Waste to the Top

Humans are interesting creatures, we are animals that need a certain amount of resources to survive and then again some more resources after that to make life easier, or just less likely to collapse after a trial.

But on the other hand we’re social beings which brings with it a competition innate to nature as much as hunger which drives us to greater social standing. To prove that social standing is important one only has to look at how stress can be measured by how big your house is compared to the houses near to where you live. Think about it for a second, not your house compared to all houses, but your house compared to your immediate neighbours.

So we have this drive to prove ourselves to our peers. That we’re just as good if not better than everyone. This might explain why most people think they’re better than the average for driving, it’s just a part of the whole ego and social standing system.

We also live in a world of terrible waste. I should say, it’s not the natural world that’s wasting, it’s the human world that is using more earths than earths per year and those earths only furnish a tenth of the people with SUV level consumption.

I think that these two things are linked. The passion for proving your place in the social order and the huge amounts of waste. It certainly makes sense that we’re always hitting the upper buffers of what’s available to exploit and never seem to have enough. Because our frail egos depend on having more and proving more. We’ve encouraged this system of waste, with advertising that targets the social climbing “aspiring nature” of consuming products and the way governments want to keep people happy with more and more consumption… this is especially dangerous with energy.

What’s ironic is how egalitarianism has caused some of this. Think about it, in the past if you wanted social stature, you’d fight for it and earn actual titles and patronage or demonstrate piety, politeness or intellect. But when we dismantled all alternative social standing devices to make everyone equal, what we did was leave the last man standing to dominate. That last man of inequality is of course capital. So money and specifically ability to purchase largess becomes the only way to show others your standing. Not to say largess is a new thing, oh lord no, but now it’s pretty much the only thing.

As an environmentalist this is all frightening. And I’d dearly like to think of ways to change the way we talk about and think about the issues of waste.

And I see some movements over the years. More people take pride in recycling, or reusing supermarket bags.

But I think we have to go further, much, much further. Entire nations have to somehow change what national pride is based on and what each person inside considers important for their social position. A full 180 would be using the amount of resources you’re not wasting as a mechanism, you can see these in those letters you might get from your water or gas company comparing your usage to your neighbours.

But that doesn’t have to be only way to show standing. We could get all the ego buffs we ever could want online, the social standing of being the best, most police, most rational debater. Or the most helpful contributor. Or perhaps the best player in Wesnoth. It doesn’t actually have to matter and you don’t need to get really deep philosophically. It only needs to be something you can compete it, something that’s visible to you and your neighbours and if it includes your actual physical neighbours, so much the better!

What do you think? What would you use to show you’re better than everyone else?

Responsibility in Software

Pepper & carrot creator David Revoy has created a good blog post that goes into the problem that he’s personally had with the new release of Inkscape 0.92.

The issue with text and svg is actually kind of complex. It’s at the junction of specification, feature management and dealing with old formats. But it’s also a lot about how Free Software projects deal with users to a degree too.

This is because Inkscape is entirely volunteer driven, which means when Inkscape fails for us developers, only our pride is hurt. But actually out there in the big world there are real people who will be materially hurt by a bad inkscape release.

And my frustration is that there’s no serious Free Software way to connect developers to users in that essentially material way that binds them strongly. I’ve been banging the Money and Economics drum for A VERY LONG TIME, but fellow developers are just not interested in the idea that either Free Software could be a job of service instead of indulgence and that there really is a responsibility that we quite often neglect when we don’t have the right resources to deal with them properly.

This isn’t the case for all projects. Quite a few projects have key developers that manage to turn their pet project into a real full time job. OK so they’ll sometimes get some bias from their employer and the project can turn corporate, but that’s the trade off.

This is where the Inkscape projects really hits the wall. It’s a very big and useful project, that has an incredibly poor user to developer material binding. We need about 50 cents from every inkscape user to hire ten to twenty full time developers, managers and ancillary support. Of course the money would likely be bunched up into a few hands, but the project yearns to be in the greatest number of hands and not a few big players.

And maybe that’s the big barrier, a cultural one. Inkscape is built on the idea that all developers are equal and the project can be driven forwards in many directions by lots of developers at once.

I really wish I had some solutions. But given Inkscaoe’s current issues, I’m going to focus on actually fixing the issues we have and I’ll have to come back to how we solve the resources problem more fundamentally.

The Dictator’s Handbook is Self Falsifying

I’ve been reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” this week, a recommendation from CGP-Grey (youtube) and a damn good one. It’s a description of how people who want power, get power and how they keep it once they have it. I won’t go into the nitty gritty, but suffice to say that it has a lot of good things to say about murdering people to get what you want.

The idea I want to explore in this blog post is using understanding, and “Life the Universe and Everything”. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; in the story we are told:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.

This is why in the story the answer to the question of Life the Universe and Everything is “42”, but that the question itself was unknown. Knowing both question and answer would cause the above self destruction/recreation and it’s imperative that the characters never find out both.

The nature of understanding in that universe is thus that it is not just non-understandable, but deliberately evasive. The rules of the game will change as soon as you know the rules of the game. Not in some god like way of keeping you in the dark deliberately, as if the universe had agency, but because somehow what you know is tied to how things work.

So how does this relate to Dictators?

Well the book is so good at explaining the mechanics of the interpersonal relationships in ruling a country or business that it may change the behaviour of people who have read the book. It may change their behaviour enough to actually make the book’s premise false. Not that it’s false when you haven’t read the book, only that it’s false when you have.

But, this make one giant Saturn sized assumption. That it is possible to change how you act in a certain circumstance given this knowledge. If it’s not changeable, then knowing it doesn’t matter and no amount of self-help or ingenious insights into the human condition will change our society. But the book’s preface is that knowing the rules that rulers rule by can help improve society, so it expects behaviour to be changeable and if is then someone somewhere will figure out how to exploit this new behaviour.

Once you have the sort of second order exploit, you get a very complicated dance between people who understand, people who do not understand and people who want to exploit either group.

Hence the mechanism described in the book will “instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable”. Thanks Douglas Adams.

To drive this idea a bit further. This in my mind creates two quantifiably different types of truth. That which is understandable but unchangeable is solid or foundational truth. Like Mathematics, knowing 2 + 2 = 5 and why doesn’t allow you to change it’s truthfulness. Then there is mutable truth, where knowing how and why something is true allows you to manipulate it into falsity. This is especially true in biological and social sciences where adversarial mechanisms are in constant flux.

What do you think?

What is my Work Ethic?

In response to this post about getting a job after graduating.

I think the core of finding a job and being motivated to do it is: How are you going to serve the people around you? At the end of the day society isn’t about what you can get out of it, but what possible super-power do you have which could effect the people around you in a positive way. Is that art? Is that cleaning? Thinking? Programming? I find that in the modern society too much emphasis is put on person gain, noble voluntarism or doing what’s enjoyable. The problem with these perspectives is that the focus is never on the individuals being served by the work and this blog post is a defence of direct service to others needs and having that be a mark of a successful career.

Doing a Thing

Sometimes something just needs doing. I think if you are in a strong community, you can sense when there’s pent up demand. I ran a campaign to raise funds to get aluminium computer case badges printed and this was before Kickstarter existed. I handled $4k and 20k case badges and they were sent around the world and I had an enormously positive experience serving the people who really wanted Ubuntu case badges. I was transparent about the money. I put the leg work into my relationship with the manufacturer and published news as soon as I had it. I published the designs so everyone knew what they were getting and in the end I had a thousand positive recipients and one negative one because they had been mangled in the post (sorry!) and I used my basic talents using a graphics package to put together something acceptable for users. Anyone could have done this, but to act is to be bold sometimes.

The side effects were more interesting. I asked people for ‘at cost’ payments which despite being based on estimates and the shipping costs wasn’t certain. People were generous and they almost always sent more than asked or needed, often with a note saying “keep the rest”. I didn’t feel bad about this, I think because I was honest with the costs and they were being served genuinely. The other effect was that we introduced the manufacturer to the idea of “open source” by licensing the designs under CC-BY-SA. I encouraged other groups or companies to use the designs to make their own. There are now many, many different aluminium case badges for different Linux distribution and I see them at conferences all the time. I feel good about this. Because imagine all the Fedora, Debian and Mint users who get something cool and the organisers who got a pattern to follow and a manufacturer to talk to. In a way I didn’t just serve people directly with the pre-sales, but also incidentally people through positive open source licensing and I can feel good about both.

Validity of Competence

But then, don’t I just feel good about it because I got praise for it? Well that’s true, I feel good when I get praise. But I think praise is more than just the warm fuzzies. It’s an important reminder to us that our work matters, that we’re still good at it and of the kinds of people who we have served.

One Harvard school gives awards to people who do good work in the anti-alarm professions. You know, those jobs where if the work is done well then no one even notices. But if something goes wrong the alarm bells ring loud. The facilities team, the system admins, the people who order those weird coffee machine cartridges. And that’s a really good thing to do, because it reminds those workers that their job is important and effects probably everyone else in some small way as well as for everyone to thank them once in a while. That feedback from server to served and served to server is the validity of competent altruism. I say it’s altruistic because only thinking about one’s self will not make you great at serving others.

There is a cross-walk near where I live where the snow had been repeatedly ploughed into the pavement one and a half meters high and had frozen solid with thaw. People walking to the train station would have to climb this mountain of snow to cross a very busy road. What if they had kids, or groceries or a bad leg? The night I thought about those people I got the ice breaking tools and shovel and cleared the whole corner. The next day as people shuffled to work, they probably didn’t notice their commute was a little better than before and had no way of knowing if it was the city or not. But I certainly reminded myself of all these slightly less miserable faces as I pounded away at the ice with the sweat pouring off me and the echoes of each thwack, crunch late at night for two hours.


I hear about “work ethic” a lot, and it’s usually about “working hard to get on in life”. But anyone successful knows that there’s more to a good work ethic and I believe the largest missing piece is that is “one must work hard for other people, for them and not what one may want to do for them“.

There are communities in the Free and Open Source world who have chosen to work hard at imposing what’s good on their users. That’s a risky service ethic, a sort of pre-emptive competent guess. If your community has set up no way for your guess to fail or you mishandle the push back from your users then you can’t claim to have a good service ethic or to have actually served well. So how can these workers and their work be tied to the people they serve so that it heads in the right direction for the served rather than for the server?

I know that people will pay for good service. there’s no reason to slave away as a volunteer if your work is genuinely in service to others. Caveat, except for people who have nothing, but then grants, government programs, charities can help fill that hole. For my fellow Free Software developers, they do good work and yet many are failing to make the link between the work they do and the people they serve. Thus making it harder for them than it needs to be to earn a living from writing Free Software.

Being Good at what you Like

One part I’ve not talked about is getting a job that you like doing. This is a tricky one because being good at something makes you more likely to enjoy doing it. And Enjoying doing something makes you more likely to do it and thus overcome failures faster and become good at it. I say do what you are good at and like doing that gives the most benefit to others. It’s not as pithy a personal moto though.

A friend of mine who works in mental health once turned a job down for more money. Not just because it would mean serving people who really didn’t need the help, but mainly because being good at helping a certain kind of person with certain kinds of harsh needs is important work. Being good at this job wouldn’t mean there would be lots of recognition from patience, but it would mean truly serving and making a difference to those individuals. And it’s better to have the job one is good at making a difference than the job that could make a difference if only you were good at it or the job that makes no damn difference at all.

And serving individuals I think offers the best perspective on one’s own work. It motivates better than saving the world and feels more accomplished than earning stacks of cash. When one can see the good work well done and be validated for it there is no reason not to go to work every day and earn a living doing it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from me after a year of no blog post. Please leave your comments below as I love hearing from people.

Platform Money is Key to Free Software Success

Post was drafted Feb 2nd, delayed for review but is published now without finale edits.

Platforms are everything these days. They drive users in specific, and well structures ways and can make or break different ways of production. Take for instance the World Wide Web, it’s a platform that allows anarchy and it fundamentally breaks the traditional media’s economic model of charging for content per user. The World Wide Web does this by delivering content not just more cheaply, but more quickly and more succinctly than ever before.

By comparison consider iTunes which came well after. A platform which like the World Wide Web is built upon the internet with similar technology. This platform provided a more cohesive and contained experience for getting access to content that users could have gotten through the World Wide Web. Even though it was more expensive to do so, users have bought music and other media through the iTunes platform because the platform is more effective at delivering content to users than the World Wide Web’s anarchy.

The iTunes platform could be credited with helping solve a key economic problem that was befalling the music industry. How to get users to pay for music and thus make music creation worth being in involved in.

We Have Failed Here

Knowing this about iTunes, I’m jealous. That platform has achieved something which we in the Free Software industry have failed to do. That is; meaningfully provide the platform necessary to get users engaged in software production. Economically speaking, we need users who do not make code, but who want to use our software. Socially speaking, if we wish to Free users, we must serve their needs and therefore be willing to be told what they need and deliver on their expectant demand.

This isn’t just about making money for developers so they can quit their proprietary jobs and sustain their lives on making Free Software. This is also about the incredible disservice we give to users. Our ignored users. Those people who we SHOULD be serving with every key press but who we don’t pay attention to unless they morph into helpful bug reporters or fellow programmers. Which plenty do, just so they can be a part of the process.

This is a problem that not only hurts people’s perceptions of Free Software projects, but it also makes our industry weaker than it needs to be. Projects exhibit fragility and an inability to grow. Users pick software on existing features and compatibility and not on future prospects. User involvement is suppressed.

Just Saying No

There are many programmers, project leaders, Free Software members, who ask that money never be involved in Free Software production. These people do not know what damage they are doing to their projects. Not knowing how to get user money into a project is a typical problem, but there is a mindset from the leadership in some projects that having users pay developers should not be allowed. I _do_ understand why money is stigmatised, but this is a symptom of a project’s lack of codified user focus which would provide strong definitions of self-serving, charitable and user bought developer attention. No programmer serving his own needs should be jealous of another getting paid by serving user’s needs. We all need to grow up a little here.

What we need in committed Free Software projects is a meaningful service ethos that makes the users of software the firm target of the project. It would supply direction and impetus to many projects that can’t understand why users don’t like their code and provide economic input to drive projects faster towards those user centric goals.

User Focused not Business Focused

“But Open Source is very economically successful” I hear you say. Well, yes, if your a business it’s been great. The bigger your business, the more meaningful relationship you can have with projects by hiring developers. Having developers (or being a developer) is a sure way to have input. Open Source and the OSI have focused hard on making sure the business to business open source industry works.

I always wondered why Open Source was doing so well and yet doing so badly and it’s this: Big business needs are being met, small business and user needs are not. This isn’t good enough. As a developer if you’re not taking money from users then you aren’t serving user’s needs. Follow the money, follow the demand.

Social Justice

And if your thinking that this economic problem isn’t important for Free Software, think instead of all the users who are disempowered. This is what Free Software social justice is all about. A user is a super important component to development and with continuous development strategies and increasing segregation between developers and non-developers; we need to have thought about getting all users in a position where they can truly be a part of our development practices. They’re the core and source, not the periphery to be ignored.

Demand Change

I’ve been involved with two projects where I see a problem. The first is Inkscape, a project with no economic steam and plenty of users who have no idea how the inkscape sausage is made. It has direction, but no growth. Programmers, but no self-serving power left. Users with needs, but no way to meet them.

The second is XBMC plugins. Here there are thousands of tiny self contained projects and they’re all organised into a forum. Go onto any plugin forum thread and the pattern will be the same: “The plugin stopped working”, “It doesn’t work here either, where’s the developer?”, “I hope the developer comes back to fix it”, “I hope someone else comes in to fix it”, “Has anyone got it working yet”. Again and again, users who are putting their time into begging developers for attention. It’s a depressing situation that must put users off and certainly doesn’t speak well of the stability of XBMC when it’s most useful features are plugins which fail all the time from patchy maintenance.

Demand is important and getting user demand focused in a meaningful way has been our failure. Focusing on support models and business to business open source processes has been our distraction. Harnessing the paradime shifting nature of the platform should be out solution!

A Platform Example

The Ubuntu Software Center is a platform. The way it’s been set up is as a clone of Apple’s iOS store and it’s incompatible with the Free Software industrial process. Instead of helping Free Software it’s driving economic sustainability to proprietary software development and away from Free Software. It’s got unintentional institutional bias which is rooted in the ideas of the developers and managers at Canonical. The suggestion that donations are somehow a meaningful way to drive money to Free Software projects is a sure sign that a person doesn’t ‘get it’, Free Software isn’t a charity case in need of a one off anonymous tip. It’s an industry and with a unique production process that requires careful cultivation and sustainable connections that focus latent user demands to developers and potential developers attention. The USC and it’s makers fail to see that.

Use the User Force

A platform like the Ubuntu Software Center should be made though. But made to specification for the Free Software industry instead of the Proprietary one.

Imagine it embed directly into every Free Software desktop and mobile distribution. The same user focused invitation to join a Free Software project, involving money and time without stigma. Think of a framework available to Fedora, Debian and Ubuntu at the same time, users able to come together and join us in the community by opening their wallets and telling us to get to work on their dreams.

Imagine the power, the vitality and yes, even the vibrancy of the ideas users demand we make for them; all developed into a platform that like iTunes could take a wild west and focus it with good design into a platform that delivers successful sustainability for creators and meaningful dialogue with users.

We need transparency in the accounts of projects to foster trust. Progress of bugs and roadmaps delivered to the desktop so users can see a future in our projects. Reviews and statuses of developers working and available to work. Users electing favourite developers as heros of their causes with monthly payments to kick their bugs before they ever get to the archive. Kickstarter style risk investments to push radical designs and brand new projects. Bug reports where money can be added to the heat to indicate demand for attention and the rewards for completion.

It’s all possible if we dare to make users the center of the Free Software universe and scale it big, VERY big.

We require the courage and vision of the leaders from Canonical, Red Hat, Debian, the FSF and every project leader out there to advocate for User focused Free Software and economic sustainability. With a willingness to embrace our industry’s unique software production method, good design of the frameworks and an invitation to users and paid developers we can make the Free Software industry a powerful and successful part of every user’s computer experience.

Are you with me? Let me know below in the comments.

Software isn’t Dead

I was reading with a critical eye this article by The Register hack Matt Asay. It’s titled “Microsoft’s Surface proves software is dead” and right away we have a terrible misnomer.

Software isn’t dead, it didn’t die, it’s still critically important in driving machines with incredibly complex rules. True death would be machines without any software in them. The headline is thus an attention grabbing lie worthy of a tabloid. Now to the content about Microsoft’s business plans with software…

Software’s complexity over the past 20 years has completely failed to keep up with the very rapid improvements to hardware. We’re still using tools which are not that much different. Part of the problems with the inefficient development of tools has been proprietary software.

Each proprietary platform, every library and game that doesn’t publish it’s code fails in it’s auxiliary mission to become a part of the computer science of the future and thus the software of the future. Sure, the program will be useful, the game fun to play; but next gen software will be harder to make, easier to get wrong and far more expensive without a stable base. This isn’t in the article.

What Matt is trying badly to communicate is how much in a hole Microsoft are. But he’s wrong about why. Business has _always_ been about delivery of labour, those embodied in products or that which is directly delivered in services. What Microsoft’s business has been and what they have been trying to spread as the best method of software creation, is nothing short of money for nothing. Create a bit of software and keep on reselling the same $0 value at enterprise rates.

Monopoly is the only way to sustain this kind of economic magic trick but it does come with a cost. Microsoft are now stuck trying to both invest into bigger and bigger software cathedrals and retain their monopoly by keeping everything out of the scientific commons (open source ecosystem).

Matt’s point is that software delivered directly onto devices, proprietary or not, are what’s really economically drivable. But even the xbox will suffer from fatigue unless it’s software can be open sourced. Same goes for Apple’s iOS; oh sure it may seem like they can defy gravity, but a quick look into how much open source their platforms use gives us all the data we need to see that they’ve simply built upon the open source science to get a higher competency than Microsoft. they’ve not truly invested in open source and they’ll be on the back foot when the next level of complexity is required.

Apple’s and Microsoft’s software will completely fail to make it into the next generation, their next products will either be rehashed old code or they’ll scrap everything and start again, using new open source as the base and trying to build yet another pointless cathedral on top of it. Repeat and regurgitate until the magic dies and people learn how the trick was done and paying for software finally becomes what it always was: Paying for programmer’s time and nothing more.

Is software dead? I don’t think so, I think it’s just become Common.

Thoughts? Disagree? Post below.

NHS Reform & Other Privatisations

With the passing of the NHS reform bill in the UK last week, I’ve been reflecting on the discussion that went on between the conservative supporters and almost everyone else in the country who was deeply worried about any bill which would seem to meddle with a system that was fairly ok and doing quite well.

The frightening proposition is that health in the UK would be privatised. Not just like the system in the USA, but having to possibly pass through a system far worse in order to finally be dragged towards the regulated compromise the Americans have found themselves in.

The point we’re told from conservatives over and over is that capitalism and corporate business practice can bring many efficiency gains to the way health businesses operate. Competition is sighted as a key mechanism to achieving this result. Much needed capital could be found in the private sector and the whole system would be closely monitored to make sure it kept on curing people and setting broken bones.

But, as readers of my blog will know, I’m not really attached to any particular mechanic in achieving what we wish to happen in society. If a privately capitalised, for-profit business which takes it’s organisational strategy from Cadburies really is the best was to set up a hospital, then so be it. But on the other hand if you believe in capitalism in your heart, but not in your head; then one’s politics might be driven towards operational and funding mechanics which might be ill fitting. Politicians who probably aren’t evil or even that naughty, get confused by positive bias and fallacies from popularity and especially group think and persistent ideas.

Really thinking about the simple rules which allow such a mechanic to work well enough to provide all those great examples isn’t simple. Let’s start with a simple rule of markets: ‘Buyer must have the option not to buy’, do we think that health is something we can opt out of? Do we get a choice not to be saved if we’re in an accident and picked up by a private ambulance? That’s the unsettling thing about the USA’s ‘fairer’ health care bill, forcing people to buy products isn’t right there and it wouldn’t be in the UK either.

Here I’d like to slide into a wider concern. Health is something of an important system, without this service the economy would be very quickly loosing people to illness and injury. The pain felt in the USA is not just by individuals, but keenly by companies big and small. They often pay for some or all of the health coverage for all their employees because having employees without health care would be detrimental to their own operation. So clearly some functions are so important, that organising them collectively has great benefits.

Then there’s competition. Is it a good thing? Well the first thing to ask is what competition hopes to achieve. In market terms, competition is a group selection process which hopes to push forward the fitness of each organisation as it strives to out bid other organisations for available resources, other organisations that can not claim enough resources are deemed unfit and are allowed to fail. This system of evolution does require (system-wide) a larger amount of resources to invest. In organisations which will fail and organisations which will perform activities outside of their core function to innovate. It’s a bet on the future which requires a trade off between cost today and expected organisational innovation tomorrow.

But with a system like the NHS, which will always be tightly controlled. Will there be added resources to cope with this new evolutionary requirement? Will there even be the flexibility to change the organisation in such a way as to find new and brilliantly innovative organisational methods?

Then I see we have a combining. If I like the idea of competition, does it follow I have to swallow private capital funding too? So often we fail to be able to articulate well when we’re talking about funding source and the organisation’s market forces. The lack of distinction and separation of the two probably doesn’t allow us to come up with more interesting rules or more innovative funding ideas. Although it’s amazing to think that the Government of a G8 country, can’t seem to put the money together for anything any more.

In conclusion: When the government says they want to privatise a working public service, what they probably mean is: “We don’t have the money to make it better and we don’t trust the current public sector operators to know their job well enough to improve it’s operation.” and not “We have some added cash to turn this inappropriately publicly operated function into a number of well functioning business concerns.”

Come for the Price, stay for the Freedom?

It’s time for impossible to prove conjecture Tuesday! Today I’ll be looking at freedom and price. Those two great pillars of our movement from barbaric propriety and gouging monopolies into a bright future of open sharing and low-low prices.

I read about the Future of Open Source Survey and according to it’s findings most respondents value ‘open source’ and will be deploying it. But more intriguingly this time around instead of valuing ‘open source’ for costs reasons, the value is more firmly placed in Freedom.

This freedom can mean all sorts of things depending on what you do, and unlike what far too many commentators say about access to source code not being important to non-programmers; it isn’t actually about the source code at all.

So what happened to all that low-low price hype? I think that we’re reaching maturity. First FOSS is attractive to anyone who doesn’t quite understand it because of it’s apparent cost benefits. That is, what has already been written is free for anyone to use. Explaining the benefits of Free Software to someone who doesn’t see the problem of proprietary software is impossible.

Once you’re using an open source platform, of course it’s much easier to calculate the benefits of investing in the improvement of the code (hiring/contracting developers) against simply buying a replacement off the shelf product. This is what makes advocating FOSS so interesting, you never know if the person you’re convincing to use Ubuntu will turn around and spend money on helping it grow later.

So why is freedom now important to all these cost conscious businesses? I believe that the successful foss product in any market pretty much sets the commodity cost and any propriety software will have to either beat the cost or improve on features in orders of magnitude better. The problem of course is that a lot of these businesses have gotten a taste of what it’s like when you can take your internal tools and change them to do anything in any way your business requires. This is something that proprietary software vendors find hard and expensive to do well.

So, my conjecture today is: “People will be attracted by the price and with enough time, stay for the Freedom”

Your thoughts?

Ubuntu’s Non-Free Parabox

Our venerable friend Jono Bacon has posted an interesting blog post concerning the outcome of the bug to enable the nonfree installation of Flash on Ubuntu. It would have manifested itself in the installer, by having the nonfree checkbox switch on by default.

  1. The problem: We can not have what we want in the default install.
  2. The current solution: Provide a set of proxy packages which can install the functionality after the installation, moving the liability and problems from Canonical to the user.
  3. The problem with the current solution: It requires manual user interaction.
  4. Problem with checkbox solution: It’s against Ubuntu policy and the Technical Board Voted it down.

I’m a big proponent of “nonfree offsetting” (few people are, but I’m sticking to my guns); If Canonical wants to ship nonfree Flash instead of almost fully working GNU Gnash, then they should be willing to offset their balance with adequate investment into the free software alternative; i.e. they should be putting money into Gnash.

It’s funny because I was talking to Rob Savoye, winner of this year’s free software award, at LibrePlanet 2011. Overcoming the technical barriers to finishing Flash 10 support in Gnash, now that there is good documentation from Adobe, is so close. But the only businesses investing in Gnash are embedded systems; systems who need a Flash player to work on ARM and other architectures. Red Hat isn’t one of them, neither is Canonical, and I tire of not hearing from these companies on why they can’t invest more into solving these issues with an economic nudge.

Even if you don’t want to give the money to Rob, then send in your own engineers to get the job done!

Back to Jono: his position is that this issue is down to design. In his world view, installing nonfree Flash is required, it’s the only option and the one that we offer when you install Ubuntu; let’s assume that’s right for a moment. He’s asking designers to mull over how to achieve the right kind of communication to users to encourage them to click on the checkbox: This in itself is a policy paradox.

Anything we do to encourage users to install nonfree, nonessential components, is simply against the Ubuntu policy of shipping free software and encouraging its use. It’s hard to claim that this is a balance of free vs. nonfree with a straight face when your stated aim is to encourage users to install nonfree components.

In the comments to the blog post there are some very good responses from Alan Bell and ethana2, but there are also some comments from users who I think are more pro-compromise then they are pro-free-software. An example from Cleggton (I don’t mean to pick on you personally Cleggton, you’re just the easiest to quote):

If we take philosophy out of the argument for a second, then it seems clear that the users who care whether they are non-free, patent questionable etc are the ones that are most able and informed to uncheck a checkbox. And the ones that aren’t aware of the difference are our new users, who need YouTube just to work out of the box, lets make it work and then lets educate them later.

I hear this kind of appeasement argument an awful lot. Users don’t care (so we’re told) and free software is too hard to achieve. Not everyone of our users is going to care, especially when we so rarely tell them about free and open source software and it’s practical ramifications to them personally. But even that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Our users expect us to care about the things that will benefit them. In fact they expect us to care for them with careful policies. Even if polices get in the way of jam today; they’re there to make sure there’s jam tomorrow and users trust us to make those calls on their behalf.

Besides, you know what your mother always said about getting your own way without putting any work in: It trivialises the issues involved and waylays expectations and the reality of our situation. Then it’s much easier to ignore real solutions like spending the time creating free software and instead continue to make excuses on why we should keep the toxic workarounds like the nonfree Flash player in our ecosystem.

What are your thoughts?

No Business Like Bad FOSS Business

In response to Bruce Byfield’s article on how We shouldn’t feel bad when businesses have no morals. I feel compelled to point out the flaw in his logic and hopefully add some sense to why moral outrage is the correct response to unscrupulous behaviour by companies.

It’s not a surprise when companies are inconsiderate/naughty/evil, but that doesn’t make what they do any less wrong and it doesn’t make a negative reaction any less justified. The most important thing to remember as a consumer is that your aversion to certain behaviours of others directly affects your willingness to engage in business with someone. To put it another way: What we think about a business being bad, effects their profit. Just ask BP or Toyota.

The purpose of a corporation is to fulfil all of it’s responsibilities. It’s responsibilities to it’s capital investors is to maximise the return on their capital investment through profits, but it’s responsibility to their employees is to pay them the contracted amount. Two conflicting responsibilities… and yet somehow companies manage to balance them.

To list just a few possibly conflicting responsibilities that all companies have: Shareholders to extract profits, employees to pay, business to continue, customers to serve, environment to maintain, suppliers to pay and even maintain, society to improve and government to appease. Here’s Bruce Schwartz doing a much better talk on why scruples are a good idea.

When a company hurts the FOSS ecosystem (in this case Novel), it’s neglecting it’s responsibility to maintain it’s suppliers, it’s hurting it’s relationship and ability to serve it’s customers and it’s endangering the continuation of it’s business. We don’t even need to bring in it’s possible legal responsibility to know that what Novel did was damaging and wrong. Yes I used the word ‘wrong’, because sometimes there is a right way and there is a wrong way to “maximise profits”.

Having a social responsibility shouldn’t be impossible for companies and we shouldn’t put up with companies that have the audacity to claim it isn’t their responsibility. Too often they hide behind “My responsibility is to the share holders” which is about as nonsensical as looking after sun, but not the earth.

If your business has short sighted, profit motivated share holders, my advice is to get rid of them as soon as possible. As a business owner you don’t have to take up extra responsibilities of having investors…. No wonder Canonical and Facebook don’t want to float on the stock market, I know I wouldn’t want to have share holders in the current ethical climate.

Your thoughts?