FSF Settles Suit Against Cisco

The long dispute with Cisco has finally come to an agreement. For me, that means two things: first, they’re not trolls sucking money from the big corps for stupid patent infringement, as some might fear. Second, they’re very patient, understanding and sometimes a bit too naive.

Why the fear?

When building embedded systems or when you’re too close to the hardware (such as Cisco) you may take a wise decision to use open source software, as it’s quite likely to be stable and taken care by a good bunch of good people. Even though there are several ways of doing it independently, so your software is not virally infected by the GPL, it’s not always possible and you may have to re-invent the wheel because of that.

It’s not only GPL, patents can also cause a whole lot of damage, and it seems that TomTom has decided to go head first with the Linux community.

So, although the fear is understandable, it’s more of a hysteria than based on actual facts. The FSF hasn’t had much to show on court, and that adds up to the uncertainty of the lawyers, but it’s in cases like the Cisco that they show a much higher maturity that most companies have shown recently, even mature companies like Microsoft.

Richard Stallman

The FSF is not only Stallman. Even though he’s the boss, the organization is a large list of people, sponsors, advisers (and now interns). One thing is to fear what RMS will do when he finds you using GPL in your kitchen scale, but a completely different matter is what the FSF (as an organization) does.

The Cisco case has been going for several years. They offered help, they’ve asked politely, they’ve warned about the potential dangers and so on. A lot has been made before they have actually filled the suit, and they’ve settled it nicely. This shows that they’re not just waiting the next infringement to get you down, they actually care about their (and your) freedom.

The day the FSF starts acting stupid is the day people will drive away. It’s not like Microsoft that you have no option, there’s plenty of options out there, software, licences, partners, advisers, programmers, etc. GNU/Linux is not the decent open source operating system, the BSDs are as good, sometimes better, especially in the embedded case.

The year of Linux

Every year since 1995 is the year of Linux. For me it always was, but I can’t say the same for the rest of the world. Recently, Linux (and other open source software) has played an important role in defining the future of mankind and more and more the Linux community feels that it’s their sweat and blood.

There is a great chance it’ll become the platform of all things in a very short time-frame. Cars, mobile phones, PDAs, netbooks, laptops, desktops, servers, clusters, spaceships. One platform to rule them all and in the darkness bind them, but if they play dumb, their glory might never see daylight.

Lots of people disagree with the new revisions of the GPL license, they feel it bites the hand that feeds it. Many companies feed back open source regularly and that kinda broke the synergy. I personally think that it’s excellent for some cases, but not for all. For instance, development tools should not be restricted, especially when it comes to platforms they can’t reach. Opening the platform is an obvious way around it, but not everything can be exposed and they can’t figure out every implementation detail.

Drivers might also have trouble with GPLv3 for the same reason. Again, there are ways around it, the FSF recently opened a backdoor to develop proprietary plug-ins if they’re blessed, but that might not be suitable for every case.

Solution?

Sorry, not today. Stick to FreeBSD if you can’t cope with GPLv3, find a way to co-exist with the GCC exception and provide the source code of what you have to. If it’s not your core business, you could donate your code to the community and make it GPL too and treat your program as enabling technology, of course, providing your code doesn’t expose any patent or trade secret.

So, well, yeah. Each case is a different case, that’s the problem of being in the long tail.

MySQL down the drain?

Almost 10 years ago, MySQL became a great open source database, part of the LAMP platform (Perl, not PHP) and had everything to compete with the big players in the next few years.

It was then that they have done major releases, with a huge set of new features each, almost once a year. The community was happy using, developing and integrating with other products. But it was around 2005 that the things started going bad…

Back in 2005, when I was still in the loop, I have to say that I wasn’t impressed with the progress that the database had. I wasn’t also impressed with the new view the board gave to big companies (such as Yahoo!) on what was a good bet and what wasn’t.

After release 5.0 (still the production release, irrespective of what Sun says) there wasn’t a major development until Sun acquired MySQL and only then they’ve released 5.1 which they better shouldn’t.

In the old days, MySQL became famous by not implementing foreign keys and transactions, something that every other database had, because of speed issues. That decision became the core of the company and allowed other storage engines (such as InnoDB and BerkeleyDB which had those features) to be integrated, making it very easy to plan your database, using only the features you needed where you needed.

Who’s to blame?

I’m not sure it has something to do with Oracle buying InnoDB and Sleepycat (and now buying Sun, which owns MySQL). Even with all the politics of Oracle slowly buying MySQL in pieces, I don’t believe it’s the whole story. I see much more of an internal conflict and a lack of vision (probably for the lack of guts to keep taking weird decisions and succeeding) than anything else.

Now, MySQL is going down the same drain InnoDB and Sleepycat went, but with a twist: the source code is still GPL. Sun screwed up MySQL in a way I thought it wasn’t possible, Oracle will do it much more efficiently, even if they still play as good guys, it is definitely the end.

Don’t take my word only, my good friend and MySQL guru Jeremy Cole is taking himself out of the loop to avoid the useless politics. Steven (Computerworld) also cannot see how any of the involved companies will get anything in return of this deal.

Is there a light at the end?

Could Monty’s fork become a new MySQL without all the fuss? Could he, the odd guy with odd ideas, put MySQL on the map again? I do hope so, but that will cost MySQL the hall of fame. They’ll need to start over again and eventually fail once they’re there again and restart…

It’ll be fun to watch, at least MySQL had a GPL license which always ease forks and future development. Long live the open source revolution!

UPDATE:

Two excellent articles about the same issue from The Register and Ars Technica.

Who needs Microsoft’s FAT?

Hydrogenated, unsaturated fat and cholesterol are long enemies of the public, but recently a new type of fat has been added: FAT.

Microsoft has filed a patent suit against TomTom about its FAT implementation on their Linux satnavs. This is a bit of a long story and Microsoft is not tired yet. Probably because of the recent losses with patents, they’re trying to get some profit for themselves.

Luckily, there is hope. The guys at End Software Patents can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like the Bilski case can give precedence for rejecting the lawsuit of that (and many other stupid patents they’re claiming) based on the tangibility of mathematical algorithms (software) when they’re not particularly tied to any concrete implementation (hardware).

This was how it was done before in the US until the first case passed through that wasn’t attached to any particular hardware and then with the final revision in 1998 that they could patent even cake recipes.

Why not ditch it for good?

So, FAT is rubbish, 30 years old and close to zero evolution since then, why keep it? It’s true that there are many other filesystems around, much faster, safer, optimized and well designed, but FAT still has its market: on embedded devices. Because it’s simple and stupid, it’s quite easy to support it on very small machines with reduced RAM and CPU power. It’s also light-weight and fits well for small flash cards and USB storage. But the biggest reason to keep it is another: Microsoft supports it since its birth.

Would you buy an SD card that needs to install a driver to make it work? What’d be the point?

Yet again, because of the market domination (and not technical merits), Microsoft forced rubbish down everyone’s throats live for longer that it was expected. And now, they’re trying to get the profits by suing everyone that followed them for decades. What a nice way to say thank you!

Speaking of which, not only they’re happy by suing companies by using Linux (TomTom in this case and many others during the FAT fight), they’re also asking for the open-source community’s help to make Visual Studio 2010 a better product, isn’t that nice? How lovely is the American way of life, I guess the world will never be able to thank them enough.

Closed source development

While closed source development has its niche (and a very important one), it does feel a bit weird.

I’m now working on low-level development (debuggers) at ARM, one of the things I like most but also a rare thing to find good quality open source development (with the exception of the gnu tools, of course). Of course there is a portion of your work that goes back to the community (via open standards, limited support for the open tools) but it’s not easy to find a job to write code exclusively to the gdb or gcc.

What I’m finding weirder is the fact that the documentation you need is seldom on the Internet (Google or usenet). The good side is that the guys that created the standards and tools are at your doorstep, so it’s quite easy to get hold of them in case you need something off the charts. But that’s normally true with open source as well.

The other weird thing is knowing what you can tell and what you can’t. I have no idea of what part of my current project is public so I just don’t talk about anything of it. But I think that’s just a matter of getting used to, just like I did before. Besides, albeit at EBI I could even show my (or anybody else’s) source code, I don’t think that anybody ever cared that much.

At last, licences. It’s so easy when you develop GPL or LGPL (or similar). Just write whatever you want, use whatever library you need and put a GPL3 tag on your code. That’s it. Simple as that. Now I have to think what would be the impact of that library on the license of what I write, and that’s something I didn’t want to care…

Also, if a document is GPL-ed, you have to GPL it too. If it’s version 3, everything you write (including company’s previous ideas) become GPLv3 as well. That’s a big nuisance. I do understand GPLv3 for code, even apply that to my own source code, but it does annoy a lot when applied to documents.

Although weird for some reasons, it’s not bad at all. I have many more reasons to love my new job. Excellent team, great environment and an impressive code quality, which for me, is a must.

Vista is no more

It still hasn’t gone to meet it’s maker, but it was also not as bad as it could’ve been.

After Windows Vista was launched with more PR and DRM than any other, Microsoft hoped to continue its domination of the market. Maybe afraid of the steep Linux increase in desktops (Ubuntu has a great role in that) and other market pressures, they’ve rushed out Vista with so many bugs and security flaws, so slow and with such a big memory and CPU footprint that not many companies really wanted to change their whole infrastructure to see it drawn a little later.

China government ditched it for XP because it was not stable enough to run the Olympics, only to find out that the alternative didn’t help at all.

All that crap helped a lot Linux (especially Ubuntu) jump on the desktop world. Big companies shipping Linux on lots of desktops and laptops, all netbooks with Linux as primary option, lay people now using Linux as they would use any other desktop OS. So, is it just because Vista is so bad? No. Not at all. Linux got really user friendly over the last five to ten years and it’s now as easy as any other.

Vista is so bad that Microsoft had to keep supporting Windows XP, they’re rushing again with Windows 7 and probably (hopefully) they’ll make the same mistakes again. It’s got so bad that the Free Software Foundation’s BadVista campaign is officially is closing down for good. For good as in: Victory!

Yes, victory because in one year they could show the world how bad Vista really is and how good the other opportunities are. Of course, they were talking about Linux and all the free software around, including the new gNewSense platform they’re building, but the victory is greater than that. The biggest message is that Windows is not the only solution to desktops, and most of the time, it’s the worst.

In conjunction with the DefectiveByDesign guys, they also showed how Vista (together with Sony, Apple, Warner et al) can completely destroy your freedom, privacy and entertainment. They were so successful in their quest that they’re closing doors to spend time (and donors’ money) in more important (and pressing) issues.

Now, they’re closing down but that doesn’t mean that the problem is over. The idea is to stabilise the market. Converting all Windows and Mac users to Linux wouldn’t be right, after all, each person is different. But the big challenge is to have users that need (or want) a Mac, to use a Mac. Who needs Windows and can afford to pay all extra software to protect your computer (but not your privacy), can use it. For developers the real environment is Unix, they should be able to get a good desktop and good development tools as well. It’s, at least, fair.

But for the majority of users, what they really want is a computer to browse the web, print some documents, send emails and for that, any of the three is good enough. All three are easy to install (or come pre-installed), all three have all the software you need and most operations and configurations are easy or automatic. It’s becoming more a choice of style and design than anything else.

Now that Apple got rid of all DRM crap, Spore was a fiasco so EA is selling games without DRM, the word is getting out. It’s a matter of time it’ll be a minor problem, too. Would DefectiveByDesign retire too? I truly hope so.

As an exercise to the reader, go to Google home page and search for the terms: “windows vista“. You’ll see the BadVista website in the first page. If you search for “DRM” you’ll also see the DefectiveByDesign web page as well. This is big, it means that lots and lots of websites are pointing to those websites when they’re talking about those subjects!

If you care enough and you have a Google user and is using the personalised Google search, you could search for those terms and press the up arrow symbol on those sites to make them go even higher in the rank. Can we make both be the first? I did my part already.

OOXML update

A while ago I’ve posted about how crap Microsoft’s “Open” OOXML is (GPL violations and redundancy among other things).

Now the battle seems to have heated up: IBM threatened to step out ISO (via slashdot) if they don’t roll back the OOXML approval.

Well, they’re big and still a bit powerful. MS is big, but falling apart. Probably other companies would join them, especially those against.

Microsoft is not only failing technically with Vista and their web platform but also financially. They probably spent too much with .NET, Vista and stupid patents. At least the European Patent Office went on strike (I’m really amazed) because they are: “granting as many patents as possible to gain financially”. I wonder is the US patent office ever considered that…

Nevertheless, it’s always good when a big company poses against something bad and restrictive (for the future), although the reasons are seldom for the greater good. Let’s hope for the best.

Intel’s Game Demo Contest announce winners

…and our friend Mauro Persano won in two categories: 2nd on Intel graphics and 5th on best game on the go.

The game, Protozoa, is a retro Petri-dish style frenetic shooting-the-hell-out-of-the bacteria, virii and protozoa stuff that comes in your way. You can play with a PS2 (two-analogue sticks) control, one for the movements and other for the shooting, or just use the keyboard. The traditional timed-power-up and megalomaniac explosions raise even more the sense of nostalgia.

You can download the latest Windows version here but don’t worry, it also runs pretty fine with Wine.

Have fun!

Proprietary Software

I’m a big advocate of free software, highly active on the Anti-DRM campaign and a big fan of Richard Stallman (as you can see by reading back lots of posts on this very blog). In his last text to the media about Bill Gates’ retirement, he says (as usual) some very strong arguments about fair societies, freedom of use and copy etc. We all know that, right?

Well, there is one thing I don’t particularly agree: proprietary software.

In a recent talk, he said there was a fair reason why there is copyright: Investment in technology. In the old days, it was the press. Today, we have software companies.

The beauty and the beast

Microsoft, as he said (and I reiterate), only abused of development made by other companies since their first product. Worse, since then, they’ve been buying one company after the other and scraping each one of them (pretty much like Yahoo! is doing recently, therefore the interest). But there are lots of others that are doing fine, and it’s not fair to put them all in the same box.

Adobe Photoshop is a great example. Gimp is fantastic, of course, but the investment in Photoshop is huge and there is a clear difference. The cost is high, but the quality is also high. Like Photoshop, many other specialist software in music, video, animation, scientific, electronic, games and so on have a specific market, to which they belong and are doing pretty well. I’m not saying Adobe (or any other specialist company) is fair, just that some are investing seriously in development, not only sucking their users money and freedom.

Windows is unfair, it locks the user, it treats them as liars, cheaters, yes. Worse still, you can’t use it with anything else because it’s forcefully incompatible with the rest of the world, yes! They’re cheating by making you buy their license even if you’re not using, to force you update Internet Explorer even if you use Firefox, to report all your actions to Microsoft and god know what more. YES!!

Apple with horrible DRM locks, pushing iPhone updates and all we already know they do, Warner, Sony and all the like. Yes! They are mean! But that doesn’t mean all companies are.

Research and Development

If you have a free software (open source) that is enough for your uses, or you can hire someone to increment or adapt it to your needs, fine! If you can write software to your needs and redistribute it to the rest of the world, perfect! But why negate the existence of fair research and development, I don’t know.

I’ve been on the academia side of development to know very well what happens here: some PhD writes a piece of software, without any care for quality or extensibility. Later on, someone (or themselves) make it open source and people start using it, extending it. But most of the time it’s not possible to carry on incrementing, its need a re-write. And people re-write software fortnightly on academia.

The investment is in giving PhDs a good time and not to produce good software. Free software is good not because of that investment, but because people that need it, do it. It’d be fantastic if academia could teach them about software quality, if there was a real control over what they produce (like acceptance by the open source community) as part of their grades.

Now, private companies (like many around Cambridge) invest a good bunch of money in research and development, hiring those same guys and giving them a proper training in software engineering and getting things done, very well indeed. That costs money, I can’t see how they could open the source, at least not in the first years of sale.

Extensibility

Some companies give it for free (as in beer) for academic institutes. But the most important (IMHO) is to be extensible and to have a clear interface. Good software, even if closed source, have a clear and easy-to-use interface. With that, you can extend it to suit your needs. It’s not as good as having the source, but it’s a start.

Enforcing DRM locks, spying on users, making impossible to connect to other software, being nasty is the problem, not being proprietary.

Multics back from the dead

Multics arose from the dead in the source code shape! MIT has just released its source and now you can see with your own eyes how it was back in ’64!

It’s not easy to retrieve the whole code (no tarballs) but it’s a good exercise to read its parts if you can understand the structure, of course. If you couldn’t, don’t worry, start here.