Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tech News » 'Bossie' Awards Crown FOSS' Best of Breed

Posted by echa 11:03 AM, under | 2 comments

'Bossie' Awards Crown FOSS' Best of Breed | technews "Where is Blender?" asked Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. "It is truly an incredibly powerful piece of software. "I had a client that was unhappy because the robot he is helping design for a NASA competition at the local college just doesn't have the level of lighting realism he wanted with Solidworks. So I just sent him to this link on the Blender wiki and voila!"

Well September is shaping up to be a banner month here in the world of free and open source software.

Not only did we recently learn the winners of this year's "Bossie" (Best of Open Source Software) awards, but we have Software Freedom Day coming up this Saturday! Nothing like awards and parties to make a person forget all about hack attacks and other unsavory aspects of the daily grind.

This year, in fact, it's more important than ever to celebrate Software Freedom Day, Linux Girl humbly suggests, what with all the patent to-do we've had in recent months. Make sure you get out there and whoop it up on the 17th!

LibreOffice, Android and Chrome

Meanwhile, just as Hollywood's Academy Awards tend to dominate conversation for weeks in advance in some social spheres, so the Bossies have a similar effect in the Linux blogosphere's bars and cafes.

Chosen by InfoWorld Test Center editors and reviewers, the annual Bossies recognize "the best and most innovative open source software products for end users, businesses and IT professionals," in the press release's own words.

Among this year's winners are Drupal, Sugar, WordPress, Apache Hadoop, Git, Jenkins, Hudson and OpenStack, along with LibreOffice, Android and Chrome.

As per usual, Linux bloggers haven't been shy about expressing their own opinions.

'It's Hard to Pick a Few'

"WordPress, Sugar CRM and Lucene are great pieces of software and they are FLOSS as well," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl, for example.

"Tens of millions use WordPress for their blogs as I do, and Sugar may help me find a job soon," Pogson added. "I use Lucene as one of many options for desktop/file searching -- it's smooth and reliable.

"Out of hundreds of thousands of good FLOSS projects it's hard to pick a few that stand out, but on the basis of usage, these must be near the top," he added.

"I would have recommended Apache web server and GNU/Linux, too, although those are not so much projects but ecosystems," Pogson pointed out. "I think the Linux kernel is one of the all-time great software projects of any kind."

'I Stopped Reading'

Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza took issue with the way the awards were assigned.

"My only complaint about the list is that they are giving awards to the winner and the runner-up," Espinoza explained. "For example, giving a 'best of' award to Drupal and Wordpress, which both do the same thing.

"I stopped reading there, as it was clear that it was nothing but a popularity contest designed to increase page views," Espinoza said. "Now they can give awards to lots of people to make them feel good about the contest, and make people care about it for next year. Pass."

'It's Still Pretty Much a Duopoly'

Similarly, "it's interesting that both Hudson and Jenkins were included, seeing as Jenkins is a fork of Oracle's (Nasdaq: ORCL) Hudson," noted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"I would also take issue with one sentence from the press release: 'The 2011 awards ... reflect the dominance of open source software on the desktop, in mobile technology, in business applications, in application development, and in the data center and the private cloud.'

"It's still pretty much an OSX/Windows duopoly for desktop operating systems, and closed-source applications still dominate many desktop software categories," Hudson noted. "Of course, the shellacking that closed-source software is taking in the mobile OS field, the data center, and Internet infrastructure and services helps balance things out."

'All Top-Notch'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet had a different focus.

"Did you notice that nearly every bit of software on the list except for the cloud stuff has a Windows version?" he asked. "While that makes me as a Windows user happy, it really doesn't help Linux adoption any. What Linux needs is its own Visicalc, a 'killer app' that will help spur adoption just as Visicalc helped spur the original PC sales."

Those that are on the list, however, "are all top-notch," hairyfeet agreed.

'That Is What Makes Good Software'

"The only thing I would add is, where is Blender?" he told Linux Girl. "It is truly an incredibly powerful piece of software.

"I had a client that was unhappy because the robot he is helping design for a NASA competition at the local college just doesn't have the level of lighting realism he wanted with Solidworks," hairyfeet added. "So I just sent him to this link on the Blender wiki and voila! Thanks to FOSS and a volunteer that wrote the import scripts, he is happily having his robot rendering in photo realism by Blender."

That, in fact, "is what FOSS should be about -- not about politics or factions, or all the GPL vs. BSD flamewars, but 'can this software make someone's day easier and/or better?'" hairyfeet concluded. "If it does, that is what makes good software to me."

Tech News » That Tired Old Computer Could Be a Neat Media Streamer

Posted by echa 10:58 AM, under | No comments

That Tired Old Computer Could Be a Neat Media Streamer | technews Converting an unused PC to a media streamer could cost you nothing per month, as opposed to a cable bill of $90 or more a month. However, some Internet programming, including Fox's, is embargoed for a few days after regular broadcast. Also, keep in mind that the interface and hook-up can be more fiddly than that supplied by a classic cable box.

One antidote to escalating household budgets is to cut utility services. However, dropping trash pickup and dumping your garbage in neighbors' receptacles in the middle of the night probably wouldn't go down too well in the community.

Likewise, terminating your electricity supply won't play too well with the family after the novelty wears off -- possibly less than an hour if there's something good on TV, or it's cold.

One cost that can be cut, though, is your media bill -- and it's possible to do it, with little sacrifice, by moving to an a la carte, Internet-delivered model.

Step 1

Identify the latest-model redundant computer you have lying around. The nature of technology evolution means this should be a relatively easy step.

Connect the PC to a TV with an HDMI cable, if you can. Otherwise, use a DVI to HDMI adapter at the PC end, or use an old VGA monitor cable and connect the PC to the TV's "VGA PC In" jack.

Connect the green 3.5mm "Audio Out" jack on the PC to the 3.5mm "PC Audio In" jack on the TV if you're using anything other than HDMI to send the video signal.

Connect the PC to your Internet router with an Ethernet cable. If the router is nowhere near the TV, use a WiFi adapter. The simplest are the kind that insert into a USB port.

Step 2

Turn the computer and TV on, and press the "Input" or "Source" button on the TV's remote control until the PC's desktop displays on the TV.

Step 3

Connect the mouse and keyboard, and clean the PC. It's likely that one reason the PC was retired was due to an accumulation of junk, including spyware, orphaned DLL files, and so on.

If you have the OEM discs that came with the computer, perform a reformat of the drive and reload the operating system and drivers.

If you don't have the OEM discs, download a free cleaning program like Advanced System Care, or similar, and run all of the deep cleaning tools like "Registry Fix" and so on. Follow any on-screen prompts to update the operating system and browser.

Step 4

Test the PC's functionality in relation to the TV. Right-click on the Desktop and choose "Properties" and then the "Settings" tab. Adjust the "Screen Resolution" settings until the desktop image displays properly. Test the audio connection.
Step 5

Download a PC-streaming application like the free Boxee, which will aggregate media-streaming services like TV-oriented Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and music-oriented Pandora.

The Boxee PC application replicates a cable-like user experience, with a sit-back type of user interface with larger labels and text than you'd get from a regular browser. Follow the prompts to download and install the Boxee software, then choose streaming services. Many services will be free.

Or, simply use the PC's existing Web browser to browse to the individual streaming service's website. Look for TV-streaming services such as Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu and Walmart's Vudu.

Look for music streaming from Pandora. Be aware that Hulu's browser-based service is free, but the service called "Hulu Plus" that's included in the aggregators has a monthly fee.

Step 6

Weigh the pros and cons, based on cost and convenience. This solution could cost you nothing per month, as opposed to a cable bill of US$90 or more a month.

However, some Internet programming, including Fox's, is embargoed for a few days after regular broadcast. Also, keep in mind that the interface and hook-up can be more fiddly than that supplied by a classic cable box.

If you're confident this a la carte model will work for you, call your service provider to disconnect your TV service, thus slashing your monthly bill. Don't forget to retain your Internet service, though.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech equipment you'd like to know to operate properly? Is there a gadget that's got you confounded?

Please send your tech questions to me, and I'll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

News » How NOT to Push a New Open Source License, Part 1

Posted by echa 10:54 AM, under | No comments

How NOT to Push a New Open Source License, Part 1 | technews Bruce Perens wrote several times that he had to check with the lawyers to see what the various terms of his open source covenant really mean. If this license is so complicated that he doesn't understand it, shouldn't it be fixed? And why would he be publicly advocating others use a license he doesn't fully understand? This doesn't inspire confidence.

Bruce Perens recently introduced what he calls a "Covenant" open source license on behalf of Lexis-Nexis, owned by Reed Elsevier (readers may know them better as "the scientific journal paywall people"), for one of Lexis-Nexis' internal projects.

It didn't take long for readers on both slashdot and lwn to rip it apart. Of particular concern was the requirement that contributors assign their copyrights to Lexis-Nexis so that Lexis-Nexis would gain the exclusive right to commercialize the code. Contributors would only be able to use their own code under an AGPL license.

When I proposed that it would protect the authors' rights more if the author
  • kept his or her copyright, or
  • granted a dual license right to the company that terminates if the conditions are not respected,

Perens claimed,
"In general, companies want to be able to enforce the copyright of the entire product," and "the risk and legal load for the company are appreciably higher than what I have proposed."

The Heavy Burden of Licensing

I pointed out to him that this simply isn't true. Most commercial software companies don't own the copyrights to all the components in the products they sell. For everything from software written in Java or using Windows libraries to media players using h.264 decoders, quicktime libraries, or other code licensed from third parties, licensing -- not copyright assignment -- is the norm.

Businesses that take out a license instead of getting copyright assigned to them also have legal recourse against the licensor if any of the licensed code is found to be infringing. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) has gone to court many times, and paid plenty of judgments, to protect its users and licensees. Perens' arguments are ill-informed at best.

In a follow-up, he also claimed that
"the added burden on L-N to try to manage all the licenses would probably make it easier to forgo open sourcing their codebase."

My first thought was "Wow, maybe the BSA (Business Software Alliance) should knock on their doors to see if all their Windows software is properly licensed." Instead, I pointed out that parent company Reed Elsevier is a US$9 billion dollar business that derives the bulk of its earnings from managing data, copyrights and licenses. It can certainly manage a few more license grants from contributors.

Checking With the Lawyers

Readers were also concerned that the whole "covenant" was too vague on many points, as well as being lopsided in favor of Lexis-Nexis. Perens' response to lwn reader lutchann revealed why:

"When you are working with a company as large as that (LN is a big division of huge Elsevier) with as many separate stake-holders in legal, management, etc., it's always a negotiation. That's what I could get."

Sad.

It didn't help his case that Perens was also telling two different stories about the effects of copyright assignment -- one to readers of lwn, another to slashdot. Two hours after he wrote lwn poster iabervon to say

"this isn't a problem because of a key feature of copyright law: A developer is always free to grant their own work to others under his/her own terms. The covenant doesn't make you promise not to do so,"

... he wrote on slashdot,

"I agree that licensing your contribution back to you is desirable. I'll include that in the feedback I'm sending them."

Perens is apparently a bit confused as to whether developers would need a license back. The answer is yes, because copyright doesn't work the way he pretended it does. Original developers are not free to continue to grant rights to their work after they've assigned their rights to someone else. That's the key point of a copyright assignment.

This probably explains why Perens wrote several times that he had to check with the lawyers to see what the various terms of the covenant really mean. It's becoming painfully obvious that he doesn't really understand "his own" license.

If this license is so complicated that he doesn't understand it, shouldn't it be fixed? And why would he be publicly advocating others use a license he doesn't fully understand? This doesn't inspire confidence.

Hand Over Those Assets

In reality, it is obvious that the covenant is not a meeting of the minds between equals, but a deal drafted by Lexis-Nexis to take as much and give back as little as possible. The "snatch-and-grab" was revealed in a follow-up to slashdot poster Roger W Moore, who wrote:

"I fail to understand the need to assign copyright. Surely the developer can just give HPCC a license to the code which includes the right to relicense the code under any commercial license they wish so long as they continue to support and release an open source version. Call this the HPCC Turkish Delight license and then just say that you are releasing your code under this license instead of GPL/.... By assigning copyright HPCC could use the code in a different, closed source product without compensating the developer in anyway." (emphasis added)

Perens pretty much admitted it when he replied,
"In building a balance that will motivate multiple parties to participate, you have to consider all of their needs. In the case of HPCC's needs, this allows them to continue to own their entire product, and to list their entire product as an asset." (emphasis added)

The real reason for demanding copyright assignment instead of a license is to add to its copyright portfolio so it can list those additional copyrights as business assets, and also open up the ability to license the assigned copyrights individually outside of the project.

Think of it -- how would you react if your neighbor asked for your blender for a party?
Neighbor: I'm having a party. I need your blender.
You: Sure, you can borrow it.
Neighbor: No, you don't understand -- I want you to give it to me permanently.
You: Why would I do that?
Neighbor: Because I'm having a big party and I'm going to make lots of $$$.
You: So just borrow it. You don't need to keep it forever.
Neighbor: But if I don't own it outright, it will prevent me from having lots of parties and making lots of money!
You: ???
Neighbor: Don't worry -- I'll let you borrow it back...
You: Gee, you're so generous.
Neighbor: -- but only for your own personal use. You can't use it with guests or to throw parties or make money with it.
You: Enough! You're giving me a headache. Just. Go. Away.

Open Source Magic

Does Perens really believe this is a great deal? What's good for the goose is good for the gander, so I made him the same offer that his "covenant" provides:

"assign ME your copyrights and I'll give you a grant-back to use all the copyrights in the pool under the AGPLv3. I'll go one further than Loopy-Noopy -- I'll even give you a grant-back to use them under a separate GPLv2 or later license, so you can contribute to projects like Linux, which is GPLv2 only. What could possibly go wrong?"

He hasn't yet taken me up on my oh-so-generous offer. I guess when the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn't fit so well...

There are still some people who think that slapping "open source" on something will magically attract coders as sure as manure attracts flies. It doesn't, but freetards won't accept that. Coders that work on the sort of projects that Perens is proposing cost six figures a head. A one-sided "covenant" won't interest them, and it just inflames everyone else.

This whole "covenant" shows disrespect for both the work and the rights of authors. Add to that the way that each iteration of the GPL adds more restrictions, and maybe it's time for yet another license -- but Bruce Perens' covenant isn't it.

And now for something completely different...

Internet » Facebook Rips a Page From Google+

Posted by echa 10:44 AM, under | 2 comments

Facebook Rips a Page From Google+ | internet Facebook may be way ahead in terms of membership, but it's been lagging in usability. Its latest design tweak is the ability to organize friends into lists -- a lot like Google+'s vaunted Circles. Actually, the list feature isn't new, but Facebook is now kickstarting the process, automatically organizing friends according to a few basic criteria, and enabling separate news feeds for each list.

Facebook has been rolling out a slew of changes and new options, one of the latest being its so-called smart friend lists. This feature creates lists of a user's friends, automatically based on such criteria as work, school, family and city. Users do have some control -- they can opt out entirely. Or they can use the automatically generated lists to add friends -- without, Facebook promises, a lot of effort.

Each of the lists has its own News Feed, where the user can see photos, status updates and other posts from the people on the list. Facebook has placed the Lists section on the left side of the homepage.

Users can also share items with their specific lists, leaving out the wider audience. This is done by clicking on the dropdown audience selector in the sharing tool and selecting a list.

Other niceties: Users can continue using lists they may already have created. Also, no one is able to see list titles.

Facebook did not respond to TechNewsWorld's request to comment for this story.

Sincerest Form of Flattery

If this sounds awfully like the functionality in Google+, that's because it is. Facebook is widely acknowledged to finally have met a competitor in the social networking space in the form of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) social networking product rolled out earlier this summer.

"Facebook's new smart lists are a shot across the bow of Google+'s Circles -- make no mistake about that," Ron Schott, a strategist at Spring Creek Group, told TechNewsWorld.

"Ever since Google has introduced Plus, it is obvious that it was a wake-up call to Facebook in the context of usability design," said Hyun-Yeul Lee, an assistant professor at Boston University.

"Certainly, Facebook's recent add-on features are copying design or user interface features from Plus that they missed out on," she told TechNewsWorld.

The Bigger Picture

However, to boil the new feature down to merely competitive fear on the part of Facebook would be too simplistic.

"What Facebook seems to be doing here is creating opportunities for average users to share more content," Schott said.

Facebook's Heavy Hand

One possible drawback to smart friends is the automatic creation of the lists. Facebook has gotten a reputation for having a tyrannical attitude toward its user base -- implementing changes with little or no notice, and rarely requesting feedback. It has been lambasted repeatedly for playing fast and loose with users' privacy.

Some of this was just clumsiness on Facebook's part, according to Schott.

"Facebook does seem to come with a 'better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission' way of doing things on almost all fronts -- and that's by design," he said. "When you're dealing with 700 million users, it's not plausible to make everyone happy, so Facebook has pushed updates that simplify the user experience for the majority of its users."

Also, there is something to the argument Facebook is making with its introduction of smart lists, Jonathan Kopp, partner and global director at Ketchum Digital.

"Facebook used to enable users to sort their friends into lists, but adoption hovered at about 5 percent or less. The simple reason is, it was a tedious chore to manually sort your contacts," he told TechNewsWorld.

Already Behind?

With Facebook inching closer to the Google+ model, it is fair to ask if newbie Google+ has already seen its day.

Not hardly, said Lee. While Facebook's strength is its massive user base, it still needs to think bigger in terms of how social connectivity will look in the near future.

"Facebook is giving an aesthetic facelift to usability," she said, "but lacks the long-term vision that Plus has."

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