Free software events for January 2006

Free software events for January 2006


As time boldly advances through January passing the Chinese New Year, we can witness free software carrying on its momentum and spreading itself even further around the globe. With that comes the plethora of additions, enhancements and modifications to the portfolio with which we have to become accustomed. As with other articles of this nature, I can only bring you the events that I have become awae of. These include:

A little bird emailed me that...

The Firefox web browser has received justifiable media coverage and praise over the last few months in its taking the browsing world by storm and, putting it bluntly, out-performing and out-securing its current Microsoft competitor (IE6) again and again to the extent that newsletter article writers shy away from mentioning it fearing that they might sound like a broken record. There is an article in the “Etude Xiti Monitor” in France that the flaming mammal has managed to conquer 20% of the European market, and that the latest version of the browser has enjoyed more than 20 million downloads in the last 2 months—the total number of deployments of the software certainly being much higher.

The news that is relevant here is not the Firefox browser, but news of the 1.5 release of its cousin Thunderbird, the email client, by Mozilla. Thunderbird is designed to be to email reading and writing as Firefox is to web browsing. It is not meant to be all things to all people, but is designed to do the job of handling email intuitively and well. If you want more interoperability with group-ware servers and the like you should look more towards Evolution. Thunderbird started life as a no-nonsense intuitive email reader with plug-in support for extra functionality.

Thunderbirds are GO!Thunderbirds are GO!

Arrival of a maritime primate

On the subject of Mozilla’s projects, before the arrival of Firefox and Thunderbird there existed a product known as the “Mozilla Application Suite”. This was based on the Netscape Communicator product and consisted of a web browser, email client, news reader, IRC client, web authoring tool and anything else the developers could think of at the time. However, when the lighter meaner leaner cousins came onto the scene the Mozilla organization decided to drop it in favor of the aforementioned programs.

If this was a proprietary world that would have been the end of the story. The Mozilla suite would cease to be. It would have drawn its last breath. It would be an ex-product. However, being free software, the way was open for someone else to revitalize, take the baton and carry on from where the previous developers left off. That is how SeaMonkey was conceived and the project has just given birth to SeaMonkey Version 1.0.

Choices are always good. Although the non-bloated “correct tool for the correct job” concept of the Firebird and Thunderbird projects appears to be the popular way to go, it is nice to see the existence of a more fully-featured all-in-one application still exists for those who prefer it.

The GNU flash

The FSF have announced development of the GNASH project. This is a Flash Player that can handle version 7 of the SWF file format. Macromedia’s Flash and Shockwave protocols are good examples of why standards and freedoms are so important. These are good and well adopted technologies and provide a real enhanced web browsing experience. However, because of the proprietary nature of the clients, the world finds itself with browsers, in effect, in shackles. I run a 64 bit GNU/Linux system on my desktop, and I can run free software for the vast majority of my work. However, I cannot access Flash sites correctly, and I need to power-up a 32 bit machine to do so. Although the Flash Player is free-as-in-beer it is not free-as-in-speech. I can only use technologies that Macromedia think worth while.

The g-nicest work of g-nature in the zooThe g-nicest work of g-nature in the zoo

The FSF’s solution, in producing a truely free version of the software, can only benefit the world. The project is still new and as such immature but I have great hopes. This solutiong is badly needed.

Let’s talk APIs

The relevance of instant messengers is coming more and more into the forefront. For my children, the most significant communication aspect of the internet is not email. Instead, it’s the ability to see and hear their school friends when they chat over the net, and to be able to send animated “smileys” (and other such eye-candy) to them instantly. Once again, proprietary formats and protocols have been firmly entrenched in something I feel should be free and open. Google, to give them credit, appear to be attempting to correct this with Google Talk. They have now released some source code for their APIs under a BSD style license.

Hopefully this will initiate a converging of the various IM standards to a free and open one.

Lite in the database world

SQLite is a free embedded SQL database that is maturing fast. It is ACID compliant and supports a surprisingly large proportion of the ANSI SQL standard for a lightweight client-oriented library. It is gaining in popularity and is becoming a first choice amongst more and more of the development community. The last day of January saw the arrival of SQLite 3.3.3—the latest stable incarnation of the program. This sees the arrival of CHECK constraints, separate REAL and INTEGER column affinities and other goodies.

This product represents a very nice arrow in the free software quiver. For read-only, one-machine database implementations, it is one of the fastest solutions out there; and it’s gaining ground over MySQL on such implementations. It is also very useful for desktop type databases, and is used by Beagle as well as others. When described as “lightweight”, it is, as far as resources are concerned, not to do with the size of database. It is near ideal for databases that only require single process access.

Book Competition!

This week we are giving away a copy ofJust Say No To Microsoft: How To Ditch Microsoft And Why It’s Not As Hard As You Think.

All you need to do to enter is check out the latest book competition announcement on our blogs page.

GOOD LUCK!

Thanks go to _No Starch Press for providing this fantastic prize._

GPL Revisited

A significant event in January was the release by the FSF of the first draft version of version 3 of the GPL. I believe this is the first review of this license since 1991—15 years ago—which is an eternity in computer terms.

I am not a lawyer, nor a license expert. In fact, reading legal documents tends to give me a headache so I leave that to others more able. However, from what I have gathered from glancing over in this draft version is that it looks promising to me. The FSF does not seem to be advocating any significant change in the core of the GPL itself, or the “Copyleft” concept. Instead, GPL version 3 seems to be specifically stating criteria that was omitted but implied in the version 2 of the license. For instance, DRM may not be used to deny users the rights that the GPL grants to the software and such legal mechanics as the DMCA cannot be used to withhold these freedoms either. On top of that, any patents a contributer has whose technology is included in the software are now specifically (not just implicitly) granted as rights to those “downstream”.

Although there are still some issues that need to be sorted out I think the GPL version 3 will eventually improve an already good free license.

The duck in the south

An event which caught my eye was the announcement that Mandriva and HP are to launch pre-loaded GNU/Linux Desktops in 37 Latin American countries. The GNU/Linux Desktop itself is not currently making a big as splash of an entrance as was predicted by some a few years ago, but inch by inch, step by step, it has made its way onto the stage and is heading slowly and surely to the center.

A document writer becomes freer

A relatively minor event that occurred in January was the release of Abiword 2.4.2, the cross platform word processor. It warrants a mention, however, based on the fact that this release permits OpenDocument exporting as well as importing. The advantage Abiword has over many of its competitors is its small footprint and its down-to-business-with-no-bloat design which makes it a better candidate where raw computer power exists only at a premium, such as embedded systems.

The adoption of OpenDocument here pushes the format more to becoming the standard instead of a format controlled by a single company. It is, of course, just as relevant to the Massachusetts soap opera (latest episodes of which can be viewed on Groklaw) as it is to other organizations interested in adopting open and unencumbered standards.

The reason why the OpenDocument routines is now in Abiword interests me. The functionality was contributed by Nokia and was not part of the original road map of the application. Nokia obviously have a use for a good word processor that works on embedded systems, and can see the advantages of having OpenDocument support for it. The free software model means they can obtain one for the fraction of the price that can be achieved in the proprietary world, and will have the functionality Nokia requires for a relatively small developer investment. As a result of this, the whole community, as well as Nokia, benefits.

Secure certification

In the “it is good to see free software certified” department I can report that OpenSSL has received FIPS certification. This is good news, especially as a large percentage of the world’s internet commerce already relies on OpenSSL. Now I suppose it can officially do so...

Seriously though, certification is important. As more and more corporates get involved in free software, more and more of its modules will achieve certification previously exclusive to proprietary software vendors. It is a reactive effect rather than a proactive one. To explain: a proprietary software vendor will certify its software to sell it, but a free software user will only certify their routines when their industry quality procedures require it to do so. However, once certified, all users of that software can enjoy that assurance.

Conclusion

As 2006 passes its first month, free software is marching solidly on. I see its further adoption in the take up of Firefox; more processes in place to make it acceptable, such as the FIPS certification of OpenSSL; and generally greater optimism about its future. My wife is Chinese, and I have just celebrated Chinese New Year. She tells me this year is the year of the dog, but I think we may well see a gnu, demon and penguin in there too.

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Biography

Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.