Predatory EULA on chip
One exciting recent bit of news is all about Asustek extending the reach of Splashtop and putting it on pretty much every motherboard. This means that tens of millions of PCs are expected to have Linux installed down at the core, essentially (yet arguably) running it as the ‘default’ operating system.
As rudimentary as Splashtop may be at the moment, this could be the start of something greater that will be extended and improved over time. Splashtop also had its kernel patches released to the public (according to Phoronix), so other hardware makers are likely to follow suit. Phoenix has already found itself on a similar boat and Phoenix’ ubiquity is nothing to sneeze at.
In yesterday’s news, The Inquirer made the following important observation:
Asus to ship all motherboards with Linux
And, for many casual computer users who make use of web-based applications exclusively, Splashtop Linux might be all the operating system they ever need.
This becomes truer as time goes by. An increasing number of applications become Web-based. Not everyone would use them, but some might. Some will.
Splashtop receives a lot of publicity at the moment, but it’s arguably small potatoes compared to Phoenix HyperSpace, which was described here:
Phoenix Technologies’ new HyperSpace is an instant-on environment for laptops, letting users launch a browser or other apps with booting into the OS.
Today, Phoenix Technologies introduced a firmware product called HyperSpace, which allows PCs to run a number of applications separate from the operating system. What that means is that if you use a PC equipped with HyperSpace, you will be able to quick-boot your notebook into a secure Linux environment, where you can use Web browsers like FireFox and pre-loaded Web-aware apps like Google Earth, Picasa, and the like.
Also, since HyperSpace is a Linux-based platform, Windows viruses won’t affect it.
As Beta News put it at the time, “New Phoenix BIOS will run Linux apps when Windows fails.”
The basic concept is that an embedded Linux OS will accompany the core system firmware or BIOS, allowing instant-on applications to be run from it at any time.
Even Dell expressed some optimism and showed its enthusiasm about such disruptive technologies at the time, but let’s quickly look at Microsoft’s apparent reaction.
BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies Ltd.’s plans to market a new application platform the company claims will solve a number of problems endemic to Microsoft’s Windows platform might be taken as a provocative gesture at their longtime partner. But Redmond’s immediate reaction was nonchalant.
On Monday, the Milpitas, Calif. software maker announced Hyperspace, a Linux-based virtualization platform that will let OEMs bundle cut-down versions of popular open-source software that end users will be able to access instantly, even without booting Windows.
Based on such report you would think that Microsoft does not care, wouldn’t you? However, this new article brings back memories:
Splashtop is not the only such product on the market. A year ago, BIOS vendor Phoenix Technology launched HyperSpace, an equivalent that has yet to turn up on PCs in any numbers. Microsoft’s view on the movement to embed cut-down operating systems is not known, but Phoenix did launch a pre-emptive strike against it to stop it blocking HyperSpace using restrictive Vista end-user license agreements (EULAs). Microsoft relented.
An antitrust complaint from Phoenix Technology, an eternal Microsoft partner (or so it thought) forced the monopoly to fix the anti-competitive EULA of Windows Vista. Microsoft tried to characterise this change as goodwill and a nice gesture, essentially changing the story which was originally told and claiming credit (even glory) for being abusive. The press underplayed this fiasco, but Mary Jo Foley was rather disgusted.
But the real reason for Microsoft’s capitulation became clear on March 7 via a new joint-status report in the Microsoft-Department of Justice case. It turns out BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies (a long-time Microsoft partner) filed a complaint with antitrust regulators about Microsoft’s virtualization restrictions.
Microsoft has tried to manipulate the virtualisation market in a variety of ways [1, 2, 3] because it had fallen so far behind. Microsoft insulted many people’s intelligence when it claimed that a EULA could or could not define the level of security of the O/S, limited by editions of Windows, i.e. featureset being b/locked.
This wasn’t the first time that Microsoft lied or twisted excuses about ‘security’ in order to be anti-competitive. Recall the OOXML/file types incident for example.
Speaking of which, OOXML is still a secret as Microsoft continues to disobey rules. Charles complaint about this only a couple of days ago and now he’s now joined by Bob Sutor, not just Rob Weir, among others.
Will it [OOXML] ever be available? Does anyone care? Do any rules apply to this at all? What are the excuses for this? Just like almost ever other aspect of this particular process, dangerous exceptions and precedents are being set.
To sum up, here we have another case study exemplifying total disregard, market abuse, distortion of stories and a strategic fight against Linux, which escapes the media’s attention. █
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Secret deals, intimate relationships
BECTA, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, should be considered among those who are largely responsible for turning an entire nation into a Microsoft workshop [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. We mentioned its complaint several days ago (further mentioned in [1, 2]), but at the end, unsurprisingly, it gave up to what the following article calls “the convicted software monopolist.”
Becta, the UK quango governing technology spending in education, swept the licensing issue under the carpet in order to sign a new three-year deal with Microsoft, the convicted software monopolist, last month.
During 2007, when the 2004 MOU extension was operating, Becta complained about Microsoft’s licensing practices and technology to the UK’s Office of Fair Trading, and advised schools not to upgrade to Vista and Office 2007, Microsoft’s latest software.
Yet Becta had no choice but to sign a new agreement with Microsoft, said Ian Lynch, who campaigns for open source software in schools with the Open Schools Alliance.
“In the sense that Microsoft has a monopolistic presence, Becta [still] has a remit to get the best discount it can,” he said.
“In the short term they might get the best pricing, but in the long term they might think, ‘sod this, we are going to take them to the Office of Fair Trading’,” he said.
As we stressed at he start, BECTA, like many other loyal Microsoft customers that thrive in taxpayers’ money (e.g. The British Library), is just trying to save face with its complaint. Had it wanted a solution to the problem, it would have easily found one. It’s total disinterest in change and blind obedience that continue to stand in the way and make children more dependent than ever on this “convicted software monopolist,” which locks them in using personal data (technical barrier) and skills (getting children 'addicted', having them memorise menu layouts). █
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Could Vote Rigging Get Any More Obvious Than This?
Many shameless deniers — spearheaded primarily through disinformation, which is notably disseminated by Microsoft — are out there continuing to rewrite history, badly. Let it be reiterated that the OOXML saga was so abundantly filled with corruption that setting up a page summarising it all is nearly impossible. There are literally hundreds of separate scandals that come to mind. One interesting new find is this one.
Microsoft Puppet countries are leaving the P membership. Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus, and Trinidad & Tobago have already dropped out. All those countries voted Yes without comments to OOXML.
Let’s clarify what we see here. Andy Updegrove was astounded (he even publicly complained) around August last year when several nations suddenly joined in to vote for ‘no apparent reason’ (it was obvious to a prudent observer that knows all about OOXML).
The countries stayed there not only for the September 2007 vote, but for the second one at the end of March 2008 too. Now that it’s all over, just a month after the announcement from ISO, suddenly they drop out again (“back to normal, business as usual”), having just accomplished their mission, so to speak. Assignment completed.
It’s mildly amusing actually because Microsoft’s puppet don’t even try hard enough to cover their tracks by lingering on and sticking around for a while longer. It’s very revealing. Don’t believe us? Ask the man who was in charge before being replaced by another Microsoft puppet. Here is what he said:
“This year WG1 have had another major development that has made it almost impossible to continue with our work within ISO. The influx of P members whose only interest is the fast-tracking of ECMA 376 as ISO 29500 has led to the failure of a number of key ballots. Though P members are required to vote, 50% of our current members, and some 66% of our new members, blatantly ignore this rule despite weekly email reminders and reminders on our website. As ISO require at least 50% of P members to vote before they start to count the votes we have had to reballot standards that should have been passed and completed their publication stages at Kyoto. This delay will mean that these standards will appear on the list of WG1 standards that have not been produced within the time limits set by ISO, despite our best efforts.
The disparity of rules for PAS, Fast-Track and ISO committee generated standards is fast making ISO a laughing stock in IT circles. The days of open standards development are fast disappearing. Instead we are getting “standardization by corporation”, something I have been fighting against for the 20 years I have served on ISO committees. I am glad to be retiring before the situation becomes impossible. I wish my colleagues every success for their future efforts, which I sincerely hope will not prove to be as wasted as I fear they could be.”
–Martin Bryan, ISO ‘Escapee’
Formerly Convenor, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC34 WG1
Speaking of ISO being hijacked, we mentioned this earlier today and it needn’t be doubted anymore. Many other strategic ‘forts’ got hijacked by Microsoft. Yes! Obey Microsoft or be bullied, even if you are a distinguished professor or a government official (probably several).
Another Clarification: OpenOffice.org Does Not Support OOXML
We stressed this before, but Microsoft and its apologists — even a few who are deceived inside the FOSS world unfortunately, trolls in this site included — continue to repeat the self-justifying nonsense. Let’s just say that again: OpenOffice.org does not support OOXML. Put more clearly:
Some others take a more pragmatical approach, but even that one is very much telling about the whole OOXML farce. In this category, we find the OpenOffice.org project. Despite what Microsoft will tell you, OpenOffice.org does not and will not provide OOXML « interoperability » . It will however provide an import filter that users will be able to use in order to import documents formatted in the format used by Microsoft Office 2007 and 2008 that bears the name of Microsoft Office Open XML(OOXML). What this means is that the OpenOffice.org project has to work directly on the files edited and created by MS Office 2007 and 2008 in order to provide compatibility and does not use the OOXML specification, as it is not implemented by MS Office 2007 and Microsoft Office 2008. So much for interoperability. The jury is still out, by the way, on the search for OOXML implementations. The ones that exist are either broken or else very limited (even the famous Novell plugin).
Once again you can hopefully see the role of an OOXML villain called Novell, which did a big favour to Microsoft in exchange for cash. Speaking of which, Mary Jo Foley disappointed yesterday with a headline suggesting that “Silverlight for Linux” is now available. There is no “Silverlight for Linux” and therefore it’s an inaccurate and deceiving headline that gives Web developers the wrong impression. Microsoft refused to support GNU/Linux, so instead it used Novell to make a clone that’s always behind and requires patent ‘protection’. It’s the perfect arrangement for Microsoft, which even Miguel de Icaza has denounced by now. Appended below are some new bits of information about Flash.
Why JavaFX (Maybe Flash) and Not Silverlight
Regarding Flash versus Silverlight, we have discussed this before.
In today’s news you might discover that Adobe was kind enough to finally treat GNU/Linux like a first-class citizen, at least as far as the Flash player goes (it made such promises back in 2006 but only in vain):
Once piece of welcome news is that Adobe is releasing the Flash Player 10 beta for all major platforms — Windows, Mac and Linux. Adobe has even upped the Linux ante with a new installer specially tailored for Ubuntu users. Barclay says that Adobe considers Linux a major platform and will continue to make all Flash releases simultaneous across platforms.
This is important because the Web is increasingly becoming a semi-replacement for some native applications. Here is a new article about this trend, with focus on Adobe AIR.
Twhirl is built on Adobe AIR, which has a lightweight client library that allows Web developers to use familiar tools and languages to build first-class desktop applications. Software created with AIR is fully interactive and network-enabled, with a rich UI. But unlike traditional Web applications, AIR apps gain the immediacy and user engagement that come from running outside the browser window.
Also recent is the following article which suggests that an open source Adobe Flash player might be inevitable: (colouring in red is ours)
Both Otte and Savoye do see some limited good coming out of the Open Screen Project. Otte suggests that the growing openness of Adobe might help to reduce the reservations in the free software community about working to reproduce proprietary technologies, as well as “the general ‘flash is evil’ attitude” that prevails in the community.”
Moreover, both Otte and Savoye see the announcement as a hopeful sign. “I think Adobe will open up Flash in the end, or at least the Flash player,” Otte says.
It refers to the following recent announcement:
Software maker Adobe announced Thursday that it would drop many of the licensing requirements attached to its Flash technology, which is used to display video and audio content on the web.
Let’s not forget that Adobe is now in the Linux Foundation, but there’s still work to be done.
I would hope that Zemlin will encourage Adobe to now treat Linux as a first class citizen as opposed to an afterthought for release after Windows.
I hope Zemlin will pressure Adobe to finally actually make Flash — not just the player — but Flash CS3 Professional, (the core Flash development tool) available for Linux as a fully commercially available and supported product. It is somewhat ironic in my opinion that Adobe can join the Linux Foundation, claim to support Linux and yet not offer its flagship Flash development tool on Linux.
Last but not least, as far as RIAs go, be aware that JavaFX is GPLv2-licensed. It’s probably the one to promote at the moment. █
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Increasingly, as MySQL grows mightier, it is likely to find itself under greater pressure. Part of this pressure is not a competitive one as much as it is pressure which revolves around loyalty. Balancing customer trust against the need for revenue can be hard sometimes. Loyalty to shareholders often antagonizes market requirements, too.
Another vector of risk is the relentless attempt to write and exploit new laws that essentially contradict the GNU Public License (GPL) and therefore sideline or exclude free software, of which MySQL is one. The bigger and more disruptive MySQL becomes, the more attractive a scapegoat it will be. To say this more explicitly, as MySQL attracts more customers at the expense of its counterparts, software patent trolls and vocal critics will more likely paint it their target.
From a public relations and legal perspective, it’s typically easier when you are an underdog because you receive sympathy. But MySQL is growing up, so let’s take a look at some new barriers it will probably face, or is already facing.
Another Storm in a Teacup
In order to better understand the sensitivity of the issue at hand, it’s worth recognizing the importance of MySQL. To many IT professionals, MySQL is a vital ingredient in their stack. It is the engine that organizes and stores personal data. This trend is here to stay, particularly because Web-based applications continue to gain traction. Just as people wish to control their data and escape lock-in, they also wish to have a sense of control over their database, i.e. the software which lies beneath processing, interpreting and delivering this data to other layers of the stack. MySQL offers peace of mind to many.
How quickly things can change though. Inaccurate news broke loose in Slashdot a few weeks ago, insinuating that MySQL was gradually going closed-source. The almost-immediate backlash, which was further fueled and exacerbated by a few sensationalist articles, played a partial role in convincing MySQL to keep the core of the program purely GPL-licensed, essentially backtracking on a decision that had previously been made. Above all, MySQL wanted to keep its users happy. It needed to cope with new types of pressure.
This rather fundamental strategic change was nothing new. Contrary to common belief, MySQL’s revised strategy had been adopted before Sun Microsystems even entered the picture and the company still intends to make some peripheral components (addons) of MySQL proprietary. It’s seen as controversial by those who argue that MySQL’s business potential could equally well be exploited using support and customization services, not sales of proprietary software. Interestingly enough, MySQL did not start off as free software. The same goes for the Linux kernel, which elected the GPL only in 1992.
This latest storm surrounding MySQL has died out by now, but it led me to some amicable conversations with Mårten Mickos, the CEO of MySQL, who is also a Database Senior Vice President at Sun Microsystems following the 1-billion dollar acquisition of his company. Selective responses from him are quoted later on, but I continue to reflect on MySQL’s likely direction with the open confession that I have bias in favor of the GPL’s merits and awareness of existing external threats to it.
MySQL’s Business Model Dilemma
MySQL is unique in the sense that it has become an almost de facto database for GNU/Linux-powered servers (and to an extent Apache also). This gives it an enormous, yet hidden, presence in the World Wide Web. It thrives in a huge userbase and can boast over 100 million downloads of the software so far.
“More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access…”MySQL’s monetization of this success — as measured in terms of popularity or ubiquity — is another story due to its relatively low ‘conversion rate’, i.e. the number of users who turn into paying customers. The ratio recently stood at about 1000:1, which means that only one in a thousand users also becomes a paying customer.
Over the past couple of years, MySQL has earned itself some new critics for subtle changes to its business model. The latest incident, which was mentioned above, is no exception. Examples of controversial moves involve the availability of latest versions of the software and the state of the software which made is available (e.g. pre-compiled program versus source code). There was also a colossal case of misunderstanding last year when discrimination against Debian was wrongly claimed. Unfortunately, such misconceptions and errors live on.
More recent attempts to change the business model saw a shift from introducing inconveniences to actual restriction imposed on access, with the exception of paying customers who receive binaries. In essence, they must handle executable files without accompanying source code, which sometimes translates into lock-in and helplessness, feature- and security-wise. But it didn’t take. MySQL changed its mind. Sort of.
It’s important to remember that when MySQL announced its strategic reversal a week ago, at least as far as the core product is concerned, not much was changed as far as the business model goes. Only its scope was altered and impact thus limited.
To the company’s credit, it did listen. It did take feedback about MySQL into account after the backlash. By all means, it is preferable to inquire about controversial things — keeping users in the loop so to speak — as opposed to making quiet or surprise announcements. The GPL is all about giving users real control, as well as a sense of control over direction of development and whatever they do on their personal computers or servers. Distribution of binaries, for example, does not permit this.
Free software is still scarcely explored in the business sense, but many choose to think of it mainly as a question of control (open source), not just freedom. These two strengths are separate, but not mutually exclusive. One problem that remains with the aforementioned approach, namely the making peripheral components proprietary, is that it turns products as a whole into the equivalent of trial version of software where users get trapped in, then charged premium rates for non-free extensions which they cannot study, modify, or redistribute.
The situation above highlights yet another limiting factor, which can be used as an argument filled with substance against free software — especially software which goes down this particular route at the end. With dual-licensing, the software loses its distinguisher, its added value. For opponents of free software it serves as a fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) argument which may be stronger than “free software relies on support services, so it’s made shoddy for revenue.”
It’s possible to think of all sorts of ways to monetize use with minimal disruption and obtrusion. Some companies already do this with great success. I approached Richard Stallman for his opinion on this and he insisted that it is not just a question of profit. “I don’t think much about the question of what is more profitable, because I am constantly urging people to think about what is ethical and what is not,” he said.
Software patents are an odd duck because they are valid only in a few countries and their economic merits are repeatedly doubted. They typically serve an affluent minority. A controversial issue that came up back in February was the disappearance of MySQL’s rebellious policy on software patents. The acquisition by Sun had an effect on it.
Scott Mace started a big discussion at the time about Sun’s view on software patents and what it all means to MySQL. Sun weighed in, but nonetheless, a fairly brave Web page that protests against software patents did not return after it had been taken down. It has only been amended since then, in order to reflect on convergence or symbiosis of policies. Not everyone was pleased.
“What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage?”It’s clear that large companies like Sun can benefit a lot from their patent portfolios. In contrast, how many software patents does MySQL have? MySQL inside Sun can make it an attractive target for patent trolls. Sun has plenty of money and free software projects living under the umbrella of large companies translate into less ‘community backlash’. Think about circumstances where they come under attack that’s akin to that from Trend Micro, as opposed to NetApp, which attacked the titan called Sun. What will prevent MySQL from getting not only further restricted — feature-wise — but also sensitive to software patent baggage? What prevents a company with software patents on database technology from finding ‘artistic’ ways to extract money from MySQL users, e.g. via Web hosts, directly from Sun, or even by approaching customers (especially large companies) and making secret deals, just as Microsoft did?
I approached Mårten Mickos for a comment and his take on this was as follows: “As long as we have software patents legally in our market, the owners of such patents may try to make money on them in FOSS environments, and some will succeed.
“Fortunately there are companies with patents that don’t use them in this way. I am not an expert on Sun’s practice in this regard, but my impression is that Sun hasn’t used it patents for revenue extraction from users or producers of free software,” he concluded.
To be fair, Sun seems to have used its patents only defensively in recent years (examples include NetApp and Kodak). The company’s CEO even offered to defend Linux using Sun’s patents. However, to an extent, it seems like a case of fighting fire with fire while at the same time trying to extinguish the fire by opposing expansion of software patent laws into Europe.
It’s very doubtful that larger companies like Sun will be willing to just throw away their portfolios and annul their software patents altogether, especially after heavy investments that brought competitive advantage. Simon Phipps insists that there is an obligation to shareholders, but by hogging they become not the solution and therefore part of the problem. This may also lead to a separate public relations problem.
As people from FFII might say, based on their extensive experience, a company’s defensive patent becomes offensive when the company gets weaker and therefore feels cornered. The solution lies in invalidation of software patents. To use an analogy, letting more nations have nuclear weapons to neutralize attacks or to counter-attack does not make the world safer. Disarmament does. At the end of the day, large companies that benefit from the existing (and very controversial) system can typically just offer crocodile tears whenever this issue gets raised.
Fighting at All Costs, for Cost
Adoption of free software is still hindered by several key factors. A previous article highlighted problems that tend to escape many people’s attention. A continuous change of laws, for example, can be used to harm free software’s legality or at least put some clouds over its head.
It has unfortunately become a political question. Look not for scientists’ opinions but look mainly at shareholders, lobbyists, lawyers, and lawmakers. It is usually them who call the shots nowadays. Government opposition to an anticipated patent reform, followed by another discouraging outlook further confirmed this very recently. Then again, some say this entire reform was pointless from the very start. It strives to eliminate elements that large companies do not like while keeping in tact the rest which brings benefit to them and ensures monopolization prevails.
The GPL version 3 (GPLv3) was intended to address a few of the problems that are associated with software patents. GPLv4 has already been mentioned by Richard Stallman, who foresees further potential threats to the four essential freedoms that protect and sustain the freedom of software. Free software ought never to turn into something which is neither Free (libre) nor free (gratis). Software patents laws are a great risk to this.
At the moment, MySQL’s CEO does not rule out GPLv3 as a future option and at least a consideration, provided the market matures and adopts this licence too. “We think GPL 3 is great (better than GPL2), and we will move to it when we believe that it is also well accepted among users and customers. Wide acceptance was the reasoning we used for moving to GPL 2 and that’s the reasoning we’ll use for version 3,” says Mårten Mickos. Sun has already made one component of xVM GPLv3-licensed (Ops Center virtualisation to be specific), so it’s apparent that Sun hasn’t any idealogical or fundamental resistance to it.
In summary, MySQL is likely to face issues that are associated with ways of extracting revenue from its users. Another largely forgotten issue is the increased pressure from the outside to extract revenue for collisions involving ideas, especially ones pertaining to algorithms. MySQL ought to ensure that it can keep free software as free as it has always been, but these challenges may not be trivial to address. █
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