This post is a repost for something I sent to Linux Today. Their original message was here, where they invited people who don’t think Mono causes AIDS to justify themselves. I replied here. This is a repost, for the benefit of assorted aggregators. Some context may be lost by not reading the original “invitation” first.
I am a member of the Debian Mono Group, Debian CLI Applications Team, and Debian CLI Libraries Team. I’ve been working on packaging for the Mono stack and applications which make use of it in Ubuntu (and Debian) for just under a year. And, fully aware of the flame war, threats and personal attacks which will follow, I’m going to take you up on your “invitation”. I speak for myself here – not for the Debian project, nor Ubuntu, not for the Mono project, nor for my employer.
Your request was for “a calm presentation of why Mono is desirable, why it is not a threat, and why it should be included in Ubuntu by default”. I’ll answer these three questions individually, then offer a general comment on your post, as well as the wider “anti-Mono” movement. This message is GPG-signed to ensure it is published unedited. The message as-sent will be made available at http://retro.apebox.org/herewegoagain.txt to allow people to verify authenticity signatures themselves.
Why Mono is desirable
That’s a question which depends on whom is being asked.
If you’re asking a user, then the answer is “it’s not”, any more than a Scheme compiler or LOLCODE interpreter.
If you’re asking a developer, then the answer is VERY different. Mono provides a well-balanced framework to enable Free Software to be developed quickly, effectively, and efficiently. By “balanced”, I mean it is unlikely to win every single contest that one can throw at a programming language – memory footprint, execution speed, availability of libraries, and so on – but does fairly well in ALL of them. Speedwise, Mono is much faster than Python – up to several hundred times faster according to some benchmarks. It has a fraction of the memory footprint of Java applications. It has modern features such as garbage collection which make it easy peasy to write code with compared to malloc()-happy C or C++. It is a well-balanced framework. As such, for people looking to write apps for a Free Software environment, it offers a compelling choice of framework on which to build. Several apps which have only existed for a short time – such as GNOME Do – make full use of functionality provided by Mono in order to be written very quickly and easily, compared to chasing SIGSEGV around due to human errors inevitable with C-based development. Mono was first conceived as a way to escape from the absolute horror of maintaining a large GUI C codebase (Evolution).
Taking it further, Mono on the whole also enables easier migration – for both developers and users – from legacy CLR frameworks such as Microsoft.NET. Students who learn Visual Studio.NET at University can take their skills and directly apply them to creating or improving Free Software on their shiny new Ubuntu installations, without the need to learn a new language. Businesses with investment in .NET-based applications can look at replacing their servers or desktops with Free Software. Whilst providing .NET compatibility has always been a secondary goal, it is an extremely popular one, which has prompted a lot of input and development work from assorted people into the Mono codebase.
It should be noted, however, that this use-case (Windows migration) is not cause for including Mono by default (any more than, say, Wine), and indeed, the libraries required to run the majority of Microsoft.NET applications are excluded from Ubuntu installations due to lack of necessity.
Why it is not a threat
This is a question which will cause nothing but angry flames – although it certainly won’t harm your page hits and resultant ad revenue. Mono is not a threat because it is not special in any legal regard. Many people have spent hours if not days and weeks attempting to explain this. I’ll try to do so again. There are a whole smattering of reasons why it’s not an issue, covering a wide range of topics. I’ll present these points individually.
- Mono is not the result of any deals between Novell and Microsoft. Mono was started 4 years before that unfortunate deal took place. Mono gets no special treatment under that deal. It is not mentioned in the deal (as with other apps). This is important to note.
- Mono is covered by the OIN, as with most other major Free apps. Patent attacks against Mono carry the same risk to attackers as attacks against any other OIN entrant. Attacks against Mono would risk patent “world war”, which Microsoft cannot win. Such an action would harm their business – and lose them money.
- Mono implements an international standard – albeit one from a convicted monopolist. If this is a problem, why do people use C, the standard from convicted monopolist AT&T? Mono implements an improved, Free replacement for a proprietary offering. If this is a problem, why do people use GNU (which provided an improved, Free replacement for proprietary UNIX)?
- Regardless of whether or not any specific patent licenses over ECMA 334 and 335 cover Mono’s implementation of those standards, if indeed such agreements are available (ITWire’s curlish “attempt” to secure such an arrangement aside), the fact that statements have been made in public supporting the idea of royalty-free licensing essentially reduces the financial impact of such infringement to zero. If Foocorp has a license to use patents, under a “non-discriminatory” license, and did not pay for them – then it would be discriminatory to change anyone else for them (breaking the signed terms regarding patent licensing), and as such, those patents lose any financial value. They may, however, still hold non-financial value (such as their use in defending against patent-related attacks), hence not making the patents “free for all” in any understood sense.
- Mono cannot be “disabled” via an incompatible change to Microsoft.NET, for two reasons. Firstly, such a change would also break every single existing app for Microsoft.NET (in fact, if it were to happen, then the best option for those users would be to run their apps with Mono instead). Secondly, support for Microsoft.NET is a secondary goal for Mono – if Microsoft change something in .NET 5.0, then so what? It doesn’t prevent Banshee or GNOME Do from compiling and running fine on non-legacy systems like Ubuntu.
- Absence of “patent protection” is not the same thing as “patent violation”. If I offer to sell somebody a promise not to sue them using any of my patents, their taking me up on my offer is no guarantee that I even have anything valid to sell them – merely that they are willing to buy it. If Jim buys protection from any patents I hold, it does not mean that Jim is infringing on anything specific – nor that if Ted does the same thing, that Ted is violating anything either. If a house insurance policy includes flood protection, it does not mean that your house will be flooded – and not buying flood protection does not mean that you will be flooded either.
- Patents covering a specific implementation detail of a project cannot kill it dead – the example here is Freetype. Apple made some patent threats against the Freetype developers, for using their proprietary hinting data stored in TrueType fonts. You’ll notice that Freetype still exists today – this is because the specific METHOD that apple laid claim to was worked around, and auto-generated hinting data used instead. Apple’s threat was diffused, and the project went on. Suggestions have been made by FUD vendors that the Linux kernel contains a number of patent infringements – if specific details are ever provided, then those specific infringements can be worked around. A patent infringed in the Linux kernel would not cause all GNU/Linux distributions to be shut down overnight – and it’s disingenuous to suggest that any other Free Software is any different on that front. Even if a fundamental patent is infringed in Free Software, it’s no big deal – as a core change can be made, and applications etc which expect the “old” way can be modified to work with the “new” way, easily. Only proprietary applications cannot be fixed in the event of radical change – and proprietary apps are a secondary concern.
- The layering of escape routes is extensive in Mono, especially Mono in Debian/Ubuntu. In the first instance, the contentious Microsoft-sourced non-ISO libraries such as System.Windows.Forms are not included by default, and are rarely used in Free applications anyway (because WinForms looks like ass, amongst other things). If a reason is found to remove these non-standardised libraries, then bam, they’re gone – without harming Free apps. Secondly, if a more severe change is required, then the Mono packages can be patched to remove the infringement. If more drastic changes are required, as mentioned above, then the applications can also be patched to support any core changes. And, taking it one step further, if the whole of Mono needs to be pulled, then applications can be ported. The porting process would potentially be slow and painful, and cause great harm to an application’s future rate of development (although no worse than if the app was written in the target language from day one), but nobody who has written an app they care about would simply throw their hands in the air and say “never mind, it was fun, but the Man says I have to stop now”.
Why Mono should be included in Ubuntu by default
It shouldn’t. Not in the sense that has been publicised on blogs, newsgroups, forums, and so on. We don’t want Mono installed by default on any distribution. Mono is a software platform, and software platforms are boring at a user level. Ubuntu shouldn’t ship with Java, Scheme, Assembly, LISP, etc, frameworks by default either. They are not interesting to users.
What we want by default are GREAT APPS. A user should boot an Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, or whatever CD and say to themselves “Wow, this Free Software stuff is great, I definitely don’t need Windows anymore”. All Ubuntu derivatives, as with all distributions of Free Software seeking to convert people to Free Software, should be chasing the best applications available. In the case of Ubuntu, a decision was made to include a note-taking application and a simple photo library manager, by the Desktop Team.
They determined that the best note-taking application to offer their users was Tomboy. Tomboy has a feature set far greater than the “Sticky Notes” applets provided in both GNOME and Windows Vista, and can be seen by new users as an easy replacement for Microsoft’s proprietary OneNote product, which retails for £80. The only other comparable GNOME application is Zim, a “Desktop Wiki”. Zim is a high-quality product, but it was decided by the desktop team to use Tomboy instead, as it is easier for non-technical users (and is the default application in its class as picked by the GNOME project).
They also determined that the best photo manager to offer was F-Spot. F-Spot is directly comparable to Apple’s proprietary iPhoto application, or Google’s proprietary Picasa application. It is NOT directly comparable to “file browser” type applications such as gThumb, as one of the key features of photo album applications is allowing you to tag your photos with important metadata – gThumb works on a per-folder basis, not on a “all my photos” basis.
Both Tomboy and F-Spot require the Mono JITter, and a set of libraries such as GTK#, in order to execute. So in order to offer these best-of-breed Free Software applications to new users (determined to be best-of-breed by the Ubuntu Desktop Team), parts of a Free Software runtime are required – the same way including the GNOME System Monitor requires GTKmm. As long as Tomboy and F-Spot are best-of-breed, they should be included – and with that, whichever libraries they happen to use. If other Free applications surpass one or both of these, then they should be used instead – if a Mono-based application surpasses a different application in a different class, it should be used instead. This is not based on preference for a given framework – although it is my personal belief that a high-level language such as C# or Python enables developing such an application much more quickly and easier than C would.
The post on Linux Today
Your initial post makes it clear that you are not even-handed on this topic. Here are some specific phrases whose purpose is to “throw mud”, and show your pre-determined judgements on the topics you claim to want to hear about. It is THIS, clear preconceptions and bias, which compel those with plenty of insight on Mono-related topics, not to bother. Which leaves only the anti-Mono people to pretend they have a majority.
“There are other, better applications that could be included” – Name them.
“forcing Microsoft technologies” – Help! Help! I’m being oppressed! No, not really. Good technology is good technology, and Not Invented Here never helped anyone. None of the Desktop Team are pro-Mono (most of them are Python fans), and no unilateral decisions are made over which applications to include. Nobody is “forced” over anything. No Mono-related packages have been marked as Essential:yes.
“unholy embrace into Ubuntu” – Demagogy. Microsoft are a corporation, not a supernatural entity. Suggesting any level of “unholiness” gives far too much credit to them. They are a corporation, with a wide selection of idiot senior managers, and a limited selection of competent developers. Nothing more.
“Mono fans have been creating a giant ruckus in the Ubuntu forums” – actually, it’s the anti-Mono crowd responsible for this. If you refer to accusations of censorship, then you’re being mislead (or intentionally misleading). Those who read the specific details of those accusations can find rudeness, threats, arguments, and worse – with anti-Mono people at the core. Childishness does not win arguments – nor friends amongst moderators.
“have not bothered to say why removing Mono from the Ubuntu installation CD” – To this, I offer a quote from Thomas Jefferson – “Ridicule is he only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them”. Demands to remove Mono from a default Ubuntu system are not based on any rational suggestions – there are no packagers offering superior replacements, only people demanding that because in their personal ill-informed opinion everyone will be sued to death, that Mono applications should be purged. This is, in short, software terrorism – demanding a change in someone else’s policy and telling them they are not Free to make their own choices, based on personal politics. Rational minds can dissent on questions of Mono, but until there are adequate replacements for Mono applications, complete with functional migration path, the choice is simple – make Linux suck more by moving to an inferior default application set, or “make do” with Mono. It should be noted that people with rather more to lose than random anonymous people on web forums – such as Mark Shuttleworth – have said on record multiple times that they don’t have any such fears. I would personally support a move from any Mono-based application to a non-Mono-based one, with demonstrable technical superioriority.
“simply including it in the standard repos is not acceptable.” – It’s perfectly acceptable – however, it’s not the only argument put forward. Suggestions range from reclassifying Mono as non-Free (moving it to third-class citizen status), to its complete removal from the archive, to the expulsion from both Debian and Ubuntu for anyone who has worked on Mono packaging. Free apps in general should be in the standard repos – regardless of their implementation framework – but if a specific application is best-in-class, it should be included by default.
“The inability of Mono fans to answer that simple question has me a bit bothered, as though there is a deeper agenda.” – If you want to make accusations, make them plain. Don’t play the Fox News game of “well, I find it *interesting*” – call a spade a shovel. If you have specific accusations to make about people who are not anti-Mono, then make them, or to put it bluntly, don’t spread lies.
The anti-Mono “movement”
Some people are “for” things. They are for Freedom, or for technical superiority, or for a sports team, or whatever. Some people are “against” things. They are against political candidates, or Microsoft, or people from certain places, or whatever. Some people define themselves on the basis of what they want, others on the basis of what they do not want. Mono causes immense anger amongst that second group – specifically, people who use GNU/Linux not because they are “for” anything, but because they are “against” Microsoft. This can be easily seen – using names like “Microshaft” or “Micro$oft” or similar childish attempts to define a “them and us” situation and ridicule the “them”. Mono is symbolic – it is Free (something they are supposedly in favour of), but Free on the basis of something sourced from the Great Satan – an inexcusable mix.
Many of those who advertise themselves as anti-Mono are, quite frankly, frightening. Calling for the deaths of Microsoft employees (see comments on Boycott Novell), or trying to have people who make positive comments about Mono fired (see recent comments on Ubuntu mailing lists), or making insinuations about anyone who does not agree with them (see pretty much every news post on Boycott Novell itself) – this is ugly behaviour, the absolute worst kind of advert for the “Free Software community” imaginable. If people want to be “against” Mono, then there are sane ways to do it – for example, by working on or packaging alternative software. Calling for people to be expelled from Free Software communities because they don’t work on apps you like is, in short, the antithesis of supporting Freedom. If the anti-Mono crowd want to be taken seriously, then they need to UNDERSTAND what they fight against – they need to have sufficiently intimate knowledge of what Mono is, how it works, and why, in order to know where to direct their energies (and general shouts of “ZOMG! MICRO$HAFT!” isn’t well-directed). I would LOVE to see some high-quality apps for GNOME written in, say, Java or Python – as the competition would only result in better applications.
However, the vast majority of the anti-Mono crowd are not developers or packagers – they are back-seat drivers. They make proclamations about how other developers (who are surrendering their time to developer Free Software) should instead use the framework of THEIR choice, not the developer’s. This is another reason why anti-Mono arguments are given so little respect – the sheer cheek, the PRESUMPTION that they somehow are in a position to make demands of other developers, is galling. Free Software is a meritocracy – those who do things earn respect. Until the anti-Mono crowd actually make a contribution to Free Software, they will continue to be treated as cranks – and their questions left unanswered.
In the end, there is NOTHING which will cause the Mono controversy to disappear – as long as vague threats of legal attacks are manufactured and fuelled by certain members of the community. Much like a presidential birth certificate, there is simply nothing which will placate those who have already made up their own minds without any concerns about basis in reality or fact. Anti-Mono arguments based in reality or fact are fine, and I welcome them – but I’ve very rarely seen them. And even when they are offered, they are offered drowning in a sauce of demagogy and FUD so thick as to obscure the salient point.
So, I think that’s what you were looking for. Repost it or don’t. It’ll make for a new chapter in the daily personal attacks I receive from the oh-so-sophisticated anti-Mono crowd.
Understanding is a three-edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth