossGIS.

Chris Woolfrey: You were a co-founder of FSFE in 2001. In your view, has the organisation been achieving its aim? It’s still largely unknown to the public.

Bernhard Reiter: When setting out to change the world, you can’t expect it to jump right away. And I believe FSFE is becoming increasingly known. When setting up FSFE, we did not know precisely what we would be able to achieve, we just tried our best. Could we have reached more? Did we dream about being larger, more influential, having more Free Software everywhere? Yes of course! Still, I believe FSFE can be proud of what it has achieved. And we stayed within the original goals.

Most of FSFE’s successes stand for themselves. We wanted to be a reliable organisation, which would be able to motivate people to stay within FSFE for a long period of time, and to be able to do a lot with just a little budget, but a lot of dedication.

My friend Georg Greve (founding president of FSFE) is a great example of that. He was seminal in FSFE’s success. He’d just finished his university degree and we managed to convince him to work for FSFE full-time – letting go a career as a physicist – and he worked without getting the promised pay for a long while, building up personal debt until we found our first visionary sponsor. We knew that for FSFE to be successful we would need to have an anchor person and Georg agreed to be that person. He did it well. People who worked against the organisation thought that they would only have to handle this single person, but he had the full power of ten thinkers and many more volunteers behind him. When FSFE decided to support a particular argument or political position, Georg presented it with personal passion.

Of course, funds have always been important too; finding the first visionary sponsors was very hard. One of the first was Daniel Riek, who saw the potential and gave us a one time donation to cover some set-up costs. Then there was Reinhard Wiesemann from the Linuxhotel, and you have to know that Reinhard is a self-made entrepreneur and critical thinker: he was more into doing something practical for helping Free Software like writing another document format converter, and there I was trying to get some money from him to do “political work”, which sounded like it meant “just talking”. Here was me and a bunch of guys with a new organisation that only a very limited track record. In the end I managed to convince Reinhard, and then we were able to pay Georg a little bit.

I am really grateful for all that support during the early days; FSFE would not have taken off otherwise.

“I believe FSFE is becoming increasingly known”

CW: Would you say that plurality – people from all walks of life becoming involved with FSFE – is one of the organisation’s real strengths?

BR: I’d say the opposite: that we are still, as a group, too homogeneous. Most of FSFE’s members have very strong technical IT knowledge, and are young and male. Compared to most other Free Software related initiatives, though, I believe we are doing fairly well, because we do have a significant number of non-programmers, and females, and people more interested in the non-technical parts, as part of our organisation.

We wanted to bring Free Software into the mainstream, and so FSFE has had to be very approachable from the point of view of “society”, general journalists, companies and politicians. When you are technically trained it is easy to become arrogant towards less computer savvy people! We tried hard to avoid this, so that we could relate to and relay how non-computer people might think and feel.

CW: Ten years later has FSFE succeeded in being approachable? Do you think ‘ordinary people’ are aware of issues of digital freedom?

BR: Yes! Over the last 10 years FSFE has been approached often, and we’ve given many interviews and talks, and explained the importance of Free Software for society to many, from the local community party table, to companies and public administrations of all sizes, plus the military and the United Nations.

Topics like electronic data processing, software and its relationship with the economy, democracy and society, and the power of all these tools, has increasingly gone public. More people care about them now. Many regular daily newspapers mention Free Software or FSFE. There is almost nobody that hasn’t heard about GNU systems, Iceweasel, Libreoffice or Free Software – often by other names, but still.

Personally I am convinced that there are no ‘ordinary’ people or ‘regular’ users. Humans are much more diverse and should not be treated like a big group. Most people do care about their freedom. If they do not understand why their use of computers and software is related to this, then it’s because nobody has explained it to them properly.

“if people do not understand why their computing is related to their freedom, it’s because nobody explained them properly”

Free speech and the ability to read and write are considered very important. Software is in the same category, but this is not yet taught in school, so we don’t have the great literature on the subject. Yet.

CW: After ten years you’re stepping down from your post. Why?

BR: I have been a volunteer for FSFE since shortly before it was officially born. More than 10 years; it is a long time. Some of the administrative work started to get boring. The work with volunteers stayed fun.

You start to realise that you can’t do this forever anyway, so you start thinking “where is the next person”? The big break was two years ago, when our first anchor person stepped down and we basically got the second generation taking over the full leadership of FSFE. It was important then to not stand in the way when people like Karsten Gerloff (current FSFE president) and Matthias Kirschner (Fellowship Coordinator and German Coordinator) came in and had to find their own style for leading FSFE.

They were the future. I was staying in duty as Matthias’ Deputy, mainly to help him. Matthias is doing great, and he’s now surpassed me in many respects. This year, with Torsten Grote (Deputy German Coordinator) we’ve found a great new Deputy.

Beside my voluntary work for FSFE, I’ve been running my own company, Intevation, which also grew, demanding more time. We are currently about 25 full-time staff. I owe them a big thank you. My co-owners Jan-Oliver Wagner, Frank Koormann, and all the employees allowed me to help FSFE in my work time, to have Intevation cover travel costs and to become a patron of FSFE. Intevation also holds shares in two daughter companies: Greenbone Networks, which sells a product for security compliance based on OpenVAS, and Kolab Systems AG, which provides the well known groupware Kolab. Georg is co-owner and CEO of Kolab Systems. All three companies are respected Free-Software-only businesses.

I am staying with FSFE, but not on constant duty. Now I can pursue more long term issues within FSFE. I’m seeking new ways to get all the interesting brains that make up FSFE together. In the beginning when our group was small, we could have long conversations on our internal mailinglists but now that FSFE has grown, this mode doesn’t work.

I want to investigate how we can finance Free Software, especially boring maintenance work and larger innovate steps. There are a number of issues people would like me to write articles about: cloud computing, and the future of web applications, are raising a number of questions. Maybe I’ll start blogging.

CW: Given the good work of the people you’ve mentioned, should FSFE be increasing its number of professional staff?

BR: Our long term goal is that FSFE is not necessary any more; in a world where our message is mainstream. But I’m sure we’ll have to grow over decades for that to happen, both in terms of professionals and volunteers: we must have them both. Some goals can only be reached when you are organised, systematic, resourceful, and to the point – this includes a lot of boring work and structure – and other problems are better solved by a large number of people contributing a little. Sometimes just their ideas or opinions.

Early on it became clear that for the coordination and for anchoring within politics, FSFE would need to have professionals. But it is about paid staff and volunteers together.

A paycheck allows someone to have more time to dedicate to what they like to do and would do, anyway, as a volunteer. More volunteers, donors and Fellows allow us to pay more people, who in turn help to spread the message to find more help.

“Our long term goal is that FSFE is not necessary any more; in a world where our message is mainstream”

CW: Proportionate growth, then. But how do we go about financing Free Software projects, particularly when they require less interesting work to be done that may not suit a volunteer?

BR: Once you’ve understood why it is important to have a financial-chain of Free Software “makers”, you can start paying for the Free Software that you are using. This is what I’ve been doing with Intevation for a while: instead of asking others to pay for Free Software, just start paying for Free Software yourself.

For organisations, especially companies, I recommend they pay 10% of what a proprietary license for a comparable product would have cost them. Remember, you would have had to buy that product for 100% and your business would still have to work. Give 1% of the revenue (not profit) back to the Free Software components that you have used to create the IT-solution for each project.

We should be experimenting with App Stores so we can see if people are willing to pay for Free Software a bit this way. Making voluntary payments is still way too hard. Maybe your GNU operating system distributor could offer the service to forward some of the money for you. I’d really like to buy more services for my GNU systems, but currently I lack attractive offers. If we could make it the social norm to voluntarily pay for Free Software, that would be a real success.

Photo by Torsten Grote, license CC-BY-SA.

Fellowship interview with Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold is Deputy Coordinator of FSFE’s Education Team, as well as a member of the German team, and a translator of fsfe.org and gnu.org.

Chris Woolfrey: What has FSFE’s education team been up to lately?

Guido Arnold: The main task throughout the last few months has been the development of the team’s mission statement. The Education Team was dormant for quite a while, and even after its reactivation, it didn’t get momentum right away. I thought that one reason for this might be that nobody really knows what we are supposed to do. The mission statement shall fix that.

We also discussed possible future tasks for the Education Team, and before we started with the mission statement we were working on leaflets explaining the benefits of Free Software in education. I spent a lot of time collecting news on this subject, and put them together in blog posts.

The thing with Free Software in education is that there are already many, many groups throughout Europe working in this field. Many of them are inactive however, because there are only a few people who are active and the rest stay silent. It would be great to get all those people who are active to work together, and that’s part of our aim.

I spent some time introducing new members to the Education Team. And we’ve had to deal with issues internally: we were asked if we knew of any “free” material for teaching kids the concepts of Free Software; at first I thought this would be easy, but I was mistaken. So, I spent some time researching and asking around.

I met with another Education Team member from France who studies marketing and sales, and we discussed how we could find out about our “target groups”. We had two Fellowship jabber meetings to get input from other FSFE Fellows. We are in contact with the education people from gnu.org and OFSET, and contributed to the UK Team’s letter to The Guardian relating to the newspaper’s educational resources. We also organised ‘Freedroidz’ workshops in Bonn and Berlin where we taught young people about the four freedoms of Free Software by programming Lego robots.

Besides working on our mission statement, we’ve tried to strengthen our network in the Free Software education community.

CW: In your reaching out to other organisations, who has been the most receptive?

“There are already many groups throughout Europe working on improving Free Software in education”

GA: Well, that’s hard to tell. When I contacted groups and individuals it was usually about a specific question or project, and I mentioned the Education Team alongside. A few people got interested and asked how they could help, and some groups contacted us directly. We were actually the ones being receptive, so to speak. Mostly though, we’re talking about other organisations that are promoting Free Software in education, like OFSET, gnu.org, and FSuB e.V.

We have also been contacted by political parties; or to be more precise, FSFE got contacted in regards to some educational questions and we were able to deal with them.

CW: What are the political parties who’ve contacted you interested in?

GA: They’re interested in our view on how things should go in education, what should change, and more. They’re looking to us to tell them what a political party can do to make that change happen, and what they should demand to make us happy.

CW: Do you think these parties can deliver what’s needed to improve the use and understanding of Free Software amongst young people?

GA: I don’t know. But I am quite confident that in Baden Wurttemberg (one of the German federal states) some things can change for the better. The Green Party has been mentioning Free Software in their program for a while, but was always the smaller coalition partner. Now, for the first time, they actually lead a federal state, and as such they have much more say over decisions affecting education. Fortunately their coalition partner is not against Free Software either. We’re keeping a close eye on developments here.

We’ve had to deliver our responses to political groups quickly in order to make our voice heard before elections, and express rather generic demands, which was better than expressing no demands in time. But to articulate political demands more specifically is still on our to-do list.

The thing is, once you start thinking about it, a task like this isn’t as easy as it may seem. It’s easy to demand “stop product oriented education in ICT”, or “teach children computer skills, not software brands”. But suggesting how this should actually be done, in a particular German federal state which has its own rules and regulations for example, is actually quite complex. You need to know a great deal about these rules and regulations in order to make a qualified suggestion to politicians.

I once saw a website offering training for teachers. This was in a state where teachers have to collect a certain amount of “training points” per year. And on this website they offered a course called “SQL databases in Windows (5 points)” alongside a course called “SQL databases in Linux (0 points)”. The motivation to pick the GNU/Linux course will drop in every Free Software friendly teacher if she sees that she’ll be penalised in ways such as this for doing so.

“You need to know about rules and regulations in order to make a qualified suggestion to politicians”

It’s often said that the educational institutions can pick whatever software they like, but if you have a closer look, you often find out that there are obstacles preventing them form choosing Free Software. For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, every school is able to use Free Software if they like, but the software to submit statistical data to the state is mandated; with that they have no choice. Unfortunately this software is proprietary and runs on Microsoft Windows only.

I heard that some very ambitious teachers got it to work with WINE. But still, it’s a hindrance. And the development of that proprietary statistics software was paid for with taxes. I asked them why they don’t release it under a Free Software license, and they said that they can’t.

If you want people to act upon something, you need something to pinpoint the problem. I’m grateful for for every email we receive which points us to good examples which we can use to illustrate to politicians that there is something wrong with the way Free Software is currently used in education.

CW: In your experience, is there a relationship between political orientation and support for Free Software? Are certain types of political parties more likely than others to push for more Free Software in schools?

GA: There are parties who are more Free-Software-friendly than others, but generally I think there’s scope for anybody who favours freedom to support Free Software at a political level. I don’t see why particular parties should oppose Free Software, except perhaps because their political enemy is supporting it. I just think the argumentation can be different depending on which party you talk with. Example arguments being that support and development of Free Software solutions can strengthen the local economy, or that lower hardware requirements are better for the environment. Both these arguments are popular. I don’t like this partisan approach that much, because the most important point for me is that the children learn about Free Software. But I guess, you’ll have to start with arguments like these which are strong appeal to particular groups in order to get ‘a foot in the door’ and initiate further negotiations.

“You have to start with popular arguments in order to get ‘a foot in the door’”

Politicians aren’t any different than your neighbour in this respect. They just don’t know about Free Software either.

CW: It sounds like you’re putting a lot of your time into working with the Education Team; how do you find the time to balance working life and doing all this voluntarily?

GA: Finding the time for it is not that hard! The difficult part is to decide what you drop instead. When my interest in Free Software started to grow, I cut the amount of TV I watched. As I learned more about it and realized how important the mere existence of Free Software is, I cut down on other things, too. Imagine how proprietary software corporations would be acting today if Free Software didn’t exist! The positive impact that Free Software has on the world is worth making time for.

If you compare the amount of time with a random couch potato, or people who play video games all night, you’ll see that I don’t actually spend that much time on these things. My estimate is about seven to ten hours per week. What helps is to track your time. It makes you more aware of the “preciousness” of the time. On bad days, I might spend 4 hours doing “FSFE stuff”, but have to admit at the end of the day, that I didn’t achieve very much. Tracking time together with the result helps me to make a better use of it.

And I’m lucky to have a very tolerant wife who allows me to spend all that time!

Fellowship interview with Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger has been a Free Software evangelist for many years. Pro bono, he is founding member and part of the Steering Committee at The Document Foundation. He has previously been active in the OpenOffice.org project for seven years, most recently as Marketing Project Lead. Florian has ten years’ experience in designing enterprise and educational computer networks, including software deployment based on Free Software. He is also a frequent contributor to a variety of professional magazines worldwide on topics such as Free Software, Open Standards and legal matters.

Chris Woolfrey: How did you first get involved with OpenOffice?

Florian Effenberger: I started using Free Software very early, and installed my first GNU/Linux in June of 1994. At the end of the 90s, I started using what was, back then, StarOffice, and was involved in the user newsgroups. Free Software attracted me, as I met very open-minded and creative people who were engaged with passion and stood behind important ideas and values.

When the OpenOffice.org project started in 2000, I followed it closely, but didn’t get directly involved before 2004, when my first proper “engagement” took place at a trade show. In 2005, I was offered the role of German Marketing Contact for OpenOffice.org, and from that point on I got more and more involved, until I eventually became the Marketing Project Lead. These days I’m very active with LibreOffice and The Document Foundation, and also serve on the Board of Directors of the German non-profit Freies Office Deutschland e.V.

I’ve wanted to give back something. Being a long-time user of Free Software and benefiting from it, it is a wonderful experience to tell the world about it, and help spreading the word.

CW: What did your time working for OpenOffice.org teach you about marketing and Free Software?

FE: I think marketing serves a very important cause. You can have the best software and the most qualified developers, but when the world doesn’t know about what you offer, nobody will use it. Of course, it’s important to point out, for completeness, that without developers, the marketeers would have nothing to market either; but people don’t always see it that way.

“there’s so much to Free Software that many people don’t see at first glance”

To me, marketing Free Software serves a variety of purposes. Telling people about the advantages of Free Software is one important part of it; there’s so much to it many people don’t see at first glance, like Open Standards, freedom to use, study, share and improve it, and preventing a digital gap. One of the tasks of marketing Free Software is to find the right balance between ideological and technological views, and those that are important for average users who are not so deeply tied to the ecosystem just yet.

Another task of marketeers is to establish communication channels not only to users, but also to corporations who adopt or develop Free Software. Promoting the right image and finding the right balance in what and how you communicate is crucial to reaching a broad audience and conveying the benefits.

CW: Did marketing concerns like these cause LibreOffice to adopt its new name, or was the re-branding primarily for legal reasons?

FE: When we started The Document Foundation, we talked about continuing with the brand that the Community had shaped and built over the past ten years. However, things turned out the way they did, and we are happy and proud of the perception of the new brand. Indeed, LibreOffice was not only chosen for legal reasons – it also marks the next step, an important evolution. This is reflected by the name: previously, we were open, now we are also “libre”, meaning free.

CW: How does the Document Foundation work to ensure that the LibreOffice community retains this principle of freedom within its products and operations?

FE: One of the reasons for setting up The Document Foundation in its current form — i.e. as a vendor-neutral Foundation in German law — was to provide an ideal framework for our community and its ecosystem to grow. All our assets are maintained by the Foundation and based on our open, meritocratic and transparent approach. This ensures that, as an example, the brand and trademark are not under the control of individuals or corporations, but rather by the community itself.

As an example: our trademark policy has been publicly discussed, and we incorporated many proposals and ideas that were raised on the mailing list.

“we have more than 180 new code contributors, more than 60 translators, and roughly 6,000 people contribute to our mailing lists”

CW: Has project growth continued since the height of press interest in the split from OpenOffice?

FE: We are still overwhelmed by the amount of contributions and contributors worldwide. Many organisations and corporations joined our idea from the first day, giving their public statement of support, and we managed to raise €50.000 in donations in just eight days, which is just amazing.

In addition, we have nearly 70 mirrors worldwide, offering LibreOffice for download. Plus, we have now more than 180 new code contributors, providing patches, features and bugfixes for LibreOffice, plus more than 60 localisers translating it into various languages. Roughly 6,000 people contribute to our mailing lists, and about 7,500 opted in to receive announcements on new versions and releases. Plus, we’re very much in line with our release plan.

Besides these numbers the feedback from the community, end-users, and corporations, is just fantastic, and encourages us to follow the path that we’ve taken.

CW: Do you think The Document Foundation does enough to appeal to people who don’t already use Free Software? Roughly what share of the whole office suite market does LibreOffice have?

FE: We’ll be providing detailed download statistics soon, but Windows is one of our most popular platforms. We’ve already seen corporations and organisations migrating to LibreOffice on a variety of operating systems, and the feedback we receive clearly shows that people not only understand why we were taking this approach, but that they also welcome and applaud the path we’ve taken. We have users, adopters and contributors from all fields. Given that release cycles (particularly in larger organisations) tend to be measured in months, it is yet too early to look at a comparison of market shares however; the Document Foundation has only existed for about eight months now.

CW: How do you see the relationship between LibreOffice and OpenOffice developing in future?

FE: The recent announcements made by Oracle about OpenOffice.org have raised new questions. But from the very first day, The Document Foundation has been open for everyone, and we will continue to be open for any interested party to join us. I think the past months have shown that we’re on the right track, that the approach we’ve taken and the model we follow is ideal for a community like ours. I am happy to repeat our invitation to everyone to join us and to contribute to the success of a truly free office suite.

CW: But given what has happened with OpenOffice recently, how will the foundation ensure that LibreOffice’s financing and philosophy remains community-based in future?

FE: The Document Foundation has been established to ensure a healthy framework, independent from one corporation’s business: that’s what our vendor-neutral approach and set-up as a Foundation based in Germany is for. The success of our fund-raising challenge has shown the wide support for what we do, and that people are willing to give. Of course, we work in an ecosystem where corporations can participate and benefit, and we are also looking into a variety of options on how the Foundation itself can raise money for achieving its goals. Our community by-laws take precautions to avoid too much influence based on money rather than on merit.

“our community by-laws take precautions to avoid influence based on money rather than on merit”

CW: In relation to both growth and neutrality, how do you see the relationship between LibreOffice and the Document Foundation in relation to other Free Software projects?

FE: We have seen many successful and important Free Software projects, based on Foundations and comparable structures, with the same virtues that we share — openness, transparency, meritocracy. Each of these projects has their own unique history, and so do we, but the principles they’re built on are comparable. So, I think we are in a good neighborhood.

There are many Free Software projects, and lots of them have quite a few things in common; in terms of governance, but also in technical terms, and as part of the global ecosystem of Free Software. Cooperating and working with each other, exchanging thoughts, ideas, brainstorming, but also discussing issues which more than one project is facing: all these help greatly.

Nobody has to re-invent the wheel, but can benefit from what is already available. A good example is our infrastructure: we’re based entirely on Free Software, from web server to wiki, blog, mail server, mailing lists, our planet, and much more. We not only use it, but also contribute back — for the mailing list system we use, one admin colleague has written tools that are Free Software. Plus, right now we are working on providing cross-compilation of LibreOffice for the Windows platform, to enable building it for that OS from within a free build environment.

Actively cooperating as well as benefiting from other Free Software projects is one of the things that makes the dynamics and fast development in this area.

CW: Given that you fit so well into the community, and that you’re growing at an impressive rate and in keeping with targets, where next?

FE: We’ve set a pretty good basis for the future. The next major step is legally setting up the Foundation, which we’re working on at the moment. We have summed up details on this in a blog post.

The improvements in our development scheme, plus the 180 new developers, and all the other volunteers with their amazing work and their creativity, already help us in making much bigger steps. We’re evaluating future ideas and major improvements to free office suites at large: everyone’s invited to shape the future together with us, and I’m pretty sure it will be exciting. The good thing about The Document Foundation is that it will provide a framework for all future developments, so people have the means of coming up with cool new ideas.

Fellowship interview with Michiel de Jong

Michiel de Jong

Michiel de Jong

Michiel de Jong has worked as a programmer, researcher and sysadmin in Amsterdam, Oxford, London and Madrid, where he ended up as a scalability engineer for Spain’s national social network Tuenti. In Winter 2010 he took a two-month hacker’s holiday in Bali to set up the Unhosted project. He now lives in Berlin, with Kenny Bentley and Javier Diaz, where they plan, donations permitting, to work on the project full-time.

Chris Woolfrey: Would you like to explain the Unhosted project in your own words?

Michiel de Jong: There are several ways you could explain it; my favourite angle is the software freedom angle. Software freedom used to mean the right to control (use, share, study and improve) the source code / the program that the application executes – the definition that FSFE uses. Back in the day, that was enough. It was taken for granted that you already had control over the data that the application handled; of course you do, it’s on your computer, or on a server where you have full access to at least the data that your applications are using.

For installed software, both desktop and server, that view used to be accurate: if you controlled the source code you had software freedom. But then, slowly, installed software was pushed further away from the user by hosted software (stuff like Google Docs, Facebook and Twitter). Hosted websites like these aren’t primarily a source of information; they are interactive applications, and in this context software freedom doesn’t exist.

It’s absurd that hosted software makes you surrender your data to the author of the application in question, but it’s what happens. It happened slowly, because informational websites became dynamic websites, and those dynamic websites then started accepting user input and slowly became interactive software. Now fully hosted software is widely used, and people use it to replace locally installed desktop applications.

“Software freedom requires code-freedom plus data-freedom”

In the shift from local applications to hosted applications software freedom got left behind. Nobody talks about locally installed software any more, they talk about hosted software, yet some people say “I run an entirely Free Software stack on my laptop; only the firmware of the graphics card is proprietary”, and that’s a mistake, because so much of the ‘software’ that they use is not installed locally on their laptop, it is merely viewed through their web browser.

The Unhosted project aims to invent and promote a way to fix these issues. Software freedom nowadays needs to be not only code-freedom; it must be code-freedom plus data-freedom.

CW: How does Unhosted achieve this?

MdJ: We’re separating the code of an application from its data. When you log in to an Unhosted web application, the URI in the address bar determines where the code lives, but the domain succeeding the ‘@’ symbol in your username determines where your data lives; this frees your data from the hands of the application server, and frees the application server from the burden of your data.

This means that free of charge hosted Free Software web applications become feasible again. After all, there is an obvious Free Software replacement for Microsoft Windows: GNU/Linux, just as an obvious Free replacement for Microsoft Office is Libre Office. But what Free Software can so obviously replace Google Docs? Why can’t you go to ‘www.libredocs.org’ and use Free Software on the web, just like you can with desktop software?

The simple answer is that the costs of running software remotely on a server and providing it as a service are too high to be able to provide it free of charge. In order to write Free Software, all that is required is the time and skills of the developers concerned. But there is no way to make Free Software available to the world online which doesn’t involve a monetary cost, because doing so requires the use of servers, and whoever owns those servers will charge you a monthly fee. Our architecture for separating code and data, leaving the processing in the browser, fixes that: it makes it very cheap to host Free Software web applications because all you have to host is the application logic, the code files, not the data that drives it.

“Unhosted makes it very cheap to host Free Software web applications”

That’s the ‘free the application from the burden of your data’ part. And then there’s the other part: that software equals code plus data, but software freedom equals code-freedom plus data-freedom. With Unhosted, data-freedom is achieved because when you sign in to some application you decide which domain gets to host your data for you. You can get an account with a public provider – they’re in the process of being set up – or tell your university or employer’s sysadmin to run a node for the faculty or for the office, then basically everybody who has an email address ‘@wherever’ would get an Unhosted account with that same user name.

CW: Are there privacy benefits of using Unhosted applications when compared to traditional web applications which store both code and data remotely?

MdJ: When using an Unhosted application, all your data is encrypted by your web browser before it is sent to the server where your Unhosted account resides. That way the data stored in your Unhosted account can exist on any commodity server, because although you rely on that server to give you access to your data, the data itself is securely stored and encrypted, and you need not worry about your Unhosted account host reading your messages, for example. The data stored by an Unhosted application is encrypted by your web browser before it is sent and stored in your Unhosted account, and it then gets decrypted when it is sent back to your web browser when it is required. The server storing your Unhosted web application data is blind therefore; it sends your data to and from Unhosted websites without being able to read its contents.

Normally, using JavaScript for cryptography doesn’t make a lot of sense because if a website includes JavaScript scripts for encrypting data then those same scripts could be used to eavesdrop on the encrypted data. But in these cases the cryptography scripts originate from the same untrusted source that the encrypted data would then be sent to and received from. In the case of Unhosted it’s different since we separate the domain that delivers the application code from the domain where the data is stored. The Unhosted account provider will not have access to the application’s JavaScript cryptography scripts, so the Unhosted web application can encrypt things that the Unhosted account provider won’t be able to decrypt.

CW: What kind of applications do you think are best suited to using Unhosted? What types of web application do you expect to adopt Unhosted first?

MdJ: Any application which doesn’t store a large amount of user data can be easily adapted to use Unhosted. Applications like Google Docs which require the storage of a lot of important user data would benefit most from moving to Unhosted however. For parallel computing it will also be a great boost. But for other things, like search engines, it would require some clever algorithms to allow it to work in a more decentralized way. In general, any web application that requires the storage of a large amount of user-specific data could benefit from becoming Unhosted.

CW: It sounds like there’s a lot of scope for Unhosted to have a big impact on other web-based Free Software projects; how does your work fit in with things like Diaspora, Appleseed, and YaCy?

MdJ: Unhosted was sort of born on the Diaspora developer’s mailing-list. We were talking about how Diaspora switched from PGP to SSL, and how end-to-end encryption would be nicer, so I started trying to write Ajax payload encryption. It was meant to be an addition to Diaspora. Later I realised that it could be used much more widely than just for Diaspora.

We have yet to start to write an Unhosted social application that could federate with Diaspora and Appleseed instances. Because YaCy is a search engine, it would require some engineering in order to combine it with the Unhosted Web application architecture.

“I realised that it could be used much more widely than just for Diaspora”

Apart from the ones you mentioned, we were approached by LibreOffice to talk about how Unhosted and LibreOffice could work together. That was a great honour. We are currently implementing an Unhosted cloud-sync for LibreOffice. It doesn’t bring LibreOffice to the web in the sense that it would put the whole of the program into your browser, but it makes LibreOffice into a ‘document browser’ similar to a ‘web browser’, and it will be compatible with the web standard we published three weeks ago.

Other than that, we are only just getting started. We’ve put out a demo application that shows you how to do it: myfavouritesandwich.org. People can copy that and use it as a ‘Hello World’ starting point on the Unhosted web.

CW: What a great domain name!

MdJ: It was originally myfavouritecar.org but Javier thought that myfavouritesandwich.org was funnier.

CW: Is the way the project looks important to you?

MdJ: 33% of our full-time team is a graphic designer. That’s another pretty unique fact about this project; I don’t think a lot of Free Software projects reach that percentage. We need end-users to switch, and end-users often don’t understand software freedom, but if we make really nice applications, they’ll come for the applications, and stay for the freedom.

There is no threshold for the end-user: that’s an important feature for us. The user doesn’t need to know whether an application is hosted or Unhosted; if the Unhosted-ness is invisible then we’ve done a good job. We need to convince web developers to develop Unhosted web applications, and their clients don’t even need to know exactly what it is. If a client asks the developer for something new then the developer just needs to be able to say ‘OK, we’ll use the latest technology to develop that web application for you’, and then develop it as an Unhosted web application. The client need not notice that you used Unhosted’s architecture, only the web developer needs to know.

We want to create a few demo applications that are really nice to use, so that we can avoid the usual stigma that Free Software often gets from non-converts; that a program must be ugly if it’s Free Software. I think it’s important that Free Software looks nice and feels nice. A lot of projects are doing a really good job now, and we want to be one of those: that’s why 33% of our full-time team is graphic design.

CW: It seems that you’re trying to appeal strongly to people outside of the existing Free Software ecosystem. Do you think that there are obvious benefits of using Unhosted for non-Free Software companies and organisations?

“Users will come for the applications, and stay for the freedom”

MdJ: Yes, definitely. First of all, a company that uses software as a production means may want to use the end-to-end encryption so that company secrets don’t leave the company virtual private network, but still use storage on Amazon servers, for example. So they could use Unhosted web applications with Unhosted accounts that store encrypted data on Amazon’s servers, and it would all work from their staff’s web browsers without having to install software on-site. Also, the scalability and robustness that comes from a distributed architecture can make good business sense: if you want to offer a proprietary application, but don’t want your servers to be a single point of failure, then the Unhosted web will give your application less downtime, or at least incidents will be per-user, and your application will not go down entirely because of localized problems. Also, the cost of hosting an Unhosted web application is much lower than the cost of hosting a traditional web application.

That’s a great advantage for public domain projects that, at the moment, simply cannot afford to host web applications, but for proprietary applications it’s obviously also an interesting feature because it can cut costs. And then there is the potential business of setting up as an Unhosted account provider; depending on how many interesting applications we can get out there, companies like this will also pop up, so users will start using their brand as their login for all the unhosted websites that they use. The potential for interoperability between applications is also exciting – because you separate the application from the data it will also (where format compatibility allows) become possible to switch to a different website and see, for example, that all your photo albums are there, then switch back to the previous website and see your edits have come through instantly, without having to export or import, because it is the same data.

That will be a shocking experience for end-users when we get it working! Some people don’t care about scalability, robustness, encryption, privacy, public domain applications, software freedom, or any of that, they only care about this possibility of data interoperability. This kind of interoperability could be the best feature of the Unhosted project.

CW: Why has it taken until now for a project like Unhosted to arise?

MdJ: I think it is all very recent. One year ago, the landscape didn’t show as obviously that there was a problem as it does now: yes, there was Richard Stallman’s article about SaaS, then Eben Moglen’s seminal speeches, but in the meantime, Facebook became dominant. I mean, 18 months ago Facebook was still not as much of a monopoly as it was 12 months ago. Also, Chrome Web Store and Chrome OS were announced only quite recently.

Two years ago it wasn’t so clear to see. I mean, I know I couldn’t have thought of all of this two years ago, but I think the time is ripe now. But many of these ideas are not mine: some very important ideas came from Tim Berners-Lee and Zooko, and I just put them together and wrote a ‘manifesto‘ about it, which again, is mainly copied from Eben Moglen and Richard Stallman.

CW: How do you plan to devote yourself to Unhosted full-time?

MdJ: Next month we want to raise €36000. We had the choice of founding a business start-up or running the project entirely as a non-profit organisation. We chose the non-profit route because we think it’s important to do so. We’re three full-time engineers, and we’re intending on getting a hacker space in Berlin for the three of us, plus two spare desks for visiting hackers. That will be open for holiday makers who want to spend a week in Berlin, hang out in our hacker’s loft and contribute to freeing the web. Rent is very cheap here in Berlin, but we still each need about €1000 per month to live off.

We’re very passionate about this. In the near future we’ll be publishing tools and demo applications to push the Unhosted web forward, and we’ll work out the details as we go along. It’s a community project, entirely open, but I do think it’s good to have the ‘foundation plus community’ structure, with a small full-time team to give it some steady momentum.

We’d love people to subscribe to our mailing-list, follow us on Identi.ca and Twitter, and come to our IRC channel. Apart from that, we’re encouraging people to fork our demo application and build their own Unhosted application from it. The Unhosted web starts here.

Fellowship interview with Dan Leinir

Dan Leinir

Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen, when not solving interoperability problems between Open Document Format (ODF) editors at KO GmbH, spends his time developing GamingFreedom.org: a gaming orientated social network which promotes Free culture, and Gluon: a full featured modern game engine, based on the Qt framework. Dan describes the aims of these exciting projects, and discusses what Free Software could mean for gaming in future.

Chris Woolfrey: Can you explain what GamingFreedom.org is, and it’s relationship with Gluon?

Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen: GamingFreedom is a social network for makers and players of games, based on the concept that there are very few people who make games who don’t also play them. So, rather than view game distribution as a way of pushing a product to the users in order to make back the money that was invested, GamingFreedom views it as a social thing: you have an idea for a game, you build that game, and you distribute the game to some repository, which in our case is GamingFreedom.org. From there you can download the game and play it, and you can then provide feedback if you want; through ratings, commenting, even user submitted screenshots and other such things.

Gluon comprises the technologies we have created to support these concepts; a set of libraries and applications which support you all the way through this. And, interestingly, there’s basically nothing like this out there right now which does this in a general way. Bits of it exist already, but there isn’t anything else that connects it all. That is, with Gluon, once you get the idea for a game, you just open up Gluon Creator and use that to build the game. Once you’ve got it playable, you go to the publishing pane in Gluon Creator and publish the game directly from there. No need to package it up manually and such and upload it to a website: the tool does that for you.

“you can download the game, play it, and provide feedback through ratings, commenting, and screenshots”

Gluon Player is then the collective name for a set of applications on a bunch of different platforms and form factors: Gluon Player Touch for tablets and the like, Gluon Player for the desktop, Gluon Player Mobile for touch based smartphones. These apps all connect to GamingFreedom.org and let you both download and play the games uploaded there, but also comment on them, rate them, even donate to the people who made the game if you think that they’re deserving.

Back inside Gluon Creator, the author of the game then gets this information showing up in the publishing pane – which is a sort of Gluon Player just for a single game – and thus, the circle is complete.

CW: So part of playing Gluon-based games is being involved in what the game becomes through a peer review process?

DJ: It’s still based around being a team who creates a game, but Gluon makes it much, much easier to get feedback from your users and such. And the creation part of it is something else, which is what we’re gearing up towards now. Building the games is something where we provide a whole lot of functionality, basically everything that can be done without knowing the concept of the game; things like rendering sprites on screen, input handling, game UI, all that sort of stuff. All of that can be made ahead of time, and then put together using Gluon Creator. This allows games to be created entirely using non-compiled assets including textures, sounds, vertex and pixel shaders, javascript for game logic, and so on.

CW: It’s in many ways a model inspired directly by the way Free Software (FS) works, right?

DJ: It is indeed. We even suggest that people use one of the creative commons licenses for games they create.

CW: Do you find that people generally use permissive licenses for their Gluon games? The Gluon game development process and copyleft would seem to be a good fit.

DJ: The project is still much too young to really know that, I’m afraid; I suspect we will know more about that in a year or so. Currently we’re gearing up to the second alpha release, named Electron, in which Gluon Creator is at a level where games can be made in the way we envisioned, and the next release cycle is about the distribution system. The applications for playing Gluon games are already well under way, and as our distribution site is based on openDesktop.org, that already exists, but the next release cycle is focused on getting it all done up as the vision describes.

We’re aiming directly at products like Steam and Impulse. Not so much at ModDB’s Desura, as they already have something of the mentality.

CW: What other technology are you using to build this stuff? You’ve already mentioned openDesktop.

DJ: The overshadowing technology is Qt, which is what gives us the enormous list of possible target platforms, but we’re also wrapping OpenGL and OpenGL ES for GluonGraphics, plus OpenAL in GluonAudio. We’ve got a game specific input library called GluonInput which is based in part on Qt’s input system, but also has early support for various more gaming-friendly inputs like joysticks and visual inputs and such. Finally, for custom game logic we’re using QtScript, which is an ECMAScript based scripting system, and the Qt Quick UI system for in-game UI, which enables the makers of games to create very advanced UIs in their games, instead of just those simple menu-upon-menu formats you see in a lot of places.

CW: It’s great to see that Gluon is 100% Free Software. Was that decision taken for practical or philosophical reasons?

DJ: Well, a bit of both, as well as tradition. We’re all members of the KDE community, and there’s a strong Free Software tradition there, so it was the natural choice really. But also because GNU Lesser General Public License allows potential users to use our code even if they might not be so interested in being entirely ‘libre’ themselves, and this is something the game developers of the world traditionally have had big problems with.

“Gluon games can legally be licensed any way they want”

That said, because of the way the engine works – it’s a lot like a document in a word processor or a 3D graphics suite, being entirely assets and distributed like that – the games can legally be licensed any way they want, which is something we have been quite keen on emphasising. While we strongly suggest that people follow the Free licensing schemes, the makers of Gluon games are able to choose any license they see fit for their game. We feel strongly that this freedom is as important as that of the players of games – as long as they are informed of their lack of freedom in any particular license of a game they choose to play, which we can provide information about through the players and through the GamingFreedom.org site.

The Gluon development team feels strongly about protecting the freedoms of all our users.

CW: Are you a gamer yourself?

DJ: I have always been a little funny when it comes to games; I’ve always much more enjoyed looking at other people gaming than actually playing myself. I’ve watched many an hour of StarCraft, and though I’ve certainly played a few hours of CounterStrike and Unreal Tournament 2004, I have probably watched many more hours of it. This mostly happened at the computer club Boxen, which I helped set up in a small village in Denmark a decade or so ago.

CW: So for you the GamingFreedom.org and Gluon projects are more about the philosophical and political aspects than about gaming itself?

DJ: Well, it was certainly part philosophy. As a part of the KDE community it is something I feel strongly about, and with the success of the Humble Indie Bundle 1 and 2 in the last couple of years, we suddenly saw a good few more FS games being released, because they released some of the games from those two charity packs under the GPL.

It struck me that at least on the indie scene Freedom is becoming a popular thing, and we’d like to help with that. But we also saw an opening; like I mentioned earlier, nothing like the GamingFreedom network really exists right now. Each part of it exists, but the whole thing, the connected from end to end thing and back, that doesn’t exist anywhere else right now. There’s something under way from the Sauerbraten based CubeCreate team, but we believe we may have something different to offer on that account. While Sauerbraten lends itself well to a certain type of game, Gluon was specifically designed without any particular type of game in mind; it was made to be as generic as possible.

CW: Do you think that gaming, which tends to move fast with new technology, is currently in need of something Gluon?

DJ: Yes. So many things are happening with games; not so much in the triple-A scene, but more in the indie scene, which we hope we can tap into, and Gluon is built to allow them to ignore the issues of porting between various platforms, because we’re doing that work for them.

“we hope to tap into the indie scene; Gluon ignores issues of porting between various platforms”

In the non-Free world something like this exists on the creation side: Unity3D, the interaction methods on which some of Gluon’s concepts of game construction are based, but in the Free world, it’s sorely lacking. Game engines such as LOVE2D are all very well, but when a tutorial begins with “Start up your text editor and write this code”, you’ve already decoupled a great many people who will never look at you as an option again. It’s a sad but true thing, really, and for many of these engines, distribution is of course also a problem; you have to package up your things manually and then find somewhere to put them. With GamingFreedom we’ve already got that ready.

CW: Which means you’re definitely appealing to techies and non-techies alike. It sounds like a very exciting project, and it further draws comparison between FS and the Arts.

DJ: We’re trying to, yes. Glynn Moody gave a keynote speech at the Desktop Summit in Gran Canaria, and he argued that Free Software is a lot like the liberal arts. I hadn’t thought of that before, but I could not agree more. It helped me explain to people why I do this whole geeky, coding thing. I can simply say this is my painting, or my gardening, or my singing.

CW: Do you see your work with KOffice as being related to that?

DJ: Not exactly. Calligra, which is the new name for KOffice, is more a WebKit type thing; it’s basically an office engine, which allows you to write office applications. There are at least two different ones right now, and there’s more under way; it’s slowly finding its way into the minds of developers around the net that they need something different to the monolithic codebases of LibreOffice and its like. They’re great applications, but that is also their problem – they are applications, and thus not really suitable if you want to build something like a viewer or something which just reads meta-information out of ODF files.

For me, I guess that Calligra is more an example of how working with Free software has helped me find a fulfilling and challenging job with people I already worked with on other things. All of KO’s employees are members of the KDE community in some way or another, and I got hired as a result of working with Arjen Hiemstra on Gluon; he recommended me for a position with KO.

My job straight out of university was working with Frank Karlitschek on Project Bretzn, which is a connection between IDEs, like Qt creator, build services like OpenSuse’s, and distribution sites like openDesktop.org’s network. When that project ran out of budget after six months, we went to FOSDEM and presented the results to a room full of excited Free software enthusiasts, which felt like a really great way for me to exit the project, which is of course still going on. Now, the Bretzn project came out of my work on Gluon, so I guess there’s something like a red thread here.

CW: As there always is in the Free Software community. Isn’t that its beauty?

DJ: Ah! Well, it’s the Six Degrees of FS!