Christmas wish: Distro hardware buyer’s guide

freesoftware, General 23 Comments

As a long time free software user, every time I buy hardware I have the same decision paralysis. Will the graphics card be fully supported? Are the drivers stable? Will the on-board wifi, sound card, and the built-in webcam Just Work? Will they work if I spend hours hunting down drivers and installing kernel modules (and remembering to reinstall them every time my distro upgrades the kernel)? Or will they stay broken for at least 6 months, until the next version of the OS is released?

I’ve gone through this dance many times in the past – with an Intel 915 graphics chip, and an Nvidia chip before that, with multiple webcams, USB headsets, a scanner, a graphics tablet, digital cameras and sound chips.

Thankfully, problems with digital cameras and sound chips seems to be more or less a thing of the past, except for those USB headsets, but there are still issues with webcams, scanners,tablets and wifi chips. And I keep hearing that support for graphics chips sucks for both ATI and Nvidia, making me wary of both (and thus about 80% of computers on the market).

So when I go shopping for hardware, it sucks to be me. I haven’t tested all this stuff, and I don’t know how much of it works perfectly out of the box. What I need is to decide what software I’m going to put on it, and have hardware recommendations per price point from the software distributor, so that I can just go to my local Surcouf, FNAC or whatever, and just look at one label & say “That’s only 90% supported, no custom from me!”

Does one exist already? I really liked the Samsung NC20 page I found on the Ubuntu wiki, but I would have preferred to see it before buying. The laptop testing team page on Ubuntu is along the lines of what I want, but it doesn’t take a position on any of the hardware, which is what I need. I want Canonical to say “buy this one, it’s great” or “don’t buy that one, unless you’re prepared to spend 2 days messing with drivers”. I know this might piss off some partners, but it’d be really helpful to me. And isn’t that more important?

What I’d like to see is laptops ordered by level of support out-of-box & after fiddling, on the latest version of Ubuntu. So the NC20, for example, would get a 60% “Out of the box” rating (because the video card just doesn’t work at all), and a 90% “after fiddling” rating (because of the CPU frequency issue, lack of support for 3d in graphics driver, and graphics driver instability).

Anyone able to point me to a Linux hardware buyer’s guide that dates from 2009 that gives what I’m looking for?

2009 blog links collection

community, freesoftware, gnome, maemo, marketing, running, work Comments Off on 2009 blog links collection

Looking back on 2009, I wrote quite a bit on here which I would like to keep and reference for the future.

This is a collection of my blog entries which gave, in my opinion, the most food for thought this year.

Free software business practice

Community dynamics and governance

Software licensing & other legal issues

Other general stuff

Happy Christmas everyone, and have a great 2010.

Side-effects of copyright assignment

community, freesoftware, General 1 Comment

Michael Meeks wrote a great piece on the consequences of copyright assignment on free software projects yesterday. He has a lot of experience in the area, and has gone from fervent advocate to something of an outspoken opponent of copyright assignment through his involvement in the project in recent years.

One of the things that Michael said in his book is that commercial agreements with partners (resellers and redistributors), made possible by copyright assignment or sharing, can work against the core principles of free software. He cites some examples, but there are many ways that companies use their dominant position within the project:

  • Vendor X agrees to commercially license their software, on condition that any changes that the licensee makes to the software in the future be submitted only to the vendor. By removing the right to redistribute changes from the licensee, the vendor prevents the licensee from participating in any forks of the project. SugarCRM’s EULA contains a no-forking clause, for example. Ironically, it also contains a “standard” non-reverse-engineering clause, so you may look at the source code before buying the enterprise version to see how it works, but once you are an enterprise customer, that’s off the table.
  • A vendor ties an official partner programme, support and commercial licensing together. Matt Asay has described the Alfresco parner programme, which contains these restrictions. If you want to be an official Alfresco reseller, you must agree to sell only commercially licensed Alfresco, and you must get the client to commit to a subscription before starting the support contract. You are free not to be an official Alfresco reseller, but in this case, you may not resell commercial licenses for Alfresco, or distribute any commercial add-ons.
  • No compete clauses can require commercial licensees not only not to contribute to any fork of the vendor’s product, but also to any competitor of the product. While BitKeeper was not a free software product, its licensing agreement contains many of the worst excesses you can find in vendor licenses, to the point where employees of clients were asked to stop working (in their free time) on free software competition.
  • Proprietary licenses can change under your feet. There are often clauses that allow a vendor to update the licensing agreement at will, and apply it retro-actively to existing clients. BitKeeper did this.
  • Non-disclosure rules can prevent you from publishing performance tests, for example, as in Alfresco’s trial license. Or even disclosing the terms of your agreement, as Michael suggested, meaning that you can’t even tell people what you may and may not do in the context of the proprietary agreement.

Proprietary software agreements are simply contracts between the vendor and the user, which set out the terms by which both parties agree that the user may use the vendor’s software, and gets some value off the vendor.

Contracts are a part of life. When I rent an office, I have obligations, and so does the landlord. I’m a grown-up and I can agree to whatever I want, if I’m also getting what I need from the deal. But contracts also have victims. As a community member, if you (as a user) sign a contract that says you may not participate in the community, you’re hurting the rest of the community. And if you (as a vendor) force your clients not to participate in the community, or to do so on different terms to everyone else, they you’re hurting the community too.

Since you can only do so much to hurt a community before you don’t have one, this is why I consider copyright assignment a key barrier to entry to community building. And in a vicious circle, because there is little broad community activity around most single-vendor free software projects, those vendors feel vindicated by their copyright assignment decisions, and have little reason to invest heavily in community building – since doing so gives a very low return on investment.

It is possible to build certain types of communities, even with copyright assignment – through a modular architecture which allows anyone to build plug-ins or add-ons, for example, OpenBravo has built a large community of module developers, but has seen little contribution in the core product. And perhaps building a broad and deep group of core contributors is not important to your business model or investors as a company – and that’s fine. The only point I’m making is that you can’t have your cake and eat it. It’s a balancing act between building community and maintaining control.

Save Sun jobs, let Oracle finalise acquisition

community, freesoftware, gnome 6 Comments

I’ve stayed quiet on this, but listened on the sidelines, for a while now. But the blogs I read today from Monty and Mneptok lead me to reply.

I was a long-time Sun shareholder (don’t laugh) but sold my shares as soon as the Oracle acquisition was announced. I was pretty ambivalent about the deal at the time, not really taking position on either side of the fence, and happy just to think about possibilities.

But the latest lobbying of the EU to try to stymie the deal has ticked me off.

MySQL, through their choice of licensing and business model, set the rules of the game. Sun bought MySQL for lots of money. It’s their property now. It is, as Michael Meeks said, very bad form for the guy who set up the rules to complain that they’re not fair now.

So what will the effect of Oracle’s purchase of Sun Microsystems be?

First, Oracle offered $7.4bn for Sun, while Sun (over)paid $1bn for MySQL at the beginning of 2008. That means, being generous, that MySQL makes up under 13% of Sun. And the other 87% no-one is worried about, apparently.

Second, Sun is haemorraging money. This is not surprising; any time a company offers to buy another company, all the existing customers who were planning purchases wait until the acquisition is finished. They want to know what product lines are being maintained, whether licensing, support or pricing conditions change. In short, it is expected that the revenues for a company between the moment an acquiqition is announced and the moment it is finalised go into the toilet.

Third, friends of mine work at Sun. I’m seeing them be miserable because they don’t know what role they have to play in the company. They don’t know if they’re going to have a job in a few months. And the chances of them having a job in a few months are inversely related to the amount of time until this acquisition is completed. Low employee morale during uncertainty is another inevitable consequence of the delay in the acquisition, and it’s one with longer term consequences for the health of the company than any short-term delayed purchase decisions.

The uncertainty is killing Sun, and it’s killing the projects that Sun owns – MySQL among them. One possible outcome of all of this is that Oracle come back with a lower offer price after this all shakes out, because frankly Sun is worth less, the deal falls through, and Sun as a company will be on life support.

I have read RMS’s letter to Neelie Kroes, and I respectfully disagree. The entire letter reads as an advocacy of dual licensing as the way to make money from a free software project – an astounding position given the signatories. To quote: “As only the original rights holder can sell commercial licenses, no new forked version of the code will have the ability to practice the parallel licensing approach, and will not easily generate the resources to support continued development of the MySQL platform.”

I had to check twice to ensure that the thing was indeed signed by Richard Matthew Stallman, and not someone else with the same initials.

MySQL is available under the GPL v2, a well understood licence. Oracle will be free to take it closed-source only. They will be free to change the licence (perhaps even to GPL v3). They will even be free to kill development of the project altogether. Does this put companies like Monty Program at a disadvantage compared to Oracle? Perhaps. Is that disadvantage insurmountable? Not at all. MariaDB and Drizzle have a great chance of succeeding in the same way MySQL did – by disrupting the database market.

The whole thing smells to me like a double standard – it’s OK to have certain licensing policies if you’re friendly, but not if you aren’t. Luis Villa set me straight on this point a few years back, and it has stuck with me: “what if the corporate winds change? […] At that point, all the community has is the license, and [the company’s] licensing choices”. You trust the license, and the licensing choices. And at this point, I’m more concerned about the jobs of the people working at Sun, and the future of Sun owned projects, than I am about what Oracle will or won’t do with/to MySQL.