Saturday Dec 11, 2004

XML - Open Source or Open Standard?

John Evdemon over on MSDN suggests that XML is not code and thus cannot be open-sourced. I'm afraid that's a rather narrow view: XML is text, and thus it can be code, or data, or a document or document schema.

Here endeth the lesson ;)

Tuesday Dec 07, 2004

The True Value of OpenOffice.org

Despite a commitment to adopt open standards by 2006, the Netherlands government appears to be trying to rush through an approval to continue with Microsoft software (and proprietary document formats) to the tune of 147m Euro. Several MPs are expressing their disapproval and the vote next week to confirm this order will be watched closely by Dutch citizens and proponents of the value of open-source and open standards.

This flies in the face of all reason; in the Register's article, the Dutch town of Harlem demonstrated a saving of 90% in one year, dropping their costs from 500k to 50k in one year, including all migration costs and training. If similar savings can be achieved by the Dutch government, they could have an additional 132m Euro to spend on welfare or infrastructure or competitiveness. And Sun offers governments and large organisations a highly competitive support package for OpenOffice.org (some folks don't know that Sun is the primary developer and sponsor of OpenOffice.org), so you don't have to believe that FUD about open-source not being supported.

Aside: I'm not sure if Sun is still offering citizen pricing on StarOffice, but it would be interesting to see if that amount would cover it. Imagine an entire country's business and government able to invest all that money spent on individual Microsoft Office licenses towards more valuable initiatives. I somehow don't think the emerging global giants China and India are going to divert their funds just to buy the western world's current dominant office suite.

Friday Dec 03, 2004

\*Open\* Open Source Organisation

While it's true that Linux is an open-source operating system, some folks have the perception that "Linux" and "open source" are the same thing. I don't know where this comes from, but it can't help that that US-based OSDL (Open Source Development Lab) is funded by vendors to promote Linux as an operating system. The new Open Source Consortium being launched in Europe may help to correct this mis-perception and draw attention to the great diversity and portability of open-source.

The Wheat from the Shaft

The title of this entry is part of the witty final line of Fran Foo's article Time for the real facts, which evaluates some aspects of Microsoft's "Get The Facts" program. Not as long or as in-depth as I would have liked, but worth reading.

Tuesday Nov 30, 2004

Correcting Bad Data about Open Solaris (Updated)

O'Reilly's OSDir.com usually aggregates fairly well-informed content but occasionally it get's it badly wrong, like when it picked up this article on WebProNews.

The author, A.P. Lawrence, offers "SCO UNIX and Linux consulting services" which doesn't bode too well for an objective evaluation of Solaris, and sadly the article seems to reflect a certain bias.

There's a lot there that I could take issue with, but I'll focus on the highlights without dignifying the author's opinions by quoting again them here:

  • Only specifically die-hard Linux pundits seem to want the "one world, one operating system" scenario; everyone else acknowledges that Linux has an assured place (until the need evolves for a really next-generation OS), and that choice is good
  • Most of "Linux" is actually not Linux; it's UNIX-compatible open-source software (see this for more analysis)
  • Linux has an advantage over Solaris in just one particular space - drivers, which is of primary importance only to the sundry and diverse configurations typically found on desktop-class machines, not to the embedded devices or the real servers; in all areas outside of the desktop, it's quality, reliability and performance that drive demand (and I would make the case that these qualities are also important on desktops), and drivers are less of an issue in enterprises where there is greater homogeneity of hardware configurations; in these areas and with these qualities, Solaris is a compelling choice that becomes even more compelling when Solaris becomes open-source; I also think Open Solaris will support more devices as it's community grows.
  • The author seems to think that Solaris would only compete with Linux; although some pundits seem to forget, oddly enough that's not the only operating system out there. In a world of choice, interoperability and integration is important.

It seems that some folks (even some at Sun today) underestimate how important it is when a major operating system becomes open-source. Choice today drives some users towards variants of Linux (which often defaults to Red Hat). Sun today offers customers a choice of Solaris or Linux. So what would happen if there was a standard application platform that supported sufficient portability between Linux and Solaris? I think that would make for a fairly friction-free choice between Solaris and the Linux variants (and possibly also \*BSD) that supported such a platform. Java, GNOME and KDE already offer a large part of such a platform; what will tomorrow bring? I think the answer will be an open choice.

Finally, if you want to know what Sun means by "open source" in Open Solaris, don't read wild speculation on OSDir.com - you can get it live, fresh and real from Jim Grisanzio and Jonathan ;)

Update: I was planning on commenting on an OSNews article, but I found James Vastbinder over at Microsoft already sets the record straight. Come on guys, if a Microsoft engineer knows (and blogs) that Solaris x86 is a great OS, how come some Linux pundits can't be a bit more objective?

Monday Nov 22, 2004

Europe offers a clear definition for open standards

An article on Newsforge points to a very significant determination by the European Union which seems currently to be leading the world in creating a future framework for the use of software and standards in government.

Here's a crucial quote from the end of the article:

To attain interoperability in the context of pan-European eGovernment services, guidance needs to focus on open standards. The following are the minimal characteristics that a specification and its attendant documents must have in order to be considered an open standard:

  • The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organisation, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).
  • The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.
  • The intellectual property (i.e. patents possibly present) of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.
  • There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard.
The EC document goes on to suggest a strong link between open source and open standards. In particular, it says that "OSS products are, by their nature, publicly available specifications, and the availability of their source code promotes open, democratic debate around the specifications, making them both more robust and interoperable. As such, OSS corresponds to the objectives of this Framework and should be assessed and considered favourably alongside proprietary alternatives."

The article can be read in its entirety on Newsforge.

Thursday Nov 18, 2004

Linux is not Red Hat

Communication is, well, tricky, especially when hard core open-source and business folks are talking to each other. That's why I'm tentative in what I say about the Newsforge article Linux is not Red Hat.

The reason is, I agree with a fair bit of what the author says - but I also see why he's wrong in his interpretation of Jonathan and Scott's comments.

The author, Jem Matzan, clearly has well above average knowledge of open-source projects and products based on Linux, and also non-Linux open-source operating systems like OpenBSD. But the problem is not that someone (such as a well-informed open-source commentator, or for that matter almost any UNIX developer or system administrator) who is in touch with open-source knows that Linux is not Red Hat (and vice-versa). That's a given.

The problem is that companies who look for a well-supported operating system to run their business are not going to use freshmeat.net or the Linux Online list of distributions to find some code to run. They are going to look to a leading vendor. And right now, Red Hat is the company most closely identified with Linux, not any of the other admirable distros he mentions such as Debian, Gentoo, or Slackware. Not even Suse, which is beginning to become more important (and whose Linux Enterprise Desktop is used as the base of Sun's Linux-based Java Desktop System) comes close in terms of recognition among large businesses. Or for that matter, commercial developers, or folks looking for Linux skills certification. In that sense, Red Hat is Linux, and in the sense that some Linux technologies such as RPMs carry the Red Hat brand. And it is in that sense that there is some work to do before the Linux "brand" and the stamp of "Linux-ness" can really be applied to non-RH distributions. Aside: the ongoing efforts of United Linux, standards like Linux Standard Base, and other initiatives have some way to go before they are a large enough target (in terms of completeness, broad support from open-source stakeholders, and recognition from businesses).

The only place where I would highlight that Jem is 100% mistaken is where he gives some different projects the same weight; while an open-source hacker may have respect for the code or say the "potential" of free distributions like Fedora, and praise them for being in some respects more "leading edge" relative to some more stable Linux distribution, it is not correct, either technically or from a support perspective, to compare a product like Solaris 10 and a project like Fedora in terms of value simply because they are both free. The difference is one of quality, reliability and, of course, support for businesses who can't afford to walk the tightrope of an operating system without a major company standing over it. And Sun is widely recognised for the significant innovative capabilities in Solaris 10, which Jem acknowledges at different points.

It's clear that Sun is mis-understood by some folks working with open-source even though Sun is, balls to bones, a company built on the philosophy and ethic of open-source; it's also clear that Sun's focus on open standards as a mechanism for replaceability is not always valued by some open-source folks (even though we all take for granted the ability to plug a monitor cable from one desktop into another). But I think the most important part of Jem's article is the fact that he had the opportunity to have a conversation, however brief, with Scott and Jonathan. That's another step on the road to better communication, which is where this blog entry came in.

Tuesday Nov 16, 2004

Linux is... an open-source OS

You know, there's something else in that Slashdot debate that's far more important. The poster who started the "My take" thread splashed through the surface of a couple of issues, but by doing so actually muddied the waters even more than the threads I talked about earlier.

The critical quote in that post is this: "most \*\*experts\*\* view Linux as the most serious threat to Microsoft". It's hard to argue with an assertion like that because it's hard to identify who can be considered an expert, and even harder to get them all to vote on it. But some of those "\*\*experts\*\*" are a little more controversial than most. I guess "\*\*experts\*\*" must include Steve Ballmer, who has made exactly that comment.

How often do Linux supporters find themselves agreeing with a Microsoft exec? I think that's pretty smart of Ballmer to say that - it makes Linux supporters feel good (which costs nothing), and it doesn't make one blind bit of difference to Microsoft's business. Why? Because at the same time MS aggressively promotes their offerings very clearly as having lower TCO than Linux with their "Get the facts" marketing program.

Ok - so why would Ballmer say one thing in public while at the same time MS marketing say the opposite? Here's my view: misdirection (the act of distracting; drawing someone's attention away from something; the essential art of a stage magician). If paying customers view their decision as a simple 2-way decision (Windows or Linux), MS is saying that Windows comes out in front due to lower TCO, so in effect they are saying Linux is not such a threat after all. A little odd you might think.

Don't get me wrong - I believe that classifying Linux as the biggest threat to Microsoft is not entirely misdirection - but it is a huge over-simplification:

  1. Linux is essentially the kernel - it would be a neat computer science project without the entire GNU.org stack (thank you Linus T. and Richard S. respectively, and a lot of talented hackers in academia and enlightened companies everywhere). Linux-based web-servers tend (with good reason) to run the (L)AMP suite (Apache, MySQL and PHP). But GNU and AMP software run on just about any UNIX, including \*BSD and Solaris (soon to be open-source) and MacOS. And guess what - most of GNU and AMP runs on Win32 too. And what about Perl, Python, Postgres, TAO and the uncountable pantheon of open-source deities? All of that competes with Microsoft's offerings, even on their OS. And that's just for starters.

  2. GNOME and KDE - these two open-source desktops compete not just with Windows but with each other; while I wish they had more base technology and standards in common, they are both superb meta-projects, and with X.org they both offer a compelling GUI environment to run applications - on Linux, \*BSD and Solaris (yes you can even do GNOME on MacOS too, but that's not why you have a Mac, right?)

  3. Mozilla.org - the open-source browser and portable communications suite. Firefox is starting to win users away from IE. Because of bigots or rants? No, because Firefox is lighter, faster, more secure and has some very desirable features that are missing in IE. We can expect similar great things from Thunderbird, and maybe Sunbird too. If Firefox wins significant market share, then server products can't get away with just targetting the IE browser, which means they also target non-Windows desktop environments. It's all about choice.

  4. OpenOfffice.org - the open-source office suite. If a Linux-based desktop environment did not have a full-featured MS-interoperable office productivity suite, it would not be a viable option for a large percentage of users. OOo (and OOo-derived suites such as StarOffice) is already winning significant business from Microsoft Office. That's real competition. And OpenOffice.org has defined an open standard for rich documents so that office productivity suites can be interoperable and your documents remain readable for not just 5 years but maybe 50 (nice if that's your will you're writing, or your journal).

  5. Finally, Java is not itself open-source, but Java has enabled 10's of 1000's of open-source projects (just a rough estimate, but if you look at http://java-source.net/ and http://jakarta.apache.org/ and http://www.jboss.org/products/list#projects and http://sourceforge.net/softwaremap/trove_list.php?form_cat=198 and http://freshmeat.net/browse/198/ and http://dev.java.net you can begin to get a sense of the scale). Those open-source Java projects run on a broader variety of operating systems, servers, desktops and phones than any other kind of software. More choice.

So there's a clear message here - the open-source movement has created an astonishingly broad array of quality software, spanning servers to desktops - and it runs on Linux, \*BSD, MacOS, Solaris ... and Windows. Do you think maybe Ballmer doesn't know that? Very unlikely.

That's why in my view, Microsoft are actually concerned not just about Linux, but in the widest sense the platforms that favour open-source (including \*BSD, MacOS, Solaris and Java). Why? Because when you cut away a lot of the bullshit, open-source is the ultimate gene pool that allows DNA from compatible software projects (with compatible licenses) to combine to make even better products. And the combination of those platforms provides a uniquely broad choice of hardware for that software to run on.

So given that huge advantage of parallelised evolution and multiple platforms, won't the open-source model win? In theory yes, but there is one problem. We don't want to wait 10,000 years before all this open-source incrementally splits and merges to evolve into the perfect software solution. We want it (need it!) now.

So what do we need to do? Here's my view on this. 1) Encourage companies to explore and adopt the open-source model more. 2) Respect choice and diversity. 3) However, too much choice is bad because it means projects don't achieve critical mass; for example, in my view we have maybe 2 or 3 times as many Open Source Workflow Engines in Java as we need (currently there are 19); if some of those merged, they would get there faster; future perfect is the enemy of the present good; 4) The ultimate fate of the open-source software model lies in the scales of justice, unless a) we can resolve the threat of IP which is not always granted to users of open-source components and b) we can identify some mutually compatible combinations of a smaller number of open-source licenses that create the largest possible gene pool of code (take a read of this or that book to see some of the legal complexity here).

I at least look forward to the day when you and I will be able to have yet another choice of open-source operating system: Solaris. I wish it had happened as soon as first expected, but big changes take time. I have no doubt the folks at Sun working on open-sourcing it will make it happen - and it will be worth waiting for.

That was more than enough said for one post; thanks for getting this far, I hope you agree with at least some of what you read here. And if not, tell me why!

Slashdot - fry the unbelievers

Slashdot provides a great service; it has a technical readership, it attracts some of the most vocal supporters of open-source, and the discussions are often rewarding. But it has one flaw; far too many threads relating to computing will attract a few folks who don't know very much about software, but they sure do know that they love Linux (see this brief snapshot for just a tiny sample). And you know what else? If you don't love Linux as much as they do, you're stupid or evil, or both. Don't believe me? Take a look, slashdot.org - sometimes it's really not pretty, and (unlike the famous Monty Python sketch) most Slashdot readers have actually learned to expect the Spanish Inquisition that befalls folks who dare to suggest that they use an OS other than Linux.

Linux is not alone in having bigoted supporters - \*BSD, Mac, Windows, and yes Solaris also has it's zealots who have 100% convinced themselves that their choice is the One True Way and they will flap, FUD and flame anyone who says otherwise.

There's nothing better than a healthy debate, especially among folks who know something about their subject. But to all the loud-mouth OS bigots and bandwagon-jumping noobs out there I say this [in my best Jack Nicholson accent] - you can't handle the truth. And the truth is simply that a software ecology where just one product fills an essential need is missing out.

Why? Because choice is good; choice enables comparison and criticism; choice facilitates competition that spurs projects on to greater things. And (especially between open-source projects) choice enables good DNA from one product to transfer to another and create something better. How do we know it's better? Because in a competitive environment, the fates (or in the case of software, a customer or user) chooses the best solution for a given problem.

May Slashdot reign long as the eye of the perfect storm of open-source, but please - let's get better at slapping down the ranting OS noobs and ask 'em to go use the machine they know far better (hint: it probably runs Halo 2).

Friday Nov 12, 2004

Sun, Solaris, Slashdot and open source

When you read discussions like the Slashdot follow-up to John Loiacono's interview with LinuxWorld, it's kind of funny to look at the top-level comments - they tend to be the random rabid posts, the posts that are riddled with inaccuracies, written by trollers and fundamentalists. Ironically, the folks who actually know what they are talking about don't tend to post top-level - they respond to those posts, and then get overlooked if your Slashdot comment threshold is too low.

Two threads in particular are interesting as they actually climb out of the slime to get a lot closer to the truth:

  • "I'm still amused", which finally adjudges lines-of-code to be an important measure of contributions to open-source, and points out that there is a Linux Standard (LSB) - I hope that poster's ears are burning (as most of us know, there is a suite of UNIX standards including POSIX, FHS, PAM, NFS, X11, http://freedesktop.org/, and the Single Unix Specification; most people who know something about these standards also know that Sun has been heavily active in all of them)

  • "Sun founded on open source!? NOT in the kernel"; which acknowledges that Solaris is based on open-source (actually that thread focusses on Solaris's historic roots in BSD and misses out on recent additions such as GNOME, Apache, Perl, etc.); it also points out correctly that the open-source license for Solaris is not finalised yet but may actually be GPL

I would just like to encourage the folks who actually know something about UNIX and open-source to take a more active role on Slashdot and other forums; don't just leave it to the rebels without a clue to dominate the debate.

Update: I see I'm not the only Sunnie who's blogging about this interview and discussion; Jim Grisanzio and Marion Vermazen have some interesting insights.

Monday Nov 08, 2004

NHS take an unhealthy stance on open-source

Aside from being confused about the 180 degree turn by the British NHS to sign-up Microsoft for at least the next 3 years, I have to really wonder who at the NHS wrote the following lobotomised statement:

Open Source code typically comes without ownership, support or maintenance. NHS infrastructure and information systems are critical to the delivery of quality care and therefore guarantees on the reliability and future maintenance of systems are required.

This statement is a complete red herring because any large company offering a product based on open-source stands over it to the same degree as one composed of closed source.

The funny thing is that this new page is in radical opposition to the better informed NHS draft open-source policy statement that was surgically removed but still accessible for a while longer via the webarchive.

Not much to compare between these two versions of this page; no wonder the NHS decided to remove the paper.

If you aren't chuckling wryly at this yet, you will be if you read an article on e-health insider which states the case for open-source in the Health industry as follows:

The Office of Government Commerce has made recommendations that public procurement of software should consider open source solutions, citing, amongst other case studies, the experience of a Dublin-based hospital that made significant savings in transferring all its software to open source. The report says that public sector bodies should "examine carefully the technical and business case for implementation for Open Source software and the role which OSS could play in current and future projects" as well as "review their current infrastructure and applications... well in advance of any planned procurement or renewal... and consider what steps may be necessary to prevent future 'lock in'".

So it looks like it's at least 3 years before the NHS can benefit from open-source solutions (the outside limit of 9 years certainly sounds like 'lock-in'), but that doesn't affect the business case for open-source in other government departments in the UK, or indeed elsewhere in Europe where open-source is viewed very favourably or even mandated.

Wednesday Oct 13, 2004

Catching up with OpenOffice.org - the open-source giant

For anyone who is interested in how open-source works, or in business productivity applications, there is a very insightful article over on NewsForge about OpenOffice.org after 4 years. Bruce Byfield is IMHO one of the top journalists in open-source and Louis Suarez-Potts is a worthy interviewee who knows his subject inside and out.

Wednesday Oct 06, 2004

The Secret's Out - OpenOffice.org rocks even long-standing FrameMaker users

OpenOffice.org users are well used to creating large high-quality documents and books, but the secret is starting to get out to more folks who live or die by the quality of their document creation.

Bruce Byfield over on NewsForge hits the nail on the head with his article Replacing FrameMaker with OOo Writer.

Key quotes:
  • I could find no features that FrameMaker had that Writer entirely lacked. By contrast, Writer has several that FrameMaker does not, including Autotext and AutoCorrect/Autoformat, and a chart mode.
  • At the end of the comparison, I had to conclude that the two products compare quite closely, depending on what features are more important to a given user. FrameMaker's superiority for sideheads, for instance, may sway some users, or Writer's in indexes and tables of contents. Nor are the advantages listed here equally decisive; Writer's victory in styles, for example, is narrower than FrameMaker's in cross-references and sideheads.
  • So long as [users] take the time to learn Writer, they can be in little doubt that they are using software that competes with FrameMaker on its own terms
Man, you just gotta love open-source!

Tuesday Oct 05, 2004

Open-Source and Slash-and-burn Aggregators

Open-source certainly facilitates new kinds of collaboration for developers to create software, but I think it's perhaps even more interesting that it seems to enable a cornucopia (or Pandora's box, depending on your point of view) of business models.

Many open-source-based companies (such as GlueCode or RedHat) reuse significant open-source elements developed elsewhere and their value proposition is to offer a product that is branded, reliable, supported etc, usually with a certain amount of value-added features or a market-specific solution. Even along this one dimension of "amount of code contributed", there can be a broad spectrum of business models that require more or less software to be developed by a company, ranging from pure support (0% new software) to solution (5-10%) to component(s) (5-30%), finally leading up to developing a complete product (~100%).

So it's with great interest that I read a LinuxWorld article that describes how a couple of ex-Microsoft folks are founding an open-source-based company (SourceLabs) to productise and support an (unyet specified) open-source platform, but presumably including the staple Apache, MySql (or Postgres), Python, among other elements. It's not totally clear where SourceLabs are going, but if they aim to provide pure stack-ware (maybe even divorced from the base OS, likely to at least include a Linux variant) then their market is likely to be either developers or deployers.

Ok, my thought is this: it seems to be possible for large companies to do little more than aggregate open-source components, develop some minor fixes, brand it and call it a product (this charge has actually been levelled at Sun by a few folks who somehow don't know how much Sun contributes to the GNOME and OpenOffice.org projects, among others - not guilty ;). This results in no significant contribution from such a company to any of the projects whose creations they bundle. It may even be possible that such an "aggregator" company can monopolise revenue from the components they bundle, even though those components are of high quality. The open-source "ethic" doesn't say anything about how the benefit (the revenue that an aggregator obtains by bundling open-source) can in part be shared with those who create the open-source components. Somehow that doesn't seem right or even viable.

So what can be done to discourage aggregators from using open-source as cost-free out-sourcing? Or on a more positive note, to fund the developers (sometimes altruistic or fame-seeking individuals, but often companies who actually need to make a buck or two) who create high quality open-source components? Tricky. I hope that something can prevent aggregators from simply using the work of others while cherry-picking a few of the developers who maintained it - that seems monumentally unethical and ultimately fatal to the friendly, optimistic and above all innovative ecology of open-source.

My 2 cents, over to you!

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