Bansheegeddon

It’s seeming increasingly likely that reports regarding the future of Banshee, Tomboy, and the rest of the Mono stack in the default Ubuntu desktop install are accurate. Ubuntu 12.04 will likely be the first Ubuntu release since 5.10 not to ship with any Mono apps in the default install – ending a run of 12 releases over 6 years. The decision seems to have come about during the “default apps” session at the Ubuntu Developer Summit just ended in Orlando, Florida. Prior to heavy vandalism, the only reasons cited for the change in the UDS session log are “Banshee not well maintained” and “porting music store to GTK3 is blocked on banshee ported to GTK3”. Other reasons mentioned but not in the session logs are complaints that it doesn’t work on ARM.

I’m using a lot of conjecture in this first paragraph because the “news” about the decision appeared on the blogosphere before anywhere else. The first many Banshee or Tomboy developers read about it was reading a flurry of activity on the Tweetosphere from the anti-Mono activists declaring victory.

So first, a word on the cited reasoning.

Banshee works fine on ARM, since Mono works fine on ARM. Xamarin, the company behind most upstream Mono work, earns their income almost entirely from ARM versions of Mono, running on the varied ARM implementations found in smartphones. Every major Banshee release is personally tested on my Genesi EfikaMX, an ARM system with a Freescale i.mx51 processor. I’ve also demonstrated Banshee running in an Ubuntu chroot on my HP Touchpad, an ARM-based tablet. What is known is that Banshee has some problems running on Texas Instruments OMAP4 processors – the target ARM platform for Canonical’s ARM work. None of the Banshee upstream developers, Mono upstream developers, or Mono Ubuntu team has ever been able to reproduce the cited problems, since problems specific to an exact ARM chip are impossible to reproduce without the requisite hardware – and none of us owns an ARM system matching Canonical’s target.

That Banshee is still a GTK+2 app is true. A port to GTK+3 is almost complete, but blocking on a single technical bug deep within GTK#’s guts, which could be fixed by someone with sufficient knowledge of GTK+ semantics. Nobody with the required GTK+ knowledge has stepped forward with a fix at this point in time.

As for the final point, that Banshee is not well maintained, this seems like a directed personal insult against the active and responsive Banshee maintainer, Chow Loong Jin, and upstream bug triager David Nielsen, in addition to the immeasurable hours contributed free of charge for the benefit of Ubuntu users by various other members of related Mono app and library teams, including myself.

I need to stress at this point that my annoyance with this decision has nothing to do with the actual app changes. Keeping Tomboy and gbrainy, at a cost of about 25 meg of unsquashed disk space, is a hard argument to make compared with those two plus Banshee for 40 meg. Dropping gbrainy and Tomboy, and switching to Rhythmbox, will save about 30 meg of unsquashed space, all told.I’m unconvinced that Rhythmbox is a technically superior app to Banshee – several features which were gained by the first app swap will be lost again – but that’s another long tedious argument to be had. No, what has me deeply angered is the shambolic way the changes were made and announced.

Significant accommodations were made by Banshee upstream in order to make life easier for Canonical to integrate Banshee into their OS. For one thing, that’s why the Ubuntu One Music Store support is a core Banshee feature, not part of the third-party community extensions package. If Banshee was being considered for replacement due to unresolved technical issues, then perhaps it would have been polite to, I don’t know, inform upstream that it was on the cards? Or, if Canonical felt that problems specific to their own itches required scratching, then is it completely beyond the realm of possibility to imagine they might have spent developer resources on bug fixing their OS and sending those fixes upstream? Or even – and call me crazy – providing access for upstream to specialized hardware such as a $174 Pandaboard to empower upstream to isolate and fix unreproducible bugs specific to Canonical’s target hardware?

And here’s where it gets more astonishing for me – Canonical paid money to ship one of the community-based packagers responsible for the stack, Iain Lane, to Orlando for UDS, and didn’t think it was worth bothering to perhaps inform him “hey, the stuff you work on is in danger of being axed from the default install, maybe you should go to this session”.

So I’m not cross that the stuff I work on has been removed from the default install. I intend to continue working on it as I have for the last 4 years, through my work in Debian. No, why I’m cross that I heard about it from fucking Boycott Novell.

Regardless of your opinions regarding Banshee or its stack, if you read the above and don’t see it as an abysmal failure of community engagement by a company whose community manager wrote a book on the damn topic, then there’s something seriously wrong with your understanding of how community labour should be seen as a resource. Maybe someone at Canonical should try reading Jono’s book. It’s not a first-time offence, and this mail from a PiTiVi developer regarding changes in 11.10 makes for useful further reading.

[edit] There is some worthwhile discussion going on on the ubuntu-desktop mailing list covering the technical issues surrounding the decision, I would suggest it’s a good place for ongoing technical discussion.

Why we mustn’t allow smartphones to become a 2 or 3 horse race

A very popular refrain on tech sites is that the high street cannot support multiple competing phone ecosystems. It’s a reasonable position to take. Do phone stores want to train their employees on six or seven different OSes? Do consumers understand the differences, and should they need to? Do app developers want to rewrite their app six or seven times? The obvious answer to all of these is “no”. Stores only want to train their employees once, developers want to write their app once. Choice is bad, because choice is complicated. You can have it in any colour, so long as it’s black.

The problem is, we need those competing efforts, for the entire market to increase in quality. Until the iPhone appeared on the market, Google’s nascent mobile phone OS looked more like a poor man’s Blackberry OS than what ended up shipping on the HTC Dream and later devices. Windows Phone 7 didn’t ship with any multitasking at all – and now the Mango update will be incorporating a multitasking model largely thieved from WebOS. iOS only just got support for updating the phone’s firmware without being plugged into a host PC via USB, something which a few Android devices and all WebOS devices have always supported.

Consider, for comparison, the web browser market. It would be easiest if there was only one web browser – but that browser would quickly stagnate and cause pain, the way Internet Explorer 6 did when it had almost the entire market. It wasn’t until upstarts like Firefox and Opera and Chrome and more started showing off their unique ideas that the entire pack started improving – including IE, with IE9 supporting most of the features that the competition introduced.

Every smartphone shipping today has something to offer that other devices don’t – and every smartphone OS shipping today has something to offer that other OSes don’t. iOS has the widest app catalog. Android is Open Source (FSVO “Open”). WebOS has the best multitasking, and “Just Type”. Windows Phone 7 offers a drastic new user interface paradigm. Blackberry OS is built for messaging tasks, and has the best sysadmin control. Symbian is… well, okay, sometimes there’s a time to let go – but the same applies for web browsers too.

Smartphones are communication devices that people use every day of their lives, and every consumer has different needs – we shouldn’t try to push them into an ill-fitting category, just to satisfy ourselves that “it’s probably only possible for three mobile platforms to succeed in the mass-market”. For some people, Blackberry OS really *is* the best choice, and no matter how much you pretend, an iPhone would enhance their lives. And as for the app question… tough shit. Plenty of app developers only target iOS even though Android is overtaking in the market, and if they really want to reach as many people as possible, then use a cross-platform framework like PhoneGap or some of Xamarin’s products. Single-ecosystem apps are a low-effort push to reach as many people possible with minimal investment, and the only way to satisfy that class of developer is to eliminate ALL competition in the marketplace – iOS-only devs are this decade’s IE6-only devs.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I for one am sick of all the tales of doom and gloom that immediately surround any effort which isn’t iOS or pure Android. We have a marketplace of ideas, which we should be celebrating, and not dumping on. I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of my HP Pre 3, with all the unique possibilities it offers me which simply another Android device wouldn’t have. And the big difference between WebOS and Nokia’s Maemo/MeeGo efforts, for those who are still doubtful, is HP haven’t spent years trying to deliberately sabotage the platform. Give it time. If I’m wrong, the worst-case scenario is being lumbered with an awesome phone.

TWIDed.

Hear me ramble about Mono on This Week In Debian for a half-hour! Go on, hear me! [MP3][Ogg]

Protip: parallel-installing Mono versions in an APT-happy way

If you’ve ever gotten tired of waiting for a new Mono release to appear, and taken matters into your own hands by compiling your own copy of Mono, you’ve likely faced the problem of “missing” libraries. “That’s weird, it says it can’t find gtk-sharp, but I have that package!”

This happens because every version of Mono on your system has what’s called a Global Assembly Cache – a location where all system-wide assemblies lives. So when you run an app like Tomboy, it loads its libraries such as GTK# from the GAC belonging to the Mono runtime being used. Ordinarily, this is in /usr/lib/mono/gac on a Debian/Ubuntu system.

When you have your parallel Mono, it doesn’t share a GAC – as a result, libraries in your main distro GAC are not available in your DIY GAC, as they were never registered in there.

Typically, the advice is to either start compiling every lib you need into a non-standard place too – however, here’s a better idea. Why not make Apt take care of not only your system’s GAC – but additional GACs too? We actually have structures in place to handle this, so it’s not as hard as you think (merely relatively unknown). This guide does NOT take startup scripts into account – it’s your problem to ensure you’re using the correct “mono” command to run your copy of MonoDevelop or Tomboy or whatever. You should probably learn about update-alternatives and $PATH for this. Oh, and this guide will BREAK HORRIBLY if you try to uninstall system mono completely. Don’t try it.

Setup step 1: preparation

Don’t install parallel Mono into /usr/local. I don’t care what happens to you if you do. Use some random folder in /opt, usually a per-build prefix like /opt/mono-2.10

Setup step 2: duplicating existing magic

Open a terminal, and copy /usr/share/cli-common/runtimes.d/mono to a new filename, e.g. /usr/share/cli-common/runtimes.d/mono-2.10

Setup step 3: tweak duplicate magic

Open your copied file in an editor, and change the name value on line 27ish (e.g. from “Monon” to “Mono (parallel 2.10 install)n”). Then change the two places in the file, on lines 64ish and 120ish, from “/usr/bin/gacutil” to “/opt/mono-2.8.2/bin/gacutil” or equivalent.

Setup step 4: apply magic to existing packages

Run “/usr/share/cli-common/gac-install mono-2.10” (or whatever filename you picked for your runtimes.d entry) as root. This will instantiate your parallel GAC(s).

From now on, every GAC library you install or uninstall will happen to every single runtime in runtimes.d.

To go back to how things were before, with only a single Mono runtime:

Uninstall step 1: empty out parallel GAC

Run “/usr/share/cli-common/gac-remove mono-2.10” (or whatever filename you picked for your runtimes.d entry) as root. This will remove all packaged entried from your parallel GAC(s).

Uninstall step 2: remove magic

Delete your file from runtimes.d

The phantom fifth freedom

Not for the first time, I’ve seen the suggestion in the echo chamber that Mono packages should be moved from Debian into the non-free repository, which is not formally part of Debian. The reason, as it so often is, is patents – specifically this time, the searing risk posed to Debian and its users that Mono’s packaging does not (and technically could not without forking from upstream) provide base class libraries which implement only the content of ECMA-335 4th Edition. As I understand it, this implies three things about the suggestion/demand: firstly, that the individual in question believes that Mono end users are at risk from patent litigation from Microsoft Corp because Mono’s implementation of Microsoft.NET beyond the content of ECMA 334/335 infringes on Microsoft patents; secondly, that the Microsoft Community Promise which promises not to assert legal claims over third party implementations of ECMA-335 4th Edition (and ECMA-334 4th Edition which defines the C# language) would render a pure ECMA-only runtime safe if it existed (which it does not); thirdly that without the protection offered by the Microsoft Community Promise, the source code licenses of Mono are irrelevant – the patent risk renders the software non-Free.

It appears, unfortunately, that the community of “Free Software Advocates” don’t actually understand what Free Software actually IS. That explains an awful lot, but should surprise nobody. So here’s a lesson on what, exactly, is being advocated for.

The Free Software Foundation defines four Software Freedoms – these are the minimum criteria required for something to be considered “Free Software” by the FSF:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Other groups have their own variants on these, but those are really just clarifications on the FSF definition – for example, the Debian Free Software Guidelines mostly line up, but have some additional clauses such as clause 4 which allows software to be considered Free if source code may be redistributed without modifications, as long as patches may be shipped alongside.

These four freedoms are offered to you by the software’s copyright holders only, and apply regardless of their choice of license – any “Free” license, from a lengthy legal tome like the MPL to the completely-Free WTFPL, will offer you these four basic freedoms as a minimum, and any additional clauses in their licenses cannot seek to restrict these freedoms.

These four freedoms represent the beginning, and end, of whether a piece of software is Free or not.

Software does not need to be developed in the open, in a community-responsive way, in order to qualify as Free – projects such as Google’s Android, which are developed under a “throw a final release over the wall, bugs and all, and expect people to thank you for it” model, are still free, even if contribution is difficult. Actually, on a related note, software does not need to solicit upstream contribution of any kind in order to qualify as Free – as long as you personally can redistribute the code with changes, then that’s enough.

Software does not need to serve a fully or even partially legal purpose in order to qualify as Free – the favoured tool for causing distributed denial of service attacks, Low Orbit Ion Cannon, is Free Software, even though realistically it serves no legal purpose. DeCSS, the code initially used to allow DVD media to play on Linux (by breaking the CSS encryption mechanism) is Free Software.

Software does not need to be useful or tasteful in order to qualify as Free – the Last Measure Operating System, a minimalist OS primarily designed to loudly display the famous shock site images from goatse and related, is Free Software. Even in somewhat less clear-cut cases of taste, your personal opinion of software has no bearing on whether it is Free Software, as long as the four freedoms are guaranteed by the author(s).

Software does not need to have only Free dependencies to qualify as Free Software – it is entirely permissible to write software which relies upon a non-Free framework or library, and release your code under a Free license. It is the downstream recipient’s problem to provide the dependencies, including their choice to craft a Free replacement for any non-Free code you make use of. Debian has a special repository called contrib, where Free software which only works with non-Free data, lives – for example, Free game engines which require the insertion of proprietary game data in order to operate. You could write Free addons for expensive proprietary software such as Matlab, and as long as your code is Free, your responsibilities are met.

Software does not need to avoid patents – software, algorithmic, or otherwise – in order to qualify as Free. The Freetype font library was still entirely Free Software when Apple were slinging threats around regarding font hinting data. FFmpeg, the Swiss Army knife of media codec libraries, is Free Software regardless of the number of codec patents it breaks.

Software does not need any third party approval to be Free Software – the rights of Free Software can only be offered by the copyright holders, and the opinion of third parties is an irrelevance as to whether software is Free. The GPL’d clone of Blizzard Entertainment’s Battle.net servers, bnetd, is Free Software, regardless of legal takedown notices.

Third parties cannot influence whether or not a piece of software is Free. They can influence tangentially related topics, such as whether the software can be legally used, but that’s the limit. And even within a given piece of software, where copyright is shared by contributors, the author of one component has no say on other components. And you can’t make code which is already released as Free, suddenly un-Free – you can, if you hold all the copyrights, close up future versions, but your existing code remains Free forever. Reasonably, you can opt to avoid using a piece of software because you have requirements beyond it merely being Free Software – Cdrtools has been avoided in Debian for a long time due to the upstream author’s legal threats and rambling – but that is a side issue as to the question of whether or not the software is Free.

Patents are simply not involved in the question of whether or not something is Free Software, except for one narrow case: where Free Software is released by somebody who also holds related patents, and uses a license such as Ms-PL or Apache 2.0 or GPLv3 which requires them to also release those patents to those using/distributing the software. Outside that narrow situation, patents do not relate to the question of whether something is Free Software – even if a company releases some source code under a license like BSD then demands patent fees from end users.

So, on to the original topic of Mono. Every piece of Mono’s source code is released by its authors under a license which guarantees the FSF’s Four Freedoms. Whether or not you find Mono useful or tasteful does not affect that Free status. Whether or not Mono infringes upon any laws or patents does not affect that Free status. That Mono contains some libraries whose upstream author is Microsoft does not give Microsoft even the remotest claim to a single line of code outside the code they wrote – and even then, it wouldn’t be an issue, since the licenses they use are Free. In fact, both the licenses used in the Microsoft portions of the source base make patent grants to all users, in addition to guaranteeing the FSF’s Four Freedoms – and any license contamination would decrease, not increase, any risk of legal attack from Microsoft. There’s even plenty of Microsoft code available for re-use at a lower level than the currently re-used libraries: The Microsoft.NET Micro Framework (for use on embedded platforms direct to the metal) is under the Free Software Apache 2.0 license, and would provide access to some of Microsoft’s runtime and class library code, complete with a patent grant, if it were desired.

Please try to keep your thought processes straight. If you want to argue that you’re all for Free Software, please remember that there’s plenty of Free Software you might not approve of – and don’t claim to be a “Free Software advocate” then use bogus arguments to claim that Free Software is not Free. Free Software includes LMOS and LOIC and Mono, whether you like it or not.

Amazon Black Friday sales: a clusterfuck.

This is a reproduction of a message I sent to Amazon.co.uk tonight, after their Black Friday sales system went to hell on me, and I found their response to the problem less than enlightening. I’m reproducing the message here, as a warning to all. On a related note, links to my Amazon wishlist are gone.

Extremely disappointing.

I’ve been hovering over the lightning deals for a few days, hoping to get something for a good price. Today, I managed to get two items of interest into my basket, out of the dozen or so items I’ve been trying for. The Amazon website clearly states that once items are in your basket, you have until midnight the same day to finalize the purchase at the lightning deal price, so I kept those items in my basket until I got home, so I could pay with my wife’s credit card.

Throughout the entire process, the lightning price remained – seemingly implemented by showing the normal Amazon price, then applying a total of about £55 of promotional discount at the checkout, making the total price about £85.

AFTER I clicked to finalize the purchase, after verifying that the delivery address, card to be charged, and importantly price, were all correct, everything seemed fine. Until I checked my email inbox a few minutes later, to find that no promotional discount had been applied after all – and I was charged full price, not the price shown at the checkout.

Whilst irritating, I reasoned that with the sheer size of the Black Friday promotion, things can occasionally go wrong, so I called up to ask for assistance. However, rather than any degree of sympathy for my situation, the customer service representative seemed intent on blaming me for the problem – first implying that I hadn’t really added the items at the promotional price to my basket, then that there was an unpublished undisclosed rule about a 1-hour limit between adding an item to the basket and purchasing it (directly counter to the “Once you have added to your basket, be sure to check out before midnight” on Amazon.co.uk)

Eventually he agreed to cancel the purchase, making it sound like a special favour, rather than the absolute bare minimum response.

I’m not happy. If I’d been told “something broke, we don’t know what, but we can’t discount the items now” then I’d have been disappointed but accepted it. But being accused of being to blame by the customer service representative – using childish banqueting analogies no less – left me utterly infuriated. As a result, I’ve cancelled a second order I placed tonight, and will be looking into closing my account entirely.

Things go wrong sometimes. It’s unfortunate, but they do. But when things go wrong, there’s a wrong way and a right way to deal with the customer. Blaming them is not usually the right path to take. Neither is inventing secret rules.

Since this feedback form explicitly says “we will not respond to messages which were sent to us using this form”, I’ll be sending a copy of this feedback via order help, in the hope that someone might actually read it, as well as republishing it elsewhere for the benefit of friends and family.

Always twirling, twirling, twirling towards Freedom

I’ve never quit a job before. Well, not a real job. Quitting PC World was more than easy, it was practically required for my soul not to leave my body. Quitting Waitrose was, well, it was a freaking supermarket job. And Southampton football stadium… I just stopped turning up after one girl fainted in the kitchen from heat exhaustion. But a real, proper handing in of notice is something new – in no small part because I’ve been in the same place since my first job as a new graduate.

Not that I’m ungrateful, mind. Looking after big iron at the University of Oxford has been pretty awesome – more blinky lights than you can shake a stick at – but there comes a time when you need to think about your career, and move on to pastures new. I’m fairly sure six and a bit years is WELL past that point.

When I started looking at work, I had only a few mandatory criteria – a sysadmin job, working with Free Software, without any significant decrease to my monthly income. Beyond that… well, in this economy, who am I to argue?

What I hadn’t accounted for, however, was a job whose awesomeness can’t be contained. A job with a dedicated Free Software company whose entire staff roster, top to bottom, is filled with the most talented, smart, and generally awesome people you could hope to work with. Such a job would be a fevered dream, the mere ramblings of a madman. Yet, somehow, for the second time running, I find myself in an enviable job, working exclusively on Free Software.

Being able to show off root access to a box with 256 cores and a tibibyte of RAM is pretty cool. But you know what’s even cooler? A job where I never need to worry about openSUSE 10.1 administration ever again. A job where several of my colleagues are fellow Debian Developers, with all the prestige and knowledge that comes with such a title. And somehow, by rolling proverbial twenties, I find myself in that position.

I am very, VERY proud to say that from the start of January, I’ll be joining Collabora Ltd as their new Systems Manager.

Mono mythbusting, September 2010 edition

There are corners of the Internest where foolish people congregate, and invent stories. These foolish stories are then read as gospel by trusting people, and reposted, until the original made-up source is concealed from view. As an attempt to stem this flow of disinformation, here are some commonly held – but incorrect – beliefs about the Mono framework, and an explanation of the reality of the situation, as far as I understand it.

The next Mono version is co-developed with Microsoft

There is a grain of truth behind this one, but it’s a gross mischaracterisation. Mono 2.8, when it ships, will bundle, for convenience, a number of Free Software libraries, which are released by Microsoft under a license considered Free Software by the Free Software Foundation, the Ms-PL. These are:

  • System.Web.Mvc and System.Web.Mvc2: ASP.NET MVC, a library for writing ASP.NET web pages with a model-view-controller design, similar to Rails for Ruby. This is not news – System.Web.Mvc has been bundled in Mono since Mono 2.4.2 (June 25th 2009). System.Web.Mvc2 has been bundled in Mono since Mono 2.6.7 (July 14th 2010).
  • System.Numerics: Mono re-uses Microsoft’s implementation of BigInteger.cs from the Dynamic Language Runtime (see below). This is indeed new to Mono 2.8, as it is part of .NET 4.0 (Mono 2.8 targets .NET 4.0 compatibility by default).
  • System.Data.Services.Client: The OData SDK client library. This is indeed new to Mono 2.8.
  • System.ComponentModel.Composition: The Managed Extensibility Framework, a library for writing and using plugins. This is similar in scope to the existing Mono.Addins project. This is indeed new to Mono 2.8, although it was added to Mono Trunk in 2009.
  • System.Web.Extensions: Microsoft Ajax, a library for using Ajax inside ASP.NET projects. This is not news – MicrosoftAjaxLibrary has been bundled in Mono since Mono 1.2.6 (11th December 2007).
  • Microsoft.Scripting.Core and Microsoft.Dynamic: The Dynamic Language Runtime is a framework permitting implementation of dynamic languages (such as Python or Ruby) on top of the core .NET runtime. It is used for IronPython and IronRuby, amongst others. The DLR has very recently changed license from Ms-PL to Apache 2.0, but the version bundled in Mono is still under the older license. This is not news – the DLR has been bundled in Mono since Mono 2.6 (14th December 2009).

So, to summarise, there are five Free Software libraries written by Microsoft under the Ms-PL included in Mono 2.8 – but only two of those five are new, and none of them were “co-developed” in any meaningful sense.

Mono development is dead

There have been reports that Mono development has ended, on the basis that no commits have been made to Novell’s Subversion server for a few weeks. However, these reports miss one minor detail – Mono has moved to Github.com. There were 35 commits from 9 different people to the main mono.git repository (of dozens of repositories under the main Mono project) in the last 2 days, at time of writing – far from dead.

Mono lacks features found in Microsoft.NET

Mono lacks libraries found in Microsoft.NET, such as the Windows Presentation Framework GUI toolkit. In terms of features, i.e. things implemented at a compiler or runtime level, Mono is typically more advanced. This is helped in no small part by Mono’s Free Software development model, allowing experimentation and “what if” changes to the core runtime which a sluggish corporate behemoth like Microsoft cannot accommodate.

To give three real-world examples, Mono allows embedding of its compiler as a service, and provides a REPL shell – this is a planned feature for .NET 5.0, but has been available for years in Mono; Mono.Simd provides a number of data structures which will run on any version of Mono or Microsoft.NET, but will use optimized CPU extensions like SSE when run on a sufficiently new version of Mono, on an appropriate architecture – as far as I’m aware, there is nothing like this available or planned for Microsoft.NET. Mono is able to produce fully compiled, static executables which do not need to JIT anything at runtime – this is used for iPhone compilation, for example, where JITters are not permitted. There is no comparable feature in Microsoft.NET.

Clearly, Microsoft.NET can only be thought of as more featureful if one defines “features” in terms of “does it have lots of libraries?” – in terms of functionality, Mono is ahead.

Mono can “sneak onto” your system without your knowledge

If you don’t have the “mono-runtime” package installed, you can’t run Mono apps. It is possible to install some Mono apps alongside the awful-yet-popular “mononono” equivs package, since the popular equivs script fails to place Conflicts on the correct packages (F-Spot will be blocked, Tomboy will not). No package in Debian or Ubuntu embeds its own copy of the Mono runtime, and we have no plans to make any changes to packaging which would allow execution of any C# application without mono-runtime installed. If one is using a different OS, then things may be different – e.g. The Sims 3 for Mac & PC uses embedded Mono, which you wouldn’t know about without looking.

Canonical are pursuing a pro-Mono agenda, and are responsible for it being “pushed” in Debian

Mono development has been happening in Debian for longer than Canonical has existed – the first upload was made in April 2002. Ubuntu is made primarily from software already available in Debian deemed of sufficient quality, and when F-Spot and Tomboy became parts of the default Ubuntu desktop system in 2006, both pieces of software were already available in Debian and deemed of sufficient quality. Nobody working on Mono in Debian is paid by Canonical… actually, that’s not entirely true, three packages related to accessibility are officially maintained by someone who was hired by Canonical after doing the initial packaging work when he worked for Novell. But the Mono runtime itself, Canonical have no influence over its direction in Debian. As for a “pro-Mono agenda”, they’ve always taken an extremely pragmatic approach to language choice, never showing any real preference for one language or another when it comes to app selection. They don’t exhibit any overt anti-Mono policies, which is not the same thing. The names of people contributing to Mono in Debian are not secret – check the pkg-mono team page on Alioth.

The System.Windows.Forms namespace is protected by Microsoft patents

The truth is, nobody knows for sure if SWF, or any other part of Mono, or any other framework such as Vala or Python, is covered by Microsoft patents. The way the US patent system is contrived, it is actively dangerous to check whether something contains any patents when you write it, as you are liable for triple damages should it later emerge that there WAS a patent, even if your searching missed the fact. You cannot patent an API or namespace – only a specific implementation of a software concept, in those countries where software patents are permitted. There has never been any evidence shown that Mono’s implementation of SWF, or indeed any part of Mono, infringes any Microsoft-held patents, because if that were the case, then the code would be rewritten to avoid the issue – much like the approach taken by Linux kernel developers when a patent becomes apparent.

The belief within the Mono community is that the core parts of Mono as defined in ECMA334/335 are safe (they are covered by the Microsoft Community Promise patent grant); any of the Ms-PL libraries mentioned above is definitely safe (Ms-PL includes an explicit patent grant); and the rest of the package is likely safe too (on the basis that it is a named component of the Open Innovation Network’s list of protected software – and on the basis that there’s unlikely to be anything patentable in one of many implementations of basic ideas like database connectors). Nobody knows for sure, because that’s how the system works. But, again, nobody knows for sure that Microsoft patents don’t apply to other frameworks such as Python – there is simply a belief and an assumption that they do not.

MonoDevelop contributors removed GPL code from MonoDevelop, in an attack on the GPL

This is somewhat disingenuous, given MonoDevelop is LGPL.

The MonoDevelop team excised the remaining GPL code (and there wasn’t much of it) in order to grant greater Freedom to developers. Previously, the entire MonoDevelop IDE was a GPL combination, meaning any add-ins for the IDE also needed to be GPL, regardless of developer choice. Now, any developer can write an add-in for MonoDevelop, using the license of their choice, whether another Free license like the Mozilla Public License, or a proprietary closed-source add-in. They are still welcome to produce GPL add-ins, if they want to, as well.

Mono won’t run random Microsoft.NET apps anyway, so isn’t really cross-platform

Actually, this one is often true. When developers write apps for Windows primarily, they rarely take the time to think “is this the correct way to do it?” and will often plough on with an assumption about the Windows way of doing things. It might be simple things like filesystem assumptions (assuming a case-insensitive filesystem, or assuming a backslash is used to separate directories, not a forward slash). It might be more involved, such as using P/Invokes into Windows-specific C libraries, when a more cross-platform alternative is possible. So, often, random applications for Microsoft.NET won’t run on Mono. The reverse is also true – F-Spot or GNOME Do are fairly heavily tied to Linux (or to UNIX-like OSes with X11, at any rate), through the libraries they invoke being fairly platform-specific. You can write platform-specific Java, with one quick piece of JNI, too.

It should be noted, however, that Mono makes the chance of .NET applications being ported to Linux (and/or Mac) much more likely, since even in the worst case scenario, a company only needs to fix a portion of their source to make it cross-platform. The Mono team have a tool called MoMA, which will scan an application and its libraries, and give you detailed reports on the app’s portability. This info is used at both ends – by app vendors who want to become more portable, and by the Mono team who want to fill in the most frequently encountered blanks.

And, it should be stressed, writing cross-platform apps is entirely possible if one desires it – e.g. the IRC client Smuxi is pure cross-platform C#, and the executables compiled on Mono on Linux will run fine on Microsoft.NET on Windows. Portability in this direction is important too – consider how many people have been introduced to Free Software thanks to availability of Free apps on Windows like OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Pidgin or GIMP. You can download Tomboy for Windows, and work is ongoing on fixing Banshee portability issues (which are mostly caused by gStreamer).

Mono on Android is a terrible idea which will be super slow

There are two efforts to enable developers to write Android applications with Mono – a paid proprietary product from Novell called MonoDroid, and an untitled porting effort by big-name Android hacker Koushik Dutta. I have no insight into MonoDroid since it hasn’t been released yet, but Koush did some benchmarks of his work which exhibited some remarkable figures compared to Dalvik (and even compared to Sun Java for ARM). Those numbers haven’t been updated to reflect the Froyo Dalvik JITter, but Mono on Android is still very exciting from a performance perspective.

Mono isn’t really Free Software

The source code is all available under Free Software licenses. So, um, yes it is.

We don’t need Mono because we have $LANG

By the same logic, we don’t need $LANG because we have Mono. By all means, use the language of your choice – other developers will use the language of their choice too. If you want to use Vala or Python or Java, then by all means, go ahead. It doesn’t mean there’s no room for more languages, better suited to other usage patterns. Haskell is great for some types of development, so is Fortran, and so is C#.

You might not need Mono because of $LANG, but there are others in the world with different needs.

Mono apps are all slow, and crash your computer, and stuff

No userland app can crash your Linux system, unless there’s a bug in the kernel, or you have some severe problems with your hardware. If you’ve ever observed a crash as a result of running a Mono app, then it’s really coincidence that Mono is tickling whichever part of your system is busted. As for slow… startup time may well be slower than for apps written in C or Vala. There’s a delay due to the JITter needing to compile all the libraries used by the application (we may AOT the most common libraries in a future Mono package version, at upstream’s recommendation). Once an app is running, it should be fast compared to a Python app, and memory-light compared to a Java app. The new garbage collector in Mono 2.8 should also offer significant improvements to performance, especially under heavy workloads.

Ubuntu’s default GTK+ themes require Mono

This is my favourite recent nonsense to emerge from the Internest. There are reports – mostly restricted to IRC and blog comments, that (paraphrasing here) “removing Mono removes the Ubuntu themes”. Here’s the reality: in Ubuntu 10.04, a new visual style was implemented throughout the distro. As part of this, small icons (e.g. notification area icons) were set to be black-and-white by default, and colourised when attention is needed (e.g. the power-off icon turns red when a reboot is needed, the messaging indicator turns green when there’s a new message). All of these new monochrome icons are in a package named “ubuntu-mono”. Removing the ubuntu-mono icon package will also remove the new Ubuntu GTK+ themes, in the “light-themes” package. So there’s your explanation: the themes have a dependence on some monochrome icons, not on the Mono framework.

directhex-grub-themes 00000010 release announcement.

I’ve just made a new release of my GRUB2 gfxmenu themes. This time, there’s an Ubuntu Lucid theme. It looks like this:

Download it from here as always.

MonoDevelop 2.4 available now

I’ve finished uploading the latest version of the cross-platform MonoDevelop IDE to Debian Experimental. MonoDevelop is a full-blown IDE for working on software written in C#, Visual Basic.NET, Python, Vala, Java (via IKVM.NET), C, C++, and Boo. It also integrates support for debugging (both of C-based apps via GDB, and Mono-based apps via MDB or the new Soft Debugger), GUI design of C# apps, version control via Subversion, database querying, unit testing, and more.

Oh, and for good luck, I’ve also uploaded it to badgerports.org (which should now display okay on smaller displays), for use with Ubuntu 10.04, where support for authoring with Moonlight is included. It’ll be in the main Ubuntu 10.10 repository at some point in the future, also with Moonlight support.

Enjoy.