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?

Montreal: Libre Graphics Meeting

Hey there, I’m in Montreal this week for the Libre Graphics meetings. I’ve been here since Saturday and it’s been quite a blast already and the main event isn’t even here yet.

We had an excellent chat about how much the author of software can be said to be responsible or involved in the art expression and how software as tools are different or the same as physical art tools and art education.

There was a nod towards proprietary software being profoundly bad for education as well as a lot of mooting that control over your own art tools was very important from an artistic point of view.

I’d have gotten better notes, but I was completely zonked from work on Friday and 4 hours sleep. Then I had wine and was drunk and deathly sleepy. But I seem to remember there might have been Mexican food and a chat between Janine Melnitz and google maps to find the hidden hotel of the elves.

2 days later I’m almost completely recovered! Let me know below if you’re interested in LibreGraphics and if you’d like me to report on any issues that might be talked about.

FOSS Trademarks are Probably OK

The protection that projects have from trademarks can often seem to be a weapon used to remove the freedom of hackers to change the source code and redistribute.

Examples include the Firefox trademark agreement, where Mozilla will not allow a re-distributor to call their package ‘Firefox’ unless all code has first gone upstream. This policy is used to make sure everybody get’s Mozilla’s Firefox and not someone else’s Firefox that they couldn’t control the quality for.

Then there is the example of Oracle’s “OpenOffice.org” trademark which, isn’t allowed to be used by anything other than the code from Oracle. And since the split of the Open Document Foundation has forced the creation of a new brand ‘LibreOffice’ so that the open source code can continue to be developed in the open.

The third example is the corporate control of brands. Canonical the company owns and controls the Ubuntu brand, whilst building a large community of volunteers to build that brand on their behalf. There are agreements in place which allow the Community Council some control over uses of the trademark in the community and the general balance between community interest and corporate control is struck. Some may agree and other vehemently oppose this arrangement, but in all it’s about strong control over the brand name.

Trademarks exist to ensure that the trust we have in the quality and source of our real world products is assured within a given area and within a given industry. These limitations allow for names to be reused in other industries and other areas where the products wouldn’t be confused anyway.

So in essence, if free software projects want to maintain the trust of their users and maintain the trust of their distribution, then we need to utilise trademarks or something like trademarks to do it. Whether we use product trademarks or organisational trademarks such as ‘Firefox by Debian’ vs ‘Firefox by Mozilla’ is up for some debate.

Overall, my feelings on the matter of trademark use in Free and Open Source projects is that they are probably, currently, a slight positive in effect. You may disagree, please comment if you do or even if you don’t.

Bashing Identi.ca

I was going to post this as a comment, but I was replying to such a small part of the original article that I wanted to make a new article to hold my thoughts. This relates to Techrights/Boycottnovell – Bane or boon? An experience by Manish Sinha

Actually I don’t find any reason to be on identi.ca. Just because it runs FOSS? Identi.ca is the smaller brother of twitter which lacks wit and sarcasm. There is no humour in any dents. Twitter community rocks. identi.ca community needs to improve themselves. StatusNet software for running identi.ca is great, but that hardly matters if you don’t have a good community.

I wanted to pass some links on how identi.ca is sort of usless, but I would reserve them for further use.

You know that feeling when you read something that a friend wrote and it’s just so arrogant and condescending, that it makes you want to slap your forehead at how they could have possibly let such a statement pass their internal editor. Yea, that’s how I feel about this statement.

Personally I’ve never been a fan of identi.ca or twitter. But it grinds my nerves when normally affable people start beating on identi.ca or other FOSS online ‘services’ simply because as a individual it doesn’t deliver what they personally need at this particular time or the community they’ve associated themselves with are jerks.

This complaint they have normally starts with a failure of a network effect in the normally more desirable FOSS solution. And there isn’t usually much we can do about that except try to encourage more use. though we do have mitigating technologies; all those broadcast apps and built-into-the-desktop solutions for posting to multiple services? Those exact solutions should make it trivial for Ubuntu Members to be involved on multiple services or at least just make sure things are posted multiple places.

So far I’ve found most people do do just that. When I use broadcast, I do that. It just feels right to give services like identi.ca a chance and to be patient with FOSS services. Especially those tied so heavily to network effects. The other problem to do with jerks? Just don’t subscribe to anyone. I really don’t care that much what anyone has to say in their micro-blogging. If you can’t be bothered to spend the time writing a blog post then you obviously don’t have anything valuable to say *touch in cheek warning because some people don’t get humour*. But if you’re not like me and you like hearing what some people have to say and not others, as far as I know identi.ca doesn’t force you to subscribe to every ubuntu user registered.

I manage a number of communities, trust me, I understand that it’s really great to make good friends on closed networks. I get it. But that doesn’t mean that we need be quite so mean spirited about people who make friends on other more FOSS friendly networks. It’s just as extreme as those who want to force everyone to use only FOSS by martyrdom.

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?

Why we need Free Software ‘holes’

Rachel Botsman made a really impressive TedTalk where she talks about consumption, more importantly about how as a society we should use our ‘stuff’ more effectively by sharing it or bartering it more.

What really stuck in my mind was the phrase “What you need isn’t a drill that you buy and use once or twice, what you need is a hole”

And it’s true, what we don’t need is software, what we need is the product that software gives us. But if that’s the case and the product is the most important part, why should anyone care about Free Software? After all, Free Software doesn’t always get you the better result, it certainly didn’t 10 years ago.

I rationalise Free and Open Source as a forward thinking politic. One where governments neglected their duty to protect the commons and the products of the public sphere. Instead FOSS is where clever people, have created legal strategies in order to artificially create an environment, where sharing and collaboration can really take place with the required legal protection they need to not be abused.

The worst thing that you can do if you need a hole, is to hire out the same drill from the one and only drill making company that charges you $300 a time, never sells their product, bribes and have the law protect their monopoly from users making their own. The better long term strategy is to always have a drill in common with others (or other hole making device) and to have it set up in such a way as to allow unfettered access as well as shared responsibility to it’s upkeep.

The lessons I learned are as a developer, I need to keep the user’s requirement (hole) in mind, and not what amazing software I can build (drill). That’s a design focus which I will try and hold close and I’m glad is becoming more accepted in the admittedly drill focused culture in foss.

As a user I’m made more aware of my responsibility as a participant in the greater commons to help maintain and grow the bank of software we have available to all and not just my opportunity.

What are your thoughts?

Ask Ubuntu Review

I’ve been giving the Ubuntu Stack Exchange some attention and I wanted to do a little bit of a review. Firstly I’d like to thank Jorge Castro and other members of the community team for getting a tool in place to replace the failing launchpad answers functionality.

With that I do want to make a criticism. This site was pushed as a JFDI and as such it doesn’t really take into account the views of the larger ecosystem. What do I mean? well now we have to decide if we want to keep launchpad answers around, how projects/the ubuntu project will specify to go to askubuntu instead and how to transition existing data over, migration of data, who owns it and how access is guaranteed. This is all made harder by the proprietary and out sourced nature that the stack exchange service is being offered to us.

This is mitigated slightly by some help from Robert Cartaino of Stack Exchange who is excited to help us with our functionality and integration issues. It’s just not as ideal as I would like.1

The service it’s self is well thought out, with questions being editable, comments being useful and answers being constructive. The functional stepping stones that you go through as you get more reputation are interesting and beneficial, although missing is the functionality to have reputation per tag and have that shown in your answers to questions.

There isn’t much to the site over all, it’s clever design takes some good elements and mixes them together in just the right way to produce a clever output. It’s useful and seems to be a winner with the community. The ranking, badges and increasing reputation make the system more of a game and use the best elements of addictive research to keep people participating in the volunteer support site.

I did want to list all questions which has never gotten an answer, all I could do was list questions that had never had an answer accepted. Which is not quite the same thing. I also see there is a _lot_ of questions with answers without the answer being picked. Something we may have to do some future house keeping on.

The chat functions are a bit erroneous and should probably be integrated into irc somehow instead. But perhaps it’s just a place to do house cleaning so maybe it just needs putting in a better place than on every page.

So far the culture on AskUbuntu has been very good. I haven’t seen rudeness or condescension anywhere and people have been polite and helpful throughout even with really hard problems of hardware issues where a number of back and forths are required to sort them out.

Overall I think I’m happy with the Ask Ubuntu site. It’s too late to now back up and move to the FOSS solution so we’re stuck with what we got. But if we must be stuck using a proprietary system, at least let that system not suck. Which this one doesn’t at all.

1 Canonical tends to have a bit of a blind spot for making sure community and development tools are FOSS. Take Launchpad’s extended exile for instance. It’s all rather reminiscent of BitKeeper and the price we pay for not learning from that mistake.

Ubuntu One and FOSS Services

My good friend S.Gerguri asked me to talk about the nature of the Ubuntu One services offered by Canonical Ltd. and has sent me his thoughts by email, I’ve quoted him here and responded with my own thoughts. Full disclosure: I briefly worked on the team that develops the Ubuntu One service at Canonical and so I’m going to be careful since I’ve seen code and talked about strategy while on the team.

I just saw Martin Albisetti’s post on Ubuntu One Mobile and went to check the service. It appears to be a rather neat way of accessing your music while not having to lug around your whole catalog when you’re away just with your phone. … It is also priced quite fairly, even though I think the cloud capacity could be larger for the asking price.

The amount of space has to be very carefully calculated between the amount offered for free and the amount offered for a price. The servers the files are stored on are Amazon’s cloud, so the money doesn’t all go to Canonical. This is something of a business decision though and it’s really up to the market to decide at what price it thinks the services on offer are worth paying.

The service is also competing against companies for who this service is a loss leader, hoping to attract a large enough user base to sell their companies. This is precisely the opposite of Canonical that wants UO to be self sustaining and ultimately paying for developers to work on Ubuntu.1

The client code is open source, while the server is apparently under full control by Canonical. Apparently though, there are still people that have a problem with this, as evidenced by some of the comments in Martin’s post.

It’s true that the server component is proprietary, actually it’s also not even available in binary form. It might as well just be a magic wall that talks a certain language. My feelings on services is that the user has already made the decision to give their destiny over to the service provider regardless of whether the server code is FOSS or not.

For the client software, this is more interesting because the protocols are documented and well known so creating a server component is a matter of guile and not hard work. Accepting code in the FOSS client so it can connect to other servers using the same protocol and shipping that by default in Ubuntu is perhaps where Canonical’s community and open market principles will be shown either way.

The service in question here is the cloud storage along with _open source_ retrieval mechanisms (I am talking about the app). … So about the only possible super-wild argument against having Canonical complete control over the server side (including source) is code inspection for security issues, and even that one falls short because the storage software is just part of the server stack.

The security of the server side is more likely to be better than the client side anyway. But I don’t think there is any rationale to holding onto the server code, there are bigger sticks and better ways to use them. At the moment the closed server code is used as a weird proxy for user’s unsettling feeling that Canonical is making money from Ubuntu in ways where it doesn’t invite anyone else to make money too2.

Some people are also concerned that it’s a matter of principle. If you don’t as a company _believe_ in free and open source, then why advertise and promote free software principles at all? If you do believe them; then why the hypocrisy? That’s a social element which basically boils down to fear being the greatest eroder of principle and it’s fear of being out-competed on the Ubuntu platform which keeps it closed.

I actually find this pretty insulting from the people that complain about it. Canonical gives out Ubuntu for free, provides 2 GB of free cloud storage which, mind you, is not forced on the user, and provides the client side in full open source.

The 2GB is a loss leader, it’s only partly there to improve the Ubuntu desktop as a feature. It’s a win-win and besides you couldn’t sell anyone music if they needed a paid for account first.

The thing that showed the worst side of UbuntuOne service was the decision to hide the purchased music folder instead of using a standard FreeDesktop.org sub folder for it. There were technical reasons and design reasons but I and others are still uncomfortable with the lack of access users have to their music files and the ability to move them out of the UbuntuOne cloud.

Actually, I think this would be a great idea for any cloud-based open source service – let the parties that participated in developing the server code keep it for a competitive advantage, and provide the client in full open source. It’s the service that’s important anyway, and this way you have a chance to recoup on your development costs by providing the service first for some time (until the other interested parties get their server code and modified client code ready).

I’m generally not fond of cloud based services, I think they’re needlessly grabby with people’s data and access rights. The first priority must be for the user to weigh up the cost of doing it themselves with the cost of loosing control. The one good thing I can say about online services is that general users tend to recognise that trade-off better than with normal software.

It’s frustrating that users consider a lack of control over their own computer to be something to be agreeably ignorant about. Users weighing up and making an informed decision about how to solve a practical immediate problem with a solution that may have bad long term implications is better. At least with online services it’s more likely users will be burned earlier and in a recognisable way that makes them cautious.

What are you thoughts dear reader?

1 I’d be happier if Canonical just asked for money to work on user feature requests and bugs, but hey I’m just not in a majority on that thinking yet.
2 A known bone of contention; general thinking is that creating space for a marketplace is a good thing that attracts investment. But I feel sometimes that Canonical is more concerned with filling all holes with it’s own services than opening up the market and really benefiting Ubuntu.

What Happens

I wanted to play with brush lines and I was thinking back to a chat I had with my good friend David about Free Software and lack of User attachment to sticking with Free products when their only desire is practicality. This of course can make a very transient user base who will leave at the first sign of trouble.

Of course any time spent with a particular piece of machinery like software will develop an educational and brand familiarity attachment. I want to put those to one side because I believe they are useful over long time periods but not the short term.

Contributors (and if you reading this then your more than likely a contributor) are of course different, they’re invested in time, philosophically and socially and so are much more likely to stick it out and may actually know how to not only work around problems but we hope through training programs like UDW and UW that we can train people to know how to deal with problems in a more sustainable way. Treating bugs as problems for everyone and not just the individual.

Of course what the mainstream pattern looks like is different, they don’t have contributors or contributing developers, everyone is locked into working around problems. The key difference is that because users are customers, they’re invested in the product. They feel like they own it (even when they don’t) and feel like they ort to stick out problems so that they can get their money’s worth. Of course what do you do in both this and the above case when you have a major headache that you don’t know how to work around or even if you manage to work around? You complain like crazy on your blog, to your friends and to anyone that will hear your pain.

Your complaining is a direct reflection of your ties to a particular product, even to it’s defects.

In the most ideal case and one I was trying to make the case for a few days ago, we’d be able to either turn users into contributors or if that’s not possible then into paying customers that pay for real solutions and code patches, not just work-arounds.

The training that’s going on is a great start, but with better training materials in the community we could be making more contributors aware of the ability of solving problems more permanently and thus improve their input into progress (blogs showing you how to work around a problem are not progress in code terms).

Software isn’t perfect and we need to get lots of people with lots of energy (or money) to invest that energy into the community and to the community collaboration that so effectively benefits everyone. And in my mind the best way to get people quickly attached to FOSS and Ubuntu is to get them to invest into it sooner rather than later, then we have time to get people familiar with the brand and educate them.

Your thoughts?