Archived entries for free software

Koha – A Gift Comes Home

Last night I was fortunate to be invited to Levin for a celebration of the library trust’s launch of its new web site, the first Koha 3.2 site in the world (see comment below, it may be the 2nd to actually go live). It was a lovely event, held in the council chambers, surrounded by art work by the talented Wendy Hodder as well as enthusiastic supporters and sponsors of the Horowhenua Library Trust (HLT), including the mayor, Brendan Duffy.

This was very much a coming home event for free software system, Koha. Ten years ago HLT and the Koha developers ‘gifted’ Koha to the world, releasing the first web based library management system under a GPL licence. The world accepted the gift and has gifted back in spades. Thousands of libraries use Koha and many companies and individuals offer Koha support and contribute code to Koha. HLT calculate they have a million dollars in the ten years they have been running Koha, on software fees and through other savings. At the same time they have been able to provide world class services to the small New Zealand communities nestled between the Tararua Mountains and the Tasman Sea that make up the Horowhenua region.

In a very nice way, many locals don’t realise just what an impact their library has had on the world. For Koha, last night must have been a bit like Frodo and his friends arriving back in the Shire, having defeated the dark lord Sauron, only to face issues such as Bag End being having been dug up*.

A final word should to the small local businesses who give help financial assistance to HLT. Ian Ranson – the plumber, Whispers Café, Paper Plus Levin, Garden of York market gardeners and the regional council…You are providing support to your community and to a global community, and you are receiving thanks and support on return.

Be proud, and thanks Joann.

*For me, being from Wellington, everything is an allegory for Lord of the Rings

Three strikes and you’re out!

A while ago, I asked whether we are seeing a trend to promote shallow layers of “open source” on top of a deep proprietary software stack. Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.

Strike three. [added later: Chem4Word is an open source plug-in for Microsoft Word which adds support for chemistry markup.]

As a lapsed chemist, it saddens me to criticise a project with such a worthy goal. But this software spreads proprietary lock-in, not freedom. Those wishing to use it can only do so by first buying a stack of proprietary software. Those receiving documents created using it may well not be able to open them unless they have the same software and the same plug-in. Those who distribute the software, or documents created using it, are making science less free.

I am left with some questions:

  1. Will those funding the project also be funding a port to a free software alternative, such as OpenOffice; if not, why not?
  2. Is the phrase “open source” being embraced, extended and de-commoditised?
  3. Is it time for the New Zealand Open Source Society to change its name, or does it support initiatives such as this one?

This shows once again what happens when we focus on the software licensing, instead of on the user’s freedom. Or am I missing something? Are the chemists involved in this doing something that I have missed?

A Personal Free Software Desktop Experience

By Jemma Batt, February 2010

When I began my research assistant position in November I was issued with a laptop to load with Ubuntu 9.10 using the default desktop environment, GNOME. Like anything new and different, it took a few days to get a feel for this open source desktop especially after having only had experience on Windows based computers since a very young age. After getting used to navigating around I have found it a very simple and user friendly system.

I mostly used the Office applications for my work; OpenOffice Writer for my word processor and OpenOffice Calc for spreadsheets. Both were easy to work with, offering almost all of the same functions as Microsoft Word. Any missing functions that I noticed were trivial things, like not being able to change the format of a single page within a multi page document to landscape [editor's note - this is a training issue, the OpenOffice uses a page style for portrait/landscape switches]. Nothing ever inhibited me from completing a project. One thing I particularly liked about Writer was the Table function; it was something I needed to use a lot and I found it extremely user friendly with lots of formatting buttons and no issues.  I had a quick tinker with OpenOffice Impress, the Presentation application, and again, it appears to meet all user needs.

When I first began using Writer there was no dictionary installed, however this was easily solved by accessing the OpenOffice Extensions website via the tools menu, and downloading the English (New Zealand) dictionary which was among a huge selection of spell checkers including Te Papakupu Maori.

Compatibility with other programs was something I worried about unnecessarily. I use a Windows computer for printing purposes and to open ODF files on that system was as simple as typing a “how to” into Google and downloading a plugin. Another option was saving the documents in .doc format in OpenOffice.

A really fantastic feature is the Ubuntu Software Center where there is access to an abundance of free software available to download. That’s “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer”. I used this to download Transcriber, a transcribing application, and Audacity, a Digital Audio Editor, to transcribe several interviews. Both were extremely helpful, however I had a few problems with Audacity freezing on several occasions, one which led to the loss of a whole interview and several hours work, which I thankfully had a backup of. I was told, though, that Audacity is known for having problems on all operating systems. Another issue with these programs, and the most significant I’ve had in the entire time of using this desktop, was not being able to open the recorded interviews which were WMA files. They opened without a problem in the default Audio/Movie player but not in the other applications. This meant a search for an open source file converter which took a lot more effort than I had anticipated thanks to WMA having copy protection. I couldn’t find an open source converter that both ran on Ubuntu, and converted WMA, so I had to resort to downloading one on a Windows PC and converting the files before transferring them onto my Ubuntu laptop.

The most impressive thing, and something I am not looking forward to returning to once I give this laptop back, is the lack of non responsive programs and required rebooting. I never (apart from with Audacity) had issues with programs freezing or crashing and I never had to restart the computer after downloading updates or new software. This is something that I constantly face with my Windows laptop and is the bane of it’s existence.

One thing I did not have any experience with is Evolution, the email client, only because it was not really necessary for what I was doing.

Overall the experience has been a good one, certainly not challenging, and has been a manageable solution for me as a general end-user. John Rankin says on the NZOSS website that a modern free software desktop will meet the needs of 90% of the people, 90% of the time which, after three months, is something that I definitely agree with.

Does free software have an image problem?

It is always a salutary experience to learn how those who see themselves as part of the IT mainstream perceive people involved in free software. A recent event has given me a sharp reminder of this. In his regular Computer Society Insight column in IT Brief for February 2010 (currently not online), the chief executive of the New Zealand Computer Society writes about “a cold war” between open source and proprietary software.

In it, he makes a number of interesting statements about where “the truth” lies.

Ideological reasons aside, there’s frankly no great benefit for the majority of users in being able to modify an application themselves — most don’t have the skills, knowledge or inclination to do so. Most motorists don’t need or want to be able to pop the bonnet and rewire their starter motor.

I see free software as a philosophy, not an ideology. Having heard each of Richard Stallman’s talks during the GNU Zealand 2009 tour, and read the transcripts, I can safely say that he has logical, evidence-based reasons for every statement he makes. People may disagree with his conclusions (show me two philosophers who agree on anything), but his position is a rational one. We also need to remember that the freedom to study how a program works, and change it to make it do what we wish, is only one of the four freedoms. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0) and the freedom to redistribute copies, so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2) are important for all users. Most proprietary software denies these freedoms to its users. And in fact, many motorists take their cars to the garage of their choice to get problems fixed, rather than buy a new release from the manufacturer.

He goes on:

And this, of course, is the crux of the issue. FLOSS advocates argue that if a user wants to pop the hood and have a play, they should be able to without restriction — just like with a car or any other physical-world equivalent.

Leaving aside the use of “play”, which implies that people don’t work on free software, they “play” with it, no, the crux of the issue is the four freedoms. I do not know to which FLOSS advocates the author is referring, as there is no citation in the original, so I can only speak for myself. My training is in science. For me, Isaac Newton encapsulated the scientific method when he wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Free software lets all of us, including those who write and sell proprietary software, stand on the shoulders of giants. It is part of our cultural common wealth, like literature, music, art and science. These are not “free as in free beer” but they are all “free as in freedom”. In my view, free software is preferable to proprietary software in the same way that evolution is a better theory of the natural world than “intelligent design” — not just as a way to understand the world, but because of the values which underpin the method by which science works.

I am also cautious of making generalizations about the free/open source world. You start off in a maze of twisty little passages all alike, but soon find yourself in a twisty maze of little passages, all different. There is no such thing as a typical project or a typical participant. There are some important shared values, but like communities everywhere, it’s their diversity that makes them interesting.

He then concludes:

The best solution is the one that adequately solves the problem of the client, nothing more and nothing less. No professional should ever lose sight of this or allow ideology to prevent them from providing the best solution: proprietary, open source or otherwise.

What I think this is saying is that all professionals have a duty to be pragmatists, that practical utility is the only valid test for software. And that everyone who isn’t a pragmatist is an ideologue. However, in my view, a professional’s first duty is to act ethically (“first, do no harm”). The pragmatic position seems to be that choosing software is a matter of utility only, there is no ethical dimension, and it doesn’t matter whether software is free or proprietary. The free software position is that free software is an ethical imperative. The open source position (and it’s a philosophy, not an ideology) is that open source is a superior development method.

Does it matter if the chief executive of the Computer Society (to which many people working in free software in New Zealand belong) has shown a limited understanding of the values underpinning free software? On the one hand, many people work with free software by choice, are passionate about it, while accepting that others do not share their passion. It’s a free country. We don’t all drive the same car or vote for the same party; we don’t all have to use the same software. Free software is a philosophy, not a religion; its advocates will explain it to those interested and will welcome those who choose to participate, but they don’t seek converts. Those who wish to inform themselves about free software can do so using the Web. Those who are not interested or who disagree are free to do so.

On the other hand, some may think that free software deserves to receive full and fair consideration during software selection processes, that software contestability is a good thing, and that proprietary software lock-in is bad for business and for society. In which case, perhaps free software has an image problem. Has it been (to quote one last time) “often unnecessarily and significantly damaging the mainstream view of FLOSS”?

Enemy action?

Auric Goldfinger said:

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.

There appears to be a move afoot to re-position Microsoft as an “open source” company. Once was at the City of Edmonton; twice is the British Library. Is there a third time?

This is why Open Source misses the point of Free Software. In other words, Free as in Free Market — a competitive landscape offering real choice of systems and suppliers, not locked into a single vendor’s proprietary software stack.

If somebody finds a third example, add a link in the comments, so readers can draw their own conclusions from the evidence.

Free as in Free Market

In his thoughtful post, The free software way, Richard Fontana (open source licensing and patent counsel at Red Hat) highlights the importance of the bundle of legal rights that make software “free as in freedom”. These are the broad freedoms that users have to view the source, copy, modify and redistribute the software. The four freedoms, embodied in licences such as the GPL, are the foundation on which our rights as users rest. He points out that the term “Open Source” fails to capture the central idea of this bundle of rights.

But are these rights enough?

The Public Sector Remix project, aimed at bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop, highlighted the importance of what I have come to think of as “the fifth freedom”—it’s not enough for the software to be free, the documentation must be free too. On the desktop, this means adopting not just a free software stack, it means adopting open standards in general and ODF in particular.

It is encouraging to read that Danish state administrations will adopt ODF and let’s hope New Zealand follows their lead sooner rather than later.

But why would a business user care about software freedom? For customers, free-as-in-free-speech software delivers free-as-in-free-market software. As a consequence of the 4 software freedoms, customers get 4 business freedoms:

  1. Choice: freedom to choose software that does not dictate a particular vendor or require a particular infrastructure
  2. Independence: freedom from lock-in or vendor capture so that we can enter and exit technologies based on business needs
  3. Flexibility: freedom of action so that choices made today don’t limit our choices tomorrow or require others to make the same choices we have made
  4. Control: freedom to control the software and use or modify it as we see fit, and to collaborate or share with others

Proprietary software is designed to take away the 4 business freedoms. Buyers considering proprietary alternatives to free software need to be sure that any short term benefits exceed the long term costs.

Free Software and the Computer Society Code of Ethics

The New Zealand Computer Society has recently been encouraging its members to apply for professional certification.  In working through the application process, I found myself reflecting on the Society’s Code of Ethics and its relationship to IT professionalism. In my view, being an IT professional requires me to put the code of ethics at the forefront of everything I do. A professional acts ethically not only when it’s easy to do so, but also when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard.

I have been reflecting on the following question:

When choosing software, is it ethical to choose a proprietary solution, if a free alternative is available?

A person could take one of 3 positions.

  1. The question is not applicable. Many people evaluate and choose software for purely pragmatic reasons, without considering the ethical dimension. For example, SSC says ”NZ Government Agencies … should choose based on cost, functionality, interoperability, and security.” Nothing about ethics there.
  2. No. Any software which takes away the users’ freedom is by definition unethical. Hence, to recommend proprietary software when a free alternative exists is unprofessional. As IT professionals, we have a duty to advise decision-makers about the ethical dimensions of their decisions. Ethics come first.
  3. Yes. If the convenience of the proprietary solution is more important than the users’ freedom, then loss of freedom is the price we choose to pay for greater convenience. It’s OK for ethics to come second.

What would be the Computer Society’s view on this ethical dilemma, I wonder?

Should we start referring to “ethical software” (which would also side-step the eternal debate about free versus open source)?

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