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The Academic Barriers of Commercialisation

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Last year, the university through which I obtained my degree celebrated a “milestone” anniversary, meaning that I got even more announcements, notices and other such things than I was already getting from them before. Fortunately, not everything published into this deluge is bound up in proprietary formats (as one brochure was, sitting on a Web page in Flash-only form) or only reachable via a dubious “Libyan link-shortener” (as certain things were published via a social media channel that I have now quit). It is indeed infuriating to see one of the links in a recent HTML/plain text hybrid e-mail message using a redirect service hosted on the university’s own alumni sub-site, sending the reader to a URL, which will redirect them off into the great unknown and maybe even back to the original site. But such things are what one comes to expect on today’s Internet with all the unquestioning use of random “cloud” services, each one profiling the unsuspecting visitor and betraying their privacy to make a few extra cents or pence.

But anyway, upon following a more direct – but still redirected – link to an article on the university Web site, I found myself looking around to see what gets published there these days. Personally, I find the main university Web site rather promotional and arguably only superficially informative – you can find out the required grades to take courses along with supposed student approval ratings and hypothetical salary expectations upon qualifying – but it probably takes more digging to get at the real detail than most people would be willing to do. I wouldn’t mind knowing what they teach now in their computer science courses, for instance. I guess I’ll get back to looking into that later.

Gatekeepers of Knowledge

However, one thing did catch my eye as I browsed around the different sections, encountering the “technology transfer” department with the expected rhetoric about maximising benefits to society: the inevitable “IP” policy in all its intimidating length, together with an explanatory guide to that policy. Now, I am rather familiar with such policies from my time at my last academic employer, having been obliged to sign some kind of statement of compliance at one point, but then apparently not having to do so when starting a subsequent contract. It was not as if enlightenment had come calling at the University of Oslo between these points in time such that the “IP rights” agreement now suddenly didn’t feature in the hiring paperwork; it was more likely that such obligations had presumably been baked into everybody’s terms of employment as yet another example of the university upper management’s dubious organisational reform and questionable human resources practices.

Back at Heriot-Watt University, credit is perhaps due to the authors of their explanatory guide to try and explain the larger policy document, because it is most likely that most people aren’t going to get through that much longer document and retain a clear head. But one potentially unintended reason for credit is that by being presented with a much less opaque treatment of the policy and its motivations, we are able to see with enhanced clarity many of the damaging misconceptions that have sadly become entrenched in higher education and academia, including the ways in which such policies actually do conflict with the sharing of knowledge that academic endeavour is supposed to be all about.

So, we get the sales pitch about new things needing investment…

However, often new technologies and inventions are not fully developed because development needs investment, and investment needs commercial returns, and to ensure commercial returns you need something to sell, and a freely available idea cannot be sold.

If we ignore various assumptions about investment or the precise economic mechanisms supposedly required to bring about such investment, we can immediately note that ideas on their own aren’t worth anything anyway, freely available or not. Although the Norwegian Industrial Property Office (or the Norwegian Patent Office if we use a more traditional name) uses the absurd vision slogan “turning ideas into values” (it should probably read “value”, but whatever), this perhaps says more about greedy profiteering through the sale of government-granted titles bound to arbitrary things than it does about what kinds of things have any kind of inherent value that you can take to the bank.

But assuming that we have moved beyond the realm of simple ideas and have entered the realm of non-trivial works, we find that we have also entered the realm of morality and attitude management:

That is why, in some cases, it is better for your efforts not to be published immediately, but instead to be protected and then published, for protection gives you something to sell, something to sell can bring in investment, and investment allows further development. Therefore in the interests of advancing the knowledge within the field you work in, it is important that you consider the commercial potential of your work from the outset, and if necessary ensure it is properly protected before you publish.

Once upon a time, the most noble pursuit in academic research was to freely share research with others so that societal, scientific and technological progress could be made. Now it appears that the average researcher should treat it as their responsibility to conceal their work from others, seek “protection” on it, and then release the encumbered details for mere perusal and the conditional participation of those once-valued peers. And they should, of course, be wise to the commercial potential of the work, whatever that is. Naturally, “intellectual property” offices in such institutions have an “if in doubt, see us” policy, meaning that they seek to interfere with research as soon as possible, and should someone fail to have “seen them”, that person’s loyalty may very well be called into question as if they had somehow squandered their employer’s property. In some institutions, this could very easily get people marginalised or “reorganised” if not immediately or obviously fired.

The Rewards of Labour

It is in matters of property and ownership where things get very awkward indeed. Many people would accept that employees of an organisation are producing output that becomes the property of that organisation. What fewer people might accept is that the customers of an organisation are also subject to having their own output taken to be the property of that organisation. The policy guide indicates that even undergraduate students may also be subject to an obligation to assign ownership of their work to the university: those visiting the university supposedly have to agree to this (although it doesn’t say anything about what their “home institution” might have to say about that), and things like final year projects are supposedly subject to university ownership.

So, just because you as a student have a supervisor bound by commercialisation obligations, you end up not only paying tuition fees to get your university education (directly or through taxation), but you also end up having your own work taken off you because it might be seen as some element in your supervisor’s “portfolio”. I suppose this marks a new low in workplace regulation and standards within a sector that already skirts the law with regard to how certain groups are treated by their employers.

One can justifiably argue that employees of academic institutions should not be allowed to run away with work funded by those institutions, particularly when such funding originally comes from other sources such as the general public. After all, such work is not exactly the private property of the researchers who created it, and to treat it as such would deny it to those whose resources made it possible in the first place. Any claims about “rightful rewards” needing to be given are arguably made to confuse rational thinking on the matter: after all, with appropriate salaries, the researchers are already being rewarded doing work that interests and stimulates them (unlike a lot of people in the world of work). One can argue that academics increasingly suffer from poorer salaries, working conditions and career stability, but such injustices are not properly remedied by creating other injustices to supposedly level things out.

A policy around what happens with the work done in an academic institution is important. But just as individuals should not be allowed to treat broadly-funded work as their own private property, neither should the institution itself claim complete ownership and consider itself entitled to do what it wishes with the results. It may be acting as a facilitator to allow research to happen, but by seeking to intervene in the process of research, it risks acting as an inhibitor. Consider the following note about “confidential information”:

This is, in short, anything which, if you told people about, might damage the commercial interests of the university. It specifically includes information relating to intellectual property that could be protected, but isn’t protected yet, and which if you told people about couldn’t be protected, and any special know how or clever but non patentable methods of doing things, like trade secrets. It specifically includes all laboratory notebooks, including those stored in an electronic fashion. You must be very careful with this sort of information. This is of particular relevance to something that may be patented, because if other people know about it then it can’t be.

Anyone working in even a moderately paranoid company may have read things like this. But here the context is an environment where knowledge should be shared to benefit and inform the research community. Instead, one gets the impression that the wish to control the propagation of knowledge is so great that some people would rather see the details of “clever but non patentable methods” destroyed than passed on openly for others to benefit from. Indeed, one must question whether “trade secrets” should even feature in a university environment at all.

Of course, the obsession with “laboratory notebooks”, “methods of doing things” and “trade secrets” in such policies betrays the typical origins of such drives for commercialisation: the apparently rich pickings to be had in the medical, pharmaceutical and biosciences domains. It is hardly a coincidence that the University of Oslo intensified its dubious “innovation” efforts under a figurehead with a background (or an interest) in exactly those domains: with a narrow personal focus, an apparent disdain for other disciplines, and a wider commercial atmosphere that gives such a strategy a “dead cert” air of impending fortune, we should perhaps expect no more of such a leadership creature (and his entourage) than the sum of that creature’s instincts and experiences. But then again, we should demand more from such people when their role is to cultivate an institution of learning and not to run a private research organisation at the public’s expense.

The Dirty Word

At no point in the policy guide does the word “monopoly” appear. Given that such a largely technical institution would undoubtedly be performing research where the method of “protection” would involve patents being sought, omitting the word “monopoly” might be that document’s biggest flaw. Heriot-Watt University originates from the merger of two separate institutions, one of which was founded by the well-known pioneer of steam engine technology, James Watt.

Recent discussion of Watt’s contributions to the development and proliferation of such technology has brought up claims that Watt’s own patents – the things that undoubtedly made him wealthy enough to fund an educational organisation – actually held up progress in the domain concerned for a number of decades. While he was clearly generous and sensible enough to spend his money on worthy causes, one can always challenge whether the questionable practices that resulted in the accumulation of such wealth can justify the benefits from the subsequent use of that wealth, particularly if those practices can be regarded as having had negative effects of society and may even have increased wealth inequality.

Questioning philanthropy is not a particularly fashionable thing to do. In capitalist societies, wealthy people are often seen as having made their fortunes in an honest fashion, enjoying a substantial “benefit of the doubt” that this was what really occurred. Criticising a rich person giving money to ostensibly good causes is seen as unkind to both the generous donor and to those receiving the donations. But we should question the means through which the likes of Bill Gates (in our time) and James Watt (in his own time) made their fortunes and the power that such fortunes give to such people to direct money towards causes of their own personal choosing, not to mention the way in which wealthy people also choose to influence public policy and the use of money given by significantly less wealthy individuals – the rest of us – gathered through taxation.

But back to monopolies. Can they really be compatible with the pursuit and sharing of knowledge that academia is supposed to be cultivating? Just as it should be shocking that secretive “confidentiality” rules exist in an academic context, it should appal us that researchers are encouraged to be competitively hostile towards their peers.

Removing the Barriers

It appears that some well-known institutions understand that the unhindered sharing of their work is their primary mission. MIT Media Lab now encourages the licensing of software developed under its roof as Free Software, not requiring special approval or any other kind of institutional stalling that often seems to take place as the “innovation” vultures pick over the things they think should be monetised. Although proprietary licensing still appears to be an option for those within the Media Lab organisation, at least it seems that people wanting to follow their principles and make their work available as Free Software can do so without being made to feel bad about it.

As an academic institution, we believe that in many cases we can achieve greater impact by sharing our work.

So says the director of the MIT Media Lab. It says a lot about the times we live in that this needs to be said at all. Free Software licensing is, as a mechanism to encourage sharing, a natural choice for software, but we should also expect similar measures to be adopted for other kinds of works. Papers and articles should at the very least be made available using content licences that permit sharing, even if the licence variants chosen by authors might seek to prohibit the misrepresentation of parts of their work by prohibiting remixes or derived works. (This may sound overly restrictive, but one should consider the way in which scientific articles are routinely misrepresented by climate change and climate science deniers.)

Free Software has encouraged an environment where sharing is safely and routinely done. Licences like the GNU General Public Licence seek to shield recipients from things like patent threats, particularly from organisations which might appear to want to share their works, but which might be tempted to use patents to regulate the further use of those works. Even in realms where patents have traditionally been tolerated, attempts have been made to shield others from the effects of patents, intended or otherwise: the copyleft hardware movement demands that shared hardware designs are patent-free, for instance.

In contrast, one might think that despite the best efforts of the guide’s authors, all the precautions and behavioural self-correction it encourages might just drive the average researcher to distraction. Or, just as likely, to ignoring most of the guidelines and feigning ignorance if challenged by their “innovation”-obsessed superiors. But in the drive to monetise every last ounce of effort there is one statement that is worth remembering:

If intellectual property is not assigned, this can create problems in who is allowed to exploit the work, and again work can go to waste due to a lack of clarity over who owns what.

In other words, in an environment where everybody wants a share of the riches, it helps to have everybody’s interests out in the open so that there may be no surprises later on. Now, it turns out that unclear ownership and overly casual management of contributions is something that has occasionally threatened Free Software projects, resulting in more sophisticated thinking about how contributions are managed.

And it is precisely this combination of Free Software licensing, or something analogous for other domains, with proper contribution and attribution management that will extend safe and efficient sharing of knowledge to the academic realm. Researchers just cannot have the same level of confidence when dealing with the “technology transfer” offices of their institution and of other institutions. Such offices only want to look after themselves while undermining everyone beyond the borders of their own fiefdoms.

Divide and Rule

It is unfortunate that academic institutions feel that they need to “pull their weight” and have to raise funds to make up for diminishing public funding. By turning their backs on the very reason for their own existence and seeking monopolies instead of sharing knowledge, they unwittingly participate in the “divide and rule” tactics blatantly pursued in the political arena: that everyone must fight each other for all that is left once the lion’s share of public funding has been allocated to prestige megaprojects and schemes that just happen to benefit the well-connected, the powerful and the influential people in society the most.

A properly-funded education sector is an essential component of a civilised society, and its institutions should not be obliged to “sharpen their elbows” in the scuffle for funding and thus deprive others of knowledge just to remain viable. Sadly, while austerity politics remains fashionable, it may be up to us in the Free Software realm to remind academia of its obligations and to show that sustainable ways of sharing knowledge exist and function well in the “real world”.

Indeed, it is up to us to keep such institutions honest and to prevent advocates of monopoly-driven “innovation” from being able to insist that their way is the only way, because just as “divide and rule” politics erects barriers between groups in wider society, commercialisation erects barriers that inhibit the essential functions of academic pursuit. And such barriers ultimately risk extinguishing academia altogether, along with all the benefits its institutions bring to society. If my university were not reinforcing such barriers with its “IP” policy, maybe its anniversary as a measure of how far we have progressed from monopolies and intellectual selfishness would have been worth celebrating after all.

EOMA68: The Campaign (and some remarks about recurring criticisms)

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

I have previously written about the EOMA68 initiative and its objective of making small, modular computing cards that conform to a well-defined standard which can be plugged into certain kinds of device – a laptop or desktop computer, or maybe even a tablet or smartphone – providing a way of supplying such devices with the computing power they all need. This would also offer a convenient way of taking your computing environment with you, using it in the kind of device that makes most sense at the time you need to use it, since the computer card is the actual computer and all you are doing is putting it in a different box: switch off, unplug the card, plug it into something else, switch that on, and your “computer” has effectively taken on a different form.

(This “take your desktop with you” by actually taking your computer with you is fundamentally different to various dubious “cloud synchronisation” services that would claim to offer something similar: “now you can synchronise your tablet with your PC!”, or whatever. Such services tend to operate rather imperfectly – storing your files on some remote site – and, of course, exposing you to surveillance and convenience issues.)

Well, a crowd-funding campaign has since been launched to fund a number of EOMA68-related products, with an opportunity for those interested to acquire the first round of computer cards and compatible devices, those devices being a “micro-desktop” that offers a simple “mini PC” solution, together with a somewhat radically designed and produced laptop (or netbook, perhaps) that emphasises accessible construction methods (home 3D printing) and alternative material usage (“eco-friendly plywood”). In the interests of transparency, I will admit that I have pledged for a card and the micro-desktop, albeit via my brother for various personal reasons that also delayed me from actually writing about this here before now.

An EOMA68 computer card in a wallet

An EOMA68 computer card in a wallet (courtesy Rhombus Tech/Crowd Supply)

Of course, EOMA68 is about more than just conveniently taking your computer with you because it is now small enough to fit in a wallet. Even if you do not intend to regularly move your computer card from device to device, it emphasises various sustainability issues such as power consumption (deliberately kept low), long-term support and matters of freedom (the selection of CPUs that completely support Free Software and do not introduce surveillance backdoors), and device longevity (that when the user wants to upgrade, they may easily use the card in something else that might benefit from it).

This is not modularity to prove some irrelevant hypothesis. It is modularity that delivers concrete benefits to users (that they aren’t forced to keep replacing products engineered for obsolescence), to designers and manufacturers (that they can rely on the standard to provide computing functionality and just focus on their own speciality to differentiate their product in more interesting ways), and to society and the environment (by reducing needless consumption and waste caused by the upgrade treadmill promoted by the technology industries over the last few decades).

One might think that such benefits might be received with enthusiasm. Sadly, it says a lot about today’s “needy consumer” culture that instead of welcoming another choice, some would rather spend their time criticising it, often to the point that one might wonder about their motivations for doing so. Below, I present some common criticisms and some of my own remarks.

(If you don’t want to read about “first world” objections – typically about “new” and “fast” – and are already satisfied by the decisions made regarding more understandable concerns – typically involving corporate behaviour and licensing – just skip to the last section.)

“The A20 is so old and slow! What’s the point?”

The Allwinner A20 has been around for a while. Indeed, its predecessor – the A10 – was the basis of initial iterations of the computer card several years ago. Now, the amount of engineering needed to upgrade the prototypes that were previously made to use the A10 instead of the A20 is minimal, at least in comparison to adopting another CPU (that would probably require a redesign of the circuit board for the card). And hardware prototyping is expensive, especially when unnecessary design changes have to be made, when they don’t always work out as expected, and when extra rounds of prototypes are then required to get the job done. For an initiative with a limited budget, the A20 makes a lot of sense because it means changing as little as possible, benefiting from the functionality upgrade and keeping the risks low.

Obviously, there are faster processors available now, but as the processor selection criteria illustrate, if you cannot support them properly with Free Software and must potentially rely on binary blobs which potentially violate the GPL, it would be better to stick to a more sustainable choice (because that is what adherence to Free Software is largely about) even if that means accepting reduced performance. In any case, at some point, other cards with different processors will come along and offer faster performance. Alternatively, someone will make a dual-slot product that takes two cards (or even a multi-slot product that provides a kind of mini-cluster), and then with software that is hopefully better-equipped for concurrency, there will be alternative ways of improving the performance to that of finding faster processors and hoping that they meet all the practical and ethical criteria.

“The RasPi 3…”

Lots of people love the Raspberry Pi, it would seem. The original models delivered a cheap, adequate desktop computer for a sum that was competitive even with some microcontroller-based single-board computers that are aimed at electronics projects and not desktop computing, although people probably overlook rivals like the BeagleBoard and variants that would probably have occupied a similar price point even if the Raspberry Pi had never existed. Indeed, the BeagleBone Black resides in the same pricing territory now, as do many other products. It is interesting that both product families are backed by certain semiconductor manufacturers, and the Raspberry Pi appears to benefit from privileged access to Broadcom products and employees that is denied to others seeking to make solutions using the same SoC (system on a chip).

Now, the first Raspberry Pi models were not entirely at the performance level of contemporary desktop solutions, especially by having only 256MB or 512MB RAM, meaning that any desktop experience had to be optimised for the device. Furthermore, they employed an ARM architecture variant that was not fully supported by mainstream GNU/Linux distributions, in particular the one favoured by the initiative: Debian. So a variant of Debian has been concocted to support the devices – Raspbian – and despite the Raspberry Pi 2 being the first device in the series to employ an architecture variant that is fully supported by Debian, Raspbian is still recommended for it and its successor.

Anyway, the Raspberry Pi 3 having 1GB RAM and being several times faster than the earliest models might be more competitive with today’s desktop solutions, at least for modestly-priced products, and perhaps it is faster than products using the A20. But just like the fascination with MHz and GHz until Intel found that it couldn’t rely on routinely turning up the clock speed on its CPUs, or everybody emphasising the number of megapixels their digital camera had until they discovered image noise, such number games ignore other factors: the closed source hardware of the Raspberry Pi boards, the opaque architecture of the Broadcom SoCs with a closed source operating system running on the GPU (graphics processing unit) that has control over the ARM CPU running the user’s programs, the impracticality of repurposing the device for things like laptops (despite people attempting to repurpose it for such things, anyway), and the organisation behind the device seemingly being happy to promote a variety of unethical proprietary software from a variety of unethical vendors who clearly want a piece of the action.

And finally, with all the fuss about how much faster the opaque Broadcom product is than the A20, the Raspberry Pi 3 has half the RAM of the EOMA68-A20 computer card. For certain applications, more RAM is going to be much more helpful than more cores or “64-bit!”, which makes us wonder why the Raspberry Pi 3 doesn’t support 4GB RAM or more. (Indeed, the current trend of 64-bit ARM products offering memory quantities addressable by 32-bit CPUs seems to have missed the motivation for x86 finally going 64-bit back in the early 21st century, which was largely about efficiently supporting the increasingly necessary amounts of RAM required for certain computing tasks, with Intel’s name for x86-64 actually being at one time “Extended Memory 64 Technology“. Even the DEC Alpha, back in the 1990s, which could be regarded as heralding the 64-bit age in mainstream computing, and which arguably relied on the increased performance provided by a 64-bit architecture for its success, still supported 64-bit quantities of memory in delivered products when memory was obviously a lot more expensive than it is now.)

“But the RasPi Zero!”

Sure, who can argue with a $5 (or £4, or whatever) computer with 512MB RAM and a 1GHz CPU that might even be a usable size and shape for some level of repurposing for the kinds of things that EOMA68 aims at: putting a general purpose computer into a wide range of devices? Except that the Raspberry Pi Zero has had persistent availability issues, even ignoring the free give-away with a magazine that had people scuffling in newsagents to buy up all the available copies so they could resell them online at several times the retail price. And it could be perceived as yet another inventory-dumping exercise by Broadcom, given that it uses the same SoC as the original Raspberry Pi.

Arguably, the Raspberry Pi Zero is a more ambiguous follow-on from the Raspberry Pi Compute Module that obviously was (and maybe still is) intended for building into other products. Some people may wonder why the Compute Module wasn’t the same success as the earlier products in the Raspberry Pi line-up. Maybe its lack of success was because any organisation thinking of putting the Compute Module (or, these days, the Pi Zero) in a product to sell to other people is relying on a single vendor. And with that vendor itself relying on a single vendor with whom it currently has a special relationship, a chain of single vendor reliance is formed.

Any organisation wanting to build one of these boards into their product now has to have rather a lot of confidence that the chain will never weaken or break and that at no point will either of those vendors decide that they would rather like to compete in that particular market themselves and exploit their obvious dominance in doing so. And they have to be sure that the Raspberry Pi Foundation doesn’t suddenly decide to get out of the hardware business altogether and pursue those educational objectives that they once emphasised so much instead, or that the Foundation and its manufacturing partners don’t decide for some reason to cease doing business, perhaps selectively, with people building products around their boards.

“Allwinner are GPL violators and will never get my money!”

Sadly, Allwinner have repeatedly delivered GPL-licensed software without providing the corresponding source code, and this practice may even persist to this day. One response to this has referred to the internal politics and organisation of Allwinner and that some factions try to do the right thing while others act in an unenlightened, licence-violating fashion.

Let it be known that I am no fan of the argument that there are lots of departments in companies and that just because some do some bad things doesn’t mean that you should punish the whole company. To this day, Sony does not get my business because of the unsatisfactorily-resolved rootkit scandal and I am hardly alone in taking this position. (It gets brought up regularly on a photography site I tend to visit where tensions often run high between Sony fanatics and those who use cameras from other manufacturers, but to be fair, Sony also has other ways of irritating its customers.) And while people like to claim that Microsoft has changed and is nice to Free Software, even to the point where people refusing to accept this assertion get criticised, it is pretty difficult to accept claims of change and improvement when the company pulls in significant sums from shaking down device manufacturers using dubious patent claims on Android and Linux: systems it contributed nothing to. And no, nobody will have been reading any patents to figure out how to implement parts of Android or Linux, let alone any belonging to some company or other that Microsoft may have “vacuumed up” in an acquisition spree.

So, should the argument be discarded here as well? Even though I am not too happy about Allwinner’s behaviour, there is the consideration that as the saying goes, “beggars cannot be choosers”. When very few CPUs exist that meet the criteria desirable for the initiative, some kind of nasty compromise may have to be made. Personally, I would have preferred to have had the option of the Ingenic jz4775 card that was close to being offered in the campaign, although I have seen signs of Ingenic doing binary-only code drops on certain code-sharing sites, and so they do not necessarily have clean hands, either. But they are actually making the source code for such binaries available elsewhere, however, if you know where to look. Thus it is most likely that they do not really understand the precise obligations of the software licences concerned, as opposed to deliberately withholding the source code.

But it may well be that unlike certain European, American and Japanese companies for whom the familiar regime of corporate accountability allows us to judge a company on any wrongdoing, because any executives unaware of such wrongdoing have been negligent or ineffective at building the proper processes of supervision and thus permit an unethical corporate culture, and any executives aware of such wrongdoing have arguably cultivated an unethical corporate culture themselves, it could be the case that Chinese companies do not necessarily operate (or are regulated) on similar principles. That does not excuse unethical behaviour, but it might at least entertain the idea that by supporting an ethical faction within a company, the unethical factions may be weakened or even eliminated. If that really is how the game is played, of course, and is not just an excuse for finger-pointing where nobody is held to account for anything.

But companies elsewhere should certainly not be looking for a weakening of their accountability structures so as to maintain a similarly convenient situation of corporate hypocrisy: if Sony BMG does something unethical, Sony Imaging should take the bad with the good when they share and exploit the Sony brand; people cannot have things both ways. And Chinese companies should comply with international governance principles, if only to reassure their investors that nasty surprises (and liabilities) do not lie in wait because parts of such businesses were poorly supervised and not held accountable for any unethical activities taking place.

It is up to everyone to make their own decision about this. The policy of the campaign is that the A20 can be supported by Free Software without needing any proprietary software, does not rely on any Allwinner-engineered, licence-violating software (which might be perceived as a good thing), and is merely the first step into a wider endeavour that could be conveniently undertaken with the limited resources available at the time. Later computer cards may ignore Allwinner entirely, especially if the company does not clean up its act, but such cards may never get made if the campaign fails and the wider endeavour never even begins in earnest.

(And I sincerely hope that those who are apparently so outraged by GPL violations actually support organisations seeking to educate and correct companies who commit such violations.)

“You could buy a top-end laptop for that price!”

Sure you could. But this isn’t about a crowd-funding campaign trying to magically compete with an optimised production process that turns out millions of units every year backed by a multi-billion-dollar corporation. It is about highlighting the possibilities of more scalable (down to the economically-viable manufacture of a single unit), more sustainable device design and construction. And by the way, that laptop you were talking about won’t be upgradeable, so when you tire of its performance or if the battery loses its capacity, I suppose you will be disposing of it (hopefully responsibly) and presumably buying something similarly new and shiny by today’s measures.

Meanwhile, with EOMA68, the computing part of the supposedly overpriced laptop will be upgradeable, and with sensible device design the battery (and maybe other things) will be replaceable, too. Over time, EOMA68 solutions should be competitive on price, anyway, because larger numbers of them will be produced, but unlike traditional products, the increased usable lifespans of EOMA68 solutions will also offer longer-term savings to their purchasers, too.

“You could just buy a used laptop instead!”

Sure you could. At some point you will need to be buying a very old laptop just to have a CPU without a surveillance engine and offering some level of upgrade potential, although the specification might be disappointing to you. Even worse, things don’t last forever, particularly batteries and certain kinds of electronic components. Replacing those things may well be a challenge, and although it is worthwhile to make sure things get reused rather than immediately discarded, you can’t rely on picking up a particular product in the second-hand market forever. And relying on sourcing second-hand items is very much for limited edition products, whereas the EOMA68 initiative is meant to be concerned with reliably producing widely-available products.

“Why pay more for ideological purity?”

Firstly, words like “ideology”, “religion”, “church”, and so on, might be useful terms for trolls to poison and polarise any discussion, but does anyone not see that expecting suspiciously cheap, increasingly capable products to be delivered in an almost conveyor belt fashion is itself subscribing to an ideology? One that mandates that resources should be procured at the minimum cost and processed and assembled at the minimum cost, preferably without knowing too much about the human rights abuses at each step. Where everybody involved is threatened that at any time their role may be taken over by someone offering the same thing for less. And where a culture of exploitation towards those doing the work grows, perpetuating increasing wealth inequality because those offering the services in question will just lean harder on the workers to meet their cost target (while they skim off “their share” for having facilitated the deal). Meanwhile, no-one buying the product wants to know “how the sausage is made”. That sounds like an ideology to me: one of neoliberalism combined with feigned ignorance of the damage it does.

Anyway, people pay for more sustainable, more ethical products all the time. While the wilfully ignorant may jeer that they could just buy what they regard as the same thing for less (usually being unaware of factors like quality, never mind how these things get made), more sensible people see that the extra they pay provides the basis for a fairer, better society and higher-quality goods.

“There’s no point to such modularity!”

People argue this alongside the assertion that systems are easy to upgrade and that they can independently upgrade the RAM and CPU in their desktop tower system or whatever, although they usually start off by talking about laptops, but clearly not the kind of “welded shut” laptops that they or maybe others would apparently prefer to buy (see above). But systems are getting harder to upgrade, particularly portable systems like laptops, tablets, smartphones (with Fairphone 2 being a rare exception of being something that might be upgradeable), and even upgradeable systems are not typically upgraded by most end-users: they may only manage to do so by enlisting the help of more knowledgeable relatives and friends.

I use a 32-bit system that is over 11 years old. It could have more RAM, and I could do the job of upgrading it, but guess how much I would be upgrading it to: 2GB, which is as much as is supported by the two prototyped 32-bit architecture EOMA68 computer card designs (A20 and jz4775). Only certain 32-bit systems actually support more RAM, mostly because it requires the use of relatively exotic architectural features that a lot of software doesn’t support. As for the CPU, there is no sensible upgrade path even if I were sure that I could remove the CPU without causing damage to it or the board. Now, 64-bit systems might offer more options, and in upgradeable desktop systems more RAM might be added, but it still relies on what the chipset was designed to support. Some chipsets may limit upgrades based on either manufacturer pessimism (no-one will be able to afford larger amounts in the near future) or manufacturer cynicism (no-one will upgrade to our next product if they can keep adding more RAM).

EOMA68 makes a trade-off in order to support the upgrading of devices in a way that should be accessible to people who are not experts: no-one should be dealing with circuit boards and memory modules. People who think hardware engineering has nothing to do with compromises should get out of their armchair, join one of the big corporations already doing hardware, and show them how it is done, because I am sure those companies would appreciate such market-dominating insight.

An EOMA68 computer card with the micro-desktop device

An EOMA68 computer card with the micro-desktop device (courtesy Rhombus Tech/Crowd Supply)

Back to the Campaign

But really, the criticisms are not the things to focus on here. Maybe EOMA68 was interesting to you and then you read one of these criticisms somewhere and started to wonder about whether it is a good idea to support the initiative after all. Now, at least you have another perspective on them, albeit from someone who actually believes that EOMA68 provides an interesting and credible way forward for sustainable technology products.

Certainly, this campaign is not for everyone. Above all else it is crowd-funding: you are pledging for rewards, not buying things, even though the aim is to actually manufacture and ship real products to those who have pledged for them. Some crowd-funding exercises never deliver anything because they underestimate the difficulties of doing so, leaving a horde of angry backers with nothing to show for their money. I cannot make any guarantees here, but given that prototypes have been made over the last few years, that videos have been produced with a charming informality that would surely leave no-one seriously believing that “the whole thing was just rendered” (which tends to happen a lot with other campaigns), and given the initiative founder’s stubbornness not to give up, I have a lot of confidence in him to make good on his plans.

(A lot of campaigns underestimate the logistics and, having managed to deliver a complicated technological product, fail to manage the apparently simple matter of “postage”, infuriating their backers by being unable to get packages sent to all the different countries involved. My impression is that logistics expertise is what Crowd Supply brings to the table, and it really surprises me that established freight and logistics companies aren’t dipping their toes in the crowd-funding market themselves, either by running their own services or taking ownership stakes and integrating their services into such businesses.)

Personally, I think that $65 for a computer card that actually has more RAM than most single-board computers is actually a reasonable price, but I can understand that some of the other rewards seem a bit more expensive than one might have hoped. But these are effectively “limited edition” prices, and the aim of the exercise is not to merely make some things, get them for the clique of backers, and then never do anything like this ever again. Rather, the aim is to demonstrate that such products can be delivered, develop a market for them where the quantities involved will be greater, and thus be able to increase the competitiveness of the pricing, iterating on this hopefully successful formula. People are backing a standard and a concept, with the benefit of actually getting some hardware in return.

Interestingly, one priority of the campaign has been to seek the FSF’s “Respects Your Freedom” (RYF) endorsement. There is already plenty of hardware that employs proprietary software at some level, leaving the user to merely wonder what some “binary blob” actually does. Here, with one of the software distributions for the computer card, all of the software used on the card and the policies of the GNU/Linux distribution concerned – a surprisingly awkward obstacle – will seek to meet the FSF’s criteria. Thus, the “Libre Tea” card will hopefully be one of the first general purpose computing solutions to actually be designed for RYF certification and to obtain it, too.

The campaign runs until August 26th and has over a thousand pledges. If nothing else, go and take a look at the details and the updates, with the latter providing lots of background including video evidence of how the software offerings have evolved over the course of the campaign. And even if it’s not for you, maybe people you know might appreciate hearing about it, even if only to follow the action and to see how crowd-funding campaigns are done.

Testing Times for Free Software and Open Hardware

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

The last few months haven’t been too kind on Free Software and open hardware initiatives in a number of ways. Here, in a shorter form than one might usually expect from me, are some problematic developments on topics that I may have covered in the past year.

Software Freedom Undervalued

About a couple of months ago, the Software Freedom Conservancy started a fund-raising campaign after it became apparent that companies could not be relied upon to support the organisation’s activities. Since the start of the campaign, many individuals have stepped up and pledged financial support of their own, which is very generous of them, as is the support of enlightened organisations that have offered to match individual contributions.

Sadly, such generosity seems not to be shared by many of the largest companies making money from Free Software and from Linux in particular, and thus from the non-financial contributions that make projects like Linux viable in the first place, with many of those even coming from those same generous individuals who have supported the Conservancy financially. And let us consider for a moment why one prominent umbrella organisation’s members might not want to enforce the GPL, especially given that some of them have been successfully prosecuted for violating that licence, in relation to various Free Software projects, in the past.

The Proprietary Instincts of the BBC

The BBC Micro Bit was a topic covered in the last year, when I indicated a degree of caution about the mistakes of the past being repeated needlessly. And indeed, for some time, everything was being done behind the curtain of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), meaning that very little information was being made available about the device and accompanying materials, and thus very little could be done by the average member of the public to prepare for the availability of the device, let alone develop their own materials, software, accessories or anything else for it.

Since then, a degree of secrecy has been eliminated, and efforts have been made to get the embedded variant of Python known as Micropython working on the board. However, certain parts of that work still appear to be encumbered by NDA, arguably making the effort of developing Python-related materials something of a social networking exercise. Meanwhile, notorious industry monopolist, Microsoft, somehow managed to muscle in on the initiative and take control of the principally-supported method of developing software with the device. I guess people at the BBC and their friends in politics and business don’t always learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly as they spend other people’s money.

The Walled Garden Party’s Hangover for Free Software Development

Just over twelve months ago, I made some observations about the Python core development group’s attraction to GitHub. It seems that the infatuation with the enthusiastic masses and their inevitable unleashing on Python assets, with the expectation of stimulating an exponential upturn in development activity, will now be gratified through a migration of various Python infrastructure components to the proprietary and centralised service that GitHub offers. (I have my doubts as to whether CPython contribution barriers are really the cause of Python’s current malaise, despite the usual clamour for Git and the associated “network effects” amongst a community of self-proclaimed version control wizards whose powers somehow don’t extend to mastering simple workflows with other tools.)

Anatoly Techtonik makes some interesting points, which will presumably go unheard because those involved have all decided not to listen to him any more. One of the more disturbing ones is that the “comparison shopping” mentality, where Free Software developers abandon their colleagues writing various tools and systems in favour of random corporations offering proprietary stuff at no cost, may well result in the Free Software solutions in such areas becoming seen as uncompetitive and unattractive. What those making such foolish decisions fail to realise is that their own projects can easily get the same treatment, if nobody bothers to see beyond the end of their own nose.

The result of all this is less funding and fewer resources for Free Software projects, with potentially fewer contributions, too, as the attraction of supporting “losing” solutions starts to fade. Community-oriented Free Software is arguably grossly underfunded as it is: we don’t really need other Free Software developers abandoning or undermining their colleagues while ridiculing those colleagues’ “ideological purity“. And, of course, volunteer effort will undoubtedly be burned up in the needless migration to the proprietary solution, setting everyone up for another costly transition down the road, which experience indicates is always more work than anyone anticipated (if they even bothered to think ahead at all).

PayPal: Doesn’t Pay, Not Your Pal

It has been a long time since I wrote about the Neo900 project. Things were looking promising: necessary components had been secured, and everyone was just waiting for Nikolaus to finish his work with the Pyra handheld console. And then we learned that PayPal had decided to hold a significant amount of money as a form of “security”, thus cutting off a vital source of funds for actually doing the work. Apparently, PayPal have a habit of doing this kind of thing, on one reported occasion even taking the opportunity to then offer loans to those people they deliberately put in such a difficult position.

If you supported the Neo900 project and pledged funds via PayPal, you need to tell PayPal to actually pay the project. You know: like the verb in their company name. Otherwise, in the worst case, you may not only not get a Neo900 and not see it developed to completion, but you will also have loaned your money to a large corporation for a substantial period and earned no interest on that involuntary loan, perhaps even incurring fees for the privilege. (So, please see the “How to fix it” section of the relevant article.)

Maybe in 2016, people will become a lot clearer about who their real friends are. Let us hope so!

Supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Daniel Pocock asks whether supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do, given the recent announcement of a fund-raising drive inviting individuals to sustain the organisation’s activities. The short answer is “yes it is”, but the question and the longer answer are still worth thinking about.

An Overview

A certain focus has been placed on the Conservancy’s licensing compliance activities, which are valuable for a number of reasons that we shall consider in a moment, but let us also consider the other work done by the organisation:

Although other organisations exist to look after Free Software projects in certain ways, many only offer technical facilities to those projects, whereas others rely on copyright assignments or comparable instruments in order to act as stewards for those projects. Unusually, the Conservancy instead offers a framework where projects may delegate responsibility for activities that would otherwise take time away from the vital work of developing software, rather than assuming all responsibility and leadership for a project as a starting point for cooperation.

So, by working with the Conservancy, developers may retain their project’s autonomy while being able to get help from the Conservancy when they need it. Indeed, the merits of the Conservancy’s offerings complement the offerings of other organisations in such a way that Debian has chosen to work more closely with the Conservancy to safeguard the interests of those developers making their work available via the Debian software distribution.

The image of member project logos gives a representative indication of the organisation’s influence and importance in the Free Software world today. Many of these projects provide vital infrastructure and tools that Free Software users and developers rely upon every single day.

Compliance and Enforcement

But what about those licensing compliance or licensing enforcement activities undertaken by the Conservancy? Some people might wonder whether there is a real need to ensure that individuals and organisations adhere to Free Software licences, and if they do not, whether it is worthwhile taking those parties to task on such matters. Others, arguably with their own agenda, may even dislike the very idea of bringing anyone to account for not respecting the Free Software licensing of various works.

First of all, we must ask whether Free Software licences are being violated. The sad answer to this is “on an industrial scale“, given the glut of products being manufactured on the back of Free Software and then sold without even notifying customers of their rights. When companies are approached about the source code for the copyleft-licensed software provided in their products, it is by all accounts a rare occurrence to be directed to a well-managed repository of code that can be built, installed and used on the product. If one is lucky, a hastily-prepared bundle of sources might be thrown over the wall, leaving the enquirer with the task of verifying that it really does generate the originally-shipped software.

And beyond those more favourable outcomes is the case of the mystery “original design manufacturer”, who was merely passing on stuff concocted by the platform vendor, with everybody else insisting that they hardly touched anything and that the software is someone else’s responsibility. Or the manufacturer who declares that they are not affected by the software licensing and that anything they find on the Internet is presumably fair game to use as they please.

Now, some people would advise Free Software developers not to expect too much after contributing anything to a project. Such people would probably also advise developers to use permissive licences: that way, they won’t build up any expectations around what people might do with their work, nor hold out any hopes that others might benefit from seeing the source code down the line.

Certainly, it rather suits some of those people to cultivate the notion that getting one’s code out there into widespread use should be the principal reward for a Free Software developer, not because it actually encourages generosity or delivers a sense of satisfaction or recognition, but because it keeps those developers in their place and discourages them from expecting anything more. Meanwhile, various companies do very nicely out of repackaging and selling such code, denying end-users any insight into – or control over – the code they end up using, and (of course) denying them the right to give away or sell such code to others themselves.

When choosing to use a copyleft licence, Free Software developers are making a valid statement: they are actively stating that anyone who receives their software should enjoy the benefits of being able to modify, install, run and redistribute it to others who would also benefit from it. This is nothing that anyone should be ashamed of, nor should it be something that people should be forced to abandon because others (for whatever reason) do not share the same goals or vision. But at the same time, it perhaps requires more attention to be paid towards those redistributing the software. If others fail to uphold the licence, there needs to be some mechanism in place to demand a remedy.

Some people are obviously never going to like the idea of licence enforcement. For a start, licence violators are not going to like it: it means that they can no longer get away with their shoddy engineering practices and turning a quick profit on code they happened to find online. It has previously been made very apparent that apologists for licence violators are likely to claim that licence enforcement will only “scare away business from open source” (being of the ideological persuasion that considers “open source” as a business productivity tool, as opposed to Free Software which is about end-user freedoms), and they also tend to advocate for more permissively-licensed software so that it will be virtually impossible for the average software outfit not to accidentally clear the resulting lower threshold for licence compliance.

But why should Free Software developers care about the convenience of blatantly profiteering, inept and often hostile companies? No-one forces those companies to use the software, and if they don’t like the licensing terms, they can always go and use something else. The problem here is firmly with the companies in question (and their apologists): they really want to use such software, but they also want to behave as if they own it, all so that they get to decide what kind of licence it might have, and all without having done the hard work of actually writing it themselves. In short, they want it all! Well, forgive the rest of us for not giving them the ingredients of a charmed existence on a silver platter!

Investments of Time and Money

Unfortunately, chasing up licence violators is costly in terms of time and money. The Conservancy actually takes a very gentle approach to seeking licensing compliance when you consider that other people accused of copyright infringement can expect hostile industry bodies working law-enforcement agencies like puppets and performing on-the-spot “audits” (not to mention the endless barrage of messaging about “piracy” aimed at individuals).

Here, Daniel gets on to something fairly important. While certain figures promote the virtues of volunteering one’s own time to write “open source” software, presumably around a day job which does not reward the average developer for writing Free Software, certain aspects of software development and distribution cannot be so easily covered by spontaneous volunteer contributions. Money is required, but that money has to come from somewhere. Again, people can be persuaded to donate their own money (alongside their own time) to help make things happen, but that money also has to come from somewhere.

Sadly, with the cultivation of the notion of the noble volunteer, together with the misguided idea that “open source” be promoted as the cheap or free-of-charge alternative to “commercial” software, the realm of Free Software development – as far as community-centred projects, not corporate projects, are concerned – has been left chronically underfunded. And when many corporate participants prioritise their own interests, the result is a funding gap that leaves vital projects undone or unfinished and a more general sustainability problem around how such projects may be started, staffed and supported.

Lately, I have read a few articles about people burning out, perhaps because they took on too much work, and perhaps because they believed that their “marketable skills” would be enhanced by a heavy portfolio of volunteer responsibilities, making them attractive to potential employers. Again, the interests of profit-making businesses are put before the needs or values of the individual, with the individual even feeling obliged to make this so. Indeed, there are commercial interests which gain from Free Software remaining perpetually underfunded: proprietary software vendors can portray Free Software solutions as being less capable and somehow worth less. That results in Free Software projects, whose offerings would be improved and more competitive with more available revenue, actually getting less and less funding, interest and support over time.

We should not be pandering to the interests of those who are effectively impoverishing us, degrading our life quality, or forcing us to choose between the things we believe in and the means to be able to live a decent-enough life. Quite how we can develop a sustainable stream of funding for projects that would benefit everybody, along with forms of organisation where such actual work may be undertaken, is a topic for another time. However, one way of stopping the exploitation of developers is to uphold the licences through which those developers have shared their contributions, and that requires us to realise that such efforts also require ongoing funding to become viable and to remain so.

So, of course, I believe that supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do. And beyond the good work that is done by that organisation, sustained by what is effectively an investment in the continued viability of Free Software in a hostile world, I hope that people will gradually realise that investment is also more generally needed to sustain the creation and maintenance of Free Software as well.