Archived entries for open source

Show them that you care

There’s just 29 days left to get your nominations in for this year’s New Zealand Open Source Awards.

There are 8 categories this year: Open Source Use in Government, Open Source Use in Business, Open Source Use in Education, Open Source Use in The Arts, Open Source Software Project, Open Source Contributor, Open Source Advocate, Open Source People’s Choice Award

Think about the people in the New Zealand open source community whose contributions have made a difference to your life or your business over the last couple of years – the last awards ceremony was in 2008 – and send in your nominations now.

Remember that these awards aren’t just for the coders, but also for the supporting cast of people contributing, using and making a difference with open source software. Don’t forget to nominate your own contributions, projects, or even yourself if you’ve been doing great work that you like to see more widely recognised.

Show and tell

OSSAT (that is, Open Source Show and Tell) events have been happening in London on a 3-6 monthly basis since 2008. The events are a showcase for people working with open source, open standards, open data to tell people about what they’ve been up to and share what’s great about it.

Now it’s Wellington’s turn. Grant McLean has been busy setting up WOSSAT – Wellington open source show and tell – and he’s written a blog post all about it.

Get involved: follow @wossat on twitter or; even better, if you’ve got a story that you’re itching to tell, get in touch with Grant.

Newspaper Tries Open Source For A Day

“The Saratogian” used a mixture of Scribus, Google Docs to put out their newspaper on Independence Day as a gesture of support for the Free Software movement. The paper went out and looked good, leading one to wonder what they could do if they adopted this approach permanently and took advantages of the freedoms of Open Source to customise it. Quoting from their site:

So why did we do it? Crazy? Maybe. Tired? Definitely. Proud? You bet.

The free software experiment is part of the Ben Franklin Project of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Saratogian, 17 other dailies and a slew of weeklies and has been expanding its online presence with a content-driven, digital-first mentality that reflects where the world of communication is today and where it’s headed.

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.

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.

Open Source Good Enough for Cars

For those still dubious of the reliability of Open Source, a recent story in the press is adding a lot of comfort. According to, the collision avoidance software being built into the new Ford Taurus is Open Source. Not only that, but its predecessor was an Open Source target identification radar system used for the F22 fighter jet.

Vik :v)

Free on the green

Matt Mullenweg speaking at WordcampNZ in Wellington, August 2009. © 2009 Kathryn Wilson, used with permission.

Matt Mullenweg speaking at WordcampNZ. © 2009 Kathryn Wilson, used with permission.

I spent much of last weekend in the peaceful surroundings of the Mount Victoria Bowling Club with a committed crowd of  bloggers, and software developers enjoying New Zealand’s first WordPress conference, WordcampNZ.

Attendees came from around the country, with a scattering travelling further, including an appearance by Matt Mullenweg, one of the founders of the WordPress project. Mullenweg ran a ‘town hall’ session where he talked about his passion for open source, the software bill of rights and some of the background of the WordPress project and then took questions from attendees on the future of WordPress development. While he was in town he also visited RadioNZ for an interview on the Saturday Morning with Kim Hill programme: Matt Mullenweg: blog king [ogg].

The two day conference covered a wide range of topics related to WordPress and blogging. Barrister Steven Price, who writes the Media Law Journal blog, opened proceedings with an excellent talk entitled “Staying out of legal trouble”. He outlined six rules that can help bloggers to do just that and, having piqued my interest, disappeared straight afterwards.

Day one’s other presentations covered various uses and developments for WordPress: organiser Dan Milward talked about building stores with the WP e-Commerce plugin; Ryan Hellyer of discussed his theme services for helping people to theme WordPress without writing HTML and CSS; Miraz Jordan spoke about supporting communities for virtual Zen retreats; Philip Fierlinger of talked about corporate blogging; Gareth Townsend talked about developing a better WordPress interface for iPhone users; the folks at and the Indie Travel Podcast talked about travel writing; and Doug Casement told us all how to work with the press in “How to be a media darling“.

Day two had more of the same: Anthony Cole opened with a presentation on BuddyPress, the WordPress “Facebook-in-a-box”; Chris Ipscombe gave a business angle with “Making great deals”; Harley Alexander discussed some of the finer points of theme development; Nicki Gemmell talked about the use of WordPress to support school web sites; Bernard Hickey discussed his experiences of financial reporting using WordPress at; Jeff Waugh discussed tactics for improving your WordPress site performance; and, for the last of the formal presentations, Sam Bauers of Automattic talked about the forum software from the creators of WordPress, bbPress.

It was a great conference for ideas and interesting discussions with other WordPress developers and users and I’m looking forward to more like it in the future.

“Donating” Code

I am a bit pressed for time but just need to address a particular topic that is hitting the headlines right now, and for good reasons.

Microsoft has released some code; that is not news. What is news is that the licence used is GPLv2 and that this code is for drivers intended to run with the Linux kernel. So has the sky fallen in? Has Bill Gates’ company decided that “Communism” and “anti-Americanism” are the true path to lightness of being after all?

Well, no. It appears to be a bit grubbier than that. Whilst all parties involved in this deal are falling over themselves to be nice to each other there are a few clues emerging as to the truth behind this particular release.

Greg Kroah-Hartman who works for Novell put together the deal. His blog entry links to another Linux hacker’s blog which has some far more interesting titbits.  Read the blog and you see he says things like:

“a lot of work was done behind the scenes to get the offending company into compliance.”


“A little googling found the necessary drivers, but on closer examination there was a problem. The driver had both open-source components which were under GPL, and statically linked to several binary parts. The GPL does not permit mixing of closed and open source parts, so this was an obvious violation of the license”


“Rather than creating noise, my goal was to resolve the problem, so I turned to Greg Kroah-Hartman.”

So, if my reasoning is correct, and I am very happy to be corrected, this is what seems to be the order of events:

  1. MS wants Linux to run on its Hyper-V platform.
  2. They develop and release drivers that use some GPL code and link to static GPL binaries. I don’t know where that original GPL code came from but it sure would be interesting to find out.
  3. These drivers are in breach of the GPL and a third party notices.
  4. MS are forced, nicely, to comply with the GPL, just like every other organisation whose GPL breaches have been seriously challenged.

So, whilst this is all good and marvellous, especially if you want to run Linux on Windows (keep this other factlet in mind), Microsoft has shaken money out of at least 500 organisations including Linux distributors, claiming IP rights over code they have not written because of patents they refuse to identify in public.

This is an interesting story, but not in the way it is being told.  Celebrate because we can chalk it up as a success… to the GPL.

Freely Supported

One justification that companies often use for purchasing proprietary software is the availability of support. I was recently reminded of this when a project that I work on encountered a bug in the PostgreSQL database server. A couple of the developers worked on creating a minimal test case to exercise the bug, submitted it to the bugs mailing list, and waited.

They didn’t have to wait long. The next morning, the bug report had been examined and confirmed by Tom Lane, one of the lead developers for the PostgreSQL project, and a conversation had developed discussing the implications and approaches to fixing the problem. This also highlighted a solution: the functionality at fault could be disabled with a configuration setting until the problem is fixed.

How many commercial software companies could you hope to receive a similar incident response from? How many of them would provide that service at the same cost that the PostgreSQL project charged (that is, nothing at all)? I suspect that the answer is: not many, if any.

This was a well formatted bug report made by an active member of the PostgreSQL community, which may have had some influence upon its treatment, but would a similarly well formatted bug report sent to a company gain such a rapid response? Certainly you would be unlikely to receive anything like Tom Lane’s frank discussion of the cause.

This case impressed me because it directly affected the project that I work on, but it also prompted me to do a little research on support. Many others have investigated this before and in more depth, but with similar findings.

Back in 2007, Matt Asay, a regular columnist on open source issues for cnet news, reported the results of research into resolution of software problems in open source and commercial projects concluding that good open source projects are likely to be faster to resolve problems than good proprietary solutions.  In a March blog posting, software developer Davy Brion discussed at length the weakness of choosing software based simply on a perception of available support. And in an April blog posting on, system administrator Shane Shields also compared open source and proprietary support, mentioning the lengths that open source developers will sometimes go to to fix your problems.

Good software support is often more a function of the community of users and developers, than the company or group behind the development. Savvy companies are catching on to this by sponsoring or promoting community support sites for their products and by taking part in community forums. For free and open source projects on the other hand, community involvement is their default mode of operation. Some projects are clearly better than others and this is also true in the commercial world. Careful software selection is required, but where support is concerned you shouldn’t assume that you get what you pay for.

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