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?

Is open siege under sourced? Let’s not hope!

An excellent post by txwikinger on his blog called Is open source under siege? Let’s hope not! paints a picture of all the recent movements in the business world which seem to undermine free and open source in economics (withdrawal of support) and in philosophical backing (maybe working together isn’t good?).

When it comes to the ideas surrounding free and open source, the commons and free culture in general we have to remember that our cultural values are subject to dialectic interpretation as much as any set of ideas. Our main mooring has been the sometimes radical and always socially objectionable Free Software community who has been very strong on purpose and clear on what it considers to be for and against the free software ideal.

This I think has allowed us to be protected in a lot of ways from being swept away by dialectic diffusion; where your ideas mix up so much with other people’s that identifying the core values become impossible. The gentle sound of the waves of free culture crashing against the seemingly impossibly immovable shore of commercial reality has over time not changed radically commercial reality, but the shape of commercial advantage and where there is easy and attractive exploitable resources.

It’s not a surprise to me that as the impending beat of market forces in conjunction with the reality of software and all soft media increases in tempo, the fear of the old world companies is leading them to seek even more government protection. Every governmentally supported artificial barrier conceivable is being employed by the biggest and most well resourced organisations to try and keep a status quo that can not be.

To conclude I would say that the free and open source ideas are changing the world, they are as well being changed as you’d expect. Sometimes for the better and sometimes in ill advised ways that should be rejected by everyone who wants to keep their free software ideals. The proprietary companies and people who think as they do that protectionism and government monopolies are better than the free market will struggle something fierce while they either morph or die into something survivable.

Remember your concern over what Microsoft, Apple and Oracle are doing is nothing but a fraction of the fear and dread that they have over a real open free market in software and the work we all do to hasten it.

What Do You Believe In?

I’ve been watching the tedTalk by Simon Sinek and I wanted to ask you all as a community what you believe in. According to Simon there are die hard Apple fans who love Apple and their products because they believe in Apple’s think different philosophies and only after will they make practical excuses for why they like the products.

I believe in giving users software ownership, that no matter how much or how little they paid for software that they should have complete ownership and control over their own computers. They should have source code, they should be able to modify it or pay others to modify it for them, they should be able to redistribute and learn from it without strings, restrictions or end user agreements.

I believe it’s your computer, your data and your life and it’s not my business as a programmer and software maker to tell you how to run it. It’s your job to tell me how you want the software to serve your needs.

So now you know what I believe as an official Ubuntu member; I want to ask you all, what you believe in when it comes to Ubuntu and Software?

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.

Hold on Tight to Principles

I wanted to take this comment I made in an email and post it to my blog. I’m fairly principled and I try my best with all sorts of things. There is something about principles which I think is not well understood and I’d like to offer a tentative explanation:

Principles are a view of the world which can be seen to be idealistic, they are in their nature the very way in which given the way you understand the world to work you could see things being made better and more ideal. Ideals are not always practical, you have to deal with real world issues that are not ideal.

Practicalism isn’t a principle, it’s the ways real world problems can be solved. You use your principles to weigh up the cost of actions that solve the problem. You do _not_ replace your principles wholesale with a view that cheapens and makes light of principles in general but instead use them to dialectically make new and creative solutions to the problems.

Free and Open Source as a principle: It’s both a long term practical benefit (investment) and a universal social good which respects users and brings down the cost of computer software development. I would say that FOSS is one of those unique common sense type principles that have immediate and far reaching effects. The difficulty with spreading the ideas and philosophies are not due to the general public not being able to understand, but instead relate to how tightly vested interests hold onto their own principles about the appropriateness of their product’s terms.

All these things have cultural and political consequences in my view. You don’t have to be a raving supporter or a crazy Ubuntu advocate. I think just being more aware of exactly what the proposition is and why proprietary software is very costly and not worth your time would be very valuable in bringing about a cultural shift.

Thank you for reading my ramble, what are your thoughts? Am I talking out of my hat again? Should I be less concerned with the adoption of practicalism as a principle?

Conceptual Icons

This is the current evolution of the FOSS icons I’ve been using for posters and flyers, as you can see I’ve been focusing on a number of concepts to iconify the powerful rights given to users with Free and Open Source software. The ones with the blue glow are by current choices.

Any thoughts on these icons yourself?

Free Culture Poster: Review

My dearest community, please consider spending a minute of your time reading this early draft of a poster I am constructing. It’s target audience is the general masses attending libraries, colleges and other public places and it’s attempting to genteelly introduce people to Free Culture concepts.

I need to make sure my working is good as well as my spelling, the blue boxes are for images which I’m getting a fellow artist to sketch up and should go in there soon. Do let me know if you want the svg before it’s complete, once out of draft I’ll add it to spread-ubuntu in A3 and Ledger sizes. Thank you everyone!

Open Source Cargo Cult

Have you ever wondered if the people who claim to want to use “open source” don’t really understand what it is?

I get this feeling a lot, mostly from the media, government politicians and organisational administrators. Very few people understand Free and Open Source Software enough to be able to understand the difference between that and proprietary software. So is it any wonder so few people are able to grasp the importance of it in their organisation?

At times I feel it’s as if they’ve heard about some mystic buzz word that can solve technical problems they never knew existed and all they have to do is observe some religious behaviours and the wonderful results of doing science properly (i.e. publishing results and peer review) will magically be yours without any requirement to understand what it is your actually doing.

I’m also cynically wondering if this same process of belief is how a lot of well to do people understand economics. Perform XYZ and get godly justified rewards! Magic until it all falls to bits as a giant pyramid scheme.

Perhaps I’m just frustrated at the lack of understanding, the promiscuity of misinformation and bad explanations that seem to grind the clear message down into an indecipherable mess.

Your thoughts?

Example of FOSS Economics

People who read my blog regularly know I’m big on looking into discovering what it is that will allow software creators, bug fixers and all the other people involved in producing functional products with a sustainable income.

Only two weeks ago I was talking with Matt Lee of the Free Software Foundation about this problem and apparently someone he knows had sold himself online for 6 months as a free software hacker by setting levels of pledges and some rewards and products for people who invest in the project and although the FSF doesn’t consider economics important enough to be a goal (much to my disappointment) the activists there are aware of it.

Now computer world uk is reporting on the exact same system, one where the artist, programmer or team sets out to raise money for a project and does so by setting a structured list to encourage higher amounts of money to be pledged.

Just like me they’ve avoided using words such as “charity” and “donation”, which I think are really not applicable to what we’re trying to do: viz. find a way to make Free as in speech economically sustainable.

What do you think about a stepped pledge model? Do you think that the model requires far too many direct supporters and existing backers before it can be made to work? Should I conduct myself in a similar fashion by creating a set of pledges for the ground control project and advertising it very widely?

FOSS: The Consideration Bridge

A debate, seemingly endless in the Free and Open Source landscape between purest Free Software activists and Practicalist Open Source is starting to find it’s way into a recognisable, worthwhile settlement. At least in my own head.

Freedom Through Production

I’ve never been very fond of the Free Software Foundation’s recent destructive, abstinence only, political approaches to advocacy. It may seem that they’re no longer concerned with Free Software as a social issue, but as only a political issue, but I don’t believe this is the only thing the FSF is up to, only what they are most loud about in the press and the way they allow themselves to be perceived.

The difference of course is how you fight. Back in the days when the FSF was finding it’s feet Richard and others began this amazing process of taking functional proprietary tools and recreating these tools as free software, drop-in replacements. This process of “doing all the boring bits” really set the technical foundations and I think is why a lot of people were really amazed by the principled dedication and out of this grew respect.

You could of course be strong by simply denying yourself the pleasures of technology, because it’s not Free Software. But this is something that only a very small majority will do and while it does show conviction, It’s not producing anything and it implies negative guilt in those unwilling to give up their Wii or Blackberry. Protests are great, but they have to resonate with the public and can’t just be about showing how rotten everyone is for being human and wanting nice things.

I know the FSF is still producing software, taking troublesome closed software and making new free versions of it (hence OpenSocial), but the strength of that production has not been keeping up with it’s ability to be loud, vocal and political. What we’ve ended up with is a political organisation, but not a guiding light that executes and demonstrates the way forward as it used to.

My key consideration: Support Free Software, have conviction, be strong on the issues and be principled. But don’t whine protests, instead make solutions. Let creation do the talking (and advertise it) and invite others to come together to make Free Software solutions. Freedom through production.

Utility Through Liberty

The open source movement grew out of the lack of compromise in the Free Software community, but it’s grown further from being just about inviting businesses into a friendly arena and into a more pragmatics’ hiding hole, there are no difficult questions to answer, and free as in beer software is how it’s all advertised with no further explanation about how it became free in the first place.

It’s disappointing because while the open source movement should have be trying to figure out the best ways to execute Free Software ideals in a realistic economic and business sense, it instead set off with a more vague set of principles that are simply less strict, but with the same intention as the FSF. Sure there is much more practical movement, more code production, but there is also a lot of confusion and grey areas being produced which are not helpful.

How many licenses are ratified by OSS? Why did they need to ratify licenses at all? or even bother with definitions? There is quite a good set of principles right there ready to use from the FSF, all that was needed was a more business, less political direction and advertising strategy. Something that business pragmatists would look at and be happy understanding and supporting based on it’s practical benefits, but also not shy away from explaining it’s long term reasons.

For me I find being practical in the immediate sense is important, but far too often this id-like satisfaction eclipses my responsibility to make sure I prepare for the future. Far too often you’ll find practicalism going hand in hand with myopia and an inability to see the future beyond next month. Even if I need to use some closed source bit of code, or some driver firmware to get everything working. I think I should always be mindful of making sure I am a) not investing further into the closed source ecosystem and that I can b) invest something into the FOSS alternatives in order to help the future of that functionality dig it’s way out of the hole.

These are long term practical and economic considerations for the open source philosophy that I wish were much more widely practised. We certainly can’t be thinking of how to construct new and exciting economic opportunities for free software development when in for example Ubuntu we shall have closed source programs with economic incentives (that users pay for) and Free Software programs with no economics beyond self interest (they’re all free and not linked to any sort of donations or investment information).

A deplorable imbalance in consideration of the future of Free and Open Source which I hope can be solved with some discussion with the distribution organisations and perhaps the organisations that manage projects financially. A standard formula and way to advertise that to end users would be most welcome.

My key consideration: Practicalism is good, but I’m weary that it doesn’t lead to complacency and myopia on the future issues. Free Software principles are very strong foundations for the long term and closed source solutions are very weak stop gaps in comparison. Be sure to invest in that long term solution even while using the short term stop gap.

Your thoughts on my whole ramble today?