Open Solutions Alliance: A pleasant surprise

When the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA) was originally announced I had some significant concerns about their membership structure. Most of these concerns focussed on whether lots of things were to be done behind closed doors.

Today, I visited the OSA site to see if anything visible was happening. I got a very pleasant surprise.

The site has had a major overhaul and is now more than just a marketing channel for the commercial partners in the OSA. It has lots of community areas that anyone, member or not, can access. This is a good sign.

There are indications that the abilities of a non-member will be restricted , for example, I am marked as an “observer” after having gone through the simple registration process, but that’s fair enough. I don’t expect to be able to influence the OSA significantly unless I contribute significantly, my concerns were mainly about the potential for important decisions affecting third party open source projects being made in a private members club, it appears that this will not be the case.

The OSA management is private, but it seems everyone will be welcome to attend and will have a voice. Thus many (although not all) of my concerns are laid to rest.

It’s still very early days for the OSA, there’s very little actually happening there at present, but the early signs are encouraging. I’ll be visiting the site more often from now on.

Neutering the System Bell on Ubuntu Dapper

I’ve been using UNIX/Linux for more than ten years. Over that time I’ve accumulated a huge range of tricks and hacks to make things work, so it was with some frustration that I found that I couldn’t turn off the system bell on my laptop running Ubuntu Dapper. My first approach was to use xset(1), which had worked in the past. It was installed (including the man page “man xset” ) but ineffective. Even as root at boot-time. None of the obvious commands worked. None of the several non-obvious commands worked either.

This morning, while in the “Shock of the Old 6 Conference : Shock of the Social” a Oxford, I decided that if I couldn’t disable the bell (which sounds every time I mis-type an emacs(1) command sequence), I was going to have to switch from emacs to a different text editor.

System -> Preferences -> Sound -> System Beep was the fix. For six months of laptop ownership I’d been looking for a command line solution and it had been in the menus all the time.

Just call me an old-timer.

Randy informs me that on his IBM laptop, the hardware mute button mutes the system bell. On my Dell D620, it mutes audio port but not the system bell. Randy had also found the menu option.

Tag: shock2007

ICANN moves against RegisterFly.com

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which controls such key elements of the Internet as mime types, character sets and the DNS, has taken action against RegisterFly.com, a domain-name registry that appears to be in a protracted financial implosion. In 15 days RegisterFly.com‘s customers will have their domain names moved to another register.

ICANN has received been criticised in the past over issues such as internationalisation and governance, but it’s great to see it taking a positive and proactive role in this situation. Hopefully this is the start of a new proactive ICANN, which is in an ideal position to provide leadership on a whole range of technical issues.

The step also sets a new precedent for what happens when Internet companies collapse. In the past most Internet-related companies have been acquired at knock-down prices by their competitors rather than going bankrupt. ICANN’s move effectively strips RegisterFly.com of their primary asset, their customers. The customers’ DNS records (the database records that map a name such as “involve.jisc.ac.uk” to the numerical IP machine address such as “213.133.67.196”) will be transferred to another registrar or registrars, who are presumably spending the next 15 days gearing up for the transfer. ICANN has standardised procedures to allow customers to move either own database records from registrar to another, but RegisterFly.com was not following these procedures (and appears not to have been for some time).

Google releases list of projects participating in Summer of Code

The Google Summer of Code (SoC) is now an annual event, in which Google pays computer science and software engineering students to work full-time in open source projects over their summer vocation on predefined tasks.

The students get hands-on experience with large-scale software development in the real world and the projects get concentrated work from developers-in-training.

The list of open source projects submitting tasks (confusingly called “projects”) to the 2007 SoC is significantly larger than last year and very diverse. Everything from operating systems (Ubuntu and FreeBSD) and office suites (OpenOffice.org and AbiSource) to media tools (Blender and Audacious) and content management systems (Drupal and Joomla!). Google is not playing favourites either, funding projects with histories of vigorous competition, such as KDE and GNOME, and PostgreSQL project and MySQL.

From an educational point of view Moodle stands out immediately. There are a number of student projects such as “Developing new question types for the quiz” and “Automated grading for Computer Programming Assignments” which seem to be very useful and have wide applicability.

Some of the more geeky tasks make me wish I had the summer off to spend on something like this. GCC is has some interesting C++ tasks and JikesRVM has very attractive looking Java-in-Java and garbage collection tasks.

I suspect that the SoC requires a different sort of organisation from open source projects than they’re used to, but I can also imagine that there are many small open source projects which could usefully be laying the groundwork for SoC 2008: identifying discrete independent tasks, finding individuals willing to mentor young developers, and thinking about the requirements from Google.

StarOffice 8 and grammar checking

Regular readers of my blog entries will be aware that grammar is not my strong point. I’ve been toying with the idea of seeking machine assistance in this area for some time, and during a quiet moment at a trade show last year, I quizzed the people from Sun about the capabilities of StarOffice (the commercial, supported version of OpenOffice.org). They assured me that it had a grammar checker that was better than the one with in Microsoft Word (in retrospect, that should have been a warning flag).

So one of my New Years’ resolutions was to start using a grammar checker, mainly for the sake of my coworkers, who are forced to read my writing.

I had some difficulty finding the free download for educational users (http://www.sun.com/products-n-solutions/edu/solutions/staroffice.html), but found it eventually with the help of our in-house software licensing guru. I actually installed StarSuite 8 (because it appears to have better support far-eastern languages and I have an interest in Go), even though it wasn’t really clear to me what features the different downloads offered. I was pleasantly surprised that the generic “linux” downloads played nicely with my Ubuntu Dapper desktop, the application icons appearing in menus like they should.

Starting up Writer for the first time, I was unable to find the grammar checker (I even looked in the help system, which is a faithful clone of the completely useless ones so common in Microsoft Windows), so I downloaded instead the StarOffice 8 for English rather that the far east. Unfortunately, the install failed, badly. It seems that while the Sun’s installers cope very well with relatively virgin installs, they don’t like it when other Sun software is installed. After uninstalling both and reinstalling the English version, still no dice.

So I look on the web, and find a review of StarOffice 8 which makes it clear that there is no grammar checker.

StarOffice 8/StarSuite 8 is seems marginally faster and slicker than OpenOffice.org 2.0, which is not what I expected, since the OpenOffice I’m using is the Ubuntu one, which should give it an edge on both counts. In the end I switched back to StarSuite 8, even though I couldn’t tell the difference, because of it’s promise of better support for far-eastern languages (presumably better fonts and kerning).

Both StarOffice 8/StarSuite 8 and OpenOffice.org 2.0 give me the error message “afs: byte-range lock/unlock ignored; make sure no one else is running this program.” in my kernel logs because I’m mounting my home directory over openafs, and they use an arcane file locking mechanism. Simple documents (which is all I really use) seem to pass between StarSuite and OpenOffice (which I still use on my laptop) just fine, and in both directions.

I’m guessing the moral of this story is not to believe salespeople.

Response to “What is open source anyway?”

About a week ago I wrote a blog entry entitled “What is open source anyway?” which got some strong responses. I’d like to take a moment to clarify a few points in I made, and respond to some specific points. I suspect that most of the issues are primarily noise-on-the-line (or noise-in-the-writing) rather than genuine disagreements between me and those that have responded.

First off, I work for OSS Watch, which already has a position on what open source is:

Open source software is always software that has been released under a licence that has been certified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI).

I thought it was clear from the context that when I said “WIX is not a good fit with our Utopian view of open source” I was talking about the strawman definition of open source listed at the start of the blog entry. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, maybe I was misusing this rhetorical device.

Rob Mensching of the WIX project wrote a healthy rebuttal which makes several key points:

1. That the non-applicative and emotionally loaded Utopian definition of open source with which I opened the post is completely unsuitable.

As pointed out by both my co-worker Ross and Rob, the OSI definition is the only widely accepted definition of open source for organisations such as my OSS Watch, Rob’s Microsoft, and indeed almost all organisations, excepting those whose purpose is to promulgate a particular view on software or licensing. I completely agree.

2. That I was unjust in singling out WIX as an example of open source which fit the Utopian definition of open source very poorly and when I did single out WIX my characterisation was unfair.

I picked WIX because of the close connection to Microsoft, and because Microsoft is commonly seen to be standing in opposition to open source, a notion I was trying to disabuse readers of. Maybe I could have been clearer on that point. I’ll admit that I was previously unaware of the two non-Microsoft contributors too WIX that Rob points out. I’m not sure of Rob’s employment conditions, but certainly under common employment conditions, any time that he writes code is company time unless negotiated otherwise, I know it is under my employment conditions, making all WIX his works “on company time.”

3. That it was unfair in saying that WIX does not support open standards because there are no open-standards in the software packaging world.

POSIX (also known as IEEE 1003 and ISO/IEC 9945) is a systems standard supported by Solaris, OpenVMS, some of the BSD family, AIX, UnixWare, some of the Microsoft Windows family (Windows NT, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, etc) and MacOS X.

Installers built on POSIX are called “shar files” and in theory install on all these systems. Just last week I installed StarSuite from Sun, there was a single download for “Linux” (or, more exactly, one for English marked Linux) it just worked, and was picked up by my Ubuntu menus just file. In the past I’ve used shar files which happily compile code from source and install it too (Standard ANSI C is included in POSIX). I’ll admit that it doesn’t give the polished look-and-feel that Microsoft Windows users may be used to. Predating GUIs, it’s a command line-driven approach.

The Linux family of operating systems is not technically compliant with POSIX, opting for the Linux Standards Base (LSB) compliance instead. LSB specifies a much wider range of behaviour than POSIX and appears to be on-track to become a strict superset of POSIX. Any LSB compliant system can install .rpm packages, provided the packages are built to be LSB compilant. Without diving into it, the StarSuiteshar file I installed may have assumed an LSB system as well as a POSIX system, I’m not sure.

In short, there are open standards which apply to installers across operating systems.

The point I was trying to convey with my initial post was the only really effective definition of open source is in terms of license, and the only standard we have for measuring licences (or the only standard I have, since I’m not a lawyer) is the list of OSI certified licenses. Maybe I should have said it more directly.

Is it Only About The Source Code?

Open source grew from the idea of software being written by a community of developers with similar needs. Those developers did not necessarily have any relationship with one another other than their overlapping needs. They found that building solutions to their individual problems as part of a community increased quality, expanded their individual understanding of the problem domain and the solution space and, in many cases, reduced the cost of development.

Open source licences were developed to protect the interests of the community by ensuring that the code would always be available to all community members, both current and future. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) came to be generally accepted as the authority on which licences could be considered as open source licences. However, the OSI only concerned itself with controls over the distribution and use of the source code, it id not consider how to protect the communities that managed that code.

As open source code has grown up, and as business models have begun to emerge that utilise open source code there has been an increasing number of companies that claim to be “open source companies”. Unfortunately, some of these companies take source code from the open source communities, but never contribute back. This is bad.

In Stuart Yeates’ recent blog here at OSS Watch he asks wether certain types of software packages that are released under an open source licence should be called open source. My own answer is the same as Randy Metcalfe’s and Tony’s (see comments on Stuart’s post). That answer is yes, as long as code is released under an OSI approved licence, and the conditions of that licence are met, then the software is open source.

However, I would like to ask a similar question, if a company releases its code under an open source licence, but does not generate a community around the development of that product is it an open source company?

Furthermore, I would like to ask, if a company does not release its code under an open source licence but it does use open source code in its products and it contributes resources and code back to the relevant project communities, is that company an open source company?

Finally, I would like to ask, if a company does not produce any software at all, but it uses open source software and contributes resources to the continued development of that software is it more of an open source company than those that simply leech from the community?

If you need some help in answering these questions then I recommend you read Garrett Rooney’s recent blog post “what makes an open source company?