Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Is Debian Dying?

Feb 11, 2011 GMT

Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls created a stir this week when he marked the release of Debian 6.0 by wondering if the distribution was still relevant. He was refuted by Joe Brockmeier, and the discussion spilled over on to Facebook, where a number of journalists (including me) speculated freely. But the noticeable lack of hard facts disturbed me, so I decided to see if I could find any indicators of Debian's health on-line.On Facebook, Vaughan-Nicholls explained that his basic question was, "'Where will the new Debian developers come from to keep it going?' I see 20-something developers working on Android or Ubuntu, Debian, not so much."That seems a reasonable place to begin, but it...
LibreOffice and support for Microsoft file formats

Feb 04, 2011 GMT

One of the intriguing aspects of LibreOffice, the fork, is that everything is open to debate. However, this atmosphere also means that the old debate about supporting proprietary Microsoft formats -- specifically the newer OOXML format -- is being revived. The trouble with this debate is that it is endless, since it is a specific example of the longstanding conflict of convenience and ethics in free software, and strong arguments exist on both sides.The latest round in this old debate seems to have been sparked by an article published by Groklaw on December 20, 2010, which documents Novell's involvement in promoting the OOXML format. Ten days later, a message on a...
User Revolts

Jan 31, 2011 GMT

Why are newer versions of free software being rejected by significant numbers of users? Three years after the KDE 4 series began, some users continue to reject it, either preferring KDE 3 or looking for alternatives. GNOME 3.0 and Ubuntu's Unity seem likely to face a similar reaction -- and they are not even in general release yet. Similarly, enough people reject the Amarok 2 releases that Clementine, a music player based on Amarok's first release series, seems to be thriving. The phenomenon is relatively new, but very real, and seems indicative of changes in free software usage that are going relatively unrecognized.Exactly how widespread the reactions might be is nearly impossible to...
My first look at DIASPORA*

Jan 21, 2011 GMT

I've always been ambiguous about Facebook. The centralized control and lack of privacy bother me, and, like many people involved with free software, I'm there mainly because so many of my colleagues are. Consequently, when I finally got around to getting to getting an account for the DIASPORA* alpha, what I mainly noticed was the difference in the privacy policy and interfaceDIASPORA*, in case you don't remember, is the free software alternative to Facebook, consisting of a number of connected but independent servers -- or "hubs" in DIASPORA*-speak. Although less than a year old, the project has already received considerable attention -- first because, in the tradition of the...
The limits of evangelism

Jan 10, 2011 GMT

I should know better, but every now and then I make the mistake of trying to explain why people should use free and open source software (FOSS). Often, the effort occurs at end of the year gatherings when someone asks me what I do for a living, and almost always the ensuring conversation is torturous.For one thing, I'm not a natural seller. I can make a case, but if it doesn't convince, I respect people's rights to their own opinions too deeply to continue pushing for very long.Even more importantly, figuring out the approach can be frustrating. The fact that you can download FOSS for free seems trivial at best to my average audience. Making an ethical case is usually more successful --...
Severed Fifth: Bringing the Free Culture Movement to the Music Industry

Jan 01, 2011 GMT

Jono Bacon is well-known in free and open source software (FOSS) circles as the community manager for Canonical, the company behind the popular Ubuntu distribution. However, Bacon and his band mates in the metal band Severed Fifth are working hard to provide a working example of free culture. The band is now into its sixth week of a campaign to raise $5000 to cut a professional album, in an effort that is as much an experiment in building a community as anything that Bacon has done for Canonical.Severed Fifth began as Bacon's one-man band in 2008. "I was hearing a lot of people talking about Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, and how they were giving away some of their music for...
Wikileaks and the Choice Between Openness and Secrecy

Dec 21, 2010 GMT

The headlines about Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange are bringing countless issues to the attention of the general public. For instance, what privacy, if any, is possible with modern technology? How does technology change the relationship between those who govern and the governed? And -- on a more personal level -- does being at best a selfish lover and at worst a possible rapist invalidate a man's leadership or the ideals he claims to espouse? But what occupies most of my thoughts is the basic question about the desirability of openness.In theory, I am all for openness and transparent decision-making. I have a lifelong dislike of hierarchy to begin with, and I could not have...

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