The Meritocracy

I’ve been following the recent kerfuffel between Richard Stallman and Canonical over the new Amazon search feature in 12.10, and while I should probably leave well enough alone, I wanted to add a few things to the discussion.

I do respect Richard Stallman for the work he’s done to promote free software, but I get a little tired of his decision to be the final arbiter on where to draw the line. For example, he does walk the walk and uses a netbook as his primary machine because it has an open BIOS. All well and good. But what about the machines that built that netbook? Was their control code open? What about the website he ordered it from, or the person he talked to to place that order? Did they use free software? What about the logistics company that shipped it to him? Was their software 100% free? The reality is that at the moment there simply isn’t enough free software in the supply/services chain to have a totally free experience, and we can’t get there just by wishing it so. It will have to happen in steps, and those steps will involve the free software community working closely with the closed software community.

Thus going after someone like Canonical and calling what they doing spying actually hurts the promotion of free software. What they are doing is a huge step in the right direction.

Having run a business based on free and open source software for a decade, you can imagine that I am a big fan of it. Last year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to make the jump to using a desktop based on Linux. I tried a number of options, but the one that worked for me, the one that “stuck”, was Ubuntu. Using it just comes naturally, and I’ve been using it for so long now that other desktops seem foreign.

I don’t pretend to speak for Mark Shuttleworth, but one of his goals with Ubuntu seems to be to make a desktop operating system that is stable, attractive and easy to use. I think that with Ubuntu they are close to that goal. It works for me. It also works for enough other people that when Valve started working on a Linux port of their Steam client, they chose Ubuntu. When Dell wanted to ship a laptop with Linux, they shipped it with Ubuntu. (I got one, review coming soon)

The Linux desktop world is so fragmented and represents such a small percentage of potential sales, until Ubuntu came along, there weren’t enough people using the Linux desktop to make it worth writing native clients for Linux. It took people like Canonical and Shuttleworth to make decisions and choices that enabled this to happen.

Now purists will point out that products like Steam aren’t open source. True, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to use them alongside all of the other wonderful stuff I now use that *is* open source. In much the same way that Apple switched to Intel to make the transition easier from Windows, Ubuntu is making the transition to an open source desktop easier. And with more developers writing to the Linux desktop, that can only increase the proliferation of software for it.

And despite all of the outcry, Ubuntu is still open source. Should I dislike something or want to change it, I have that ability. But this brings up my biggest frustration with the free and open software community – there are those within it who think it is someone else’s job to implement their desires.

Take this Amazon thing, for example. I don’t like it simply because I don’t want to have to add any latency to my searches in Dash, so I turn it off. If the off button didn’t exist, I would have the ability to check out the code that implements that feature, remove it, recompile it and install it. Heck, with the proliferation of git these days the process is even simpler, as I could track my changes along with master.

Yet that does involve something I like to call “work”. Free software doesn’t mean free solution. It is a two way street. You don’t like something? Change it. Ubuntu itself is based on Debian, and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. But someone had to do the work to change Debian into Ubuntu, just like someone had to do the work to make Ubuntu into Linux Mint.

It’s what free software is all about.

So it makes me a little unhappy when Stallman refers to the Amazon lookup feature as “spyware”. It’s loaded language meant to get a reaction from his core followers, in much the same way a liberal politician would approach immigration with “let’s open all borders” and a conservative would say “let’s build a wall and throw ‘em over it”. The real solution is somewhere in the middle.

This doesn’t mean that users of free software don’t get any say. Feedback is a vital component of any community. I believe when the Amazon feature was introduced in the beta, there wasn’t a way to turn it off. Feedback from the community got the off button added. When questions were raised about trusting Ubuntu with our search results, Shuttleworth replied “We have root“. Not the most diplomatic response, but he made his point that we already trust Ubuntu when we install their libraries on our machines, and compared to that, search results are a minor thing.

If I were truly paranoid, I’d probably run something like Gentoo where the code is build from source each time. But what’s funny is that if I did switch to Gentoo, it would be because I used Ubuntu as the gateway drug to a free desktop.

My final point is that open source software is the ultimate meritocracy. Those who do the work get the most influence. Shuttleworth spent millions to create Ubuntu, so he gets a lot of say in it. Clement Lefebvre founded Mint, so his opinion matters in that community. I think we owe a huge debt to Richard Stallman for his past efforts, but lately I think he is doing more harm than good. And maybe I’m feeding the troll by even bringing it up.

All I know for certain is that I am using way more free software than I was using a year ago, and that is do in large part to Canonical. It was also a lot of work to make the switch, but I had help from like-minded people on the Internet, and isn’t that what open source is truly all about?

The Apple Fanboys

As the iPhone 5 announcement pushes AAPL over $700/share, it is obvious that Apple has another hit on its hands and will be adding even more to its coffers (one of my friends ordered three). As someone who is happily moving away from Apple, I pretty much could care less about the announcement, and I have to agree with Brian Prentice that the iPhone announcement was a little lame.

What is Apple ultimately offering with the iPhone 5? Speeds and feeds. New processor, larger screen, different connector, LTE support. thinner form factor. Don’t get me wrong – these things are important. And they constitute some fantastic engineering work to hang it all together. But is it fundamentally changing my experience with a smartphone? No, not really.

Despite distancing myself from Apple, I still follow some Apple-centric news sites like Cult of Mac. As with any large site, the quality of writing varies, but for the most part the Apple fanboy rants are kept to a minimum. For the most part.

Recently I saw this article complaining about a Samsung ad.

I own a Galaxy S3 so I was interested in how it compares to the new iPhone. I find the S3 to be incredibly light, so I was surprised to see the iPhone 5 is even lighter, but with that exception the S3 meets or exceeds the iPhone’s specifications.

Now the fanboy was ridiculing the rest of the ad for mentioning other features like “S-Beam” and “Picture in Picture”. Well, sorry to say, that’s what advertising is for – to increase consumer awareness – just like no one knew what Siri was until Apple told people. The sad fact is that the iPhone is a fashion accessory as much as a device (notice how case manufacturers now cut out a circle in the case so they can display the Apple logo?) and it will be hard for anyone to complete against that – until the fashion fades. I think that is the most telling thing about the iPhone 5 announcement – there’s nothing really new here. Unless Apple continues to innovate, the door is open.

And I’m with Brian when I think that Microsoft still has a shot at the market. I’ve seen some of their new tech, and the integration of Windows and Office across phones and tablets with centralized storage is huge. Apple is still having trouble getting into the corporation, and if Microsoft can deliver tools that let people work with Excel, Powerpoint and Word more efficiently, that will be more important than Angry Birds and Youtube.

Anyway, I do agree with the Cult of Mac guy that Samsung could have done a better job in their ad. Since I run CyanogenMod I don’t use any of their fancy software (seriously, Samsung, I can’t remove the Yellow Pages widget ’cause it is an important system file?) I would have focused the ad on the things that really differentiate the S3 from the iPhone: removable microSD storage, removable battery, NFC and the microUSB plug.

The thing I dislike most about Apple is that they really want that “walled garden” so that anything going onto or out of your device has to go through them. Removable storage would make it easier to circumvent that, but would erode their margins on memory. With 64GB microSD cards becoming common and 32GB cards being downright cheap, it would be difficult to charge an extra $200 for 64GB (versus the $55 I paid for a 64GB microSD card) if options were available. Plus, the removable storage is the best way for me to manage O/S upgrades and media on my phone, and I can’t see how I lived without it.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of a removable/replaceable battery. A lot of OpenNMS customers are financial institutions that severely limit network access. When I am on-site at one of those places, I rely heavily on my phone, and quite frequently my iPhone would run out of juice by the afternoon (and the iPhone 4 had good battery life). My only option was to plug it in. Not a big deal, but now I just swap in a spare battery and get on with my life.

One would think that Apple would be embracing new tech like NFC. With Square raising another $200 million, the interest in mobile payments is huge. Now granted, it may take an Apple to make NFC payments ubiquitous, but the lack of NFC in the last two iPhones means that there is a opportunity to pass them by.

And finally, while it may seem silly, I love the fact that the S3 charges off of a microUSB cable. It’s called a “standard” and it is one that every other device maker on the planet is moving toward (despite another Cult of Mac fanboy rant about Samsung cables in the past) and I can always find one – be it for my Kindle, my bluetooth headset or my digital camera.

While it has been a frustrating experience switching from an iPhone to Android, at the moment I could not see myself going back. The user experience is totally different and the culture is much more about creating than consuming.

I have a choice, and that is the best feature out there.

Some Thoughts on the Apple/Samsung Silliness (#noapple)

My indentured servitude to AT&T ended recently and I decided to use that to jump in for another two years but also to get rid of my iPhone 4.

As my three readers are aware, last summer I decided to move away from Apple products toward freer alternatives. I still have a Macbook Air (running Ubuntu – natch) and up until last Thursday I had an iPhone.

I pretty much liked the iPhone, but it was mainly a consumer device (i.e. I didn’t create much using it) so I didn’t care so much, but I did get frustrated with the terms of service. It was easier for me to freakin’ buy the OpenNMS app than it was to spend 30 minutes or so every other month trying to update my project keys so I could check it out and build it. I settled on the Samsung Galaxy S3 as a replacement.

Having used it now for several days, I have to admit that I’m a little pissed at all of the talk about how Samsung (and implicitly, Google) ripped off Apple. Using the S3 is a greatly different experience from using the iPhone.

I almost wrote “totally” but I have to admit that, yes, there is a virtual keyboard, and yes, you can have a page of icons that you press to launch apps, but outside of that there is little in common between the two.

First, the phone just feels different. It is bigger, thinner and feels lighter to me (although in the interest of full disclosure I have a case on the iPhone 4 since without it my calls drop when I hold it in my left hand). The iPhone felt like a dense, solid slab whereas the S3 feels more like a bar of soap, all smooth and round edges. I am afraid that it might squirt out of my hand one of these days.

Next, the user experience is different. The way one navigates Android takes a little bit to get used to coming from iOS, but the fact that in addition to a physical home button I have two soft buttons (one for contextual menus and one for “back”) seem to make the UI experience a little cleaner (since there doesn’t have to be so many menu icons in the apps). Notifications are different, the way you can control placement of icons is different, and the idea of widgets seems pretty unique to Android. Widgets let you display information without having to actually open an app.

The one disappointment I’ve had is that the S3 doesn’t work with Banshee or Rhythmbox, so it is harder to organize my media files. I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

Android 4.0+ uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) instead of just mounting the filesystem like a USB disk. I can get Ubuntu to mount the phone just fine, but when I launch Banshee it umounts the phone and then hangs. Under Rhythmbox it shows up as a Media Device, but the moment you try to access it (say, right click on it and choose Properties) it kills the app. There is an open bug on that one, but despite its use of Mono I much prefer Banshee.

Now, the S3 ships with the usual amount of kruft that you find on modern technology. Samsung has their own sync technology called Kies (no Linux client of course [sigh]) and I thought it might be interfering with libmtp. So less than 24 hours after I bought the phone I’d rooted it and installed Cyanogenmod (CM9 – not comfortable playing with the CM10 betas just yet).

Cool.

Now I don’t have any apps I don’t want, and I understand what all the apps I have installed are actually supposed to do. I haven’t seen any real performance problems with the exception of the camera crashing once and some browser issues that went away when I switched to Chrome.

With the exception of the issue managing my media, I am quite happy with this phone. The screen isn’t as crisp as the iPhone 4 but its large size really makes a difference with my aging eyes. But how anyone could confuse the two is beyond me. I hope this patent silliness goes away soon and in the meantime I’m going to vote with my wallet.

Ubuntu (64-bit) and Amazon MP3 Downloader

I am a big fan of Amazon and I tend to buy all of my music from them, mainly since they were the first to offer legitimate music downloads without DRM.

I was on their site today to buy The dB’s first album as a band since 1987’s The Sound of Music: Falling Off the Sky.

I hit a snag. Now that we are surrounded by “the Cloud(tm)”, Amazon will store your purchases so you can always get them, but the bad news is they want you to use a piece of proprietary software called the “Amazon MP3 Downloader” in order to get them to your system.

For Ubuntu, they only have a version that was written for 9.06 and only in 32-bit mode. I am running 12.04, 64-bit and I got a lot of errors trying to install their .deb.

Hunting around I came across a way to deal with this. When you try to download the files from the Amazon Cloud you will be prompted to download the Amazon MP3 application. In small print under that should be a “click here if you have already installed it” link. That sets a cookie on your machine that will allow you to download the .amz file which is needed to access your mp3s.

You can then use clamz or pymazon to download your music by feeding it that .amz file. I used clamz since it was already included in Ubuntu.

A Cautionary Tale: Rogue Amoeba and Apple

At the OUCE people were teasing me because I kept saying “Apple is Evil”.

Now I really don’t believe in good and evil as absolute constructs, but the phrase gets my point across. If you are a casual user of Apple’s products you probably don’t care, or more likely just don’t notice, how tightly Apple is trying to control both the information you create and what you can do with it.

[Note: for those of you who point out that Apple is a fine example of capitalism, they aren’t. In functioning markets, profits like Apple’s are not sustainable because competition will arise to drive prices down, to the benefit of consumers. With the double edged sword of stupid software patent lawsuits and a hegemony on components brought about through having container ships full of cash, Apple is preventing this from happening, or at least slowing it down, but I guess that’s a topic for another rant].

Some people think that I hate the idea of paying for software. Not true, I spend a lot of money each month on software. I prefer free alternatives, but I am more than willing to purchase commercial software as long as the vendor looks out for my privacy and the software works (or better yet, I prefer spending my money supporting free software).

One company I’ve spent money with over the years is Rogue Amoeba. They write wonderful audio-focused utilities for OS X. Recently I used Audio Hijack to digitize a collection of vinyl albums and then processed them through Fission. Through their Airfoil products I could stream music to any of my devices (well, before I started using Ubuntu – I really wish someone would work to make Linux tools that can leverage Apple’s Airplay/Airtunes technology or create a free alternative). The apps were inexpensive, easy to use, and got the job done.

Yesterday on the Rogue Amoeba website, they posted the following: “Apple Has Removed Airfoil Speakers Touch From The iOS App Store”

Airfoil Speakers was a little app that allowed you to stream music from your computer to any iOS device. It had been around since 2009. No reason was given for why this application was pulled and nothing had recently changed to act as a trigger for its removal.

Rogue Amoeba isn’t some little flight by night software company. They’ve been around a long time, been very focused on OS X (even when it wasn’t cool) and are all around good guys. While they are probably somewhere down the list of Apple business partners from, say, Samsung, my guess is that they are much closer to the top than most. The fact that Apple would just yank their app with no justification shows how little Apple cares about those who develop on their platform.

Think about it – Rogue Amoeba, and thousands of other software companies – have bet the farm on being able to supply software for Apple devices. These are good companies employing smart developers who have mortgages to pay. Now, to a large extent, their livelihood is being threatened by Apple’s fickle control of its marketplaces.

The rumor is that Apple is creating a similar product in the next iOS release, and apparently the terms of service prohibit applications that duplicate Apple-provided functionality.

Control is the main point here. One reason I left Apple last summer was that I saw that company taking more and more control over what I could and could not do with the devices on which I create. I could envision some point in time where Apple would make a decision I didn’t like, and then it might be too late or too expensive for me to back away.

I could see Apple moving to standardize everything, including their personal computers, on an iOS platform. With terms that prohibit competing products to anything Apple itself creates they are stifling competition, and I could foresee a future event where their policies might arbitrarily screw me over, although I didn’t really have a concrete example.

I do now, even if it didn’t happen to me directly.