Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

The allure of the phone app stores

Feb 25, 2010 GMT

I was at a news conference today when two men pulled out their iPhones simultaneously. In less than ten seconds, they were comparing apps, their original purposes forgotten.This is a scene I've seen repeatedly in the last six months. Every time, I wonder what the excitement is about. After all, as a GNU/Linux user, I've been able to download software on a whim for years -- and not just the equivalent of KDE's widgets or GNOME's applets, but complex applications like Inkscape or Amarok.Moreover, that software is free of cost, unlike a lot of the apps on the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android stores.Mind you, I understand the excitement. Back when I was first understanding free and open source...
Damned Lies and Statistics, FOSS Sexism and Education

Feb 17, 2010 GMT

The trouble with statistics is that they can be easily abused. This insight is hardly new to me, but its truth was reinforced when I read Mark Guzdial's suggestion that free and open source software (FOSS) was not a good match for education because few women or minorities participated in it.Guzdial makes his comments in an article entitled, "The Impact of Open Source on Computing Education." After talking with Michael Terry, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo who has studied open source usability, Guzdial suggests a number of reasons why FOSS might not be a good fit for computing education.Guzdial suggests, for instance, that the myth that FOSS developers work...
RMS's Mostly Slax: Bad choices in a good cause

Feb 11, 2010 GMT

Free distributions -- ones that contain only free and open source software, and remove proprietary blobs from the kernel -- are a rarity. In fact, the GNU Project lists only nine. For that reason, I was immediately interested in the announcement of RMS's Mostly Slax, a project dedicated to putting a free distribution on a USB pendrive.Unfortunately, while focusing on freedom, the project defeats its own purpose, because it doesn't bother to make that freedom very attractive, especially for new users.The title of the distribution explains its origins: RMS's Mostly Slax is named for Richard M. Stallman, and is based on Slax, one of the oldest and most popular derivatives of Slackware. The...
Fellow travelers: The FOSS media and FOSS developers

Feb 04, 2010 GMT

Recently, Carla Schroder published an editorial in which she used the current version of KDE Gwenview image viewer as an example of how interfaces are dumbed down. A couple of days later, Aaron Seigo replied in detail, refuting many of Schroder's points and talking about the design philosophy behind Gwenview. Both Schroder and Seigo tried hard to keep the discussion friendly, but, overall, the discussion was typical of many exchanges between journalists who cover free and open source software (FOSS) and the developers who build it.I admit I cringed when I first saw the exchange. I am a friendly acquaintance of both Schroder and Seigo, so naturally I would prefer that they get along. Just...
The choices inside Ubuntu

Jan 27, 2010 GMT

Hearing that the next Ubuntu release will use Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox leaves me with a twinge of uneasiness. My misgiving -- and it's a small one -- is not so much with the decision as with why it was made.In itself, the decision is trivial enough. If you dislike Yahoo!, you can easily change the default by going to the search engine field in the upper right corner and clicking on the icon and choosing Manage Search Engines from the drop-down menu. More importantly, to my surprise, comparing half a dozen sets of search results in Google and Yahoo! suggests that Yahoo! generally returns more results than Google -- often at a ratio of three or four to one. Nor are the...
A 75% victory or 75% defeat?

Jan 22, 2010 GMT

Nonsense prevails, modesty fails, Grace and virtue turn into stupidity. While the calendar fades almost all barricades To a pale compromise.- Elvis Costello, "All This Useless Beauty"Hearing the news that 75% of contributions to the Linux kernel are by paid developers, my first reaction is to recall Alec Guinness in The Horse's Mouth. In this classic from the 1950s, Guinness plays an eccentric and disreputable artist who cons his way into becoming a caretaker of a luxury flat so that he can paint a mural on its wall. When, after countless mishaps, he looks at his finished work, he mutters, "It's not the vision I had in mind," and walks away.Then I wonder if I'm...
TinyOgg, software freedom and convenience

Jan 17, 2010 GMT

One of the last gaps in free software for desktop computing is a Flash player. Even if you are committed to free software, you are likely to want one two or three times a day. The Gnash project does its best to provide, but it is still not fully functional, despite years of effort. Now, GNU Generation, the Free Software Foundation's (FSF's) organization for pre-university students, is offering another solution: TinyOgg, an application that converts Flash files to Ogg format. It's a worthy idea, but an impractical one that highlights one of the issues of encouraging people to use free software.An entry in the FSF's blogs suggests that TinyOgg is preferable to Gnash because Gnash is...

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