Category Archives: Microsoft

Windows 7 netbooks in NSW schools?

I was asked by a journ­al­ist to com­ment on the NSW gov­ern­ment decision to dis­trib­ute Win­dows 7 “mini note­books” across schools. Here’s my reply:

I used to work with satel­lite net­works, provid­ing Inter­net access to
most of NSW before wired broad­band was widely avail­able (and it still
isn’t in a lot of places). We had many rural schools and local
coun­cils as cus­tom­ers. The dif­fi­culties of get­ting com­put­ing and
Inter­net resources to remote areas (with asso­ci­ated infra­struc­ture,
train­ing, etc.) can­not be underestimated.

Firstly examin­ing from a busi­ness per­spect­ive, how is this to be
fun­ded, given that NSW is in a poor fin­an­cial state and the gov­ern­ment
has been axing pro­jects left, right and centre? What altern­at­ives were
con­sidered? How were they eval­u­ated? Was there an open ten­der­ing
process?

What mat­ters most is what we can achieve with this pro­gramme. Simply
throw­ing a com­puter to every stu­dent won’t cut it. There needs to be a
clear plan and set of out­comes defined, as you would have with any
reas­on­able busi­ness arrange­ment. This press release doesn’t touch upon
any of that.

What is the oppor­tun­ity cost of fund­ing this scheme? Could the
resources have been spent on bet­ter facil­it­ies for the chil­dren or
bet­ter teach­ers’ salaries?

The phrase ‘new era’ implies some sort of major change. Has this been
adequately planned for?

Teach­ers have a hard enough time keep­ing up with tech­no­logy. Will they
be given train­ing and con­tin­ued assistance?

How will these devices be integ­rated into cur­ricula? How can they
become effect­ive teach­ing aids and not just expens­ive appendages?

Will the focus be on teach­ing or train­ing? I am a firm believer that
schools should teach chil­dren to be clever and think for them­selves,
cre­at­ing the basis for a flex­ible work­force. They should not simply be
trained to mem­or­ise the func­tions of a par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of a piece
of soft­ware. Rote-​​learning like that will be worth­less when they
gradu­ate and enter the workforce.

Will there be any addi­tional costs required to prop­erly use the
equip­ment? Are classrooms adequately equipped with appro­pri­ate
elec­trical wir­ing and capa­city to charge all of these? What about
net­work con­nectiv­ity? What will it take to main­tain the infra­struc­ture
required for these, includ­ing hard­ware and soft­ware for serv­ers,
routers and so on.

In fact, there is no men­tion of sup­port­ing infra­struc­ture at all. What
are the costs of the entire life cycle of these devices, the soft­ware,
main­ten­ance, infra­struc­ture and so on?

Who will own the note­books? Will stu­dents be free to explore and learn
about their com­puters, or will they be locked down? Can they install
whatever soft­ware they want? Will they be tied to par­tic­u­lar
applic­a­tions and file formats?

There is no men­tion at all of what soft­ware will be installed on these
com­puters. An oper­at­ing sys­tem without applic­a­tions is use­less. Will
the included soft­ware be enough to empower and teach our chil­dren?
Have deals been struck with other soft­ware sup­pli­ers? Will there be
addi­tional costs to acquire the soft­ware for par­tic­u­lar sub­jects? Who
bears this cost — the school sys­tem or parents?

Has open source soft­ware been con­sidered at all? There’s plenty of
open source soft­ware that works hap­pily on top of Win­dows. Microsoft
may have dis­coun­ted Win­dows, but did they include an office suite?
Open­Of­fice would do the job just fine.

Even if you believe the tired-​​old argu­ment that the state MUST
pur­chase Microsoft Office for each and every stu­dent (which works out
to tens of mil­lions of dol­lars), wouldn’t it be bet­ter to choose
Open­Of­fice for free, and spend those mil­lions on new lib­rary books or
hos­pital beds?

I’ll admit that Open­Of­fice isn’t exactly the same thing (it’s bet­ter
in some ways, not as good in oth­ers), but it’s so sim­ilar that it
doesn’t really make a dif­fer­ence. It is worth tens of mil­lions of
dol­lars just to get the Real Thing? Does learn­ing MS Office 2003 in
school really pre­pare you for using Office 2007 (with its com­pletely
new inter­face) once you hit the work­force? Refer to my earlier
com­ments about teach­ing versus training.

Are they includ­ing graph­ics soft­ware for the art and design classes?
Are tax­pay­ers going to have to pay for a copy of Adobe Cre­at­ive Suite
for every­one? How about we save the hun­dreds of dol­lars per stu­dent
and use the GIMP and Ink­s­cape instead? Examples such as these abound,
and there are plenty of other open source applic­a­tions that simply
have no good par­al­lel in the pro­pri­et­ary world.

I find it strange that the country’s largest state would tie the
edu­ca­tion of its chil­dren to a totally unproven oper­at­ing sys­tem. A
smart pur­chaser — espe­cially one pur­chas­ing at such a grand scale -
would wait until the soft­ware had been out for a while and had been
thor­oughly tested by con­sumers around the world. Internal test­ing is
one thing, but you can­not beat real-​​world experience.

A point-​​zero release is sure to have rough edges, and it would have
been far wiser to wait for at least the first ser­vice pack like most
organ­isa­tions do. Can you ima­gine the fury that would have been
unleashed if the NSW Gov­ern­ment had decided to kit out the state with
Win­dows Vista before its release? Sure it soun­ded good before it came
out (“The wow starts now!”), but it lost its lustre very soon after
unveil­ing. Many people today still cling onto Win­dows XP, and oth­ers
have switched to Linux and Mac OS X, in response to Vista’s abysmal
state.

The OLPC Pro­ject has already iden­ti­fied and addressed many of the
issues that may be faced. They have done this through devel­op­ing a
com­bin­a­tion of hard­ware, soft­ware, infra­struc­ture, train­ing,
pro­ced­ures and learn­ing mater­ial. It would be wise to learn from their
experiences.

The whole mini note­book revolu­tion star­ted with Linux. Start­ing with
the OLPC XO laptop, Linux has proven to be a flex­ible and cap­able
oper­at­ing sys­tem suit­able for small devices. Its res­ist­ance to vir­uses
and other net­work nas­ties is legendary. The last thing I’d want is for
my child’s com­puter to get infec­ted and start show­ing kid­die porn.
Anti-​​virus and anti-​​malware soft­ware are band-​​aid solu­tions. I’m not
going to build a castle on a swamp.

Com­mer­cially, devices like the Asus Eee PC could not have exis­ted if
it were not for Linux. It forced Microsoft to actu­ally com­pete for
once, by resur­rect­ing Win­dows XP and slash­ing its price to a more
reas­on­able level.

The press release claims that this scheme is ‘unpar­alleled in
edu­ca­tion glob­ally’. There is con­sid­er­able risk in being first off the
block. I’ve already explained the risks of using an unproven oper­at­ing
sys­tem. It would be more prudent to learn from other large scale
rol­louts in education.

Take the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia, for example. Des­pite being one of the
poorest nations in Europe, they are the only nation to have one
com­puter per stu­dent. They achieved this through the use of Edubuntu,
a vari­ant of the pop­u­lar Ubuntu GNU/​Linux oper­at­ing sys­tem that is
spe­cially tailored for edu­ca­tion and learn­ing. With that, they got a
vast lib­rary of open source edu­ca­tional soft­ware, which was all
trans­lated into their nat­ive language.

Sim­ilar stor­ies abound in places like Brazil, Rus­sia, India and China.
Col­lect­ively known as the BRIC coun­tries, they are con­sidered to be
the up-​​and-​​coming nations to watch over the next few dec­ades. Their
eco­nom­ies have been grow­ing at break­neck rates, partly because they
have been clever in their invest­ments. These nation states recog­nise
that edu­ca­tion is the key to long-​​term eco­nomic success.

You might say that these coun­tries are poor and that is why they are
choos­ing to use open source soft­ware. It is true that they don’t have
plenty of money to throw around, but does New South Wales? Does
Aus­tralia? Where would you want your tax dol­lars spent?

Bill Gates and the importance of source code

Bill Gates was inter­viewed by the BBC’s Money Pro­gramme. As he pre­pares to sig­ni­fic­antly reduce his dir­ect work for Microsoft Cor­por­a­tion, Bill reflects upon what got him star­ted in the first place and what kept him ahead of the ‘com­pet­i­tion’. The video provides a brief glimpse into the char­ac­ter that foun­ded and guided Microsoft. Regard­less of whether you love him or hate him, he is indeed a fas­cin­at­ing character.

Skip ahead to the 40 second mark, to the seg­ment titled “How the teen­age Gates and his friend Paul Allen got access to a com­puter”. The story accord­ing to Gates was that he and his friends were allowed to hack on a company’s com­puter “like mon­keys” at night to find bugs. He spent hours read­ing manu­als and exper­i­ment­ing to fig­ure out this “fas­cin­at­ing puzzle”. How­ever, they were stuck at the “tinker­ing” stage until they stumbled across the source code in a rub­bish bin. It was only then could the mon­keys evolve.

I don’t think the pro­du­cers of the show real­ised the sig­ni­fic­ance of this admis­sion, since they quickly cut to another seg­ment. Read­ing between the lines, Gates is essen­tially con­fess­ing that he would not have pro­gressed had he and Paul Allen not found the source code. Without this know­ledge, and without this oppor­tun­ity to under­stand and exper­i­ment with how the intern­als of a com­puter worked, Gates and Allen would have been severely con­strained in their abil­ity to found a soft­ware com­pany and develop products

I would go so far as to say that Microsoft owes its very exist­ence to this access to source code.

To any­one with a passing famili­ar­ity to how things worked back then, this comes as no sur­prise. Source code was expec­ted to be free, and this in turn nur­tured a gen­er­a­tion of com­puter hack­ers. But whereas Richard Stall­man saw the amaz­ing poten­tial of this free­dom and wanted to pre­serve it for all, Bill Gates appears to have per­ceived it as an advant­age for him­self that he must deny to others.

LotD:  Gates memo shows user frustration

Annoying by design

Microsoft claim that their UAC secur­ity prompts in Vista are designed to annoy you. I’m try­ing hard to take them ser­i­ously and to not laugh them off… but did they really think it’d work? OEMs and users have been dis­abling it in droves. Other users have prob­ably taught their muscle memory to auto­mat­ic­ally click the Continue/​Allow but­ton without the slight­est acknow­ledge­ment or thought. I think Microsoft need to get their act together when it comes to UIs. Some of their recent efforts have been frus­trat­ingly incon­sist­ent.

A major reason given by Microsoft in their UAC scan­dal was to encour­age developers to avoid priv­ilege elev­a­tions as much as pos­sible. A noble cause, espe­cially in the security-​​inexperienced world of Win­dows devel­op­ment, albeit poorly executed. It reminds me of Apple’s per­petual oppos­i­tion to the multi-​​button mouse. One stated reason is to enforce more ‘sane’, ‘usable’ and con­sist­ent UI design, and over­all I think they’ve done well. They don’t ban multi-​​button mice (‘XY-​​PIDSes’?), but given the simple one-​​button default there’s less need for them. I might prefer using a con­ven­tional 3-​​button scroll mouse, or even Apple’s own Mighty Mouse (a cleverly-​​disguised multi-​​button mouse), but I don’t lose any func­tion­al­ity by not using them.

It goes to show how much the graph­ical inter­face can be influ­enced by its phys­ical input, some­thing a lot of us don’t acknow­ledge in today’s world of >100-​​key QWERTY key­boards, multi-​​button mice and multi-​​finger touch­pads. The real innov­a­tion in that space seems to be hap­pen­ing in the mobile and embed­ded sec­tor, the iPhone being a good example. Play­ers of games on both desktop com­puters and games con­soles might notice the dif­fer­ence in ‘look and feel’ between games designed for keyboard/​mouse versus con­trol pad. Par­tic­u­larly for action and strategy games, ports from desktop to con­sole (or vice versa) often aren’t suc­cess­ful. The soft­ware was designed with the assump­tion of par­tic­u­lar input devices, and any­thing that devi­ates from this will also alter the feel of the game.

LotD: Your Win­dows licence fees paid to make this

Where’s the video?

I prom­ised way back in Janu­ary that we’d release a video of that month’s SLUG meet­ing — our up-​​close-​​and-​​personal with Microsoft. We did just that a month ago, but I totally for­got to men­tion it here.

I know, I suck.

Any­way, you can get the video and slides here (the links in the ori­ginal announce­ment are no longer func­tional). It’s been poin­ted out to me that the slides in the video vary slightly from the PDF, but the dif­fer­ence is min­imal. It’s three months old now — so don’t expect any rev­el­a­tions — but it’s still an inter­est­ing watch.

LotD: Save money by buy­ing dir­ectly from the USA (for Aus­trali­ans only)

What if… Windows went open source?

Sam Var­ghese over at iTWire asked me a couple of days ago for input on whether FOSS would be affected if the Win­dows source code was released. I star­ted draft­ing a response, expect­ing to be fin­ished quickly, but the ideas just kept flow­ing. The end res­ult was a touch over a thou­sand words! I was expect­ing Sam to maybe quote a token sen­tence or two in his art­icle. To my sur­prise, he basic­ally repro­duced (with a little para­phras­ing) the whole thing! :)

The art­icle is here. Skip to page 4 to start read­ing my contribution.

Here is my com­plete response to Sam. As you can see, very little was left out of the article.

The impact on FOSS would depend on what cir­cum­stances the code was released under. Win­dows code is already avail­able under Microsoft’s ‘shared source’ pro­gramme. In this state, you must sign a restrict­ive NDA to see the code, and after that your mind is forever tain­ted with Microsoft’s intel­lec­tual prop­erty. Write any­thing even remotely sim­ilar to the code you were deigned to see, and you leave your­self open to lit­ig­a­tion. In other words, tak­ing part in shared source is a sure-​​fire way to tor­pedo your career in software.

Microsoft have for years been exper­i­ment­ing to find a licence that they can con­vince people is ‘free enough’. For­tu­nately they haven’t suc­ceeded. The danger if they did would be to shift the bal­ance in the open source world away from free soft­ware and towards a model that is more restrict­ive but still accep­ted. They have enough code to ser­i­ously upset the bal­ance, ignor­ing for the moment the com­plex­ity (which includes also leg­acy cruft, bloat and so on) and hence dif­fi­culty for any­one to actu­ally com­pre­hend the code and par­ti­cip­ate in development.

Qual­ity (or rather, lack of qual­ity) aside, Microsoft’s code could be use­ful to see how formats and pro­to­cols are imple­men­ted. Linus Tor­valds once wrote, “A ‘spec’ is close to use­less. I have _​never_​ seen a spec that was both big enough to be use­ful _​and_​ accur­ate. And I have seen _​lots_​ of total crap work that was based on specs. It’s _​the_​ single worst way to write soft­ware, because it by defin­i­tion means that the soft­ware was writ­ten to match the­ory, not real­ity.” It’s one thing to have doc­u­ment­a­tion (as the Samba team have recently man­aged to acquire), but there’s noth­ing to guar­an­tee that there are no mis­takes or devi­ations (inten­tional or oth­er­wise) in the actual imple­ment­a­tion. The WINE pro­ject is a clas­sic example — con­signed to faith­fully reim­ple­ment all of Microsoft’s bugs, even if they run counter to doc­u­ments you might find on MSDN.

There are many ‘open source’ licences. Too many, in fact. Many of these are incom­pat­ible with each other, and a ludicrous volume of them are just MPL with ‘Moz­illa’ replaced with $com­pany. What keeps open source strong are the licences that either have clout in their own right or ones which can share code with those licences. The GPL is right at the centre of this, and we should be proud that the core of open source’s superi­or­ity is Free Soft­ware. Microsoft could try and release code that meets the Free Soft­ware Defin­i­tion but is inten­tion­ally incom­pat­ible with the GPL, as Sun did with OpenSol­aris and CDDL. It still remains to be seen if OpenSol­aris is of any suc­cess, and I think GPL incom­pat­ib­il­ity is cer­tainly a factor there (for example, they can’t take drivers from Linux, so its hard­ware sup­port remains poor). Open​Of​fice​.org, on the other hand, is a prime example of a large pro­pri­et­ary pro­ject that has been released under a GPL-​​compatible licence (LGPL) and has gone on to be suc­cess­ful as a con­sequence. That suc­cess would not have happened if code could not be shared with other FOSS pro­jects, integ­ra­tion could not be made (dir­ect link­ing, etc.) and mind­share not won (FOSS advoc­ates to write code, report bugs, evan­gel­ise, etc.).

The big stinger here is pat­ents. Sun have addressed this in the past with a strong pat­ent cov­en­ant, and more recently they’ve been try­ing to do it prop­erly by for instance reli­cens­ing Open​Of​fice​.org as LGPLv3 (hence grant­ing its users the inher­ent pat­ent pro­tec­tions of that licence). Would a mere ‘Cov­en­ant Not to Sue’ suf­fice for Microsoft? In the case of Microsoft’s recent releases of bin­ary Office formats doc­u­ment­a­tion, their cov­en­ant only cov­ers non-​​commercial deriv­a­tions. Sim­il­arly, their Sin­gu­lar­ity Research Devel­op­ment Kit was released a few weeks ago under a ‘Non-​​Commercial Aca­demic Use Only’ licence.

It is be vital that com­pan­ies have as full rights to use the code as non-​​commercial groups. Oth­er­wise, the code would be deemed to be non-​​Free (Free Soft­ware doesn’t per­mit such dis­crim­in­a­tion). The con­tri­bu­tions made by com­mer­cial entit­ies into the FOSS realm is immense and can­not be ignored. To deny them access would be a death sen­tence for your code. Microsoft would be stuck improv­ing it on their own, and in that case what was the point in releas­ing it in the first place? Don’t mal­ware writers have enough of an advantage?

Don’t trust what a single com­pany says on its own. Nov­ell was for a short while the darling of the FOSS world… then they made a deal with Microsoft. I’m glad that many of us were scep­tical of Mono back before the Novell-​​MS deal, because I’m sure as hell ain’t touch­ing it now. .NET might be an ECMA ‘stand­ard’, but like OOXML it is a ‘stand­ard’ con­trolled wholly by Microsoft. Will such a stand­ard remain com­pet­it­ive and open? We’ve seen this in other stand­ards debates, a good example being the devel­op­ment of WiFi. Com­pan­ies jostled to get their own tech­no­lo­gies into the offi­cial stand­ard. The end res­ult might indeed be open, but if it’s your tech­no­logy in there you already have the ini­ti­at­ive over every­one else. If Win­dows is accep­ted as being open source, Microsoft will con­tinue to dom­in­ate by vir­tue of con­trolling and hav­ing unpar­alleled expert­ise in the under­ly­ing platform.

To raise the most basic (and in this case, flawed) argu­ment, free soft­ware is fant­astic for all users no mat­ter what. Free (not just ‘open’) Win­dows means that Free Soft­ware has finally achieved global dom­in­a­tion — a Free World, if you will. By this argu­ment, we should simply rejoice in our lib­er­a­tion from pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware and restrict­ive formats/​protocols.

Of course, I have already demon­strated that this cor­nu­copia likely will not even­tu­ate even if Microsoft released the Win­dows source code as open source (even GPL). The soft­ware on top will remain pro­pri­et­ary (the GPL’s ‘viral’ nature aside). We’ll still have pro­pri­et­ary pro­to­cols and formats — and even digital restric­tions man­age­ment (DRM) — at the applic­a­tion level. In the grand scheme of things, the end con­sequence on FOSS of Win­dows source code being released might pos­sibly be zilch.

LotD: Happy Pi Day everyone!

Do you dare open the Necronomicon?

As prom­ised, Microsoft have released doc­u­ment­a­tion on their old bin­ary formats by Feb­ru­ary 15. I haven’t taken a look yet, but the com­ments on the art­icle don’t look too encour­aging: some people con­tend that ele­ments are miss­ing and incom­plete. It’ll be inter­est­ing to see how Microsoft respond to this feed­back. Hope­fully the kinks will be smoothed out with little fuss. As far as I am con­cerned, a com­plete spec needs to cover full format­ting, embed­ding, scripts, mac­ros, for­mu­lae, schemas, images, bin­ary blobs, pass­word pro­tec­tion and DRM (and I’m sure I’ve missed some other import­ant stuff too). It should also list exactly which pat­ents are covered, in a man­ner sim­ilar to the Samba/​PFIF deal.

Addi­tion­ally, Microsoft have announced a binary-​​to–OOXML trans­lator pro­ject. How well this will pan out is anyone’s guess. They say that the “pro­ject is developed and released under a very lib­eral BSD-​​like license (sic)”. IANAL — is this licence GPL–com­pat­ible? Could it be used to cre­ate a GPL binary-​​to–ODF con­verter (using OOXML as an inter­me­di­ary), that we can embed into applic­a­tions like Open​Of​fice​.org or Xena?

Obvi­ously these moves are focused on get­ting OOXML approved by ISO, but I’m also hope­ful (though not optim­istic) that it is a sign that Microsoft are will­ing to play more fair with the pub­lic and industry. We need to take advant­age of this pre­dic­a­ment they’ve put them­selves in, and pres­sure them into open­ing their formats as much as pos­sible. If OOXML is ever going to be approved, it should be so open that it’s no longer an issue. I don’t ser­i­ously expect this to hap­pen, so I still hope it fails ;) .

But stand­ard or not, we’re still going to have to deal with it. Office 2007 has its own vari­ant, lov­ingly dubbed MS-​​OOXML by some. The more they open up the format, the more inde­pend­ent and com­plete imple­ment­a­tions there will be, hence there will be more iner­tia for MS to go with the flow and not devi­ate any fur­ther. Then at least it’ll be a de facto open stand­ard. Maybe I’m dream­ing, but it’s at least an inter­est­ing the­ory :)

In semi-​​related news, Microsoft engin­eer Alistair Speirs has blogged about his visit to SLUG. Some prize quotes:

The Linux com­munity has matured from my uni­ver­sity days. … It seems like the linux com­munity has a much more sens­ible, prag­matic approach now

Geeks are geeks, no mat­ter what OS they use. I think this often gets lost in the reli­gious divides and flame­wars. All that geek-​​anger would be much more use­ful tar­get­ing law­yers and invest­ment bankers.

The crowd was pretty friendly and they took us out to a Chinese res­taur­ant after­wards. In an inter­est­ing act of irony, the FLOSS com­munity paid for our din­ner.

For those won­der­ing about the video, we just have to wait on a few things before we can release it. I’m sure we’ll get this sor­ted soon, so no con­spir­acy the­or­ies please :-) .

A win for the People… or Pyrrhic victory?

I men­tioned in my write-​​up of the Microsoft visit to SLUG that Microsoft are going to release the spe­cific­a­tions to their bin­ary file formats. I wasn’t aware at the time that this had already been announced: the specs will be released on Feb­ru­ary 15. Grok­law has decided to look a little closer at the pledge.

Is this a win for inform­a­tion and soft­ware free­dom world­wide, or just the next step towards a new stage of vendor lock-​​in? It remains to be seen, but it does show that our keep­ing Microsoft’s nose to the grind­stone is gen­er­at­ing some effect. Don’t stop now, we’ve only just begun! :)

A note about the video: it will be released as soon as we are able. We’re at linux​.conf​.au at the moment, so it’ll more likely be out next week. I’ve cur­rently got 20GB of glor­i­ous HD video sit­ting on my hard drive, which we need to edit and con­vert to some­thing more Internet-​​friendly. The transcod­ing alone will take a while!

Dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight

Last night, SLUG’s monthly meet­ing played host to four rep­res­ent­at­ives from Microsoft:

  • Sarah Bond, Plat­form Strategy Man­ager. Sarah was present to talk about Microsoft’s cur­rent pos­i­tion with OOXML, espe­cially with regards to the inter­op­er­ab­il­ity with Linux.

  • Amit Pawer, National Tech­no­logy Spe­cial­ist. He spe­cial­ises in Win­dows Server technologies.

  • Alistair Speirs, Tech­no­logy Spe­cial­ist — Office. His back­ground is in Java and .NET development.

  • Rose­mary Stark, Product Man­ager, Win­dows Server and Infra­struc­ture Products.

This unsur­pris­ingly caused much con­sterna­tion and con­tro­versy within the Aus­tralian FOSS com­munity in the weeks lead­ing up to the event, and I (being its organ­iser, and hence the tar­get of much vit­riol) ended up spend­ing much time gauging and respond­ing to the opin­ions and ideas raised.

We wanted this to be an open community-​​led Q&A ses­sion, and to their credit Microsoft were obli­ging. Admit­tedly, I would have saved much san­ity and hours of work if people had pos­ted to the wiki as asked, but hav­ing to tran­scribe from the mail­ing lists to the wiki allowed me to think more about the ques­tions and how they should be worded and ordered. I need no reminder of Microsoft’s trans­gres­sions, but I made sure to keep IBM in mind (as a com­pany that was once con­sidered an ana­thema to soft­ware free­dom but has now largely reformed) and take an optim­istic approach.

Pia was of great help here (as always!). With so many ques­tions and only an hour and a half in which to ask them, we decided to cull the non-​​constructive, accus­at­ive and just plain trolling ques­tions. By the end, Pia had com­piled a list that was fairly encom­passing of the major issues con­cern­ing sup­port­ers of com­pet­i­tion, tech­no­logy and freedom.

As I arrived at the venue, I found that our guests had beaten me and were act­ively help­ing to get the fur­niture into place. This allowed us to get bet­ter acquain­ted before the meet­ing. It was clear (and they openly admit­ted) that they had been fol­low­ing our open dis­cus­sion pro­cess on mail­ing lists and the SLUG wiki. Really, they would have been daft not to do so :)

I handled the intro­duc­tion, then turn­ing the micro­phone over to our guests to intro­duce them­selves. Sarah Bond launched into a present­a­tion on OOXML, in the pro­cess answer­ing sev­eral of the ques­tions we had on the wiki. I left Pia to offi­ci­ate most of the meet­ing, but I chimed in on occa­sion with both poin­ted and irrev­er­ent ques­tions and com­ments that were not on the list.

We will be releas­ing the video of the meet­ing as soon as we are able, so I shan’t explain its con­tents too much. Some inter­est­ing points though:

  • In the list of rules for the meet­ing, I put ‘Ask­ing “Why do you eat babies?” doesn’t help any­one.’ I ini­tially felt bad when I met Sarah and real­ised that she is preg­nant! She was a good sport about it though, and we all had a good laugh :)
  • In her present­a­tion, Sarah men­tioned that Microsoft will be releas­ing the specs to their bin­ary Office file formats in mid-​​February (UPDATE: it’s con­firmed!). I’m still not sure if I heard this one right (it’s a lot to swal­low!), so if someone can con­firm this I’d appre­ci­ate it. They made no bones about this being part of their drive to pro­mote OOXML acceptance.
  • Not new, but news to us, is the fact that Win­dows 2003 has a DRM infra­struc­ture which they call RMS, short for Rights Man­age­ment Ser­vices. I did cheekily ask them if the name was delib­er­ate, and their attempts to ser­i­ously and politely address the ques­tion was price­less :)

Like with any other SLUG meet­ing, we went out for Chinese food after­wards. Three of our guests joined us (it’s a shame that Sarah couldn’t come, but being preg­nant isn’t easy). Did we have din­ner with the Devil? It cer­tainly didn’t feel that way. Once we put our dif­fer­ences aside, we real­ised that we have an awful lot in com­mon. We are all geeks at heart, and some of the MS people have and con­tinue to dabble in Unix and FOSS tech­no­lo­gies such as Python.

Were we suc­cess­ful? It depends on how you look at it. From my per­spect­ive of try­ing to build trust and under­stand­ing, without dwell­ing too much on (but cer­tainly not ignor­ing) the past, I think so. Ask­ing loaded ques­tions and mak­ing our guests feel uncom­fort­able might have brought some short-​​term sat­is­fac­tion to some of us, but would it have achieved any­thing? There were some inap­pro­pri­ate com­ments from the audi­ence going in both dir­ec­tions (one of the loudest people actu­ally seemed to be pro-​​Microsoft), but those people were eas­ily out­numbered by the more sens­ible major­ity. My ori­ginal fears of the crowd devolving into a sense­less rabble dis­sip­ated rap­idly, and I am very pleased and proud of our com­munity for that.

I was ini­tially dis­ap­poin­ted by our turn out, but that feel­ing changed as the meet­ing pro­gressed. Due to it being Janu­ary, linux​.conf​.au being just around the corner (which siphoned a lot of our best and bright­est) and the sens­it­ive nature of the sub­ject mat­ter, we had a crowd that was smal­ler than expec­ted, but felt more con­ver­sa­tional and manageable.

If you were at the meet­ing, please let me know what you thought of it by post­ing a com­ment.

Sarah will be speak­ing again at LUV on Feb­ru­ary 5. If you’re in Mel­bourne for linux​.conf​.au, it might be worth extend­ing your trip by a few days to see it. I would also sug­gest that you take inspir­a­tion from the list of ques­tions that we have com­piled. If our video is out by then, watch it to avoid repeat­ing the ques­tions that we’ve already asked (or pose follow-​​up questions).

My warmest thanks go to:

  • the rest of the SLUG Com­mit­tee (Lind­say Holm­wood, Silvia Pfeif­fer, Matt Moor, Ken Wilson, John Ferlito and James Dumay), for their sup­port throughout
  • Pia Waugh
  • Anna, Matt and every­one who helped with set­ting up, pack­ing up, record­ing and so on
  • our guests from Microsoft, for being such good sports
  • and of course, our community

P.S. Happy Inva­sion Day to Aus­trali­ans, and happy Anti-​​Invasion Day to Indi­ans :)

Megahertz marketing

Stu­art Corner at iTWire suc­cumbs to our old nemesis, cor­por­ate marketing.

Intel have for years pushed the line that mega­hertz (MHz) equals speed. Apple used to call this the ‘Mega­hertz Myth’. Intel com­pet­it­ors AMD and Cyrix were for many years forced to resort to using a ‘Per­form­ance Rat­ing’ sys­tem in order to com­pete. The fact is that com­put­ing per­form­ance is far more com­plic­ated than raw clock speed.

As the mar­ket­ing droids at Intel gained polit­ical superi­or­ity within the com­pany in the late 1990s, its archi­tec­tures devolved into mar­ketec­tures. The Pen­tium 4’s Net­Burst is a clas­sic example. Unleashed in 2000, in the wake of Intel’s loss to AMD in the race to release the first 1GHz chip, it was widely panned for being slower than similarly-​​clocked Pen­tium 3s in some tests. While less effi­cient clock-​​for-​​clock, it was designed to ramp-​​up in MHz to beat AMD in sheer mar­ket­ing power.

In recent years, Intel have been hit­ting the lim­its of their own fal­lacy. Higher clock fre­quen­cies gen­er­ate more heat and con­sume more power, and start push­ing the phys­ical lim­its of the media. You may have noticed the shift in Intel mar­ket­ing from mega­hertz to com­pos­ite met­rics like ‘per­form­ance per watt’. What they are try­ing to indic­ate is that they are innov­at­ing in all parts of the CPU — not just the clock speed — to deliver greater over­all per­form­ance. Through greater effi­cien­cies, they are able to improve per­form­ance per clock cycle, whilst also address­ing heat and power usage (which is espe­cially import­ant in port­able devices and datacentres).

You should also notice Intel’s sud­den emphasis in recent years on model num­bers (e.g. ‘Core 2 Duo T7200’) rather than just MHz (e.g. ‘Pen­tium 4 3.0 GHz’). They are try­ing to shift the mar­ket away from the myth that they so effect­ively per­petu­ated over a series of dec­ades. My laptop’s Core 2 Duo T7200 (2.0 GHz) is clearly faster than my Pen­tium 4 desktop run­ning at the same clock speed. Reas­ons for this include (but are not lim­ited to) the pres­ence of two cores (each run­ning at 2GHz), faster RAM and a much lar­ger cache.

It is inter­est­ing to note that the design of the cur­rent Core line of CPUs (and its Pen­tium M pre­de­cessor) owes far more to the Pen­tium 3 than to the marketing-​​driven Pen­tium 4.

Now, Stu­art makes the mis­take of pre­sum­ing that Intel’s CPUs are not get­ting any faster since they have not increased in mega­hertz. Instead of berat­ing Intel for finally being hon­est, why can’t we praise them? Address­ing real per­form­ance (not some ‘MHz’ decep­tion), includ­ing the previously-​​ignored factors of power con­sump­tion and heat gen­er­a­tion, is of bene­fit to us all.

If there is any­one to cri­ti­cise, it is the hard­ware vendors. They have suc­cess­fully countered Intel’s mes­sage by con­tinu­ing to mar­ket their sys­tems using MHz as a key selling point. The gen­eral pub­lic (and evid­ently most of the press) are left to believe that com­puters aren’t get­ting any faster. Given the con­veni­ence of a single num­ber as an indic­ator of per­form­ance, who can blame them?

When end-​​user exper­i­ence is taken into account, soft­ware developers fall under the micro­scope. Win­dows Vista is the obvi­ous poster­child — I’ve seen dual-​​core 2GB sys­tems that once flew with GNU/​Linux and (even) Win­dows XP, now crippled to the speed of con­tintental drift after being sub­jec­ted to the Vista torture.

Update: The article’s con­tent seems to have been edited to remove any cri­ti­cism of Intel, but the scep­tical title (‘Intel’s new chips extend Moore’s Law, or do they?’) remains.

Update 2: Now that I have explained that mega­hertz on its own is only of minor con­sequence to CPU per­form­ance (leave alone over­all sys­tem per­form­ance), we can see that it is often not even a con­clus­ive way to com­pare dif­fer­ent CPUs. A Pen­tium 4 can be slower than a sim­il­arly clocked Pen­tium 3. This inab­il­ity to com­pare becomes even more stark when scru­tin­ising com­pletely dif­fer­ent pro­cessor fam­il­ies. Apple had a point when they trum­peted the “Mega­hertz Myth’ back when they were using PPC CPUs. Clock-​​for-​​clock, a PPC CPU of that era was faster than the cor­res­pond­ing (by MHz) Intel chip, often by a con­sid­er­able mar­gin. Apple countered Intel with bench­marks demon­strat­ing the speed of their CPU versus Intel’s. Bench­mark qual­ity aside, their intent was to show that a seem­ingly ‘slower’ PPC chip could out­per­form its Intel com­pet­i­tion. It is a shame that the pro­mo­tion didn’t con­vince more of the gen­eral populace.

LotD: Real Amber vs Pho­toshopped Amber

Will Linux succeed on the desktop?

iTnews rehashes the old refrain of ‘Why Linux won’t suc­ceed on the desktop’ art­icles.

These sorts of art­icles come out all the time, and they are always writ­ten by people who have not used Linux much and there­fore don’t under­stand how it works and how it is developed. The art­icle is not without merit, but it does dis­play many mis­un­der­stand­ings. Most telling are the omis­sions — the fact that the real strengths of Linux are ignored and the defi­cien­cies of Win­dows over­looked. It gives undue weight to pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware devel­op­ment and totally for­gets about the free altern­at­ives that are avail­able for Linux. And by ‘free’, I mean the proper ‘free as in free­dom’ defin­i­tion, not the tired-​​old ‘free­ware’ mis­con­cep­tion that the author makes. As for the antique ‘too many dis­tros’ argu­ment, people only need to use one, and some quick read­ing would eas­ily nar­row the choices down to a small hand­ful, if not one. I per­son­ally find the dif­fer­ent ‘dis­tros’ of Win­dows (includ­ing WINCE and so on) to be more confusing.

Most Linux people are very well versed in Win­dows, so they gen­er­ally know of which they speak. My exper­i­ence is that many Win­dows people expect everything to work exactly like Win­dows, and they com­plain whenever some­thing is even slightly dif­fer­ent, even if it is bet­ter. For some reason, they accept crash­ing, vir­uses and poor secur­ity as a fact of life, and so aren’t attrac­ted to Linux. In fact, it goes fur­ther than that: to most people, Win­dows is com­put­ing. Any­thing else is just heresy.

These crit­ical art­icles about Linux aren’t new, but they should not be ignored. Linux has many rough edges to smooth out, but then again so does Win­dows. At the end of the day, it often comes down to people being set in their ways and being afraid of the unfamiliar.

I’ve seen this hap­pen even with Microsoft products: Win­dows Live Mes­sen­ger, Inter­net Explorer 7, Office 2007 (Word, Excel, Power­point, but mys­ter­i­ously not con­sist­ently in Out­look) and Win­dows Vista have been widely cri­ti­cised for adopt­ing odd and incon­sist­ent inter­faces. The first three lack a basic menu bar (each using its own weird altern­at­ive), and Vista doesn’t have a Start but­ton (it’s a round circle with a Win­dows logo). It’s a tech sup­port night­mare. Yet des­pite the res­ist­ance, people force them­selves so that they even­tu­ally accept them. Some even grow to defend the changes. What pos­sessed people to behave in this way? Is it the mar­ket­ing, or even the cult of per­son­al­ity that Bill Gates has man­aged to build, as the art­icle pro­claims? We are now in a pos­i­tion where it is easier for an MS Office 2003 user to move to Open​Of​fice​.org than to Office 2007. Why aren’t we see­ing this hap­pen­ing more often?

Never under­es­tim­ate the power of iner­tia and marketing.

The fact that Linux can prove to be such a great sys­tem des­pite its min­is­cule desktop mar­ket share and lack of resources com­pared to the pro­pri­et­ary world (which is much big­ger than just Microsoft) shows the strength of the free and open source soft­ware (FOSS) model. One needs only to look at Mac OS X to see a desktop that is almost unques­tion­ably super­ior to Win­dows in every way, thanks in part to its extens­ive use of FOSS.

Another thing to remem­ber is that the desktop com­put­ing mar­ket is but a tiny frac­tion of the over­all inform­a­tion and com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy sec­tor. Linux is quite pre­val­ent, and even dom­in­ant, almost every­where else [PDF]. In most of these mar­kets, Microsoft isn’t rep­res­en­ted at all.

By the way, the ‘year of the Linux desktop’ thing is not taken ser­i­ously by more estab­lished Linux users. The phrase is used mainly by journ­al­ists look­ing for atten­tion, or by more recent Linux users. For every­one else, it’s become more of a run­ning joke, much like Linus Tor­valds’ faux ambi­tion of ‘world dom­in­a­tion’.

 

Update:  Yet more reas­ons for why Linux is sup­posedly unsuit­able for the desktop.

Update 2:  Here’s another rebut­tal to these articles. 

 

LotD:  I failed basic chem­istry