Category Archives: Software

“A great time to be a Mozillian”

The estimable Glyn Moody wrote in very positive terms about the Mozilla Festival that took place in London last week.  As well as pointing out Firefox’s recent bouncebackability, he correctly points out that there’s much more to Mozilla than releasing Firefox.

Reading through Glyn’s list of projects he encountered at the festival (he lists 7, but I suspect he could have identified several more), you might conclude that Mozilla lacks a certain focus.  That is in fact far from the truth: I don’t believe that I’ve known Mozilla to be more focused in all my time with the project.  We have opportunities to influence the direction of the Internet, and keep the Web at its centre, but we simply need to make sure we pick the appropriate targets.  Let’s not deny it: the Web appears to be under constant threat, from the Balkanisation of the Internet to proprietary stacks, to clumsy legislative measures  (SOPA, ACTA), to Wired magazine’s ill-advised sensationalism.

The way I think of this is that Mozilla has to grow stakeholders in the open Web.  (What does that even mean?)  When we read about content owners going out of business, or doing things that seem irrational or short-sighted, the response shouldn’t be to shrug and assume that their business model is outdated.  Their business model may be outdated, but if the Web isn’t enabling a new one for them, then the Web is failing them.  Not every profit margin is a market failure: content has value, and simply because the marginal cost of production approaches zero, it doesn’t mean that content owners should be beholden to other interests to make money.

Similarly, if we read that a network operator has a stated opposition to net neutrality, our reaction shouldn’t be solely one of indignant repudiation, however cathartic that might be.  We should understand what would need to change for network operators to value the open Web as the driver of their business.

And if we think that the health of the Web is dependent upon a narrow coalition of powerful private economic interests, we should be concerned.   As a wise colleague of mine says, one should be wary of elites.

The disruptive power of the Internet has been fascinating to observe.  And long may it continue.  However, if disruption only serves to consolidate economic power with a few interests, something is wrong.  There should be (and I use the word advisedly) cannibalistic opportunities for the disruptees too.

These are things that we need to enable. This takes a focused strategy. And this is exciting work.

We’re already seeing the interest in the industry for Firefox OS, and amongst web developers for the new APIs being created to make Web development as rich as native development on mobile platforms.  That’s just a start.

But there is a downside , or if you prefer, a corollary to this, and one I want to explore: focused strategic execution is not necessarily conducive to community participation.  If Mozilla is working to (for example), release a smartphone with a network operator partner in (for example) Latin America, then how do you get excited as a contributor in (for example) Bulgaria?    How do we marry the commercial “heft” of a major partner with the broad spectrum of interests and abilities that the Mozilla community at scale represents?  I don’t have a good answer for that yet.

Glyn’s article was especially welcome as I regard him as both a friend of Mozilla (he keynoted at MozCamp 2009) and a truth teller.  The piece he published in August this year, about the importance of participatory structures in open source communities, should be provocative and somewhat uncomfortable reading for anyone at Mozilla.

And this is my paradox.  To be true to our mission, we have to think broadly.  And to be successful, we have to be strategic and focused.  And to be us, we have to be participatory.

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On being disintermediated

So, I’m back.
Back for 6 weeks already, in fact – how time flies – having spent an incredible summer with the family.  I reflected on my own situation when I read this in the Guardian, Forget the balance, this is the merge, a slightly depressing article for a number of reasons: firstly its conclusions (there is no balance), but also its assumption that only mothers need to consider time with their children (to the Swedish resident, it’s clear that fathers and children need to prioritise time together just as much).  Equally, those without children need their balance just as much, in order to grow as people.

Anyway, having spent several weeks largely away from screens (email, IRC… especially email), I felt refreshed.  And I had to consider this when reading the miserable story of a wretch from Lancashire who was “trolling” the family of abducted, presumed murdered, schoolgirl April Jones.

How does someone sink so low?  Well, people have always told sick jokes.  Not everyone – certainly I’ve always been too squeamish – but many do.  I tend to smile wanly, perhaps groan, to show I’m not amused but nor have I taken offense.  After all, once chooses to take offense, doesn’t one?

No.  Not always.  Not entirely.  Not when your daughter is missing, presumed murdered.  You’d have to be absurdly tranquil not to take offense.

Those of us in the Internet industry talk of “disintermediation” as the malaise afflicting network operators, excluded from being able to offer differentiated value-add to their users.  But the Internet disintermediates people too.  One only has to read a comments thread on -and I’m going out on a limb here- just about any online forum to find deeply uncivil exchanges.  People seem to delight in attacking each other online, and in hurting each others’ feelings.  There is almost a sense of liberation for so-called trolls: this piece, “Meeting a troll…” is very instructive.  The false sense of anonymity the Internet conveys allows people with limited imagination and empathy do very unpleasant things.  I pity the person who behaved so vilely towards the family of April Jones: he isn’t a fully-formed person, or at least, is capable of behaving like he isn’t one.  I’m sure he’s no parent himself.  I’m equally sure he wouldn’t behave like that in the company of that poor family.

But then, this isn’t just an Internet phenomenon.  In the mid 1990s, the term “road-rage” was coined, describing how recklessly and aggressively people could behave in situations of stressful traffic.  I’ve been a passenger in cars where the driver has “retaliated” for a perceived slight.  I may even have quietly cursed under my breath at being cut up myself.  Where does this come from?  I’m sure studies have been done, but my jaded perspective identifies three causes: busier roads seems fairly obvious; a self-righteous egotism or sense of entitlement (think Gordon Gecko); and the simple fact of being in your own isolated environment.  Or, as Gary Numan put it:

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live.

Now, the clever souls at Wieden+Kennedy think that Facebook  is like a chair.  And the rest of the Internet cannot wait to tell us what other things Facebook is like.

Well, let me make my contribution:

Those of us in the industry need to pay attention to the harmful effects, the lack of humanity, that existence behind a screen can give rise to.

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“What we laughingly call the real world”

The study of industrial economics is, what, 235 years old?  And it was only about 220 years old when I struggled through a joint honours programme.  There I was exposed to the eloquence of (inter alia) Dr Quentin Outram.  I recall his delight in exploring theory A and critique B before tossing both on the bonfire, with contemporary thought C, as he said with a chuckle, “in what we laughingly call the real world”.  His subtext (or what I understood it to be) was that our attempts to explain reality will always be doomed to revision, that there will always be a reality yet more real that the one we’re currently dealing with, just like in Inception The Truman Show The Matrix Fight Club.

So…is anyone actually using Google+ (at least, for what Google hope you’ll use it for?).  Facebook perhaps wasn’t a great original invention, but it generated what you might call “critical mass” and has quickly evolved into a platform.  Google+ seems to think it has identified the fatal flaw with Facebook: that one’s friends are not homogenous group but rather, several smaller circles.  Paul Adams of Google had demonstrated as much over a year ago. We have circles of friends.  That’s wisdom so great that it verges on common sense.

I read with interest the complaints of Violet Blue (if that is her real name) about Google+’s “drama”.  Google is, after all, desperate to get this right.  And they believe that they are fixing the fundamental flaw of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al.

Google+ will

make connecting with people on the web more like connecting with them in the real world.

Except it won’t.  It may yet be successful.  Google may yet bring to bear the massive quantities of information they have and gather up Facebook’s users, but let’s not pretend Google+ or Facebook or anything else are like connecting “in the real world” was, or is.  Facebook caters to (amongst other things) exhibitionism.  It’s partly popular because exhibitionism is easier in Facebook than it is in the real world.  And it keeps friendships alive that would not survive, or simply were not possible in the real world.

As for circles of friend – yes, they certainly do exist.  But “circles” is the wrong name for them, as they aren’t circles, at least, not from the perspective of the person who is at the centre of them.  They’re irregular, they overlap and you are not equidistant from all points.  Who has not, at some point, had a “best friend”?

Just as social media is changing friendships, so is the nature of friendship informing how social media works.  But after nearly two and a half centuries of the dismal science, events of the past two years tell us that we retain a great ability to wholly ignorant of how we “really” work.

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Other Mozillians welcome the Document Foundation

Alina gives her personal perspective on the Document Foundation.

Tristan notes the courage involved.

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Party like it’s 2003

Something wonderful happened today – the OpenOffice.org community announced the creation of the Document Foundation, an independent, community-driven foundation.  They will maintain a version of OpenOffice.org, called LibreOffice, which will over time address some of the criticisms so commonly aimed at OpenOffice.org today.

OpenOffice.org seems surprisingly controversial to me.  Having been a StarSuite/StarOffice/OpenOffice.org user for over 10 years, I have almost certainly developed some form of immunity to its undoubted shortcomings, but I know many people involved in Free software who refuse to use it on the grounds of general user experience cruftiness.  Yes, it has bugs, many of which one is surprised to find in software as mature as OpenOffice.org is.  And what’s more, I gather that the codebase is also a bit of an Indian ocean (boosting Sun’s ranking in terms of lines of code contributed as Free software).  I’ve also heard criticisms about slow release management and the difficulty of getting fixes integrated – I recall Michael Meeks pointing out to me that many of the fixes he and his team had landed were only available in the Linux build.  The contributor agreement has also come under attack (also by Michael) even though it was there for fairly sane reasons (and it was certainly nowhere near as painful a read as the Canonical one).  But in spite of all of these things, OpenOffice.org has attracted a real community which has -let’s say it- changed the world.

When people complain to me about the OpenOffice.org user experience, I like to laughingly tell them how much better it is than in 1998.  While that might not convince many users, it is the literal truth, that OpenOffice.org has made massive strides in UX, and I am sure that LibreOffice will only push this harder and faster.  OpenOffice.org has become a viable alternative for governments and businesses around the world: it meets the needs of the vast, vast majority of users.  I consider myself a heavy document user and I consider that OpenOffice.org meets my needs.  OpenOffice.org’s market share is also a great deal higher than many people suppose (although I suspect that this figure is inflated by Sun and Oracle’s bizarre habit of distributing OpenOffice.org through Java platform upgrades).

Above all, OpenOffice.org and OASIS drove Microsoft to the standards table.  The Open Document Format was passed as an ISO standard in 2006, truly threatening on of Microsoft’s cash cows.  I (and may others) think that Microsoft’s response to this – incentivising Microsoft partner companies to go  rampaging through ISO member organisation, was a low point in Microsoft’s history.  But now we have two ISO document standards, ODF and OOXML, one of which, ODF, has been implemented in multiple programmes and web services, and is playing the role of a standard (the OOXML spec is around 12 times longer than the ODF one and has yet to be implemented to my knowledge).

To be clear, this post isn’t about bashing Microsoft, although their behaviour has lead people to question if ISO is indeed a suitable organisation for any software standard.  No, this is about something much more important than any organisation, business or foundation, that exists today.

Web standards are well understood as being important to the development of the web itself.  But if we care about the Internet, we should also care about the rights of individuals with respect to documents.  One of the strangest features of Microsoft’s enormous market share over the past 20 years has been the effect of creating a set of effectively proprietary standards: Word, Excel and Powerpoint are synonyms for text, spreadsheet and presentation.  But the creation and sharing of such basic artifacts of modern communication as these should be something that can be done by anyone, without being beholden to someone else, and innovation in this field should not be controlled by a single entity.

OpenOffice.org and OASIS have achieved this today for a brave or needy or innovative few.  The creation of an independent foundation and a new development direction to create a much more usable office suite seem like excellent next steps.  Indeed, it’s a delight to read in the FAQ that the Mozilla Foundation provides some of the inspiration for these developments.  My favourite perspective (one that I shared upon hearing the news), comes from Guy Lunardi of OpenSuse

Ultimately, we envision LibreOffice doing for the office productivity market what Mozilla Firefox has done for browsers.

…and the Document Foundation doing for document standards what the Mozilla Foundation has achieved with web standards.

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The end of OpenSolaris?

[updated following Mo's comment]

Just five years after an even that sparked a global celebration, and one that I was proud to be a part of, the dream appears to be over.  And what promised to be the start of a new era, if not of dominance, at least of a renewed competitiveness, proved to be a chimera.  Yes, just five short years after Liverpool won the Champions League in Istanbul, the club’s constrained ambitions were fully revealed by the signing of the distinctly limited left-back Paul Konchesky.  Oh, and Oracle confirmed that the OpenSolaris project, launched in 2005, is effectively dead.

Adam Leventhal offers a rather interesting perspective on OpenSolaris, and it’s a perspective I share much – but not all – of.  But to understand how the project could make so much sense for Sun and so little for Oracle, I think it’s necessary to understand the mentality at Sun.   Specifically, the dot-com boom was a success from which Sun never truly recovered.  The company grew far more rapidly than seemed advisable, quality and culture the obvious victims.  And the aftermath of the dot-com boom, and the emergence of Linux and horizontal scaling, placed Sun in a very obvious bind.  Sun’s previously unassailable technological advantages were being attacked by that most dangerous of competitors, a commodity market.  Nothing stung (nor stuck) more than the label Merrill Lynch pinned on Sun in 2003, that is was in danger of becoming “irrelevant”.

The response, initially ungracious, turned to one of acceptance, respect and accommodation for what appeared to be a cyclical phenomenon.  Greg Papadoloulos, Sun’s CTO summed up the world view, as “Red Shift” (a term which refers to the property of light from astral bodies that are moving away from the viewer).  The idea was that the technology market was always subject to commoditisation,  a sort of Moore’s Law writ large: processors, storage, software – all would be subject to lower and lower prices (and it is staggering when you consider what 1GB of storage cost 10 years ago and what it costs today).  Sun’s strategy, then, was to look for the “red shift” segment – the segment of the market that want more than commoditisation will offer, that want to stay “ahead of the curve”, for whom technology is a prime competitive weapon, and a centre for investment.  This is actually a throw-back to the dot-com era: Sun was still hoping to capture the startups, and if Sun had capitalised on the the first boom, it had missed out badly on “Web 2.0″.

Sun aspired to be central to the next network-inspired boom, and it was understood that to do that, you had to be promiscuous, available, familiar, and easy-to-acquire.  Hence open source, and hence OpenSolaris, and hence creating an OpenSolaris distribution (rather than just offer the source).

The OpenSolaris distribution, project Indiana, was controversial for its two reasons – firstly, it exposed the fact that Sun retained the trademark “OpenSolaris” and could and would use it to further its strategy.  How serious was this?  Even if you felt that OpenSolaris did need a binary distribution, it was deeply divisive.  For example, it caused the esteemed and founding OpenSolaris Governance Board member Roy Fielding to resign from the project, commenting “this well is poisoned“.  This controversy also partially hid the second issue (something that Adam identifies, and which in truth predated project Indiana), that a lot of OpenSolaris development was aimed at making something usable on the desktop, rather than an enterprise-class operating system.

The question that was constantly aimed at Jonathan Schwartz and other Sun executives (and is one I still get, working as I still am, for an open source project), is “how do you make money?”.  Sun was always somewhat evasive on this point – but essentially Sun would continue to make money from servicing its enterprise customers and defend that business, while strategy was geared up to become a ubiquitous – i.e. highly relevant – vendor once more.

What does Oracle care of this? Not a great deal.  For all their red-blooded tough-guy image, Oracle are as much farmers as they are hunters, and they understand that it is much easier to rertain customers than to acquire them.  What does Oracle care for the red shift?  By definition, it’s a sector that doesn’t have much money, unlike Sun’s traditional customer base.

When Merrill Lynch called Sun “irrelevant”, it also went on to say that it expected Sun would “eventually be acquired for its installed base“.  That is debatable, because by the time Sun was acquired by Oracle, it was a veritable smörgåsbord of technologies that would have interested Oracle, including Java and MySQL.  But still, it’s an interesting lens to view the acquisition through.  Oracle cares much more about delivering an enterprise-class operating system than it does about providing useful and accessible technology for developers.

So, farewell OpenSolaris?  As the project is currently constituted, it seems so.  But happily, there is a community around the code, a community that has grown and diversified and is now genuinely independent.  The one aspect of the project that was most roundly criticised in 2005, the CDDL, would appear to be one of the things that has most guaranteed the longevity of the community post-Sun.  Participants in the Illumos community appear (to my non-lawyerly mind) to be safeguarded  from any claims from Oracle, at least for the code released under the CDDL.  Oracle’s aggression towards Google over Android is not a great concern for Illumos.

And what of Liverpool’s back four?  Well, with the arrival on Konchesy and Raul Meireles we might suppose that Roy Hodgson intends to play a 4-2-3-1 (pioneered by Benitez in Liverpool’s 2007 defeat by AC Milan, unless you know better, and almost universally adopted at the 2010 world cup).  What’s more, Liverpool have retained their crown jewels in Gerard and Torres, and we know that 4-2-3-1 is system they both shine in.  The future for OpenSolaris and Liverpool could be so much worse.

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Serendipity

Suddenly, everyone is in the serendipity business.  Facebook Places promises “serendipitous meet ups between users”.  StumbledUpon reckons it will bring “serendipitous discovery” to iPhone users, and no less an authority on happy coincidences than Google’s CEO is talking about calculating and producing serendipity electronically.   Well, after the last few weeks, my faith in the future of the Internet is genuinely shaken.  Like many people, I am still trying to understand what the very real prospect of the end of net neutrality might mean.

I am from Liverpool, and therefore immediately associated with either football or the Beatles.  I take great pleasure in both.  The Liverpool of the late 1950s that gave birth to the Beatles was a famously fertile ground for music, and especially rock’n’roll (known as “Merseybeat”).  There are a few possible explanations for this, but the most plausible is that the ships arriving from the US (Liverpool was the main transatlantic seaport) brought with them the rock’n’roll and blues records that were in the charts in the States.

It’s worth reflecting that these would have been “grey” imports, exchanged outside of commercial framework the copyright holders would have imagined for themselves, and facilitated by a global communications infrastructure that was barely aware of transporting them. This is how the teenaged Lennon and McCartney discovered their destinies.

The Internet offers possibilities for similar cultural and intellectual cross-pollination, only on a scale previously unimagined.  But wouldn’t an Internet operated for the highest bidder be an Internet that exists almost entirely for the transmission of more and more intimate advertising?  You don’t have to subscribe to the worldview of Ms Naomi Klein to consider this bleak.  I’d recommend reading (for those who have not), The Affluent Society, -also a product of the late 50s- when considering just how felicitous these circumstances might be.

That’s why I believe in the importance of neutrality.  I don’t think that neutrality need be cast as a left-versus-right, regulate-or-deregulate discussion and I am saddened when I read it characterised as such.  I firmly agree with the Mozilla manifesto. The Internet is integral to modern life; the Internet is a global public resource.  Its capacity to facilitate disruption has been a phenomenal engine of economic and (in some or other sense) cultural growth, granting us that great curse of “exciting times”.  There would be nothing serendipitous about an early demise to this.

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