Post Open Services

The real Open Source _ proliferation problem

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

The Open Source Initiative, best known for keeping a list of licenses compliant with its Open Source Definition, has hired its first-ever full time paid staffer, Patrick Masson as General Manager.

Masson’s blog has lots of good entries (if you just want to be amused, try a 10 year press release diff). One thing he bemoans repeatedly and pithily (It’s “many eyeballs…” not “many projects…”) is too much fragmentation and too little collaboration among open source projects. His most recent post, Joiners, Not Starters:

What’s painful is that there are already over 350 open source communities developing learning management systems. I find it frustrating and hypocritical to hear, “This is a great time to get involved for people who are interested in helping to shape this project…” from people who chose not to get involved–rather, choosing to do something on their own. Why is it a great time to join the Adapt project over any other existing effort looking to build community for support, contribution and collaboration? Why didn’t the folks who are developing Adapt take advantage of this great time in open source development and join an existing initiative? Indeed, couldn’t every current open source project (substituting out Adapt for their own name) use the above announcement to generate awareness and adoption of their own project?

Sounds just like the first question/advice for anyone looking to start a new organization. Economies of scale are hard to beat. But fragmentation is much worse for software, so much of its value coming from network effects. When lots of people, preferably most of the relevant population, are using a software application, it’s easy to find training, advice, employees, commercial support, and preinstalls of that software. It is easy to figure out which software is pertinent. Massively valuable stuff. Oh, and more people contributing to making the software better, if it is open source.

When there are lots of open source alternatives for a particular kind of software, and this contributes to none of them being dominant, the ability of open source to compete with proprietary vendors and deliver freedom to users and society, is severely hampered. More or less killed. (The inverse can also be true, but probably with many fewer instances.) The Linux desktop is probably an example. Further, public policy is negatively impacted: fragmented projects serve at best as existence proofs, dominant open projects powerfully shape the policy conversation, and the policy ecosystem — by wiping out the capitalization of entities aligned with rent seeking.

People who know the open source world well like to worry about about “license proliferation” (which the OSI’s license list mentioned at the beginning serves to throttle) and related, license incompatibility. I do too, including in and across nearby spaces, to the extent I think it is a minor tragedy that licenses first developed for software didn’t also come to dominate culture, data, hardware, etc, yet. But I’m pretty sure the open world could cope with each project adapting or developing a license just for its own use, though it would be hugely annoying. Fortunately, progress has often been in the right direction.

Project/program proliferation and related dwarfish network effects and collaboration are much, much bigger problems. There are cases where a dominant program has arisen from a highly fragmented field (eg WordPress among a mess of open source blog engines, Django among lots of Python web framework, git among a smaller number of distributed version control systems), but I’m not sure this has ever come about because people agitated against proliferation. There are standards-like collaborations among projects, such as freedesktop.org, which can result in more sharing of code and collaboration among projects, but I’m not sure do much to enable mass adoption and network effects. What more can be done, given that of course it will always be acceptable, often educational, and very occasionally wildly successful to work on Yet Another Foo?

  • The low-hanging fruit is to help projects become easier for new contributors to get involved in, and friendly for staying involved in. Decrease the cost of contributing to existing projects, more will choose to do that rather than start, or leave to start, new projects.
  • I don’t have much insight into the politically charged process of picking winners and merging efforts. Distributions (which are themselves terribly fragmented) probably already do a lot. Could they do more? Could institutions broker mergers? Could OSI? Stun all by bringing LibreOffice and OpenOffice together. GNOME, KDE, and Unity as well. How about federated social web efforts?
  • Marketing, promotion, sales. These are what any large proprietary software company does (same outside software, for publishing, etc.), and what open source projects need a lot more of, both to compete directly with proprietary industry, and to help winners with huge network effects emerge.

Each of these points also apply very strongly to non-software projects.

Another thing Masson repeatedly bemoans on his blog, and that I very much agree with, is the lack of “open” advocates eating their own dogfood — using open things other than the one they’re promoting, or open things from fields other than the one they’re supposedly opening:

However with so little folks actually interested in openness, but rather promoting their open product, we just don’t see the level of adoption we should with all open initiatives. Basically, if I can be blunt, you’re a hypocrite if you get up in front of your peers to proclaim the superiority of your project because it embraces open principles and practices, arguing it is those principles and practices that yield better products, but you yourself have not adopted other open resources. “Hold on, let me open up PowerPoint to tell you about how bad commercial software is.”

This not only harms network effects (or rather, has “open” advocates contributing to the network effects of proprietary software, culture, etc), but reduces knowledge transfer across open projects and fields. Masson seems to come from the education technology world; if that is anything like the open education[al resources] world, I suspect he’s speaking from painful experience.

Congratulations to OSI and Masson. I look froward to amazing progress on the above problems and many others! You can support their work by joining OSI as an individual member. Of course I also recommend joining the Free Software Foundation as an individual member. Because open source means freedom.

“We’ve found that lots of messages from googlegroups.com are spam”

Monday, September 16th, 2013

gmail screenshot with googlegroups.com are spam explanation

Take this as an indication that running a large mailing list hosting service, and keeping it relatively free of spam, is very hard. Google Groups is unlikely to be shut down anytime soon, but maybe all messages and groups will be migrated to Google+ posts and communities, respectively. Lots of people would hate that, but Google controls the identifiers (this is probably most immediately pertinent), transitioning ownership or stewardship of services is hard, and the software isn’t free (but, at least non-software copyright may not be much of a practical obstacle; has anyone ever been threatened or actually prevented from mirroring mailing list archives?). The world would move on.

Two other amusing but less indicative of anything about the service screenshots of Gmail, from 2009.

show quoted text

signature cascade

If you want FLOSS alternatives to GMail and Google Groups, commercial ones include MyKolab and OnlineGroups respectively. Both are expensive; a post explaining why MyKolab is. If you’re politically aligned, Riseup provides mail and lists (their NSA statement; I’m surprised I haven’t seen the string alternastructure until now). Mailman 3⸮ And if you want everything to move to social-networky-but-free platforms, not much has changed since 3 months ago.

Googbye Adalytics

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

I featured a 468×60 Google AdSense block in the footer of this blog since 2004-08-30, and included Google Analytics javascript since 2006-12-29. I failed to note adding either.

I’m behind on my 8 year blog refutation schedule, will probably do a six middle months post rather than Q2 and Q3 separately; see Q1. In the meantime, I’ll note removing AdSense and Analytics now.

I added AdSense as a small way of getting to know a hugely significant part of the net a little better through direct experience. My revenue expectations were met over the years — trivial, due to trivial traffic and relatively innocuous placement. Viewing my blog with a browser sans adblock and with flash for the first time in perhaps years just now prompted the removal and this post, which I had planned to do in the fullness of time — the innocuous placement was still ugly, and with flash enabled all of the ads are graphical and many animated. Clearly I have learned all I am capable of learning via this experiment, which I am glad I did. If I ever have something characterized as third party ads here again, it’ll be via some very different mechanism.

I more dimly recall adding Analytics because I never looked at log analysis generated reports, and maybe if I looked I would find something to optimize. I seldom looked at Analytics, and never discerned anything. If I really feel the urge to look again, I’ll use a log analysis program, and if I want an Analytics-like interface, use Piwik. I realize for some analysis, and especially some experiments, in-page javascript can be very helpful. If I ever really want to do that, Piwik can.

Relatedly, I’ve meant to recommend Don Marti’s blog for a long time, when I got around to saying and doing more about net advertising, but don’t wait for me.

Exit skype loyalty

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Why Doesn’t Skype Include Stronger Protections Against Eavesdropping?

At the EFF blog Seth Schoen speculates that Microsoft could be under continuous secret court orders which could possibly be interpreted to not allow it to add privacy protecting features to Skype. Maybe, but this can’t explain why Skype did not protect users prior to acquisition by Microsoft.

Schoen’s post closes with (emphasis in original):

That’s certainly not the case today, legally or technically—today, different kinds of calls offer drastically different levels of privacy and security. On some mobile networks, calls aren’t encrypted at all and hence are even broadcast over the air. Some Internet calls are encrypted in a way that protects users against some kinds of interception and not others. Some calls are encrypted with tools that include privacy and security features that Skype is lacking. Users deserve to understand exactly how the communications technologies they use do or don’t protect them. If Microsoft has reasons to think this situation is going to change, we need to know what those reasons are.

I’ll throw out some definite reasons users aren’t getting the protection and information deserved (secret court orders may be additional reasons):

  • Features have costs (engineering, UX, support); why should a developer bother with any feature when:
  • Few users have expressed demand for such features through either exit or voice;
  • Advocates who believe users deserve protection and information have failed to adequately increase actual user and policy demand for such;
  • Advocates and would-be providers of tools giving users what they deserve have failed to adequately deliver (especially to market! few users know about these tools) such.

In short Skype has not protected users or informed them about lack of protection because they face near zero threat (regulatory or competitive product) which would interest them in doing so.

EFF is doing as well and as much as any entity at generally informing users who probably already care a little bit (they’re reached by the EFF’s messages) and a whole lot more deserving of support. Keep that voice up but please always include exit instructions. Name “tools that include privacy and security features”; I see a screenshot of Pidgin in the EFF post, give them some love! Or better, Jitsi, the most feasible complete Skype replacement for all platforms. Otherwise your good efforts will be swamped by Skype user loyaltynetwork effect lockin.

Related argument: Realize Document Freedom Day; on topic: Free, open, secure and convenient communications: Can we finally replace Skype, Viber, Twitter and Facebook?

Life in the possibly bright future of the federated social indieweb

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

After about five years (2.5 year update) it’s hard not to be disappointed in the state of the federated social web. Legacy silos have only increased their dominance, abetting mass spying, and interop among federated social web experiments looks bleak (link on different topic, but analogous).

In hindsight it was disappointing 5 years ago that blogs and related (semweb 1.0?) technologies hadn’t formed the basis of the federated social web (my pet theory is that the failure is in part due to the separation of blog post/comment writing and feed reading).

Another way of looking at it is that despite negligible resources focused on the problem, much progress has been made in figuring out how to do the federated social web over the past five years. Essentially nothing recognizable as a social web application federated five years ago. There are now lots of experiments, and two of the pioneers have learned enough to determine a rewrite was necessary — Friendica→Red and the occasion for this post, StatusNet→pump.io.

Right now is a good time to try out a federated social web service (hosted elsewhere, or run your own instance) again, or for the first time:

My opinion, at the moment: pump.io has the brightest future, Diaspora appears the most featureful (inclusive of looking nice) to users, and Friendica is the best at federating with other systems. Also see a comparison of software and protocols for distributed social networking and the Federated Social Web W3C community group.

The Indie Web movement is complementary, and in small part might be seen as taking blog technologies and culture forward. When I eventually rebuild a personal site, or a new site for an organization, indieweb tools and practices will be my first point of reference. Their Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere and Publish Elsewhere, Syndicate (to your) Own Site concepts are powerful and practical, and I think what a lot of people want to start with from federated social web software.

*Running StatusNet as I write, to be converted to pump.io over the next hours. The future of StatusNet is to be at GNU social.

List of Wikimania 2013 Submissions of Interest

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Unlikely I’ll attend Wikimania 2013 in Hong Kong (I did last year in DC). In lieu of marking myself as an interested attendee of proposed sessions, my list of 32 particularly interesting-to-me proposals follows. I chose by opening the proposal page for each of the 331 submissions that looked interesting at first glance (about 50) and weeded out some of those.

I suspect many of these proposals might be interesting reading for anyone generally curious about possible futures of Wikipedia and related, similar, and complementary projects, but not following any of these things closely.

A “kill hollyweb” plan

Friday, May 3rd, 2013
May 3 is the Day Against DRM (Digital Restrictions Management). Please sign the petition against DRM in the HTML5 standard. Then come back and read this post.

Recently I wrote in Why DRM in HTML5 and what to do about it:

Long term, the only way the DRM threat is going to be put to rest is for free cultural works to become culturally relevant.

I’ve complained many a time that rearguard clicktivism against bad policy is not a winning strategy — especially when such campaigns don’t also promote free-as-in-freedom software and cultural works — because as I put it one of those times:

In a world in which most software and culture are free as in freedom there would be no constituency for attacking the Internet (apart from dictatorships and militarized law enforcement of supposed democracies)

But I’m at fault too for not laying out a specific plan for making some free works culturally relevant, let alone carrying out such a plan.

OK, here’s one plan I recently mentioned offhandedly:

‘free-as-in-freedom ~netflix’
  • crowdfund minimum number of subscriptions needed to begin
  • subscriptions used to really nicely package/stream and promote free as in freedom video
  • start with 1 feature-length video selection each month (perhaps even quarter during a beta phase)
  • mix of contemporary (of which there isn’t much yet) and older public domain movies
  • limited, promoted releases concentrate subscription audience: focused increase of cultural relevance, one work at a time
  • given enough subscriptions, start funding new free videos
  • obviously videos would be DRM-free, in free formats, all software used free software, and all ancillary material also free-as-in-freedom

Good idea? Run with it, or if you’d like to subscribe or otherwise help create it in any way, fill out this 3 question survey. Bad idea, but still care? Let me know via the survey. Or mail ml@gondwanaland.com or contact user mlinksva on some other usual channel.



“Kill Hollyweb” is in part a reference to the Y Combinator Request For Startups 9: Kill Hollywood. The plan above isn’t really a Kill Hollywood plan as it isn’t about replacing movies with some other form of entertainment.

Products that embody openness the most powerful way to shape the policy conversation

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Aza Raskin writing about Mozilla:

Developing products that embody openness is the most powerful way to shape the policy conversation. Back those products with hundreds of millions of users and you have a game-changing social movement.

I completely agree, at least when “product” and “policy” are construed broadly — both include, e.g., marketing and adoption/use/joining of products, communities, ethics, ideas, etc. Raskin’s phrasing also (understandably, as he’s working for Mozilla) emphasizes central organizations as the actor (which backs products with users, rather than users adopting the product, and participating in its development) more than I’d like, but that’s nuance.

This is why I complain about rearguard clicktivism against bad policy that totally fails to leverage the communication opportunity to also promote good policy and especially products that embody good policy, and even campaigns for good policy concepts that fail to also promote products which embody the promoted policy.

To summarize, there’s product competition and policy competition, and I think the former is hugely undersold as potently changing the latter. (There’s also beating-of-the-bounds, perhaps with filesharing and wikileaks as examples, which has product and policy competition aspects, but seems a distinct kind of action; which ought to be brought into closer conversation with the formal sector.)

The main point of Raskin’s post is that Mozilla is a second-mover, taking proven product segments and developing products for them which embody openness, and that it could do that in more segments, various web applications in particular. I look forward to more Mozilla services.

A lot of what Wikipedia and Public Library of Science have done very successfully could also be considered “second mover”, injecting freedom into existing categories — sometimes leading to exploding the a category with something qualitatively and quantitatively huger.

I admit that the phrase I pulled from Raskin’s post merely confirms (and this by authority!) a strongly held bias of mine. How to test? Failing that, what are the best arguments against?

Realize Document Freedom Day

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

Open formats and open standards are excellent causes, but without free/open source software implementations and widespread adoption thereof, the causes are uphill battles, at best. So I’m appalled that the Document Freedom Day (which is today, March 27) website information and suggested actions are merely conceptual.

Let’s fix that, here’s the deal. Download, try, become an expert:

LibreOffice. If in 2013 you’re still using Microsoft Office, you’re either in an organization/industry with extreme lock-in through custom business automation or similar that is built exclusively on Microsoft tools, or you’re actively contributing to the destruction of freedom and equality in the world. If you’ve never tried LibreOffice, or if you’ve tried one of its predecessors (OpenOffice) more than a year ago, try LibreOffice (again) now. It’s excellent, including at reading and writing non-free document formats, a necessity for adoption. But most of the value in software is not inherent, rather in many people using and knowing the software. Network effects rule, and you can make a huge difference! If you can’t be bothered, make up for it with a large donation to The Document Foundation, LibreOffice’s nonprofit organization.

As the DFD website explains, document freedom isn’t just about word processor and spreadsheet documents, or even just about storage formats, but any format used to store or transmit data. Thus I put Jitsi as the second most important application to use in order to realize document freedom. It implements open standards such as XMPP and SIP to provide all of the functionality of Skype, which is completely proprietary in its formats and implementation, willing to work with oppressive governments, and increasingly castigated as bloatware or even malware by people who don’t care much about freedom. Jitsi recently released 2.0. If in the unlikely event you’ve tried it before, it’s definitely worth another look.

Probably everyone knows about Firefox, but not everyone uses it, and it does have the best support for open formats of the top browsers. Also, Firefox has progressed very nicely the last years.

Praise for Document Freedom Day

DFD has missed an opportunity to promote the realization of document freedom, but that would be good in addition to, not in place of their existing messages. Direct use of free software that implements open standards is incredibly powerful, but not the only way to make progress, and despite my mini-rant above The free software movement attaches too much political significance to personal practice. People should demand their governments and other institutions adopt open standards and free software, even if people cannot do so as individuals, just as people should generally demand adoption of good policy even if they cannot personally live wholly as if good policy were already in place.

DFD does a reasonable job of raising awareness of good policy. I strongly encourage doing a bit to realize document freedom today, but sharing a link to documentfreedom.org on your social networks helps too. Just a little bit, but what can you expect from clicktivism?

I expect pro-free/open clicktivism to promote the realization of freedom!

I have similar complaints about Defective By Design campaigns. Speaking of which, their No DRM in HTML5 campaign is highly pertinent to DFD!

Putatively “open” advocates and organizations sending around .docx files and such, above mini-rant applies especially to you.

April (a French free software organization) has some nice posters explaining open formats.

Open Knowledge Foundation

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

I used to privately poke fun at the Open Knowledge Foundation for what seemed like a never-ending stream of half-baked projects (and domains, websites, lists, etc). I was wrong.

(I have also criticized OKF’s creation of a database-specific copyleft license, but recognize its existence is mostly Creative Commons’ fault, just as I criticize some of Creative Commons’ licenses but recognize that their existence is mostly due to a lack of vision on the part of free software activists.)

Some of those projects have become truly impressive (eg the Public Domain Review and CKAN, the latter being a “data portal” deployed by numerous governments in direct competition with proprietary “solutions”; hopefully my local government will eventually adopt the instance OpenOakland has set up). Some projects once deemed important seem relatively stagnant, but were way ahead of their time, if only because the non-software free/open universe painfully lags software (eg, KnowledgeForge). I haven’t kept track of most OKF projects, but whichever ones haven’t succeeded wildly don’t seem to have caused overall problems.

Also, in the past couple years, OKF has sprouted local groups around the world.

Why has the OKF succeeded, despite what seemed to me for a time chaotic behavior?

  • It knows what it is doing. Not necessarily in terms of having a solid plan for every project it starts, but in the more fundamental sense of knowing what it is trying to accomplish, grounded by its own definition of what open knowledge is (unsurprisingly it is derived from the Open Source Definition). I’ve been on the advisory council for that definition for most of its existence, and this year I’m its chair. I wrote a post for the OKF blog today reiterating the foundational nature of the definition and its importance to the success of OKF and the many “open” movements in various fields.
  • It has been a lean organization, structured to be able to easily expand and contract in terms of paid workers, allowing it to pursue on-mission projects rather than be dominated by permanent institutional fundraising.
  • It seems to have mostly brought already committed open activists/doers into the organization and its projects.
  • The network (eg local groups) seems to have grown fairly organically, rather than from a top-down vision to create an umbrella that all would attach themselves toview with great skepticism.

OKF is far from perfect (in particular I think it is too detached from free/open source software, to the detriment of open data and reducing my confidence it will continue to say on a fully Open course — through action and recruitment — one of their more ironic practices at this moment is the Google map at the top of their local groups page [Update: already fixed, see comments]). But it is an excellent organization, at this point probably the single best connection to all things Open, irrespective of field or geography.

Check them out online, join or start a local group, and if you’re interested in the minutiae of of whether particular licenses for intended-to-be-open culture/data/education/government/research works are actually open, help me out with OKF’s OpenDefinition.org project.