Microsoft have done two important things this year. The first, Windows 7, you will no doubt have heard all about. Indeed, judging by the number of TV adverts for the launch last week you may be starting to get heartily sick of hearing about it. The second, though, is less well known but much more controversial: they’ve recently committed some of their hand-crafted-in-Redmond code to GNU/Linux. I’ve been writing about different aspects of this for a few people, but the first to publish is Prospect magazine. It’s quite a short piece in terms of the complexity of the issues, but will give you a taster of what’s to come.
Posts Tagged ‘Linux’
I recently mentioned an interview I did with software pioneer and happy hacker Richard Stallman, when he was on a rare visit to the UK. The resulting piece has just been published as Richard Stallman on the road less travelled. The reference to Robert Frost’s poem was an attempt to sum up the way in which Stallman has always flown in the face of the mainstream. And his views on education are no different.
For the first time, Stallman outlined his views on the role of proprietary software use in schools and universities, which are less well known and could prove pretty controversial. One of the things we discussed involved commercialisation of software produced during the research process. He called on university research staff to actively resist moves to develop proprietary software during these projects, saying:
“Here is what every person developing software in a university must do when necessary. When the program is just vaguely starting to work, go to the administration [management] and say ‘If I can release this as free software, then I’ll finish it. Otherwise, I’ll just write a paper about it’ “.
Several years ago I had a job in computer-related technology transfer at a university and had a lot of day-to-day contact with the commercialisation and IP ‘protection’ staff. Although a lot of computer science researchers will agree with Stallman, I can’t see this going down too well with the IP department.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the imminent release of the £99 ONE laptop which runs a version of the open source GNU/Linux operating system. The reason these computers are so cheap is largely due to the fact that the GNU/Linux operating system is essentially free, which takes out a lot of the cost. There are other cost factors, though. The ONE also requires less memory and hard-disc storage to run the system whereas Windows XP, for example, requires a whopping 15GB of storage.
The point I was making was that the low cost of the ONE laptop could pose a threat to the dominance of the Windows operating system, and indeed, it seems that Microsoft is not about to let this go unchallenged. It has reacted, in part, by getting involved in the One laptop Per Child project (OLPC), initially set up by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, to design and produce a sub-$100 machine for use in the developing world. A version of Windows will be available on the OLPC XO low-cost machine.
This has caused a considerable stir in the free and open source software communities who assumed that, since OLPC’s goal was to reach the poorest children of the world, very low cost operating systems would be the answer. The intention is that the XO will still be shipped with a GNU/Linux option, but what I think is interesting is the reasoning given by some commentators for also providing a Windows version.
The IEEE Distributed Systems online magazine quotes an IDC analyst, Bob O’Donnell, who argues that OLPC has had feedback from their target countries who “understood the theoretical appeal of the open source software, but they said, ‘We have to teach our kids life-skills.’ And whether anybody wants to admit it or not, learning Windows is a life-skill. It trains them for something they can use on the job.” (my italics).
This is one of the arguments used in favour of Windows and other proprietary software that Richard Stallman highlighted when he spoke to me the other day in Manchester. Stallman counter-argues that this kind of thinking is a trap which ends up with proprietary software being continually perpetuated through the system and means that deeper issues surrounding software and its effect on human freedoms are not explored. There’ll be more on this shortly when my interview with Stallman is published – I’ll keep you posted.
Wearing no shoes, with long hair flowing, Richard Stallman sipped a cup of tea while he regaled a packed lecture theatre at the University of Manchester with a tub-thumpingly passionate and eloquently argued case for Free software.
Stallman is the American enfant terrible of the computer software industry. His radical ideas fuelled his breakaway from the pack in the 1980s, when he set up the Free Software Foundation – that’s free in the sense of liberty rather than free of charge. For most people it’s a subtle distinction so I’ll use his own words to explain:
“Free software means software that respects the users’ freedom. Our society encourages people to judge programs in a shallow way based only on practical convenience – how powerful is it, how reliable, what does it cost and to ignore the most important questions: what does this program do to my freedom. What does this program do to the social solidarity of my community? These questions are what the free software movement is all about.”
Unsurprisingly, given Manchester’s history of radicalism (think Anti-Corn Law League and the Peterloo Massacre), Stallman found a natural audience. The crowd loved every minute of his talk, they roared for more, and, afterwards, they literally besieged him to get his signature on books, slips of paper, and even, in one case, a laptop lid. This is as close as it gets to rock ‘n’ roll in computer science.
Once the dust had settled I was able to make my approach. I was there to get a post-show interview for Oxford University’s OSS Watch website, and after several ‘ah-ha’s while I explained who I was, Stallman’s first question was “do you know about my rules…?” I was made to promise that I would be careful during the interview with the use of certain words associated with the free software movement, for example, to always refer to GNU/Linux, not Linux.
With the niceties over, a fascinating, and at times rambunctious, half hour ensued. I did quite well with my vocabulary during the first half of the interview, but the second half was trickier, whether through clumsiness or fatigue on my part, and there were a couple of near misses. However, I have to say, it was worth it.
Stallman is an engagingly unusual character. If you ignore, or even just simply enjoy the eccentricities, you have a man with a powerful message and one that is so rarely heard. It is a compelling case for programmers and users to become much more aware of the democratic and social implications of software.
It hasn’t all been just talk, either. Stallman combines the programmer’s eye for minute detail with sweeping ideas about freedom. By concentrating on the detail – the exact wording of things like software licences – he has driven forward his concept of free software.
I came away impressed by a man who has the courage to challenge other technologists with talk about ethics and values. The sort of stuff one doesn’t hear too much about in these nervous, corporate, globalised days: social solidarity, individual liberty, democracy, community ethos, public service. The way he articulates his message is clear, deeply refreshing and at the same time curiously old fashioned. There were moments during the interview when I imagined this must have been what it was like hearing one of the radical political thinkers of the eighteenth century speak: only with a deep knowledge of modern technology.
In true radical style Stallman completed the interview with a made-up folk ditty about Gordon Brown being a clown and the English always being free (sung to the tune of ‘Rule Britannia’). And for a computer person, his singing voice wasn’t too bad, either.
UPDATE: Feb 2011 – the FSF have now uploaded a video of Stallman’s Manchester talk
As the economy suffers, and tax revenues start to fall, bearing down on spending within the public sector is becoming increasingly important. As just one example, the UK Government is looking for half a billion pounds of savings in the education sector’s total procurement costs. One would’ve thought, then, that open source software solutions such as Linux and OpenOffice, which have no licence fees associated with them, would be seeing an increase in take up.
Apparently not. At the Risk Management in Open Source Procurement conference in Oxford yesterday, speaker after speaker gave examples of other European countries with large-scale, public sector, open source procurement strategies. Notable examples that were mentioned included a 120,000 Linux-based desktop installment in schools across Macedonia and the outfitting of the French Parliament with open source-based desktop systems. But in the UK, we’re still lagging behind.
There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important is the number of barriers present in the process of procurement. It seems that open source software suppliers are not being offered a level playing field when it comes the bureaucratic procedures and check-lists involved in making procurement decisions within public sector bodies. A high profile example involves Becta, the school’s technology agency, and its recent decision not to include the popular open source package Moodle as a potential e-learning platform.
The good news is that, judging from the level of interest at the conference it seems there is growing willingness on the part of the public sector to work on this, alongside moves amongst open source developers to work together through consortia.
If this is something you’re interested in, watch this space. I’ve been commissioned to write up the main findings of the conference (in an interesting way!) so there will be more coming out on this in a few weeks’ time.
The announcements of ultra-cheap, Linux-based PCs, which I wrote about last week, reminded me of Peter Dawe’s Babel TV, which was launched back in November. This is also based on Linux and combines a computer and Internet access device, running common open source software tools such as OpenOffice, with a video recorder (PVR) and Freeview TV set-top-box.
Dawe is widely respected as a technologist and credited with being one of the founding fathers of mainstream Internet in the UK as he set up Pipex, the UK’s first commercial Internet service provider. During a round-table discussion at the 2005 PACT Content Lab conference in Birmingham Dawe announced that the day was rapidly approaching when a basic PC with Internet access and IPTV facilities could be given away with a box of cornflakes. And he wasn’t joking – he claimed the costs would be recouped either through advertising and sponsorship or providing online services at a cost along the model of mobile phone handsets (which are heavily subsidised by the telecoms networks).
Babel TV is not free (at £295) but there’s a also monthly charge for online back-up storage, so given his comments in Birmingham, one can perhaps see where this might be heading.
PC manufacturer Elonex is launching ONE, an ultra-portable laptop, at this week’s Education Show at the NEC. The machine provides a 7″ LCD screen, wireless Internet access and 1GB on-board solid state memory (there is no hard disc to save on costs). It runs Linux with what looks like OpenOffice for word processing and is being aimed at the education market. It costs just £99.
This product launch follows hot on the heels of growing interest in the ASUS Eee PC which is slightly more costly at around £200 but also runs Linux. If these low-cost products take off in the early-years education market then we could see a new generation of young adults who have been weaned on open source and Linux.
This might be considered another brick in the wall to mainstream PC manufacturers and Microsoft for two reasons.
Firstly, as my old college chum Martin Waller pointed out to me, this new generation of Linux/OpenOffice aficionados would naturally want to transfer their skills and technologies into the workplace. This worked for a now forgotten computer company called DEC (aka Digital Equipment) in the 1970s. A generation of engineering and computer science graduates entered the workplace after having used the company’s PDP/11 machine in their college years and started demanding to have access to similar, easy-to-use, mini-computers at work. This process helped speed the demise of the centralised mainframe computer.
Secondly, for Microsoft to have any hope of being incorporated in to these kinds of super-cheap, commodity products then they will have to drop the licence fee for Windows and Office. This is further reinforced in the education world by the UK’s school technology advice agency’s (BECTA) recent reservations about Microsoft’s Office 2007 software, and public exhortations for schools to make more use of free-to-use products.
The Jesuits are supposed to have said: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. This early adoption technique may be about to take off in the world of operating systems.