Saturday, June 26, 2010

Posting from GoogleCL

I am testing the ability to post content to my blog from the command line\!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Proprietary Software Traps - Adobe Flash

I've been working on a project for work involving the re-use of older (6-8 years old) PCs and laptops using Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, with the goal of distributing them to some of our tech-impoverished Georgia libraries (nothing's firm yet - still in the exploratory phase). These were state library staff members' computers from maybe 2 generations ago and if they are not re-used, they'll be surplused or discarded. As I was installing and configuring Ubuntu, it occurred to me that since we would be redistributing whatever software we install, we are constrained about what we can include when they are sent out. Ubuntu, as-is, is all free software and all included packages can be redistributed freely. However, installing Adobe Flash, Sun (or Oracle) Java, or many proprietary A/V codecs or device drivers, makes it illegal to redistribute.

Once the libraries have the stations, of course, installing proprietary software on a per-station basis is no problem. But since our plan is to distribute these dozen or so computers to libraries with very little tech expertise on staff, we want these stations to be as "plug and play" as they can possibly be. Fortunately, these are Dells and HPs and the open source device drivers are covered. Proprietary Java *usually* isn't necessary for normal web browsing, and it's unlikely that these library staff are going to want these stations to be DVD-capable - it's hard enough to limit library patrons' time on computers without this complication.

The real problem is Adobe Flash, which is what much of the 2.0 web is built on. Even if libraries restrict the use of online video (many do for both content and technical reasons), Flash is necessary to view and use *many* websites, and seems like most corporate web developers assume that Flash is a given. Unfortunately, in the Linux world, it's not a given and it's not because Linux is not capable of running it - it's because it's proprietary software.

So because of the Ubuntu project for libraries, a Flash-free environment was already on my mind when the Flash security vulnerability was announced (and not just because of Apple's hypocrisy on the Flash/iPad issue), and I have begun exploring how I might wean myself off my Flash dependency (mainly for YouTube and Pandora, both which I use heavily). I spent the first part of the weekend trying to live with Gnash with disappointing results. Like many open source alternatives to established proprietary software, Gnash needs a lot of extra work just to get basic functionality (for me anyway), and as committed as I am to free/open source software, I don't want to spend all my time configuring something that probably won't work all that well anyway. I also signed up for YouTube's HTML5 beta testing program, but it doesn't work with Firefox, just Chromium (open source Chrome) and even then, the videos aren't playing. What to do?

Hopefully, the combination of Steve Jobs' criticism and the new security flaw will move web development away from Flash and into more open web standards. Until then, I'll just live in the discomfort of either holding my nose and just using Flash or sticking to my principles and doing without web content I truly enjoy. Wish me luck!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Software Ecology and Taking Responsibility for It

I co-presented a conference session a few months ago about the use of open source software in libraries, and was in a conversation with one of my co-workers in the days leading up to it. This colleague, who I worked well with otherwise, said "You know all that stuff you're going to talk about? Well, it all pretty much sucks." He then began to list off the feature sets of the "proprietary version" of this or that program and how the "open source versions" were lacking because they do not contain certain features that he expects. While it's hard to hear this sort of criticism, I also can't really argue with it. I don't use open source software because of the feature sets of its individual programs. I use open source software because I have a commitment to software freedom and believe that software works better when there is a community of collaboration.

I use free and open source software for the same sorts of reasons people commit to buying organic produce or cooking their own food or recycling plastic or driving a hybrid car. There exists a "software ecology" that suffers when huge corporations are the only players. It's the difference between purchasing pre-made, jarred spaghetti sauce, and making your own ragu by letting it simmer for hours. The jarred sauce may taste fine. It is certainly predictable and stable. Decades of marketing has led the American consumer to believe that less work is better, so many people think it is foolish to "slave over a hot stove" and make your own food when there are so many convenience options available (not to mention that this availability has resulted in a complete lack of interest and skill in cooking for oneself - but that's a post for another non-software related blog).

I understand that many people are too busy to cook, much less to worry about the origins of the software programs they use, and I'd wager that most end users have never heard of a shell script and have never seen source code. So why care, then? Why would one sacrifice the practical features they use in a proprietary program for an "open source version" that does less (or does it in a way that encumbers one's workflow)? Why would someone ignore the release of Windows 7 (or Vista, fixed) just to get to the Karmic Koala and potentially fight with device drivers that "just work" on Windows or Mac?

Some will always scoff at people who go to a lot of trouble to conserve or protect the environment in the small ways they can. Well, I'm a software tree hugger, striving to protect the intellectual property commons as best I can, and enjoying the products of the community: organic, home grown, open and free.