Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Open Source
I don’t know where Tom G. Palmer found this, but I like it. Click on the picture to see why.
There’s a library for Linux which renders video in text like that. For some unfathomable reason I once watched the whole of The Princess Bride like that ...
Let’s hope that that is sufficient commentary to stop the picture walking all over my previous posting. No. Another bit of nonsense needed. That should suffice. This is when my ability to say much with few words is a liability.
Having already written earlier about Vista for CNE, here, I did a short quote-of-the-day posting at Samizdata, trawling for Samizdata commentariat opinion about Vista. In among the nonsense and the abuse and the political doom-mongering, that kind of question often gets really informative answers.
It worked. Fellow Samizdatista Midwesterner responded as follows:
Back in my computer geek days (before QDOS!) I saw a far amount of IBM applications source code. I had to modify and maintain the crap on occasion. At the same time, I was designing and building from scratch an inventory system that was unavailable from any vendor.
Seeing systems from the inside out, I quickly developed an instinct for patchwork. I could spend a few seconds at a terminal operating a program and tell immediately if it was clean and elegantly coded, or patch on patch on patch with bits and pieces borrowed and modified. The instant I touched a DOS based GUI for the very first time, it positively detonated my crap detectors. Early Macs did not trigger it, but more recent versions do to a lesser extent.
The biggest cost of all these patches as a way of doing business is best understood by looking at the Y2K software meltdown. Decades ago, when I was programming, dates were stored as six digit numbers. Source code was often kept in entirely different places and compiled on entirely different computers than object code executed on. As bugs got worked out and systems became reliable, expertise in the source code faded and eventually, the source code itself was lost. When time came to modify computers to accept years beginning in 2000, the software and expertise was unavailable to do it. Third party companies made fortunes.
Something very similar is happening in Windows. I’ve never looked under the hood at the actual software, but I can hear the old bubblegummed and bailing wired engine knocking, rattling and I can even smell the smoke. Meanwhile MS polishes the fenders, adds more chrome and installs a 150mph speedometer. Nick would know the answer to this more than I would, but I would bet one of my computers that there are still vestiges of QDOS performing critical functions somewhere inside these boxes. I don’t think the people who wrote this stuff are still available to maintain it or modify it. I believe that MS is so heavily invested in this accretion and so helpless to overhaul it, that they are into a mode of patching the patches to the patches.
It is actually a lot like the old cathedrals that surround an older church that surrounds and even older shrine, that surrounds an even earlier monument that marks ... er ... something. We think.
This, not price, is why open source software will ultimately win.
I find the comparison with IBM especially interesting, having lived, amazed, through their dethronement, by Microsoft. I can confirm that people on the inside of all this stuff did indeed talk, then, about IBM in just the same way that they now talk about Microsoft.
More anecdotage has accumulated since. From the same Nick M mentioned by Midwesterner:
There’s a bit in the Simpsons where Carl and Lenny are looking at a rotating cake stand in the power-plant cafeteria. One asks the other, “What do you think makes it go round”? The “camera” then pans down to a slave in a dungeon being whipped whilst pushing a wheel attached to a shaft, attached to the revolving patisserie selection ...
My first contact with Vista involved setting up a spanking new HP laptop out of the box. Vista was on a hidden partition and it just had to unpack itself… Easy work I thought. Noooo! It crashed during install but not before It briefly flashed up a good ole Dos screen complete with C:\> prompt (I thought it was 1991 again). It even flashed up a DOS version number! I didn’t the number because MS’s dirty secret was only very briefly revealed but the gimp in the basement is alive and well and turning the cogs ...
Open source will win because *nix was from the start designed to be scalable and there has to be a limit on how much longer Redmond can carry on papering over the cracks. The lead time for Vista suggests they’re well into diminishing returns already.
Oh, somewhere down in the catacombs there’s QDos and the 640K limit and all the rest.
Subotai Bahadur writes of Vista:
There is the anecdotal evidence of my boffin’s claim that it is the most screwed up thing that Microsoft has ever released, and it is confirmed empirically by the fact that he has developed quite a profitable niche converting brand new computers purchased with Vista pre-installed back to XP. There has to be something severely wrong for this kind of niche market to arise spontaneously.
I have my Guru, and Subotai Bahadur has his Boffin. It looks like we both use a foreign word, to capture the esoteric nature of the knowledge involved. Subotai Bahadur is just the kind of commenter I was looking for. I don’t recall him commenting at Samizdata much, but this time he had something pertinent and interesting to say so he said it. Lovely.
The original post being three days ago, which is an age in Samizdata time, those interested in things like this might have missed these last few comments, as would geekophobes, i.e. most people. I get an email for each comment because I did the original posting, and on this occasion I was particularly grateful for that.
If technophobe, geekophobe me is noticing stuff like this, Vista is really in trouble.
UPDATE: Nick M responds to Subotai, ending his comment thus:
If I were Jobs or Shuttleworth I’d be on medication to prevent asphyxiation due to chronic uncontrollable laughter.
They being the gentlemen in charge of Apple, and Ubuntu (which is a particularly user-friendly version of Linux). But, for Ubuntu to sweep the world, it needs to be even user-friendlier. And for Apple to sweep the world it must lower its prices.
My Guru also told me when last he dropped by that those adverts with the Microsoft Twat being sneered at by the Apple Cool Guy were a dreadful own goal, which all of us Microsoft Twats felt thoroughly insulted by. That entirely confirms my personal response to them.
Just took my first look at the Lessig Blog since my Great WWW Outage, and I found out about an interesting new book. It’s about Open Source etc., and it is itself Open Source. In English: you can read it for nothing on your computer screen, by clicking where it says “downloaded”.
Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks, is out. This is - by far - the most important and powerful book written in the fields that matter most to me in the last ten years. If there is one book you read this year, it should be this. The book has a wiki; it can be downloaded as a pdf for free under a Creative Commons license; or it can be bought at places like Amazon.
Read it. Understand it. You are not serious about these issues - on either side of these debates - unless you have read this book.
Which was good enough to get me started. So far I’ve encountered nothing to make me want to stop.
Lessig actually says “Weath” of Networks, but since he has a picture of the original cover and provides copious links to the original. no great confusion is caused by that fluff. Which just goes to make the point about links, that they enable you to correct errors of all kinds, great, or, as in this case, very small.
That’s Digital Rights Management, i.e. stopping people from copying stuff.
This incoming email thing is starting to build up. If anyone emails me on a matter of public interest rather than about their babies or birthday parties etc., I assume that the entire email is fair game for this blog or any other blog that I write for, unless it is explicitly stated otherwise. However, just to make things clear, it would especially help if you were to say something along the lines of “reproduce this at will”, “this email is fair blogging game”, or some such.
Anyway, incoming email:
I remember you from long ago in the Alternative Bookshop days, and am an avid reader of both your blog and Samizdata.
Recently, I have been involved with a new campaigning organisation called the Open Rights Group, which is working in the UK to protect freedoms in the computer world.
The organisation is doing well, but as is often the way with such groups there are more people ready to say ‘ORG should do something about x’ than those who say ‘I’d like to help ORG do x’, and perhaps a preponderance of left leaning activists.
There is an ORG gathering coming up in London, and if you could bring along Libertarian types who are interested in this area, or mention it on Samizdata or your own blog, I’m sure it would improve the discussions no end.
Interesting. Lots of people still seem to remember that bookshop.
My “helping” days are over, and I definitely won’t be bringing anyone along other than maybe myself. And if I do go, I may then also write about it all for this. But, I promise nothing.
Anyway, there it is. If you want to help . . .
Lawrence Lessig writes about the Read-Write internet. (And once again, I got to the Big Media article via his blog.) The Big Bad Guys want a Read-Only internet, and they are shaping the law to get that, and only that. But the next generation wants to download stuff, and then do new stuff with that stuff.
Yet the law of intellectual property will not easily accommodate this remix creativity. As the rules are written today, even for purely noncommercial purposes, there is no clear right on the side of the remixers. The lawyer for Wind Up Records could speak politely, because the law today speaks firmly: there is no freedom for this sort of creativity. There is no way to even license the right. And most importantly, as the technology for the Read-Only internet gets more perfectly deployed, even the technical capacity to remix will be increasingly threatened. Already, AMV creators must circumvent technological protections to get access to the underlying anime that they remix. Those protections will only get better and the war against circumvention technologies will just increase. As one type of digital technology increasingly begs for this remix creativity, a different kind will work to disable it.
AMVs, it seems, are videos which put music together with Japanese animé cartoons.
It is hard for those of us from the couch potato generation to understand why the creativity of the Read-Write internet is important. But if you focus on something that we are likely to understand – market value – then the Read-Write internet, indeed, has a great deal to recommend it. The computers, bandwidth, software and storage media needed to enable an efficient Read-Only internet are but a fraction of the technology needed to support the Read-Write internet. The potential for growth with the Read-Write internet is extraordinary, if only the law were to allow it.
But to those building the Read-Write internet, economics is not what matters. Nor is it what matters to their parents. After a talk in which I presented some AMV work, a father said to me: “I don’t think you really realise just how important this is. My kid couldn’t get into college till we sent them his AMVs. Now he’s a freshman at a university he never dreamed he could attend.”
The father was right. We do not realise how significant the Read-Write internet could be. Nor can I even begin to imagine how policymakers could be made to see the harm that perfecting the Read-Only internet will have for this more vibrant and valuable alternative.
At least I can be confident that Lessig won’t mind me copying and pasting all that.
My first reaction is that Lessig is maybe being a little pessimistic about how easy it will be for this new economy to emerge. After all, if the creators of commercial stuff refuse to allow it to be used for Read-Write purposes, won’t there simply be a parallel economy of stuff being produced where the rule is you can do what you like with it? (By the way, you can do whatever you like with my photos, should any of you actually want to do anything with them. I don’t know why you would want to do anything with them, but go ahead if you want to, and ideally, please tell me about what you’ve done, although that is not a condition.)
As the technology of non-commercial movie making, for instance, gets ever better, there will surely be plenty of stuff out there for the post-couch-potato generation to have fun with, and use to impress colleges if that’s their problem. I mean, Big Music tried for a while to stop downloading. Now they love it.
Lessig is a world ahead of the likes of me about all this stuff, so I am sure there are answers to temper my optimism. But what are they? I suppose part of it is that even those who, say, want to faff about with my photos don’t now know for sure that they have this right, or that I definitely won’t set my huge army of lawyers loose on them, even with what I say in this posting, which in any case they may not know about. And as for downloading, well, the way Big Music is arranging that, that is the problem rather than any sort of solution. Is that the kind of thing Lessig has in mind? The law now chills, in other words, even where it does not actually, it turns out, prohibit.
But once a powerful subculture emerges where the norm is share-and-share-alike, then mere participation in such a world means that you have consented to this regime. And, the hardware will follow. In fact, surely, we already have a lot of it, or the subculture would not now be emerging in the first place.
But I suppose it is now a bit of a struggle. But when were these things ever not?
Interesting pricing policy. Giving it away on the internet, but charging a hundred a fifty dollars for a ready-made and convenient print-out, otherwise known as the book.
It’s all way beyond me, but these guys seem to like it.
How much difference will this self-replicating distribution make to the sales of the non-self-replicating version? Guess: a lot, and in a good way.
Samizdata’s Dale Amon links to an article entitled How Linux Could Overthrow Microsoft. I don’t suppose anything in this is that revelatory, certainly not to someone like Dale Amon, but I am finding it very helpful for understanding just how and why Linux is on the up-and-up and Microsoft may now be slowly going the way of the old IBM. The tone of voice of the piece is explanatory rather than missionary.
These paragraphs in particular make a lot of sense to me:
Proprietary software is licensed, not sold, with severe accompanying restrictions on copying or modification. This scheme was not devised by fools. It reduces piracy, rewards risk, and allows vendors to enforce compatibility. And when a proprietary vendor controls industry standards, it generates fantastic amounts of money; Microsoft alone has created about ten thousand millionaires through employee stock options. And yet there are now literally thousands of open-source development efforts like OpenOffice, Firefox, Linux, and Apache that have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Why?
Proprietary products cannot be customized by users. Product quality is uneven, in part because outsiders cannot examine source code. If a vendor controls major industry standards, as Microsoft does, it can force customers to upgrade - change to a newer version, and pay more money - almost at will. Furthermore, because lock-in to a proprietary standard is so profitable, imitation is a major threat. Software vendors therefore spend large amounts of money pursuing patents to deter clones and lawsuits by rivals.
Perhaps most importantly, proprietary vendors also treat plans, source code, and technology as secrets that must be carefully guarded. But in software development as in other activities, secrecy allows mistakes and abuses to be covered up. Bad work goes uncorrected; managers hide information to gain career advantage. To ferret out bad work, companies hire testing and quality-assurance groups that are kept separate from development groups, but this is wasteful. And if a software vendor has financial problems or an executive loses an internal political battle, a product can languish for years. If customers have problems, they tell the vendor and hope that it will listen. Sometimes it doesn"t, and that"s just too bad.
Open source inverts this model. Under the terms of the most common open-source licensing agreement, the GNU General Public License (GPL), a program"s source code must be made available whenever the program is distributed. Other programmers may do what they want with it, on one condition: any modifications they make must also be covered by the GPL - that is, their code must be made available. The GPL, in combination with the meritocratic culture of software technologists, has yielded a highly transparent, decentralized approach to software development, controlled by communities of engineers who determine the direction their efforts should take. Open-source development groups generally post all their work publicly, including specifications, source code, bug reports, bug fixes, future plans, proposals for enhancements, and their often vitriolic debates. Linux is open in this sense (and yes, Microsoft monitors it closely).
Relative to proprietary efforts, in open-source development there is little management hierarchy, strategic game-playing, patenting, and branding, and few flashy product launch events - in short, less crap. Even though the total Linux workforce is large - as many as ten thousand people - most of it is technical. Red Hat still has fewer than a thousand employees, though it is growing fast. By contrast, Microsoft has 57,000 employees. Microsoft"s legal department alone probably costs more money than the governance structure of the entire open-source movement. And there is no question that for many engineers, the comparative absence of crap is one of the major attractions of working on open-source projects – either as volunteers or as paid employees. “We have people lining up to work for us,” Red Hat"s Tiemann told me. “There are so many people interested in working on open source that we can be very selective.”
I have read all of it up to that bit, and am now not going to stop until I have read the whole thing.
The stuff about back-doors and security breaches is also very good, for a techno-ignoramus like me, that being the subject matter of Dale’s original posting and is the reason he linked to the piece.