IP, 3D, Open Source, and Me

Intellectual Property and YOU
Intellectual Property and YOU (Photo credit: Thomas Gehrke)

Another exam this morning. Christ what a paper. Answer three questions out of four; was going to be out of five but they had to cancel a lecture or two so they curtailed our choice to compensate… Which meant that being weak in even one area was a big risk.

And I was weak in one. This paper was Information System Innovation, a strange mix of investment decision-making, Intellectual Property law, and Open Source idealism. At all costs I wanted to avoid a question on business metrics, the tedium of which makes my brain cry.

I got lucky. My favourite area – Open Source Software – came up in two questions. If anyone on the course had been trying to avoid Open Source on the other hand, they were pretty much stuffed and mounted. And this after they told us explicitly that there would be no overlaps.

My only real problem with the paper was that there wasn’t time to say all I wanted to say. So strange to be answering questions about the likes of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds, people who before this seemed more like figures out of folklore. Weirder still to think that when I graduated with my primary degree, none of the stuff on this course had happened yet.

So despite the stress I actually enjoyed the exam. This may not be a good sign, as it means I managed to go on at some length about things I have opinions on. Apple versus Samsung, Menlo Park versus Xerox PARC, IP in an age of 3D printing. Did they even want opinion? Did I show I was fully engaged with the material, or rave about stuff that was only tangentially related? Essentially, I can only have done either a brilliant or a disastrous paper.

But I have the whole summer to worry about that.

Linux Crisis?

480px-LinuxVollwaschmittelPackung
It even runs on some washing machines

Linux – it’s like a shark or an iceberg. Most of it’s below the surface but it’s moving fast and you really ought to know about it.

The majority of people, if they’re aware of it at all, probably think of Linux as the non-commercial alternative to Windows or Mac favoured by people who use computers less to get things done than because they actually enjoy it. Which is a shame in a way, as it gives a wholly wrong impression of its significance. Linux is so much more than an operating system for nerds. Indeed you probably use it yourself, every day. Each time you visit a website the chances are good that you’re talking to a computer running Linux. Smart devices in your home like satellite boxes and DVRs, even TVs now, use Linux. If you have an Android phone, that’s based on Linux. Governments are adopting it, and it is far and away the favourite operating system for the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

So it should be surprising that on the workplace desktop – still the biggest, most visible, and most lucrative computer market sector – it runs a very distant third. How come?

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Linux conquers the supercomputer (Author/Wikimedia/Top500.org)

Counterintuitively, because it’s free. After all the PC is not ruled by Windows and Mac OS because they’re cheap. Rather it’s because people can make money out of them. Huge ecosystems of supporting industries have grown around these computing platforms – software, hardware, services, training, maintenance, publishing – in no small part because there was a key partner there offering support and leadership.

How do you make money out of a system no one owns? With whom do you form a partnership? How can you be sure, when no one’s in charge, that it’s going to develop in a direction that will suit your business? It’s tricky.

Unless of course you take a leadership role yourself. It seems the best way to make money from Open Source Software like Linux is often to step up and be that key player. This is what Google did with Android, making it the world’s most popular phone OS. Or Red Hat, whose version of Linux is one of the most successful systems in the server sector. Each brought their own business model; Google of course is ultimately selling advertising, Red Hat its expertise and support.

If anyone is going to turn Linux into a household – and an office – name it is surely Canonical. This is the power behind Ubuntu, the most popular and user-friendly desktop version of Linux so far. And their vision doesn’t stop at the desktop – nothing worthy of the name could these days. In recent weeks they’ve launched Ubuntu editions for tablets, phones and TVs. It seems they plan to have devices running their software in every major market sector.

Ubuntu TV – It’s a lot like Windows Media Center except for the giving money to Microsoft part.

It’s an extraordinary ambition, and if they can pull it off then Canonical/Ubuntu will be up there with the big girls, sitting proudly alongside Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But can such a fabulous commercial edifice really be built on open foundations? So much of Linux is being developed by people who work for competing organisations – or who aren’t being paid to do it by anybody.

Indeed community disenchantment may already be starting to show. Ubuntu is no longer flavour of the month. Once hugely popular with the sort of Linux user who doesn’t actually want to reinvent the wheel but just needs something that can be installed and maintained with the minimum of fuss, Ubuntu – and its slightly geekier sisters Kubuntu and Xubuntu – drove all before it. No longer; the flavour now is Mint.

This is a different Linux variant (or ‘distro’, to use the jargon). Indeed it’s very much a variant of Ubuntu, just with Canonical’s more commercial ideas stripped out. (This ‘forking’ is perfectly legal in the OSS world – in fact it’s the whole idea. Ubuntu itself is based on the well-respected Debian distro.) Mint’s popularity though was given a huge boost when Canonical introduced their ironically-named Unity interface.

Some of the resentment of this was silly. Unlike Windows or Mac where the graphical user interface is part and parcel of the system, much of the beauty of Linux is that you can choose – even create – your own. For some however it’s a cause. There have long been two main Linux desktop camps: Gnome and KDE. Ubuntu had been on the Gnome side, so its defection – to a third camp of its own invention yet – was seen by many as betrayal.

English: Screenshot of Ubuntu 11.10 (Oneiric O...
Ubuntu’s Unity desktop, with its great big finger-friendly icons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More seriously though, Unity is very clearly a touch-orientated interface. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be similar on all types of device. Rather like Windows 8 this makes it less efficient – or put it another way, more annoying – for users stuck with an old-fashioned mouse. And as Linux tablets barely even exist yet, that means pretty much all of them. For the first time, Canonical were allowing their commercial vision to degrade the user experience.

But that was as nothing compared to the next change. A feature of Unity is that you can find a file or application by typing its name in a search box. If what you type isn’t on the computer, the newest version of Ubuntu continues the search on the Web – specifically, to Amazon.com.

“Crochet Patterns not found. Do you want to purchase Crotchless Pants?”

This unasked-for advertising feels a bit like an invasion of privacy. The building of it right into the operating system feels a lot like a kick in the teeth to the non-commercial ethos that engendered Open Source.

Making money in itself is not the problem. Google, Red Hat, even that old devil IBM make a lot of money out of Linux. Where I think Canonical sail close to the wind is in identifying themselves with Linux more closely than any company before. Independent computing creatives will resent it deeply if they come to be perceived as dupes – or worse, minions – of a commercial giant.

There are two questions here really. The first it whether Canonical/Ubuntu can maintain the goodwill of the wider Open Source Software community. The second is whether they can realise their vision without it. Perhaps they can, but I think it would be a minor tragedy if they did.

One thing over which there’s no question though: Open Source Software can continue without Ubuntu.

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Next time I’ll talk about why you should try Linux for yourself: Because it’s fascinating, informative, educational – and could save you heaps of money.

A Great Computer, Cheaply

20130108_010405

Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.

Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.

My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.

Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.

Challenge accepted.

A Great Computer, Cheaply

20130108_010405

Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.

Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.

My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.

Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.

Challenge accepted.

A Great Computer, Cheaply

20130108_010405

Odd as it may seem, I don’t own a good computer. There are maybe a dozen of the things strewn about the place, in various states of obsolescence and/or disassembly. Some are essentially museum pieces now – an Amstrad, a Psion Organiser. Others were never new, but cobbled together from discarded parts. Even the best have long reached the limits of their upgrade potential, and show their age when threatened with recent software.

Considering that I’m doing a degree in information technology, this borders on the embarrassing.

My new year project then is to create a computer that is truly… good. Not only powerful by the standards of today, but with a potential for upgradability that will keep it current for years. What’s more, if I’m going to build a computer from scratch by hand I want it to be a piece of workmanship, satisfying both technologically and aesthetically. So the choice of components will be critical.

Only one small obstacle: I’m almost completely broke. An excellent computer then, at a bargain POS price.

Challenge accepted.

My Web Design Hell

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You know when you’ve got some news or an idea you’re dying to tell someone, but can find no one who has the faintest idea what you’re on about?

Good.

I’m trying to learn some advanced Web design. Briefly, websites were originally done pretty much like you might lay out a document or design a magazine spread. You put things in their place, they stayed there. The more modern way is to use a ‘content management system’ (CMS). With this you just design the template of your page, then upload your content. The user enters search terms, and a page containing what they want is created for them.

This is obviously a lot more complex, as your website is now essentially a computer program. But there are plenty pre-existing systems you can use. WordPress, the one behind the blog you’re reading, is a fine example.

I’m using the CMS called Drupal because it’s widely said to be the most flexible and capable of all, and if I’m going to the trouble of learning any it might as well be one I can use for other things. But lord, I bit off something chewy. It has that vast sprawling-ness so typical of popular Open Source Software projects, and the learning curve is vertiginous. It’s made out of modules; a core with all the basics built in, then countless others you can add for greater functionality (and complication). I parachute into this jungle with little idea of how to tell a tree from a tiger.

But sometimes things are hard for wholly wrong reasons. I was stuck there for weeks – well, hours spread over weeks – because something really basic didn’t work. You see I want a site I can upload cartoons to, so that people can search through them. But Drupal 7 flatly refuses to display images in search results. Imagine how annoying that would be on eBay. Of course I thought that this was my fault, that I’d just got one of its (many, many) settings wrong. But I discover eventually that it’s a bug. The only solution – or at least the only one simple enough for me to implement – was to add a whole other module that did it right.

So I have solved my first real CMS problem, and went to bed tonight with the basics of my new site actually working. Whereon I find I’m too excited about the damn thing to actually get to sleep.

Thanks for listening.

Getting To Know Your Android

Screenshot of Android 4 on Galaxy Nexus
Android 4, which I don't have yet

Ah, the slow terrible frustration of it…

I’m trying to be good here and give my new phone’s battery the best possibly start in life. I was advised that the way to do that is to completely flatten it and then recharge it for seven or eight hours, while switched off. Several times. That means I can’t use it while it’s charging, and as most of what I do want to do means going online, I can only squeeze maybe eight or ten hours of messing around with it out of a day. No of course that’s not enough!

Connecting it to the PC would charge it too, so I can’t synchronise it properly and, what’s much worse, can’t download the latest firmware. Ah! Nerd hell. And of course, I can hardly use it as my working phone either. So for the first few days it’s an invalid.

Just as well perhaps. At least I’ll have had some practice using it before anyone sees me trying in public. Having a phone as noticeable as this and not knowing what the hell I’m doing with it has too much comic potential. And I’ve never had an Android phone before (well, I did have an experimental Android install on my N900, but it wasn’t really usable), so I’ve little experience with it.

It has to be admitted, Android is a whole other operating system.There’s a lot I like about it already, but there are constant reminders that it’s not Windows or Mac OS, or even Maemo. I think what I miss most is control keys. Control+z especially… After that, definitely arrow keys or an equivalent. Moving back a single letter, for example, is not easily done by poking text on screen. I feel like the interface was conceived to work with single as well as multi-touch input, and in consequence is more restricted than it really needs to be now. But the Swype keyboard at least tries to make up for that, and works impressively well.

Plus I haven’t really used a capacitive screen before. With the N900 I could hit tiny links and so on with a fingernail, without having to zoom in, and it’s frustrating now when that doesn’t work. Basically I have to unlearn what I spent the last year learning.

First world problems.