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09.15.08

Links 15/09/2008: Google Phones Out Shortly, New GNU/Linux Software

Posted in News Roundup at 7:59 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

GNOME bluefish

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Digital Tipping Point: Clip of the Day

Brian Behlendorf, lead developer of the Apache Foundation 06 (2005)

Ogg Theora

Digital Tipping Point is a Free software-like project where the raw videos are code. You can assist by participating.

Eye on Microsoft: Loads of Flak for Vista, Microsoft ‘Extends’ CSS, and Much More

Posted in GNU/Linux, Microsoft, Security, Servers, Standard, Vista, Windows at 7:06 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Vista and GNU/Linux

Hard times for Microsoft in the press, especially because of Windows Vista and those ‘siblings’ which came with it (e.g. Server 2008 and Home Server). It backfires badly and gives ever-rising attraction to GNU/Linux. John Spencer wrote the following article.

I am happy to say Microsoft has run square into the self same unfamiliarity problem with Vista and Office 2007. They are a bit too different to the ‘finished work’ without offering any must-have extras.

It gets even harder for Microsoft when even official Governmental bodies like BECTA advise the public sector procurers not to change. Ironically this stricture appears not to apply to other Government organisations in education such as the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) who have clearly more money than sense.

Microsoft though has enough clout to follow alternative strategies for persuading its customers to change when they show signs of dragging their feet. The most obvious is by not allowing vendors to install XP on new machines and making sure lots of stuff, bit by bit, won’t work on the old machines (allegedly).

The Open Source world in contrast with its plethora of cool Linux distributions and manifest lack of clout (on the desktop) only has the ‘hey that’s a cool desktop – I must change’ strategy to fall back on and that’s a pretty weak opener in the desktop wars.

Why indeed would one now change desktops, why in the past were we so willing, eager even, to do just that and now are so reluctant?

Also in the news:

Inquirer: Vista suffers a dose of Linuxitis

1. [noun] – an affliction of the Operating System, whose only symptom is that the OS has problems in being accepted by the masses. This symptom, in turn, is caused by insufficient support from the developer community, especially the entertainment sector 2. linuxite [adj.] – not being hip enough, applicable to an OS. Etymology: the word has its roots in Linux’ long hard road towards popularity, but in the very recent history Linux started to overcome this affliction.

Linux Loop: Microsoft’s Biggest Weakness

In many ways, Microsoft has little to worry about, at least not for now. Sure, they are losing market share steadily, but for their lead to be toppled it would take years and years, or would it?

Microsoft’s agreements with major OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) such as Dell and HP are highly confidential (which is a warning sign in itself), but by most accounts, the agreements give Microsoft a lot of power over these OEMs. This is part of what gives Microsoft so much power. As long as OEMs continue to sell Windows exclusively, which Microsoft essentially ensures with their agreements, they have a large part of the market all to themselves. These strangle-hold agreements may also be a weakness, though.

Crunch Gear: Microsoft’s Vista armor starting to fade

HP denies that they are making an OS to rival Vista, but, they do acknowledge that they are developing software that would bypass some of its functions altogether. HP formed the “customer experience” group nine months ago in an effort to give customers a quick and easy alternative to certain applications. The team is focusing on touchscreen technology where users can watch movies or view pictures.

IT Vibe: Will Windows Vista be the death of Microsoft?

The last few weeks has seen a steady increase in the number of rumours about the Windows Vista operating system and the potential for new operating systems to hit the market over the next couple of years. The latest rumours relate to a suggestion that Hewlett Packard (HP) is on the verge of beginning work on a new Linux based operating system which they hope will eventually compete in the open market with Windows Vista. Fact or fiction?

DaniWeb: Microsoft Remains a Company on the Defensive

Microsoft even went so far recently as to mask Vista as a new operating system called Mojave, and showed people’s reaction on hidden camera. Apparently, people who claimed they wouldn’t buy Vista were wowed by it when they saw it in action under a different name. The blind taste test might work for soft drinks, but there’s more to an operating system than a quick taste. Let’s let these people live with Vista for a few weeks, then record their reactions. Something tells me it wouldn’t be very flattering.

Tech Crunch: Microsoft’s Real Problem: Facebook is the New Outlook, and Other ways that Redmond is not Listening to Generation Y

Until Microsoft starts listening to young people and creating products and services that simply work, and that means no crashes, no blue screens, and a dead simple user interface, it will not surprise me that a melancholy mood will hang over Microsoft, and its share price.

Microsoft sure drew the ire of some of some mainstream press, which is rare.

Microsoft Insiders

Watch out for a company called Momail. It has just appointed a new CEO. That CEO is a long-time Microsoft employee, so there's likely to be impact.

After a ten year stint at Microsoft, where amongst other tasks he oversaw the launch of the Asian windows Vista, Kenneth Lundin has made a move to Momail.

Here is the irony of a Microsoft executive bemoaning and striving to address spin in the media, having come from a company that controls and restrains the media through actual ownership.

Republican convention delegates, liberal bloggers, lipstick-wearing hockey moms and anarchists unite: Rooting out media bias is now just a mouse click away.

Hoping to invite news consumers behind the information-gathering curtain, a Seattle entrepreneur and former Microsoft executive has created a new user-driven Web tool he claims helps track media spin.

Speaking of bias or advertising, the (MS)NBC, which we criticised before, is still paying constant lip service to Microsoft. Case of point from the news: Microsoft Surface headlining on MSNBC (with video)

It smells like a commercial more than an actual report.

Security and Privacy

The hundreds of millions of zombie PCs — and particularly their respective users out there — deserve an explanation, one which may be the ease at which Windows viruses can be created and replicated. Anti-virus software has become snake oil. NewsWeek reports:

If college students can beat the best antivirus programs, why do people spend nearly $5 billion a year on them?

Zombie PCs give a tremendous rise to DDoS attacks and SPAM. The impact of the flood of SPAM (well over 100 billion per day) may lead to erosion of privacy on the World Wide Web, which is a shame because it’s caused by the insecurities of one particular operating system.

Finding ways to limit DoS attacks and SMS spam by making it harder to spoof the origin of electronic communications is on the agenda at a telecommunications standards meeting next week — but civil rights advocates worry it could put an end to anonymity on the Internet.

Glyn Moody has just explained the importance of Web anonymity and this new study suggests that privacy is very important to people — far more important than data harvester conveniently choose to believe.

Pew’s study found that 68% of people who use Web mail or other Web data storage services would be “very concerned” if companies analyzed their information to display advertisements close to their interests. Another 19% said they would be “somewhat concerned.”

As for Microsoft, well… Microsoft never gave a flip about privacy. Its Web browser, which is bolted onto the operating system as an anti-competitive measure, is in fact spyware.

[Microsoft] Needs to phone home but keeps it short

Standard Contamination

Microsoft’s vain attitude towards standards was clear to see throughout the OOXML scandals. Now they proceed to ruining cascading style sheets too, and not just using fonts.

Microsoft has outlined the CSS extensions whose support has changed in IE 8. These extensions, all prefixed with “-ms-” can be divided into two groups. The first group is to support the work in progress, CSS 3.

Vendor acronyms and names inside Web pages? Browser-specific markup and directives? Has Microsoft not caused enough harm with XAML? It goes out of its way to ruin (X)HTML/CSS/JavaScript [1, 2, 3] as well.

Potential… to Lose One’s Freedom

“Unlimited Potential”, a codename for the fight against Free software, is once again rearing its ugly head and targeting the already-exploited African population.

Microsoft channel manager for East and Southern Africa (ESA), David Ndung’u, said the price reduction was in line with the aim of Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential programme, which wants to make technology more accessible to those at the middle and bottom of the world’s economic pyramid.

They sure try to get poor students addicted and locked in.

GLOBAL software giant Microsoft is planning to increase volumes for its wide range of products, among them the Microsoft Office and Student 2007, in Zimbabwe.

Cloudy Microsoft

After the LSE disaster comes another major crash.

On Thursday September 11, I — like many of my IM contacts around the world — couldn’t sign into Live Messenger for a number of hours.

Another day, another downtime.

Microsoft Gags Own Employees to Put Customers’ Life at Risk

Posted in Fraud, Hardware, Law, Microsoft at 6:40 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

NDA for DoA

This story is truly disgusting, so although it does not involve Novell, it won’t escape without a comment. It happens to show what a vicious and irresponsible company Microsoft has become (or has always been).

Here is the gist of it:

Microsoft fires quality assurance whistle-blower

[...]

Robert Delaware talked to Venturebeat on the Xbox 360 defects and might face litigation, presumably for violating a non-disclosure agreement.

So, Microsoft has just 'pulled another Charles Pancerzewski' — an employee who blew the whistle on Microsoft fraud and then sued the company, having been sacked for being truthful. Microsoft paid him millions of dollars to disappear along with the evidence which had already convinced a judge to go ahead.

This latest news is also covered in:

To use Russian reversal humour, in Halo, user kills Xbox360. In Microsoft, XBox360 kills user (and sometimes babies). This issue would not be quite so severe if it were not for claims of death due to burning XBoxes. Here are some reports from last week:

It’s becoming pretty obvious why Microsoft needed to gag its own employees. With billions of dollars already lost in the XBox business, Microsoft shows no signs of recovery. Recently in the news:

That last reference says it all. XBox 360 is dead. The problem is that Microsoft permits innocent human beings to die with it. Money comes before safety, honesty, and people’s lives. This type of deliberate negligence changes the answer to the question: “has Microsoft ever caused the death of people?”

Gates: No! There are no significant bugs in our released software that any significant number of users want fixed.

FOCUS: Oh, my God. I always get mad at my computer if MS Word swallows the page numbers of a document which I printed a couple of times with page numbers. If I complain to anybody they say “Well, upgrade from version 5.11 to 6.0″.

Gates: No! If you really think there’s a bug you should report a bug. Maybe you’re not using it properly. Have you ever considered that?

FOCUS: Yeah, I did…”

Bill Gates, FOCUS Magazine, 1995

Patent Revolt in European Patent Office

Posted in Australia, Microsoft, Patents at 5:49 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Software patents protest in India

Strike 1. The EPO is having a little new crisis. Its own employees are demanding a reform and taking it to the streets after reports of unrest and overworked staff.

The international Staff Union of the European Patent Office (SUEPO) has called on the staff of the office to strike on Thursday 18th of September, and to demonstrate in Brussels for a reform of its supervisory board. The strike and demonstration are timed to coincide with meeting in the Belgian capital of the executive of the patent office, under its president Alison Brimelow, to seek approaches to a “strategic renovation”. The employee representatives expect around 300 staff members from the patent offices in Munich, Berlin, The Hague and Vienna to attend the protest rally.

The Stop Software Patents campaign has already taken notice.

According to an EPO internal staff survey of June 2008, only 9% of the EPO examiners believes that “Brimelow and the Vice-Presidents actively promote patent quality”. Brimelow is progressing, since Alain Pompidou, the former President, had a trust of only 7%.

But wait. That’s not all. The patent system is considered so bad now that it’s compared to natural disasters, urging observers to take appropriate action before it’s too late.

The European Patent Office (EPO) is warning of “Global Patent Warming” in light of the growing number of patent applications it is receiving. At the AIPPI (Association Internationale pour la Protection de la Propriété Intellectuelle) Congress that closed today in Boston, EPO head Alison Brimelow said that the increasing number of patent applications is currently the biggest problem that patent offices face and is slowing down the issue of patents.

And it’s not just Europe. Oh, no. Australia as well is rethinking the system, having recently sought feedback from the public. Here is the report from IAM Magazine.

The Australian government is reported to be considering an overhaul of the country’s patent laws, following the release of a report that identifies the ease of getting protection as a barrier to innovation. The courts in Australia, conclude the authors of Venturous Australia – Building Strength in Innovation (Chapter 7, pages 83 to 87), have “overturned important ‘gatekeeping’ principles of the patent system that existed until the early 1980s”. In particular, they identify software and business methods as an issue, and state that large companies are using the patent system to build thickets that effectively keep competitors out of markets.

Stop Software Patents has responded to this as well.

A report has been completed. It says, the inventive steps required to qualify for patents should be considerable, and the resulting patents must be well defined, as to mininise litigation and maximise the scope for subsequent innovators. In particular software and business method patenting is an Australian concern.

Lawyers have a natural (and selfish) desire to increase and to cause legal storms. It’s profitable.

The Inquirer links to a Microsoft patent, but attributes it to Nokia. It’s another excellent example of junk patents and demonstrates the sad state of the system, overall.

ONE OF the most irritating things about taking photos with a cameraphone is the stupid filenames they’re given. Wouldn’t it be much better to squiggle something on the back of the pic like you do with prints?

Well, Nokia has decided this would be a jolly good idea and has filed a patent here in the USA for a technique that enables users of cameraphones or digital cameras to scribble ‘back-of-photo’

This is not innovation. This is a total fiasco.

We encourage our readers to read the following older page about Professor Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winner who is also a vocal protester against the patent system.

[T]he US government knew it, charges Stiglitz, at least in the case
of the biggest privatisation of all, the 1995 Russian sell-off. ‘The
US Treasury view was: “This was great, as we wanted Yeltsin
re-elected. We DON’T CARE if it’s a corrupt election.” ‘

Stiglitz cannot simply be dismissed as a conspiracy nutter. The man
was inside the game – a member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet, chairman of
the President’s council of economic advisers.

Most sick-making for Stiglitz is that the US-backed oligarchs stripped
Russia’s industrial assets, with the effect that national output was
cut nearly in half.

After privatisation, Step Two is capital market liberalisation. In
theory this allows investment capital to flow in and
out. Unfortunately, as in Indonesia and Brazil, the money often simply
flows out.

Stiglitz calls this the ‘hot money’ cycle. Cash comes in for
speculation in real estate and currency, then flees at the first whiff
of trouble. A nation’s reserves can drain in days.

It’s slightly political, but it connects several issues and associates ‘knowledge monopolies’ with wealth.

Microsoft-Novell: Leaving It to the Lawyers

Posted in Law, Microsoft, Novell, Patents, Tivoization at 5:16 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

It was almost two years ago, several weeks after the devious deal had been signed, that the following message was posted to USENET. Looking back, it’s worth quoting verbatim:


    From: Geico Caveman
    Newsgroups: alt.os.linux.suse,comp.os.linux.advocacy,comp.os.linux.misc
    Subject: Novell / OpenSuSE admit they paid protection money
    Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2006 15:21:22 -0500

http://www.linux.com/article.pl?sid=06/11/27/2113210

“Q: Novell claims to have not acknowledged any patent infringements by
Linux. But Novell is now paying a tax to Microsoft on the Linux
distributions it ships. What, exactly, is Novell paying for?

Nat Friedman: We’re paying for the promise that Microsoft made to our
customers not to sue them.

Q: Not to sue them for *what*? For problems you don’t acknowledge exist?

Nat Friedman: We put together an agreement with Microsoft to make Linux and
Windows work better together. Now, as everyone knows, Microsoft has spent
the last 10 years saying negative things about Linux, including implying
that there are IP issues in Linux. It didn’t make sense for us to do a
partnersihp with Microsoft on interoperability issues and still have this
patent cloud hanging around for our customers, so Microsoft asked us to put
together a patent agreement as well. And so we promise Microsoft’s
customers that we won’t sue them and they promise the same thing to our
customers. They pay us for our promise and we pay them for their promise.
It doesn’t matter if the allegations from MSFT are true or not. People can
sue each other anyway, and a patent lawsuit is very expensive to defend
against. ”

So, essentially what they are saying is :

“”We do not acknowledge any M$ patent violations in stuff we distribute, but
we will pay M$ a lot of money so that they do not sue us for things we are
not guilty of. We want a partnership with them at all costs even if we have
to pay that illegitimate protection money.”"

Apparently, its not costly for Novell to fight SCO when it has no case, but
it is costly to fight Microsoft when they have none either. Pretty clear
who badly wanted this deal – it was Novell (agrees with Microsoft
statements that they were approached). As for Microsoft, it was just
Christmas that came early.

This deal is just like a gift that keeps on giving for Microsoft and makes
less and less sense for open source users as revelations keep coming. At
best, it is an industrial shakedown that Novell capitulated to. At worst,
Novell decided to become Microsoft’s underling (the most polite word I
could think of in this context) just for a partnership that lasts 5 years.


Ever since, Novell has committed to a lot more partnerships and collaborations with Microsoft. According to what Novell’s CEO said last month, “we originally agreed to co-operate on three distinct projects and now we’re working on nine projects and there’s a good list of 19 other projects that we plan to co-operate on.”

It sure sounds like the difference between Novell and Microsoft will be blurring further, does it not? Matt Asay returns to his concerns about Novell when he posts a strong statement: “A sign that Microsoft is becoming the world’s biggest law firm.”

There was some distressing news buried in Sean Michael Kerner’s look into Novell’s and Microsoft’s virtualization partnership. The news, however, had nothing to do with virtualization, and everything to do with Microsoft job titles.

[...]

When you have someone whose job it is to come up with “intellectual property and licensing products,” you’ve lost your way. Most software companies focus on selling (gasp!) software. Not, apparently, Microsoft.

Ken Hess is again raising those personal speculations about a Microsoft-Novell merger.

I foresee VMWorld bringing some significant surprises to light this year. Whether it’s a Microsoft-Novell merger, a Sun-Microsoft partnership, or simply that the whole world goes virtual Desktop mad; there will be an abundance of high fiving, glass clicking, and from me — some “I told you so’s.”

What will it eventually be? Those who dare to predict that allies will roost under the same roof are being labeled “conspiracy nuts”. Novell is very cheap to acquire and its worth keeps sliding.

No Patents in Linux

Companies That Fear GNU/Linux Versus Companies That Don’t

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FUD, GNU/Linux, IBM, Law, Microsoft, Patents at 5:10 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Why Microsoft is not ‘Just Another’ patent holder

How often people forget what distinguishes Microsoft from virtually any other large company. To Microsoft, GNU/Linux is not just a low-cost option for maintaining its operations [1, 2, 3]; it is a major threat to its very few cash cows. It’s only natural for Microsoft — particularly its investors — to worry about what Microsoft’s CEO calls the company’s biggest competitor. This competitor is not a company. It’s code that is being shared and constantly improved.

“Once GNU is written, everyone will be able to obtain good system software free, just like air.”

Richard Stallman

Microsoft’s problem is that its products are not tangible. Those that are more concrete (e.g. XBox, Zune) lose an obscene amount of money. This means that Microsoft continues to rely on pure software (licences to use binary code) to keep its rental cartel going. It does not sell products. It licences products.

As a new example of the fact that most companies are apathetic towards open source (as a competitive threat at least), consider this news.

Open source patents: Four companies offer green tech to public domain

[...]

So it turns out that the Eco-Patent Commons, which I wrote about back in January, isn’t just another empty-handed cooperative industry effort.

Three new companies, Bosch, DuPont and Xerox, have joined the effort and another, Sony, has contributed an additional patent to the community.

Why apply for them in the first place? The headline seems wrong because it has nothing to do with open source, either (no code). It’s a publicity stunt at best, but regardless, these companies sell actual products. They give people ownership of what they sell.

“IBM does not need to antagonise the inevitable, unlike Microsoft.”IBM is very much focused on solutions which include services, hardware and systems architecture. Software is just one component among many, so IBM can afford to embrace GNU/Linux with patent concessions. IBM does not need to antagonise the inevitable, unlike Microsoft.

There is an ongoing argument over at LXer. It’s about whether Microsoft is just barking forever and will therefore never bite Free software with lawsuits. In reality, Microsoft can use a Sisvel-like proxy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] and we already saw Acacia assaulting Red Hat and Novell just 8 days after had hired a Microsoft general manager (of intellectual monopolies) to join its top ranks [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. We don’t know if it was just a coincidence, but it also coincided with threats from Steve Ballmer.

This post is not about creating a scare. It’s about analysing reality before (or in case) it strikes. If a company threatens GNU/Linux and someone reports the impact of it, that’s not intimidation. It’s an understanding of a threat, which can then be squashed. Knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss, but only in the short term.

Under financial pressure [1, 2, 3, 4], Microsoft is more likely to act irrationally. Just watch this one from yesterday’s news:

In one of the most extraordinary days in Wall Street’s history, Merrill Lynch is near an 11th-hour deal with Bank of America to avert a deepening financial crisis while another storied securities firm, Lehman Brothers, hurtled toward liquidation, according to people briefed on the deal.

It’s hard to tell what Microsoft will do as it continues its eternal stagnation (it has gone on for years). According to Pamela Jones of Groklaw (context here): “I think it’s dangerous to let them [Microsoft] anywhere near anything that matters until they pledge not to sue FOSS over patent infringement. All they are doing now is taking notes, I believe, and I am confident it will use what it learns against the community when it feels like it. And I wish everyone would get a bit smarter, so we at Groklaw and the legal contingent of the FOSS community don’t have to fix the mess you make. Yes. Seriously. I would suggest treating Microsoft as if they were already suing you personally. Because I believe they will.”

She also believes that Microsoft is the next SCO, as was pointed out before. Heise wrote: “She has told Infoworld that Microsoft will be the next SCO Group; the company has been loudly rattling its patent sabres, claiming earlier this year that Linux violated mote than 235 Microsoft patents. Whether Microsoft goes beyond mere sabre rattling and whether SCO manages anything more than a last gasp is also a question of how you evaluate the course of court proceedings so far.”

Scripture

IRC: #boycottnovell @ FreeNode: September 14th, 2008

Posted in IRC Logs at 3:38 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

GNOME Gedit

Enter the IRC channel now

Read the rest of this entry »

The Role and High Value of Truly Free Distributions of Linux

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF, GNU/Linux, GPL, Hardware, Ubuntu at 3:21 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

[Note: some of the arguments here are out of date]

As GNU/Linux becomes more popular, the motives behind its inceptions are often forgotten. Linux is a free operating system, but its broadening userbase perceives this freedom as one that pertains to cost, not rights and liberty. It is therefore important to step back and remind ourselves of the purpose and importance of distributions which try to make a difference, sometimes at the cost of ease of installation and use.

gNewSense (pronounced nuisance) quickly caught the spotlight last year. It was the latest among several Linux distributions which adhered to the mantra of Free software [sic] (capitalisation in “Free” indicates that it refers not to price but to freedom). This mantra had been defined in line with the principles of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation. gNewSense is a version of Linux which is derived from Ubuntu Linux. It essentially strips off every bit of code that is not Free, i.e. all elements that are closed and proprietary.

gNewSense is an intriguing name that has been neglected for a while because Canonical, the founder and parent company of Ubuntu Linux, introduced Gobuntu, which maintained its roots and relationship with gNewSense. At present, because of the popularity and ubiquity of Ubuntu Linux, Gobuntu is often seen as the de facto Free distribution of Linux.

“…deficiencies should often be associated with the manufacturers of various bits of hardware.”To an average user, Gobuntu can be daunting. It would not work trivially with the average laptop. Its support for certain hardware components, for example, would be limited or nonexistent. The fault lies not in Linux. Rather, such deficiencies should often be associated with the manufacturers of various bits of hardware.

If drivers are provided for Linux, they often come only in binary form (i.e. no source code), which is forbidden from inclusion in Free Linux distributions. In fact, some hardware is not supported by Linux at all, albeit the situation is improving as more manufacturers recognise and respond to growth and rising demand for Linux in the marketplace.

The goals of Free Linux distributions and particularly the means for achieving these goals are not a case of prejudice, let alone what sometimes gets attributed to zeal. The assumptions made here and the theory behind this have deep roots in scientific thinking. Free Linux distributions offer several benefits, which will be discussed in turn.

Security

It is not only believed, but it was also shown by studies that open source drivers make the software more secure, predictable, and therefore robust as a whole. A Linux distribution that contains ‘black boxes’ from various vendors is generally misunderstood. It is therefore unsurprising that the next Linux kernel, whose version number will be 2.6.24, has already taken steps that discriminate against binary drivers.

It must be remembered that software cannot be tested properly if some of its internal parts are developed in complete isolation. There is no room for independent inspection and comprehensive audits of the software in its entirety — from the bottom layer which is the kernel up to more abstract and user-fundamental layers, such as the graphical user interface.

As an example of this issue, consider a number of critical security holes in the binary drivers delivered to Linux by NVidia. These drivers, which sit deep in the ‘belly’ of the operating system, have on several occasions exposed the entire system to intrusion, essentially leaving it open for full compromise. Not only could this be prevented at an early stage had more eyes been watching the code, but independent parties could also patch the flaw promptly rather than wait for NVidia to finally unleash a solution. As long as the development is closed-source, NVidia is the only company that controls its drivers, which are the only ones available. This leads to the next point.

Control

Over time, due to questionably-welcomed sophistication, there is an increasing loss of control over one’s own software. To use an example, many of us have heard about digital rights management (DRM). In the Free software world, a great deal of notoriety was earned by DRM. Its harms are believed to have outweighed the claimed benefit, which is reduction in copyrights infringement (and to content producers — the reselling of content, which is essentially being rented, not sold). At the end of the day, data can be lost repeatedly, which costs the consumer.

In this struggle for control, the user strives to control access to personal data and manage his/her expenses. With proprietary software, one usually buys a license to use the software rather than truly own the software. It is firmly believed by some luminaries that only Free software can change these worrisome rules completely. It would stop discrimination against the user of software and the consumer of information.

With Linux, ideally, the user should be in full control of the software. The user gains full ownership too. However, binary drivers in Linux change this. When it comes to behaviour of a driver, one relies on the vendor of that driver. It’s all or nothing at all. If the user is not happy with the behaviour of the driver and rejects it, then corresponding hardware is rendered unusable. Likewise, if the user dislikes the behaviour of closed-source software (application), then the only other option is to choose alternative software which is open and Free, rather than reshape and tailor the existing software for personal needs.

Choice

Binary drivers and software reduce choice. They narrow down and impose limits on choice of hardware. Additionally, they often restrict the user in terms of platforms and pertinent packages that are supported. Once again, the rigid nature of such drivers (or software) means that it remains the choice of the hardware (or software) maker what is supported and what is not. Decisions get tied to considerations such as a budget, business relationships, business objectives, and neglect of legacy. These factors are not customer-centric, so rights can be abused.

On the other hand, with free drivers, whose acceptance is facilitated by projects like Gobuntu, all code is independent from the iron fist of its original creator and maintainer. The benefits are many; they include more control over cost, reuse of old PCs, improved digital preservation, and diversity, which can be important in a plethora of situations. For instance, diversity is sometimes vital for security. It is through obscurity and inconsistency, which are separate from but not opposites of transparency.

Cost

The issue of choice can be broken down further to discuss cost separately. Many of us have at some stage faced the unfortunate phenomenon (and usually a deliberate business strategy) known as “forced upgrades”. The argument which underlines the danger of this — from the user’s point of view — is that vendors are able to control the way that drivers, much like the hardware that they operate, evolve over the years. Hardware can become unsupported at any stage and assuming bug fixes are needed, the only choice is then to purchase new hardware. This is where the high price of upgrades comes into play.

If an entire operating system is maintained and controlled by a group of so-called ‘benevolent dictators’ who have full access to all the code, then responsible action will be taken to ensure legacy hardware is supported and bug fixes are delivered without the conflicting interests of hardware makers (profits versus obligations towards the customer). Even if the code is not maintained by this group, which could, for example, be core BSD or Linux kernel developers, a company large enough can hire a professional — if none is already available in house — in order to mend driver code, which is both openly available and free to modify.

“The inconveniences encountered initially, whilst getting accustomed to a simplified and stripped-down version of Linux, are short-lived.”To sum up, betting one’s business on a Linux distribution that is truly Free is a case of controlling one’s own destination, direction- and expense-wise. The inconveniences encountered initially, whilst getting accustomed to a simplified and stripped-down version of Linux, are short-lived. That is because when correct hardware configurations and combinations are chosen (e.g. in the next hardware refresh cycle), there is no trouble ahead. Au Conraire — trouble is only caused when hardware is picked with long-lasting dependency on the company from which it was bought.

Next time someone enthusiastically says “you should try Gobuntu,” ponder this: rather than dismiss this as ‘religious’ madness, as some people do, you ought to understand that a larger proportion of the industry that surrounds us finally takes a step in the right direction. AMD, for example, proved that the impossible can become a reality. They took the Free route with their highly-valued ATI drivers.

Never shall we say never. If you demand open source drivers and dismiss those which shift control towards the vendor (i.e. themselves) rather than yourself, then change will follow. Remind yourself that the customer is always in charge and demand drive sales distribution. A good start would be to attempt installing a distribution of Linux which is free in every [gNew]sense of the word. It might prove to be a nuisance at first, but if you do not stand up for a needed change, who will?

Originally published in Datamation in 2007

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