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Archive for the ‘operating systems’ Category

Open Hardware and Free Software: Not Just For The Geeks

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

Having seen my previous article about the Fairphone initiative’s unfortunate choice of technologies mentioned in various discussions about the Fairphone, I feel a certain responsibility to follow up on some of the topics and views that tend to get aired in these discussions. In response to an article about an “open operating system” for the Fairphone, a rather solid comment was made about how the initiative still seems to be approaching the problem from the wrong angle.

Because the article comments have been delegated to a proprietary service that may at some point “garbage-collect” them from the public record, I reproduce the comment here (and I also expanded the link previously provided by a link-shortening service for similar and other reasons):

You are having it all upside down.
Just make your platform open instead of using proprietary chipsets with binary blobs! Then porting Firefox OS to the Fairphone would be easy as pie.

Not listening to the people who said that only free software running on open hardware would be really fair is exactly what brought you this mess: Our approach to software and ongoing support for the first Fairphones
It is also why I advised all of my friends and acquaintances not to order a Fairphone until it becomes a platform that respects user freedom. Turns out I was more than right.
If the Fairphone was an open platform that could run Firefox OS, Replicant or pure Debian, I would tell everybody in need of a cellphone to buy one.

I don’t know the person who wrote this comment, but it is very well-formulated, and one wouldn’t think that there would be much to add. Unfortunately, some people seem to carry around their own misconceptions about some of the concepts mentioned above, and unfortunately, they are quite happy to propagate those misconceptions as if they were indisputable facts. Below, I state the real facts in the headings and quote each one of the somewhat less truthful misconceptions for further scrutiny.

Open Hardware and Free Software is for Everyone

Fairphone should not make the mistake of producing a phone for geeks. Instead, it should become a phone for everyone.

Just because people have an opinion about technology and wish to see certain guarantees made about the nature of that technology does not mean that the result is “for geeks”. In fact, making the hardware open means that more people can figure things out about it, improve it, understand it, and improve the way it works and the software that uses it. Making the software truly open means that more people can change it, fix it, enhance it, and extend the usable life of the device. All of this benefits everyone, whereas closed hardware and proprietary software ultimately benefit only the small groups of people who respectively designed the device and wrote the software, both of whom being very likely to lose interest in sustaining the life of that product as soon as they have another one they want to sell you. (And often, in the case of the hardware, as soon as it leaves the factory.)

User Freedom Means Exactly User Freedom

‘User freedom’ is often used when actually ‘developers freedom’ is meant. It is more of an ideology.

Incorrect! Those of us who use the term Free Software know exactly what we mean: it is the freedom of the end-user to exercise precisely those privileges that have resulted in the work being produced and delivered to them. Now, there are people who advocate “permissive licences” that do favour developers in that they allow people to use the work of others and to then provide a piece of software under conditions that grants the end-user only limited privileges, taking away those privileges to see how the entire work is constructed, along with those that allow the entire work to be improved and shared. Whether one sees either of these as an ideology, presumably emphasising one’s own “pragmatism” in contrast, is largely irrelevant because the genuine pragmatism involved in Free Software and the propagation of a broader set of privileges actually delivers sustainability: users – genuine end-users, not middle-men – get the freedom to participate in how the product turns out, and crucially, how it lives on after the original producer has decided to go off and do something else.

Openness Does Not Preclude Fanciness (But Security Requires Openness)

What people want is: user friendly interface, security/privacy, good specs and ability to install apps and games. [...] OpenSource is a nice idea, but has its disadvantages too: who is caring about quality?

It’s just too easy for people to believe claims about privacy and security, even after everybody found out that they were targets of widespread surveillance, even after various large corporations who presumably care about their reputations have either lost the personal details of their users to criminals or have shared those details with others (who also have criminal or unethical intent), and when believing the sales-pitch about total privacy and robust security, those people will happily reassure themselves and others that no company would allow its reputation to be damaged by any breach of privacy or security! But there are no guarantees of security or privacy if you cannot trust the systems you use, and there is no way of trusting them without being able to inspect how they work. More than ever, people need genuine guarantees of security and privacy – not reassurances from salesmen and advertisers – and the best way to start off on the path towards such guarantees is to be able to deploy Free Software on a device that you fully control.

And as for quality, user-friendliness and all the desirable stuff: how many people use products like Firefox in its various forms every single day? Such Free Software solutions have not merely set the standard over the years, but they have kept technologies like the Web relevant and viable, in stark contrast to proprietary bundled programs like Internet Explorer that have actually impaired technological and social progress, with “IE” doing its bit by exhibiting a poor record of adherence to standards and a continuous parade of functionality and security bugs, not to mention constant usability frustrations endured by its unfortunate (and frequently involuntary) audience of users.

Your Priorities Make Free Software Important

I found the following comment to be instructive:

For me open source isn’t important. My priorities are longevity/updates, support, safety/privacy.

The problem is this: how can you guarantee longevity, updates, support, safety and privacy without openness? Safety and privacy would require you to have blind trust in someone whose claims you cannot verify. Longevity, updates and support require you to rely on the original producer’s continued interest in the product that you have just purchased from them, and should it become more profitable for them to focus on other products (that they might want you to buy instead of continuing to use the one you have), you might be able to rely on the goodwill of that producer to transfer their responsibilities to others to do the thankless tasks of maintenance and support. But it may well be the case that no amount of money will be able to keep that product viable for you: the producer may simply refuse to support it or to let others support it. Perhaps some people may step in and reverse-engineer the product and make an effort to keep it viable, but wouldn’t it be better to have an open product to start with, where people can choose how it is maintained – and thus sustained – for as long as people still want to use it?

Concepts like open hardware and Free Software sound like topics for the particularly-interested, but they provide the foundations for those topics of increasing interest and attention that people claim to care so much about. Everybody deserves things like choice, democracy, privacy, security, safety, control over their own lives and destinies, and so on. Closed hardware and proprietary software may be used on lots of devices, and people may be getting a lot of use out of those devices, but the users of those devices enjoy the benefits only as long as it remains in the interests of the producers of those devices and the accompanying software to allow them to do so. Furthermore, few or none of those users can be sure whether any of those important things – their rights – are being impaired by their use of those devices. Are their communications being intercepted, collected, analysed? Few people would ever know.

Free Software and open hardware empower their users with the control that proprietary technologies deny their users. But shouldn’t everybody be able to benefit from such control? That’s why a device that is open hardware and which runs Free Software really is for everyone, not just for “geeks”.

The BBC Micro and the BBC Micro Bit

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

At least on certain parts of the Internet as well as in other channels, there has been a degree of excitement about the announcement by the BBC of a computing device called the “Micro Bit“, with the BBC’s plan to give one of these devices to each child starting secondary school, presumably in September 2015, attracting particular attention amongst technology observers and television licence fee-payers alike. Details of the device are a little vague at the moment, but the announcement along with discussions of the role of the corporation and previous initiatives of this nature provides me with an opportunity to look back at the original BBC Microcomputer, evaluate some of the criticisms (and myths) around the associated Computer Literacy Project, and to consider the things that were done right and wrong, with the latter hopefully not about to be repeated in this latest endeavour.

As the public record reveals, at the start of the 1980s, the BBC wanted to engage its audience beyond television programmes describing the growing microcomputer revolution, and it was decided that to do this and to increase computer literacy generally, it would need to be able to demonstrate various concepts and technologies on a platform that would be able to support the range of activities to which computers were being put to use. Naturally, a demanding specification was constructed – clearly, the scope of microcomputing was increasing rapidly, and there was a lot to demonstrate – and various manufacturers were invited to deliver products that could be used as this reference platform. History indicates that a certain amount of acrimony followed – a complete description of which could fill an entire article of its own – but ultimately only Acorn Computers managed to deliver a machine that could do what the corporation was asking for.

An Ambitious Specification

It is worth considering what the BBC Micro was offering in 1981, especially when considering ill-informed criticism of the machine’s specifications by people who either prefer other systems or who felt that participating in the development of such a machine was none of the corporation’s business. The technologies to be showcased by the BBC’s programme-makers and supported by the materials and software developed for the machine included full-colour graphics, multi-channel sound, 80-column text, Viewdata/Teletext, cassette and diskette storage, local area networking, interfacing to printers, joysticks and other input/output devices, as well as to things like robots and user-developed devices. Although it is easy to pick out one or two of these requirements, move forwards a year or two, increase the budget two- or three-fold, or any combination of these things, and to nominate various other computers, there really were few existing systems that could deliver all of the above, at least at an affordable price at the time.

Some microcomputers of the early 1980s
Computer RAM Text Graphics Year Price
Apple II Plus Up to 64K 40 x 25 (upper case only) 280 x 192 (6 colours), 40 x 48 (16 colours) 1979 £1500 or more
Commodore PET 4032/8032 32K 40/80 x 25 Graphics characters (2 colours) 1980 £800 (4032), £1030 (8032) (including monochrome monitor)
Commodore VIC-20 5K 22 x 23 176 x 184 (8 colours) 1980 (1981 outside Japan) £199
IBM PC (Model 5150) 16K up to 256K 40/80 x 25 640 x 200 (2 colours), 320 x 200 (4 colours) 1981 £1736 (including monochrome monitor, presumably with 16K or 64K)
BBC Micro (Model B) 32K 80/40/20 x 32/24, Teletext 640 x 256 (2 colours), 320 x 256 (2/4 colours), 160 x 256 (4/8 colours) 1981 £399 (originally £335)
Research Machines LINK 480Z 64K (expandable to 256K) 40 x 24 (optional 80 x 24) 160 x 72, 80 x 72 (2 colours); expandable to 640 x 192 (2 colours), 320 x 192 (4 colours), 190 x 96 (8 colours or 16 shades) 1981 £818
ZX Spectrum 16K or 48K 32 x 24 256 x 192 (16 colours applied using attributes) 1982 £125 (16K), £175 (48K)
Commodore 64 64K 40 x 25 320 x 200 (16 colours applied using attributes) 1982 £399

Perhaps the closest competitor, already being used in a fairly limited fashion in educational establishments in the UK, was the Commodore PET. However, it is clear that despite the adaptability of that system, its display capabilities were becoming increasingly uncompetitive, and Commodore had chosen to focus on the chipsets that would power the VIC-20 and Commodore 64 instead. (The designer of the PET went on to make the very capable, and understandably more expensive, Victor 9000/Sirius 1.) That Apple products were notoriously expensive and, indeed, the target of Commodore’s aggressive advertising did not seem to prevent them from capturing the US education market from the PET, but they always remained severely uncompetitive in the UK as commentators of the time indeed noted.

Later, the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 were released. Technology was progressing rapidly, and in hindsight one might have advocated waiting around until more capable and cheaper products came to market. However, it can be argued that in fulfilling virtually all aspects of the ambitious specification and pricing, it would not be until the release of the Amstrad CPC series in 1984 that a suitable alternative product might have become available. Even then, these Amstrad computers actually benefited from the experience accumulated in the UK computing industry from the introduction of the BBC Micro: they were, if anything, an iteration within the same generation of microcomputers and would even have used the same 6502 CPU as the BBC Micro had it not been for time-to-market pressures and the readily-available expertise with the Zilog Z80 CPU amongst those in the development team. And yet, specific aspects of the specification would still be unfulfilled: the BBC Micro had hardware support for Teletext displays, although it would have been possible to emulate these with a bitmapped display and suitable software.

Arise Sir Clive

Much has been made of the disappointment of Sir Clive Sinclair that his computers were not adopted by the BBC as products to be endorsed and targeted at schools. Sinclair made his name developing products that were competitive on price, often seeking cost-reduction measures to reach attractive pricing levels, but such measures also served to make his products less desirable. If one reads reviews of microcomputers from the early 1980s, many reviewers explicitly mention the quality of the keyboard provided by the computers being reviewed: a “typewriter” keyboard with keys that “travel” appear to be much preferred over the “calculator” keyboards provided by computers like the ZX Spectrum, Oric 1 or Newbury NewBrain, and they appear to be vastly preferred over the “membrane” keyboards employed by the ZX80, ZX81 and Atari 400.

For target audiences in education, business, and in the home, it would have been inconceivable to promote a product with anything less than a “proper” keyboard. Ultimately, the world had to wait until the ZX Spectrum +2 released in 1986 for a Spectrum with such a keyboard, and that occurred only after the product line had been acquired by Amstrad. (One might also consider the ZX Spectrum+ in 1984, but its keyboard was more of a hybrid of the calculator keyboard that had been used before and the “full-travel” keyboards provided by its competitors.)

Some people claim that they owe nothing to the BBC Micro and everything to the ZX Spectrum (or, indeed, the computer they happened to own) for their careers in computing. Certainly, the BBC Micro was an expensive purchase for many people, although contrary to popular assertion it was not any more expensive than the Commodore 64 upon that computer’s introduction in the UK, and for those of us who wanted BBC compatibility at home on a more reasonable budget, the Acorn Electron was really the only other choice. But it would be as childish as the playground tribalism that had everyone insist that their computer was “the best” to insist that the BBC Micro had no influence on computer literacy in general, or on the expectations of what computer systems should provide. Many people who owned a ZX Spectrum freely admit that the BBC Micro coloured their experiences, some even subsequently seeking to buy one or one of its successors and to go on to build a successful software development career.

The Costly IBM PC

Some commentators seem to consider the BBC Micro as having been an unnecessary diversion from the widespread adoption of the IBM PC throughout British society. As was the case everywhere else, the de-facto “industry standard” of the PC architecture and DOS captured much of the business market and gradually invaded the education sector from the top down, although significantly better products existed both before and after its introduction. It is tempting with hindsight to believe that by placing an early bet on the success of the then-new PC architecture, business and education could have somehow benefited from standardising on the PC and DOS applications. And there has always been the persistent misguided belief amongst some people that schools should be training their pupils/students for a narrow version of “the world of work”, as opposed to educating them to be able to deal with all aspects of their lives once their school days are over.

What many people forget or fail to realise is that the early 1980s witnessed rapid technological improvement in microcomputing, that there were many different systems and platforms, some already successful and established (such as CP/M), and others arriving to disrupt ideas of what computing should be like (the Xerox Alto and Star having paved the way for the Apple Lisa and Macintosh, the Atari ST, and so on). It was not clear that the IBM PC would be successful at all: IBM had largely avoided embracing personal computing, and although the system was favourably reviewed and seen as having the potential for success, thanks to IBM’s extensive sales organisation, other giants of the mainframe and minicomputing era such as DEC and HP were pursuing their own personal computing strategies. Moreover, existing personal computers were becoming entrenched in certain markets, and early adopters were building a familiarity with those existing machines that was reflected in publications and materials available at the time.

Despite the technical advantages of the IBM PC over much of the competition at the beginning of the 1980s, it was also substantially more expensive than the mass-market products arriving in significant numbers, aimed at homes, schools and small businesses. With many people remaining intrigued but unconvinced by the need for a personal computer, it would have been impossible for a school to justify spending almost £2000 (probably around £8000 today) on something without proven educational value. Software would also need to be purchased, and the procurement of expensive and potentially non-localised products would have created even more controversy.

Ultimately, the Computer Literacy Project stimulated the production of a wide range of locally-produced products at relatively inexpensive prices, and while there may have been a few years of children learning BBC BASIC instead of one of the variants of BASIC for the IBM PC (before BASIC became a deprecated aspect of DOS-based computing), it is hard to argue that those children missed out on any valuable experience using DOS commands or specific DOS-based products, especially since DOS became a largely forgotten environment itself as technological progress introduced new paradigms and products, making “hard-wired”, product-specific experience obsolete.

The Good and the Bad

Not everything about the BBC Micro and its introduction can be considered unconditionally good. Choices needed to be made to deliver a product that could fulfil the desired specification within certain technological constraints. Some people like to criticise BBC BASIC as being “non-standard”, for example, which neglects the diversity of BASIC dialects that existed at the dawn of the 1980s. Typically, for such people “standard” equates to “Microsoft”, but back then Microsoft BASIC was a number of different things. Commodore famously paid a one-off licence fee to use Microsoft BASIC in its products, but the version for the Commodore 64 was regarded as lacking user-friendly support for graphics primitives and other interesting hardware features. Meanwhile, the MSX range of microcomputers featured Microsoft Extended BASIC which did provide convenient access to hardware features, although the MSX range of computers were not the success at the low end of the market that Microsoft had probably desired to complement its increasing influence at the higher end through the IBM PC. And it is informative in this regard to see just how many variants of Microsoft BASIC were produced, thanks to Microsoft’s widespread licensing of its software.

Nevertheless, the availability of one company’s products do not make a standard, particularly if interoperability between those products is limited. Neither BBC BASIC nor Microsoft BASIC can be regarded as anything other than de-facto standards in their own territories, and it is nonsensical to regard one as non-standard when the other has largely the same characteristics as a proprietary product in widespread use, even if it was licensed to others, as indeed both Microsoft BASIC and BBC BASIC were. Genuine attempts to standardise BASIC did indeed exist, notably BASICODE, which was used in the distribution of programs via public radio broadcasts. One suspects that people making casual remarks about standard and non-standard things remain unaware of such initiatives. Meanwhile, Acorn did deliver implementations of other standards-driven programming languages such as COMAL, Pascal, Logo, Lisp and Forth, largely adhering to any standards subject to the limitations of the hardware.

However, what undermined the BBC Micro and Acorn’s related initiatives over time was the control that they as a single vendor had over the platform and its technologies. At the time, a “winner takes all” mentality prevailed: Commodore under Jack Tramiel had declared a “price war” on other vendors and had caused difficulties for new and established manufacturers alike, with Atari eventually being sold to Tramiel (who had resigned from Commodore) by Warner Communications, but many companies disappeared or were absorbed by others before half of the decade had passed. Indeed, Acorn, who had released the Electron to compete with Sinclair Research at the lower end of the market, and who had been developing product lines to compete in the business sector, experienced financial difficulties and was ultimately taken over by Olivetti; Sinclair, meanwhile, experienced similar difficulties and was acquired by Amstrad. In such a climate, ideas of collaboration seemed far from everybody’s minds.

Since then, the protagonists of the era have been able to reflect on such matters, Acorn co-founder Hermann Hauser admitting that it may have been better to license Acorn’s Econet local area networking technology to interested competitors like Commodore. Although the sentiments might have something to do with revenues and influence – it was at Acorn that the ARM processor was developed, sowing the seeds of a successful licensing business today – the rest of us may well ask what might have happened had the market’s participants of the era cooperated on things like standards and interoperability, helping their customers to protect their investments in technology, and building a bigger “common” market for third-party products. What if they had competed on bringing technological improvements to market without demanding that people abandon their existing purchases (and cause confusion amongst their users) just because those people happened to already be using products from a different vendor? It is interesting to see the range of available BBC BASIC implementations and to consider a world where such building blocks could have been adopted by different manufacturers, providing a common, heterogeneous platform built on cooperation and standards, not the imposition of a single hardware or software platform.

But That Was Then

Back then, as Richard Stallman points out, proprietary software was the norm. It would have been even more interesting had the operating systems and the available software for microcomputers been Free Software, but that may have been asking too much at the time. And although computer designs were often shared and published, a tendency to prevent copying of commercial computer designs prevailed, with Acorn and Sinclair both employing proprietary integrated circuits mostly to reduce complexity and increase performance, but partly to obfuscate their hardware designs, too. Thus, it may have been too much to expect something like the BBC Micro to have been open hardware to any degree “back in the day”, although circuit diagrams were published in publicly-available technical documentation.

But we have different expectations now. We expect software to be freely available for inspection, modification and redistribution, knowing that this empowers the end-users and reassures them that the software does what they want it to do, and that they remain in control of their computing environment. Increasingly, we also expect hardware to exhibit the same characteristics, perhaps only accepting that some components are particularly difficult to manufacture and that there are physical and economic restrictions on how readily we may practise the modification and redistribution of a particular device. Crucially, we demand control over the software and hardware we use, and we reject attempts to prevent us from exercising that control.

The big lesson to be learned from the early 1980s, to be considered now in the mid-2010s, is not how to avoid upsetting a popular (but ultimately doomed) participant in the computing industry, as some commentators might have everybody believe. It is to avoid developing proprietary solutions that favour specific organisations and that, despite the general benefits of increased access to technology, ultimately disempower the end-user. And in this era of readily available Free Software and open hardware platforms, the lesson to be learned is to strengthen such existing platforms and to work with them, letting those products and solutions participate and interoperate with the newly-introduced initiative in question.

The BBC Micro was a product of its time and its development was very necessary to fill an educational need. Contrary to the laziest of reports, the Micro Bit plays a different role as an accessory rather than as a complete home computer, at least if we may interpret the apparent intentions of its creators. But as a product of this era, our expectations for the Micro Bit are greater: we expect transparency and interoperability, the ability to make our own (just as one can with the Arduino, as long as one does not seek to call it an Arduino without asking permission from the trademark owner), and the ability to control exactly how it works. Whether there is a need to develop a completely new hardware solution remains an unanswered question, but we may assert that should it be necessary, such a solution should be made available as open hardware to the maximum possible extent. And of course, the software controlling it should be Free Software.

As we edge gradually closer to September and the big deployment, it will be interesting to assess how the device and the associated initiative measures up to our expectations. Let us hope that the right lessons from the days of the BBC Micro have indeed been learned!

Making the Best of a Bad Deal

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

I had the opportunity over the holidays to browse the January 2015 issue of “Which?” – the magazine of the Consumers’ Association in Britain – which, amongst other things, covered the topic of “technology ecosystems“. Which? has a somewhat patchy record when technology matters are taken into consideration: on the one hand, reviews consider the practical and often mundane aspects of gadgets such as battery life, screen brightness, and so on, continuing their tradition of giving all sorts of items a once over; on the other hand, issues such as platform choice and interoperability are typically neglected.

Which? is very much pitched at the “empowered consumer” – someone who is looking for a “good deal” and reassurances about an impending purchase – and so the overriding attitude is one that is often in evidence in consumer societies like Britain: what’s in it for me? In other words, what goodies will the sellers give me to persuade me to choose them over their competitors? (And aren’t I lucky that these nice companies are throwing offers at me, trying to win my custom?) A treatment of ecosystems should therefore be somewhat interesting reading because through the mere use of the term “ecosystem” it acknowledges that alongside the usual incentives and benefits that the readership is so keen to hear about, there are choices and commitments to be made, with potentially negative consequences if one settles in the wrong ecosystem. (Especially if others are hell-bent on destroying competing ecosystems in a “war” as former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop – now back at Microsoft, having engineered the sale of a large chunk of Nokia to, of course, Microsoft – famously threatened in another poor choice of imagery as part of what must be the one of the most insensitively-formulated corporate messages of recent years.)

Perhaps due to the formula behind such articles in Which? and similar arenas, some space is used to describe the benefits of committing to an ecosystem.  Above the “expert view” describing the hassles of switching from a Windows phone to an Android one, the title tells us that “convenience counts for a lot”. But the article does cover problems with the availability of applications and services depending on the platform chosen, and even the matter of having to repeatedly buy access to content comes up, albeit with a disappointing lack of indignance for a topic that surely challenges basic consumer rights. The conclusion is that consumers should try and keep their options open when choosing which services to use. Sensible and uncontroversial enough, really.

The Consequences of Apathy

But sadly, Which? is once again caught in a position of reacting to technology industry change and the resulting symptoms of a deeper malaise. When reviewing computers over the years, the magazine (and presumably its sister publications) always treated the matter of platform choice with a focus on “PCs and Macs” exclusively, with the latter apparently being “the alternative” (presumably in a feeble attempt to demonstrate a coverage of choice that happens to exist in only two flavours). The editors would most likely protest that they can only cover the options most widely available to buy in a big-name store and that any lack of availability of a particular solution – say, GNU/Linux or one of the freely available BSDs – is the consequence of a lack of consumer interest, and thus their readership would also be uninterested.

Such an unwillingness to entertain genuine alternatives, and to act in the interests of members of their audience who might be best served by those solutions, demonstrates that Which? is less of a leader in consumer matters than its writers might have us believe. Refusing to acknowledge that Which? can and does drive demand for alternatives, only to then whine about the bundled products of supposed consumer interest, demonstrates a form of self-imposed impotence when faced with the coercion of proprietary product upgrade schedules. Not everyone – even amongst the Which? readership – welcomes the impending vulnerability of their computing environment as another excuse to go shopping for shiny new toys, nor should they be thankful that Which? has done little or nothing to prevent the situation from occurring in the first place.

Thus, Which? has done as much as the rest of the mainstream technology press to unquestioningly sustain the monopolistic practices of the anticompetitive corporate repeat offender, Microsoft, with only a cursory acknowledgement of other platforms in recent years, qualified by remarks that Free Software alternatives such as GNU/Linux and LibreOffice are difficult to get started with or not what people are used to. After years of ignoring such products and keeping them marginalised, this would be the equivalent of denying someone the chance to work and then criticising them for not having a long list of previous employers to vouch for them on their CV.  Noting that 1.1-billion people supposedly use Microsoft Office (“one in seven people on the planet”) makes for a nice statistic in the sidebar of the print version of the article, but how many people have a choice in doing so or, for that matter, in using other Microsoft products bundled with computers (or foisted on office workers or students due to restrictive or corrupt workplace or institutional policies)? Which? has never been concerned with such topics, or indeed the central matter of anticompetitive software bundling, or its role in the continuation of such practices in the marketplace: strange indeed for a consumer advocacy publication.

At last, obliged to review a selection of fundamentally different ecosystem choices – as opposed to pretending that different vendor badges on anonymous laptops provide genuine choice – Which? has had to confront the practical problems brought about by an absence of interoperability: that consumers might end up stranded with a large, non-transferable investment in something they no longer wish to be a part of. Now, the involvement of a more diverse selection of powerful corporate interests have made such matters impossible to ignore. One gets the impression that for now at least, the publication cannot wish such things away and return to the lazy days of recommending that everyone line up and pay a single corporation their dues, refusing to believe that there could be anything else out there, let alone usable Free Software platforms.

Beyond Treating the Symptoms

Elsewhere in the January issue, the latest e-mail scam is revealed. Of course, a campaign to widen the adoption of digitally-signed mail would be a start, but that is probably too much to expect from Which?: just as space is dedicated to mobile security “apps” in this issue, countless assortments of antivirus programs have been peddled and reviewed in the past, but solving problems effectively requires a leader rather than a follower. Which? may do the tedious job of testing kettles, toasters, washing-up liquids, and much more to a level of thoroughness that would exhaust most people’s patience and interest. And to the publication’s credit, a certain degree of sensible advice is offered on topics such as online safety, albeit with the usual emphasis on proprietary software for the copy of Windows that members of its readership were all forced to accept. But in technology, Which? appears to be a mere follower, suggesting workarounds rather than working to build a fair market for safe, secure and interoperable products.

It is surely time for Which? to join the dots and to join other organisations in campaigning for fundamental change in the way technology is delivered by vendors and used throughout society. Then, by upholding a fair marketplace, interoperability, access to digital signature and encryption technologies, true ownership of devices and of purchased content, and all the things already familiar to Free Software and online rights advocates, they might be doing their readership a favour after all.

Ubuntu Edge: Making Things Even Harder for Open Hardware?

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

The idea of a smartphone supportive of Free Software, using hardware that can be supported using Free Software, goes back a few years. Although the Openmoko Neo 1973 attracted much attention back in 2007, not only for its friendliness to Free Software but also for the openness around its hardware design, the Trolltech Greenphone had delivered, almost a full year before the Neo, a hardware platform that ran mostly Free Software and was ultimately completely supported using entirely Free Software (something that had been a matter of some earlier dispute). Unfortunately, both of these devices were discontinued fairly quickly: the Greenphone was more a vehicle to attract interest in the Qt-based Qtopia environment amongst developers, existing handset manufacturers and operators, and although the Neo 1973 was superseded by the Neo FreeRunner, the commercial partner of the endeavour eventually chose to abandon development of the platform and further products of this nature. (Openmoko now sells a product called WikiReader, which is an intriguing concept in itself, principally designed as an offline reader for Wikipedia.)

What survived the withdrawal of Openmoko from the pursuit of the Free Software smartphone was the community or communities around such work, having taken an active interest in developing software for such devices and having seen the merits of being able to influence the design of such devices through the principles of open hardware. Some efforts were made to continue the legacy: the GTA04 project develops and offers replacement hardware for the FreeRunner (known as GTA02 within the Openmoko project) using updated and additional components; a previous “gta02-core” effort attempted to refine the development process and specification of a successor to the FreeRunner but did not appear to produce any concrete devices; a GTA03 project which appeared to be a more participative continuation of the previous work, inviting the wider community into the design process alongside those who had done the work for the previous generations of Neo devices, never really took off other than to initiate the gta02-core effort, perhaps indicating that as the commercial sponsor’s interest started to vanish, the community was somewhat unreasonably expected to provide the expertise withdrawn by the sponsor (which included a lot of the hardware design and manufacturing expertise) as well as its own. Nevertheless, there is a degree of continuity throughout the false starts of GTA03 and gta02-core through to GTA04 and its own successes and difficulties today.

Then and Now

A lot has happened in the open hardware world since 2007. Platforms like Arduino have become very popular amongst electronics enthusiasts, encouraging the development of derivatives, clones, accessories and an entire marketplace around experimentation, prototyping and even product development. Other long-established microcontroller-based solution vendors have presumably benefited from the level of interest shown towards Arduino and other “-duino” products, too, even if those solutions do not give customers the right to copy and modify the hardware as Arduino does with its hardware licensing. Access to widely used components such as LCD panels has broadened substantially with plenty of reasonably priced products available that can be fairly easily connected to devices like the Arduino, BeagleBoard, Raspberry Pi and many others. Even once-exotic display technologies like e-paper are becoming accessible to individuals in the form of ready-to-use boards that just plug into popular experimenter platforms.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated parts of the open hardware world have seen their own communities develop in various ways. One community emerging from the Openmoko endeavour was Qi-Hardware, supported by Sharism who acquired the rights to produce the Ben NanoNote from the vendor of an existing product, thus delivering a device with completely documented electronics hardware, every aspect of which can be driven by Free Software. Unfortunately, efforts to iterate on the concept stalled after attempts to make improved revisions of the Ben, presumably in preparation to deliver future versions of the NanoNote concept. Another project founded under the Qi-Hardware umbrella has been extending the notion of “copyleft hardware” to system on a chip (SoC) solutions and delivering the Milkymist platform in the shape of the Milkymist One video synthesizer. Having dealt with commercially available but proprietary SoC solutions, such as the SoC used in the Ben NanoNote, there appears to be a desire amongst some to break free of the dependency on silicon vendors and their often poorly documented products and to take control not only of the hardware using Free Software tools, but also to decide how the very hardware platform itself is designed and built.

There are plenty of other hardware development initiatives taking place – OpenPandora, the EOMA-68 initiative, the Vivaldi KDE tablet (which is now going to be based on EOMA-68 hardware), the Novena open laptop – many of which have gained plenty of experience – sometimes very hard-earned experience – in getting hardware designed and produced. Indeed, the history of the Vivaldi initiative seems to provide a good illustration of how lessons that others have already learned are continuing to be learned independently: having negotiated manufacturing whilst suffering GPL-violating industry practices, the manufacturer changed the specification and rendered a lot of the existing work useless (presumably the part supporting the hardware with Free Software drivers).

In short, if you are considering designing a device “to run Linux”, the chances are that someone else is already doing just that. When people suggest that you look at various other projects or initiatives, they are not doing so to inflate the reputation of those projects: it is most likely the case that people associated with those projects can give you advice that will save you time and effort, even if there is no further collaboration to be had beyond exchanges of useful information.

The Competition for Attention

Ubuntu Edge – the recently announced, crowd-funded “dockable” smartphone – emerges at a time when there are already many existing open hardware projects in need of funding. Those who might consider supporting such worthy efforts may be able to afford supporting more than one of them, but they may find it difficult to justify doing so. Precious few details exist of the hardware featured in the Ubuntu Edge product, and it would be reasonable to suspect given the emphasis on specifications and features that it will not be open hardware. Moreover, given the tendency of companies wishing to enter the smartphone market to do so as conveniently as possible by adopting the “chipset of the month”, combined with the scarcity of silicon favouring true Free Software support, we might also suspect that the nature of the software support will be less than what we should be demanding: the ability to modify and maintain the software in order to use the hardware indefinitely and independently of the vendor.

Meanwhile, other worthy projects beyond the open hardware realm compete for the money of potential sponsors and donors. The Fairphone initiative has also invited people to pledge money towards the delivery of devices, although in a more tangible fashion than Ubuntu Edge, with genuine plans having been made for raw materials sourcing and device manufacture, and with software development supposedly undertaken on behalf of the project. As I noted previously, there are some unfortunate shortcomings with the Fairphone initiative around the openness of the software, and unless the participants are able to change the mindset of the chipset vendor and the suppliers of various technologies incorporated into the chipset, sustainable Free Software support may end up being dependent on reverse-engineering efforts. Mozilla’s Firefox OS, meanwhile, certainly emphasises a Free Software stack along with free and open standards, but the status of the software support for certain hardware functions are likely to be dependent on the details of the actual devices themselves.

Interest in open phones is not new, nor even is interest in “dockable” smartphones, and there are plenty of efforts to build elements of both while upholding Free Software support and even the principles of open hardware. Meanwhile, the Ubuntu Edge campaign provides no specifics about the details of the hardware; it is thus unable to make any commitment about Free Software drivers or binary firmware “blobs”. Maybe the intention is to one day provide things like board layouts and case designs as resources for further use and refinement by the open hardware community, but the recent track-record of Canonical and Ubuntu with secretive and divisive – or at least not particularly transparent or cooperative – product development suggests that this may be too much to hope.

Giving the Gift

$32 million is a lot of money. Broken into $600 chunks with the reward of the advertised device, or a consolation prize of your money back minus a few percent in fees and charges if the fund-raising campaign fails to reach its target, it is a lot of money for an individual, too. (There is also the worst-case eventuality that the target is met but the product is not delivered, at which point everybody might have found that they have merely made a donation towards a nice but eventually unrealisable or undeliverable idea.) One could do quite a bit of good work with even small multiples of $600, and with as much as around 0.5% of the Ubuntu Edge campaign target, one could fund something like the GCW Zero. That might not aggressively push back the limits of mobile technology on every front, but it gives people something different and valuable to them while still leaving plenty of money floating around looking for a good cause.

But it is not merely about the money, even though many of those putting down money for the Ubuntu Edge are likely to have ruled out doing the same for the Fairphone (and perhaps some of those who have ordered their Fairphone regret placing their order now that the Ubuntu Edge has made its appearance), purely because they neither need nor can reasonably afford or justify buying two new smartphones for delivery at some point in the future. The other gift that could be given is collaboration and assistance to the many projects already out there toiling to put Linux on some SoC or other, developing an open hardware design for others to use and improve, and deepening community expertise that might make these challenges more tolerable in the future.

Who knows how the Ubuntu Edge will be developed if or when the funding target is reached, or regardless of it being reached? But imagine what it would be like if such generosity could be directed towards existing work and if existing and new projects were able to work more closely with each other; if the expertise in different projects could be brought in to make some new endeavour more likely to succeed and less fraught with problems; if communities were included, encouraged to participate, and encouraged to take their own work further to enrich their own project and improve any future collaborations.

Investing, not Purchasing

$32 million is a lot of money. Less exciting things (to the average gadget buyer) like the OpenRISC funding drive to produce an ASIC version of an open hardware SoC wanted only $250000 – still a lot of money, but less than 1% of the Ubuntu Edge campaign target – and despite the potential benefits for both individuals and businesses it still fell far short of the mark, but if such projects were funded they might open up opportunities that do not exist now and would probably still not exist if Ubuntu got their product funded. And there are plenty of other examples where donations are more like investments in a sustainable future instead of one-off purchases of nice-looking gadgets.

Those thinking about making a Free Software phone might want to check in with the GTA04 project to see if there is anything they can learn or help out with. Similarly, that project could perhaps benefit from evaluating the EOMA-68 initiative which in turn could consider supporting genuinely open SoCs (and also removing the uncertainty about patent assertion for participants in the initiative by providing transparent governance mechanisms and not relying on the transient goodwill of the current custodians). As expertise is shared and collaboration increases, the money might start to be spread around a bit more as well, and cash-starved projects might be able to do things before those things become less interesting or even irrelevant because the market has moved on.

We have to invest both financially and collaboratively in the good work already taking place. To not do so means that opportunities that are almost within our grasp are not seized, and that people who have worked hard to offer us such opportunities are let down. We might lose the valuable expertise of such people through pure disillusionment, and yet the casual observer might still wonder when we might see the first fully open, Free Software friendly, mass-market-ready smartphone, thinking it is simply beyond “the community” to deliver. In fact, we might be letting the opportunity to deliver such things pass us by more often than we realise, purely out of ignorance of the ongoing endeavours of the community.

Diversions and Distractions

Ubuntu Edge sounds exciting. It is just a shame that it does not appear to enable and encourage everyone who has already been working to realise such ambitions on substantially lower budgets and with less of a brand reputation to cultivate the interest of the technology media and enthusiastic consumers. Millions of dollars of committed funds and an audience preferring to take the passive position of expectant customers, as opposed to becoming active contributors to existing efforts, all adds up to a diversion of participation and resources from open hardware projects.

Such blockbuster campaigns may even distract from open hardware projects because for those who might need slight persuasion to get involved, the apparition of an easy solution demanding only some spare cash and no intellectual investment may provide the discouragement necessary to affirm that as with so many other matters, somebody else has got them covered. Consequently, such people retreat from what might have been a rewarding pursuit that deepens their understanding of technology and the issues around it.

Not everyone has the time or inclination to get involved with open hardware, of course, especially if they are starting with practically no knowledge of the field. But with many people and their green pieces of paper parked and waiting for Ubuntu Edge, it is certainly possible to think that the campaign might make things even harder for the open hardware movement to get the recognition and the traction it deserves.

Where Now for the Free Software Desktop?

Friday, May 31st, 2013

It is a recurring but tiresome joke: is this the year of the Linux desktop? In fact, the year I started using GNU/Linux on the desktop was 1995 when my university department installed the operating system as a boot option alongside Windows 3.1 on the machines in the “PC laboratory”, presumably starting the migration of Unix functionality away from expensive workstations supplied by Sun, DEC, HP and SGI and towards commodity hardware based on the Intel x86 architecture and supplied by companies who may not be around today either (albeit for reasons of competing with each other on razor-thin margins until the slightest downturn made their businesses non-viable). But on my own hardware, my own year of the Linux desktop was 1999 when I wiped Windows NT 4 from the laptop made available for my use at work (and subsequently acquired for my use at home) and installed Red Hat Linux 6.0 over an ISDN link, later installing Red Hat Linux 6.1 from the media included in the official boxed product bought at a local bookstore.

Back then, some people had noticed that GNU/Linux was offering a lot better reliability than the Windows range of products, and people using X11 had traditionally been happy enough (or perhaps knew not to ask for more) with a window manager, perhaps some helper utilities to launch applications, and some pop-up menus to offer shortcuts for common tasks. It wasn’t as if the territory beyond the likes of fvwm had not already been explored in the Unix scene: the first Unix workstations I used in 1992 had a product called X.desktop which sought to offer basic desktop functionality and file management, and other workstations offered such products as CDE or elements of Sun’s Open Look portfolio. But people could see the need for something rather more than just application launchers and file managers. At the very least, desktops also needed applications to be useful and those applications needed to look, act like, and work with the rest of the desktop to be credible. And the underlying technology needed to be freely available and usable so that anyone could get involved and so that the result could be distributed with all the other software in a GNU/Linux distribution.

It was this insight – that by giving that audience the tools and graphical experience that they needed or were accustomed to, the audience for Free Software would be broadened – that resulted first in KDE and then in GNOME; the latter being a reaction to the lack of openness of some of the software provided in the former as well as to certain aspects of the technologies involved (because not all C programmers want to be confronted with C++). I remember a conversation around the year 2000 with a systems administrator at a small company that happened to be a customer of my employer, where the topic somehow shifted to the adoption of GNU/Linux – maybe I noticed that the administrator was using KDE or maybe someone said something about how I had installed Red Hat – and the administrator noted how KDE, even at version 1.0, was at that time good enough and close enough to what people were already using for it to be rolled out to the company’s desktops. KDE 1.0 wasn’t necessarily the nicest environment in every regard – I switched to GNOME just to have a nicer terminal application and a more flexible panel – but one could see how it delivered a complete experience on a common technological platform rather than just bundling some programs and throwing them onto the screen when commanded via some apparently hastily-assembled gadget.

Of course, it is easy to become nostalgic and to forget the shortcomings of the Free Software desktop in the year 2000. Back then, despite the initial efforts in the KDE project to support HTML rendering that would ultimately produce Konqueror and lead to the WebKit family of browsers, the most credible Web browsing solution available to most people was, if one wishes to maintain nostalgia for a moment, the legendary Netscape Communicator. Indeed, despite its limitations, this application did much to keep the different desktop environments viable in certain kinds of workplaces, where as long as people could still access the Web and read their mail, and not cause problems for any administrators, people could pretty much get away with using whatever they wanted. However, the technological foundations for Netscape Communicator were crumbling by the month, and it became increasingly unsupported and unmaintained. Relying on a mostly proprietary stack of software as well as being proprietary itself, it was unmaintainable by any community.

Fortunately, the Free Software communities produced Web browsers that were, and are, not merely viable but also at the leading edge of their field in many ways. One might not choose to regard the years of Netscape Communicator’s demise as those of crisis, but we have much to be thankful for in this respect, not least that the Mozilla browser (in the form of SeaMonkey and Firefox) became a stable and usable product that did not demand too much of the hardware available to run it. And although there has never been a shortage of e-mail clients, it can be considered fortunate that projects such as KMail, Kontact and Evolution were established and have been able to provide years of solid service.

The sudden end of a pathway

You Are Here

With such substantial investment made in the foundations of the Free Software desktop, and with its viability established many years ago (at least for certain groups of users), we might well expect to be celebrating now, fifteen years or so after people first started to see the need for such an endeavour, reaping the rewards of that investment and demonstrating a solution that is innovative and yet stable, usable and yet reliable: a safe choice that has few shortcomings and that offers more opportunities than the proprietary alternatives. It should therefore come as a shock that the position of the Free Software desktop has not been as troubled as it is now for quite some time.

As time passed by, KDE 1 was followed by KDE 2 and then KDE 3. I still use KDE 3, clinging onto the functionality while it still runs on a distribution that is still just about supported. When KDE 2 came out, I switched back from GNOME because the KDE project had a more coherent experience on offer than bundling Mozilla and Evolution with what we would now call the GNOME “shell”, and for a long time I used Konqueror as my main Web browser. Although things didn’t always work properly in KDE 3, and there are things that will never be fixed and polished, it perhaps remains the pinnacle of the project’s achievements.

On KDE 3, the panel responsible for organising and launching applications, showing running applications and the status of various things, just works; I may have spent some time moving icons around a few years ago, but it starts up and everything uses the right amount of space. The “K” (or “start”) menu is just a menu, leaving itself open to the organisational whims of the distribution, but on my near-obsolete Kubuntu version there’s not much in the way of bizarre menu entry and application duplication. Kontact lets me read mail and apply spam filters that are still effective, filter and organise my mail into folders; it shows HTML mail only when I ask it to, and it shows inline images only when I tell it to, which are both things that I have seen Thunderbird struggle with (amongst certain other things). Konqueror may not be a viable default for Web browsing any more, but it does a reasonable job for files on both local disks and remote systems via WebDAV and ssh, the former being seemingly impossible with Nautilus against the widely-deployed Free Software Web server that serves my files. Digikam lets me download, view and tag my pictures, occasionally also being used to fix the metadata; it only occasionally refuses to access my camera, mostly because the underlying mechanisms seem to take an unhealthy interest in how many files there are in the camera’s memory; Amarok plays my music from my local playlists, which is all I ask of it.

So when my distribution finally loses its support, or when I need to recommend a desktop environment to others, even though KDE 3 has served me very well, I cannot really recommend it because it has for the most part been abandoned. An attempt to continue development and maintenance does exist in the form of the Trinity Desktop Environment project, but the immensity of the task combined with the dissipation of the momentum behind KDE 3, and the effective discontinuation of the Qt 3 libraries that underpin the original software, means that its very viability must be questioned as its maintainers are stretched in every direction possible.

Why Can’t We All Get Along?

In an attempt to replicate what I would argue is the very successful environment that I enjoy, I tried to get Trinity working on a recent version of Ubuntu. The encouraging thing is that it managed to work, more or less, although there were some disturbing signs of instability: things would crash but then work when tried once more; the user administration panel wasn’t usable because it couldn’t find a shared library for the Python runtime environment that did, in fact, exist on the system. The “K” menu seemed to suffer from KDE 4 (or, rather, KDE Plasma Desktop) also being available on the same system because lots of duplicate menu entries were present. This may be an unfortunate coincidence, Trinity being overly helpful, or it may be a consequence of KDE 4 occupying the same configuration “namespace”. I sincerely hope that it is not the latter: any project that breaks compatibility and continuity in the fashion that KDE has done should not monopolise or corrupt a resource that actually contains the data of the user.

There probably isn’t any fundamental reason why Trinity could not return KDE 3 to some level of its former glory as a contemporary desktop environment, but getting there could certainly be made easier if everyone worked together a bit more. Having been obliged to do some user management tasks in another environment before returning to my exploration of Trinity, I attempted to set up a printer. Here, with the printer plugged in and me perusing the list of supported printers, there appeared to be no way of getting the system to recognise a three- or four-year-old printer that was just too recent for the list provided by Trinity. Returning to the other environment and trying there, a newer list was somehow obtained and the printer selected, although the exercise was still highly frustrating and didn’t really provide support for the exact model concerned.

But both environments presumably use the same print system, so why should one be better supplied than the other for printer definitions? Surely this is common infrastructure stuff that doesn’t specifically relate to any desktop environment or user interface. Is it easier to make such functionality for one environment than another, or just too convenient to take a short-cut and hack something up that covers the needs of one environment, or is it too much work to make a generic component to do the job and to package it correctly and to test it in more than a narrow configuration? Do the developers get worried about performance and start to consider complicated services that might propagate printer configuration details around the system in a high-performance manner before their manager or supervisor tells them to scale back their ambition?

I remember having to configure network printers in the previous century on Solaris using special script files. I am also sure that doing things at the lowest levels now would probably be just as frustrating, especially since the pain of Solaris would be replaced by the need to deal with things other than firing plain PostScript across the network, but there seems to be a wide gulf between this and the point-and-click tools between which some level of stability could exist and make sure that no matter how old and nostalgic a desktop environment may be perceived to be, at least it doesn’t need to dedicate effort towards tedious housekeeping or duplicating code that everyone needs and would otherwise need to write for themselves.

The Producers (and the Consumers)

One might be inclined to think that my complaints are largely formed through a bitter acceptance that things just don’t stay the same, although one can always turn this around and question why functioning software cannot go on functioning forever. Indeed, there is plenty of software on the planet that now goes about its business virtualised and still with the belief, if the operating assumptions of software can be considered in such a way, that it runs on the same range of hardware that it was written for, that hardware having been introduced (and even retired) decades ago. But for software that has to be run in a changing environment, handling new ways of doing things as well as repelling previously unimagined threats to its correct functioning and reliability, needing a community of people who are willing to maintain and develop the software further, one has to accept that there are practical obstacles to the sustained use of that software in the environments for which it was intended.

Particularly the matter of who is going to do all the hard work, and what incentives might exist to persuade them to do it if not for personal satisfaction or curiosity, is of crucial importance. This is where conflicts and misunderstandings emerge. If the informal contract between the users and developers were taking place with no historical context whatsoever, with each side having expectations of the other, one might be more inclined to sympathise with the complaints of developers that they do all the hard work and yet the users merely complain. Yet in practice, the interactions take place in the context of the users having invested in the software, too. Certainly, even if the experience has not been one of complete, uninterrupted enjoyment, the users may not have invested as much energy as the developers, but they will have played their own role in the success of the endeavour. Any radical change to the contract involves writing off the users’ investment as well as that of the developers, and without the users providing incentives and being able to direct the work, they become exposed to unpredictable risk.

One fair response to the supposed disempowerment of the user is that the user should indeed “pay their way”. I see no conflict between this and the sustainable development of Free Software at all. If people want things done, one way that society has thoroughly established throughout the ages is that people pay for it. This shouldn’t stop people freely sharing software (or not, if they so choose), because people should ultimately realise that for something to continue on a sustainable basis, they or some part of society has to provide for the people continuing that effort. But do desktop developers want the user to pay up and have a say in the direction of the product? There is something liberating about not taking money directly from your customers and being able to treat the exercise almost like art, telling the audience that they don’t have to watch the performance if they don’t like it.

This is where we encounter the matter of reputation: the oldest desktop environments have been established for long enough that they are widely accepted by distributions, even though the KDE project that produces KDE 4 has quite a different composition and delivers substantially different code from the KDE project that produced KDE 3. By keeping the KDE brand around, the project of today is able to trade on its long-standing reputation, reassure distributions that the necessary volunteers will be able to keep up with packaging obligations, and indeed attract such volunteers through widespread familiarity with the brand. That is the good side of having a recognised brand; the bad side is that people’s expectations are higher and that they expect the quality and continuity that the brand has always offered them.

Globes against the light

What’s Wrong with Change?

In principle, nothing is essentially wrong with change. Change can complement the ways that things have always been done, and people can embrace new ways and come to realise that the old ways were just inferior. So what has changed on the Free Software desktop and how does it complement and improve on those trusted old ways of doing things?

It can be argued that KDE and GNOME started out with environments like CDE and Windows 95 acting as their inspiration at some level. As GNOME began to drift towards resembling the “classic” Mac OS environment in the GNOME 2 release series, having a menu bar at the top of the screen through which applications and system settings could be accessed, together with the current time and other status details, projects like XFCE gained momentum by appealing to the audience for whom the simple but configurable CDE paradigm was familiar and adequate. And now that Unity has reintroduced the Mac-style top menu bar as the place where application menus appear – a somewhat archaic interface even in the late 1980s – we can expect more users to discover other projects. In effect, the celebrated characteristics of the community around Free Software have let people go their own way in the company of developers who they felt shared the same vision or at least understood their needs best.

That people can indeed change their desktop environment and choose to run different software is a strength of Free Software and the platforms built on it, but the need for people to have to change – that those running GNOME, for example, feel that their needs are no longer being met and must therefore evaluate alternatives like XFCE – is a weakness brought about by projects that will happily enjoy the popularity delivered by the reputation of their “brand”, and who will happily enjoy having an audience delivered by previous versions of that software, but who then feel that they can change the nature of their product in ways that no longer meet that audience’s needs while pretending to be delivering the same product. If a user can no longer do something in a new release of a product, that should be acknowledged as a failing in that product. The user should not be compelled to find another product to use and be told that since a choice of software exists, he or she should be prepared to exercise that choice at the first opportunity. Such disregard for the user’s own investment in the software that has now abandoned him or her, not to mention the waste of the user’s time and energy in having to install alternative software just to be able to keep doing the same things, is just unacceptable.

“They are the 90%”

Sometimes attempts at justifying or excusing change are made by referring to the potential audience reached by a significantly modified product. Having a satisfied group of users numbering in the thousands is not always as exciting as one that numbers in the millions, and developers can be jealous of the success of others in reaching such numbers. One still sees labels like “10x” or “x10″ being used and notions of ten-fold increases in audiences as being a necessary strategy phrased in a new and innovative way, mostly by people who perhaps missed such terminology and the accompanying strategic doctrine the first time round (or second, or third time) many years ago, and such order-of-magnitude increases are often dictated by the assumption that the 90% not currently in the audience for a product would find the product too complicated or too technologically focused and that the product must therefore discard features, or change the way it exposes its features, in order to appeal to that 90%.

Unfortunately, such initiatives to reach larger audiences risk alienating the group of users that are best understood in order to reach groups of users that are largely under-researched and thus barely understood at all. (The 90% is not a single monolithic block of identically-minded people, of course, so there is more than one group of users.) Now, one tempting way of avoiding the need to understand the untapped mass of potential users is to imitate those who are successfully reaching those users already or who at least aspire to do so. Thus, KDE 4 and Windows Vista had a certain similarity, presumably because various visual characteristics of Vista, such as its usage of desktop gadgets, were perceived to be useful features applicable to the wider marketplace and thus “must have” features that provide a way to appeal to people who don’t already use KDE or Windows. (Having a tiny picture frame on the desktop background might be a nice way of replicating the classic picture of one’s closest family on one’s physical desktop, but I doubt that it makes or breaks the adoption of a technology. Many people are still using their computer at a desk or at home where they still have those pictures in plain view; most people aren’t working from the beach where they desperately need them as a thumbnail carousel obscured by their application windows.)

However, it should be remembered that the products being imitated may also originate from organisations who also do not really understand their potential audience, either. Windows Vista was perceived to be a decisive response by Microsoft to the threat of alternative platforms but was regarded as a flop despite being forced on computer purchasers. And even if new users adopt such products, it doesn’t mean that they welcome or unconditionally approve of the supposed innovations introduced in their name, especially if Microsoft and its business partners forced those users to adopt such products when buying their current machine.

The Linux Palmtop and the Linux Desktop

With the success of Android – or more accurately, Android/Linux – claims may be made that radical departures from the traditional desktop software stacks and paradigms are clearly the necessary ingredient for success for GNU/Linux on the desktop, and it might be said that if only people had realised this earlier, the Free Software desktop would have become dominant. Moreover, it might also be argued that “desktop thinking” held back adoption of Linux on mobile devices, too, opening the door for a single vendor to define the payload that delivered Linux to the mobile-device-consuming masses. Certainly, the perceived need for a desktop on a mobile or PDA (personal digital assistant) is entrenched: go back a few years and the GNOME Palmtop Environment (GPE) was seen as the counterweight to Windows CE on something like a Compaq iPAQ. Even on the Golden Delicious GTA04 device, LXDE – a lightweight desktop environment – has been the default environment, admittedly more for verification purposes than for practical use as a telephone.

Naturally, a desktop environment is fairly impractical on a small screen with limited navigational controls. Although early desktop systems had fewer pixels than today’s smartphones, the increased screen size provided much greater navigational control and matched the desktop paradigm much better. It is interesting to note that the Xerox Star had a monochrome 1024×809 display, which is perhaps still larger than many smartphones, that (according to the Wikipedia entry) “…was meant to be able to display two 8.5×11 in pages side by side in actual size”. Even when we become able to show the equivalent amount of content on a smartphone screen at a resolution sufficient to permit its practical use, perhaps with very good eyesight or some additional assistance through magnification, it will remain a challenge to navigate that information precisely. Selecting text, for instance, will not be possible without a very precise pointing instrument.

Of course, one way of handling such challenges that is already prevalent is that of being able to zoom in and out of the content, with the focus in recent years on being able to do so through gestures, although the ability to zoom in on documents at arbitrary levels has been around for many years in the computer-aided design, illustration and desktop publishing fields amongst others, and the notion of general user interfaces permitting fluid scrolling and zooming over a surface showing content was already prominent before smartphones adopted and popularised it further. On the one hand, new and different “form factors” – kinds of device with different characteristics – offer improved methods of navigation, perhaps being more natural than the traditional mouse and keyboard attached to a desktop computer, but those methods may not lend themselves to use on a desktop computer with its proven ergonomics of sitting at a comfortable distance from a generously proportioned display and being able to enter textual input using a dedicated device with an efficiency that is difficult to match using, say, a virtual keyboard on a touchscreen.

Proclamations may occasionally be made that work at desks in offices will become obsolete in favour of the mobile workplace, but as that mobile workplace is apparently so often situated at the café table, the aircraft tray table, or once the lap or forearm is tired of supporting a device, some other horizontal surface, the desktop paradigm with its supporting cast of input devices and sophisticated applications will still be around in some form and cannot be convincingly phased out in favour of content consumption paradigms that refuse to tackle the most demanding of the desktop functionality we enjoy today.

A Microsoft keyboard with buttons for bundled applications

The Real Obstacle

Up to this point, my pontification has limited itself to considering what has made the “Linux desktop” attractive in the past, what makes it attractive or unattractive today, and whether the directions currently being taken might make it more attractive to new audiences and to existing users, or instead fail to capture the interest of new audiences whilst alienating existing users. In an ideal world, with every option given equal attention, and with every individual able to exercise a completely free choice and adopt the product or solution that meets his or her own needs best, we could focus on the above topic and not have to worry about anything else. Unfortunately, we do not live in such an ideal world.

Most hardware sold in retail outlets visited by the majority of potential and current computer users is bundled with proprietary software in the form of Microsoft Windows. Indeed, in these outlets, accounting for the bulk of retail sales of computers to private customers, it is not possible to refuse the bundled software and to choose to buy only the hardware so that an alternative software system may be used with the computer instead (or at least not without needing to pursue vendors afterwards, possibly via legal avenues). In such an anticompetitive environment, many customers associate the bundled software with computer hardware in general and remain unaware of alternatives, leaving the struggle to educate those customers to motivated individuals, organisations like the FSF (and FSFE), and to independent retailers.

Unfortunately, individuals and organisations have to spend their own time and money (or their volunteers’ time and their donors’ money) righting the wrongs of the industry. Independent retailers offer hardware without bundled software, or offer Free Software pre-installed as a convenience but without cost, but the low margins on such “bare” or Free Software systems mean that they too are fixing the injustices of the system at their own expense. Once again, our considerations need to be broadened so as to not merely consider the merits of Free Software delivered as a desktop environment for the end-user, but also to the challenge of getting that software in front of the end-user in the first place. And further still: although we might (and should) consider encouraging regulatory bodies to investigate the dubious practices of product bundling, we also need to consider how we might support those who attempt to reach out and educate end-users without waiting for the regulators to act.

Putting the Pieces Together

One way we might support those getting Free Software onto hardware and into the hands of end-users – in this case, purchasers of new computer hardware – is to help them, the independent retailers, command a better price for their products. If all other things are equal, people generally will not pay more for something that they can get cheaper elsewhere. If they can be persuaded to believe that a product is better in certain ways, then paying a little more doesn’t seem so bad, and the extra cost can often be justified. Sadly, convincing people about the merits of Free Software can be a time-consuming process, and people may not see the significance of those merits straight away, and so other merits are also required to help build up a sustainable margin that can be fed into the Free Software ecosystem.

Some organisations advocate that bundling services is an acceptable way of appealing to end-users and making a bit of money that can fund Free Software development. However, such an approach risks bringing with it all that is undesirable about the illegitimately-bundled software that customers are obliged to accept on their new computer: advertising, compromised user experiences, and the feeling that they are not in control of their purchase. Moreover, seeking revenue from service providers or selling proprietary services to existing end-users fails to seriously tackle the market access issue that impacts Free Software the most.

A better and proven way of providing additional persuasion is, of course, to make a better product, which is why it is crucial to understand whether the different communities developing the “Linux desktop” are succeeding in doing so or not. If not, we need to understand what we need to do to help people offer viable products that people will buy and use, because the alternative is to continue our under-resourced campaign of only partly successful persuasion and education. And this may put our other activities at risk, too, affording us only desperate resistance to all the nasty anticompetitive measures, both political and technical, that well-resourced and industry-dominating corporations are able to initiate with relative ease.

In short, our activities need to fit together and to support each other so that the whole endeavour may be sustainable and be able to withstand the threats levelled against it and against us. We need to deliver a software experience that people will use and continue to use, we need to recognise that those who get that software in front of end-users need our support in running a viable business doing so (far more than large vendors who only court the Free Software communities when it suits them), and we need to acknowledge the threats to our communities and to be prepared to fight those threats or to support those who do so.

Once we have shown that we can work together and act on all of these simultaneously and continuously as a community, maybe then it will become clear that the year of the Linux desktop has at last arrived for good.

Buying Hardware that Supports Free Software

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Have you ever wanted to buy a computer without paying a certain corporation for a product of theirs that you don’t want? Were you concerned that, regardless of whether you managed to buy a system without that unwanted operating system, the hardware might not support your favourite operating system distribution properly, leaving you unable to use some of the computer’s hardware (like the wireless network or some of the fancy graphical capabilities)? Were you worried that you might need to do extra work to support your favourite distribution and that people you know would end up blaming you for persuading them to try out something like GNU/Linux? Did you ever try to buy a “computer that runs Linux” from a major manufacturer only to find yourself navigating a labyrinth on their Web site (with every passage prominently marked with an advertisement for the unwanted proprietary product of a certain corporation), ending up either on a page telling you that they don’t sell that model any more, or on a “404 not found” page with all traces of that model erased from the record as if it never existed in the first place?

On the Fellowship Wiki, we are trying to put together an up-to-date list of vendors selling systems that at the very least don’t involve you paying the “Windows Tax“, and preferably involve the option of having a Free Software operating system distribution (like a GNU/Linux flavour such as Debian, Fedora or Ubuntu) pre-installed and ready to use. Although we don’t endorse any vendors – this is just research into those offering solutions that are friendly to Free Software – we hope that this resource will be useful for anyone looking to buy a new computer and act as an encouragement for other vendors to offer products that uphold healthy competition and appeal to an increasing group of people who care about things like Free Software, privacy, the right to control their own computer, the provenance of the software on their computer, the sustainability of their computing environment, and, of course, the proper functioning of the market for personal computers (where one company should not decide what everyone gets to use).

Go to the Hardware Vendors page to see what we’ve found so far, along with links to other resources that have provided good directions to friendly vendors, and feel free to contribute if you are an FSFE Fellow with some expertise of your own in this area. With the vast majority of ready-to-use computers sold via retail channels bundled with proprietary software, the market has been distorted to make the adoption of Free Software more difficult and to keep end-users ignorant of the benefits of Free Software and their right to control their own computer. Please consider helping us to level the playing field!