There are times when I think that there is a special, darkened room at Microsoft peopled by a bunch of guys who seem to have nothing better to do than sit and think up some new wheeze to nobble the opposition. The rap sheet is an inditment in itself: trusted computing, internet driving licenses, DRM, bullying hardware vendors and attempting to strong arm sovereign nation states. You wouldn't think the list could get any bigger. It just has; but then, recidivism in incurable.
This year seems to been continuing where last year left off: Oracle/Sun, OpenOffice/LibreOffice, Ubuntu and Wayland/Xorg. Now, it's the turn of Nokia and Microsoft. When I heard the news that Nokia was switching from the Symbian OS to Windows 7 for their smartphones my first reaction was: "another Microsoft patents land grab" but this article is not about the proverbial beast of Redmond but about why Nokia chose it over Android and more importantly, given the increasing convergence of laptops, smartphones and tablets, answering the question: just how free is Android and what is the relationship with GNU/Linux?--and I suspect that I'll be needing my asbestos delicates.
I've always been a great fan of the law of unintended consequences. It takes you places. Unexpected places. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but never a dull moment. The recent kerfuffle over Pirate Bay is too well known to require detailed recounting here. What is really interesting though is where it might just eventually take us in terms of internet freedom. This article describes the one fallout of the legal judgements against Pirate Bay and how its response may unintentionally help to protect and promote internet freedoms.
All has changed utterly and a terrible stupidity has been born
The end of 2010 has been interesting. Mass defections from Oracle's OpenOffice team and the software is ported as LibreOffice. Then Mark Shuttleworth announces that Wayland is in, Xorg is out and Unity will be the next Ubuntu desktop. I was just getting my head around all that when the newswires started humming again with the news that Novell had been sold. I experienced a strong sense of deja vu and began to wonder if this was going to be a reprise of Sun's sale to Oracle and the forking of OpenOffice, one of the crown jewels of GNU/Linux.
Since I started using computers and since I abandoned the choppy waters of Windows for the safe harbour of FOSS, the internet has experienced huge change and rapid growth. Better web browsers, file sharing, iPhones, iPads and other touch screen tablets too. The one thing that has not changed much though is that GNU/Linux always seems to breast the tape second. It seems fated to forever be behind the curve. I can live with that as long as I'm using my software my way. Free and open. However, that has implications for freedom and privacy that I don't like living with--and neither does Tim Berners-Lee. Specifically, he has been venting about those very things in respect of social networks and how they threaten that freedom and privacy.
The internet has been awash with the fallout from Oracle's stewardship of OpenOffice.org and Ubuntu's announcement that Xorg would be replaced by Wayland and Unity would be the next desktop. The F-word was used. A lot. No, not that F-word. The other F-word. Forking. OpenOffice.org has already forked to LibreOffice and I've no doubt that Unity haters will fork off to Gnome Shell 3. Fair enough. It's all about choice in the end and choice creates competition and competition often creates innovation and cross fertilization (as well as fragmentation).
Ryan Cartwright has written an article on how to backup Gmail with Getmail. It is an excellent piece, but Getmail is a command line program, and while most readers of FSM will doubtless be at home there and in configuring XML files, we also like to behave like electric currents and take the course of least resistance to get from A to B. Besides, using the Thunderbird (or Evolution) e-mail clients to backup Gmail has other advantages too. Let me explain.
Net neutrality has been a hot and persistent topic on the internet for some time, so I'm not even going to attempt to summarize the debate here. Anyone who values their personal and online freedom knows it's a crucial issue. Regardless of your operating system or the software we use it will affect each and every one of us. However, if you use GNU/Linux you're already tech savvy and familiar with the politics and philosophy of free and open software, so you'll be particularly sensitized to the impact of threats to net neutrality on free software.
When we think of free operating systems we tend to think overwhelmingly of the big hitters (all GNU/Linux) like Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora and Mandriva and then of those niche distros that have been designed for low end systems or for specialist purposes like security and forensics. But Oranges are not the only fruit. There is a hinterland out there called Unixland, populated by other less well known systems whose roots are firmly Unix too. BSD for example, famed for its rock-like security. OpenSolaris is another one, perhaps less well known, but it has features that are well worth a punt.
Like any other aspect of life the internet is awash with hype. And snake oil salesmen. It's lure exceed the benefits those spam e-mails promise that inundate your inbox with offers of little blue pills to reach those parts of your anatomy other chemicals just can't reach. However, sometimes the hype is not just, well, hype.
Mozilla's Firefox browser has been downloaded more that one billion times and its success is reflected in the millions of downloads of one of its killer features: addons (or extensions, as we geriatrics called them). The Browser operates under a tri licence and the addons for it are overwhelmingly free and open too. They empower the user and extend the browser. They help to put the user in control. Ubiquity does this in a way that makes web mashups creative fun and allows you to command the web, not just surf it, without any need to be a programming master of the universe.
It's never nice to hear about the demise of a piece of simply brilliant software. when I discovered that get_iplayer was being pulled by its developer I was, to use a cliche, gutted. The potential loss of a piece of software that did just what it said on the tin is bad enough but it was impeccably free and open. What's more, it was an example to the BBC about how things should be done. It was the work of one lone, unpaid developer, not the product of professional developers subsidised by the BBC licence. What happened exemplifies everything that is wrong with proprietary software.
For the benefit on non-British readers I should explain that the BBC has an excellent website and it includes the iPlayer which allows visitors to view BBC audo and video content in their browser. When it was launched it was, surprise, Windows only. As many licence fee payers were also GNU/Linux users, they were enraged that they had effectively been excluded from the experience. BBC FUD ensued. Eventually though, lobbying and petitioning paid off and the BBC enabled the iPlayer for platforms other than Windows. You needed (and still need) (Adobe) Flash to view the video content and the content was encumbered with DRM and was not yours for keeps. It was only a thirty-day visitor to your hard drive.
Barely a day goes by when you switch on your computer, plug into the web and come across yet another deranged scheme to restrict freedom in the name of security, safety or morality. RIAA, DMCA, RIPA, Pallidium computing, the list almost seems to grow exponentially. So, some guys got together in a dark room, brainstormed and came up with yet another ruse to curtail access to and use of the internet. Relax, this one won't fly. Trust me. But the sheer audacity of it! Even the bovine docility of Windows users wouldn't stomach this one (or would they?)--and here's the irony.
The biggest science story to hit the mainstream media in the last year was of course the big switch on at CERN. What made it such a great story for me was not just the sheer and audacious enormity of the enterprise or the humbling nobility of the colossal experiment but the story behind the story. That story was the absolutely central role of free software philosophy at the heart of everything CERN was (and is) doing. Despite the false start, CERN's search for the Higgs Boson has got into its stride. The same cannot be said for the car crash that is climate science, which may have inflicted terminal damage on the reputation of science. I believe the rigorous application of free software methodology in conjunction with the Fourth Paradigm may save it.
There seems to be no respite from the predations of Microsoft FUD and the machinations of Big Business. Just when it seemed safe to come out of the closet and admit to being a user of free and open source software without being accused of being a Communist, it appears that we are now criminals too--even if we are not using pirated versions of proprietary software. The culprit this time is something called "Special 301", an annual review of the status of foreign intellectual property laws carried out under the auspices of the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) which is an Executive Office of the President. It's definition of criminal would make criminals of every single user of FOSS.
GNU/Linux has never been short of audio and video players, but they live in a world of multiple codecs, chief culprit amongst them being MP3, AAC, WMA and (Adobe) Flash. I say "culprits" because they are not free and open codecs. They are encumbered by patents; most websites with embedded audio/video use them and most of the people who view them are also using other patented software: Windows. GNU/Linux is a good alternative and all distros come bundled with free and open multimedia alternatives too: Ogg. You would not be surprised that these players can handle Ogg but what if I told you that Mozilla's Firefox browser could not only handle this codec but could be used also to transcode videos to that format? Interested? Read on.
This is not the place to debate the immense subject of climate science but it is necessary to say something about "climategate" in order to explain what happens when scientists and politicians collude to distort, hide and even destroy critical (raw) data and methodologies which, unlike the output of CERN, have absolutely colossal financial implications for every man, woman and child on this planet.
By the time you read this Karmic Koala will have been released to a waiting world, but I couldn't wait. A felicitous combination of a desire to do a distribution upgrade to the release candidate and a Twitter arriving on my laptop giving me a link to Raindrop kept me busy for the day. I was intrigued by Raindrop and having used other Mozilla lab experimental software I was determined to see what all the hype was about. If you like the idea of combining a tool for aggregating Twitter, e-mail, RSS and other social Web 2.0 stuff with free and open standards then read on.
RepRap (replicating Rapid-prototyper) is a 3D printer and it is impeccably free and open source under both the GPL and the Creative Commons Licence. It's early days but the implications and the promise are potentially enormous in their own right -- but the fact that it is resolutely not proprietary is what caught my attention.
The submission by Microsoft of twenty thousand lines of code to the Kernel has, predictably, caused many an eyebrow to arch. The phrase "beware Greeks bearing gifts" comes swiftly to mind. I checked the press release. I also checked the calendar just to make sure I hadn't fallen into a wormhole and emerged back on April Fools Day. I hadn't. That reaction was probably replicated right across the free software community. Given Microsoft's track record it's hardly surprising. Perhaps what was more interesting was Linus Torvalds' reaction. After all, this is not an inconsequential flame war about using Gnome or KDE.