Category Archives: Open standards

Interview with Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network

Adam Holt and I were interviewed last night by the Australian Council for Computers in Education Learning Network about our not-for-profit work to improve educational opportunities for children in the developing world.

We talked about One Laptop per Child, OLPC Australia and Sugar Labs. We discussed the challenges of providing education in the developing world, and how that compares with the developed world.

Australia poses some of its own challenges. As a country that is 90% urbanised, the remaining 10% are scattered across vast distances. The circumstances of these communities often share both developed and developing world characteristics. We developed the One Education programme to accommodate this.

These lessons have been developed further into Unleash Kids, an initiative that we are currently working on to support the community of volunteers worldwide and take to the movement to the next level.

HTML5 support in Browse

One of the most exciting improvements in OLPC OS 12.1.0 is a revamped Browse activity:

Browse, Wikipedia and Help have been moved from Mozilla to WebKit internally, as the Mozilla engine can no longer be embedded into other applications (like Browse) and Mozilla has stated officially that it is unsupported. WebKit has proven to be a far superior alternative and this represents a valuable step forward for Sugar’s future. As a user, you will notice faster activity startup time and a smoother browsing experience. Also, form elements on webpages are now themed according to the system theme, so you’ll see Sugar’s UI design blending more into the web forms that you access.

In short, the Web will be a nicer place on XOs. These improvements (and more!) will be making their way onto One Education XOs (such as those in Australia) in 2013.

Here are the results from the HTML5 Test using Browse 140 on OLPC OS 12.1.0 on an XO-1.75. The final score (345 and 15 bonus points) compares favourably against other Web browsers. Firefox 14 running on my Fedora 17 desktop scores 345 and 9 bonus points.

Update: Rafael Ortiz writes, “For the record previous non-webkit versions of browse only got 187 points on html5test, my beta chrome has 400 points, so it’s a great advance!

HTML5 in Sugar

In my last blog post, I made the suggestion that Sugar integrate HTML5 more closely to allow for the creation of activities in standard Web technologies. The Karma Project has since been pointed out to me, and the demos look impressive. Unfortunately, its progress looks to have stalled. There is now consideration happening in the community about moving Browse to a WebKit-based alternative, possibly Surf.

It seems like now is the time to revisit the notion of integrating HTML5 into Sugar itself. I feel that this can achieve a far more powerful outcome than just swapping Browse with Surf. The primary weaknesses of HTML5, its immaturity and dearth of good development tools, are being addressed. Microsoft and Adobe are continue to move towards HTML5, which can only be a good thing.

We have the chance to tap into the current rush of developers creating Web applications. We don’t need to (and can’t afford to) go to the extreme always-online level of Chrome OS, but I think the developments in that space are really showing what HTML5 can do in terms of applications development. Take the Chrome version of Angry Birds, for example. Written (almost) entirely in HTML5/JS (I think the “almost” part could have been implemented in HTML5 as well), it’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved. More than a mindless game, the physics engine is realistic enough to become a fun educational tool. It’s so much fun that most kids won’t even realise that they’re learning.

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is dropping Linux support for their Adobe AIR development platform. To be honest, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been careful enough to not tie my efforts to a proprietary platform.

I’ve had several groups offer to write applications/activities for OLPC Australia using proprietary tools like AIR. I’ve discouraged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘convenient’ route and acquiesced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My precious resources would have to be spent on porting or rewriting all of that work, or just leaving it to bit-rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not dependent on a single entity. We can develop with the confidence of knowing that our code will continue to work, or at least can be made to continue to work in the face of underlying platform changes. This embodies our Core Principle #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that children can be content creators. The television age relegated children (and everyone, for that matter) to just being consumers of content. I have very fond childhood memories of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in comparison to the possibilities afforded to us today by modern digital technologies. We now have the opportunity to properly enable children to be in charge of their learning. Education becomes active, not passive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applications as activities.

Growing up in the 80s, my recollections are of a dynamic computing market. Machines like the ZX Spectrum and the early Commodore models inspired a generation of kids into learning about how computers work. By extension, that sparked interest in the sciences: mathematics, physics, engineering, etc.. Those machines were affordable and quite open to the tinkerer. My first computer (which from vague recollection was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC interpreter and 4k of memory. We didn’t purchase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my programs in manually from the supplied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own customisations to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the opportunity presented to me.

Likewise, I remember (and still have in my possession, sadly without the machine) the detailed technical binders supplied with my IBM PC. I think I recognised early on that I was more interested in software, because I didn’t spend as much time on the supplied hardware schematics and documentation. However, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those experiences were very defining parts of my life, helping to shape me into the Free Software, open standards loving person I am. Being able to get involved in technical development, at whatever level of my choosing, is something I was able to experience from a very early age. I was able to be active, not just consume. As I have written about before, even the king of proprietary software and vendor lock-in himself, Bill Gates, has acknowledged a similar experience as a tipping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the superficial solutions being promoted in the education space. A recent article on the BBC’s Click laments that children are becoming “digitally illiterate”. Most of the solutions proposed in the article (and attached video) are highly proprietary, being based on platforms such as Microsoft’s Windows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-looking Raspberry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is disappointing that the same organisation that had the foresight to give us the BBC Computer Literacy Project (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have disregarded a key benefit of that programme. By providing the most advanced BASIC interpreter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to education. Sophisticated applications could be written in an interpreted language that could be inspected and modified by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a document, artwork, music or something else. From a personal perspective, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an ethical perspective, we owe it to our children to ensure that they continue to have this right. From a societal perspective, we need to ensure that our culture can persevere through the ages. I have previously demonstrated how digital preservation can dramatically reduce the longevity of information, comparing a still-legible thousand-year-old book against its ‘modern’ laserdisc counterpart that became virtually undecipherable after only sixteen years. I have also explained how this problem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in democratic countries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are looking up. The Internet is heading towards HTML5/JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are following suit. This raises some interesting considerations for Sugar. Maybe we need to be thinking of writing educational activities in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even further, perhaps we should be thinking about integrating HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll finish with a snippet from a speech given by US President Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigsberg for bringing it to the attention of the community):

We’re working to make sure every school has a 21st-century curriculum like you do. And in the same way that we invested in the science and research that led to the breakthroughs like the Internet, I’m calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, and educational software that’s as compelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.

A bit of corporate indulgence…

Apologies for pimping my employer, but I became the subject of the inaugural ‘Meet the Team‘ portion of the BizCubed newsletter.

It’s a good feeling knowing that you work for a company that actually cares about open source and open standards. For example, we sponsored the Government 2.0 event in Canberra last week.

For the sake of posterity, I’ll reproduce the interview here:

Meet The Team — Sridhar Dhanapalan

We are more than a consulting company – we are a great team! In this section we will be introducing one member of our team in each newsletter.Sridhar Dhanapalan

What do you do at BizCubed?

I make sure that our Support subscribers are receiving legendary service. We like to be an open company, and so knowledge sharing is important to us. I write a lot of documentation on our wiki for the benefit of the Pentaho community.

Internally, I ensure that our team is properly enabled with any information or infrastructure that they need. I take care of our servers and deployments. I also do the occasional development of BI solutions. It’s a varied role — I never have a reason to be bored!

What attracts you to open source BI?

It seems incongruous that while we demand transparency from, for instance, our political systems and financial institutions, they rely on software that is opaque.

Processes and organisations cannot be thoroughly audited if the software that drives them is closed. I also believe that in using open source and open standards, you are showing respect for your users and customers. Your users can see what you see; touch what you touch. They can inspect and interrogate to their heart’s content, and even make their own modifications if they so wish. They may not opt to exercise those rights, but ultimately it’s their choice and not their vendor’s.

What were you doing before joining BizCubed?

I’ve been using computers since the early 1980s, and I discovered open source just over ten years ago. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of it. I have a background in network engineering, satellite communications, systems administration and good ol’ fashioned tech support.

I completed university with a Science degree majoring in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which I feel gave me an appreciation for the intersection of technology and society. I think there should be more attention paid to this in ICT, and it’s an area I often encounter in the field of BI.

Do you work with any projects other than Pentaho?

I’ve been very active in the open source community over the past ten years. For the first half of this decade, I was an administrator, editor and author at what was at the time the largest Mandrake (now Mandriva) Linux community Web site.

I’m currently the president of the Sydney Linux Users Group and also on the Linux Australia Council. Through those, I organise and co-ordinate meetings and events for the Australian Linux community. Other than that, I’m involved in the Ubuntu community, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the Grameen Foundation and a few other projects.

What do you do in your spare time?

My open source contributions take up the bulk of my non-work hours. I read a lot of news and current affairs, and I’ve been known to go on Wikipedia binges. Other than that, I spend time with family and friends.

Will it be Domesday or Doomsday for our information?

The ABC have a piece from National Library of Australia web archiving manager Paul Koerbin, about the importance of digital records preservation.

Of equal importance, how can we be sure that we can actually read those archives in the future? Literacy of Egyptian Hieroglyphs was long-gone by the 18th century, and it took the discovery of the Rosetta Stone for them to start making sense again.

It’s difficult enough deciphering human language. Understanding machine language is another thing entirely.

I’ve written about this in the past, contrasting the thousand-year-old Domesday Book (which is still legible) with the BBC Domesday Project (which was rendered virtually unreadable a mere sixteen years after production).

The means of preserving our culture for digital preservation is to use open standards. If the means for ‘reading’ the information is widely documented and understood, without any encumbrances, we stand a much greater chance of being able to interpret it in a couple of hundred years.

I’ve got essays from school written only ten years ago, and I can’t read them any more as they’re stored in a proprietary file format that is no longer supported.

Imagine you ran a company that had important and valuable written records stretching back for decades. Storing vast libraries of paper is expensive and inefficient, so you decide to digitise them all. That’s great — you now have a system that is easy to manage and search. Ten years later, you want to migrate your now-ageing data management system to something more modern. Only, you can’t — it’s all stored in a proprietary format that cannot be accessed by anything else.

If you had kept those paper records, you would have still had access to that information. Your choices now are to continue with your old, obsolete system for all eternity, or hire some clever hacker to decipher the file format. With no equivalent of a Rosetta Stone, that’s no mean task. After spending buckets of money on this avoidable problem, and losing even more due to inefficiencies and competitive disadvantage from the old system, you’d be wise to make sure it cannot happen again.

This is a very common kind of scenario. If our information can’t even last ten years, how can it last a thousand?

From a business perspective, open standards protect the independence of a company. It means no vendor lock-in, so you are not stuck paying monopoly prices. Through the creation of a free market surrounding a method/technology, open standards give you the freedom to select the vendors, products, methods and technologies that suit your requirements best, or you can even create your own. They are the ultimate in risk mitigation, and through their flexibility can also open avenues for competitive advantage. They just make good business sense.

LotD: Vioxx maker Merck and Co drew up doctor hit list and Merck Makes Phony Peer-Review Journal

Great start… but the hard work is just beginning

Donna Benjamin rounded a small group of us together to write a letter to Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education. The result was widely syndicated, hopefully building some mindshare in the process. The Education Expo proved to me more than anything else that FOSS is quickly becoming acceptable to the general public — the trick is in how you promote it.

So where to from here? How can we capitalise upon the gains we have made?

Perhaps our greatest single weakness is the perceived lack of professional support. I think OSIA should be doing more to address this (note: I’m not implying that OSIA isn’t taking this seriously). Here’s an e-mail I wrote to the osia-discuss mailing list (which is unfortunately subscriber-only):

The best thing OSIA can do is fight the popular notion that there’s no
professional support available for FOSS. We can beat the TCO and Freedom
drums as hard as we want, but few organisations are willing to entrust their
computing to ‘community’ support.

I managed the Linux Australia stand at the Education Expo a few weeks ago, and
my impression is that FOSS is on the cusp of mainstream acceptance:

http://www.dhanapalan.com/blog/2008/06/29/education-expo-report/

Schools are crying out for ways to get better value for their dollar, but they
aren’t going to even think about FOSS if they can’t get professional support.

If I run the stand again next year, I’d like to see some involvement from
OSIA. At the very least, we should have available some leaflets showing that
yes indeed there is quality, paid support for FOSS.

Also note that FOSS isn’t Linux. We got the most interest in the
OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for Windows.

On the community side, we can continue to make FOSS more acceptable to school administrations, bureaucrats and politicians. Here’s my idea:

My suggestion is for us to build a Web site focused on open education in
Australia. We already have the perfect vehicle: http://openeducation.org.au.
However, at present it’s just a messy wiki more suitable for our own
brainstorming than for being a public-facing resource.

The wiki should of course remain, but I propose that we build a proper,
presentable Web site that is directly accessible via the
http://openeducation.org.au address.

Why do this when we already have http://linux.org.au/education? Open Education
is much bigger than Linux, and certainly should not be anchored to it. Here’s
a short list of what it can include:

  • FOSS
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on servers
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on clients/desktops
  • open standards
  • open languages/libraries/APIs
  • free content/culture
  • open learning
  • open curriculum

To be honest, I fear that we might be only hurting ourselves by tying open
education to a completely Free computing environment. That might be a worthy
aim, but few institutions are going to switch over all in one go. By offering
a migration path (or paths), a school can migrate more comfortably at its own
pace. We ought to be providing real choice, not just a binary ‘with us or
with the terrists’.

FOSS (Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Scribus, etc.) can run on operating systems
other than Linux. To use the recent Education Expo as an example, we got a
lot of buy-in through the OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for
Windows.

Also note how I split Linux clients from servers. Linux’s place in the server
realm is very solid, but convincing an institution to accept a Linux client
solution is tougher. And by ‘client’, I mean either traditional desktops or
thin clients. The latter are often cost-effective and represent a real
strength of Linux, but are often overlooked or even have regulations working
against their adoption. On the server side, we have some great educational
tools such as Moodle and LAMS.

Open standards obviously include things like file formats and protocols, which
will become even more relevant as we see more applications (proprietary or
otherwise) pick up standardised methods of information exchange such as ODF
and PDF. This should also ease the integration of FOSS into pre-existing
environments. It also can include languages and all things related. Why are
schools still teaching Visual Basic when they could be teaching Python?

The final three points all link together. Most notably, they are not dependent
upon technology at all. Your average teacher isn’t a technologist, and
shouldn’t have to be. Knowledge can be shared and organised openly just like
code. Wikipedia has proven that great things can be built if ordinary people
are given easy to use tools.

Where to from this point? I suggest that we work towards getting a CMS running
at openeducation.org.au. We’ll have to agree upon a design and the message
that we want to purvey. Content creation should be separate from technical
ability, so the CMS should be simple enough for anybody to contribute.

Here is some inspiration from the UK:

The UK education sector appears to be much further ahead of us in terms of
embracing openness, and I think we can take some lessons from their efforts.

To clarify one thing in the above, I wrote the text for http://linux.org.au/education, but I never felt comfortable with it being there. So much of open education has nothing to do with Linux and Linux Australia shouldn’t be diverting its focus to dwell on it directly. With a more independent Web presence (in collaboration with Linux Australia), I feel that we can be much more effective.

LotD:   Open sourcing Australia: OpenAustralia.org goes live

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)

A fabulous fortnight

The last two weeks have been quite eventful. Each of these probably deserves its own blog post, but since I don’t have the time to write them all I’ll just give a summary.

Document Freedom Day, 26 March

The first annual Document Freedom Day (inspired by Software Freedom Day) was celebrated globally. In Sydney, the celebrations were hosted by Google at their offices, supported by the Internet Society of Australia and the Sydney Linux Users Group (SLUG). As the SLUG representative, I was asked to say a few words about our organisation and its relevance to document freedom. Not having time to prepare, I managed to ad-lib a speech, drawing on memories of what I had written before on the Domesday Book and Domesday Project. I’m not an experienced speaker, so I’m very glad that it came out well.

Senator Kate Lundy and David Vaile delivered great talks that made us think about openness of information and their importance to society. For the most part, we didn’t mention the war (which unfortunately has been lost), but there was no escaping acknowledgement of the Waughs. Anyone disillusioned at the state of politics in Australia ought to speak with Kate. Even after 12 years in parliament, she is still inspiring.

All in all, it was a fantastic night. Thanks to Alan Noble, Andrew McRae and the other folks at Google for making it happen. Andrew and Sarah Maddox have written good summaries of the evening.

I would have loved to have taken Kate up on her invitation to join her ‘Foundations of Open: Technology and Digital Knowledge‘ local 2020 Summit, but alas a trip to Canberra for one day was a bit much. I’m glad to see it all went well, though.

Sydney Linux Users Group Annual General Meeting, 28 March

What can I say? Thanks to everyone in SLUG who supported my candidacy for the role of President. The new Committee looks like a great mix of talents, and we already have some good ideas in the pipeline. The next twelve months is looking to be exciting indeed.

We had the first gathering of the new Committee on Sunday. It was a handover meeting, with the old Committee members present to pass on their wisdom and experience to the new. My sincere gratitude goes to the departing Committee members. I feel truly honoured to have worked with them over this past year.

Australian Open Source Industry & Community Report 2008 launch event, 1 April

Free software and free beer! It appears that with FOSS, you can have your cake and eat it too 😉

Note: there was no cake — but there were Iced Vo Vos! Sweet!

It’s great to finally have some authoritative statistics to back our cause. Common myths were dispelled, and we had confirmation of things that seemed so obvious to us but might have been less so for others.

BarCamp Sydney, 5-6 April

BarCamp 3 was notable for expansion to two days of revelry. The venue migrated from UTS for the first two BarCamps to the UNSW Roundhouse for the third, which despite the longer commute I feel was a good move. Attendance did seem thinner than in previous years. This was probably due to visitors spread over a larger venue and across two days. One thing I like about BarCamp is that I get contact with people and ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t notice from FOSS gatherings like SLUG. BarCamp has considerably more proprietary software developers and entrepreneurs. Less Google, more Microsoft. As much as I love FOSS, I do like to see what’s happening in the rest of the ICT universe.

I made an effort this time to attend talks that were less technical and more business or personal development oriented. Stand-out speakers included Nick Hodge, Matt Moore and Richard Hayes.

Perhaps the highlight was the Saturday evening. Mike from Atlassian led us through a few rounds of Werewolf, a variation (and an improvement, IMHO) of the classic Mafia game. I still can’t believe that we didn’t deplete the bar tab that Mike set up for us. We’ll have to have SLUG’s DebSIG present at BarCamp 4 😉

LotD: OpenOffice.org en masse in NSW schools!

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 OpenOffice.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 🙂 .