Tag Archives: FOSS

An Open web service protocol for distributed notification

We all need ‘a place of our own’ in ‘the Cloud’, to replace ‘the desktop’ as the place notifications are sent to and distributed from. To be successful, it would need to be based on open protocols, so that any service provider can host the service, and must include at least one good FOSS implementation so we can DIY it. Is there a W3C committee working on this, that I haven’t heard about?

I frequently move between Android phone & tablet and Ubuntu desktop. I am sick of being repeatedly notified of something I read 2 hours ago. My devices don’t read my notifications, I do and I don’t want to have to go to a web wite to fetch them. I want them to find me, be read, then be cleared unless I say not to and for that to be propagated. Most of the OSs seem to have finally got a working notification system, about 3 years after it might have been useful without such a service.

Ubuntu or Mozilla would have been obvious places to launch an anti-competition service back then, for the good of the users. Now, I guess we’ll have to depend on Mozilla and even then they’d try to market it to sound like it depends on sign-up to Firefox Sync.

Overlapping-tribes notification would be an obvious expansion. Google Circles would have been a good place to start, if we could trust them. A WebRTC Googlist told me that the people who took the XMPP out of Googe Talk are ‘no longer with them’. The trouble is: I’m not sure if that was for being Evil or for getting caught.

The Value of Software

I’ve been reminded of the fastest 1980s transatlantic software delivery method:

  • Put software on a magnetic tape.
  • Put the tape in your hand luggage.
  • Fly to the USA.
  • At customs, when asked if you had anything to declare, say “This tape”. If asked the value of the tape, make a fast decision whether to say $10 and risk 12 hours of interrogation as a possible communist spy, there to steal America’s software secrets or say $150,000 and be sure of an hour of form filling.

It has occurred to me that the correct answer was:
“$10. The licence costs far more but I’m not carrying that. It will be sent on later.”

Software is worth nothing until you use it and only until you stop using it. Free software costs nothing, so developers need to get paid in a different way. Should Free & Open Source Software be paid for only by those who use it to generate a profit and could it generate an international income for the countries that fund it, adjusted for national wealth?

Could we have a licence to receive free software updates, only paid for by businesses, according to their income (before tax fiddles) and routed to the teams that developed the software that is most used? Commercial software could join the scheme too, with higher prices if less rights are handed over. I don’t think it is healthy for FOSS to kill the commercial software market, because it encourages anti-competitive service monopolies like Facebook and Google.

[ This is a first draft of an idea ]

ESR’s ‘The myth of the fall’

An excellent blog post by Eric S. Raymond (the man who wrote ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’) on back-projection of current values onto an idealised historical past (with a bit of personal revisionism about his old sparring partner Richard M. Stallman thrown in for good measure)


I found this while researching precise meanings of “Free” (not necessarily free) and “Open Source” (also Free, but with a right-wing personal freedom rather than a left-wing community-ownership stance. The outcomes are virtually indistinguishable.) The thing you probably thought was Open Source, if you’ve ever thought about it, is called “Shared Source”, a term invented by Microsoft.

This is why the FOSS movement isn’t popular with managers. It can’t be explained with a pie-chart.

My search for a “GNU/Linux ‘Shiny’ OS” to be a minimum-cost competitor to Google’s Chrome OS

I think I’ve made it fairly clear that I don’t completely trust Google not to behave like IBM or Microsoft or Apple (in music), if they find themselves in a position of monopoly power in services. I believe there is a significant possibility that the UK government are soon going to jump out of the Microsoft frying pan, into the everlasting fire of Google services, using support for Free and Open Source Software as their excuse. This will delight their Google handlers and perhaps earn them a tickle of their cash-hungry bellies.

As I pointed out in a recent post, use of the Linux kernel and free-to-use services no longer guarantees you any real Freedom. We face a future where cheap Google Boxes in our houses and Google phones in our pockets/handbags will be the portal through which every message we send or receive passes. It seems likely that Google Chrome OS and Android will merge in some way, into an impenetrable fortress, keeping our data safe for us and Google and our government.

We need an alternative. The Free Software movement seems to be blindly following Google towards a destination of its own eventual destruction. What happened to the community’s ideals? Are we so easily bought?

I’m looking for an alternative way forward. I want a simple web and application server constructed and run on FOSS services, available from multiple providers because “The Market is Good” and “Competition Benefits the Consumer”, RIGHT? I only want to use server software that I could take away and have run elsewhere if I was not happy with my service provider and I want a web-based client that uses entirely open Web standards with no proprietary extensions “for greater power” (see: Chrome.) Obviously, as a Real Linux we have the option to also enable local desktop applications, rather than drive consumers to our company shops.

Please tell me if you think there is an obvious alternative FOSS solution to the Google monLOLopoly. If there isn’t then we need to elect one soon because democracy needs choices to stay viable. Our ‘choice of Freedom’ is at risk.

Management Summary of ‘Social vs Capital’ parts 1 – 3

  1. Avoid hardware vendor lock-in by using Unix-style operating systems that can run on any appropriate hardware.
  2. Avoid software vendor lock-in by using Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) so development can be done by anyone with appropriate skills and shared for the common good.
  3. Avoid service provider lock-in by only using FOSS on Linux to provide services,  operated by multiple service providers in a distributed network with easy data transfer/mirroring between providers.

All 3 suggestions encourage fair competition between competitors in a free market, without the potential to abuse a market-leading position, to the benefit of consumers.

Social vs Capital Part 2

To recap:

Unix happened because companies trying to run their businesses using software didn’t like being dependent on the whims of hardware manufacturers. Each manufacturer defined their own hardware architecture. Customers wanted hardware-independence.

GNU/Linux and the Free & Open-Source Software movement happened because coders didn’t like waiting for someone else to fix their problems or to decide not to fix them. They wanted access to the source code and the legal right to change software and share their changes. They wanted software-supplier independence.

I simplified last time. BSD, GNU & Linux weren’t the only game in town. An important book was published: ‘Operating Systems, Design And Implementation’ by Andrew Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum believed in giving his students access to working source code. He had used Unix but when AT&T pulled up their draw-bridge, he needed a replacement that his readers could use and change – so he wrote one. ‘Minix’ was a minimal rewrite  of the key functions of Unix v7 which ran on a twin-floppy IBM PC (just about.) Unfortunately, the publishers, Prentice-Hall, insisted on retaining Copyright to the software. To get a copy, you had to buy a computer science book you probably didn’t want but. But I bought it, as did a young man called Linus Torvald. Tanenbaum was also instrumental in the production of the Amsterdam Compiler Kit which was the starting point for the GNU C compiler. My first sight of the GNU effort was on a listing for a 9-inch tape from the DEC User Society: It included emacs, gcc & the ACK, to be run on your own commercial Unix system.

Stallman and the GNU organisation were writing another replacement for Unix, free of copyrighted code. Their aim was to ensure that if you used their software, no-one else would ever prevent you from using code, particularly if you had contributed to it. Copyleft was born. ‘Free’ (as in beer) licences were not new. The BSD licence allows anyone to take BSD code and do what they wish with it, including building non-Free code on top and selling it.  OS X is built on FreeBSD but Apple sells licences and protects “its” intellectual property from re-use by competitors, including those companies that contributed code that Apple used. ‘Strangely’ Stallman didn’t think this was fair so worked towards creating the GNU licence, the GPL. The original idea has been described as “viral”. If you used GNU-licensed code then your code was required to be GNU-licensed too and you were required to make it available to anyone who wanted it, for only the cost of reproduction. THe GPL was arguably ‘less free’ because it enforced sharing and prevented commercial exploitation. GPL supporters point out that the code you contribute becomes a marketing tool to sell a future service. You offer a service (typically to write other software) rather than sell a software product licence. There is downward market pressure on price and upward on quality, to provide the best value service.
Compromises were made to the GPL  later, leading to the ‘Lesser’ LGPL. This allowed  software libraries to be used in conventionally licensed commercial software.

Having established the new ground-rules, GNU started work, from the top downwards. The bottom layer, the HURD kernel, has still not been delivered. Fortunately, that guy Linus started at the bottom and worked up. When he and his Internet recruits started needing to test their kernel, the GNU tools were ready. Because GNU & Linux were both copying the same open system interfaces, they worked together.

The Free Software movement happened because all these individuals knew they couldn’t do everything on their own. If they wrote something new or fixed a problem, they gave it away. In return, someone else would have fixed a future problem before they found it and shared the solution with them, free.

People sometimes question what happened to ‘the hippy generation’. It appears that many of them went into computer science and carried right on with implementing a community based on freedom & love, inside any institution that would pay them a salary. ‘The Community’ developed a culture and distributed processes and tools that anyone was allowed to use. When people who had grown up in this community started their own companies, they didn’t follow the IBM model, as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had. They adopted the Free tool-kits of the hippies. Facebook, Google, the Nokia Maemo/MeeGo team, Red Hat, Canonical (Ubuntu Linux) and the Steam gaming platform come from a new breed of entrepreneur. They are not in business to sell you hardware or software as a product. They sell you a service on the Internet. Many of these services are ‘free at point of delivery’.

But there are costs and someone has to pay. You are no longer locked into a hardware or software supplier but to a single service provider and they have your information, probably the most valuable asset of your organisation.

Social vs Capital Part 1

When I joined ‘the computing industry’ (or was it ‘the data processing trade’?,) there were two kinds of computers: those made by IBM and the others. The others came in two flavours: IBM mainframe clones and ‘trying to be different’. Trying to be different was so successful that IBM were eventually forced to try being different to themselves.  The various hardware families all ran different operating systems. Changing hardware required all your software to be rewritten. Moving from IBMish mainframes meant your data had to be translated into ASCII. The proposed solution to the operating system problem was Unix. Unix was created to give hardware independence, through software portability. It was made easier to ‘port’ Unix by writing it in the C programming language rather than the specific assembly language of the hardware.

This revolution happened within AT&T, a company prevented from competing with IBM by anti-trust legislation. Freed from the profit motive, other than the desire to save costs, they did with Unix what was best for everyone. They gave it and its source code away free to anyone who wanted it. More importantly, they allowed its improvement by universities.

Later, the US government started to allow commercial exploitation of Unix by AT&T. Key source code became subject to non-disclosure agreements and the fastest period of cooperative computing innovation up to that point was closed down.

Two important things came out of this disaster – 1) PCs and hence Microsoft and 2) the Berkeley System Distribution (BSD) of Unix and GNU’s Not Unix (GNU), led by Richard Stallman, whose frustration at not having the source code to fix his own printer gave him such a mighty itch, he kick-started the whole Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement and it’s biggest success, the Linux Operating System, recently made popular by Google. Bill Gates’ biggest competitor was never Steve Jobs; it was an idea set loose by idealistic academics – that people are stronger when they share the product of their labours, that you pay people for producing, not for the product. This was a harmless ideal at first because large organisations owned the computers that were a key part of the means of production.

I am indebted to Robin Ince again, for pointing out in his TEDx Dublin talk ‘The Mind is a Chaos of Delight’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pfOHaWeTr8 that Evolution doesn’t predict only “survival of the fittest” but ‘survival of the just good enough not to die’, which I think explains Microsoft’s success, and for poking me in the profit-motive with his blog entry http://robinince.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/i-was-going-to-jump-in-the-canal-to-save-the-drowning-man-but-then-i-thought-whats-in-it-for-me/, to finally start this troubled tale of open software.

FOSS has been running around in the background, largely unnoticed by the lumbering beasts, much like the early mammals. Apple OS X is built on FreeBSD and Google Android and Chrome OS are based on the Linux kernel. In the long run, Apple and Google may look like the last of the small, fast raptors rather than the first intelligent apes, because somewhere along the way, the sharing became one-directional, and their essentially predatory nature struggled to survive as their more social competitors saw the danger and drove them into the swamp.

In forthcoming posts, I plan to look at the dangers the FOSS communities’ dreams of Freedom are facing in the current collision with Capitalism.