Archive for June, 2008

Richard Stallman challenges education

June 30, 2008

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.

So, farewell then Bill Gates

June 27, 2008

Throughout my entire career in the computer industry Bill Gates has been an omnipresence as Microsoft bent the industry around it like a giant star bends gravity. He retires today. These days that star is arguably beginning to fade as the post-PC era takes shape and so perhaps he is bowing out at the right time.

There is so much that could be said about Gates and his work, and no doubt there will be acres of coverage in the print and online media this weekend. However, in the best and slightly irreverent traditions of this blog (and because it’s Friday), here are three things you perhaps didn’t know about Bill Gates and probably won’t read this weekend:

  • His favourite subject at school was geography
  • He was once sent by his parents to see a psychiatrist because they thought he was an underachiever
  • He enjoys butter pecan ice cream

A delicate game of chess

June 20, 2008

Within the EU, a delicate game is afoot. A group of MEPs is trying to ascertain if Microsoft can be ruled out of public procurement processes because they’ve been found guilty of serious misconduct through anti-competitive behaviour in the recent past. This is a reference to Microsoft’s recent fine of 1.68 billion euros by the EU for abusing its position in the PC operating systems market place. In the latest move, Green Party MEPs have been attempting to clarify whether, under Article 93 of the EU’s financial regulations, Microsoft should be excluded from current or future public procurement procedures.

In response to the MEPs, the EU commission has equivocated over the public procurement issue and refused to rule out excluding the computer giant from future EU public procurement.

This follows hard on the heels of another move to maintain the EU’s focus on open standards. On 10th June, EU Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, emphasised the importance of open standards and the need to avoid lock-in to single vendors. Without mentioning Microsoft by name, she reiterated the EU Commission’s commitment to not accepting closed standards, arguing that: “when open alternatives are available, no citizen or company should be forced or encouraged to use a particular company’s technology to access government information.”

This last statement got me thinking though. All the media coverage of these developments focuses on Microsoft and the on-going debate about their Office products and open or proprietary document data formats. But, where does Google fit into all this? How do most citizens go about trying to ‘access government information’?

Like chess this is a strategic game, full of slow deliberation and careful moves. But the world of technology is changing rapidly and there is much talk of Microsoft’s dominance coming to a natural end as technology moves away from the era of the PC. At the end of the game the EU’s opponent may not turn out to be who we all thought it was.

Learning Windows – is this really a life-skill?

June 13, 2008

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.

Coconut water

June 6, 2008

As the title of this blog would suggest technology-themed lunches are an important part of our repertoire. Although it’s nice to be treated to the odd gourmet surprise at a conference or workshop, the reality is that techie types often don’t get the chance to leave their desk. If, like me, you fall in to this category, you’ll always be on the look out for new things to liven up your lunch-hour.

With this in mind, a good friend of mine (thanks Alan) has brought to my attention the following liquid accompaniment to a desk-bound lunch: young coconut water. It comes in the form of a canned drink and, although I’ve not yet tried it, I am assured that it is fantastic stuff.

I’ve no idea why the coconuts have to be young, but thinking about it hairy, wrinkly milk doesn’t sound too appetising.