Archive for September, 2009

OSS: the real point is software control

Ah, the morning aroma of a freshly brewed flame war… With our restless Matt Asay that sternly observes that in the free software/open source war, open source won and we are all the better for it. Of course, this joins the rack of those that consider Richard Stallman a relic of a passed era, or the thoughtful comments of my favourite thinker, Glyn Moody, or the pragmatic and reasoned views of  Matthew Aslett of the 451 group.

If there is one thing that emerges clearly from all these discussions, is that fundamentalism is wrong. It is wrong when it is spelled “OSS is better”, it is wrong when it claims “Microsoft is better” without any reasoning. Because rational thinking should be the basis of discussion, not religion. This is not to say that religion or moral motivations are bad- but beliefs should be recognised beforehand, to avoid turning any discussion into a flame war. That’s why I may feel at ease in criticizing Stallman for what I perceive as personal attacks, and at the same time recognize the fact that without him and the GPL the free software and open source world would be much less developed and relevant.

My perspective is simple: every user, developer, administrator that depends on software (and basically everyone does, today) should think before using a software or service, and understand who control it, and if this “who” is not the user, what can happen. It is not just a question of “religious beliefs” but practical thinking: is the software yours? Does the service you are using gives you the opportunity of moving somewhere else? What happens if the developers are not going in the direction you need?

If we consider this as the basis for discussion, lots of arguments in the OSS/FS camp become much simpler. The crusade against software patents is a way of defending the rights of use of the end-user against arbitrary legal attacks; in this sense, the only real reason for being not happy of having something like Mono is not the fact that it is a Microsoft “standard”, but the fact that it is probably covered by unknown patents. The same thing applies for Flash- most people is dependent from a single company for what amounts as a platform, still not replicated by OSS alternatives (like Gnash) and in any case potentially covered by patents not only by Adobe, but by many other companies as well. The “victory of pragmatism” that Matt proclaims is not actually related to FS and OSS (that are the same exact thing) but the general overcoming of emotional based arguments, that is absolutely a positive thing.

But the “new pragmatism” should also be viewed with suspicion, exactly as the claims that free software is “better” without reason. I will make the example of Mono: now it is pushed as a way to overcome what is equally proprietary, that is Flash. What happens when Microsoft stops promoting it? It is OSS, s0 it can theoretically go on forever, but very few will risk infringing patents with it, and so it will remain more or less limited to those shops already using .NET elsewhere (thus having paid for the right of use), limiting its growth potential. The scenario is not so unbelievable, after the unveiling of a real Silverlight port to Moblin, that makes Mono more or less redundant. Some “open core” systems suffer of the same problem: the user is forced, by the proprietary part, to abide to whatever decision is made by the vendor, independently of what OSS license the “open” part is licensed with.

The uncritical embracing of online services is similarly flawed: what happens if the company goes bankrupt, or discontinue the service? If you use EC2, you can always create your own infrastructure using Eucalyptus and continue your work. Can you say the same of all the services that are being promoted right now? Can you get a complete copy of your data, move it somewhere else?

Control is what really matters, on-premise and online. Who, how such control is performed, what it may affects. You may prefer the ethical angle (like Stallman did) or the economic angle (like I do) but the end result is the same, exactly like free software and open source are the same. The critical aspect is being able to assess this control and weight if the lack of control is compensated by the features you get (which is reasonable) or what kind of risk are you accepting in exchange. You like the integrated set of features proposed by Microsoft? That’s good as long as you know that some of the actions that they did in the past were not exactly transparent, and that your control of their offering is very limited. You like Google? Good! Just understand what happens if Gmail does not work. You prefer open source? Good! But with the increased control you get with it, you also get responsibility and increased effort.

Always ask yourself: it is your software, or not? Think about it, and don’t let the question disappear from your mind, because your business may depend on it.

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ChromeOS, Jolicloud, and web desktops

There is very little that Google says that is not analyzed to death, and that sometimes leave people puzzled. The announcement of Google Chrome-OS, a Linux-based lean operating system designed to streamline the use of web-based applications (especially for NetBooks) left a few scratching heads in the blogosphere, and was promptly dismissed by Microsoft as irrelevant. It is true that examples of the same concept abound, like the nicely executed Jolicloud or the various Ubuntu netbook remixes; at the same time, the clout and market power of Google has of course an undeniable impact.

The interesting point is that more than the idea of a lean Linux desktop, the fact that an enhanced web browser (along with some additions like Flash, HTML5, Gears and whatever) can nowadays be considered an effective desktop replacement is something that just one or two years ago could have been considered heretic, and with good reasons. But now, I do most of my writing in Zoho (that is in terms of features much better than Google docs), I use my Zimbra web-based client, I have a java-applet for SSH and even a Quake Live account for the occasional fragfest.You can do video editing, play music, watch TV, code, and there is no doubt that the amount of things possible within a browser will only increase.

The interesting point is that having a web-based infrastructure provides an alternative to all-out virtualization, thanks to the almost stateless approach that is typical of HTTP; having most of the processing handled by the browser reduces the server-side costs of providing services of one order of magnitude or more, while facilitating things like high-availability and in general accessibility. Not only that, but application provisioning become something simple and comprehensible, easily enhanced by the various strong single-sign-on system that are now available (and open source, like OpenSSO).

The browser, along with the innumerable additions that are now used, has become a good enough platform for computing for the mythical 95% of the population-and the cost savings of using a transaction-based architecture when compared to desktop-based (and pixel-based) rendering makes it very clear that the approach will continue to be explored.

The announcement (and, I hope, near future release of ChromeOS) will not in itself mark a significant change in the landscape, at least not without a substantial support (for example, as part of the BIOS of netbooks) of hardware vendors and an increase in availability of cheap and unmetered (or nearly-unmetered) bandwidth. It may, however, create a co-marketing opportunity that can be leveraged by mobile and converged telcos, for a remotely-managed, secure and extremely cheap design. Such a design can be extremely effective for business users, that need security, manageability and independence – all through a standard web browser. And if traditional pixel-based remotization is still necessary for legacy applications, it is still possible to export them, safely tunneled in an HTTPS connection, through open protocols like SPICE or RDP (eventually compiling the viewer as a native client application, so it can be delivered safely along with the connection).

Even if ChromeOS is not successful, I believe that within 2 years the concept in itself will be so economically compelling that it will make desktop virtualization marginal at best.

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