I don't know how many times I've run into this particular mistake, but free software developers keep making it, so I think it's worth a brief post. Free software is based on contact between users and developers. Without that, it's just not very efficient, and any free software project that breaks that bond is going to flounder for the same reasons that so many proprietary products flounder -- total disconnect with the users.
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.
If you haven't heard, Google have announced they are pulling the plug on Wave, their interactive, real-time communication product. It's a shame but I can understand why. It never really took off. Google have blamed lack of user adoption for the poor showing, and maybe that's true, but in the end if people aren't using your product: it's not their fault - it's yours.
Manufacturing has been getting smaller, cheaper, and more flexible for years. It's now possible to make products as sophisticated as smart cel-phones, PDAs, toys, clothing, books, and even houses in almost any shape or form you want down to very small numbers. The mass production barrier has fallen, so that today, it's possible for a home inventor, hobbyist, or crafter to create almost anything by assembling one-off manufactured components, either from a service or from affordable home-fabrication equipment (or a combination of these).
What is this "Free Culture" thing? What is "Free Software"? And how do I get my work out there? If you're looking to participate in the "Commons", you'll need to get comfortable with the idea of free, public licenses and how to use them for your works. This won't be hard at all, especially with this short guide, but there are different traditions that have sprung up around different kinds of works.
This is my story about searching for Japanese pop music under a free culture license. It's a little tricky, because the best sites for this are of course, in Japan, and not well advertised on the English web. I discovered how to use Python's XMLRPC library to run searches using the web API for a Japanese music sharing site called "Wacca". The results were very interesting -- I found some of what I was looking for, though not all.
Having defined the terms that represent the core values of free culture and free software in a previous column, today I want to talk about the terms that define its boundaries: how we describe them and defend them. And what's on the other side of them.
In the past few years we've seen a lot of hardware-based innovation (or at the very least expansion). New products and markets have arisen built around hardware and its use. Smartphones, tablets, netbooks and gaming systems are all examples of markets that have expanded and some if not most of the products make use of free software. This is great but why does it seem to be that the free-software products are second-generation, playing catch up. Where is the device innovation driven by free software?
What exactly does it mean when Richard Stallman says that the Creative Commons' Attribution-ShareAlike license has a "Weak Copyleft"? Why exactly is it that "Freeware" and "Non-Free Software" mean the same thing, while "Free Software" is something else entirely? And what is this business with "Free Beer", and where can I get some? If you've asked yourself these questions, this column is for you.
I have been wanting to write this article for a while. Years, in fact. I am determined to write it in the simplest possible format: no punch-line at the bottom, no building up to a grand conclusion, but simply stating something impressive, true, and simply wonderful: the hegemony that Internet Explorer once upon a time had is... over. Right now, other browsers are fighting amongst each other, and it's all about how much of IE's share they are getting. The war is over: Internet Explorer lost. Everybody else won.
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.
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.
Most people with an interest in software freedom will turn to GNU/Linux as their operating system of choice. Few realize however, that the vast majority of GNU/Linux distros are not entirely free. Imagine migrating away from Windows, only to find that by installing GNU/Linux you are accepting a restrictive Microsoft license!
Many distros promote the use of proprietary software, knowingly show incorrect licenses, and attempt to hide the problem under the guise of an 'option of freedom'. When the majority of developers of a collection of software don't care about freedom, neither will their users. Non-free distros make almost no attempts to inform their userbases of the importance of freedom, even though they wouldn't exist without it. I will discuss how the option of freedom is an unacceptable solution, and propose some real fixes.
Earlier today (March 24th, 2010), I submitted this response to the IPEC call for public comment on future Intellectual Property enforcement policy. Given the short notice (only six days!), I was not able to come up with a more detailed response, but I did want to express my dismay at the way these policies are being framed.
Free software exists in a kind of "special trade zone" within the existing copyright system, defined by free copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL). Free culture has created similar zones with tools like the Creative Commons' licenses. We usually consider that to be sufficient. Yet we are often frustrated by the desire to interface with the rest of our culture, and sooner or later we'll all have to face the big bugbear that is reforming the copyright system. Aside from a few vested interests in the entertainment industry, nearly everyone hates the system we've got -- it's clearly overreaching and ill-adapted to the electronic world of the internet. But what sort of system would we like? That's much more contentious. Here's a synthesis of a few prominent ideas of what real copyright reform might look like.
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.
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.
At the Gran Canaria Open Desktop Summit in July 2009, the Open-PC project was announced. The statement said the project aimed to "cooperatively design a Free Software based computer by and for the community". Further this PC would use only hardware for which there are free software drivers available. This would be a PC with the minimal compromise required for running a free desktop. In January 2010 the project announced the launch of its first product.
When Google announced their ChromeOS there was a flurry of comment and opinion on what this could mean for the GNU/Linux user and the future of free software. Our esteemed editor, Tony Mobily made a bold statement (albeit framed as a question) at the time that Google's ChromeOS could turn GNU/Linux into a "desktop winner". I'm not sure that it's true.
Whatever happens of course the fact is that when somebody of Google's size and impact enters a market, there will be winners and losers, losses and gains. Now that the dust has well and truly settled let's have another look at the potential impact of ChromeOS.