Archive for May, 2008

Landfall for 3G iPhone?

May 30, 2008

Intense rumours are sweeping the Net concerning news of the next version of Apple’s iPhone which will feature 3G mobile telephony. This has brought to light one of the odder websites of the world: Import Genius. This is a software service that tracks various real-time registers of the movement of shipping containers into the US and allows (paying) customers to keep an eye on their competitors’ supply movements. According to a CNN news story the Import Genius site has registered a large number of shipments for Apple labelled simply as ‘electric computers’ since mid-March. This appears to be on top of their regular shipments of desktop computers.

Looks like Christmas has come early for some lucky people.

Advertisements

A level playing field for open source?

May 28, 2008

A few weeks ago I mentioned a conference on the issues surrounding the procurement of open source software which was being hosted at the University of Oxford’s OSSWatch service. I was there to write a report on the main events of the day so I thought you might be interested to know that it’s just been published.

For those of you who just want the edited highlights, the key question was whether or not open source software solutions get a fair shout when procurement managers (particularly in the public sector) start to think about bringing in new systems or upgrading existing systems (they don’t!).

For me, the most thought provoking comment came from Boris Devouge, from RedHat, who argued that the most important question anyone should be asking about a new system is whether it supports open standards or not.

Boris said: ‘”One of the very first questions when using public money should be: ‘Are you using open standards? Is my data safe?’ You need to know that [with] the solution you are advocating now, [that] in ten years’ time it’s not going to cost forty times as much to migrate the data somewhere”.

By this means he means that if you’re bringing in new systems you need to make sure that you will be able to take your data out and ‘migrate’ it to a new system (if you so wish) easily and with minimal cost. This is not necessarily about open source software per se. You can have closed source software that adheres to open standards for data exchange and you can have standards that describe themselves as open when they’re not really very open at all. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. The important thing is to focus on the data and how easily you can transfer it to other systems. I think this is going to be one of the big issues over the next few years, as ordinary people start to feel the effects of being ‘locked in’ to things like the everyday Web services they use.

Here comes the flood – the curator is as important as the creator

May 15, 2008

He once sang ‘Here comes the flood’ and he now seems to have taken the message to heart. Former Genesis front man Peter Gabriel is working on a project called The Filter which will help people navigate through the ever-expanding ocean of online information and digital assets.

In a world of a bewildering range of choice, Gabriel argues (in a Reuters video clip) that the curator is as important as the creator. What he seems to be arguing is that sharing our collections, playlists etc. of digital content can help us find new, interesting and relevant content.

The Filter tool joins a growing band of personalisation services that help people make sense of the huge choice of music, video, films and other media that is now available online thanks to the Long Tail. These services track your personal preferences, make sense of your online purchases and keep an eye on the stuff that you browse. In the case of the Filter, the ‘engine’ that drives it is a complex algorithm based on a branch of maths called Bayesian statistics. It works out patterns of interest and makes suggestions for related materials. The real power will come when these mathematical pattern profiles can be shared through social networking websites.

A public launch is promised next month, although I hear news that his server was stolen over the recent bank holiday.

Richard Stallman in Manchester

May 6, 2008

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