Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Forking Time

Sep 30, 2010 GMT

According to one theory of history, in the right circumstances, certain developments are inevitable. Given a few decades of an industrial revolution, half a dozen people will invent the steam engine. Given a few decades of biological studies, and theories of evolution start to emerge. If that is so, then for the last year or so in the history of the free and open source software community we have been in Forking Time -- and for the life of me, I can't decide whether this is a healthy development or not.Certainly, there have been no shortages of recent forks although they do not always go by that name. In fact, those involved in forks often go to great lengths to deny that they are...
OOo4Kids: A workable compromise

Sep 22, 2010 GMT

I am always of two minds about office suites or applications for children. On the one hand, I can see the value of offering a simplified interface for learning on. On the other hand, I wonder if children shouldn't start with the interface they will be using as adults, so they don't how to learn the interface all over again. OOo4Kids balances these conflicting needs better than any application I've ever seen -- so much so that I think that the main OpenOffice.org project could benefit from adopting its code.As the name implies, OOo4Kids is a version of OpenOffice.org designed for children between the ages of 7 and 12. Its recently-announced 1.0 release is available in 13 languages, and on...
Booting from a USB drive and other imponderables

Sep 13, 2010 GMT

It started out such a good day. Then I came face to face with ignorance.I set out this afternoon to buy a netbook computer, in the hopes of taking advantage of the back-to-school sales. I came armed with a USB drive with a bootable copy of GNU/Linux on it. Rather than buy a computer and take it home, only to haul it back if it didn’t run GNU/Linux, I planned to start it from the USB drive in the store first.In case you are unclear on a concept, when you boot from a USB drive, it takes the place of the hard drive. Nothing is installed on the hard drive, and nothing is deleted. Remove the USB drive, and, the next time the computer starts, it boots normally from the hard drive. The only...
WriteType and the philosophy of educational software

Sep 09, 2010 GMT

As a writer, I have a weakness for word processors. The announcement of a new one leaves me slavering to try it. But new word processors are rare these days, so when I saw an announcement for WriteType last week, I immediately downloaded it. However, despite some interesting intentions and features, WriteType is still very much in beta -- and very pssibly misses an important point as well.Max Shinn, the lead developer, began WriteType when his mother, an elementary school teacher, told him about a proprietary hardware word processor for beginners whose main selling point was word completion. Shinn's response was to begin development of WriteType, which he describes on the project's home...
The Gnashing of teeth

Aug 30, 2010 GMT

With the rise of the HTML 5 video and formats like Google's WebM, Flash may be on the way out. But for now, it remains the dominant format for viewing videos on the web. Consequently, from a desktop user's perspective, few free software projects are as important as a free-license Flash player. And that, in turn, is why the announcement that GNASH .8.8 was released last week, and is supposed to be compatible with all Youtube videos is important news -- and disappointing when it proves not to be completely true. Not, you understand, that I would be unduly disappointed if I could never read the latest stupid video posted on Facebook. In fact, in some moods, I believe that the productivity of...
Debian: Yesterday's Distribution?

Aug 20, 2010 GMT

The latest Debian Project News recently announced a code freeze in preparation for a new release by the end of 2010. It's a sign of the times that the news went mostly unreported. Which makes me wonder: What is Debian's role today?There's no doubt that, in most people's minds, Debian no longer occupies the place it once had in free and open source software (FOSS). Five or six years ago, upcoming Debian releases, or elections for Debian Project Leader were major news in the community (I know, because I covered them). Now, few of the news sites gives much attention to either event.Partly, this change is due to shifting priorities. The emphasis in FOSS today is on usability, and Debian...
There's more to FOSS than the Linux Foundation

Aug 12, 2010 GMT

As a Canadian, I'm always irked by airy statements by Americans that they won World War II. Yes, the Americans entry into the war was decisive, but their side was not called the Allies for nothing, and many other countries contributed to the victory or at least kept the fight alive in the years before the United Stated joined in. With all respect, I feel much the same way about the recent interview on Wired.com with Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation/Published to coincide with this week's LinuxCon in Boston, the interview begins by describing Zemlin as "part legal guardian, part keeper of the flame. The non-profit foundation he runs is charged with promoting...

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