Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Criticizing Less Than Free Hardware

Sep 29, 2016 GMT

With a boost from crowdfunding, efforts at free hardware are becoming a reality. Inevitably, though, most of these efforts are criticized as not being free enough, usually because of proprietary firmware. I sympathize with the criticism (and, in fact, I have been frequently offered it myself), but, the more I learn about the realities of manufacturing and of the semiconductor industry, the more I am becoming convinced that it is criticism with neither knowledge or responsibility.A case in point centers on ORWL, a physically secure computer being developed by Design Shift  that, as I write, is winding down an already successful crowdfunding campaign. ORWl includes an encrypted hard...
Defining Free Hardware

Sep 25, 2016 GMT

Most Linux users have heard of the Four Freedoms that define free software. But where is the corresponding free hardware definition?The Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) has tried to develop one, but it is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, it is too verbose, and like many documents written by committee, somewhat disorganized.Second, as I realized when writing about Len Leighton's EOMA68 laptop, a free hardware definition needs to be oriented towards giving all users control over their computing. Free software's Four Freedoms can ignore this aspect, because only programmers generally exercise them, but free hardware will be used by people with all levels of expertise.With these...
The pi-top revisited

Sep 12, 2016 GMT

Publication schedules mean that reviews are rarely the result of more than a few days of testing. Should the product develop long-term problems, they remain undocumented. Such is the case with the pi-top, the do-it-yourself laptop powered by the Raspberry Pi. Nine months after I reviewed it, I realized that I was spending more time trying to get it to run properly than I was using it, and could no longer recommend it with a clean conscience.No one could have been more excited than I was about the pi-top. I not only gave it an enthusiastic review, but also wrote an article to help people assemble it with fewer problems, and interviewed the company founders a couple of times. Financed...
OpenOffice: A Project in Search of an Exit Strategy

Sep 07, 2016 GMT

In theory, I should be all over the story about Apache OpenOffice's struggle for survival. Over the years, I have written dozens of articles about OpenOffice.org, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice, and, although I titled my book Designing with LibreOffice, it includes some mention of OpenOffice, too. Yet now as OpenOffice tries to revive itself, my main thought is:Could someone please put OpenOffice out of its misery? The time for heroic measures is past. All that is left now is to shut down with whatever grace can be mustered.I understand the historic reasons why OpenOffice and LibreOffice exist. I understand that the OpenOffice.org developers who wanted a faster development pace and...
LibreOffice's Legacy Debt

Aug 30, 2016 GMT

LibreOffice has had so many changes of name that its age is hidden. However, go back through Oracle OpenOffice and OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, StarDivision and StarWriter, and the word processor is over thirty years old. Probably, very little of the code written in 1985 remains in use, but many of the features do -- and that means that LibreOffice is carrying a legacy code debt that is becoming increasingly irrelevant.Obviously, some features never age or go out of fashion. Character and paragraph styles, for example, should always remain useful. However, to understand why this legacy debt matters, you have to have survived the 1980s.The 1980s were when word processors first arrived on...
Whatever happened to free software feminism?

Aug 23, 2016 GMT

I first wrote about sexism in free software in 2009. I was far from the first; Alex Bayley and a handful of others had been raising the issues for over a year. In fact, I had been inspired by a guest of honor speech by Angie Byron of Drupal at the Open Web Conference in Vancouver a few weeks before I wrote. It seemed something that needed talking about, and ever since, I have whenever I could. Recently, though, I have started worrying that the topic of women in free software is no longer news, any movement or activism having stalled far short of where it should be.Not that feminist causes are no longer a concern. Free software is still full of women and men who support its tenets. Small...
Why Design Matters

Aug 16, 2016 GMT

Until about 2005, Linux users were focused almost entirely on function. Considering that the operating system was trying to catch up with its proprietary rivals, that focus was only natural. However, over a decade later, many users still have some misleading ideas about design and dismiss its importance.At least four of these misleading ideas are still so common as to be almost universal in free software: #1: Design is secondaryThe first misleading idea is that design is an after-thought. If they had to choose, they would pick function over design. The trouble with this idea, however, is that it frames the relationship between function and design in either-or terms. You might as well say...

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