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  • Doug Belshaw 6:03 pm on December 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: design, free software, Linux, operating system, smartphones   

    It’s always the little things… 

    As I noted in my 2019 retrospective, I flip-flop regularly between just wanting things to be shiny and seamless, so I can get on with my work, and trying to ensure that my use of tech reflects my values.

    What I’ve come to realise is that it’s very rarely the ‘big’ things these days that become dealbreakers for me. Fifteen to twenty years ago, I’d be prevented from using Linux on a daily basis on my laptop because of showstoppers such as like not being able to get wifi to work, or having an issue with a graphics card.

    These days, those issues are largely fixed. The ‘problems’ are more like irritations that grow and grow until you can’t bear it any more.

    Some examples:

    • You buy a lovely 4k monitor that ChromeOS recognises and works with out-of-the-box. Meanwhile, with Linux you have to learn about ‘fractional scaling’ and which versions of which desktop managers support it.
    • Your daughter’s tablet needs resetting, requiring a tool that’s only available for Windows machines (and won’t work via a VM).
    • The organisation you work for uses a particular video conferencing app that never seems to work as well on Linux as on other platforms.

    Cumulatively, these suck hours of your time until you start questioning what it is that you’re actually achieving. Despite that, I’m running Linux on my laptop and desktop.

    However, these issues pale into insignificance compared to trying to use Free Software on mobile devices. I’ve tried LineageOS, Ubuntu Touch, Sailfish OS… pretty much everything that’s compatible with the range of devices we own.

    Again, the problem is always the constant irritation. But on mobile it’s a bigger deal that on laptop/desktop.

    For example:

    • You use LineageOS, which is otherwise excellent, but doesn’t recognise the second camera on the back of your phone.
    • Use of many apps requires Google Play Services, which reports data back to Google on a constant basis.
    • Discoverability of apps via OSS marketplaces such as F-Droid is pretty abysmal.

    All of this is without even mentioning the terrible UX that plagues many Free Software apps. It’s a sorry state of affairs, and one that needs looking at on a systemic level.

    For example:

    • We use our smartphones to take photographs and expect those photos to be backed-up securely and to be available to us across our devices.
    • We want to be able to quickly send something we’ve found on our phones to our laptop.
    • We’d like to be able to stream music and video from our phone to nearby speakers.

    This is all possible using Free Software with a combination of Nextcloud, Firefox, and Bluetooth, respectively. It’s just that it’s so much easier and, crucially, takes almost zero setup on Google and Apple devices.

    I’d love to see a lot more money poured into Free Software to solve some of the problems I’ve outlined above. A lot of it is due to a combination of:

    1. The massive mismatch between the number of developers working on Free Software projects, compared to the number of designers.
    2. The increasing amount of vendor lock-in, and decreasing interest in standards of interoperability .
    3. Duplication of effort and fragmentation across the Free Software landscape. Some of this is political, some social, and some (to be quite honest) because of ignorance.

    We can do a lot better than this. I’d like to help, but right now I have more problems and questions than I do answers.

  • Doug Belshaw 11:14 am on August 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: free software, ,   

    Free software, open source, and sustainability 

    Image by William White

    I’m doing some work with Totara at the moment. Before I started, I had a couple of conversations with their CEO, Richard Wyles, as I didn’t fully understand their business model. I discovered that, instead of providing solutions directly to customers, they develop open source software for their partners, who then customise solutions for customers. Money flows back to Totara through partners to cover costs around development, administration, and co-ordination activities. Customers get access to the source code, and aren’t locked into a relationship with a vendor reliant on proprietary code.

    The reason I wanted to know more about Totara’s model before starting work with them is because there’s been a lot of sensitivity around ‘openwashing’ over the last few years. Openwashing is whereby a company uses the language of the open source world, without actually adhering to its principles. You can read more about how to spot (and avoid) openwashing in this excellent article. It’s a contentious area and involves some interpretation.

    Today, an article by Richard Wyles has been published on opensource.com. Entitled We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom, Wyles reiterates Richard Stallman‘s point around the true meaning of software freedom:

    Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support.

    In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.

    The problem we’ve got here is partly one around semantics: Stallman focuses on the Free Software movement, which actually has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with liberty. Unless you really care about this stuff, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

    In any case, it’s an article that’s worth reading. I’ll just pull out one more quotation from Wyles:

    Many single-vendor commercial open source firms adopt [a] dual-licensing approach, with a free community version and a paid-for enterprise proprietary license. The risk here is that the company prioritizes the proprietary version, because that’s where their money comes from, and the community version is soon perceived as “crippleware” or even worse, “abandonware.” For example, SugarCRM suspended or slowed development on its Community Edition and now makes it clear that it is not suitable in a production environment. I’m not criticizing them—you have to earn enough to keep the lights on, right? But are they still an open source vendor?

    This stuff is hard, but I’ve been persuaded in my conversations with Totara that not only are they not openwashing, but they’re actively trying to make open source software development into something that’s sustainable.

    Photo by William White on Unsplash

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