Archive for the 'Open Source' Category

The hidden ironies of a Firefox OS

[link] Monday, February 25th, 2013

The news that there is going to be a Firefox Operating System has set the cat among the pigeons. GigaOm has an interesting take on it which is refreshingly alert to the irony of the carriers’ response to the development.

The fact that the carriers are lapping this up represents a moment of supreme irony: these are the same companies – largely former monopolies – that were all about walled gardens, the companies that wanted to replicate the portal-first, AOL model in the wireless world. And what happened to stymie that scenario? Apple happened.

It was the iPhone that really loosened the carriers’ grip on their product. Suddenly they were just providers of voice and SMS and data, not suppliers of value-added services. The revenue cut from app sales now went to Apple and Google, not to the operators. The walls to their gardens had been obliterated, and someone had set up much more attractive walled gardens elsewhere.

So back we come to this idea of the open mobile web. This is an area where luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee have been on the warpath, pointing out very real problems with the iOS/Android model. These include the inability to share app-based content in a standardized way, and the inability to search across apps. In short: the loss of the level playing field that web technologies represent.

Firefox OS is designed to solve those problems. Weirdly, we can now witness the former walled garden proprietors genuinely extol the virtues of openness. By promoting Firefox OS, they cannot regain control – however, they hope to prise some control from the hands of Google and Apple.

The sharing economy

[link] Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Picnic version: The Clothesline Paradox and the Sharing Economy (pdf with notes) from Tim O’Reilly

Slides from a terrific talk by Tim O’Reilly. Worth watching — and pondering — in full.

Innovation in an age of austerity

[link] Monday, June 18th, 2012

This lecture by Eben Moglen* of Columbia Law School is the most important thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s 90 minutes long (45 minutes talk + 45 minutes Q&A), so you need to make yourself a coffee and book some time out. But it’s worth it. And if you’ve really, really busy, then there’s a useful — but not comprehensive — set of notes by Stephen Bloch here.

Cory, who first alerted me to this, has ripped the audio so another way to access it is to put on an MP3 player and listen to it on the train or in the car.

Cory described the talk as “one of the most provocative, intelligent, outrageous and outraged pieces of technology criticism I’ve heard” and I agree. It’s also a useful antidote to the greatest evil of all — conventional wisdom.

*Footnote: For those who don’t know him, here’s a useful brief bio:

Eben Moglen has been battling to defend key digital rights for the last two decades. A lawyer by training, he helped Phil Zimmerman fight off the US government’s attack on the use of the Pretty Good Privacy encryption program in the early 1990s, in what became known as the Crypto Wars. That brought him to the attention of Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, and together they produced version 3 of the GNU GPL, finally released after 12 years’ work in 2006.

Today, he’s Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, Founding Director of the Software Freedom Law Center and the motive force behind the FreedomBox project to produce a distributed communication system, including social networking that is fully under the user’s control.

If you want reproducible science, the software needs to be open source

[link] Sunday, February 26th, 2012

An increasing proportion of scientific research is data-intensive, and analysing torrents of data requires software, much (if not most) of which is custom-written by researchers to meet their needs. What that means is that computer code has become the equivalent of lab apparatus for some kinds of science. But scientific method requires that the relevant disciplinary community should be able to reproduce an experiment. That means that the custom-written software should also be made available in an accessible form. But often it isn’t — which is why it’s good new to learn of a Nature Editorial arguing that it should. ArsTechnica has a useful piece about this issue. Excerpt:

Modern scientific and engineering research relies heavily on computer programs, which analyze experimental data and run simulations. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a scientific paper (outside of pure theory) that didn’t involve code in some way. Unfortunately, most code written for research remains closed, even if the code itself is the subject of a published scientific paper. According to an editorial in Nature, this hinders reproducibility, a fundamental principle of the scientific method.

Reproducibility refers to the ability to repeat some work and obtain similar results. It is especially important when the results are unexpected or appear to defy accepted theories (for example, the recent faster-than-light neutrinos). Scientific papers include detailed descriptions of experimental methods—sometimes down to the specific equipment used—so that others can independently verify results and build upon the work.

Reproducibility becomes more difficult when results rely on software. The authors of the editorial argue that, unless research code is open sourced, reproducing results on different software/hardware configurations is impossible. The lack of access to the code also keeps independent researchers from checking minor portions of programs (such as sets of equations) against their own work.

‘Security’ = Microsoft control

[link] Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

From the Canonical Blog.

Any new Windows 8 PC will have Secure Boot switched “ON” when it leaves the shop and will be able to boot Microsoft approved software only. However, you will most likely find that your new PC has no option for you to add your own list of approved software. So to install Linux (or any other operating system), you will need to turn Secure Boot “OFF”.

Hmmm… I wonder how many computer users will know how to do that — or understand why it might be necessary to do it. Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) wonders about that too:

Even with the ability for users to configure Secure Boot, it will become harder for non-techie users to install, or even try, any other operating system besides the one that was loaded on the PC when you bought it. For this reason, we recommend that PCs include a User Interface to easily enable or disable Secure Boot and allow the user to chose to change their operating system.

Remembering Dennis Ritchie

[link] Sunday, October 16th, 2011

My Observer tribute to Dennis Ritchie.

It’s funny how fickle fame can be. One week Steve Jobs dies and his death tops the news agendas in dozens of countries. Just over a week later, Dennis Ritchie dies and nobody – except for a few geeks – notices. And yet his work touched the lives of far more people than anything Steve Jobs ever did. In fact if you’re reading this online then the chances are that the router which connects you to the internet is running a descendant of the software that Ritchie and his colleague Ken Thompson created in 1969.

The software in question is an operating system called Unix and the record of how it achieved its current unacknowledged dominance is one of the great untold stories of our time…

Celebrating Michael Hart

[link] Sunday, September 18th, 2011

This morning’s Observer column.

Michael Hart is dead. Michael who? I guess most people have never heard of him and yet if you’ve ever read an ebook then your life has been touched by him. Why? Because way back in 1971 he had a great idea: that computers could make great literature freely available to anyone. He founded Project Gutenberg, the world’s greatest archive of free, public-domain ebooks, and he devoted his life and most of his energies to that one great project.

The idea came to him when he was a student at the University of Illinois in 1971. Computers were then huge, fabulously expensive mainframes and Michael had access to one of them. On Independence Day 1971, inspired by receiving a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, he typed the text of the declaration into a computer file and sent it to other users of the machine. He followed it up by typing the text of the Bill of Rights, and then, in 1973, the full text of the US constitution.

Most people would have stopped at this point, but not Hart. If computers could store and endlessly distribute great texts, he reasoned, why stop at the constitution? Why not create the digital equivalent of the lost Library of Alexandria? Why not every book in the world – or at least every significant text that was out of copyright and in the public domain? Thus was Project Gutenberg born…

Michael Hart RIP

[link] Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Michael Hart, the man who founded Project Gutenberg and created the world’s first great collection of ebooks, has died. There’s a nice obituary of him by Gregory Newby on the Gutenberg site.

Michael prided himself on being unreasonable, and only in the later years of life did he mellow sufficiently to occasionally refrain from debate. Yet, his passion for life, and all the things in it, never abated.

Frugal to a fault, Michael glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors. He fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components.

Michael S. Hart left a major mark on the world. The invention of eBooks was not simply a technological innovation or precursor to the modern information environment. A more correct understanding is that eBooks are an efficient and effective way of unlimited free distribution of literature. Access to eBooks can thus provide opportunity for increased literacy. Literacy, and the ideas contained in literature, creates opportunity.

Hart was ‘unreasonable’ in the sense of the famous George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

He certainly changed the world. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found treasured texts in the Gutenberg archive. And the lovely Eucalyptus iPhone App has given it a new lease of life.

Raspberry Pi Alpha board

[link] Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Lovely project, based in Cambridge.

Hmmm.. birthday greetings from M$soft

[link] Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Video here. (Embed code doesn’t seem to work.)