Windows 8: Blood from a Stone

Ordinarily, I’m a big believer that it is important to keep up to date with what every piece of software which competes with yours is doing, to remain educated on the latest concepts. Sometimes, there are concepts that get added which are definitely worth ripping off. We’ve ripped off plenty of the better design choices from Windows or Mac OS, over the years, for use in the Free Desktop.

So, what about Windows 8, the hip new OS on everyone’s lips?

Well, here’s the thing… I’ve been using it on and off for a few months now for running legacy apps, and I can’t for the life of me find anything worth stealing.

Let’s take the key change – Windows 8 has apps built with a new design paradigm which definitely isn’t called Metro. Metro apps don’t really have “windows” in the traditional sense – they’re more modeled on full-screen apps from smartphones or tablets than on Windows 1.0 -> 7. Which is fine, really, if you’re running Windows 8 on a tablet or touchscreen device. But what if you’re not? What about the normal PC user?

As Microsoft themselves ask:

How do you multitask with #windows8?

The answer to that is, well, you sorta don’t.

Metro apps can exist in three states – fullscreen, almost fullscreen, or vertical stripe. You’re allowed to have two apps at most at the same time – one mostly full screen, and one vertical stripe. So what happens if you try to *use* that? Let’s take a fairly common thing I do – watch a video and play Minesweeper. In this example, the video player is the current replacement for Windows Media Player, and ships by default. The Minesweeper game isn’t installed by default, but is the only Minesweeper game in the Windows 8 app store which is gratis and by Microsoft Game Studios.

Here’s option A:

Unusable Windows 8 option 1

And for contrast, here’s option B:

Unusable Windows 8 option 2

Which of these does a better job of letting me play Minesweeper and watch a video at the same time?

Oh, here’s option C, dumping Microsoft’s own software, and using a third-party video player and third party Minesweeper implementation:

Windows 7 flavour

It’s magical – almost as if picking my own window sizes makes the experience better.

So, as you can see above, the “old” OS is still hiding there, in the form of a Windows 8 app called “Desktop”. Oh, sorry, didn’t I say? Metro apps, and non-Metro apps, are segregated. You can run both (the Desktop app can also be almost-fullscreen or a vertical strip), but they get their own lists of apps when multitasking. Compare the list on the left with the list at the bottom:

Needs moar task lists

And it’s even more fun for apps like Internet Explorer, which can be started in both modes (and you often need both modes). Oh, and notice how the Ribbon interface from Office 2007 has invaded Explorer, filling the view with large buttons to do things you never want to do under normal circumstances.

So, that’s a short primer on why Windows 8 is terrible.

Is there really nothing here worth stealing? Actually, yes, there is! After much research, I have discovered Windows 8’s shining jewel:

win8multitasking-004

The new Task Manager is lovely. I want it on my Linux systems. But that’s it.

Evil, or why Douglas Crockford is harmful to Free Software

Yesterday I received a new serious bug report against Mono in Debian. For those not in the know, “serious” severity is release critical, and can trigger removal of a package from the distribution in order to make a shipping release (e.g. if Debian is in deep freeze, as is the case right now). Bug 692614 relates to a single source file, ./mcs/class/System.Web.Extensions/System.Web.Script.Serialization/JsonDeserializer.cs, which is part of the System.Web.Extensions assembly. This file was written in 2008 by an upstream Mono developer, and is based on some code from json.org – specifically JSON_parser.c and JSON_checker.c

json.org code carries a non-standard license. Specifically, it’s MIT/X11 with an added clause: “The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.”

I’ve had some discussions with Mono upstream, and they believe that they have resolved the matter to their satisfaction – their solution will make its way into Debian soon. But in the meantime, let’s talk about the clause.

The Free Software Foundation’s Freedom 0 reads:

A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

The Debian Free Software Guidelines and Open Source Initiative’s Open Source Definition clause 6 reads:

No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

It’s fairly clear that the JSON.org license clause goes against both of these, making any piece of software using that license neither Open Source nor Free Software. It is not distributable by any organization which mandates Freedom for its users – not in Debian, not in Fedora, not on Google Code. Anybody who cares about their users will reject a clause like this, because it has awful chilling effects.

Think it’s funny? It really isn’t. Who can use the code without being at risk of a lawyer knocking on their doors? Can the Catholic Church? The ACLU? Republicans? Democrats? Military contractors? Genetic engineers? Big pharma? Petrochemicals firms? Communists? Fascists? Mono developers? WikiLeaks? Without a clear definition of “good” and “evil”, people need to seriously consider whether they are safe to use the code – because if the developer and users’ interpretations of the terms differ, there could be hell to pay. Would you want to ship a hardware device – let’s say you’re making a smart TV – and have some developer of a library send his lawyers around to tell you “sorry, TV rots kids’ brains, it’s clearly evil” to get your entire distribution channel shut down by injunction?

It’s not an oversight, kids. Upstream are well aware of the pain this childishness causes anyone who takes software licenses seriously. They giggle about it at conferences, like tweenagers who think they’ve one-upped the adults in the room.  This non-Free license is intended to mock people who take licensing seriously. In fact, one could easily categorise efforts to pollute the Free Software ecosystem with fake, non-Free software as evil, which would mean all JSON.org code fails to comply with its own license, due to shipping with its license (Inception, anyone?).

Before the jokers in the room claim that this kind of problem is deserved by Mono, let’s take a look at all the software in Debian which Douglas Crockford endangers with his childishness. PHP? OwnCloud? jQuery? You think Debian serves its users well by pulling jQuery from the next release in order to serve the ego of a man behaving like an eleven year old?

It is also interesting to note that the author of this “do no evil” clause works at PayPal. Read that twice, go and repair your irony meters, then come back.

In conclusion: thank you so VERY much Doug Crockford for making the world of Free Software measurably worse.

How to build a bungalow… begin with the chimney

Whilst nobody was looking, Mono became the most important framework in the world of games.

And I mean that with only a smidge more than my usual levels of hyperbole. It really is fantastically important, as far as game development goes.

I blogged a long time ago about its use inside EA’s multi-million-selling The Sims 3. And the massive performance gains in Second Life when they switched from their in-house scripting language to Mono are well documented. But I’m not talking about those, I’m talking about the now, the recent stuff.

First up is Unity 3D. Not to be confused with the Ubuntu user interface, Unity 3D is a proprietary game development tool which began life for Mac, and has now managed to become the single most popular game engine amongst smartphone developers. It targets a bunch of new platforms – not just Android and Windows and iOS, but in the new 4.0 release, Linux too for the first time. And every Unity 3D game is a Mono game – the core of Unity is a fork of Mono, which enables it to have the performance and ease of development which it does. A reasonably large percentage of the cross-platform games on Kickstarter, such as Wasteland 2 and Super Retro Squad, are cross-platform because Unity 3D makes it easy – and each of those games is powered by Mono.

However, I have better things to do today than gush about a proprietary tool. No, far more important are the Free ways to develop games. So today I’m going to talk about MonoGame.

MonoGame is an implementation of Microsoft XNA – a high level framework for developing in .NET languages, originally designed to allow indie developers access to the Xbox 360. XNA covers many of the bases covered by SDL – sound, graphics, input, and so on, but can go onto platforms where SDL isn’t an option, such as the aforementioned Xbox 360. And with MonoGame, any game written for XNA is a game which can not only run on Microsoft’s approved platforms – Windows, Xbox 360, Windows Phone – but also on other platforms such as Mac OS X, iPhone, iPad, Android, and Linux. Cross-platform is good. More games are good. And MonoGame enables every Xbox 360 indie developer to throw a Linux port out of the door with a relative minimum of fuss. There are 2,521 games on the Xbox Live Indie Games store (games by individuals or small groups, with no major publisher) and each of those can become a game for Debian and Ubuntu with very little work. Not to mention the games with actual publishers (some portion of the 492 games on XBLA), not to mention the mobile games written for Windows Phone, Android and iOS. All of these developers have an easy route to Linux releases, as long as the effort remains low.

And with today’s publishing in the Debian archive of MonoGame 2.5.1, the effort is as low as can be.

Anyone who purchased the recent Humble Indie Bundle 5, and played Bastion, has seen MonoGame in action – Bastion began life as an XNA game for Xbox 360, and the Linux port was made possible only by MonoGame. Bastion’s 100+ industry awards should indicate the possibilities open to a creative mind with decent developer tools.

MonoGame is Free Software, built on top of other Free Software, with an active upstream development team genuinely responsive to the needs of Linux distributions. It’s well worth a look not just for porting, but for new projects too. And I’m delighted that it will be available to all users of Debian 7.0, as well as Ubuntu 12.10.

Enormity

(This blog post is a more firm version of a series of tweets and forum posts I made a few weeks ago. This should also be considered a refresh of this post by Mirco Bauer a few years ago)

It has been said that Mono is bloated, and that people should use “lighter” frameworks that don’t pull in “hundreds of meg”.

How much basis in reality is there for those comments?

Well, let’s do a little thought exercise. How much space is the minimum space needed for several languages to work?

For this experiment, we will be looking at the required installation size on disk of several language frameworks, each time installing the bare minimum for a command-line “hello world” app in that language to run. For example, the Ruby result is the minimum install required to run:

puts 'Hello world'

and the Mono result is the minimum install required to run the following code, which has been compiled on a different machine using “dmcs”:

public class Hello1
{
   public static void Main()
   {
      System.Console.WriteLine("Hello, World!");
   }
}

Obviously, for dynamic languages like Ruby and Python, there is no compiler step needed. For languages like C# and Java, it is fair to compile these on a different machine as end-users of packages running these frameworks receive binaries, not source – they do not need a development environment.

So, on to the test environment. This is a bare bootstrapped AMD64 Debian Unstable system, as of today (i.e. “debootstrap sid /tmp/badger”). Its install size is 275MB. So… how much space?

Read more…

Sleeping with the enemy: my life with Windows Phone

In my last blog post about smartphones, I urged the universe at large to help maintain a variety of ecosystems, to help foster competition and originality amongst vendors – and the same day I hit publish, WebOS was killed.

Apparently the universe hates me.

Since then, a few things have changed. My main phone since the day of its release was the HP Pre 3, running WebOS – and whilst I still have a soft spot for the OS, the Pre 3 was simply too buggy for me to use full time. The main issue is that I use my phone as an MP3 player in the car – but the Pre 3 would pause playback at the end of a track every half dozen tracks or so – making it impossible to drive the 85 miles to work without needing to root around in the armrest and poke a touchscreen. Not something I really want to do whilst moving – and ultimately too big a papercut to deal with.

So, come the new year, I moved on to my next device, a Nokia N9 running MeeGo Harmattan. Ultimately, this was an even bigger failure for me than the Pre 3 was, and I lasted maybe two weeks with it before giving up and going back to the HP. Beyond massive usability errors in the software (especially the braindead unkillable pop-up demanding Internet access, even when none is available), the worst for me was how it handled the MP3 player task. My usual way of working is to have the phone hooked up to the stereo with a 3.5mm jack, and the car switches to headset Bluetooth profile to handle calls – this is pretty common on cars too old to support A2DP profile (Stereo music-capable headphones). WebOS and Android are fine with this – but not the N9. The N9, instead, will output all audio through the last connected audio device, regardless of how much that might not be helpful. Get in car, start music playing, plug in cable, start engine – and it plays audio for about three seconds before the Bluetooth connects, and it switches to outputting music via the Headset bluetooth profile (not something that my car can do). Unplug and replug the cable, and music works – but incoming calls are silent until I disconnect the 3.5mm jack, as it outputs the headset audio through the headphone socket. I just couldn’t deal with this big a step back from WebOS as far as my workflow goes, and gave up.

So, where next? Well, a funny thing happened – a co-worker with generally very good instincts regarding consumer electronics usability told me that his housemate had just bought a Nokia Lumia 800 Windows phone (the WP7-based cousin to the N9) and loved it. Enough that said co-worker was considering getting one himself. This was a very strange thing to hear, especially from an iPhone owner, about a Microsoft product. I’d been generally interested in WP7 on an academic level for a while, but to hear that degree of praise of the actual product was interesting. Also interesting, and roughly simultaneous, was seeing Sajid Anwar’s reverse engineering of the proprietary Zune file transfer protocol go from theory into an actual set of libmtp patches.

So if the capability to use Banshee to transfer music on is here or near… and it can’t be as braindead as Harmattan when it comes to headphone/bluetooth behaviour, then why not jump ship and squeeze a handset out of Orange?

About a week after my co-worker replaced his iPhone with a Lumia 800, I bought one too.

So where to begin? Well, I’ll begin at the start: WP7 is a joy to use. It really just is. It’s the first mobile OS to try something radically different in the UI department for years. Everyone else these days (especially Android) builds iPhone rip-offs to varying degrees, and even the iPhone interface has a lot in common with the old old OLD interfaces found on the dumb Nokia phones of the 1990s. WP7 has an interface which provides just the right level of passively visible information and interactivity, and manages to do it with an elegance that no Android home screen filled with widgets will ever manage. The uncluttered screens are easy to read, and the Metro usability paradigms are trivial to pick up and learn. Without a doubt I’d recommend WP7 to friends and family from a usability perspective, and the Microsoft engineers and designers responsible for cooking up the WP7 interface are worthy of praise. And I’m not the only one saying this – Apple co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak recently came out with a similar line.

That’s the good. There’s also some bad, make no mistake. I’m going to cover all the reasons WP7 sucks over several paragraphs. But overall, a smartphone is a device which I expect to suck – the question is how bad the suck is, and whether it gets in the way of me using the device for what I need at the time. Moreso than MeeGo, moreso than Android, and even WebOS (and I’m still a big WebOS fan), WP7 has more good points than bad points. But there’s still some room for improvement, and some room for caution – and since I know there are a few Microsoft folks following me on Twitter, I’m going to go over my prescription for continued platform success.

Oh, one more thing before I start: I know WP7 isn’t Free Software. As an end user, I really don’t care about that. I just want something that works – something I didn’t get from WebOS and Harmattan, both of which are primarily Free Software stacks. I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship there, or that a mobile OS can’t be both Free Software and good – just that as an end user, my favourite platform right now is non-Free. Take from that whatever you like. It’s also vitally important, as Free Software folks, never to lose sight of what the other players in the market are up to. If you can’t objectively assess why people are using a proprietary option by using it & recognising its good points (i.e. what to steal & what to improve) then you can’t hope to win over users.

So. WP7’s downsides in detail.

In-place updates. Seriously guys, even Apple can manage this now. Why can’t Windows Phone? I understand that making backups is smart – and all updates come with a mandatory backup – but I really shouldn’t be tied to a PC to update a post-PC device. Also, those backups are useless, since they cannot be restored onto replacement devices in the case of failure or theft, so fix that too.

Update all the things. An iPhone sold in June 2009 still has access to the latest iOS releases. Android phones are notorious for shipping with an outdated version of the OS, then getting at most one major update over the phone’s lifetime (usually the device is abandoned by its manufacturer within months of release). Which camp does Microsoft want to align with, there? Every Windows phone 7 device released should receive Windows Phone 8, even with some features disabled. Anything less is punishing every existing customer, in the hope that you’ll attract new ones – not a winning strategy for a fringe platform whose biggest evangelists are its users.

Fix IMAP. IMAP isn’t hard. Yet WP7 never seems to work properly with a subset of my mail, never showing the message body & just saying “Downloading” forever. Fix it.

Bing sucks. Bing’s search results are terrible. Either do something to make them bearable, or allow me to pick which search engine I get when I hit the search button. A Google live tile isn’t the same thing.

Make killing apps easier. I know you stole the WebOS card view for multitasking (hold the back button) – please also steal the WebOS ability to close apps. I don’t want to have to go into an app and bash “back” repeatedly until it quits. This is particularly annoying for Internet Explorer.

Make reinstalling apps easier. If I want to install every app I previously had installed on a new device, without restoring a backup, this should be easy. There are third party apps which try to plug this gap.

Find a way to support copyleft. I’d like to port a few C# apps to WP7, but because they’re LGPL, I can’t. The code’s copyright holders would have no issue with their code being on WP7, as long as end users have a mechanism to replace the libraries, so why not find a way to allow this? e.g. when compiling an app, let me mark a library as “user-replaceable”, then allow for some mechanism where an end user can replace those assemblies with their own version.

Let me use multiple Google calendars. WP7 only lets me add/see appointments on my default Google calendar. I want to add/see things on my wife’s calendar, which is shared with me. WebOS can do this.

MTP-Z is the devil. I do not need or want encrypted end to end communication between my PC and my camera device, to transfer a photo off. I do not need or want encrypted end to end communication between my PC and my MP3 player to transfer a photo on. Let’s be honest, the only reason for MTP-Z is to enforce DRM on Zune-rented music tracks – and honestly, there’s no good reason to require MTP-Z for *all* communications if all you want to do is protect one folder or file extension. Now, since MTP-Z theoretically forces me to use Zune for many tasks better handled by other apps, now I get to write multiple criticisms of Zune’s desktop app – and as long as MTP-Z is enforced, every Zune failing is a Windows Phone failing too.

Zune: Support Windows’ codec infrastructure, and transcode where needed. Windows Media Player can play Ogg Vorbis files. No, not out of the box, but if one installs the required codecs. Zune should support the same files as WMP – if you want to ensure people don’t try to copy files to a portable device which are not supported on that device, then you should have an API in place to allow for pluggable seamless transcoding of files as required – Banshee allows me to do this (e.g. to copy files I have as .flac to devices which do not support it).

Zune: Search my tracks, not the web. Zune’s searching is terrible – it doesn’t do as-you-type searches, and when I hit enter, matches from my collection are given a tiny little space compared to matches from the Zune music store. Let me easily pick the track I feel like listening to, don’t make it a chore

Zune: Let’s solve metadata together. I absolutely love how nicely the Zune app – on desktop and on phone – shifts as appropriate to the currently playing artist (e.g. changing the lock screen to an image of the artist in question). However, Zune doesn’t make it obvious how to set an album’s metadata to support this, and it’s particularly frustrating when it’s a minor difference of spelling causing a track not to get the “nice” treatment – e.g. “UNKLE” versus “U.N.K.L.E.”. Either start making heavy use of audio fingerprinting services like MusicBrainz to fill in metadata, or allow me to search for “fully supported” artists when filling in track metadata

Zune: Random playlists are useless on devices. I like smart playlists. In Banshee, I have one to pick 12GB of random tracks, which I can sync to my phone. I can’t do this with Zune. If I try to just sync all my random music to my phone, it errors out due to lack of space. If I have a random playlist, the random selection changes multiple times during a sync – resetting the sync, wiping out half the tracks that were transferred on, and starting again. As a result, the sync goes on for literally hours, never ending up with more than a gig or so of tracks on the phone. Random playlists should be freezable, so I can transfer them to my device in peace, then get a new random selection when I want.

So, that’s my list of miserable failure – and it’s still a less painful list than any other mobile OS I’ve used. Perhaps one day Android will approach being usable, perhaps Blackberry’s BBX will actually appeal to human beings rather than corporate IT managers, and perhaps Mozilla’s delightfully named “Boot to Gecko” will get some traction. Who knows. All I know is, My Lumia 800 is the best phone I think I’ve ever owned, and it’s important for anyone working in the mobile space to understand why.

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.