Wednesday Feb 03, 2010

☞ More on H.264

Tuesday Jul 14, 2009

☞ Marketing and Exploitation

  • More scientific research which tells us what we would already know if we weren't so busy anthropomorphising.
  • "Taken individually, these dubious actions might be dismissed...taken together they suggest a consistent philosophy" -- Yes, yes, I've seen MiniMicrosoft saying they have "turned the corner" but this episode suggests the underdog self-image is alive and well. Microsoft's military assault on the standards world deserves a written history; this is a good start.
  • I'm a Zipcar member and they have a scheme where anyone who joins up via a member referral can get $25 or £25 free usage of the service (as well as the member getting the same). If you ever need a car for a few hours in a major US city or in London, Zipcar may well interest you.
    (tags: Zipcar Travel Eco)
  • This is a brilliant video - great, catchy song, amusing video, restrained yet direct message. It deserves to be a chart hit. I want to buy a copy so I can listen to it while I'm flying United...

Friday Jun 05, 2009

OASIS Protects Open Source Developers From Software Patents

Crane Block

Some of you may remember a fuss that was made a few years ago by some open source people over the copyright and patent policy used by OASIS, the computer protocols standards body1. OASIS seems to have taken it to heart, because it has today announced what looks to me like the perfect basis for technology standards in an open source world.

Their new rules2 include a new "mode" which standards projects can opt into using. In this new mode, all contributors promise that they will not assert any patents they may own related to the standard the project is defining. Contributors make this covenant:

Each Obligated Party in a Non-Assertion Mode TC irrevocably covenants that, subject to Section 10.3.2 and Section 11 of the OASIS IPR Policy, it will not assert any of its Essential Claims covered by its Contribution Obligations or Participation Obligations against any OASIS Party or third party for making, having made, using, marketing, importing, offering to sell, selling, and otherwise distributing Covered Products that implement an OASIS Final Deliverable developed by that TC.

That's deliciously simple, and implements close to what I have previously recommended as the basis for handling patents in open source projects. I've written before how patent non-assert covenants are low cost for the patent holder and low risk for the developer. There is of course a "patent peace" associated with it:

The covenant described in Section 10.3.1 may be suspended or revoked by the Obligated Party with respect to any OASIS Party or third party if that OASIS Party or third party asserts an Essential Claim in a suit first brought against, or attempts in writing to assert an Essential Claim against, a Beneficiary with respect to a Covered Product that implements the same OASIS Final Deliverable.

I think this is a wonderful development for protecting open source developers from patents, and I would like to see it replicated in all standards bodies. The only issue will be whether OASIS TCs choose to adopt this mode; we need to demand it and boycott the TCs that don't.


  1. I thought the fuss made was pretty unfair at the time, since it complained about legacy OASIS approaches to patent licensing just at the time when OASIS had fixed them - the essence of the complaint was that OASIS hadn't just blown away the old approach but had left it there so that older projects weren't harmed.
  2. There's a redline PDF document showing the changes - the new stuff is mainly in section 10, although other areas had to be changed to match as well, I gather.

Wednesday May 20, 2009

☞ Exciting events and Interoperability news

  • More local geek activity. Given the employment profile in the area I've been amazed this sort of thing hasn't shown up before - very welcome. Southampton is rapidly emerging as "Silicon Port".
  • "The OpenDocument Format (ODF) Alliance today cautioned that serious deficiencies in Microsoft’s support for ODF needed to be addressed to ensure greater interoperability with other ODF-supporting software. "
  • "Kernel Conference Australia is a Kernel-focused technical conference to be held in Brisbane, Australia, from July 15th to 17th, 2009. Any and all Open Source kernels and the technologies within those kernels are open for discussion. The only hard criteria is that the kernel must be covered by an OSI-approved license." -- Don't be put off by the fact this is Sun-sponsored, the organisers are creating a genuine and inclusive technical conference that looks very worthwhile.
  • New site helps you see just how compatible office suites are with each other.

Sunday Apr 19, 2009

Java Needs A Cloud Profile

Sun and Clouds

Back in 1995 I was a huge fan and advocate of Java - at IBM - because it provided developers and deployers a universal layer that promised to reduce the lock-in caused by platform differences. The JCP went on to define a limited number of Java profiles and in the areas where the market has stuck to them we've seen great things happen. And in the place  it hasn't - Java ME - we've seen messy fragmentation that's held the market back. We risk the same thing happening in the Cloud if we don't define a Java Cloud Profile soon.

Slashdotted

Just before the Easter break here in the UK, I made a passing remark (in a link roundup and on Twitter) to the fact that Google has added Java support to their App Engine cloud hosting product. I did so because I've been associated with the Java platforms ever since I helped get IBM to support them before joining Sun (where I haven't really been involved with Sun's Java team).

To my surprise, a journalist decided this was big news and wrote a story implying Sun was "slamming" Google. That in turn led to a discussion on Slashdot where a whole lot of people asserted a whole lot of things based on the assumption my pithy micro-blogging comment was a treatise on Sun's behalf as well as on a weak grasp of Java standardisation, politics and history. Gah. Now I'm back from Oslo, I've time to comment properly.

Delighted

To be clear, I am delighted Google are supporting the Java platform on App Engine. Doing so grows the opportunity for the whole Java community. It allows a great deal of existing code to be re-used and offers use of a wide range of additional programming languages. It is a great solution to the problem many of us have had for years, that Java hosting is hard to find and hard to use when you do. GAE/j is a good thing and I welcome it, especially if it grows Google's engagement with the open source Java community.

Moreover, it seems entirely likely that Google's approach here to "subsetting" is simply because they haven't yet gotten around to making everything safe in their sandbox, not because they have some deep philosophical belief that those things should be removed. Reports I have seen suggest they have largely used a SecurityManager implementation (although there are some worrying reports also of people getting ClassNotFoundException for core classes). If they've simply made a temporary, pragmatic, resource-driven decision, we should all encourage them to work towards full compatibility as they head out of alpha. That doesn't change my reaction to the general issue, though.

Fragmentation Risk

My reaction related more to the fact that we can't afford as a community to leave this just to happen. While pragmatic innovation is a good thing on the part of an individual developer or even a diverse community, in the hands of a rich, powerful corporation it can - even unwittingly - quickly become market manipulation. That's why the JCP has striven to prevent unilateral subsetting. I can't speak for Sun - I am nothing to do with Java strategy at Sun - but I believe the Java community needs a new, agreed Java cloud profile.

If we allow each cloud provider in turn to define their own subset, we will be left in the same ugly position we have with Java on mobile phones where the common specification doesn't go deep enough and forces applications to be refactored for every different platform. On the cloud, this equates to having no freedom-to-leave - you'll be stuck with a price ticket if you ever want to move platforms.

Community Solution?

I was already worried about that topic and think we need a common set of APIs for provisioning in the cloud (Tim has started), a common way to abstract data storage and an abstraction layer so that applications written for the cloud can move freely between providers. Java would be perfect for this last item - but not if every provider has a different subset. That's the real meaning of "compatibility" in a Java context - not needing to refactor for equivalent deployment in different places.

What we need as a global Java community is "Java for Cloud" somehow. Given their good work so far, I'd like Google to show leadership and a commitment to openness by taking their subset to the JCP and offering to join a working group to establish a new Java profile for cloud applications. I hope Sun would enthusiastically engage. I know that there's already some work aimed at Java EE 6 to create a "web profile" - let's get a community effort going here so that innovation means progress and not lock-in.

Sunday Jul 20, 2008

Holistic Role

I'm in Portland, Oregon this weekend for an interesting meeting, but I'll not be able to stay on for OSCON this year because a change of my role at Sun necessitates attending a meeting in California that's a direct conflict with OSCON. It's not an especially closely-kept secret but I've now moved from Sun's software group and taken the Chief Open Source Officer role over to a newly-formed team reporting more directly to the CEO and working on Sun's relationships with communities globally.

The new team comprises some of Sun's best experts in open standards, open IPR and open source. It's called the Sun Open Technologies Practice, and in particular manages the Sun standards and open source websites. It allows us to take a more holistic approach to Sun's engagement in open standards and open source, especially in the area of influencing open standards bodies to have IPR policies that allow - or even encourage - open source implementation.

I'll let the new members of my team use their own channels to say they have joined, but suffice to say I'm excited by the challenging new opportunities this presents around the world.

Wednesday May 21, 2008

Microsoft Embraces ODF, At Last

Slipstreaming Gull

I was tidying in my office recently and found my attendee badge for the Open Source Convention held in Monterey in 2000. The big news that year (apart from the fact that the world didn't end) was that Sun, which had just bought a German company called Star Division, was releasing their flagship product StarOffice under an open source license and sponsoring a new open source community called OpenOffice.org. The t-shirts we all received just said "Freedom". We all had high hopes that simple but bold move, as well as giving all of us a great document suite, would begin to lubricate the market for document tools and get its corroded competitive gears turning again.

I'm now completely convinced that it worked. The widespread adoption of OpenOffice.org both on Windows (for which millions of copies of OO.o are downloaded each year) and on GNU/Linux (where it is distributed with almost every copy) was an early sign. The growth of OpenDocument format from a seed planted by OpenOffice.org to an independent plant nurtured by OASIS to a spreading young tree at ISO was another.

But today there are many senses in which we all in the OpenOffice.org community could be delighted at our influence on the world of software. The steady pressure has paid off. Not just because OpenOffice.org is better than ever at version 3.0 (now available in a native Mac version among others). But because we were accused of being derivative, yet it's now our innovation that is setting the pace.

Change of Heart?

I'm referring to the announcement Microsoft just made that they will be issuing a service pack for Office that adds native support for ODF. I've been repeatedly calling on them to support ODF like they do many other formats, and to do so in a way that makes it just another format that can be made the default. They've said they will as of SP2, and I warmly congratulate them on finally overcoming the NIH and FUD instincts. Way to go!

More than that, they also announced they will join the OASIS ODF TC and work to develop ODF. I've also been calling on them to do this, pretty much since the TC was formed right in front of them (they are board members at OASIS) in 2002. I'm not a member personally, but if I were I would want to warmly welcome them to the team as it enters the final straights towards completion of ODF 1.2 and submission to ISO.

Of course, I might also reflect on the fact they are finally doing exactly what Stephe Walli said they ought to do to kill ODF. But for now, it's huge, warm congratulations on giving your customers the freedom to leave and the confidence to stay - and a small British mutter of "about bloody time".

Wednesday Apr 09, 2008

Driven to Extremes

Well-attended protest

I've been speaking at the excellent Go Open 2008 conference here in Oslo today - attendees may be interested in my slides. My talk embodied the comments I made in response to Michael Tiemann a while back.

Of much more interest was what happened at lunchtime, however. I've heard plenty of accusations from certain OOXML proponents that all the noisy opposition to them is coming from extremist agitators and anarchists and should be ignored as a consequence. The (very un-Norwegian) activities in Oslo today seemed to suggest otherwise. As the International Herald Tribune reports, there was a demonstration and protest march by placard-wielding demonstrators on the streets of Oslo - see the local TV report. This in itself is unusual - Norway is not given to such outbursts - but there's more that makes it unusual.

This protest was organised not by extremist agitators but by Steve Pepper (who made a great speech), the widely respected chair of the SC34 mirror committee that reviewed OOXML for Standards Norway and by his colleagues. I asked them why they were taking this unusual step and they told me it was because the majority view of their committee had been ignored by Standards Norway. They are furious - Pepper has resigned. So there may be extremists involved in the protests against OOXML somewhere, but in the specific case of Norway the protesters are highly respected standards and business people who have been driven to extremes rather than starting from them.

Podcast Interview With Trond Heier

Trond Heier, Linpro CEO I also had the chance to interview the CEO of Linpro AS, a respected Norwegian open source service provider, about his reasons for taking part in the protest. You can listen to the podcast in either MP3 or Ogg format. Trond explains that the message Steve Pepper delivered was in English so that the Norwegian group could encourage other, similarly unhappy groups in other countries to speak out as well. The protest was held outside the building where JTC1 SC34 was holding a meeting.

More pictures:

Organised by the SC34 mirror committee Outside the ISO meeting Message to Microsoft Message to Brussels

If you are a writer looking for photos or clips for your article or blog, you are free to use any of these as long as you attribute them to me. I'd also prefer you to link to this blog posting too.

Sunday Mar 16, 2008

Software Freedom: More Than Copyright

New Forest Reflection

I was surprised last week to see a posting from Michael Tiemann, the President of the Open Source Initiative and a VP at Red Hat. Any posting with a subject of line of "Simon Phipps Was Right" is bound to catch my eye, but this one was especially unexpected because in the original discussion I had thought that Michael was largely right! Michael's posting graciously said:

Simon, I'm beginning to think that you were right and I was wrong. You said a standard's process is a crucial aspect of the standard's product, and a process that is not open cannot be trusted to produce a product that can be considered open. I maintained that I had seen and used many wonderful standards that took absolutely zero input from me, and therefore I didn't see my participation as a necessary prerequisite for assuring quality in the future. I believed that no matter what the process, a standard should be judged by the product. Watching the fallout settle from the [ISO ballot resolution meeting] in Geneva, I'm beginning to think that you were right and I was wrong.

I've been thinking about the posting for a week or so now and I've tried to respond thoughtfully. Here is the response I sent to Michael (still awaiting moderation):

Thank-you, Michael - it's not often I see a posting like this. Actually, when we spoke about this at OSCON I found I agreed with many of your arguments, even if that doesn't show in the on-list discussion. The problem is that standards are orthogonal to open source, and attempting to define them in a way that promotes and protects software freedom may be impossible. It's been said that when we create any system we create the game that plays it. The standards system is fully mature and as such is fully gamed, as the DIS29500 debacle you reference is proving.

Maybe a more productive approach going forward is to try to do for the other kinds of so-called intellectual property what the Open Source Definition (OSD) currently does for copyright licensing. Perhaps we need to rename OSD to "Open Source Copyright Definition" and then work on an "Open Source Patent Definition", so that we can avoid the kind of entrapment that software patents can threaten? And as you know I am convinced we need an "Open Source Trademark Definition" to help us as a community of communities to avoid the IceWeasel problem.

If these are interesting, I'd be pleased to spend time exploring them together. Let me know.

New Definitions

The current Open Source Definition doesn't actually define Open Source - rather, it defines a subset of the requirements that protect software freedom, in this case the copyright license. I actually think renaming it ("Open Source Copyright Definition"?) would be good since there's more to Open Source than just the copyright license. I then suggest we explore creating an "Open Source Patent Definition" and an "Open Source Trademark Definition".

What would be in these two new definitions? Both would need to define what promotes software freedom and how it can be protected. Both would need to be pragmatically principled.

  • An Open Source Patent Definition would do for patents what the OS(C)D does for copyrights. I've posted a lot on this subject before, notably in Protecting Developers from Patents and Ten Reasons The World Needs Patent Covenants, so I'd go mining there for my contributions to the discussion. But it may also be that in addition there needs to be a call for patent law reform, maybe as I outlined in Seven Patent Reforms While We Wait For Nirvana.
  • When it comes to an Open Source Trademark Definition, we would need to similarly define the signs that a developer or user needs to know whether software freedom is being promoted in a trademark policy. I've not written about this yet, but I do believe we need to collectively understand the bounds trademark law places on people who have responsibility for trademarks (read: all developers and open source communities as well as all vendors). We then need to construct a path that promotes software freedom without placing impossible demands on trademark owners to behave in ways that are contrary to their responsibilities.

This is not easy stuff. But I do believe that certain recent events between the open and proprietary software worlds mean that it's time for software freedom fighters to get together and work on these things. I'm ready to work on it. What do you say, Michael?

Monday Jan 21, 2008

Strategically Ignoring Customers

Interesting to see the Microsoft folks making a big deal out of the fact that companies are implementing OOXML features in their software products. I'd hesitate to join them being thrilled at IBM's new-found support for their strategy. Truth is, when there's a monopolist in the market it's impossible to ignore the consequences of even their worst ideas, let alone their good ones. Responding to the needs of locked-in customers who will find themselves using OOXML is a different deal to strategic support.

A much more crucial question, though, is why the folks at Microsoft are so surprised. If you know your customers have a requirement, surely you respond to it? The real question this situation brings to my mind is not "why are IBM implementing OOXML features". It's "why won't Microsoft implement support for ODF at least to the same level as RTF built-in to Office?" Given they have a number of very significant and visible customers demanding that support, it seems to me they are the ones with the explaining to do, not IBM, Google, OpenOffice.org or anyone else.

Thursday Sep 27, 2007

Roman Canaries

DFIR Meeting

Today I had the privilege of speaking to a large and distinguished international audience in Rome, DFIR, considering the creation of a "Bill of Rights" for the Internet as a part of the ongoing IGF process. Many presenters spoke about privacy, about access to knowledge, about the need to build on the well-established corpus of wisdom in existing statements on human rights. Listening through the morning, it became apparent that most people were taking for granted the technical basis on which the Internet was created.

Thus in my speech I decided to take the opposite approach, taking as given the obvious need to establish human rights of privacy, access, free speech and non-discrimination and look at the technical foundations. The Internet exists because of three realities - informally constituted but still consistently real. We have to remember the heritage of the net if we are to protect higher-order rights for its future. Those are

  • Open Standards - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure interface interoperability within every layer of the Internet's architecture, including the “application layer” and its myriad file formats, protocols, schemas, and application programming interfaces.
  • Open Source - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure that is it legally, technically and practically possible for software applications to be equally available under both open source and propriety source code models.
  • Open Access - a Bill of Rights should establish the responsibility to ensure the ability of any end-point on the network to connect to any other correctly configured end-point is available to every other end-point without unreasonable obstruction.

The Sentinel Principle

Romulus and Remus

And so to canaries. It struck me during this that Free software plays an important role over and above delivering the liberty to use software one can inspect and alter. It also serves as the canary in the coalmine for the word "Open". Standards are truly open when they can be implemented without fear as Free software in an open source community. Open source communities are very sensitive to and wary of aspects of a standard that limit or otherwise harm their freedom. As the case of SenderID proved, they spot things for which others have a blind spot or have been gamed.

Whether or not you use the Free software itself, if it doesn't exist then the standard you're considering may well involve the sort of harmful, invisible agent that canaries were used to detect in an earlier age. I know there's plenty of discussion about the precise definition of "open standard" - maybe the best approach is not to define it but rather identify when it is not present using a sentinel.

I'd not want to confuse "Open Standards" with "Open Source" - their only link is that open standards implemented as open source create optimum freedom - but this additional sentinel role for software freedom just might be the answer to a tricky semantic issue in the current public policy arena.

No canaries were harmed in the preparation of this posting.

Wednesday Jul 04, 2007

Choice and Light Bulbs

Bulbs

Reading Sin-Yaw's blog about power plugs and the need for a conversion 'dongle' last night, I started wondering what other examples of "a choice of standards" there are. Looking around the house I realised there were quite a few. Since it's a holiday for lots of my readers, I'll take the next few days to tell some stories about what I found.

So let's talk light bulbs. I pulled the box of spares out of the cupboardBox of Bulbs and took a look. There were red, green, blue spotlights; 60W and 100W bulbs; 25W and 40W candle bulbs; some 6W low-energy bulbs; a great halogen-in-a-bulb that gives a brilliant room-filling light; and plenty more. Having a choice of light bulbs is good. I can decide to put the 25W candle bulbs in the light fittings in the hall, for example, and save energy and money out there. Then I realised that I can't use the 25W candle bulbs in the candelabra in the lounge in place of the 40W bulbs I usually use.

The reason? The lounge fitting takes small bayonet connector (SBC) bulbs, but the hallway fitting takes small edison screw (SES) connector bulbs. Candle bulbsSimilarly, the reason the low energy bulbs (delivered free of charge at one point by the electricity company) are still in the box is that they have a full-size bayonet connector (BC) but the lights that need them in the kitchen all have a full-size edison screw (ES) connector.

There are similar stories for the rest; the great halogen has an ES connector but the socket where I'd like to use it in the study is BC, for example. The outside light has an ES fitting but all the weather-proof low-energy bulbs I can find that are the right shape for the casing have a BC so I am forced to continue using something incandescent. Having a choice of connectors like this simply leaves me with redundant bulbs in the cupboard. It also means when I buy a new lamp I probably can't use the spare bulbs I already have in stock. A choice of standards for bulb connectors reduces my choice as a customer since I find I am unable to buy bulbs in bulk and unable to use old bulbs in new lamps.

That doesn't mean choice is bad. I want a choice of colours, of energy technologies, of wattages, of shapes, of reflector styles and so on. But I want them all with a common connector so that when I'm shopping I know any bulb will work. Choice that serves the customer is choice of bulb, not of connector.

Part 2: Choice and Flash Memory
Part 3: Choice and Power Supplies

Tuesday Jul 03, 2007

ODF Plug-in for MS Office Released

Pohutakawa

Independence Day for MS Office users is here! I'm pleased to say that the Sun ODF Plug-In for MS Office has now been officially released. The Word-only version has been in beta-test for several months. The release version enables users of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint to read and write documents in the ISO-standard Open Document Format (ODF).

Peter Korn reports that it works well with accessibility technologies, so that people locked in to MS Office by the lack of standards on Windows for AT tools are also free to work with colleagues using ODF. It works on Windows in Office 2000, XP and 2003 and is a completely free download. Support services are available if required. Now MS Office users can get the feature their supplier refuses to include - full ODF support intuitively implemented right in the application.

Here's what the team has to say about it:

The Sun ODF Plug-in for Microsoft Office allows users of Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint the ability to read, edit and save to the ISO-standard Open Document Format. The ODF Plug-in is available as a free download from the Sun Download Center (SDLC). Download the ODF Plug-in.

The Plug-in is easy to setup and use, the conversion happens transparently and the additional memory footprint is minimal. Microsoft Office users now can have seamless two-way conversion of Microsoft Office documents to and from Open Document. The ODF Plug-in runs on Microsoft Windows and is available in English. More language support will be available in later releases.

Huge congratulations to the team who built the plug-in, and to the OpenOffice.org developers who wrote the code from which it has been adapted. Not that they should have needed to do that, of course...

Wednesday May 30, 2007

US OOXML Discussion Now Public

I just heard that INCITS V1, the group making the recommendation to ANSI on whether the US should support Microsoft's proprietary OOXML format in being fast-tracked to ISO, is considering creating a public archive of its conversations on the subject. In the interim while they consider a more formal arrangement, Jon Bosak has placed the April and May correspondence on iBiblio. Take a look and, if you're a US citizen, use it to guide the comments you make to INCITS V1.

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.

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