Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for December, 2014

A Note on Kolab and Debian Packaging

Friday, December 19th, 2014

I thought it might be helpful if I wrote a quick note about my previous work on Debian packaging and Kolab. As my blog can attest, I have written a few articles about packaging and the effort required to make Kolab somewhat more amenable to a convenient and properly functioning installation on Debian systems. Unfortunately, perhaps due to a degree of overambition and perhaps due to me being unable to deliver a convincing and/or palatable set of modifications to achieve these goals, no progress was made over the year or so I spent looking at the situation. I personally do not feel that there was enough of a productive dialogue about aligning these goals with those of the core developers of Kolab, and despite a certain level of interest from others, I no longer have the motivation to keep working on this problem.

Occasionally, I receive mails from people who have read about my experiments with Debian packaging or certain elements of Kolab configuration that became part of the packaging work. This message is intended to communicate that I am no longer working on such things. Getting Kolab to work with other mail transport/delivery/storage systems or other directory systems is not particularly difficult for those with enough experience (and I am a good example of someone who has been able to gain that experience relatively quickly), but integrating this into setup-kolab in an acceptable fashion ultimately proved to be an unrealisable goal.

Other people will presumably continue their work packaging various Kolab libraries for Debian, and some of these lower-level packages may even arrive in the stable release of Debian fairly soon, perhaps even delivering a recent version of those libraries. I do not, however, see any progress on getting other packages into Debian proper. I continue to have the opinion that this unfortunate situation will limit wider adoption of the Kolab technologies and does nobody but the proprietary competition any good.

Since I do not believe in writing software that will never be used – having had that experience in a professional setting where I at least had the consolation of getting paid for such disappointing outcomes (and for the waste of my time) – my current focus is on developing a low-impact form of standards-based calendaring for existing mail systems, without imposing extensive infrastructure requirements when adopting such a solution, and I hope to have something useful to show in the fairly near future. This time last year, I was much more upbeat about the prospect of getting Kolab into Debian and into more people’s hands. Now, I only wish that I had changed course earlier and started on my current endeavour considerably sooner.

But as people like to say: better late than never. I look forward to sharing my non-Kolab groupware developments in the coming months.

People and their Walled Gardens

Monday, December 15th, 2014

I wasn’t the only one to notice a discussion about moving Python-related resources to GitHub recently. An article on LWN covered the matter and was followed by the usual assortment of comments, but having expected the usual expression of sentiments about how people should supposedly all migrate to Git (something I completely disagree with for a number of reasons), what I found surprising was a remark indicating that some people use GitHub as their “one stop” source of code for any project they might wish to use. In other words, GitHub is their “App Store”, curated experience, or “walled garden”: why should they bother with the rest of the Internet?

Of course, one could characterise such an interpretation of their remark as being somewhat unfair: after all, the author of the comment is not pushing their comment to GitHub to be magically pulled by LWN and published in a comment thread; they must therefore be actively using other parts of the Internet, too. But the “why bother with anything else?” mentality is worrying: demanding that everybody use a particular Internet site for their work to be considered as being something of value undermines freedom of choice, marginalises those who happen to prefer other solutions, and, in this case, cultivates a dependency on a corporate entity whose activities may not always prove to be benign. Corporate gatekeepers frequently act in ways that provoke accusations of censorship or of holding their users to ransom.

Sweetening a Bitter Pill

Many people seem to be infatuated with GitHub, perhaps because it offers conveniences that might make Git more bearable to use. I personally find Git’s command line interface to be incoherent in comparison to other tools, and despite praise of tools like gitk by Git advocates (with their claims of superior Git tooling), I find that things like the graphlog feature in Mercurial give me, in that particular instance, a proper graphical history at the command line in an instant, without messing around with some clumsy Tk-based interface with a suboptimal presentation of the different types of information (and I could always use things like TortoiseHg if I really wanted a graphical user interface myself). So maybe I wouldn’t see the point of a proprietary Web-based interface to use with Mercurial, especially since the built-in Web interface is pretty good and is in many ways better than attempts to provide similar functionality in a tool-neutral way.

People do seem rather willing to discard many of the benefits of the distributed nature of Git and are quite happy to have a single point of failure in their projects and businesses: when GitHub becomes unreachable in such environments, everything grinds to a halt, despite the fact that they all sit there with the code and could interact with each other directly. Popularity and the “network effect” seem to be the loudest arguments in favour of dumping all their code on some distant servers, with the idea being that “social” project hosting will bring in the contributors. Although I accept that for potential contributors who have no convenient way of hosting their own code, such services provide an obvious solution – “fork” the project, pull, make changes, push, dispatch a “pull request” – and allow them to avoid having to either provide hosting for their own code themselves or to coordinate their work in other ways, everything now has to go through the same infrastructure and everyone now has to sign up for the same service, adhere to the same terms and conditions, and risk interruptions to their work caused by anything from downtime and communications failures to the consequences of litigation or such services being obvious targets for criminal or politically-motivated misbehaviour. Not only do the custodians of a project no longer control their own project, but they also put that project at considerable risk.

Perhaps all the risks would be worth it if “going social” attracted contributors. When looking at project-hosting sites, I tend to see numerous forks of project code that mostly seem to have been created enthusiastically at some point in time, only to now be dormant and have seen no actual changes committed at all: whether the user concerned created a fork in an aspirational moment not unlike making a New Year’s resolution, or whether they have done it to demonstrate their supposed credibility (“look at me: I forked the Linux kernel!”), neither kind of motivation is helping such projects get any contributions of value. Making things easier is not a bad idea in itself, nor is getting the attention of the right people. The issue here is whether one finds the right people on such project-hosting sites, or whether one merely finds a lot of people who aspire to do something but who will still do very little regardless of how easy it supposedly is.

Body of Convenience

Although the original discussion is mostly concerned with the core development of the CPython implementation and the direction of the Python language, it is hard to separate the issues involved from the activities of the Python Software Foundation. Past experience suggests that some people involved with both of these things do not seem to prioritise ethical concerns – it is no coincidence that the word “pragmatic” appears in the LWN coverage – and it disappoints me greatly that when ethical concerns about GitHub’s corporate culture were raised, few people seemed interested in taking them into consideration. Once again, the label of “ideology” is wielded, together with the idea that doing the right thing is too complicated and therefore not worth pursuing at all, leading to the absurd conclusion that it is better to favour the party shown to have done wrong over all other parties who, as far as we know, have not done any wrong but should be suspected of it, anyway.

With the PSF taking diversity and equal opportunities seriously, one might expect people to “join the dots” on this matter and for people to be engaged in showing that the organisation is unconditionally committed to such causes and is willing to use its public influence for the common good, but I suppose that since GitHub is not a “Python company” anyone with a problem with the corporate culture in question is simply out of luck. Once again, ethics stand in the way of the toys, and “pragmatism” is a nice term to use to indicate that the core Python development community and the organisation that supports it should have as narrow a focus as possible, even if that means neglecting the social movements that brought about the environment that enabled Python to become the successful technology that it is today.

(The matter at the centre of those ethical concerns was wrapped up either definitively or inconclusively depending on who you wish to believe and how credible you regard the company’s own review of the matter to be. This article does not intend to express a view on that matter itself, but does stress that where ethical concerns have been raised, those concerns should be addressed and not ignored.)

Easy Way Out

Python is getting a lot of competition from other technologies these days. For example, Google’s Go stole some thunder from Python both within the company and elsewhere, and there are people who admit to switching to Go in order to remedy some of the long-standing issues they experienced with Python implementations (mostly related to performance and scalability). As I noted before, had Python implementations, libraries and the language definition been improved to alleviate concerns about Python’s suitability in various domains, Python would be in a stronger position than it is now: a position which arguably resembles that of Perl at the height of its popularity. Sure, choosing Python for your next project in certain domains is an easy decision (just as Perl devotees used to annoyingly insist that people just “use Perl”), but there are plenty of other areas where Python has more or less forfeited the contest: how is Python doing on Android, for instance? People who do Python or Django all-day-every-day may not see a problem, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fundamental problem waiting for a remedy.

It is understandable that people want to play the popularity card: if there’s an easy way of clawing back the masses, why not play it? Unfortunately, there may not be an easy way. Catching up with the development backlog may actually be achieved more effectively by addressing other shortcomings of the development workflow. And there’s an assumption that a crowd of ready-to-start contributors are lurking on GitHub when, despite the aforementioned evidence of people only wanting to play inside the walled garden, anyone sufficiently motivated to improve Python would surely have moved beyond a consumer mindset and would have sought out the development community already.

Python development is a relatively well-resourced activity compared to many voluntary endeavours, and the PSF is responsible for much of the infrastructure that supports the developer communities around Python. Although many benefits are derived from things like the mailing lists hosted at, there are always those who are enticed by other providers and technological platforms. In matters relating to the PSF, the occasional Google spreadsheet or form has been circulated, much to the dismay of some people who would rather not have to use online resources that may require a Google account (and if not that, then maybe a fast computer and cheap energy to power all the JavaScript). Bringing up additional PSF-driven services requires time and effort that may be in short supply (as I have experienced in recent months, despite the help of various stalwarts of the community, including one kind enough to drop my name into this particular debate!), and efforts to just procure help and bypass the community have arguably caused an even greater burden on volunteers, even leading to matters as severe as the temporary abandonment of valuable resources such as the Python Job Board (out of action since February 2014).

Concerns about the future relevance and popularity of Python itself may not be so easily addressed and overcome, but that is a topic for another time. But the task of rebalancing relationships – between the PSF, the core developers, and the community volunteers who keep the wheels turning on the Python online assets – is one that cannot be ignored, either. And retreating to the comfort of today’s favourite walled gardens is perhaps too much of an easy way out that ignores the lessons of the past (despite assertions to the contrary) and leaves such relationships in their current, somewhat precarious state, undermining those trying to uphold the independence and viability of the initiative, potentially causing even more work and inconvenience for infrastructure volunteers, presenting an incoherent collection of project resources to contributors, all in the vague hope of grabbing the attention of people who cannot otherwise be relied upon to look further than the ends of their own noses.

Maybe people should be looking for more substantial remedies than quick fixes in walled gardens to address Python’s contribution, popularity and development issues.

The Unplanned Obsolescence of the First Fairphone Device

Friday, December 12th, 2014

About a year-and-a-half ago, I gave my impressions of the Fairphone, noting that the initiative was worthy in terms of its social and sustainability goals, but that it had neglected the “fairness” of the software to be provided with each device. Although the Fairphone organisation had made “root access” – or more correctly stated, “owner control” – of the device a priority and had decided to provide its user interface enhancements to Android as Free Software, it had chosen to use a set of hardware technologies with a poor record of support for Free Software.

It might be said that such an initiative cannot possibly hope to act in the most prudent manner in every respect. However, unlike expertise in minerals sourcing, complicated global supply chains, and proprietary manufacturing activities, expertise on matters of hardware support for Free Software is available almost in abundance to anyone who can be bothered to ask. Many people already struggle with poorly-supported hardware for which only binary firmware or driver releases are available from the manufacturer, often resulting in incorrectly-performing hardware with no chance of future fixes as the manufacturer discontinues support in order to focus on selling new products. Others struggle with continuing but inconvenient forms of support on the manufacturer’s own timescale and terms.

Consequently, there are increasing numbers of people with experience of reverse engineering, documenting, and reimplementing firmware and drivers for proprietary hardware, many of whom would only be too happy to share their experiences with others wishing to avoid the pitfalls of being tied to a proprietary hardware vendor with a proprietary software mentality. There are also communities developing open hardware who seek out enlightened hardware vendors that encourage Free Software drivers for their products and may even support firmware that is also Free Software on their devices. There are even people developing smartphones in the open whose experiences and opinions would surely be valuable to anyone needing advice on the more reliable, open and trustworthy hardware vendors.

One community that has remained active despite various setbacks is the one pursuing the development of the EOMA-68 modular computing platform. It was precisely this kind of “ODM versus chipset vendor versus Free Software community” circus that prompted the development of an open platform and attempts to reach out and cultivate constructive communications with various silicon vendors. Such vendors, notably Allwinner Technology (in the case of EOMA-68), but also other companies that have previously been open to dialogue, have had the realisation that Free Software is an asset, and that Free Software communities are their partners and not just a bunch of people whose work can be taken and used without paying attention to the terms under which that work was originally shared. Such dialogues are ongoing and are subject to setbacks as well as progress, but it is far better to cultivate good practices than to ignore bad practices and to dump the ugly result onto the end-user.

Now, the Fairphone organisation has started to reconsider the software issue in light of the real possibility that their device will not be upgradeable beyond an old release of Android:

“We are actively looking at ways to achieve this goal, but we’re trying to be realistic and face the fact that the first Fairphones will most likely not be upgraded beyond Android 4.2.”

Given that the viability of devices depends not only on the continued functioning of the hardware but also the correct functioning of the software, and that one motivation that many people have stated for upgrading their phone is to gain access to a supported operating system distribution and/or one that supports applications they need or desire, the unfortunate neglect of software sustainability has undermined the general sustainability of the device. It may very well be the case that the Fairphone organisation’s initiatives around re-use and recycling can mitigate the problems caused by any abandonment of these devices, as people seek out replacements that do what they demand of them, but one of the most potent goals of reducing consumption by providing a long-lasting device has been undermined by something that should be the easiest part of the product to change, maintain, upgrade and even to remedy shortcomings with the chosen physical components; something whose lifespan is dictated far less by physical constraints than the assembly of physical components making up the device itself.

It is quite possible that certain industry practices have remained unknown to the Fairphone organisation, despite bitter experiences elsewhere, and that they are only now catching up with what many other people have learned over the years:

“Our chipset vendor MediaTek is only publicly releasing what it is bound to by the obligatory terms of the GNU public license GPL (the Linux Kernel and a few userland programs) and has chosen not to release any of the Android source code.”

Once again, the GPL demonstrates its worth as a necessary tool to ensure that the end-user remains in control. Unfortunately, Google decided that the often shoddy practices of its hardware and industry partners should be indulged by allowing them to make proprietary products with Google’s permissively-licensed code. It could be worse: some hardware vendors violate the GPL and blame their suppliers, requiring anyone seeking recourse to traverse the supply chain as far as it goes, potentially to some obscure company in a faraway land whose management plead poverty while actually doing very nicely selling their services to anyone willing to pay; others just appear to brazenly violate the GPL and dare someone to sue them.

The Fairphone organisation could have valued the sustainability benefits of Free Software and cooperative hardware vendors. In doing so, by merely asking for informed opinions, they would have avoided this mess entirely. Unfortunately, they may have focused too narrowly only on certain worthy and necessary topics, maintaining an oversimplified view of software that, if mainstream media punditry is to be believed, is merely transient and interchangeable: something that can be made to run on any hardware as if by magic, with each upgrade replacing what was there before with something that is always better, only ever offering improvements and benefits. Those of us with more than a passing knowledge of systems development know that such beliefs are really delusions produced from a lack of experience or a wish to believe that unfamiliar things are easier than they actually are.

Since we cannot go back and change the way things were done before, I suppose that now is the time to deliver on the sustainability promise by fully and properly promoting and supporting Free Software on any future Fairphone device. Which means that the Fairphone organisation has to start listening to people with experience of reliably deploying and supporting Free Software on open or properly-documented hardware, instead of going along with whatever some supplier (and their potentially GPL-violating associates) would have them do just to get the contract in the bag and the device out of the door.