Archive for May, 2007


Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Anybody else frustrated with the state of fonts in Linux today?

It seems there are two distinct issues: the availability of high quality fonts under Free licenses, and the infrastructure for installing, managing and accessing those fonts.

There has been some progress on both fronts. Bitstream’s Vera, and the new Liberation font work (kudos to Red Hat for driving that effort) are steps to provide us with a clean, crisp set of high quality fonts with good hinting that can be installed by default. There is also good work being done by, amongst others, SIL International on a free font license framework, and fonts to go with it. I hope the community can build on these efforts to expand the font coverage to the full Unicode glyphset, preserving their essential character and metrics.

The second problem, the infrastructure and API’s to manage fonts on Linux systems, is more complicated. Here’s a mail to the ubuntu-devel list describing the situation and calling for leadership from the community in helping to address it.

We need a clean, clear way of:

  1. Packaging fonts, and knowing which packages to install to get which fonts.
  2. Cataloguing fonts, and allowing people to manage the fonts that are immediately accessible to them or loaded by default, everywhere.
  3. Making all of this sane in a world where you MIGHT want to read a document in Korean using a French desktop. In other words, where there need to be a lot of fonts available, even if most of those fonts are not used all the time.

Most of the long list of fonts I see in OpenOffice are lost on me, I don’t know when I would choose any of them.

Sounds like a mess, but then again it also sounds like the sort of Gordian knot that the flaming sword of free software can slice straight through, given strong leadership and a forum for the work. Who will step up?

Microsoft is not the real threat

Monday, May 21st, 2007

Much has been written about Microsoft’s allegation of patent infringements in Linux (by which I’m sure they mean GNU/Linux ;-)). I don’t think Microsoft is the real threat, and in fact, I think Microsoft and the Linux community will actually end up fighting on the same side of this issue.

I’m in favour of patents in general, but not software or business method patents. I’ll blog separately some day about why that’s the case, but for the moment I’ll just state for the record my view that software patents hinder, rather than help, innovation in the software industry.

And I’m pretty certain that, within a few years, Microsoft themselves will be strong advocates against software patents. Why? Because Microsoft is irrevocably committed to shipping new software every year, and software patents represent landmines in their roadmap which they are going to step on, like it or not, with increasing regularity. They can’t sit on the sidelines of the software game – they actually have to ship new products. And every time they do that, they risk stepping on a patent landmine.

They are a perfect target – they have deep pockets, and they have no option but to negotiate a settlement, or go to court, when confronted with a patent suit.

Microsoft already spends a huge amount of money on patent settlements (far, far more than they could hope to realise through patent licensing of their own portfolio). That number will creep upwards until it’s abundantly clear to them that they would be better off if software patents were history.

In short, Microsoft will lose a patent trench war if they start one, and I’m sure that cooler heads in Redmond know that.

But let’s step back from the coal-face for a second. I have high regard for Microsoft. They produce some amazing software, and they made software much cheaper than it ever was before they were around. Many people at Microsoft are motivated by a similar ideal to one we have in Ubuntu: to empower people for the digital era. Of course, we differ widely on many aspects of the implementation of that ideal, but my point is that Microsoft is actually committed to the same game that we free software people are committed to: building things which people use every day.

So, Microsoft is not the real patent threat to Linux. The real threat to Linux is the same as the real threat to Microsoft, and that is a patent suit from a person or company that is NOT actually building software, but has filed patents on ideas that the GNU project and Microsoft are equally likely to be implementing.

Yes, Nathan, I’m looking at you!

As they say in Hollywood, where there’s a hit there’s a writ. And Linux is a hit. We should expect a patent lawsuit against Linux, some time in the next decade.

There are three legs to IP law: copyright, trademark and patents. I expect a definitive suit associated with each of them. SCO stepped up on the copyright front, and that’s nearly dealt with now. A trademark-based suit is harder to envisage, because Linus and others did the smart thing and established clear ownership of the “Linux” trademark a while ago. The best-practice trademark framework for free software is still evolving, and there will probably be a suit or two, but none that could threaten the continued development of free software. And the third leg is patent law. I’m certain someone will sue somebody else about Linux on patent grounds, but it’s less likely to be Microsoft (starting a trench war) and more likely to be a litigant who only holds IP and doesn’t actually get involved in the business of software.

It will be a small company, possibly just a holding company, that has a single patent or small portfolio, and goes after people selling Linux-based devices.

Now, the wrong response to this problem is to label pure IP holders as “patent trolls”. While I dislike software patents, I deeply dislike the characterisation of pure IP holders as “patent trolls”. They are only following the rules laid out in law, and making the most of a bad system; they are not intrinsically bad themselves. Yes, Nathan, all is forgiven ;-). One of the high ideals of the patent system is to provide a way for eccentric genius inventors to have brilliant insights in industries where they don’t have any market power, but where their outsider-perspective leads them to some important innovation that escaped the insiders. Ask anyone on the street if they think patents are good, and they will say, in pretty much any language, “yes, inventors should be compensated for their insights”. The so-called “trolls” are nothing more than inventors with VC funding. Good for them. The people who call them trolls are usually large, incumbent players who cross-license their patent portfolios with other incumbents to form a nice, cosy oligopoly. “Trolling” is the practice of interrupting that comfortable and predictably profitable arrangement. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the incumbents at all when you look at it that way.

So it’s not the patent-holders who are the problem, it’s the patent system.

What to do about it?

Well, there are lots of groups that are actively engaged in education and policy discussion around patent reform. Get involved! I recently joined the FFII: Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, which is doing excellent work in Europe in this regard. Canonical sponsored the EUPACO II conference, which brought together folks from across the spectrum to discuss patent reform. And Canonical also recently joined the Open Invention Network, which establishes a Linux patent pool as a defensive measure against an attack from an incumbent player. You can find a way to become part of the conversation, too. Help to build better understanding about the real dynamics of software innovation and competition. We need to get consensus from the industry – including Microsoft, though it may be a bit soon for them – that software patents are a bad thing for society.

In defense of independent governance

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

My message of support for Ms Machado has touched a nerve, most strongly amongst free software advocates who live in Venezuela.

Every country will have its own culture and way of doing things, and we should pay great respect to the choices and decisions of that country. It is a tragic thing to impose ones own cultural, religious or political views on people who see things differently. That tragedy has played out far too many times – from Apartheid, to the Holocaust, to the invasion of Iraq in recent history, to the acts of the Conquistadors centuries ago. It shows up when a new government renames the streets and cities of the old government, which renamed them from the previous government. We lose our own identity when we lose the voice of history, even if it is a history of which we are ashamed. It also shows up in the homogenization of global culture, with McDonalds and Disney turning the rich culture of the world into large swathes of barren desert. I am very sensitive to the beauty of the cultures that I’ve been privileged to experience in depth – South Africa, Russia, England, America. And I find it sad when one culture arrogantly suppresses another. I believe in letting people make their own choices. The future belongs to those who embrace global thinking without losing their identity and their culture.

At its largest, grandest level, “making choices” is what democracy is all about. However, sometimes the illusion of democracy is used to give legitimacy to choices that were not, at all, democratic.

In Zimbabwe, for example, we have a government that is in power “democratically” because of the systematic culture of fear that was created every time people expressed an interest in making a different choice. I cannot therefor pay much respect to the idea that the government of Zimbabwe is a true reflection of the cultural choices of Zimbabweans.

In such cases, we are obliged to question the decisions made by governments who claim to hold power by democratic mandate, when in fact they hold it by brute force. They may make some good claims and have some noble ideals, but the foundation of their authority is rotten, and it’s highly unlikely that much good will come of it for the long term.

I’m not going to comment directly on the policies of Mr Chavez. Frankly, I’m not qualified to speak on the details of his administration. But I will say that my experience of countries and governance, across continents and decades, has taught me the value of certain key principles:

First, that human nature is unchanging across the world and across time. This, as they say, is why history rhymes with itself. We make the same mistakes, we inspire ourselves to fix them, rinse and repeat. It’s human nature that makes absolute power corrupt absolutely. And its human nature to seek additional power. It’s rare to find someone who will create checks and balances on themselves. This is most eloquently described in the early writings of the American constitutional authors, who sought to “pit ambition against ambition”, and create checks and balances in society, so that neither the authorities, nor the judges, nor the media, could dominate the decisions we make for ourselves.

Second, that the presumption of innocence until the proof of guilt is a vital choice in the maintenance of a free society. In a world where even good countries can elect bad governments, we cannot let the unchallenged word of a government, any government, be sufficient to silence and stifle the lives of their citizens. I find it equally disturbing that American citizens can be locked up without access to attorneys in confidence, and that Zimbabwean opposition members can be arrested and held without charge for long periods. I also find it equally disturbing that residents of the United Kingdom can find themselves in Guantanamo Bay, on what is clearly flimsy or false evidence, without the UK fighting for their release or impartial trial. I am neither for Mr Bush, nor Mr Mugabe, nor Mr Blair, I am simply for the presumption of innocence until an impartial trial finds one guilty.

Third, that freedom of speech is essential for a healthy society. This is a freedom which we cannot take for granted. There is constantly a desire on the part of those in power to reduce the volume of criticism they must face. We have to constantly remind ourselves that those in authority have chosen to play a public role, and they must accept a level of public accountability and criticism, even from people who may have a personal agenda. Of course, not all speech is truth, and conspiracies often arise which seek to use the media to spread misinformation. But we are all better off when multiple viewpoints can be expressed. I’m no believe in media infallibility – we’ve seen very bad journalism from the biggest media networks in the world, for example when they get “embedded” in a controlled fashion into armies of war. But I’m a big believer in allowing calm voices to be heard, globally.

These principles are not written in the laws of physics – we create them in society, and we must defend them. They cannot be taken for granted, even in countries like the USA, which have them written into their constitutional DNA. Since they are a choice that society makes, and since society is reborn in each generation, they are a choice that society must make, and remake, constantly. Sometimes, we fail. Usually, we fail for fear when we are confronted by a perceived threat to security, or for greed when we are presented with the opportunity to benefit ourselves at great cost to others. And it as at times like that, when there is great stress, noise, fear, anger and shouting, that it is most important for calm voices to be heard.

At times like these, we are our own worst enemy. We hear what we want to hear. It is painful to hear that one might be wrong, that one’s hero might have flaws, that one’s leaders might not be all that we wished them to be. The awful truth of the media is that it pays to tell people what they want to hear, much more than it pays to tell people what they need to hear, and so society can whip itself into a frenzy of mistaken greed or fear or anger, and make poor decisions.

It takes great courage to speak out, when these basic principles are at risk. In a free society, there is nevertheless pressure to conform, to stay with the herd. In a society that is not free, one speaks out at some considerable personal cost to life and liberty. I salute those who do.

Support for Maria Corina Machado

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

I read today of the renewed efforts of the Venezuelan authorities to clamp down on Sumate and their leaders, in particular Maria Corina Machado. Most recently they prevented her from attending a World Economic Forum event.

One of the privileges of working in the free software community is the interaction between different groups trying to bring together social and economic change. People like Maria are inspiring leaders, because they devote themselves to a cause much greater than any one person’s life, but in the process they sacrifice many of the comforts that many of us take for granted. It would be much easier to watch from the sidelines, emigrate, or simply ignore the situation.

I know that the Ubuntu community is very active in Venezuela and I hope they will not also some day face repression. It seems the country is on a knife-edge, facing tough decisions that will have a major impact on the quality of life of citizens there for decades.

Community Council expansion

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Congratulations to all 5 nominees to the CC, and thanks to all the Ubuntu members who voted to confirm their appointment. We now have a CC of 8 members (one membership will expire in a day or two) that covers substantially more time zones and has experience in more parts of the community. I’m looking forward to working with this team!

I’d like to thank Colin Watson for what can only be described as an extraordinary contribution of wisdom, energy and leadership during his tenure as one of our Founding CC members. Colin has accepted a nomination to the Technical Board, which we’ll act on shortly.

DRM *really* doesn’t work

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

Well, that didn’t take long. Ars Technica is reporting that further vulnerabilities in the HD DVD content protection system have been uncovered. As I noted previously, any DRM system that depends on offline key distribution will be cracked. This latest vulnerability is one step closer to the complete dismantling of the HD DVD protection system.

How long before these guys ask the question: “what do our customers want”? From experience, 5-7 years.

A free software milestone

Monday, May 7th, 2007

I’ve been on the road solidly for the past 10 days but itching to write about Dell’s announcement of pre-installed Linux for consumers.

This is a significant milestone, not just for Ubuntu but for every flavour of Linux and the free software community as a whole. While there are already a number of excellent companies like System76 offering Linux pre-installed, Dell represents “the industry”, and it’s very important for all of us that the industry sees a future for Linux on the desktop.

Device compatibility is the top issue people raise as a blocker of broad Linux adoption. Many hardware manufacturers don’t yet provide zero-day Linux drivers for their components, because of the perceived lack of market demand for those drivers. The Dell announcement is already changing that. Those manufacturers who are Linux-aware will have a significant advantage selling their components to global PC vendors who are shipping Linux, because those PC vendors can offer the same components across both Linux and Windows PC’s. That commonality reduces cost, and cost is everything in the volume PC market.

I believe that the free software approach is a better device driver development model for component and peripheral manufacturers, and that once they have learned how to work with the Linux community they will quickly ensure that their devices work with Linux as soon as, or before, they work with proprietary platforms. It will take some time to help those vendors understand the full process of working in a collaborative forum with the upstream kernel community, to ensure the widest possible benefit from their efforts. I’ve no doubt that vendors who start out thinking in proprietary terms will, over time, shift towards providing free drivers in partnership with the Linux community. I would credit companies like Intel for their leadership in that regard, it’s great to be able to show how their free drivers make it possible to reach the widest possible audience with their hardware.

The most important thing for all of us is the commercial success of Dell’s offering. A sustainable business in pre-installed Linux in Western markets will give credibility to the Linux desktop as well as providing an opportunity to build relationships with the rest of the consumer PC ecosystem. We don’t have to fix Bug #1 in order to make Linux a top-tier target for hardware vendors – we just need to show that there’s an economic incentive for them to engage with our community.