Raspberry Pi: a great British success story

This morning’s Observer column:

I bought my Pi from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge. Across the street (and one floor below) is the Apple store where I had earlier gone to buy a new keyboard for one of my Macs. The cost: £99. So for £15 more, I had a desktop computer perfectly adequate for most of the things I need to do for my work.

The Pi is one of the (few) great British technology success stories of the last decade: sales recently passed the 30m mark. But if you got your news from mainstream media you’d never know…

Read on

The process, not the product, matters

Almost all the (mostly feverish) discussion about Apple focusses on its astonishing mastery of product design. But this week’s Monday Note by Jean-Louis Gasseé has made me reflect on what is actually the most remarkable aspect of the company, namely the fact that it has mastered what must be the most complex, large-scale, precision manufacturing process in industrial history.

In his Note, Jean-Louis leans heavily not only on Greg Koenig’s fascinating analysis of the process by which the iWatch is being made, but also on Koenig’s observation that

“Apple is the world’s foremost manufacturer of goods. At one time, this statement had to be caged and qualified with modifiers such as “consumer goods” or “electronic goods,” but last quarter, Apple shipped a Boeing 787’s weight worth of iPhones every 24 hours. When we add the rest of the product line to the mix, it becomes clear that Apple’s supply chain is one of the largest scale production organizations in the world.”

When you think of it in those terms, it’s clear that in our obsession with the beauty of Apple designs we may have been missing the really big picture, which is that the company has been building a production system that could eventually yield astonishing benefits and change the way every tech manufacturer operates.

We’ve been here before, by the way. When the Japanese first began making cars, they were ridiculed by Western manufacturers — for good reasons. They were clunky, ugly and they rusted early. But the Japanese were good at learning from mistakes. They also sussed that if they were to make really good cars, they had to reinvent the process by which cars were made. From this came the Toyota ‘Lean Machine’ production process, which is now how all cars, everywhere, are made.

So the process is often more important than the product. This was also the point made by Steven weber years ago, in his splendid book about open source software. It’s a distinctive way of making incredibly complex products. In fact, it may ultimately be the only way of making really secure software.

Gasseé’s conclusion from his meditations is that it would now be foolish to discount rumours that Apple is planning to manufacture cars. I agree.

The hidden ironies of a Firefox OS

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.

Innovation in an age of austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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.